Monday, April 07, 2008

On the Road with Questions and Answers

I've spent the past two weekends on the road (yes, it's the silly season again), teaching writing workshops and doing book signings at a community college in Leesburg FL, a library in Mount Dora FL, an art center in Naples FL and a library in New Port Richey FL. Next weekend I leave for a week-long conference in Pittsburgh (the annual and wonderful Romantic Times BOOKlovers convention).

The questions asked me by writers at these events tend to range all over the lot. Some of the questions are very on-point--you can tell this person is serious about wanting to get published because they've done their homework. Other questions seem to be just fishing--the person really has no idea of how a book goes from an idea to sitting on the shelf in a bookstore.

I'll share some from both camps here as maybe you've had similar questions too:

Q - Why don't you tell your publisher to print your books in hardcover, not just paperback?

A - I don't tell Bantam anything. I have a contract with Bantam that delineates I will provide them the content but an author is not in a position to determine or demand (at least, not unless you're sooper oodley famous) how that content is presented. The decision on cover art, format (paperback, trade paper or hard cover, audio book, ebook) and the like is done by the corporate end/marketing departments of NY publishing houses (please note I'm not talking about self-published or small press published here). Of course, my agent (or I through my agent) can make suggestions. But Bantam is not obliged to follow them.

I personally like mass market paperback as the medium. It's small, priced well, easy to carry. Durability isn't the same has hardcover but mass market ppb (paperbacks) are a lot more affordable than hardcover: $6.99 versus $25 or so.

Q - Where does your agent place advertisements for your books?

A - I'm getting the feeling lately that there's a real misunderstanding out there as to the role of a literary agent. Literary agents are not publicists. A literary agent presents your book to publishing houses in an attempt to acquire a contract with the house to publish your book. The agent then negotiates the terms of the publishing contract. A literary agent doesn't book my signings, conventions or speaking engagements. She doesn't create or place ads in the media for my books. Mine does advise me on the status of my career and my brainstorm things like workshops and conferences and signings with me. But she doesn't handle the actual placement of ads.

The publisher--in my case, Bantam--has an advertising campaign for each of the books it publishes. Bantam will create and place ads in viable publications for my books. Bantam doesn't ask me what magazines to use. I find out about the ads after the fact.

The majority of the advertising, signings and workshops are up to each author. I handle that myself. Yes, writing is a business as well as an art and a craft.

Q - What is "voice?"

A - Gee, have two weeks? I probably should do an entire blog on the subject (actually, I'm going to be teaching Point Of View and Voice at the RT con next week...). Voice is not one thing. It's probably easiest to say I know it when I see it but that's really not helpful.

Voice is the unique combination of a number of elements in the art and craft of writing that a writer employs to tell his or her story in a way that is recognizable as his or her own.

Voice includes, but is not limited to, pacing, word choice, sentence structure and characterization.

Let me give you a visual example. If I say "fast food restaurant" you likely think of a long counter, menu overhead, cash registers staffed by people in identical uniforms, seats bolted to the floor, screaming children, no tablecloths, condiments in tiny packets. Brightly lit, lots of tile and/or formica.

Those images, that style is the "voice" of a fast food restaurant. It could be McDonald's. It could be Wendy's. It could be Chick-Fil-A. I could drop you into any one of those, blindfolded, whip off your blindfold and you'd immediately recognize the kind of experience available there.

In the same sense, I could pull out a dozen pages of a JD Robb "In Death" book, hand them to you and having read those pages, you'd know--even without the bookcover--that this was a JD Robb "In Death" book. La Nora has a unique "voice."

I'm told so do I because of my word choices, characters, pacing and so on. Voice is not just one thing and it's very hard to teach voice. I can tell you what comprises it but you still have to create your own.

Q - My critique partners tear apart and change everything I write. What am I doing wrong?

A - Possibly nothing. Possibly everything. My first concern is, who are your crit partners? Do they have books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble or Waldenbooks? Have they actively studied the craft of writing? Or are they just starting out, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?

Jack Bickham, a noted writing guru, states in his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, "Usually it's a mistake to seek advice from other amateurs at writers' clubs. I don't think it's a good idea to ask family or friends to read and 'criticize' your manuscript, either...for two reasons: they won't be honest; they usually don't know what they're doing anyway."

I risk being flamed here, but I agree with Jack. Unless your family member is Colby Hodge and your critique partner is Jacqueline Lichtenberg. But the amateur writer or hobby writer is not qualified to tell you if what you produced is publishable.

Please note my use of the word publishable. A book can be competently written but not publishable. (IE: you can build the most beautiful, fabulous, well constructed butter churn in the world but you'll have a tough time selling it because very few people use butter churns anymore.)

I'm not saying don't attend writers groups. They can be terrific places to make other writerly friends and listen to workshops given by published authors. But someone on the same level as you in writing may not be the most helpful crit partner.

I do encourage you to join professional author and writer groups. The reasons should be obvious but if not, ask. I also encourage you to take online writing classes presented by professional writing organizations and taught by published authors. You can find a (growing) list of those on my website under writing tips.

But even if a published author tells you your scene is wrong, remember it's still your story. Providing the error isn't one of craft (ie: spelling, grammar) then consider what the author recommends but change it only if you feel it's an improvement.

Two caveats:
1 - when I crit, I never tell a writer something is wrong unless I can tell them how to fix it. (IE: if I don't know the right way, how can I know that's the wrong way?)
2 - if your agent or editor tells you change it, do so unless you really really really have a reason for doing it the way you did. They are professionals in the business of producing publishable books.

And as always, I leave you with CJ Cherryh's superb advice: Follow no rule off a cliff.



  1. Great stuff, Linnea.

    One thing to remember is aspiring authors are extremely limited in our options for critique partners. We're told repeatedly to never, ever ask a published author to critique our work. I've dared to ask a couple whom I consider cyber-friends to just tell me if my query is okay. So, unless we're lucky enough to be in a group with a college English professor or something, we just have to make do with who we can find. That almost always means fellow aspiring authors.

    Now, we can pay lots of money to have our stories critted by attending conferences or whatever or enter contests which promise a crit, regardless. However, putting money into a career which may never happen is a painful thing to do when there are children to be fed. It's more logical to buy chickens because at least we'll get eggs and a barbecue.

    I have learned a couple of things about critiquing as an aspiring author which might be helpful to other aspiring authors.

    1) Choose critque partners who have some common ground. For example, it's useless to have a fifty year old who hates teenagers crit your Young Adult novel.

    2) Final Polish -type editing can be learned. is great for this. I utilize the crits I have coming for things I can't do or learn to do on my own, like descriptions. I'm blind as a bat when it comes to describing things appropriately.

    As for publishable, we can only take our best guess based on our limited resources. Some of us have more limited resources than others. Up here in our tiny little town near the Arctic Circle, for example, there is no local RWA chapter.

    Maybe some other readers/aspiring authors/columnists can suggest more and better resources for us. Do remember we're frequently the target of scams. Figuring out what's truly worth our time and money can be a challenge.

  2. Kimber wrote:
    Up here in our tiny little town near the Arctic Circle, for example, there is no local RWA chapter.

    The internet has changed all that. RWAOnline--

    Chapter Features:
    24 hour access
    Bulletin Board Discussion Forums (no email loops!)
    Monthly Discussion Topics
    Workshops - FREE for chapter members!
    Plotting and Critique Groups or Partners
    Private Chat Area and regular chat sessions
    January Jump Start Jam and KIA Marathon
    Love Bytes - Chapter Newsletter
    Published Author Only Forums
    And much, much more!

    --doesn't care where you are. Either does RWA/FF&P or RWA KOD. All have active, enthusiastic published and pre-published members. RWAOnline offers monthly writing classes FREE to its members.

    I have a list of valid online writing class on my site under WRITING TIPS.

    The classes aren't free but well worth the $20 or so for the month of instruction by a professional. You can also meet new writer friends that way.

    Holly Lisle's site and Orson Scott Card's site are also chock full of FREE writing advice.

    FYI. ~Linnea

  3. If everyone took the advice never to join a crit group with authors below one's own level of experience, what group could the new aspiring author join? :)

    Seriously, great Q and A! There is so much more information available about the world of publishing now than there was when I started out, in my total ignorance, in the early 1970s. And your examples illustrate just a few of the many misconceptions non-writers have about the business. Several years ago, my husband suggested we pour huge amounts of money into (essentially) bribing an agent into representing me and placing my work in major markets. I tried to explain that this plan would be a sure-fire way to get blacklisted forever. If we ever get to the point where we CAN afford to pour huge amounts of money into my career, it would be best used to hire a publicist, from all I've heard.

  4. Margaret wrote: If everyone took the advice never to join a crit group with authors below one's own level of experience, what group could the new aspiring author join? :)

    Linnea points to RWAOnline again. ;-) ~Linnea