Writers Workshop: Inbox Outbox

English: Logo of french publisher La Maison d’Art

I’ve received lots of questions from other writers over the years. I try to answer as many as possible but I know that some of them get lost in the shuffle. Then, there’s always the problem of time. However, there are a few questions that seem to be common, to be of interest to many other writers. No particular order here, just a “stream of consciousness” presentation. These are obviously personal opinions, not be be taken as true wisdom. In other words, your mileage may (will) vary.

If you have a burning question that I’ve overlooked (and I suppose there are a few), give me a shout somehow and I’ll try to collect them for a future article.

Do I really need a literary agent?

No, not anymore. This was true before POD (publishing on demand) became the powerhouse of publishing that it is today. Also, there are many ways of getting your words out there without an agent. Just take a look at the world of blogs and their related kin. There are so many ways to get your work in front of the public that it’s difficult to know them all.

Now, if you are strictly interested in publishing with one of the big houses, of which few remain, you will absolutely need a literary agent. However, in my view, this is a dying end of the business. I realize this may be a controversial point of view, so take it as only one writer’s opinion. The whole process of finding and working with an honest, interested literary agent is fraught with danger. It’s also an enormous subject unto itself.

For most writers, I would say that a literary agent is just not necessary. There are other ways to get published and get it done with less cost and less hassle.

Can I earn a living writing?

You can. A few do. However, most don’t. Is that any reason to stop writing? I don’t think so. You write, first and foremost, because you love it, need it, want to do it. It’s a passion, right? So, go ahead and write. Don’t give up on the idea of doing it as a career, and take every opportunity to turn your passion into a paycheck. However, don’t obsess about it. If you do, it will stifle your talents and make you unnaturally grumpy before your time. Write because you love it. Give it up only when something you love even more comes along. If you have the soul of a writer, you will always return home to the written word anyway.

What about pen names? Should I use one (or more)?

I do. Many writers do. It’s a way of differentiating genres easily. Readers come to recognize an author’s name and associate it with a particular genre. This is good for both you and your readers. It’s also a time-honored custom among writers who like to switch genres from time to time, or work in two or more genres at the same time.

How do I handle critical reviews of my work?

This is a tough one because it can easily become a personal issue for some writers. I’ve had my books praised and panned, sometimes in the same review! There was a time, decades ago, that it all meant something to me. However, I got over it after another book or two. Critics and reviewers are expressing personal opinions, often tailored to the media in which the review appears. If they were writers, they would be writing. Since they are critics, they are being critical, and oftentimes trying to keep their own readers as interested as possible. So, the bottom line is to not worry about it. Just keep on writing and the critics will just keep on doing their thing. It’s the nature of the beast.

Reviews on places like Amazon or Barnes and Noble are generally not to be trusted. These kinds of reviews are often rife with personal agendas and lots of attention-seeking behavior. Some reviews are accurate and well-informed. Many are not. It’s pretty easy to tell one from the other. Just ignore the “stars” and carefully read the words of the reviewer. If he or she is objective and reasonable, it will show through. If not, that will also be obvious.

My personal preference is to never engage with critics or reviewers, regardless of whether they praise or pan my work. I’ve long ago learned to ignore them and pay closer attention to my readers. After all, they are the people who most interest me anyway.

Can I trust publishers?

Nope. They are in a profit-making business. They were once a necessary part of making a career with your words. Today, they are not. Their agenda is business-oriented. As a writer, you most likely have a very different and more personal point of view. The good news is that the industry is no longer dominated by a few big publishing houses encircled by a larger number of houses feeding off the crumbs. So, you needn’t worry about trusting a publisher because they are not the big-gamers they once were. Now, they are more like service providers for modern writers. Good news for contemporary writers, no?

A very short story about “online” publishers. A number of years ago, when online publishers were first making their mark on the industry, I tried an experiment. I took one of my earlier-published fiction pieces, authored under a pen name, and submitted it to 6 online publishers. I was careful to follow their query guidelines. Believe me, I’m an expert in queries and have mountains of rejections to prove it. At any rate, four of them never responded. The fifth sent a polite but obviously canned rejection email. The last publisher wanted to read more, so I submitted the entire work. After lots of back and forth, the publisher decided to pick up the piece but only if I made substantial changes. They wanted to make a character study into an action-oriented, “blood and guts” kind of storyline, something they thought would sell better to their market. Needless to say, I canned them right away. So, that’s not to say that all online publishers are useless or inept. They are not. However, anyone with a web presence can claim to be a publisher without any clue as to what that entails. Writers, beware. See my article Online Publishing for more. There is a happy ending to this story.

What is best, fiction or nonfiction?

I like them both, and have written in both. I find nonfiction more demanding but it can also be a lucrative end of the business. There is more competition in the fiction arena, and it’s much harder to grab the attention of readers. Personally, I like to switch between the two. If I had to pick one, and only one, I’d pick fiction. I like the freedom it provides.

What about poetry?

I wish I could make some bold, enlightening statement about poetry. I cannot. The truth is, I can’t write poetry that’s worth the crumpled paper in my wastebasket. I wish that I could. I like poetry, and some of my most memorable reading moments have come through the words of great poets. However, that skill is not in my backpack and I doubt that it will ever be found there. Sorry. I suggest finding a poet whose work you like and write to him or her. After all, they’re human, right? Maybe they would like to hear from a fan.

What is the best way to improve my writing skills?

Reading comes first, writing regularly, followed closely by keeping in contact with other writers. Writers are typically very passionate about their work. Most like to “talk shop” with other writers. The vast majority of them have something important to say, if you learn to listen carefully. Writers are fascinating people, in my view. I like listening to them, reading their words, and learning from them.

How do I know if I’m a good writer, or not?

I’m still asking this question after more than 40 years of pumping out words, sort of. I’ve never been able to give this question a worthy answer. I know that there are many writers out there who work their magic much better than I have ever done. Does that make me a poor writer? A good one? Neither. It just means that I’m a writer trying to work at my craft, just like you. I’ve learned to stop asking myself this question simply because I cannot answer it. The Writing Gods seem to forbid such knowledge.

Are writers weird?

Anyone who writes for a living must, by definition, be at least a little weird. It’s not a very “sure and steady” way to make your way through life. However, the vast majority of writers are certainly not weird. They are artists, potentially great artists, who are pursuing their dreams. Is that weird? I don’t think so. Having said that, some of my writer friends are pretty strange, and I suspect they would say the same about me.

Am I a writer if I’ve never been published?

Absolutely! A turtle and a zebra are quite different, right? Be the zebra, unless your calling is more turtle-ish. As I’ve said elsewhere, some of the best material I have ever read has never been published. I wish I could do as well.

What are the odds of becoming a successful writer?

Long, but not impossible. Probably about the same as hitting that big lottery. Keep in mind, though, there are always lottery winners, somewhere. More to the point, this is the wrong question to ask yourself. You and I may have a very different definition of “success” in this context. Take a look at the earlier question about earning money with your words. Some of the most successful, most inspirational writers I have known over the years were not successful by the trite, over-glamorized definition that we hear all around us each day. To me, they were not only successful but people whose talent I could not resist. You might want to give that word “success” some more thought, a few truthful moments that bring your own feelings into its meaning.

Why should I even bother trying to become a writer?

Because you have something to say! Because there is a part of you that wants to create, to weave a story, to entertain, to befuddle, to amuse, to inform or to terrify readers. If you are drawn to write, listen to that quiet voice that pushes you forward. It’s a part of you that must be answered, that should find the light of day. Mostly, because it can change your life in meaningful ways, published or not. If you are driven to write, go for the ride and enjoy the scenery along the way.

Questions? I’ll try . . .

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