Top 10 Questions from New Writers: Answers to Your Most Burning Questions

We welcome questions from readers, and we always try to offer an answer or at least steer you to a place where you can find one.

A good place to get more detailed information is a book I co-wrote with Catherine Ryan Hyde: How to be a Writer in the E-Age…and Keep Your E-Sanity. It addresses these and most other questions a beginning writer might have. It’s not a tech or self-publishing manual in spite of its techy cover. We may be changing that...

But I realized recently that I spend a lot of time answering the same questions in emails, so I thought it would make sense to put some of the answers here on the blog.

In fact, we could make this a regular feature if people want to send in questions. Just go to the “contact us” page for our addresses and put “Q and A” in the header. Remember the only stupid question is the one you don't ask.

Here are ten of the most common questions we’ve been getting in our emails.

10) Q. Does Facebook count as a Blog / Website? If not, why not? And what site would you recommend?

A. Facebook does NOT count as a website and should not be your primary Web presence. Lots of reasons for this:
I use Blogger (blogspot.comowned by Google)  It's easy enough for a technomoron like me to use. And I like free. More tech-savvy folks prefer WordPress. Both are 100%  free and work for most writers. Look up in the right hand corner of this blog. See the button for "create blog"? Hit it—and in about 5 minutes, you're a blogger. I don't recommend you do that though. Get things assembled, like photos, ideas for a title, etc. You can get more info on HOW TO BLOG right here. and through some of my popular pieces in the sidebar.

9) Q. Does every new writer need an agent? And how much do they cost?

A. No, every writer does NOT need an agent.
But if you are Dr. Oz, or you have a couple of novels with a potentially huge global market—the kind that will appeal to one of the Big 5 multinational publishing houses or some of the larger “medium” sized ones like Harlequin (except some lines)—you definitely need an agent.

Small and some medium-sized presses do not require an agent (for more on which ones require agents, they're listed in my book How to be a Writer in the E-Age.)

Most self-publishers don’t have agents, although the role of agent is changing, and now many agents are helping authors self-publish. I think it's a good plan for most first novelists to query agents to see if there’s interest. Going through the query process is a great way to learn about the business and hone marketing skills and it keeps your options open in this rapidly changing business.

But if you do get an offer, always have a lawyer or knowledgeable third party look at the contract before signing. Some agent contracts these days can be predatory, even from legitimate agencies. As far as cost: agents charge a commission—after they've sold your work. They pretty much all charge the same: 10%-15% of domestic sales, 20% foreign.

And NEVER pay an agent anything upfront. It’s not considered ethical to charge a fee for reading your manuscript. The network of agents and editors is fairly small, and a fee-charging agent won’t belong to that network and won’t be able to sell your book to a reputable publisher. Here’s a blogpost with more on how to spot bogus and unethical agents.

8) Q. Do I need to set up my own store to sell a self-published title? How do I set up my blog so readers can buy my book?

A. You probably don't want to bother with your own store unless you have a whole lot of titles and a ton of tech and business savvy. Most authors I know who've tried it say that running their own store is more trouble than it’s worth.

Obviously getting 100% of your cover price instead of 35%-70% is very tempting. But unless you have high visibility already, you’re going to sell more on the retail sites like Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes and Noble to make up the difference. If you prefer not to work with mega-companies like Amazon, consider Smashwords for ebooks and Lulu for paper (but avoid Lulu's more expensive packages, which are operated by AuthorSolutions.) .

As far as linking to retailers, here's what you do on Blogger: 
  1. Click "design" in the right top corner of your blog main page (once you're signed in.)  
  2. This takes you to your “dashboard". 
  3. Go to the list of links on the left hand side of the page that comes up and click "layout." 
  4. A basic pattern of your layout comes up. 
  5. Then hit "add a gadget" wherever you want your book to be. 
  6. Then choose "image". 
  7. A window will come up where you can upload your cover image and there will be another window that says "add a link". 
  8. Paste in the link to your buy page at your publisher or Amazon or wherever you want.
It sounds like a lot of steps, but it only takes a minute or two.

7) Q. I want to know if I have the talent to be a real writer. Will you look at my WIP and let me know if I’m wasting my time?

A. No writing wastes your time. Writing is about organizing thought. It keeps your little gray cells well exercised. It’s like a gym workout for your brain.

As far as being a “real writer”—if you’re writing, and you’re not a puppet carved by an old Italian guy named Gepetto, you’re a real writer. A writer is a person who writes, full stop. It’s a long learning curve, but I believe anybody can learn if they’ve got the drive.

But we can’t give free critiques. Our schedules are jam-packed and we’re always on overload. Plus critiquing can be a thankless job. Lots of beginners aren’t ready to hear how much work goes into learning to write narrative. I recommend for exchanging critiques.

6)  Q. How much platform-building should I do before I sit down to write my first story? 

A. If you write fiction, NONE. Write a book first. Or at least some short stories. It takes a long time to learn to write good fiction.

You can read some great advice from Jane Friedman about platform right here. Don’t let yourself get obsessed with platform until you have a finished draft and you’ve written some short stories that are ready to send out to contests and journals.

Learning to write well enough to publish usually takes at least three years (or 10K hours.) If you waste that time playing on the Internet, your learning curve will be longer.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, it's a different story. It's a good idea to start right away with a blog. I think all nonfiction writers benefit from blogging and you might as well start building an audience while you learn your trade.

5) Q. I want to get my WIP critiqued, but I’m afraid somebody will steal my plot. How can I make sure it won’t get stolen?

A. Relax. This is the most common fear in beginning writers, but you can let it go.

All your work is copyrighted to you as soon as you write it. If you want it official, you can pay to copyright a finished work with the US copyright office, who have a handy PDF pamphlet to help you along. But make sure it's finished, edited, and polished or you'll have to do it again. Could get expensive.

The truth is there are a whole lot of things to be afraid of out there in the publishing world: bad contracts, fee-charging agents, vanity publishers that masquerade as publishers—but this isn’t one of them.

Most writers have more ideas than they can write down in a lifetime. The more you write, the more ideas you have. Nobody needs to take yours. No matter how brilliant it is. More on the rarity of plot stealing here. 

4) All I get is rejections. Should I give up writing? 

A. Every successful author gets tons of rejections, so only quit if you know you’d rather be doing something else. 

No matter how far along you are in your career, I guarantee somebody will hate your work and say that you “can’t write.” Look at the 140 one-star reviews of the Great Gatsby, which has become a #1 bestseller 90 years after its debut and has never been out of print..

All a rejection means is that you’re sending your work out there. Which puts you ahead of the writers who aren’t getting rejected yet. Ruth Harris has a great post on how arbitrary rejections can be. And here's a guest post on the subject from Catherine Ryan Hyde.

If your rejections are personalized—say you’ve had three that say your novel has structure issues, or point of view problems—you’ve been given a gift. Find a book, blogpost or class on structure or POV and work on your weak points. We all have them.

But if you find you really don’t enjoy writing novels, don’t think that giving up is “failure”. There are lots of other writing outlets besides the novel format. Short fiction is soaring in popularity. Or you may find that you’d prefer to put your energy into blogging. Blogs can reach a lot more people than a novel.

Novels are not somehow “better” than other formats. Writing is writing, and there are lots of ways to be successful at it.

And remember that learning to write takes time. How much time?  Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours are a reasonable estimate.

Or maybe you'd rather create in an entirely different medium. That's OK, too. Pablo Picasso was probably a lousy writer.

3) Q. What do you think of bloghops and will you join ours? 

A. Blog hops are a great way for new bloggers to network and form community—an essential thing when you’re starting out. If you have time to devote to daily blogging for a month or so, it can be a fun way to get to know your fellow writers and move your blog up in the search engines.

But personally, we’re kinda hopped out. Ruth and I have found the “hop” format doesn’t work well for this blog, because it’s a once a week “slow blog” (most blog hops require daily posts.) Plus this blog is more informational than personal. We don’t talk a lot about our writing process or characters unless they illustrate a point.

And remember other authors aren’t your primary audience. Blog hops are not going to sell a lot of books. They’re for building community.

2) Q. Should I use a pseudonym? 

A. Funny how many writers worry about this as soon as they set out to write their first fiction. Pen names are definitely a good choice if you write erotica or your real name is Donald Trump. 

But if you’re using a pseudonym so your family won’t know you’re a writing a book, you probably will get outed by the time you publish anyway, so consider the hassles of doing business as two people.

If you do want to use a pseudonym, choose one as soon as possible in your career and use the same one everywhere, so all your platform building and social networking can be done under your author name.

Do Google the name to make sure it doesn’t belong to another author, anybody who already has a big Web presence, or is wanted for a heinous crime.

Not everybody agrees with me on this, but I think authors can write under one name for all their books unless they write wildly incompatible genres like BDSM erotica and children’s picture books. These days lots of writers publish different genres under the same name. You can signal your genre with cover design, title and font, and you’ll save yourself a huge amount of time if you only have to build one platform. 

And by far the most popular question is:

1) Q. Can I write a guest post for your blog to promote my book/service? 

A. Probably not. Ruth and I take very few guest posters, as you'll see if you look around. Since we only post four pieces a month, each one has to offer a lot of value. It has to be informational rather than promotional. Unfortunately we've been seeing our stats drop off a cliff whenever we have a guest, even somebody wildly famous—and we've hosted Oscar winners and literary icons.

I'm not sure why that is. It may be that when we read blogs we're like schoolchildren with a substitute teacher: we want what we're used to or we don't feel we have to pay attention. In any case, this means we pretty much have to limit guests to people with their own online followings who can bring some audience with them or people who are pretty well known in the industry.

The best way to get on any blog is to start commenting and get to know the regulars. Readers are more likely to welcome one of their own. If we do start taking more guests, that would definitely put you ahead of the game. If you want to query us, there's more on guest posts on our "contact us" page and here's my post on HOW TO BE A GOOD BLOG GUEST.

BUT: If you have a contest going to promote your service, or you’ve got a literary zine or podcast and are looking for submissions, do send us the deets and we’ll put it in our “opportunity alerts.” That's why I created this section.

How about you, scriveners? Do you have anything to add to my answers to these questions? Do you have questions of your own you'd like us to tackle in future blogposts? 


1) COMPOSE Literary Journal debuts this week with their Spring 2013 issue. Submissions are open for their Fall 2013 issue.  This prestigious journal was founded by Suzannah Windsor, of Write it Sideways, and she's put together an amazing editorial staff. I'm so honored to have my poem No One Will Ever Love Him included in the debut issue. They are looking for art and photography as well as poems, literary short fiction, novel excerpts and essays. Must not be previously published (that includes anything that has appeared on your blog.)

 2) The Saturday Evening Post’s Second Annual Great American Fiction Contest—yes, THAT Saturday Evening Post—is holding a short fiction contest. Could you join the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald; William Faulkner; Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.; Ray Bradbury; Louis L’Amour; Sinclair Lewis; Jack London; and Edgar Allan Poe? $10 entry fee Deadline July 1, 2013

3) FREE book advertising to British readers from EbookBargainsUK Lots of authors and publishers have had huge successes with their free or sale books by advertising on BookBub, ENT, KND, POI, etc. But none of those target the UK, and their links go to US sites Brits can't use. But now there’s a newsletter for UK readers only. It links to all the big UK retailers like Apple UK, Waterstones and Foyles as well as Amazon UK. They don’t sell books direct or get paid for clickthroughs, so they don't have any restrictions on how many free books they can spotlight like BookBub and the others. So it's THE place to tell Brits about your book when it goes free or on sale in the UK. Since Brits have the highest number of readers per capita of any country in the world, this looks like a great idea to me: Plus: the site will be offering FREE book ads until May 31st, on a first come, first served basis.

And if you're in the UK, do sign up for their newsletter. It brings links to free and bargain ebooks—at the UK bookstore of your choice—in your inbox every morning. You can subscribe here.

4) The Lyttoniad contest for the WORST first sentence of a novel. The classic Bulwer-Lytton Contest makes news every year. Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. E-mail entries should be sent to Scott Rice at in the body of the message, Ariel 12 font. One e-mail may contain multiple entries. Entries will be judged by categories, from “general” to detective, western, science fiction, romance, and so on. There will be overall winners as well as category winners. No prizes that I know of, but lots of admiration from your fellow writers.  Deadline is June 30th.

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