Guidelines for Writers

I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Steven York, but we are both active members of the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He shared with us something he posted on his own blog. I, like many others, have found this a useful set of guidelines and with his kind permission I share it with you.

Writers and other delusional people
By J. Steven York

I heard yet another story the other day of a writer being scammed by a so-called agent. What was most horrifying about the story was not that they were paying the agent to rewrite their stuff, but the sheer glee and delight with which the writer was submitting to the process.

Rule #1 in this business is: Money always flows towards the writer. If it doesn’t, something is seriously wrong. If you fail to recognize this, or worse, mistake it for success, you are playing the fool.

There is no more gullible, self-delusional, fog-headed being on the planet than an aspiring writer. So predictable and common are their delusions that an entire industry of crooks, con-men and scam artists exists to exploit them, and such a sweet deal it is for them, too. Not only are most of their scams perfectly legal, their marks are actually grateful to be scammed! It doesn’t get much better for a predator than that. It’s like the entire herd of antelope crowding around the lion shouting, “Eat me! No, eat me!”

Wait. No. Keep reading. You may resemble this remark. Fact is, most of us do at one time or another. And if it does describe you, take comfort that you have plenty of company. I hear from these people all the time. Some of them I’ve had extended correspondence with, and I’ve learned some things.

Most of the writers getting scammed aren’t dumb. They’re nice, intelligent people who sincerely want to be writers, and have simply lost their way. Most of them are so invested in whatever flavor of Kool-aid they’ve swallowed that they not only can’t see the truth, they don’t want to. Yet most of them are aware, on some level, that something is wrong. That’s usually why they write me. They have concerns. They have questions. Just not enough to wake up and look around. The correspondence, in antelope-terms, usually goes something like this: “This lion has actually agreed to take me on! Right now, it’s chewing on my leg. And it’s great! Although, I’m concerned about the bleeding. And the dismemberment. But really, it’s good! It’s great! Uh, should there be so much pain? But I’m good!”

Okay, here are the truths, some of them anyway, that every writer should know. Read them. Memorize them, Live them. And please, do so before you graze among the scam agents, book doctors, vanity publishers, and the various flavors of publishing delusionaries who, with the best of intentions, invite you to participate in their own mad delusions, and partake of their special Kool-aid.

Truth Numero Uno – Being Published vs. Being Read

First truth, and maybe even more important than rule #1 above (or at least as important): Writers do not need to be published. Writers need to be read. This should be obvious, but it’s not. Having a pallet full of expensive hardcovers in your garage is not getting you read. Being in an ebook that’s downloaded thirty times isn’t getting you read. Going out through a small press or a literary zine with a print run of a hundred copies isn’t getting you read (not in the way that you want to be, anyway).

Being read means selling to a national magazine, being published through a real book publisher and showing up on chain-store shelves, or at least being published on a high-traffic web-site with thousands of visitors daily. Yet again and again writers are seduced with the notion of seeing their manuscript in print between two covers. If this is you, my advice is this: Go to Kinkos and pick out a nice font, and some pretty paper. Then, once you have a book to look at, get over it and get back to the real work of getting read, or forget being a writer.

Corollary to Rule Numero Uno: The markets that will get you read most are generally also the markets that can afford to pay you the most money. Refer to Rule Number the Second.

Rule Number the Second – Payment

If you don’t get paid, and I mean up-front, then it isn’t a sale. People who don’t have money to pay you generally don’t have money because they aren’t selling books. Refer back to Rule Numero Uno.

Corollary to Rule Number the Second: “Paid in copies” is an oxymoron.

Second corollary to Rule Number the Second: An advance is the only money you can ever count on, and even then, the check has to clear.

First Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 6% of nothing is nothing.

Second Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 100% of nothing is nothing.

Third Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 110% of nothing is still nothing.

Rule Third, Third, Third – Editorial Opinions

Rule Third, Third, Third: Ultimately the only opinions about a manuscript that count are yours and the person who can actually buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary One: Your mother cannot buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary Two: Your workshop cannot buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary Three: Your agent cannot buy the manuscript.

None of which means you can’t listen to these other people, but the responsibility to apply (or not apply) their opinions is ultimately yours.

Scofield’s Axiom (a superset of Rule Third, Third, Third): You are responsible for your own career.

Rule the Four – The Secret Handshake

Rule the Four: There is no secret handshake.

Rules 5 – Agents

Rule 5a: Any agent you can get as an unpublished, unsold writer is most likely not anybody you want as an agent. There are rare exceptions, but they are rare, and they are exceptions. Do not assume the agent courting you is either, until you have done much research.

Rule 5b: The primary job of an agent is to submit manuscripts and make deals. Agents do not sell manuscripts. Manuscripts sell themselves. If your manuscript is not equal to this task, the best agent in the world cannot help it.

Rule 5c: Anyone can call themselves an agent (just as anyone can call themselves a publisher). Saying it does not make it so. Neither does a business-card, letterhead, a web-site, or a line of snappy banter.

Rule 5d: Agents make their living off a percentage of the income stream of the writers they represent. Any deviation from this, either in terms of your own money or anyone else’s, is at best highly suspect.

Rule 5e: Agents work for you, and not the other way around. That still doesn’t mean you pay them, except as described in 5d.

Rules VI – Ideas

Rule VIa – Ideas are cheap. Ideas are plentiful. Stop thinking of them as being made of gold. A good writer can turn a bad idea into a good book far easier than a bad writer can turn a great idea into a good book. If you have only one great idea for a book, the best thing you can do is put it aside and think of a dozen more, because until you can do that, you probably aren’t going anywhere as a writer.

Rule VIb – Nobody is going to steal your silly idea. Probably it isn’t worth stealing, and if it is worth stealing, you probably aren’t the first one to come up with it. In any case, so what if they do steal it? If you had an “idea for a house,” and somebody else built it, would the house belong to you?

Rule VIc – Stealing words is a crime. Stealing ideas is frequently a smart thing to do, but always steal from the best. Start with Shakespeare and work your way forward.

Rule ala Seven – The Easy Genre

Rule ala Seven: There is no easy genre. Romance is not easy. Science fiction is not easy. Fantasy is not easy. Writing children’s books is not only not easy, it is very, very hard. People looking for an “easy” genre don’t want to write, they want to have written. They are pretenders. If you are the real deal, don’t worry about what is easy, or what is hot. Write the stories you want to write, and the stories you want to tell. Practice. Develop your skills. You can worry about marketing later.

Rules da 8 – How Becoming Published Will Change Your Life

Rule da 8: When you make your first sale, your problems are only beginning.

Rule da 8.1: Publishers don’t buy books, they buy careers. If you aren’t thinking past your first book, you are of very little value to anyone. Pray the publisher forgets to ask.

Rule da 8.2: Wash, rinse, repeat. Repeating is the hard part.

Rule da 8.3: The only time a second book can be easier than the first book is when the second book is already written, and even there lie pitfalls.

Rule da 8.4: You can’t rest on your laurels unless you have some, and even then, laurels don’t pay the electric bill.

Rule da 8.5: Sharks gotta swim, writers gotta write. Sharks stop swimming, they die. What does this tell you about writers?

Statement of Limitation

Those are only a few of the truths that aspiring writers need to know, but they’re enough for you to chew on for a while. Pretty much, success in this business boils down to do the work, submit the work, and keep learning. Don’t waste your time looking for shortcuts, because none of them preclude these three basics and the search will waste your time.

And remember that you don’t even have the right to call yourself a failure if you don’t try, and you still don’t have the right unless you’ve stopped trying. Until then, you’re still a success waiting to happen.

Good luck out there. Just remember, you make your own luck.