Columns > Published on June 10th, 2013

Questions Every Writer Should Be Asking But Isn't

Despite the overwhelming amount of information available to writers online and on the shelf about how to land an agent and how to publish, despite the many exciting and not so thrilling changes we’ve faced in the industry these last few years, despite the many new technological developments affecting how we read and spread the word about great books, emerging writers are still coming to author, writing and professional trade publishing events with the same goal in mind – how can I get my work in front of a decision maker? Of course, it’s understood publication is a major goal for just about every writer and most every decision maker wants the next manuscript that plops on their desk to be “the one.” However, there seems to be palpable lack of understanding among some writers. Rather than ask questions that really get to the heart of craft immersion, process and the nitty gritty realities of long-term writing and publishing, their questions reflect want, need and the desire to find success quick.

Here are 10 of the most FAQs you'll likely hear at events. Maybe you've asked a few.

  • How do I find an agent?
  • How do I nail the first 50 pages of my manuscript?
  • How do I write a query that’ll get my work noticed?
  • How do I publish traditionally?
  • How long does it take to get a book deal?
  • How much of an advance can I expect to get?
  • Should I consider self-publishing? How do I do it?
  • What is an author platform and how do I create one? Do I need one?
  • Do I need to blog?
  • What should my Twitter, Facebook, blog following be? What’s the magic number agents and publishers want to see?

On the whole, these are not bad questions to ask. However, you should know the answers before attending an event. Most of the answers can be found with a little research. Most literary agents and some publishers post them on their site. You can even let your questions rip with our house literary agent Bree Ogden or check out my past Q&As. Just keep in mind the answers you’ll find may be varied depending on the unique circumstances of the project – there is no one-size-fits-all solution (which is why when you ask an agent, editor or author these questions at an event, you're going to get a basic response, not one that's tailored to your situation). And really, if you have the opportunity to ask your favorite author or prospective agent/editor any question about craft or the business of publishing, would you really want to ask a question you could easily find with a few hours research online? Wouldn't you rather discover something new and compelling that might change the way you look at writing or confirm your path in a major way? 

There are questions you should be asking and aren't. 

I asked a handful of respected authors, editors and an agent what questions they wished more writers would ask. Here’s what they came up with.

John Cusick - Literary Agent and Author (Girl Parts; Candlewick Press)

  • Are there genres, tropes, story-types of which you are currently seeing too much (e.g. dystopian, paranormal romance, etc.)?
  • (To Agents) What sorts of qualities are you looking for in a client?
  • How much creative and editorial work do you do with your authors?
  • When is it a good idea to move on to a new project?

Why John’s questions are important: They’ll lead you toward industry trends to consider or avoid and they’ll fill you in on the type of author an agent prefers to work with and how hands-on the agent is willing to work with their author. These questions are especially valuable if you get a chance to ask your dream agent.

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Rob W. Hart – Class Director, LitReactor (The Last Safe Place: A Zombie Novella)

"I'd like to see people ask more about the tough parts of the process:"

  • What was your biggest roadblock?
  • What's the worst advice you ever received?
  • Have you ever felt like giving up?
  • How many drafts did you go through?

"Not so much to make it into a pity party, but because a lot of novice writers don't get a clear sense of how hard this game is. And just because you've got a book in your hand with your name on it doesn't mean it was handed to you. Acknowledging those questions and hardships would help people go into the process with their loins properly girded.”

Why Rob’s questions are important: They're about some of the professional and emotional roadblocks most writers face. Like Rob said, it’s not about creating a pity party; it’s about getting a grip on the inevitable challenges you’ll face as a writer, how to cope with them and realizing what an amazing accomplishment publication really is.

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Timothy Schaffert – Author (The Coffins of Little Hope; Unbridled Books)

  • What role does revision play?
  • Once the book was accepted by a publisher, what was the editorial process like?

“As you struggle with the first draft, it's good to know that you're only in the very earliest stages of the process; you can take risks with the draft, meander, go in the wrong direction. You can fail repeatedly. Because there's always revision, which is integral; and by the time you reach the revision stage, you have pages upon pages of material to work with — and even the wrong turns can be useful in helping you conceptualize the book. Much of the novel's shape and sense comes together in revision. I'm always interested in learning how other writers approach the revision process.”

Why Timothy’s questions are important: I love these questions because I feel we’re not talking about the writing and/or editorial process nearly enough – the realities, the common struggles and pitfalls, the joys of completion – this is all important stuff on which to meditate. Timothy’s questions focus us on the craft which is, dare I say, where our brains should be marinating.

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Jessica Anya Blau – Author (The Wonder Bread Summer; Harper Perennial)

  • How can I get over my fear of failure/humiliation/my family hating me so that I can write what I truly want to write?
  • Where can I find the courage to really expose myself in my writing—fiction or nonfiction—so I can be authentic in my writing?
  • What do you give up in order to make the time to write? (This should help people figure out if they really want to write or not. Anyone who says they don't have the time is simply choosing to do other things like watch TV or hang out on Facebook. There is always time if writing is what you really want to do.)
  • How long will it take me to be good enough to get published? (the answer to this is "probably years." People don't realize that you have to practice a long, long time.)

Why Jessica’s questions are important: Because again, they focus on the professional and emotional realities of writing and publishing. Notice a trend here? THIS is the discussion you should be having, writers!

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Richard Thomas – LitReactor Contributor, Author (Staring Into The Abyss; Kraken Press)

"I've attended several AWP conferences over the years, and one of the best conversations you can have is to talk to a journal or publisher about what they are looking for. Sure, the literary journals will talk about literary fiction, and horror publishers will talk about horror, but really take the time to corner an editor and ask them exactly what is unique about their publication. There are subtle differences that each publisher or magazine has. Yes, they have guidelines, but pick their brains, what makes them stop and take notice—do they like a strong third-person narrative where the conflict is addressed? Do they like stories with an immersive setting, tales they can fall into and never escape? It's not an easy question, and there is no set answer, but the conversation you have could really shine some light on what they want. And then later, when you submit your story or novel, they may even remember you, and the fact that you cared enough to ask such thoughtful and probing questions."

Why Richard’s questions are important: Richard’s questions focus on how to open the lines of meaningful, two-sided communication and getting to the bottom of what literary journal editors and publishers really want. Just as each literary journal carefully distinguishes itself from another, the answers you'll hear will be just as varied. Pay attention — they all want something special. And if you're even considering sending your work to literary journals, read Richard’s article, Where to Send Your Stories.

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Phil Jourdan, LitReactor Co-Founder, Author, Editor (Chewing The Page: The Mourning Goat Interviews; Perfect Edge Books)

"More authors should be curious about what's happening in the publishing industry on the whole. They should ask themselves whether the path they've always believed is "correct" in publishing is really relevant nowadays. Instead of just asking a published writer "How did you get published?" it will help to find out in what ways they have published. Is a major publisher always better? And more importantly, is a major publisher even going to be a recognizable category in ten years? How are things changing for authors working with publishers? It pays to ask these questions, and many more. Whatever seemed stable in publishing is no longer quite as stable: find out how it affects you."

Why Phil’s questions are important: We’ve witnessed some dramatic changes in publishing these last few years. In order to professionally evolve as a writer, you need to know what changes in the industry may affect you now or influence your next move. There will always be changes you could never have anticipated – nobody’s expecting you to know all the trends or latest industry news/gossip, but you should have the faintest glimmer of interest as your work will ultimately be affected.

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The point is, writers, ask questions that aim to help you discover your own voice, vision and place as a writer; questions that will ultimately lead you closer to better writing.

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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