Tuesday, July 7, 2009

FAQ of sorts on Writing and Publishing

I've been getting a lot of emails lately asking me for writing and publishing advice and I've been so overwhelmed with book stuff and wedding stuff and life-in-general stuff that I've become terribly slow at responding to emails and I feel awful.

So I figured I should bite the bullet and do some sort of FAQ type thing that I can point people to. And I thought it would make a good blog entry and hopefully be filled with answers to questions many readers and writers have.

Here goes the frequently asked questions, topics ranging from the basics to publishing and I will add more to this blog as I get more....

You got your MFA in Creative Writing. Do all writers have to go to school for writing?

A: Getting an MFA in Creative Writing was what worked for me. I told myself that I was just going to write on my own for years and I got very little accomplished. Plus I was living in a bubble where I got no feedback except rejections when I sent my stories out to magazines. I was 21 years old, directionless in life, but I knew I loved to write and wanted to make a serious go at getting published. I figured going to school for writing would buy me time to write. It basically became my job to write for 6 years (3.5 years undergrad, 2.5 years grad). Part of that time I lived at home and worked only part-time. Part of that time, I lived on my own and worked three jobs plus went to grad school. It was not easy, but instead of having to make excuses to write, I had to make excuses not to write. I wrote a full first draft of a novel my first year in school. It was really a productive time for me, so that's why I stayed on for grad school. I'm glad I did because I made incredible connections. I met my agent through a conference at my school. I took classes from some of the writers I admired most including Irvine Welsh and Joe Meno. I absorbed, absorbed, absorbed everything .

However, I know plenty of people who go to school for writing and end up doing something else. I also dropped out of college when I was younger because I was in writing classes that were useless and terrible for me. They were based on the standard method: write two pieces a semester, go to class, listen to people rip them to shreds. That was not useful for me. It is for others, but not for me. I chose Columbia College Chicago's Fiction Program because they use the Story Workshop Method, which is generative, meaning you write in every class. The method of critique is also different, critiques being phrased as comments and questions rather than cutting remarks. It helped me learn how to incorporate feedback from others.

Do you have to go to school for Creative Writing to be a writer? Absolutely not. If your parents won't let you or you have other interests you want to study in school, that is totally fine. Those interests, building up areas of expertise will shape and strengthen your writing. Like I said, going to school is what I needed to develop discipline and learn about craft, but there are other ways to do that.

How do I develop my craft outside of going to school? Do I really need critiques from other people, can't I just send my stuff off?

A: There are a ton of online and offline communities that have workshops and newsletters and tons and tons of information for you to absorb. The two I have personal experience with and can recommend are Romance Writers of America, which is great not only for romance but for Women's Fiction and YA and Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, also great for YA. Both have big yearly conferences where you can meet other writers and agents and editors and network and get tips on craft. You can often find critique groups through your local chapters.

Critique Partners or CPs are essential. Writing is not a solo sport. You think it is because you spend so much time in front of your computer or alone with a notebook, but if you don't show your work to others, your work will suffer. Trust me on this. I know from firsthand experience, years of languishing short stories. Other people will see holes in your story that you are blind to because you know the thing so well. They will also be there when you are freaking out and have writers block or need to talk a plotline through.

I had four critique partners who read my last manuscript. They were essential. They are listed in my acknowledgements right under my fiance, that shows how important they are. One of them lives in Australia and we correspond entirely by email. Two of them live locally and we meet and have a writer's group every week. Both methods work and each of my critique partners brings different insights to the table. So after you finish a draft of your first book, find yourself some critique partners either through local chapters of writing organizations like I mentioned or through online communities. I don't know a ton of online communities. The one that has been essential to me as a YA writer is the Teen Lit Authors group on Yahoo.

Will you read and critique my work?

A: No, I'm sorry, but I can't. I wish I could, but there are a couple different reasons I have to say no. Mainly because I don't have time. If I read everyone's work, I couldn't write my own work. As I mentioned I have four critique partners, between their work and mine, I am quite busy. Then there are legal reasons. You could later claim I stole your idea. Not saying that you would, but apparently enough people have made these claim that it causes agents and editors to tell their authors, no, don't do that.

How do I get an agent?

A: I lucked out with my agent. I met her at a conference. Writing conferences are a good way to meet agents. You might luck out too. But for the most part people get agents the old-fashioned way, by searching for one whose interests match what you are writing and sending them a really awesome query letter. Admittedly because I lucked out, I don't know as much as a lot of other writers about this process, but I do have some tips.

Agentquery.com -it's the largest, most up-to-date database of agent listing and it also has tips on writing a query letter.

Publishersmarketplace.com- Here you can sign up for a free daily email that lets you know the biggest news in the publishing world. Or, when you are ready for that big agent search, you can sign up for their paid service and get emails with all the deals that are being made. Not every deal is listed, but most agents report their deals to PM and then you can see who is selling YA novels about the zombie apocalypse and pitch them your fabulous idea about the werewolf apocalypse.

Do I need an agent to get a book deal?

A: Again, this is something that varies from person to person, but it most cases, yes. Most publishers, including my publisher MTV Books, do not take unagented submissions. Sure there are exceptions. People who send stuff and it gets plucked from the slush pile or bloggers who have a huge following and get offered a book deal. But for the most part, you need an agent. I needed an agent. My agent has been my biggest ally and I highly recommend you search for an agent before searching for a book deal.

I wrote a book or have an idea that involves music or is thematically similar to your book or other books that your agent or editor has picked up. Can you refer me to your agent or editor?

Like I said, if you want to submit to MTV Books, you need an agent. I don't have any pull there whatsoever. In fact, they might only like me because I send nice holiday gifts ;)

My agent's submission guidelines are posted here. If your book fits with what she is looking for, by all means query her. I can't read and recommend things to her though. First of there is the whole time thing that I mentioned before. But also Caren is very opinionated. This is why I like her. My opinion will not sway her. GOOD WRITING WILL SWAY HER AND THAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING! (Hence the aforementioned critique partners, who help you polish it to perfection before you submit to her or anyone else.) What you absolutely can do is say that you have read my books and other authors of hers' books (providing you actually have read them because otherwise that gets embarrassing) and explain why our books made you want to pitch her. That will impress her (as long as you have the writing to back it up). Do the same thing with other agents, read their authors, it give you a better idea of who they are.

Okay, that is all the basic advice I have for today. I will write a more process oriented thing at some point. I don't feel like process advice is all that helpful because everyone's process is so different, but it is fun to pick up tips to try and I know people are interested. So I promise I was blog about that at a later date.

Hope this is helpful. I don't know everything; in fact I feel like I know next to nothing most of the time, but I wanted to share what I have learned. If you have other questions, feel free to ask away in the comments and I will try to answer, though admittedly my replies may be slow....


sarah said...

Definitely appreciate your taking the time to answer all those FAQs. Some great advice, thanks!

Diana Dang said...

Those are some great advices. Thank you for your time to write down all!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Glad you guys found them useful!