Friday, July 10, 2009

What Every Writer Should Know

Everybody has talked this week about various aspects of doing research for a story. History, geography, social customs and culture... all of these play an important role when writing a story that draws on factual information.

But what about after the story is written? After you've written your tale, edited it and polished it and you're ready to send it out for publication? Is it time to kick back and take a break?

Oh hell no!

This is the hard truth of writing. The research is never done. At every stage of the story -- before, during, and after the writing -- you have to be ready to go digging for those crucial facts. Not just the ones that determine the setting and costumes, the dialog and plot, but also those that determine the sale and promotion of your work. Let's take a look at just a few things every writer ought to know about, but quite possibly don't.

Let's start with researching available markets. You might think this was pretty obvious, but you'd be amazed at how many writers don't know this. The first thing you need to do before you send your story out for submission is figure out who's actually buying what you're selling. While there are plenty of publishers out there, only so many of them are looking for stories in your particular genre, and those publishers may only publish a specific sub-genre of what you write. For instance, I write sci-fi erotica, but not every erotica publisher wants stories with a sci-fi twist. Do a search online, using the words 'submission guidelines' and your genre to get a list of publishers you can submit to. Learn who wants short stories and who wants full length novels, who's taking poetry and who only wants non-fiction articles. It's not hard, and it'll save you a lot of time on the road to getting published.

Once you've got those guidelines, you might notice that the publisher requires your story be formatted in 10 point Times New Roman, with 1 inch margins all around and double line spacing. Great! But you formatted your story in 12 point Courier, with 3/4 inch margins and single line spacing. Do you know how to change the formating to what the publisher wants? Can you do it in a way that doesn't take twenty hours of your precious time and somehow completely screw up the document in the process? No? Time for a little research. Dig out the user manual that came with your word processor, or go online and see if there are any tutorials available to help you out. Because it would really suck if your wonderful story got rejected for bad or improper formatting.

Okay, you've got a market. You've formatted your story correctly and sent it off. And the publisher loves your work! They're sending you a contract! They want to buy your First North American rights! And there's this clause about a Right of First Refusal... uh, what the hell does all that mean? And how much is a 35% royalty anyway? What does Print On Demand mean? Does that mean the book will actually be available in bookstores, or not? The legalize that shows up in a publishing contract is probably the biggest area where good writers fail to do proper research. Do you know what rights to your work you're signing away? Do you understand what format the book will be published in? Or are you just so happy to have a contract, any contract, that you don't care about any of this stuff? You should care! Bad things happen to authors who don't understand the contracts they sign, so take a few days to research what the various clauses of your contract mean. Read the whole thing. Twice! If you don't understand what the contract says, look it up!

Once you've done your research on your contract, there are further surprises waiting for you. In this day and age of digital publishing, the author takes on the lion's share of promotion. Do you know how to do that? What are the tools available to you to get the word out about your book? Which is going to work better for you - a Live Journal page or a Word Press blog? Have you got a Twitter account? Do you know how to feed it into Facebook? Do you have a Yahoo group or a newsletter? Do you know how to set one up?

You might think I'm going overboard here, but I assure you, I'm not. Ever since I first set out to publish my writing, I've done constant research on all the things I've listed above. I've scoured the net for markets, devoured entire how-to manuals on my word processor, and I'm constantly learning how to deal with this gadget or that widget to help out with my promo. It's a never ending job, researching the business side of writing. But if you're going to be a professional writer, then it's something you need to accept, and even learn to like, to succeed.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I just downloaded some new blogging software, and I need to do some research before I try using it this weekend. And I've got a story I need to look up a few things on, and a contract to look over, and...

Oh, you know.

See ya later };)


  1. I'm not at the submitting stage . . . yet, but I am so greatful for these guidelines of what I need to know when I get there. Thanks so much, Helen.

    BTW, that's my little sister's name too.

  2. Sigh. Too true, Helen! Makes the other kind of research sound like a lot more fun!


  3. Hi Helen,

    Sage advice. Depressing too as the other aspects of writing are so much more fun.

    Best wishes,


  4. Great post, Helen. I'm with the others, looking at half-nekkid men is much more fun, but you're right, we do what we gotta do.

    Have you heard all the hacker-crap associated with Twitter these days? It seems to be the latest fad for hackers, too. I got rid of my Twitter when I went through my name change, and haven't signed back up. Can't say I miss it!

    Have a great weekend!

  5. Helen,

    This is great. It's so true too. I'll always remember my first contract and feeling at a complete loss as to what it all meant. It took me nearly a week of checking, reading and researching what it meant before I signed it. And, even then, I wasn't 100% sure.

    The other, finding the right market, formatting your work, all that, it's great advice. A great post. Thanks so much!


  6. I think it's hysterically funny that no one so far thinks this kind of research is fun! What's with you guys? This is the kind of research that leads to writers getting paid, and getting paid is always good, right?

    But I do understand. We're so used to thinking we're all creative types, that when we're confronted with something more technical, like the legalese of a contract or the technobabble of HTML and CSS, we suddenly feel overwhelmed. But think about it. What if you had a character who needed to know this stuff for a story? Would you shy away from doing this type of research then?

    It's something to think about.

    Thanks everyone for all the comments. And Captain Hook, let us know when you do get to that submitting stage. It's not all that bad. A little leg work in the research department will take you a long way };)

  7. Oh, creating websites and doing some of the artwork for them is awesome fun. I love messing with my website. I've learned almost enough html to get myself into trouble. LOL

    I haven't tackled CSS, and to be honest, I don't think I want to. Html has been difficult enough, I'm afraid if I added CSS, I'd be nothing but confused.

    Creating covers is daunting, but I've done that a time or three. I really like creating banners.

    I think we moan about research only because it interferes with the actual story telling. I know, when I'm in writing mode, and something interrupts me, it's like I'm being torn in two. I've been known to snarl. LOL

    Great post Helen. I enjoyed it and it brought back some good memories.

  8. Actually, Helen, No.

    I'm not into writing to get published and make money, I'm in it to have fun, and if something happens - well, it happens. I'm not going to go chasing down stuff like that - it's a hobby, nothing more. But thanks for posting what you did - it's interesting, and it demonstrates the stages I would have to go through if I were deliberately trying.


  9. Steveh11,

    You do have a good point. If you aren't writing to get published, then you don't need to do some of that research unless, like you mentioned, something happens. But, what if something does happen? It's not that far fetched these days to have someone contact you and ask about a commission or request a story based on something of yours that they've read on your website. Then you do have some research to do, should you decide to take on that contract or commission.

    But again, I mentioned that this is necessary research for people who are looking into getting published. If this is a hobby, then you're good to go!

  10. Jude,

    See, I love doing that stuff too! In fact, one of my regular gigs as a graphic artist is to create book covers for Logical Lust, so I have no problem handling the graphics and technical side of things. And I've even learned to make a game of finding the right markets and submitting my stories. I give myself points for every successful sale that results from careful market research.

    What bogs me down is the contract stuff. I can read through a contract a dozen times and still not understand everything. I've learned to take notes as I read, and look stuff up to make sure I know what I'm signing.

  11. Helen,

    The contract stuff. I'm getting decent at it. That might sound horrible to those who read legalese easily. I find that if I can have complete silence, I can wade through it and understand enough to know what to ask or have clarified. I'm big on asking questions.

    As for making a game of submitting. Uh, yeah, guilty. LOL Although lately, I've been hip deep in deadlines so he games have come to a shuddering halt for the moment. That's a good thing though.



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