A: One of the real perks of this job is that we hear from fans, and oftentimes, those fans want to start writing, or have started a story and aren’t sure how to continue on toward publication. I love love LOVE getting letters, and I answer every one, (so a note here—if you wrote me and didn’t hear back, please re-send-sometimes things get lost if the week was particularly insane).
One such letter came last week and it’s something I’ve been asked many times and I really really need to create a FAQ for this, because it’s such a great question. What makes it difficult to answer is that every single person asking is at a different stage/level of writing, so there’s no “one size fits all” answer that will apply. Even so, I think there are a number of things a new writer can do in order to jump into this vocation. I really wish someone had broken some of this down for me, oh-so-many years ago. In honor of those questions and in light of the fact that I just realized I’ve been publishing for 25 years this year (in May), here are a few things (and this is not a complete, definitive list yet) that I think might benefit a new writer to do and/or think about.
1) Do you absolutely NEED to earn money FAST with writing? If you’re going to spend extra time doing something, MUST it earn money in order to makes ends meet?
Now, it might surprise you that I ask that question first, but I want to get this concern out in the open and addressed, because I understand the desire more than anyone knows: you have a talent that people have encouraged-whether it was a teacher somewhere along the way, or family or friends… and for reasons all too common, you have to earn extra money, but leaving the house to do it is damned near impossible. Maybe it’s because of having kids at home, or maybe it’s because of where you live or the high unemployment rate, but you’d really like to earn money quickly, and you’d like to do it from home.
If this describes you, then you need to look at NON FICTION as a potential solution. Back when I started, our local newspaper still took on freelancers for various sections. The pay was not great—$75 per article, and, ironically, $75 per photo. I learned pretty quickly to include photos. It was a very happy day in the household when I had worked my way up to a whopping $150 per article and $100 per photo, because I was writing two or three articles a week by that point, and making a pretty good side income.
Here’s some how-to tips and things to keep in mind:
Even though the local newspapers on on the decline (and seriously, they’ve laid off staff right and left, so it’s going to be difficult—but not impossible—to land a freelance assignment there), keep in mind that many many places have their own websites now, and they may benefit from additional local coverage/articles. You have to think outside the box a bit more to find these places and to pitch them, but keeping a site updated with frequent content is very time-consuming for a local business or corporation, and if someone can solve that problem for them, fairly cheaply and with good quality writing, that person can end up creating a niche for themselves.
Finding the market: Obviously, finding those businesses and sites (even regional and national sites) takes research. It takes looking at every site you cross, every local business web page with an eye to what you could do to make that site more of a “destination” site. Why would they need you? What could you bring to the table that would be interesting to their customers? How frequently would they need the content updated?
Pitching: There are two general ways to pitch—one is a query letter, and one is to provide a sample, which we call “writing on spec” (speculation). While the former is the generally accepted method of approaching most businesses, I have to say that a simple cold query is almost never going to work for non-fiction. They’re going to want to know what you can do, and this is where you’d include samples of your best writing. If you don’t have any samples because you’re just getting started, then the best thing to do is write the article you’re pitching to them. Show them what you can do by doing it, and doing it so well, they really want to use it. On the upside, if they want it, it’s already done and you’ll get paid a lot faster. On the downside, you could put a lot of research into something and end up not making a sale. Never fear, though—because that article might be able to be slanted toward another market. I made several sales by taking an article that had already been written, looking at the needs of a different publication, slanting a rewrite toward that publication and then selling it there.
What do you mean, slant? To “slant” something is to be aware of the demographic and/or the attitudes and needs of the publications’ audience. In the approach to a business, you want to be aware of who their target customer is. For example, let’s just say there’s a local Bed & Breakfast near you, and you realize that people who travel to the B&B might want to read about other sites to see and venues to visit near said B&B, and the B&B’s website is pretty static—nothing new there about what’s going on locally or how awesome the area is. Or whatever they have is the same thing they’ve had up for a year. So you want to pitch them a series of articles where you cover local attractions from the point of view of a local—great places to hang out that are off the beaten path, etc. You wouldn’t write this article with a lot of slang and angles on where to go skateboarding, because the audience is likely going to be older—couples—from retirees to newlyweds—not teens. You’re also going to see more middle-class visitors than wealthy, and many of these would be interested in saving money while seeing the sites, so you’d feature the more affordable things to do in the area. However, you could take that same information that you found while researching and pitch it to bigger hotels in the area, or restaurants, or travel guides or the local paper’s travel/fun section, etc. In non-fiction, research only used once is a missed opportunity. You can often rewrite the article to slant it toward different audiences, thus making more money for the same research.
(I once sold an article about relaxation and endorphins to Redbook, and then turned around and used the same information to create a fun quiz for Madamoiselle.)
Querying official markets: By “official” I mean the standard markets you’d think of for non-fiction: magazines and newspapers and some of the bigger news/magazine websites. MOST but not all of the requirements of the paying sites are going to be included in a publication called WRITERS MARKET. There’s a print version (usually) available in most libraries. There are other sites as well, such as publishersmarketplace.com—but I used WMalmost exclusively for my non-fiction forays and I think it’s been around the longest.
There’s a huge non-fiction section to these sites and specifically in WM, and you can look up the publication to see:
- what they need
- what they pay
- how to contact them and a contact name
FOLLOW. THEIR. GUIDELINES.
In every case, I would call the front desk of the magazine just to verify that the contact name was still at the publication. People move, get fired, etc., and you don’t want to send in a query for the new person’s predecessor—it’ll be obvious you’re not that great at research, if you do. You also, however, NEVER try to pitch these people over the phone. Ever. EVER. ON PENALTY OF DEATH. Okay? Because you will tick whoever that person is off, right then, and anything you send it later will be thrown away.
Then you’ll follow their guidelines. Even if they say “snail mail only.” Because they are grumpy and you’re trying to get money out of them, eventually, you want them to think well of you.
And please note that in order to approach the bigger markets, like national magazines, where the pay is much nicer, they’re going to want to see “clips” (published examples, taken from the source, or a pdf copy thereof) of your work for other paying markets. You can graduate quickly to a larger market, but having these clips is essential, so you’ll need to start either locally or regionally.
Do not ignore the off-beat magazines which have a very specific following. For example, you may not normally think about writing a golf piece for a travel magazine, but if you live near a world-renowned golf course, there may be an angle there that you could pitch. Or, for the golf magazine, you might pitch a round-up of favorite local eateries for the people who will be traveling in to enjoy a major golf tournament to enjoy. I dunno-this is where RESEARCH of the market is VITAL. It’s a good rule of thumb to read the last few issues of a magazine to see their TONE and APPROACH to topics, but also to see what they’ve covered in the last couple of years. Yes, two years, minimum. Most editors will not want to repeat a topic (celebrity stuff excluded, obviously) unless you can present a really new slant on that topic. Women’s magazines, for example, might have covered anorexia a year ago and won’t want to cover it again… but if you’ve heard about a new treatment or research or a myth-busting truth has crossed your path, you might be able to sell it. It’s got to be a fresh take, though, for them to be willing to bite. There are all sorts of odd, off-beat places and ways to get started.
Keep in mind that sometimes, you have to give a little to build a reputation. Here’s a good example. My oldest son, Luke Causey, is an outdoorsman when he’s not working, and he loves camping/hunting/fishing, etc. A while back, he wrote a free review of a knife he’d purchased and posted it on a website where reviews were invited. His review was well received, and he reviewed more and more—to the point that knife makers would send him a knife for review and he was able to keep the knife. He ended up with enough positive reactions from his reviews that he started reviewing other equipment for a website called Woodsmonkey.com; his payment was that he could keep the item he reviewed, which, for him, was great. I’m very proud of his articles—he’s professional, easy-to-read, fun, and you can tell he has a sense of humor. He also does great “how-to” articles about how to improvise something you might need. The kid’s a regular MacGyver (along with his dad and brother), so it’s a perfect use of his talents. As a result of his articles, he’s been invited to contribute articles—for pay—to a new magazine that’s starting up called Pathfinder, which is founded by Dave Canterbury, who stars on the Discovery Channel’s Dual Survival Show. In this internet world where so many people blog for free, you may have to write a while and demonstrate that you have a knowledge base or a particular take on a topic that is unique and helpful or entertaining in order to prove to the paying markets that you deserve to be paid.
Non-fiction books: Also, keep in mind that non-fiction is the lion’s share of books sold, so if you have an expertise in an area… or you know someone who does have an expertise… you may be able to break in with a non-fiction book. There are a lot of websites and information out there about how to do this, but the bottom line is, you have to do a tremendous about of market research to show why your book is needed. If you’re following a trend, you’re probably already too late—by the time the trend happens and “hits” big in the public conscious, there’s already a glut of those books sitting on editors’ desks, because everyone else has noticed the trend, too. You’ll need to find an angle about the subject that hasn’t been done, and a reason why the audience would need that information. How is it going to make their lives better? How is going to help anyone? Why does it fill a void the other books out there haven’t filled? How big is that demand? (Meaning, how big is that void? Is there a big enough audience to warrant the cost of publishing the book?) If you want to go this route, don’t start writing the book until you’ve really researched the how-tos.
The writing itself: You might be thinking, “Well, I’d like to do this, but how do I know if I have what it takes?” And my answer is going to sound snarky, but it’s not meant that way: you can read. If you’re going to be a writer, it’s your job to read read READ read READ READ READ and DISSECT dissect dissect DISSECT the hell out of what you read. Look at a website you love and see how they do it. Ask yourself stuff like, “how do all of the articles start… with an anecdote? with a hook? with a fact? with a bold statement?” and then ask, “what is the style of this publication? is it breezy? snarky? factual? dry? sardonic?” etc. Write a few sample articles and get friends/peers to read and tell you if they remained interested throughout. Find out if you have confused them anywhere along the way. Did you make a point? Did the person care about it once they were done? Did you impart information that the person wouldn’t have known already? Did you give them a glimpse into something they couldn’t have ordinarily seen just surfing factual sites on the web? And so on. If you want to go this route, there are several writing books on the subject out there which will help you with the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself. Writer’s Digest almost always puts out excellent books on the subject, and their magazine had great articles on how to approach non-fiction markets. (I’m assuming they still do, though I haven’t read in a while.)
The pay: Is almost always on publication now except for some of the really big markets, but if they’re a local business and/or are not going broke, then you might be able to negotiate payment upon acceptance. Check out markets of similar size in the Writer’s Marketplace to get a fair idea of what you should charge, if you’re pitching to someone “outside the box.” And it’s always a smart thing to present the “outside the box” types with an invoice once they’ve accepted the article for publication. That way, should they forget, you can remind them without looking like a fluffy bunny who’s just doing this for free.
(There are good reasons to do something for free—blogs, for example, have obviously taken over the world and they’re free and they offer a zillion viewpoints and bits of information, but if you’re going to write for someone else, they need to pay you, or be able to give you some sort of in-kind-trade, where you benefit financially.)
2) “No no,” you say, “I don’t want to write non-fiction. I want to write my own stories. My own worlds. I just don’t have a clue how to go about getting started.”
For what it’s worth, I said this sentence at some point in my non-fiction writing career, when I really wanted a change and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. The fiction world is SO BIG and SO AMORPHOUS and holy cow, there are about a billion ways to Oz, and I kept hopping from one path to another because I didn’t even really realize I was on a path, until about four or five paths later. So in order to help you keep from meandering in the wilderness for forty years, here are a few of the general things I’d suggest you think about and/or do to get started.
The genre you love to read: Here is the very best place for you to start. Why? Because whether you realize it or not, you know a lot about it already. You know what the reader expectations are for that genre, because all you have to do is ask yourself, “What am I looking for when I pick up this type of book? What is it that I’m craving? What type of experience? What works for me? (Make a list.) What doesn’t work for me? (Again, make a list.) Ignore stuff that the author had no control over, like the back cover copy and the cover… focus on the story: do you like dark thrillers? do you like them to have romance in them, or not? if not, why not? (There are no wrong answers. In fact, you MUST be really honest with yourself here if you want to be successful.) Do you like light romances? Do you like a lot of angst or stories with more twists in the plots? Pull out your top ten or twenty favorite books in the world… the ones you’d read over and over again. What is it about these books that you love? Look for genre, but also look for commonalities: what is it about them that’s calling to you? Is it subject matter? Theme? Tone? Or a type of experience? Setting? Type of plot?
When people give the advice to “write what you know”—it doesn’t necessarily mean for you to write about your experiences in your life… it means, write the kinds of stories you know how to tell, that you’d love to read and watch. Write something that you grasp the meaning to, the nuances and the lifestyle of, because you’re going to need that understanding to get you through the long slog. However, be aware that what you understand can apply to many other life situations. You may never be a spy, but you might have a grasp on cut-throat tactics and livelihoods at stake, and you might have access to a bunch of people in the spy business who would be willing to talk to you and you might have an understanding of what it is to be immersed in a world where you have no one you can trust, and if you put those things together, you could write a spy thriller. Especially if you love the spy thriller genre and you’ve read just about everything classic that everyone references as well as the new turks taking over the genre—then you’ll know if what you’re doing is good and original.
The writing itself: There are a billion choices for you to go through to create that work of fiction-and each one of those can be overwhelming when you’re new. Things like “should I tell this in first person? or third?” have ramifications far beyond just using the word “I” a lot. Suffice it to say, those choices are too huge for this one blog. I have a few pieces of advice about how to write:
- read. READ READ READ. And then, READ.
- DISSECT. If you can’t figure out what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it, then you can’t utilize the technique. Now, you may dissect subconsciously, or you may be the type who pulls out highlighters and makes copious notes or you may fall somewhere in between, but good writers read with an eye to how the author accomplished what they accomplished. And the rare times I’ve read a book where I’ve gotten completely immersed and have forgotten to read with that eye, I go back and figure out where the author drew me in, and how.
- write write write write write. PRACTICE. Do not whine to anyone about how you don’t want to abandon your first book, that you think it’s got what it takes to make it and “those people” just wouldn’t know great writing if it hit them in the face, because I—and all the other professional writers around you—will want to bop you on the head. Unless you are a very speshul snowflake, you’re probably not going to sell the very first book you write. Or the first full-length fiction (if, as it was in my case, a screenplay). You may, however, show enough promise to get encouragement from peers and other writers, or place in some contests. You may even get some encouragement from some agents. But you need to be aware that just because you can type, or just because you’ve read all your life, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to automatically spew out a perfect novel that everyone clamors to read, one which will—if not make you wealthy—will at least solve your financial problems. It’s unrealistic. I don’t care how talented you are, it’s unrealistic. The one-in-a-million that it happens to is a fluke, and if you get so lucky? Well, good, I’m glad. But don’t go into this thinking that’s how it works, because it doesn’t. Plus, you will annoy the writers around you who could have offered you useful advice on how to improve, except if you’re all whiny about how great you already are, nobody’s going to want to help you. (Um, yeah, pet peeve. Moving on.)
- Peer review/critiques/feedback/beta reads… You will need these, in the beginning, at least. Again, there are rare people out there who are so talented, they may not need any feedback, and if you’re one of those people, congratulations, we all hate you. However, most of those people find out they are those people because they’ve already written stuff and submitted it and wowed everyone, or peers read and were blown away, etc. If you’re writing something and you hand it in to your critique group/peers, etc., and they are dying DYING dying to know what happens next, then you may well not need the critique group’s input.
- Finding a peer review group is a blog unto itself, but my caveat here is to find people who love the same genre in which you’re writing, or you’re going to get a whole lot of advice that sounds great and is logical and makes sense and may even resonate with you… but which could derail the story you’re trying to tell because it negates the very conventions of the genre of your story. And this derailing won’t even be intentional… but I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times.
- Classes. I actually think taking classes is a beneficial thing—if it’s being taught by a really strong teacher. Please note that sometimes, really strong teachers aren’t always bestsellers themselves, which may have a helluva lot more to do with the vagrancies of the marketplace or something beyond their control. Conversely, there are also a lot of bestselling authors who don’t really teach well. And some who do both. Ask around, get suggestions from others who benefitted from the class.
- Don’t just take every class you hear about. Target your weaknesses and focus on classes for those things. Read how-to books, also. But mostly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, READ BOOKS that do well whatever it is you feel is your weakness and analyze how they accomplish what they do.
Polishing: Before you send out your book, please take the time to go back through it and polish it. Not just spelling and grammar, but look for logic holes, look for inconstancies, look to make sure your characters stay in character and aren’t just doing something you need them to do for the purpose of the plot, etc. Look at how you’ve told the story and ways to improve that. You only get one shot per agent to prove that you have the chops, and that agent is not going to care if you were writing this on the weekends and in the mornings and you have a really big mortgage and you’ve fallen behind and you need a quick sale. If that were the case, thousands of books would be bought instantly without being read, because the economy sucks and people are hurting everywhere, and there are all sorts of medical/family/work problems that a little extra income would solve. Agents can’t take that into consideration. They need to be wowed by your book, in order to pick it over all the other books on their desks or in their emails, and they have to be wowed enough to take you on as a client. If you’re lazy about polishing, they’re going to notice, and frankly, there are a lot of other people out there willing to put in the work to polish, so why should they choose you?
Submitting: There are entire books and blogs devoted to this topic. Read them. As many as you can. Look up agents on QUERY TRACKERor ABSOLUTE WRITE and always check to see who the scam artists are from PREDITORS AND EDITORS (that is how they spell predators; I don’t know why). P&E has a very good database of the scum to avoid. You can find out all about who’s sold what lately, and who represents what you’re writing through various other sites, include publishersmarketplace.com.
- Do your homework. Look up the agent’s website and look at their submission guidelines. FOLLOW THEM. If they don’t want an attachment, and you try to be the exception, they’re going to be annoyed. Do you really want to annoy the person you’re trying to land as an agent? If they want 50 pages, don’t send them 100, or the whole manuscript. (Now, if your chapter ends on page 51, send that, too—find a logical place to stop.) Pay attention. This probably means keeping records, making yourself some sort of file/spreadsheet, so you can keep their requirements straight as to who wants what. It’s just part of the business end of the vocation.
- Do your homework. Figure out who would be right for your book based on what they’ve sold and who they represent, as well as what they state their preferences are in the various places where those things are posted. If they don’t represent S/F/F and that’s what you’ve written, don’t clog their in box and waste both your time and theirs.
- Do your homework. Write an amazing query letter. Don’t know how? Welcome to the club. There are about a zillion of us, but everyone’s got to do it at some point and there are some great resources (on the first two links in the “submitting” graph above) which has examples or threads discussing how-to, and there are books and there are agent blogs (quite a few now) which express how to and while it’s overwhelming, basically, it’s your job to learn it. Your goal here is to entice them to read your book. It’s the hook that they very well may turn around and use with the editors they submit to. If it’s well done, that same hook will be used by the editor to pitch it to her publisher to get the deal, and some variation will be used to pitch it to marketing and sales. So think of it like the back cover copy, or think of it in the way you’d tell a friend about the book, when you want to hook them into reading it. What is it that makes it different than other books out there. Mostly, why should we care?
Landing the agent: Once you’ve got things out on submission, you’ll either start getting form rejections, rejections with personal notes (those are great) or requests for the full book. (This is why you have the full ready, by the way, which wasn’t mentioned above, but I’m emphasizing it now. Unless you have a lot of credits elsewhere that proves you can write a novel, and write it well, they’re going to want to read the whole thing before signing you.)
It is not only okay, but necessary, to query more than one agent at a time. Do not send form letters-personalize each query. (Again, that’s your job.)
Once you get an offer of representation in, it’s customary to give all of the other agents who have requested partials or fulls a heads up that you’ve gotten an offer and you’d like to know if they’re still interested. Some will automatically say no (there’s too much on their plate at the moment). Some will read quickly and still decline (a zillion different reasons, but it’s often just not their thing or they have a client writing something too similar, etc.). One or two may say, heck yeah, we want it, too, and then you are in the enviable position of getting multiple offers and you get to decide who to go to prom with. Congratulations.
Agent submission/sales, etc.: This blog is long enough, but suffice it to say that not everything that gets agented sells. (Oh, if only.) So don’t go spend your savings yet, don’t quit your day job, and don’t assume. Anything. There’s a lot that goes into the selling and the publishing aspect—that’s a whole other blog for maybe next time, but for now, I want to end this by address money, for the same reasons I started it.
The money: People often want to write a book because they think it’s a quick, easy way to make a lot of money from home or out on their deck. (I will pause here while writers everywhere finish laughing… and crying….)
Money is paid out as an advance. They are assuming they’ll sell your book, and they know you need to make something while the publication process grinds forward, and they’ll pay you about what they think you’ll book will earn. They’ll base that figure off what other books like yours have earned, whether or not you’re well known, or whether or not you have a huge commercial hook, or whether or not your second cousin is Oprah and she’ll endorse it, or whether or not they had great sex that morning. In other words, it’s a mystery as to why some books get bigger advances than others, and while it’s a business, it’s also a guessing game because the publisher is trying to predict the future as to what you might earn.
They will then take that advance and divide it into three. Sometimes, they will divide it into four, but three is more common, I think, still. They will then give you 1/3rd of that money on signing of the contract, 1/3rd on what they call D&A (delivery and acceptance), which is the point where you’ve done whatever rewrites/polish the editor wanted and they have accepted it and you’re then moving on to the copy edit phase. And then they’ll pay the last third on publication.
If your book sells more copies than they anticipated, they will eventually owe you royalties—but it’ll be more than a year, very likely, from the point of publication, before you see those royalties. (Again, that’s a whole other blog entry.)
So, keeping the above in mind, the average advance is said (by those who gather that type of statistic) to be between $5K and $10K. That’s not a typo. That’s five thousand to ten thousand. Divide that into thirds, and subtract the standard agent fee of 15%, and keep in mind that it takes about a year from acceptance to publication, and you’re looking at maybe making between $3500 and $8500 for the year. Not including the time it took you to write the actual book, which, let’s be real, for a first book is probably about a year to two years (actual writing time, not calendar time.)
Now, you may get lucky and be above average, but most of the sales I see on Publishers Marketplace are for what they call “nice” deals, which is about $25K, but that’s often for two books, or three. It’s not completely uncommon for a new writer to get an advance of $25 to $50K, but it’s not the norm.
I tell you this because (a) it’s a fact of the business and therefore, that information is out there and (b) if you’re going into writing because you need the money, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, financially. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me they’re going to supplement their income—and this, when they’re already up against terrible stress—by writing. It’s not fast and it’s not easy.
If you’re not doing this for the love of it, if you’re doing this for the money, then you might want to consider another field.
Because those of us who write, can’t not write.So if that fits your take on the world, welcome to the nuthouse. The crackers and cheese and wine are on the bar. Please don’t run with scissors, except on Thursdays, when it’s scissor day, and by all means, feel free to bring cupcakes or brownies.
Now, a very brief comment about e-publishing… especially if you read Konrath’s blog. I know of several established writers who are now starting to put their new works up themselves, and are making some money off it.ports When I first published this guide, others’ results weren’t what Konrath is making, and I think that’s partially because Joe’s got a great following on his blog—and has had that for years—and that following has helped him get the word out about his ebooks. In other words, he spent a tremendous number of years promoting the hell out of his books, and that put him in (what I believe to be a rather) unique position to reap the benefits of the ebook market… because the same problem that faces authors with editors and publishing houses is multiplied exponentially when you go straight to ebook, and that is, “How will the customer find you? How will they know you’re there? How will they know who you are?” However… since I originally published this piece, it’s been a couple of years, and ebook publishing has skyrocketed, with a tremendous number of people making a decent amount (helps to pay the bills), and a decent number of people actually doing really well.
That said, I’m not an expert in epublishing. If you want to know everything about it, go to CJ Lyons‘ No Rules, Just Write link and do the happy dance, because if it’s important, she’s got it. (Send her a thank you, if you do, please.)