Asking Questions and Getting Started as a Writer

Writing takes work.

I mean this in two ways. First of all, a lot of people seem to think that writers don’t really do any work (“you’re just home all day, so you can watch my kids, right?”). Secondly, some of the people who want to become writers don’t seem to realize that it takes work. Lots of people read a new book and say, “I could do that; how hard can it be?” thinking that the only thing involved in writing is sitting down at the keyboard and moving your fingers.

So, here I’ll give you a very brief idea of the work involved in writing. I’ll give you an idea of how to get started finding out what’s involved in a writing career, all without having to ask anyone a single question. And then I’ll tell you how you can ask questions that most writers will want to answer.

Writers Do Work

I’ll keep this one short, but it needs to be said. Writers do work. Yeah, I happen to think my job (writing full-time) is great, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even though the pay sucks. I like being able to work at home with my fiancee. I like not having to punch a time clock.

But I get up at 7 am every morning, and I work pretty much till 5 pm. Sometimes I work later than that, or I work on a Saturday, to finish a contract on time. Yes I can take a nap or plant lilacs in the middle of the day if I want, but just like anyone else, when I’m not working I’m not making any money, and writing doesn’t pay much in the first place. If you aren’t willing to make yourself work a full day then don’t expect to make much money at writing.

Doing Some Work

You might have noticed that I run a writers’ resources site, with articles and lots of links to various resources. There’s material on publishers, agents, market listings, etc. You’ll also note that there are lots of links here to other writers’ resource sites, with even more essays on writing.

Every now and then I get an email that reads like this: “I just finished a book on (plants, bugs, pop psychology, teaching, whatever). Please tell me which (agents, publishers, whatever) I should send it to.” (Actually, they usually leave the “please” out.) Presumably this person found me because they found my writers’ resources site.

Do I know which publishers and agents this person should send their book to? Of course not. I don’t have magical knowledge of every publisher and agent out there. And if I did, it would be up on the web site so I wouldn’t have to answer each email separately. But if that person had been willing to spend just five minutes looking through the “market listings,” “publishers,” and “agents” listings on the web page, he would have found each and every thing he was looking for. I link to detailed listings of agents, publishers, editors, submission guidelines, etc., most of them complete with details of what the agents and publishers are looking for. Most guidelines databases are searchable by topic and keyword. There was no need for this person to ask me to do his work — he could have done it himself and he would have had his answers in half the time.

(Don’t worry. I usually send these people the links that would most help them, and point out that they can find all of this on the resources page. Politely. Just because I think the person should have looked around a little more isn’t any reason to be impolite.)

My point is, writing takes a lot of research, no matter which type you’re doing. (My last project required about five magazine issues and ten books, and it was fiction.) Beyond that, the process of writing requires a lot of research. You need to know how to write query letters, what simultaneous submissions are and why you should or shouldn’t do them, which markets and publishers you should submit to and how, what an SASE is and why you should enclose one with every submission, how to tell when an “agent” is scamming you, and so on. You particularly need to know the expectations of the editors, publishers and developers in your field.

If you aren’t willing to do all of this research, you won’t get anywhere. Editors are almost inevitably overworked and underpaid and most of them will just throw out anything that doesn’t conform to their requirements. All of this information is already out there for you to make use of. Most if not all of it is available for free on the web, and the rest you can buy magazines or books on. Writers are very chatty folk. They may not have time to answer individually every email they get, but they love to talk about their work in general. Cruise the web a bit and you’ll find answers to pretty much all of your questions.

If you can’t handle or aren’t willing to undertake this initial research, then you might want to think about a different field of work. If the initial market research is too daunting, then imagine how daunting the research for your projects will be.

Getting Started

All that said, it can be very daunting to face a new career without knowing a lot about what it involves. Here are a few tips on where to start.

One of the best starting places for new writers who don’t know anything about the field is the latest “Writer’s Market” book (a new one comes out every year). It has gazillions of market listings, publisher listings, and bits of helpful advice (much of which is aimed at new writers). It won’t tell you everything, but it’ll certainly get you on the right track. It’s how I got started.

It’s one of the common bits of wisdom out there that writers should read. Look for writers’ resource pages out there and read the essays on writing and the writing business. Particularly look for anything that seems aimed at new writers; make sure to look for things that involve the field you want to go into. The procedures for getting involved in journalism are very different from those for the roleplaying game market or the cookbook market.

If you have the money, search Barnes and Noble’s website, or Amazon’s, for books on writing. Even better, check out the Writer’s Digest Book Club. Look for books that seem to concentrate on writing as a business rather than writing as an art. Subscribe to magazines like “Writer’s Digest.”

Check out various writers’ organizations. Some of them allow non-published writers to join as members. Whether or not they allow this, many of them have useful information for beginning writers on their web sites. The particularly useful bit about this tactic is that writers’ organizations often have articles aimed at writers in a specific field or genre.

Getting Started in the Roleplaying Market

Since I have particular experience in the roleplaying market it deserves a few words of its own here, especially as it’s a bit more complicated than the section above indicates. This is because there isn’t nearly as much info on the roleplaying market out there as on other writing markets. You often won’t find RPG submission guidelines in the usual places. And not as many RPG writers put their experiences out there for you to read about, probably because it’s a small field.

I honestly don’t know of any source for info on writing for RPGs other than Errant Dreams (this site). I’m sure there are a few out there somewhere, but I haven’t stumbled across them. Take a look at our Working in the RPG Industry series of articles, and if you have any specific questions after that, feel free to ask.

Getting Answers to Your Questions

Don’t be distressed if you see your own past mistakes in the list below. We’ve all made mistakes like these, because there was no one to explain to us how our actions would be viewed by the people we were contacting. Hopefully having this list will help other aspiring writers to avoid the mistakes the rest of us have made!

Ask the Right Person

Try not to email writers about things they have no reason to know. Asking a journalist about novel-writing or a novel-writer about cookbook writing isn’t going to get you the answers you want, and it’ll just frustrate the writer.

Read the Web Page First

Don’t email writers asking questions that are clearly answered by their web page materials. Corollary to this: before contacting a writer and asking him questions, do a search for his web page and read any information he has up on writing.

Ask the Right Question

Ask pointed specific questions, not blanket ones. It doesn’t help you to email me and say, “tell me about writing in the roleplaying industry.” As you could tell by my series of articles on the subject, it’s a large topic — it could take me days to tell you everything, and I don’t have that much spare time usually. Besides, why ask me for what’s already on the web page? No one likes being asked to do something twenty times when they’ve already done it once in a way that you can make use of yourself. I’m much more likely to respond well to you if you read the articles and then ask specific questions not answered by them. I’d even be glad of the questions as they’d give me an idea of how to make the articles more complete.

Corollary to this: if you aren’t sure how to get from your blanket question to a specific one, then ask a writer to point you at a resource that will answer your big question: “Hi, I’m interested in writing for the roleplaying industry, but I really don’t know anything about it. Could you point me to a web site, book, or magazine that might answer some of my questions?” That way if the writer has the time to answer your question he can, but he doesn’t feel pressured to. And worst case, he points you to a web site or book that answers your big question, and now you’ll know what specific questions to ask.

Look for Publisher and Agent Listings Yourself

Asking writers for specific publisher and agent suggestions is almost never useful. No writer would do their agent the disservice of handing out her name and number to anyone who asks. No writer knows which publisher is best for you. Besides, there’s lots of info out there to help you pick an agent or publisher that suits you, so asking only implies that you aren’t willing to do the work yourself. Check listings on the web. Buy the latest “Writer’s Market.” Read books like yours and see which publisher published them.

Don’t Expect a Free Editor

Asking a random writer to read your manuscript is very rude. Writers often have to work long days to make ends meet. To ask them to take what may be days or weeks out of that to look at a stranger’s (or near-stranger’s) work is probably asking them to forgo paying their rent or having money for food that month. Or it may be asking them to break a deadline that they can’t afford to miss. Maybe you feel comfortable asking this sort of thing of a close friend, but that isn’t the kind of favor you ask of a stranger, or even an acquaintance! There are very few people who, when confronted with such a request, would be anything other than angry.

If you really, really feel that you have to ask, take a few things into account:

  • Be polite and ask, don’t insist or assume, and don’t get upset if the writer says no.
  • Try asking the writer in question to read a brief excerpt of your manuscript, rather than the whole thing. Two pages take a lot less time to read than two hundred.
  • Be prepared for the criticism you’re asking for. Remember that the standard of writing expected by a professional writer is probably more than what you’re used to. Don’t ask for such an evaluation and then get angry when you get it.

If you want someone to evaluate your work, there are usually better options than asking a random writer, anyway. Take a class or workshop. Join a writer’s group. Pay a professional editor or writing coach to look at your work. The truth is that when it comes to getting an evaluation, someone with teaching experience is probably going to do a much better job than a random writer you like. Don’t short-change yourself.

Be Polite

Don’t just say “please,” although that’s a great start. Try to indicate by your words and tone that you aren’t demanding an answer from the writer. A lot of writers have gotten unceremoniously hauled into corners and interrogated (more than you’d probably believe), and they’re feeling rather sensitive on the issue. If you want to make sure they don’t misinterpret your questions, then make sure they know that you’d see an answer as a favor, and that you don’t expect them to drop everything to help you.

Mention Your Research

If you decide to ask a writer some questions, it can’t hurt to gently slip in a mention of what research you have done. Something along the lines of, “I was reading your article, ‘8 Secrets to Getting Published,’ and it left me with a few questions. If you have a spare moment, perhaps you could tell me…” It tells the writer that you’re willing to do your own work, and it tells the writer what information you already have, so he doesn’t feel like he’s supposed to write a ten-page manuscript in reply to your question.

Insults Won’t Help

Here’s a bit of basic etiquette: if you want someone’s help, it’s never a good idea to start off by insulting them or their work. If you don’t already know this, then go buy a book of Miss Manners’ wisdom and learn how to be a civilized person. Manners and etiquette exist for a reason; they’re how we temperamental creatures manage to deal with each other from day to day. Without them things tend to quickly devolve into a decided lack of civility. That means that you won’t get the answers to your questions.

I’d like to say that there’s a difference between politely telling a writer that you don’t agree with everything he does, and insulting his work. Honesty impels me to point out that this isn’t always the case, though. The confusion of tone created by the use of email can cause a simple comment to sound like an insult. And unfortunately, not everyone handles criticism well (however well-intended).

I’m not trying to say that people who ask questions without knowing what they’re doing are bad; we all have to start somewhere, after all. My problem is with people who thoughtlessly demand lots of other people’s time and effort without stopping to think about what they’re asking for. Unfortunately, because “tone” is such a delicate concept over email and is easily misunderstood, some people who mean well but just don’t know the back-story come across as demanding when they don’t intend to. I hope that this article will convince people to think about how they word things, do a little research on their own, and realize that the common courtesies really are important when asking a stranger or near-stranger for their help.

I know this probably sounds a little ungenerous in places, and I do apologize for that. I’m not saying that new writers shouldn’t ask questions. I think that people who are willing to do enough research in order to get a sense of what to ask are great, and I’ve had some wonderful conversations with some of them.

Just keep in mind that while your question seems like a small thing to you, a matter of moments, it may not seem that way to the writer you email. Your question may have a much larger or more complex answer than you imagine! And believe it or not, even us small-time writers get a surprising number of emails asking writing questions. So when you’re the third, thirtieth, or even three hundredth question of the day and the writer hasn’t even gotten to start on the story he’s supposed to be working on, your question might not seem so small. (You think I’m joking? I recently read about a famous writer who’d get about five hundred letters a day!)

Also remember that even asking the “wrong” questions isn’t nearly such an imposition when you’re polite about it. “Please” can go such a long way when asking for help!

Lastly, keep in mind that the writers you’re asking questions of don’t necessarily have all the answers, or all the right ones. A lot of people think that just because their favorite writer always writes in long-hand, for example, that means that they always have to write in long-hand. The truth is that writing is a very individual experience for each writer, and no one writer out there is likely to have all of the answers you’re looking for. If you look around and do some research on your own, you’re much more likely to come up with answers that work for you.

Just try to see things from the writer’s point of view. A random stranger who clearly found the the writer’s web site ignores the articles sitting right in front of him and sends a broad question that requires a large and complex answer, with nary a “please” or “if you wouldn’t mind.” It’s like telling a teacher to teach an extra session of his class outside of school hours and without pay just because you didn’t feel like going to the regular session. Look around web pages. Read some essays and books. Then, if you still have questions, ask a writer. Most of us will be happy to help. Or, to quote Eric Maisel from Living the Writer’s Life:

“If you need help, ask for it. You will want to be careful about how you ask, reminding yourself that people are busy and maybe even overwhelmed in their own lives. Ask carefully, but do ask–clearly, directly, and without embarrassment.”

Hopefully the tips above will help you to understand why some approaches get better responses than others, and will help you to get the answers you need.

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