Business of Writing 


 Lila Guzman
She Cares about Writers
by Robert L. Hall

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 the Author.

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?

My website: features 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.


I 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.


Why 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 them.

Please discuss what you feel are some important subject areas to write about today.

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.

What 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.

I 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 Writing?”  (Blush)  I’m flattered.  I think my advice site is popular because of a number of reasons:

Occasionally (time 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 opinions).

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” mentality.

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.

Publishing is 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 (their “Author Beware” section.)

Where 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 writer’s block.)

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?

355:  the story of George Washington’s female spy.  (I am currently working this concept as a young adult novel and screenplay.)

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 Hohokams.

Lila Guzman’s Works: 


In 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

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