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Frequently Asked Questions

This is all strictly of interest to those who want to be writers. I hope you find it helpful. If you have any comments or suggestions (perhaps you may even disagree with some of the following) please email me.

I’d like to be a writer. How do I go about becoming one?

I left the worst question until last. But now I must face it.

Before you read any further, however, ponder this quote from Olin Miller, and ponder it long and hard: “Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.” If you are still determined to become a writer, or you don’t believe Olin Miller, then I hope the following will help you:

  1. First you must be prepared for years and years of rejectionpossibly ten or even more of very hard work without the slightest reward. Some writers are lucky enough for their first book to be exactly what a publisher wants, but it’s extremely rare, and getting rarer as every year passes. There’s a lot you can achieve in other career areas in ten years: if you have the necessary talent you could qualify as a brain surgeon.

    For some idea of the frustrations continually faced by writers, see Blurbs I wrote for Earthlightat the request of a publisher. There’s a return link at the bottom of the text concerned should you wish to return here rather than read the blurbs.

    If you are now telling yourself that what’s been happening to Laraine Anne Barker can’t possibly happen to you, then I would urge you to download On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile by Michael Allen. This is a very long essay. In fact, it’s a 72-page book, in PDF format. But I’m not asking you to read every word of it. You won’t (or shouldn’t) need to. Michael Allen knows what he is talking about, by the way; he works in publishing and has many published books to his name, both fiction and non-fiction.
  2. The second most important consideration is that you will need a second careerone you have to be prepared to follow for the rest of your life, in case your dream of becoming a writer never becomes a reality. I often wonder how many talents much greater than mine are killed stone dead by those awful rejection letters. Another important reason for having a second career you enjoy is the fact that most writers don’t make a living from their workeven some of the world’s best writers.

    Here are some sobering, decidedly unsavoury facts. Give them very serious consideration before joining a group of people who are clearly desperately in need of brain surgery. A recent survey discovered that nearly half of British authors earn less than the minimum annual wage, which at the time was £5,000 (about NZ$15,000). Three-quarters make less than the average wage of £20,000. Only one writer in seven can afford to live on earnings from writing. In 1966 nearly half could live entirely on earnings from their writing. This had fallen to less than a third by 1971. By 1981 it was down to less than a sixth! Nearly 90 percent of academic and reference book writers who took part in the survey said they made less than £20,000. This also applied to 62 percent of crime, thriller and mystery writers, 70 percent of general fiction, educational and children’s writers, and 75-80 percent of writers in all other fields. Writers of genre fiction, specialist non-fiction and academic and lifestyle books were the lowest earners. Among those finding it harder than any others to get published were writers of romantic and historical fiction. It would be very interesting to know similar figures for writers in the United States.
  3. Preferably your other career should be something to do with writing: journalism maybe. If you want to write for children teaching is a good optiona great number of children’s writers started as schoolteachers.
  4. NEVER “go for broke” (give up your paying job on the grounds that you have an earning spouse) as I did. Chances are you might get away with it. Most likely you will (like me) just “go broke”. First, all my savings disappeared (it costs a lot of money to send manuscripts to publishers). But then came the killing blow: my husband developed asthma. He was a printer, working on Roland and Heidelberg machines, and he could no longer take the fumes from the chemicals used in the print shops. He was lucky enough, at age fifty, to be given the opportunity to make a change of career by doing costing and estimating on a computer for a printer friend. However, the print fumes still managed to reach the office and eventually he had to give up this job, too. By that time New Zealand had switched to unleaded petrol. That seemed to be also causing problems. So we moved from the city. Unfortunately, work is just about impossible to find for people over fifty.
  5. As for the writing itself, start with short stories rather than a novel and send them in to competitions, magazines or even one of the many electronic magazines (e-zines) on the Internet. And don’t give up submitting: although competitions are a little like a lottery (judges will obviously be influenced by their own tastes) if your writing is any good you’ll eventually win a prize. Then maybejust maybea magazine, either print or electronic, might want to publish your story. I wish I’d started with short stories. Unfortunately as a child I hated short stories so I naturally thought I couldn’t write them. It was only when a friend asked for some (specifying they must have dragons in them) that I realised I could do it. One of the stories I wrote for my friend was The Little Dragon Without Fire.
  6. What to write about is another matter that may be a problem for you. The worst advice (advice strangely often given to beginners) is to write about what you know. Instead, write about what interests youthe type of story you like to read. If you don’t know enough about your subject, you can always find out! Another piece of advice unpublished writers get tired of is to “research the market”. Children’s writers can do this in two ways: by studying either what children are reading or what publishers are publishing. Unfortunately, if you do both you will land up with two completely different answers. (See Survey by British Book News on my More Writers’ Frustrations page. The third RETURN link at the end of the survey will bring you back here.)

    If writers like Richard Adams (Watership Down) and the veterinary surgeon James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) had researched the market they might never have written their best-selling books.
  7. Some people find a writing course helpful. There are plenty of these available all over the world and they certainly give you a chance to find out if you have any writing talent and allow you to compare your skills with those of others. Your teacher should be able to help you here, although finding a course run by reputable people that you can afford (or that your parents are willing to pay for) is a considerable challenge.
  8. There are also many writers’ groups around. They meet on a regular basis and, like writing classes, give you a chance to compare your work with that of others as well as the opportunity to read your stories alouda necessary skill for a writer. You will also probably be expected to give constructive criticism on the work of others in your group and you will therefore need to be able to take criticism yourself. A really good writers’ group can also be of help in those times of deep and lonely despair, because only another writer really understands what you’re going through.

    One problem that can occur in these groups is what might be termed “professional jealousy”. You will know when you’re exposed to this: the critique from the writer concerned will have nothing in it but negative criticism, most of which won’t make sense. (See this list of things that indicates you have received such a critique.) Yes, I have been in this position (the work critiqued was the beginning of Silvranja of the Silver Forest, which had been short-listed in 1998 for the Tom Fitzgibbon Memorial Award). Needless to say, I didn’t join this group! However, I didn’t dismiss all the criticism in a critique that was clearly meant to do nothing but tear me apart. I milked it for all it was worth, if just to spite the writer of it. *G* I also know at least one other writer who had this problem with her writers’ group.
  9. Preferably use a computer or word processor; these give better output than typewriters. And do learn to type properly: writing is hard enough work without having to fumble around on the keyboard with two fingers. There are many good computer programs you can use to teach yourself to type. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing is possibly the most popular and it’s fun to use even for experienced keyboard operators.
  10. Submit your work to a competition or even a publisher when you think you’ve worked on it to the best of your ability. This is a really big step and takes quite a lot of courage. Many people never manage it. Here are some tips on presenting your work and finding a publishe

PUBLISHERS

  1. To find publishers who publish the type of story you have written look on the publishing pages at the front of recent books similar to your own or, even better, consult the current year’s editions of reference books such as Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. For a children’s story you might find Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market more useful. It is also a yearbook. Your librarian should be able to help you here, although owning these books is preferable to borrowing them.
  2. You can find electronic publishers simply by searching the Internet. There are also plenty of writing sites with links to e-publishers. To help you decide if the electronic publisher you’ve found might be a good one to which to submit your book, see How to Judge Electronic Publishers.
  3. Your manuscript should be presented in double spacing (not space-and-a-half) on one side only of white paper (80 gsm photocopy paper is fine).
  4. The pages should be numbered consecutively in the top right-hand corner. It’s also a good idea to put the name of your story on each pagemaybe on the top left-hand sidein case the pages get separated, because editors generally don’t like manuscripts to be pinned or stapled together.
  5. Make a cover sheet to include the title of the story, its word-count and your name, address and phone number.
  6. Don’t be tempted to use strange typefaces, such as ones that look like joined-up handwriting. Editors don’t like them and aren’t just being awkward when they refuse to read manuscripts presented this way. Pages and pages of this kind of typeface make for very hard reading. Along with typewriter faces such as Courier and Pica (which I think are extremely ugly) editors prefer Times, Arial and Helvetica. I personally prefer Times because as a serif typeface it’s easier to read in large blocks than Arial or Helvetica, which are sans serif faces. Some editors, strangely, are still stuck in the age of the typewriter and insist on writers using Courier (or a similar typeface) even though writers are working on computers, so if you know the editor to whom you are going to send your work wants Courier then it’s probably best to grit your teeth and use it. Editors will catch up with technology sooner or later. Probably later—much later. And some editors set out their requirements for manuscript preparation in such minute detail—like fussy old hens—that it’s a pain in the proverbial preparing a manuscript for them.
  7. Use 12pt size type (if you’re presenting your work from a computer) or 10pt if you’re using a typewriter.
  8. Before submitting your manuscript check it thoroughly for typing mistakes, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. If any of these are present a busy editor is likely to reject your story without reading further. By all means use the spell-checker on your computer, but don’t rely solely on it. It doesn’t know the difference between such words as their and there. It also can’t tell you when you’ve left out a word. And check your manuscript once it’s printed out, even if you’ve already checked it on screen. You may find your grammar checker useful for checking your punctuationat least to make sure there are no unnecessary spaces around punctuation marks, and that you have put both opening and closing quotes. Punctuation errors like these are often difficult for the eye to pick up.
  9. Unfortunately winning a short story competition isn’t likely to influence an editor in favour of your work unless the competition has considerable prestige. This type of competition usually has a fairly high fee attached to it and offers large sums of money as prizes. It is also most likely to be won by already-published writers. The Bridport Prize is one that springs to mind in this category. And in the December/January 2001 issue of The New Zealand Author it was reported that Norman Bilbrough (a very well-established New Zealand writer) won the Sunday Star Times short story contest for the second time. On receiving his prize of $3,000 and a computer, he commented that his students whom he had encouraged to enter the contest would not thank him for taking the prize himself. Hmm!
  10. Don’t fold your manuscript or bind it: send it loose with a very brief covering letter, preferably addressed to the editor by name, in an A4 size envelope, preferably white. You can use cardboard on the top and bottom to help prevent the manuscript getting damaged if it won’t make the envelope too heavy. Chances are, however, the cardboard won’t be re-used for your manuscript’s return.
  11. Don’t try to sound “businesslike” in your letter; just use your own natural, friendly voice. A busy editor will appreciate this much more than stiff formality.
  12. Don’t tell the editor how much your family and friends loved your story (editors are tired of hearing this sort of thing!) and don’t mention anything about yourself that isn’t relevant to writingeditors aren’t interested in a writer’s life story (well, not until they decide they want to publish the author’s work!) The main things to include are the title of your story, its length and a brief description of what it’s about, making it sound as exciting as you can. Some writers are convinced the covering letter is extremely important and go to great pains in writing it. Others disagree, stating that editors aren’t swayed by clever letters but only by well-written stories. Since few of us can write clever letters, isn’t it better to stick to the basics and let our writing speak for us?
  13. Don’t forget to enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope for the manuscript’s return if you want it backor the appropriate number of IRCs (International Reply Coupons) and a self-addressed envelope if you’re submitting overseas.
  14. When your story comes back to you with a rejection letter, you’ll feel very depressed. Your hands might even shake and your heart thud with dread as you open the parcel or envelope. But don’t be too disheartened, especially if the editor has said something encouraging about your work: although editors are usually tactful, they’re not given to saying encouraging things just to be kind. If you feel too bad, help is at hand to get you back on the right track. See below.
  1. If you think you can improve your story before sending it out again then do so. (See Rewriting: Get Rid of Redundancies for some help.) And if it looks obvious it’s already been handled by a publisher, make another copy before sending it to the next publisher. Continual rejection is the worst part of being a writer, but it’s something you will definitely have to get used to.

COMPETITIONS

  1. If sending manuscripts to competitions, preferably look for ones stipulating entrants must not have a published novel, or that have some other restrictions. Reasons for this are:
    • there will be fewer entries;
    • with the prize likely to be small, the fee (if any) will be lower;
    • you won’t be competing against professionals attracted by big prizes.
  1. By all means enter a big-prize competition if the rules exclude professional writersor if you don’t mind such tough opposition.

  2. Don’t leave your entry until the last few weeks before the closing date. If you don’t think your story is going to be ready until this time, leave it for another competition or another year. Reasons for getting entries in early are:
    • the bulk of entries arrive during the last two weeks before the deadline, and with literally hundreds arriving daily the judges (who have a deadline for their decision, remember) have so many stories to read in a day (sometimes amounting to the length of a 400-page novel, impossible to read properly in one day) that they don’t have enough time to read them thoroughly;
    • judges have to re-read and make notes on stories that have caught their fancy, and will need to allow time for this.

    Your story could very easily get overlooked in this stampede.

  3. Look particularly for competitions where the fee includes the cost of a critique. This will not only ensure your story is read thoroughly but will also provide you with some valuable feedback for improving it, and thereby sharpening your writing skills all-round.
  4. If you know who the judges are, reading their books might give you an indication of their tastes because some writers are vain enough to look for echoes of their own work, but there’s no guaranteethey may greatly admire the type of story they themselves feel ill-equipped to write.

    As an illustration of how much like a lottery a writing competition is, at the bottom of the results of the 1998/99 Fish Short Story Prize the editor of Fish listed his own choice of three. Not one of them was on the short list let alone a prize winner! This is not to say the judges were wrong, or the editor of Fish was either. It just shows how strongly judges are likely to be swayed by their own reading preferences.

  5. If the competition organisers publish an annual booklet of the winning stories, reading the previous year’s booklet might give you some idea of the type of stories likely to win prizes.

    For what it’s worth, I have found that stories with a touch of sentiment seem to be favouredparticularly in competitions that don’t have a set theme (such as ghost story, horror story). I have submitted many entries to the competitions for which my “I told you so”, she said story was shortlisted and this tale featuring a boy’s successful search for a father whom his mother didn’t want to see againis the only one to come close to winning. Unfortunately this type of story is tricky to write well: it’s all too easy to land up with either a boring story or a very mushy onefrequently both. If you can write something humorous competition judges will certainly sit up and take notice. Unfortunately humour is very difficult to write at all, let alone write well.

  6. Read the rules of the competition carefully and obey them or you could land up being disqualified. In particular:
    • Pay attention to the word count. If your story can’t be told in the length required, then don’t send it in. While most competitions aren’t likely to be petty enough to disqualify entries that are a few words overlength, it isn’t wise to push your luck.
    • If the competition has a themesay, a ghost storydon’t submit anything in another genre: science fiction, thriller or comedy, for instance. This will invariably disqualify your entry.
    • Before submitting your manuscript read item h. above under PUBLSHERS. Busy judges are just as likely to skip reading a story with poor presentation as busy editors are likely to reject it.
  7. Finallyand this is the most important piece of advice anyone can give youtry to write every day, even if it’s only for half an hour,. Howewver, don’t beat yourself up if you have to miss a day, or even more, here and there. Everyone has to have a rest from work. Also, read, read, read to feed your imagination. Writing and reading regularly are absolutely essential for a writer.

    For practical help on the writing process itself, you might like to try visiting some of the following sites. They’re not in any particular order of usefulness so try them all. And do check my Site Map regularly. I will be frequently updating my site with pages of advice useful to all writers.
  • WRITER’S DIGEST
    What better place to start than the web site of one of the world’s best magazines for writers? While the site obviously exists mainly to sell the magazine and the many excellent books published by Writer’s Digest, there is still a ton of good free writing advice there.
  • REJECTION COLLECTION
    A site where you can read other writers’ rejection letters and post your own. It’s therapeutic. Cathy actually invites you to “let off steam”! Even better, though: it’s great fun. Subscribe to Cathy’s newsletter while you’re there. It will help cheer you up. Return to reading about rejections if you came from there. Or see Dealing with Rejection.
  • WRITE4KIDS
    This is regarded as one of the best sites on the Internet for those who want to write for children. Laura Backes provides a wealth of information for both new and experienced writers.
  • CYNTHIA LEITICH SMITH’S OFFICIAL WEB SITE
    Cynthia Leitich Smith is a well-known American writer for children and young adults. Her site contains many resources for writers and you can even sign up for her quarterly newsletter.
  • THE WRITING CHILD
    Young writers, please don’t be put off if you consider you’re no longer a child! Angela Giles Klocke provides heaps of useful material for writers of all ages.
  • MICHAEL LAROCCA’S OFFICIAL WEB SITE
    Michael LaRocca writes for adults. Apart from all the resources for writers on this site, you will find it a great place to visit if you badly need cheering up. J

I’ll list here further links I think might be useful to you as I get them.

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