Business of Writing
One day I was surfing
the internet, as we all do on occasion, when I came across a site in
Arkansas. It was a writer’s site, and there was an advertisement that
immediately caught my eye. It
was a small piece, perhaps a paragraph or two, written by a lady who was
going to begin an advice column for writers.
The name of the new column and site was to be called Ask
This person wrote that
she intended for it to be a weekly answer column for writers, addressing
the most pressing problems that they were facing in today’s markets.
“Whew,” I thought. “This
lady is biting off more than she can chew!
A weekly column? That’s
going to be quite an undertaking! And
she’s going to address the problems openly and honestly?
That can get you in a lot of trouble also.”
And yet, now, many
columns later, Lila Guzman is still at it.
She presents, to my mind at least, the most comprehensive listing
of discussion questions and answers from various sources than anyone else
that I know of. When I have a
question, who do you think I call on?
Lila! I have found her
to be a supportive friend and good influence on other writers as well.
I recently shot her some questions over the Internet, (her favorite
media next to the printed word), and she was kind enough to share some of
her thoughts with Southern Scribe. Here’s
what she had to say.
Lila, tell us just a bit about yourself.
I hold a Ph.D. in
Spanish literature, with a specialty in 19th Spanish
literature. I serve on the
Board of Directors of the Austin Writers’ League.
With over 1,600 members, AWL is the largest writer’s organization
of its kind in the U.S. At
present, I write full-time. I
have taught Spanish at the middle school, high school and college level.
In addition, I served as an officer in the Navy.
I'm married, with three children, ages 16, 12 and 9.
Your website. What is the address?
several short stories, along with the first chapter of Lorenzo’s Lambs,
my forthcoming book. Also
included is a ListBot icon so people can sign up for my free e-newsletter,
Ask the Author.
know this is silly. . . but I just have to ask; why do you have the
picture of a ferret writing at a drawing table on your website?
My 16 year old daughter
designed that page last year. She
(cough, cough) thought it was neat, especially the fact that it could
move. Also, the quill in its
hand stands for the fact that I love historical works.
did you start doing the weekly advice column for authors?
I received 3 e-mails
one day asking me writing-related questions.
It occurred to me that all novice writers would profit from the
answers. To my dismay, the
Australian Society of Authors (3,000 strong) signed up.
When I mentioned this to a friend, she shook her head and said,
“Lila, have you forgotten how hungry you were for answers when you
started in this business?” Her
question reminded me too of how difficult it was to find someone to answer
discuss what you feel are some important subject areas to write about
Subject areas: The
problem with trying to figure out the next “hot topic” is that by the
time you’ve figured it out, the topic is no longer hot.
I have learned that the key to getting fiction published is to come
up with a unique plot line and then develop interesting characters.
The first short story I ever published was set in 1839, during the
Carlist War in Spain. I
believe the novelty of the setting helped sell it.
about literary agents? I know
you have some strong personal feelings about them.
I am sure there are
scams in every industry, but publishing seems to abound with them.
I went undercover for the New York Attorney General during the Edit
Ink investigation and was dismayed to find an extraordinary number of
literary agents taking kickbacks from this “book doctoring”
organization. Without reading
manuscripts, literary agents would refer writers to Edit Ink, then sit
back and wait for a fat check to come in.
I have been equally
appalled by an agent who asked for $500 up front for a “set-up” fee.
(Actually the name he called it was unimportant, as it was “up
front” money.) A friend of
mine paid $500 to this person. Recently
I saw her at a conference. Apparently,
her $500 went for naught and she is looking for a new agent.
All members of AAR are
legitimate agents who abide by a code of conduct.
All agents should follow the same rules that govern AAR.
An agent should never
charge a reading fee, or “up-front” money.
love the personal attention that you give every person that writes in with
a question. I think of you as
the “Miss Manners of Writing.” Do
you think that is why your advice site is so popular?
The “Miss Manners of
I’m flattered. I
think my advice site is popular because of a number of reasons:
permitting), I offer a ten-page critique of novel or short story
manuscripts. The reason I do
is? Because of the Writing
Catch-22. By the time
you’re a published writer and know where you’re going, you often are
too busy writing to critique for others.
There are too many published writers who aren’t willing to help
out others – and that’s a shame.
Other writers aren’t competition.
They are your literary brothers and sisters.
When anyone asks me a
question, I will give my heart-felt opinion (and I am a woman of many
Also, I try to make the
tone of the newsletter “chatty” and friendly.
I’ve never liked a “scholarly” tone – a “I can sling
around big words” attitude or “now I am going to impart my wisdom”
Publishing! What about approaching a publisher on your own without an agent? How should it be set up?
Definitely do it if the publisher will accept unagented material. Many will not. The danger is accepting a bad contract. Commonwealth Publishing scammed many, many people before it was shut down. If a publisher asks for money, that should be a giant red flag. Ditto for an agent.
in a state of flux. Editors
no longer edit. In the past,
an editor would find an author with promise and would work closely with
new talent to mold a book into a bestseller.
No more. Now editors
want a book that will require little or no editing.
That means writers must often pay “book doctors” for services
editors used to provide.
The midlist is
all but dead. That’s a big
loss to the publishing industry. Many
best-selling authors started in the midlist.
What traits do authors that you personally know who are “making it” have in common, Lila?
The term “making it” is relative. Most authors still have a day job. In fact, agents want someone with financial stability. It takes approximately three years from signing the contract to publication. An advance (if you are lucky enough to receive one) will probably be $5,000 or less. You won’t see profits from the book for a long time.
Most successful authors that I know have MEGs (Marital Endowment Grants) or a day job.
To me, making it means simply having a book published or under contract. There are a number of authors making it and they share one trait: they listen to advice. The only authors who fail are those who refuse to change and grow. The Austin Writers’ League has many published authors in its ranks.
I know that one so-called ‘Christian” publisher got on your website
with a promise to publish works it deemed worthy and then tried to charge
your readers. You not only
exposed this, but also castigated the practice on your site.
It takes a lot of character to do something like that.
How do you feel about that situation in hindsight?
I find it abhorrent
that one human being will take advantage of another.
It is particularly abhorrent when one claims to be “Christian.”
However, the important thing is to alert fellow writers any time an
unscrupulous publisher, agent, or web site is identified.
One of the best web sites for this is www.sfwa.org
(their “Author Beware” section.)
do you see yourself as an author down the road, and what projects are you
working on now?
I’ll be writing until
“they pry my cold dead fingers from the keyboard.”
Perhaps some day I will want to write an adult novel, but at the
moment, there are so many stories (and values) I want to pass on to young
adults. In my Lorenzo series,
I plan to take Lorenzo through the Revolutionary War to old age (and
training Hawaiian cowboys in the 1830s.)
Projects I’m working
on. (I have no problem with
Green Slime and Jam:
(completed – looking for a publisher.)
Three literary characters (Lazarillo de Tormes, Alice in
Wonderland, and the Jabberwocky are pulled from their books when a science
project goes wrong. Can they
survive in modern-day Texas where they are only five inches tall?
the story of George Washington’s female spy.
(I am currently working this concept as a young adult novel and
The Land Beyond:
In 1064 a volcano explodes creating Sunset Crater.
Falling ash forces the Sinagua Indians living nearby to flee for
their lives. Quail, a star
toli player, leads his people south.
After numerous hardships, they reach safe haven with the friendly
has published short stories in THE ROSWELL LITERARY REVIEW, ARIZONA
LITERARY MAGAZINE, MILLENNIUM SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, PIF MAGAZINE. Her essays have appeared in AUSTIN WRITER, CANADIAN WRITER'S
JOURNAL, and other publications.
1990, she published a translation of a novel by Perez Galdos, The
Campaign of the Maestrazgo and three
years later, published A Royalist Volunteer,
by the same author.
Lorenzo's Lambs, a novel, forthcoming from Arte Publico Press, University of Houston, 2001.) Lorenzo's Lambs is a young adult novel of the American Revolution. It tells the story of the Spanish supplies going up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to George Washington’s army in 1776.
Article is by Robert L. Hall - raised in and currently living outside Memphis, TN., writes crime mysteries and tales of a youth with adventures in horsemanship. His books are Mid-South based. Mr. Hall also is a contributing writer for the on-line journal, When Falls the Coliseum , a self-described “Journal of American Culture (or the lack thereof)” at www.wfthecoliseum.com.
A trained musician with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Memphis and Master of Music degree from Florida State University, he is staff pianist at Trinity Baptist Church in West Memphis and has taught music courses at three institutions of higher learning.
© 2000 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved