Great Nuggets of Writing Advice

Maria Schneider of Editor Unleashed celebrates the one-year anniversary of her blog by sharing some great nuggets of writing wisdom collected from authors, agents, and editors.

What writing advice do you have?

“Never give up, no never means no. Keep writing. As my mentor Howard Fast (author of Spartacus and 80 other novels) used to tell me when I’d say I had writer’s block: “‘Plumbers don’t get plumbers block. A page a day is a book a year.’” –Susan Sharpiro

“In many cases, authors understand the market for their book better than the publisher and can do a better job of reaching that audience. But they first need to understand that it’s now part of their job to do that, and they need to embrace it. Marketing can be fun!” –Michael Bourret

“Be generous. Spread ideas. Give things away. Write, share and repeat.” –Seth Godin

“I love real life. I love finding and telling stories, with the deep hope that it will somehow change the reader. Fiction can do that too, of course, but I have always wanted to find real stories and draw people to them, reveal something of life to them that they might not otherwise have a chance to see.” -Susan Orlean

“If you are clever, you’ll share the information that’s important to the audience, and not necessarily the contents of your book.” –Chris Brogan

“When it’s time to think of a new book idea, sitting in front of my computer and trying to squeeze something out just doesn’t work for me. But, when I’m running or on the bus or supposed to be writing something else, that’s when the characters come to me and the plots form. I try to just let myself be open to the flow and carry a pen with me.”-Julie Kraut

“If you’re a writer, then blogging should be a no-brainer for you. Read all the available resources on how to have a successful blog, then get going. Target your blog toward the exact audience you’re writing your books for.” –Rachelle Gardner



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The 25 Best Writing Blogs of 2009

Based on votes tallied by Editor Unleashed.  Some excellent choices here, including two of my favorites, the blogs of literary agents Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner.


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Myths vs. Facts about Literary Agents

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner corrects the most common myths about literary agents.  For example,

1. Getting published is a catch-22.
I hear this all the time… it’s probably the single biggest myth about publishing and it drives me CRAZY because it’s so untrue. People say, “You need an agent to get published. But you can’t get an agent if you’re not published.” Writers believe this lie and then spend all kinds of time and energy fretting about it.

Closely related is another myth, “Nobody’s taking on any unpublished authors.”

Both are complete and utter hogwash. Sure, it’s hard to break in to publishing. If you’re unpublished, it’s a difficult road. But understand this: There is a huge reading machine out there that needs to be constantly fed. We need new content, and we will always need the infusion of new voices. I’m still a newer agent; I’ve sold 26 books and of those, 21 were from debut authors. So don’t believe the ridiculous myth that you have to be published to get an agent, or that nobody’s interested in unpublished authors. It’s just harder, that’s all. But you already knew that.

She exposes four more here.


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Understanding Royalties and Advances in Publishing

Here’s a nice, short write-up from Writer’s Digest on how the advance and royalty system works in publishing.  Good to know if you’re planning to write and publish.

If you’re going to wheel and deal with agents and editors, you’ll end up spending more time than you’d like discussing rights, contracts, advances, royalties and a whole lot of other boring important stuff. That said, I want to address a recent question that came in over e-mail regarding how advances and royalties work. In other words, how does the payment process work when you sell a book?

For this example, I’ll keep it real simple (for my own sake and well as yours). Let’s say you acquire an agent and sell a novel. The publishing house offers you royalties of $3 per book sold.
It’s probable that you’ll be given money in advance – more specifically: an advance against royalties. What this means is that they give you a lump sum of money before the book comes out as payment that’s yours to keep – say, $60,000. However, the money is not in addition to royalties, but rather part of royalties – meaning they’ve given you royalties for the first 20,000 books (times $3/book) upfront. Since they’ve already paid you the royalties of the first 20,000 books, you will not starting actually making $3/book until you sell the copy 20,001.

Think of it like this. When you get hired at a new job, you ask for several months pay upfront and the boss agrees. It’s not a separate signing bonus you’re getting – it’s your hard-earned money paid to you early. You get the lump sum quickly, but then you don’t get paid again till the regular checks start months later.

Many things to consider:

  • Royalties per book vary greatly. If you get $3/book, that’s pretty darn good. If you write a typical nonfiction book, you may just get $1/book.
  • Advances against royalties are a pretty sweet deal. You get a lump sum upfront, which you get to keep even if the book fairs poorly.  (Repeat: The advance is yours. Period.) But if the book takes off, you will start getting royalties down the road.
  • Reality check: Be aware that the money amount promised will hit your bank account as a lot less than expected, as Uncle Sam will take a big cut and your agent takes 15%.
  • You may run into a “flat fee” situation, where a publishing company pays you one sum of money upfront with no talk of royalties. This is legitimate – just make sure it’s what you want.
  • It’s common for a house to break up the advance. They may give you $30,000 when you sign the contract and then $30,000 upon completion of an acceptable manuscript. On this note, make sure you turn in an “acceptable manuscript,” so that you get to not only receive the second payment, but also keep the first one, and not have a publisher demand it back.
  • Read your contract thoroughly. It’s all spelled out.
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Sony Releases New e-Readers

The e-reader wars are heating up with this new release from Sony, as reported by GalleyCat.

Sony has unveiled two new e-readers, poised to compete with Amazon Kindle and more affordable digital book readers like the Cool-ER device.

In the NY Times, the company introduced a $199 Reader Pocket Edition and a $299 Reader Touch editions of the Sony reader. The Pocket Edition (pictured, via) can hold up to 350 standard digital books. Many of the new and bestselling digital books on the device will now be sold for $9.99–matching one of the most controversial price points in publishing.

Here’s more from Sony’s Digital Reading Business Division president, Steve Haber, quoted in the article: “We are focusing on affordability … We have to offer value. It’s clear e-books should be less expensive than regular books, with the savings on printing and logistics getting passed on to the consumer.”


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Before Writing a Book, 6 Points to Consider

White Books
Image by Vicki’s Pics via Flickr

Tony Morgan shares 6 points to consider before writing a book.  Good advice. (HT Michael Hyatt)

Since I’ve been involved in several book projects, I’m frequently approached by aspiring writers who are interested in the process. I’m certainly not the expert on getting a book published, but I have learned some things over the last number of years that might be helpful for you.

With that in mind, here are a few thoughts for you to consider…

Don’t write a book. Begin by writing in your journal. Write blog posts. Get your article published in a magazine or on someone else’s website. If your idea and your writing aren’t strong enough to be published in a magazine or on a website, it’s not strong enough to be published in a book.

Don’t assume if you have a book, someone will publish it. People who get published rarely go looking for a publisher. Typically, the publishers go looking for the authors. Or, the authors have literary agents who handle those conversations. If a publisher isn’t approaching you about writing a book, that’s a pretty good sign that you probably don’t have a book to publish.

Don’t start out to write a book. Start out with something to say. For lots of people, the goal is to get a book published. That shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal should be to spread good stories or ideas. If you don’t have a good story or idea to spread, you need to start there.

Don’t write a book if you’re not a writer. At the end of the day, if you can’t write you can’t get published. And, just because you can get up in front of people and talk, doesn’t necessarily mean you can get behind a keyboard and write. There’s an art to writing. Some people have it. Most people don’t. (If you have a strong idea or a good story, you may need to find a writer to help you get it published.)

Don’t try to write a book if you’re not willing to get disciplined with your time. Manuscripts just don’t drop out of the sky. You have to outline. You have to draft. You have to rewrite. You have to edit. You have to promote. You have to sell. It takes time. If you’re unwilling to prioritize your time, you shouldn’t write a book.

Don’t plan on making money. Unless your name is Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, you’re not going to make money writing a book. At best, you may get a platform from writing a book. Of course, the challenge there is that you have to have a platform before a publisher will even consider your book.

I know. You’re skeptical. So, for those of you who write books or publish books, I’ll let you chime in and tell me where I’m wrong.

Until then, don’t write a book.

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Charles Dickens’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer

Charles Dickens
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Jane Friedman shares some words of wisdom here about the process of becoming a writer, illustrated by a letter written by Charles Dickens.  She’s right, you’ll have to be bad for a while before you become good.

Ira Glass has some of the best advice I’ve ever read for writers, at least in relation to great storytelling. He’s said that you have to be willing to be bad at what you do for a long time until you actually can achieve the vision of perfection you have in your head. He even puts himself out on a limb and offers recordings illuminating how bad he was at radio when he first started.

I was reminded of Ira when my writer-friend Teresa Fleming shared with me the following letter from Charles Dickens, where he responds to an aspiring writer.

Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.

I have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other two volumes.

You will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

On the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavour if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

Faithfully yours.

Yikes, right? (You can read more Dickens letters here.)

Here’s the secret, though: If you’re the writer, do you read this and think: I should just stop trying.

Or do you read this and think: He doesn’t know how wrong he is!

Writers in training know they’re not good, but they know they’re getting better. And they go on to fight another day.

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A Guided Tour of the Publishing Process

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner is re-running a series of posts describing the publishing process from start to finish.  It’s a great crash course in how the system works.

She starts at the beginning with the book proposal.

  • Either you or your agent submits your proposal to an editor at a publishing house.
  • It goes into the editor’s stack. At some point (could be the same week or it could be six months down the road) the editor takes a first glance. Is there a spark of interest?
  • If so, they’ll give it a careful read, and they may discuss it with another editor or two.
  • If it doesn’t capture the editor’s interest, a pass letter will be forthcoming. But if the response is positive, your proposal will go to the entire editorial team.
  • At the editorial meeting, all the editors will discuss it. Every aspect will be looked at: idea, execution, author’s platform.
  • Three possibilities can come from the editorial meeting:
    1) Pass
    2) Go back to the author for suggested revisions
    3) Accept
  • If the proposal is accepted, it then goes to the Pub Committee. This is a team of executives usually consisting of the publisher, editorial director, marketing director, sales director, sometimes even the CFO. The question is no longer “Is this a good book?” but “Can we sell this?” Other questions being considered include: Will the author’s platform help sell this book? Does it fit with our vision as a company? Does it fit with our publishing plan? Does it overlap too heavily with anything else we’ve already contracted? (continue)

Part Two is the contract stage.

Part Three is the writing and/or editing stage

See her blog for the last two stages.


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John Grisham’s Rejections

Based on this interview several years ago, it seems John Grisham received at least 24 rejections before someone took an interest in his book A Time to Kill. Persistence is a virtue for writers.

”I sat down with my secretary and we made up two lists,” he said. “One contained the names and addresses of 30 publishing house editors; the other, 30 names and addresses of literary agents. Having already put together a package containing a query letter, book summary, and the first three chapters, I had the secretary make 10 copies of each. She was to send a copy of each to the first five editors on the first list and the same to the first five agents on the second.

“When a rejection came back with the material we had sent, she simply crossed that name off the list and immediately sent the package with a new query letter to the next one on the list. This way, we always had some going out as others were coming back. The rejection letters were filed and I would read them when I went to the office each weekend.” The first dozen publishing companies and about the same number of agents all sent their regrets. Through it all, though, Grisham said he never got depressed. “I never thought of quitting. My attitude was: ‘What the heck, let’s have some fun.’ Honestly, I believe I would’ve sent it to several hundred people before I would have even thought of giving up.” Good news came one week in April when three agents called.


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