Auntie Deborah is Still Giving Writing Advice

Dear Auntie Deborah…

I wrote a story using another person’s characters, even though they said not to. Can I publish it since their book isn’t copyrighted?

If the author has published their story in any form, it’s copyrighted. That, however, is beside the point. It’s just plain unethical to do what you suggest. It’s a great way to make enemies in your genre and create a horrible reputation that will haunt your career, assuming you still have one after such a bonehead move.

Create your own characters. Write your own stories. Treat your colleagues and their work the way you would like to be treated. Pursue your career with integrity and generosity.


Are self-published books inferior to professionally published books?

It all depends.

Not that long ago, self-published or vanity press books were assumed to be of inferior quality, that is to say, unpublishable by “real” (traditional) publishers. There were exceptions, of course, but that was the conventional wisdom.

Today, however, many self-published books go through the same rigorous editing and quality standards as traditionally published books. Some genres, like romance, are especially friendly toward self-pubbed projects.

With modern publishing technology (ebooks, POD printing), there are many reasons why a pro-level author might want to self-publish, including:

  • Niche projects, like memoirs or family histories.
  • Series that were dropped by trad publishers but that have an enthusiastic fan following.
  • Well-written books that don’t fit into the NY “best-seller” model.
  • OP (out-of-print, rights reverted to author) backlist.
  • Great books that straddle genres or otherwise confuse traditional marketing/sales departments.

That said, many self-published books are dreadful. They aren’t good enough to attract the interest of an agent or publisher to begin with, they aren’t professionally edited or proofread, the covers are amateurish, and so on. The challenge for the reader is to sort out those books that are truly a wonderful reading experience.

Does reaching a certain number of reviews increase your indie sales?

The short answer is that nobody knows. Theories abound, usually to line the pockets of the “experts.” “Gaming” the Amazon system is a losing proposition. What might have been true 2 years or 6 months or last week no longer works — because thousands of self-published authors have tried it, thereby flooding the system with meaningless tweaks.

If you want to increase your sales, write a great book. Publicize it. Get stellar reviews on Publishers Weekly and the like. Write an even better book. Rinse and repeat. Even then, there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, but you’ll have the satisfaction of writing really good books.

My first attempt at a novel is a New Adult Romance novel using the Three Act Structure and I’m floundering. Help!

I’ve been writing professionally for over 35 years and this is what works for me: I noodle around until the story catches fire. Then I have some idea of: the hook, one or two plot points/reversals, the big climax, and the emotional tone of the ending. Sometimes I fall in love with the characters and they run away with the story. If I’m selling on proposal, I use that much to generate a synopsis. If it’s on-spec, I dive in. As long as I feel as if I’m flying or surfing the story, I keep on. I use things like structural analysis only if I feel stuck.

The thing is, and always has been for me (12+ trad pub novels, 60+ short stories, plus collections and non-fic), I go where the creative joy is. Anything else is a boring slog.

All this said, I write fantasy and science fiction, where fluid structures are appreciated. Romance is much more formulaic. Consider that your muse might be leading you to write a love story, not a by-the-numbers romance. Always, always listen to your heart.


How can I conquer my fear of rejection and finally put myself out there?

Being discouraged is part and parcel of a working writer’s life. Negative reviews, ditto. Some of us are naturally more thick-skinned about them than others, and most of us develop coping strategies over the years. This is where networking with other writers can be very helpful. We say things like:

  • If you’re not accumulating rejection slips, you’re not doing your job (taking risks, “pushing the envelope”).
  • Just file the slip (or email) and send the story out.
  • Editors are human, too; they have bad days, and it’s no one’s fault if your hero has the same name as their much-reviled ex.
  • Hey, I’m making progress from a form rejection to a personal note and invitation to submit again!

Even after many professional sales, a rejection can sting. The sting doesn’t last as long as it might when we were first starting out, and we have tools (see above) and lots of writerly commiseration to help us. We know from experience that the sting will pass; we have acquired the habit of immediately diving back into the next project so we always have something fresh and exciting in the pipeline.
Then there are the situations when a story or book is sold and the publisher goes out of business. The editor gets fired. I know authors this has happened to more than once. We find ourselves wondering if we killed the magazine. We didn’t, but that laughter overlays the secret and utterly illogical fear that our writing careers are somehow jinxed. Then we sell something else and there are no thunderbolts from above. We carry on.

Reviews, ah reviews, and in this category I include feedback from critique groups and beta readers. So much has already been said about the power of a caustic review or harsh feedback on a work in progress that I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that the natural human desire for praise (for our creative “children”) leaves us vulnerable to interpreting criticism of the work with condemnation of ourselves. Or, having torn off our emotional armor to write from the heart, we’ve also ripped off any defenses against sarcasm, etc. I’m among those who, having received scathing feedback, went home and cried. I never considered giving up (although on more than one occasion, I contemplated getting even and thankfully resisted the temptation). But some writers have.


Negative feedback, if consistent and prolonged, can have a devastating effect on a writer’s self-confidence and ability to work. Support and encouragement from our fellow writers can be our greatest asset in setting aside the nasty things people have written about our stories. A hiatus from reading reviews is highly recommended.

Another form of discouragement arises when a novel gets published, gorgeous cover and all, and sales are abysmal. Sometimes this means you’re dead at that publisher, but other times they’ll take a longer view and be patient. Or they might want you to change your byline or genre to get a fresh start, so the poor sales figures don’t haunt new releases.

Sooner or later, this will happen to most of us. We reach for the support and tools that have helped us survive rejection letters, bad reviews, and writer’s block. If it’s a single book or a book now and again, we can usually get through the disappointment. But when it happens repeatedly, it can be even more catastrophic than those early rejections. We’ve enjoyed a period of success and self-confidence. We’ve sold a book or twelve. We know how to do this. Our fans love us. We’re professionals. And then our next book flops. And the one after that. And we change our names and write something different. And the same thing happens. Our publisher dumps us. Maybe our agent dumps us. It would be a miracle if we did not feel discouraged.

This has happened to writers I know. Some of them have kept writing, and eventually hit their stride and connected with an enthusiastic readership again. Others gave up.

It’s happened to me, too. I’ve written books that my editor loved and that those few readers who bought adored and wrote glowing reviews about…and that simply did not sell worth beans. Some days I’m sure I’ll never amount to anything, I can’t write my way out of a wet paper bag, and what’s the use? Other days, I chalk it all up to practice. Sometimes I admit I have no idea why some books sell like wildfire and others, equally or more wonderful, fizzle. I tell myself I’m paying my dues as a professional, no matter how obnoxious and painful these particular dues are.

Then I remind myself of the question: If your work would never be published, would you still write? And my answer is yes. Because these stories are in my heart, and because when the words flow, there’s nothing like that creative high. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw that folks want to read what I write. I treasure those readers who take the time to let me know how much my work has meant to them. A readership of one (myself) is enough; a readership of that small community is the whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles and cherry on top.

This and other essays are in my collection, Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life. If you like what I said, I hope you’ll check it out (at all the usual vendors, plus a print edition with space for personal notes.)


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