Frequently Asked Questions – On Getting Published

How can I get the book I’ve written published?
The writing market has changed a lot since I first got published! There are many different different paths to getting published. I can only tell you the one I took: I wrote a book (actually, many books), then found a guide called Jeff Herman’s Guide to Agents, Editors, and Publishers. I wrote to the agents in the guide what’s called a query letter. This is a one page letter describing you, your book, and why a publisher/agent would want to buy this book from you. Just to let you know, I sent out several hundred of these letters before a single person ever asked to see the book I was trying to sell.

Some of the people who wrote back asked me to give them money in order to sell my book. I personally didn’t want to take that route, as I didn’t believe it was the right path for me (especially since I didn’t have any money)! Finally one person said she would represent me for 15% of whatever my book earned if she could sell it. That person is still my agent today.

What is an agent and how do I get one?
You can get a publisher’s attention a lot more quickly—and some people believe you can get a much better deal—if you have a literary agent. A literary agent is someone whose job it is to take people’s manuscripts and try to place them with the appropriate publisher.

A good agent will never charge a fee for her work on your behalf.However, if an agent agrees to take on your work, when she places it, she will earn a 10-15% cut of whatever money you make from the sale. So if a publisher offers you $10,000 for your book, your agent will get $1,500 of that money. You will get the rest.

You can get an agent the same way you get a publisher: by finding a book on how to get them (such as the one by Jeff Herman) and sending them query letters.

I have started lots of stories, but I can’t seem to finish them. What’s wrong with me?
It is always more fun to start a new story than it is to work on the one you’ve been working on for months. This is why publishers don’t pay writers their whole advance until they turn in the completed manuscript. Every writer feels this way. Just power through it, and remember that if you write a page a day—just ONE page—in three months you’ll have a hundred page story. And in six months you’ll have a two hundred page story. That’s almost a whole book. So don’t think about it like: “Oh my gosh, I have to write two hundred pages.” Think of it like, “Today, I have to write a page.” Trust me. It works.

I don’t know how to get started on a story. Please help.
The solution to this problem is very simple: Sit down. Start a story. Finish it. Put it aside. Start another story. There. Now you’re a writer.

I can’t think of anything to write about.
How about this: Who do you hate and why? Who do you love and why? What’s happened to you that you wish hadn’t happened? What hasn’t happened to you that you wish WOULD happen?

Write these things down. There’s your story.

Obviously you’ve got to create a plot and change your characters names so your friends and family won’t sue you. But that’s the fun part.

How many pages should my novel be?
Publishers go by words, not pages. Most adult books are about 90,000 words, and no longer than 100,000 words (unless you’re JK Rowling). Teen books are about 55,000 words.

How many words are there to a page? It depends on the font you are using, of course, but in general, 250-300 words per page. Therefore, a 55,000 word book should be about 200 manuscript pages. A 100,000 word book would be about 400. Editors like 12 point font.

What writing program should I use?
Whichever one you like. I like Word, but some writers I know use Scrivener, Pages, and even Google Docs.

What about chapters?
I like chapters to be no longer than 10 pages each, with one scene per chapter. But you can have as long or as short a chapter as you want, with as many scenes in each that you want. You can have no chapters, if you want. But remember, readers have busy lives, and at some point they will have to put your book down to go the grocery store. It would be nice if you have chapter breaks so they could do this easily.

Should I plot my story first with an outline?
Some authors make an outline plotting out what will happen in each chapter, before they sit down to write the book. While I do think it’s important when you’re writing a book to know where you are going (what the end will be) and how to get there, that kind of detailed plotting pretty kills the fun of writing for me, so I don’t do it. But see what works best for you.

I want to be a writer, but I can’t seem to sit down and write.
That is the difference between someone who WANTS to write, and someone who DOES write. The person who FINDS the time is the one who is going to become a writer. The person who doesn’t, won’t. You have to decide what’s important to you. I didn’t write very much while I was in school because I had too much homework/social life. There is no shame in waiting on the writing thing until you have more time. I did.

What advice do you have to give to aspiring writers?
My advice to young writers is:

Write the kinds of stories you like to read. If you don’t love what you’re writing, no one else will, either.

Don’t tell people you want to be a writer. Everyone will try to talk you out of choosing a job with so little security, so it is better just to keep it to yourself, and prove them all wrong later.

You are not a hundred dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like you … or your story. Do not take rejection personally.

If you are blocked on a story, there is probably something wrong with it. Take a few days off and put the story on a back burner for a while. Eventually, it will come to you.

Read-and write-all the time. Never stop sending out your stuff. Don’t wait for a response after sending a story out…start a new story right away, and then send that one out! If you are constantly writing and sending stuff out (don’t forget to live your life, too, while you are doing this) eventually someone will bite!

It is nearly impossible to get published these days without an agent. The guide I used to get mine was called the Jeff Herman Guide to Agents, Editors, and Publishers. It was well worth the money I spent on it, since it lists every agent in the business and what he or she is looking for. It also tells you how to write a query letter, what to expect from your publisher, and all sorts of good stuff…a must buy for any aspiring author!

And above all, become a good listener. In order to write believable dialogue, you need to listen to the conversations of the people around you—then try to imitate them! So my advice is always to try to keeping quiet, listen only, and let other people to do the talking for a change. You’ll be surprised how much this will improve your writing skills (and how many people will think you’re a really sage person, when all you’re basically doing is spying on them).

Good luck, and keep writing! If I can do it, so can you!