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Saturday 10 January 2009


You probably flinched at that word. Am I unfair to call it inexcusable? Of course, there's a huge amount that you can be excused for not knowing, including many things I didn't know and no doubt some I have yet to learn. But there are some things which are so earth-shatteringly basic and easy to discover that it is inexcusable not to have discovered them for yourself. Already. Long before you came across this blog.

Here are some questions which I have been asked at talks to unpublished authors, and/or which I have heard authors, publishers or agents being asked. And honestly, I am not exaggerating any of them. I will then, briefly and perhaps callously, explain why they are dud questions that you should never ask (or find a different way to ask them).

1. How long is a normal book?
2. Why should an agent have some of my earnings?
3. What is an MSS?
4. How should I approach a publisher or agent? What should I send them?
5. It seems to me that publishers are just in it to make money - is this right?
6. Does it matter if my grammar is not very good?

ANSWERS - well, sort of. In as much as I could bear it.

1. How long is a normal book? This is not exactly a stupid question but impossible to answer and therefore effectively stupid. And it betrays too much ignorance. (Even though there's no answer). A book is as long as it should be. The best way to judge is to find some books of the same sort / same market as yours and see how long they are. You'll probably find they are different(ish) lengths. A book is too long if it's too long and too short if it's too short. Think of your reader - how long does your reader want it to be?

One thing I would say is that it would almost certainly be better if you made it shorter. However long it is. Unless it's too short. See what I mean?

2. Why should an agent have some of my earnings? If you grudge your agent's commission, don't have an agent. But recognise that you will virtually certainly earn less and write less (unless you are already extremely successful and knowledgable about the market / foreign rights / ebook deals / territories / film+TV rights / option clauses / termination clauses ...). A good agent does many things that you almost certainly can't do so well and certainly shouldn't have time to do if you're such a committed writer - so you have to pay for it. A good agent undoubtedly increases your income by much more than the 10-15% commission. (I'll do an article on agents soon).

3. What is an MSS? The fact that, as with any question, everyone at some point did not know the answer does not stop this being a stupid question to ask, because if you can't find the answer yourself in 10 seconds, your brain isn't good enough to be a writer. If you are in the slightest bit serious about your ambition, you will have read lots of things about the subject already and you will at least know that MSS is a common and ancient term that is so frequent that you ought to discover the answer yourself, quickly. The point is that by asking the question, you reveal oceanic ignorance. It would be like someone who desperately wants to be a deep-sea diver asking what a wetsuit is. Really, really embarrassing.

4. How should I approach a publisher or agent? What should I send them? A very common and in many ways GOOD question, but so easy to find the answer that experts blanche or fume when asked it because again it reveals a total lack of prior research and common sense, which in turns betrays a lack of desire to learn. You can find the answers in the first three books (and others) on my book list, or on many publishers'/ agents' websites, in writers' magazines and a variety of online resources. The info is out there and so easily available that you shouldn't waste an expert's time by asking it.
However, I AM going to write an article about it, covering the finer points, but you need to find the basics yourself first. I suggest that you go no further until you have.

5. It seems to me that publishers are just in it to make money - is this right? No, they are doing it in order to go to heaven and because they love you with the crushing tenderness of a small child caring for her first pet rabbit. OF COURSE THEY ARE IN IT FOR MONEY! How else can they pay their staff, overheads, share-holders, gas bill? Seriously, if you really think there's a problem in them needing to try to make a profit on your book, then you need to take an enormous reality check. Oh, and when you're published and people ask you to write something or do an event for nothing, don't come crying to me.

6. Does it matter if my grammar is not very good? Do I have to answer this? It doesn't matter about spelling, or hand-writing, but grammar is language and language is your love, your craft, your trade, your art, your life. And if it isn't, please go away. (This question was asked at an event recently. I am not joking. And I hadn't been drinking.)

There are other bits of inexcusable ignorance but life's too short to go into them. My point is that you need to know something before you can ask questions that won't a) infuriate your questionee and b) reveal your ignorance. Picture me at a conference of microfluidicists - would I ask a question? Apart from, What am I doing here?