Auntie Deborah Answers Your Questions About Writing

In this installment, Auntie Deborah discusses writing a first draft, the unfairness of publishing, and when to run away from a publisher’s contract.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I prevent myself from constantly trying to edit as I draft?

Auntie Deborah: You’re halfway there in understanding why it’s important to plough through that draft so you can look at the whole thing when it’s time to revise. It’s tempting but (for many of us) deadly to halt forward progress and nitpick. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • Beginning each session with reading the last page or so but not making any changes in it.
  • Reminding myself that the only draft that counts is the one on my editor’s desk. And that what looks like an error may point me in the direction of a deeper, richer story, so I need to preserve all that drek the first time through.
  • Reminding myself about author B, whose work I greatly admire, who told me that no one, not even her most trusted reader, sees anything before her third draft.
  • Giving myself permission to be really, really awful.
  • Falling in love with the revision process. I can hardly wait to get that first draft down so I have something to play with.
  • Writing when I’m tired. Believe it or not, this helps because it’s all I can do then to keep putting down one word after another.

All that said, sometimes editing is the right thing, like when it feels as if I’m pushing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, or I’ve written myself into a hole I can’t dig out of. Usually that means I’ve made a misstep earlier, not thought carefully about where I want to go. Or whatever I thought the story was about, I was wrong, and the true story keeps wanting to emerge. How do I tell when this is the case? Mostly experience, plus willingness to rip it all to shreds and start over.

Dear Auntie Deborah: How do you come up with names for your characters?

Auntie Deborah: Sometimes the novel and its setting dictate parameters for last names. For example, if I’m writing a science fiction novel about Scottish colonists on Mars, I’m going to look at Scottish last names.

Often the character herself will suggest a last name, either based in ethnicity or personal traits and history. An aging hippie might have changed their last name to Sunchild or Windflower or Yogananada. A family trying to erase immigrant origins might have a last name like Smith or Jones.

And then there’s the telephone book (do such things still exist?) Or the credits for a really big movie, the ones that go one for screen after screen after screen. Do be careful when using real last names, though. If they’re too different, they might be identifiable. Just use the lists as prompts for your thinking.

Another strategy is to look at first names and then use them as last names. (My middle name is Jean, which was my mother’s last name, so the reverse could also be true.)

That said, always do an internet search for the name you’ve chosen. Even if you aren’t aware of others with that name, it’s good to know.

Auntie Deborah

  • There are no quality gate-keepers (or, often editors and proofreaders) for self-published books. Anyone can type up garbage and throw it up on the web.
  • Literary quality takes second (or twelfth) place to great story-telling, and great story-telling is in the mind of the reader. Commercial publishers go for what makes money, not what will be read and appreciated a century from now.
  • As science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon said, “Ninety percent of everything is cr@p.” One might argue that 99.99 percent is more accurate.

It’s infuriating for authors who pour their heart and soul into a book to make it the very best they can. Alas, it’s also the cold, hard publishing business. But hang in there and keep improving, because someday, an editor will adore your work and shower you with money to buy the right to publish it.

 

Dear Auntie Deborah: Olympia Press offered me a hybrid contract, but I can’t afford the fee. Am I walking away from a great opportunity?

Auntie Deborah: You are walking away not walking away from a great opportunity, you are walking away from a scam. Never pay a publisher! This is what Writer Beware, has to say:

Hybrid Publisher: There’s some disagreement over whether there actually is such a thing as a hybrid publisher–a company that charges substantial fees yet provides a service that’s otherwise equivalent to traditional publishing, including rigorous selectivity and editing, high royalties, offline distribution, non-bogus PR, and more. Regardless, the term is extensively misused by vanity publishers trying to look more legitimate. Any publisher billing itself as “hybrid” demands further investigation.

Writer Beware goes on to include Olympia in their questionable firms.

Seven Prolific Vanity Publishers (Austin Macauley Publishers, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, Olympia Publishers, Morgan James Publishing, Page Publishing, Christian Faith Publishing, Newman Springs Publishing) Austin Macauley Publishers, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, Olympia Publishers, Morgan James Publishing, Page Publishing, Christian Faith Publishing, Newman Springs Publishing
I highly encourage you to do your homework about any prospective publisher. Check it out in Writer Beware and Editors and Predators. Talk to writers who’ve worked with that publisher. In almost all cases, you’re better off self-publishing than going with one of these exploiting outfits. (Note: CreateSpace went by-by several years ago and is now Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing; I prefer Draft 2 Digital, which gives you library sales through Overdrive.)

Given that there are some wonderful, highly professional small presses who consider unagented material, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t begin with the top traditional publishing markets first.

Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Answers Your Questions About Writing”

Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions

It’s been an exciting couple of months. Back in mid-August, Auntie Deborah and her household fled from the wildfires descending upon their small California town. After a month staying first with friends and then in a hotel, she and her people and all four cats returned home to a herculean clean-up job. Actually, the cats did not contribute, except in a profusion of shed fur. Order and cleanliness are gradually emerging, along with a return to writing her own work and advising younger writers.
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Dear Auntie Deborah,
How can a literary agent tell from the first ten pages whether they want to represent a book?

Auntie Deborah: Most agents can tell from the first paragraph if they want to continue reading. Agents have read thousands of manuscripts by the time they’re in the pro league and they, like magazine editors who plough through mountains of slush, can spot right away if the author has the command of fictional techniques and language that are the bare minimum for a publishable story. It doesn’t matter what comes after that first paragraph if the author has failed to engage and intrigue, with every indication that if the reader places themself in the author’s hands, as it were, the experience will be reliably satisfying.
Dear Auntie Deborah,
Is it okay to write when I’m upset and not feeling like myself, or should I wait until I’ve calmed down?
Auntie Deborah: What makes you think that when you are “emotional, upset, or worried” you are not yourself? Passion is as much a part of writing as intellect. Let it all out on paper! Give yourself something intense and uncensored to then revise and mine for purest gold.

I am now revising a novel I drafted while caring for my best friend in the final weeks of her life. At the time, it was pure escape, a place to put all my strongest, most painful emotions. Only afterward did I see the amazing heart of the piece. It’s required several rounds of being taken apart and put back together the way fiction needs to be structured. This last round follows a long discussion with my agent, who is very excited about it. (As a note, I’ve been publishing fiction for over 35 years, with 15 novels and umpteen short stories, so I have experience with this <g>)

Dear Auntie Deborah:
Why do people advise me not to address an editor as “Dear Sir”?

Auntie Deborah: I strongly advise you not to address an editor as “sir.” The primary reason is the likelihood that the editor is a woman. In 2016, 78% of editors were women. (All 3 editors at my publisher are women.) Do you want to begin your letter with the assumption that an editor must be male?

Instead, say, “Dear editor.” Better yet, address your letter to the specific editor to whom you are submitting. (“Dear Ms. Jones” — not Miss or Mrs!) You should know this as part of researching your markets. Some publishers have a first or slush reader, usually anonymous, in which case, “Dear editor” or “Dear publisher” would be fine.

 

Dear Auntie Deborah,
What do I do when my main character simply won’t fit the scenario of the plot?

Auntie Deborah: You have a choice: let the character tell their authentic story, or promise to do that in order to keep the character quiet and happy, and stick another, more appropriate character in the current story. The fact that your character is talking back to you is an excellent sign, by the way. I’d go with that. You might discover you are an author who prefers character-driven stories, and this is a great place to start. Continue reading “Auntie Deborah Returns From Wildfire Evacuation To Answer Your Questions”