Tamora Pierce
Writer, Books For Teens

Frequently Asked Questions


I get so many questions about my intellectual and creative life that I thought I'd answer the most common ones here, just for the fun of it:

About Me (Public Appearances, Answering Letters, Etc.):

Do you visit schools, libraries, and bookstores?

How do I write you? Will you answer my letter?


About My Books:

In one of The Protector of Small books King Jonathan is listed as "King Jonathan III"; in the next he's "Jonathan IV". Also, in early Protector books Mindelan is shown inside the Scanran border--it looks as if Mindelan is the Scanran capital. What's up with this?

Would you please put up some spoilers for what's to come in the current series you're working on, such as romances, villains, etc.?

How do you come up with characters?

How did you come up with the creatures in your books (basilisks, hurroks, Stormwings, etc.)?

Where do you get names for characters and places?

Everyone thinks I am weird because I have read your books over and over. Do you think I'm weird?

Why haven't your books been made into movies?



About Writing:

Where do you get your ideas?

How do you start a book or story?

How do you deal with writer's block?

How long is a book supposed to be?

How can a new writer get an agent?  

What does an agent do?

How can a new writer get a publisher?

What if my work is turned down?

Do I have to re-write my work?

What is your stand on fan fiction? And would you read mine?

What do you say to people who want to become writers?

How do I get published in comics?


Do you visit schools, libraries and bookstores? (updated 3/1/15)
I do indeed, whenever I can. I like visiting schools and talking to readers. (Tell no one, but I also like talking to teachers and librarians.) The following should cover my basic needs for school and library visits, but please
e-mail my business address for inquiries or more details!

Fees: My honorarium is a blanket rate of $2,800 per day, per location. This fee covers all of my expenses, including non-air travel and lodging.

Air Travel: As Of March 1, 2015: For Plane Travel, I require two First or Business Class tickets whenever possible, so I may bring an assistant. Because of health issues, I can no longer fly Coach for trips longer than an hour, nor can I easily deal with the day-to-day matters of business trips on my own.  

Length of visit: I love getting out to visit readers! Alas, air travel does take a chomp out of my writing schedule. My policy is that I require at least two days of work in order to fly for an engagement. If the location of the engagement is within a reasonable driving distance from my home, single-day engagements are fine.

Scheduling of Events: When I’m being scheduled for multiple events throughout a day, please give me as much time as possible in between each one. I like speaking with members of the audience after a presentation, and I like to talk to as many of them as I can. Even when signing books, I take time to chat with each person who has come to see me. I also need some time to sit down and catch my breath, and for meals at appropriate times of day. And I confess, I get cranky when rushed. Very cranky. But this is easily avoided with good programming, I swear!

Familiarity with my books: While I don't require that students be acquainted with my work before I speak to them, I prefer it. I’ve discovered through trial and error what a difference this can make in terms of how rewarding (and fun) my time with an audience is—both for them and for me!

I do ask for all schools to have students read my webpage biography and my list of published work before I visit. That way I spend less time answering the same very general questions over and over, and I have more time for detailed responses to any questions about writing and creativity the students and staff may have.

Audience size: I have no limits on audience size. I've spoken to one or two fans at lunch, and to three hundred sixth graders in a gym. My concern is what's convenient for the people who have invited me to speak. When speaking at schools my preference is for single classes, but I understand that isn’t always possible.

Pictures & Video: I have no problem with photography, video, or audio recordings being taken during my appearances. I don’t mind at all, and you don’t need to get my permission ahead of time to do any of these things.

Signings/autographs: I am happy to do this. What really helps is a Post-it note on a book’s title page with the name of the person I'm signing it for. I can only put a personalized message in three books per reader, but I will sign just my name in the rest of your books (I need to keep my writing hand attached, and realized after recent hand surgery I can no longer personalize everything). Also, if you have a lot of books for me to sign and there are a lot of people waiting, I'll sign three or four, then ask you to go through the line again. I don't mind signing all your books, but I also don't like to keep the people with only a couple of books waiting.

I think this covers all the important things. If you would like to discuss a visit, please e-mail me at my business address!


In one of The Protector of Small books King Jonathan is listed as "King Jonathan III"; in the next he's "Jonathan IV". Also, in early Protector books Mindelan is shown inside the Scanran border--it looks as if Mindelan is the Scanran capital. What's up with this?
In both of these instances, I was in something of a hurry to get these materials back to Random House on the final versions before the books were printed, and missed a couple of major items. They are being fixed: Jon is Jonathan IV, and the map will be redone so that Mindelan is a normal fief, well inside the Tortallan border.

Would you please put up some spoilers for what's to come in the current series you're working on, such as romances, villains, etc.?
At the risk of being branded as uncooperative and mean, I have to say no. I used to give out spoilers right and left, but lately I find that harder to do. After all, when I spend six months to a year picking each and every word to create a specific mood or effect, I cut the ground out from under myself by giving out spoilers. I also found a good chunk of the plot for SQUIRE on one site or another on the Internet. I've gotten complaints about this: many people won't want to read the book, because they feel they already know all the good stuff or they don't like something they think is going to be in the book (not all online spoilers are right, you know). With this in mind, I will no longer give out any more spoilers, in person or online. I hope you'll forgive me. It's sort of like you begging someone for a present that's promised for your birthday: maybe they give in and give it to you, and your birthday's a big let-down because you already got the present.

This is not something I like to do. I love seeing people's faces when they hear The Awful Truth of what's coming next. At the same time, I want each book to be appreciated as a whole experience, just as my editors and I shaped it. I will continue to put up things that don't relate to any books I'm working on and don't think I'll be able to mention, like the status of Daine's and Numair's relationship, and the disappearance of Princess Kalasin, but there won't be any more spoilers for actual, ongoing books. It'll just have to be a surprise. In case you're wondering, this won't apply to the basic descriptions I give for books or to the pieces I've read at appearances, so you'll have a little advance information.

How do you come up with characters?
I often start with a real person--if not someone I know, then an actor or actress I think would fit the part. It's easiest for me to start with what someone looks and sounds like--if I know that, then I know about the character's personality. As a result, I use a lot of photographs of people or performers. Of course, there always comes a point, as I'm working, when the character breaks away from the person I based her/him on to become her or his own self. That's how I know I'm doing it right. A word of warning: tell no one that you based a character on her/him. Even if you think you've written about that person perfectly, s/he may not like what you have to say, or if the character you create starts doing things the person you based the character on doesn't do, they can get quite vexed. If they ask, lie. If you're a bad liar, like me, practice in front of a mirror. Do not tell them.

How did you come up with the creatures in your books (basilisks, hurroks, Stormwings, etc.)?
As a kid I read a lot of Greek, Roman and Norse myths. Nowadays I have a large number of reference books on mythology at home, including Graves' and Hamilton's books on the Greek gods and the Dover coloring book of mythological creatures. When I saw how goofy the medieval ideas of "fabulous beasts" looked, I started looking for creatures of my own that would make some kind of sense. The basilisk of medieval times was made up of a rooster's head, a goat's head and a snake's head on a goat body, with a snake's tail. Fortunately I had heard of the Central American basilisk lizard--they just needed to be a bit larger.

Others I made up. I've read so many scholarly books about myths and why they have the power they do that I could use those abstract ideas to help me shape the inhabitants of the Divine Realms. Here are some examples:

  • Hurroks. I wanted winged horses, but the Daine books are so rooted in the real natural world that I was having problems doing traditional winged horses, which are mammals with bird feathers. Bat wings made so much more sense. I also wanted both friendly and unfriendly winged horses, though I should mention that every time I tried to put friendly ones in a book, I've had to cut them (I'm kept to a limit of 200 manuscript pages per book, so I usually have to cut a great deal). I wanted to have a term for the nasty winged horses that would mean "nasty winged horses" only, and jammed horse and hawk together to get hurrok. Then I added the marks of a predator, claws, fangs, and forward-facing eyes.
  • Dragons. I started with the Pena sculptures and dragons like the one in the Disney "Sleeping Beauty." The Pena sculptures are a bit too round and cute, so I thinned my dragons down, but I liked the rich colors and kept those. I also based some dragons' coloring on animals I know (Scamp and Grizzle are my best friend's Maltese and toy poodle).
  • Stormwings. I began with harpies, but I did not like the fact that harpies are only female--I wanted something for both sexes. I took the Stormwings' mission to despoil battlefield dead from an image in a movie, Ray Harryhausen's "Jason and the Argonauts." The harpies who ruin the king's dinner are so creepy and alien that the image of their attack stayed with me. (Knowing that they mess with bodies gave me the idea for their smell.) I also wanted my Stormwings to be clearly unnatural and therefore frightening, which is where the steel feathers and claws came in.
    It was my husband's idea to make them not entirely hateful. I would have just gone on writing them as Evil as Zhaneh Bitterclaws was, but he pointed out that I'm not very good at portraying characters that way, and that they'd be more interesting if they weren't. Then of course I had to find a way to make creatures so terrifying in the first book into mixed ones for the others. I'm so glad I ran into Rikash--he really helped me to shift my point of view.
  • Darkings. Years ago, when the movie "Roger Rabbit" came out, my best friend couldn't stop talking about the brilliance behind the idea of the shoe that Christopher Lloyd's character destroys in Dip. Clearly the animators couldn't bear the thought of using a human- or animal-like Toon to show how bad Dip was, but the sacrifice had to have some life-like quality, or we simply wouldn't care. They made Shoe cute and bouncy, and everyone hated the Judge for putting it in Dip. Then, when "Aladdin" came out, Raquel told me about how the animators had decided to go entirely with computer, non-human, animation for non-human characters, particularly Carpet and the sand lion/sphinx which appears in the desert. That, added to my thoughts on Shoe, led me to try to create my own creatures which were not anything living in the terms we normally use. From my knowledge of folklore I'm always aware that blood is a powerful image in people's minds, and of course Ozorne's blood creations had to be small and close to invisible to be able to get close to Daine. When I dipped my ladle into the stew of all these thinks, I came up with darkings.

Where do you get names for characters and places?
I get character names from all kinds of sources. One warning: avoid names from telephone books--if someone discovers their name in something you've written, they can sue. With that in mind:

  • Baby name books. I own ten, each with its own blank paper jacket. (You do not want people to see you reading a baby name book. They get all doofie--or snide.) Since I write fantasy, most of my books are world culture names, starting with The New Age Baby Name Book. This gives you a ready supply of names that are unusual to start with. You can find plenty of baby name books in any bookstore, usually under "Parenting and Child Care," near the kids' book section. There's a lot to choose from, so leaf through and see if the book will be of use--the first book I got was one of ordinary American names, and frustrated me almost to tears.
  • Maps. When I'm really stuck, and I want a lot of names that sound like they all come from the same part of the world as the culture I based mine on, I get very detailed place maps. For example, I based the culture of the Saren and K'miri people in my Tortall books on Southeast Asia, so I found detailed maps of Laos and Cambodia. I don't use all of a place name, but part of it, and I make lists of possible names for future use.
  • Language books. When I'm basing a culture on part of our world, I pick up phrase books and dictionaries for the cultures which are dominant in that part of the world. In my Circle series, the Traders have traveled all over those parts of their world which are most like those covered by the historical Silk Road. I picked up Thai Hill Tribe, Tibetan, Nepalese and Arabic phrase books, and Swahili, Hindi and Chinese dictionaries, and looked up words which resembled the ones I wanted to turn into Tradertalk. I then tugged here and rearranged there, to get a word which felt like a real Tradertalk word to me.
  • Ye Olde Notebook Trick. If you want to write anything, the notebook that fits in your bag or backpack and rests on your nightstand is your best friend. Mostly you'll use it for ideas, sentences and descriptions, but they are also good storehouses for the names you like when you stumble across them in everyday life (like Old Dutch and Puritan names in the tax records I had to research for one job). Just remember, never use the complete name of a real person. Write it down, though, so you won't accidentally use that person's real first or last name when you are composing.

You've probably noticed that many names and words do not pass through my hands unscathed--I am always tinkering with them, dropping out syllables or rearranging them. One of the things I dislike in fantasy is reading along and being jolted out of the mood by a phrase or a name which sounds too much like my real world. You may not feel this strongly about it--or your work may be based on some aspect, modern or historical, of that real world. I just wanted to mention this, for what it's worth.

What is your stand on fan fiction? And would you read mine?
As long as no one tries to make a profit from fanfics based on my work, I don't mind in the least. What I do mind, and what my publishers will mind as well (and they're the ones with the attorneys), would be if someone tried to sell work using my characters, maps, etc. That's copyright infringement (the fancy term; the unfancy one is "theft"), and the result would be ugly.

On fanfics in general, I think they're one way to develop your skills as a writer. Sometimes it's easier to keep a story going if you don't have to create the setting and some of the characters yourself. I'd hope that sooner or later people writing fan fiction would branch out into creating their own worlds and books (hey--I need something to read, too!), but at least they're having fun as they write fan fiction. Besides, when I was a kid, I wrote "Star Trek" and Lord of the Rings stories--we just didn't call them "fan fiction" back then.

At the risk of using a cliche, some of my best friends are fan fiction writers. Well, when they're paying you to do it, it's called "tie-in" writing. My friend Josepha Sherman has written two "Star Trek" books, three "Highlander" books, "Buffy" and "Xena" books--and her own books as well. The tie-in books help to support her until her own books start earning royalties. I know others who write "Spiderman" books, "Buffy" books, "Star Wars" books, computer game tie-in books . . . We all have bills to pay, and that's how they pay theirs. And a lot of those tie-in books are pretty good!

As for reading fanfics, I must abstain, politely. There's the time factor, for one, as in, I don't have any. More importantly, though, sometimes in the heat of the battle with a book, we grab any idea that surfaces, without necessarily knowing where it came from. I've since gone back to find things I've fitted to my use in books and movies I read years ago. I can't take the chance that someone else's ideas might enter the stew where my creativity happens, to surface years later: that's how writers get sued for copyright infringement/theft. It's nothing against fanfics or their writers, and everything to do with me covering my behind.

Everyone thinks I am weird because I have read your books over and over. Do you think I'm weird?
Put it this way--if you're weird, so am I. I think I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy at least twice a year from the time I discovered them in seventh grade until I went to college, and at least once a year until I was 22 or 23. I've lost count of how many times I've read my favorite Barbara Hambly and Robin McKinley books, not to mention Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, Ross Thomas's political thrillers, Robert Heinlein's science fiction books for teenagers, and a long, long list of historical novels. I know there are people who read a book once and put it aside for life. I can't do that. I love plunging into a loved world, encountering the characters I like, and living with them as they work through serious problems. Now, weird is my husband: he discovered J.D. Robb's (Nora Roberts writing under a pen name) science fiction thriller/romances last year (the ... IN DEATH series), and read all of them (I think there were six at that point) three times after he first got them. He re-reads the whole series each time a new book comes out. He seems to think this is perfectly normal, so maybe "weird" really is one of those things that's in the mind of the beholder!

Do you like poetry? Will you read mine?
Okay, you were bound to find out this flaw in me sooner or later: I am poesie-impaired. With a scant handful of exceptions (W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Shelley's "Ozymandias," Li Po, story poems like "The Highwayman", "Paul Revere's Ride", and "Richard Corey", haiku, A.A. Milne, e e cummings), I wouldn't know good poetry if it swam up behind me and--well, I would be hard put to know good poetry. I think it was those forced readings of "Elegy in a Country Graveyard", Robert Burns, and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that did it to me. Something snapped; a circuit fried; whatever, I have neither eye nor ear for poetry. You're better off by asking the opinion of your English teacher, if you can trust her/him to be objective and not step all over your self-esteem, or by sending work to poetry magazines.

Where do you get your ideas?
Some I stumble across: watching his nature programs, I decided British naturalist Sir David Attenborough would make a cool bio-mage: he's the basis for Numair's friend and teacher, Lindhall Reed. Watching my mother and sister produce blankets from balls of yarn and crochet hooks, I thought of it as a kind of magic, and wondered what all could be done with thread magic. Wrestling with my best friend's dove gave me the ideas for Kel's relationship with the baby griffin in SQUIRE. Pictures in magazines also give me ideas, as do stories in the news.

Other ideas come from my past obsessions. From the time I was six or seven until I was ten, I read anything and everything I could find about knights, the Crusades, and the Middle Ages. Then I fell into a new interest and ignored the Crusades: my next area of interest in knighthood was in the fantasy novels and Arthurian legends I read in middle school. I wrote my first book, on a girl disguising herself to serve as a page and squire to achieve her knighthood, without doing any research on medieval life. Except, of course, I had--back when I was very young, reading articles in encyclopedias because I liked finding out more about knights. That was the first time that I realized my old interests could give me ideas. When I got stuck while I wrote LIONESS RAMPANT, I thought about my old obsessions, and drew ideas from that book and for the Queen's Riders from my prolonged binge of books about the Vietnam war in the early 1980s. James Michener's description of a city carved all of rose-red stone in his book THE DRIFTERS, which I read at the age of 15, marked the beginning of my life-long fascination with the city of Petra, in Jordan, which I shaped to become the Black City in ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE and Chammur in STREET MAGIC. My long fascination with crime and criminals has given me fuel for The Circle Opens quartet.

Another way I get ideas is from people. My Random House editor, Mallory Loehr, suggested that Kel be a commander, very different from my usual loner heroes. (I wasn't sure if I could write someone who works well with others!) My agent Craig Tenney pointed out that in the final action of the first draft of STREET MAGIC Evvy virtually disappeared; he just couldn't see Evvy sitting about, waiting to be rescued. It's due to input from my husband Tim that Lord Wyldon and all Stormwings are not capital-E Evil. My friend Raquel has always been fascinated by animation and making non-living things seem real, like the shoe that was destroyed by Dip in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and the computer-animated carpet in "Aladdin." She talked about those things so much that a part of my brain grabbed onto the idea that objects, things, could become characters. That turned into the darkings of THE REALMS OF THE GODS, the living blots that became characters in their own right.

Current events and history are also fertile ground for ideas. I was driven to write one of my most effective 15-minute radio plays based on the case of a subway vigilante in New York in the 1980's; I got a short story out of a group of well-to-do kids tormenting people in Central Park and another short story out of my feelings about the Taliban's treatment of women (written over a year before the events of September 11, 2001). I based Dedicate Skyfire, Winding Circle's chief defender, on a Civil War general and am about to develop a character based on the French statesman Talleyrand, a tricky piece of work by all accounts. Shannon Faulkner and other women who have entered military schools fueled The Protector of the Small; the cholera outbreaks in Rwanda and Zaire of the early 1990s led to The Circle of Magic: BRIAR'S BOOK. Keep a file of events and figures that interest you; it might prove useful one day.

The best way to prepare to have ideas when you need them is to listen to and encourage your obsessions. Watch and re-watch all the TV programs and movies you have a need to watch (I lost count of how many time I watched the Richard Lester verson of "The Three Musketeers" and its sequel "The Four Musketeers" (I passed 17 viewings while I was still in college); read and re-read all the books, magazines and comic books; visit all the museums, zoos, galleries, concerts and wilderness areas; and listen to all the kinds of music that interest you. If you get a sudden passion for anything and everything to do with, say, gang warfare, starling behavior, painting frescoes, or jousting, go with the urge. Find out all you can. Even if you can't use it right away, it'll go into some holding zone deep in your brain, and surface when you need it. All creative people--not just writers!--expose themselves to as much information, in as many forms, as possible, in the hopes that it will be useful down the road, or even right now. You never know what will spark something new!

How do you deal with writer's block?
Here are some fixes I use when I get stuck:

  • Introduce a new character, a strong one with an individual style in speech, dress and behavior--one who will cause the other characters to review their own actions and motives to decide where they stand with regard to the new character. Don't forget that with me, at least, new characters include animals: most characters will react to an animal intrusion of some kind in an interesting way.
  • Have something dramatic happen. As Raymond Chandler put it, "Have someone come through the door with a gun in his hand." (My husband translates this as "Have a troll come through the door with a spear in his hand.") Machinery or vehicles (cars, wagons, horses, camels) can break down; your characters can be attacked by robbers or pirates; a flood or tornado sweeps through. Stage a war or an elopement or a financial crash. New, hard circumstances force characters to sink or swim, and the way you show how they do either will move things along.
  • Change the point of view from which you tell the story. If you're doing it from inside one character's head, try switching to another character's point of view. If you're telling the story from an all-seeing, third person ("he/she thought") point of view, try narrowing your focus down to one character telling the story in first person, as Huckleberry Finn and Anne Frank tell their stories. If down the road in the world you've created someone has written a book or encyclopedia about these events, insert a nonfiction-like segment (that doesn't give the important stuff away) as a change of pace. Try telling it as a poem, or a play (you can convert it to story form later).
  • Put this story aside, and start something else: letters, an article, a poem, a play, an art project. Look at the story in a day, or a week, or a couple of months. It may be fresh for you then; it may spark new ideas.
  • If you have an intelligent friend who's into the things you're writing about, talk it out with him/her. My husband often supplies wonderful new ideas so I can get past whatever hangs me up, and my family and friends are used to mysterious phone calls asking about things seemingly out of the blue, like what gems would you wear with a scarlet gown, or how tall are pole beans in late June?
  • Most important of all, know when it's time to quit. Sometimes you take an idea as far as it will go, then run out of steam. This is completely normal. When I began to write, I must have started 25 things for each one I completed. Whether you finish something or not, you'll still have learned as you wrote. The things you learn and ideas you developed, even in a project you don't finish, can be brought to your next project, and the next, and the next. Sooner or later you'll have a story which you can carry to a finish.

How do you start a book or story?
Do your advance work: whatever research you might need. (You may end up doing more research as you get into your story, but at least do what you need to get started.)

Find out the time, place, and manner that makes you want to write the most: at a desk, in bed, with your younger siblings running around fighting over the TV remote; with a computer and keyboard, special pens, a certain kind of paper, a brand new notebook; if you can arrange your day, figure out what time is best for you; gather all you need to write (so you don't have to keep getting up to find things). If you have a ritual to get you in the right mind to write, do it (for example, fix tea, wash dishes, put on music), do the ritual, then place your behind on chair (or wherever you work).

Sometimes it's best to begin traditionally: "Once upon a time/Sing, Goddess, the wrath of Achilles/Let it be known that in the days" or "Chapter One: I am born."

I start with scene: people meeting to talk: describe the setting, the first person there, then the second--try to introduce at least one main character

Some can write scenes from different points in the story, scenes which are easiest for them to imagine--they don't need to start at beginning, but fill in around the scenes they've already written (most of us have to start at the beginning)

Pick a point, any point, and start writing. If you've started the story too soon, or too late, you can always rewrite.

How long is a book supposed to be?
This answer also applies to that other FAQ: Why don't you include more about Alanna, Daine and Numair, Kitten, Coram, etc., in your books?

The limit on most novels for teenagers--up until recently, at least--is 200 manuscript pages (about 250 pages in final book form). (For Intermediate/Young Reader books it's been 150 pages.) For me 200 pages is just long enough for the main character to get into, and (we trust) out of, serious trouble. Often when I try to include detailed information about secondary or minor characters, particularly those from earlier books, I end up having to cut it to meet my page limit. I know what people from other books are doing as I write the new ones--I just rarely have the space to include it. Thanks to J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, we're now being given a bit more room: Scholastic has let me run up to 220 pages; Random House gave me an extra 100 pages for SQUIRE. At the risk of sounding weird, though, I think for me keeping the story to around 200 pages, except when writing so complicated a book as SQUIRE, actually makes a better writer of me. I keep the story direct and moving, the cast of characters short; for me, that seems to work very well. (Don't tell my publishers I said this. These days I don't have to panic if I run over 200 pages, and that is a good thing!) Also, even with the wondrous bounty of 300 pages in which to tell the story, I still have to stick pretty close to the story of the main character and those secondary characters most involved with her/his life. I still don't have time or space to include everything about everybody.

Of course, adult novels are a different story, sort of. A good length for a first novel intended for an adult audience is 400 manuscript pages. If your first novel goes over 500 pages, pray that it's really good, because publishers are very skittish about backing a long book by an unknown unless a number of those who have seen it are certain it will be a hit. There is an economic reason for manuscript limits: the cost of paper. If your book is over its limit, even by a handful of pages, paper suppliers bump the price to print it up to the next price category. For example only--I don't know how much the real prices are: paper costs a publisher about fifty cents for 250 pages in final form; a book which comes to 260 pages bumps it up to the next price category, which is seventy-five cents. Publishers care about costs like this if you aren't a bestselling author, and sometimes even if you are.

Why haven't your books been made into movies?
First of all, until it comes to the point where an offer is made which I can take or turn down, I have no control over this. Most authors don't. Movies happen not when the author deigns to allow people to make her/his books into movies, but when movie companies or producers decide that a particular book would make a good movie. My agent always sends books to companies and producers to be considered for movie projects, but offers are rare. So far two companies have bought the option (a set time period in which they can own the rights to develop books for a movie) to the Alanna books, but they haven't taken the next step to making a movie from them. For one reason or another, they decided it wasn't profitable to spend more money in developing a movie project.

My books operate under a double whammy: they are costume movies set in a historical period (translation: much $$ for costumes, the transportation of cast and crew to a location which looks historical, and the purchase of a license to film there), and they involve a great many special effects (translation: much $$ for computer, marionette, and makeup effects). Animated movies could get around some of these problems, but they are expensive to make, and most animation producers prefer not to have to pay an author for rights in addition to their writers and animators. It may be that the success that's expected for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "The Lord of the Rings" may change studios' minds about how profitable fantasy can be, but we won't know that for a while, yet.

To be honest, I'm not really sure that I want the books to be made into movies. I certainly wouldn't complain: it means a lot of money, and more book sales once the movie appears. At the same time, no matter what the final result is, it won't match the vision in my mind. Also, movie people are notorious for rewriting your material. (Think about it--how many movies resemble the books they're based on? LITTLE WOMEN with Susan Sarandon and Wynona Ryder and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS with Jodie Foster stayed close to the books, but those are the exception rather than the rule.)

I know this is an annoying practical answer to a question that involves the most romantic area of the arts, but that's me--annoyingly practical. What other kind of person would go from Red Sonja comic books, in which Red Sonja always wears a chain mail bikini, to write of a hero who bundles up in multiple clothing layers because she hates the cold?

 How can a new writer get an agent?  
The best guide to literary agents is The 2011 Guide to Literary Agents, published by Writer's Market Books.  (There is also a section on agents in The 2011 Writer's Market, which covers fiction markets, novel and magazine, but it's not as complete.) 

These listings will tell you the names and addresses of the agencies; if an agency is made up of more than one agent, they will list the different agents and what kinds of book they represent; they will include whether or not the agent will accept simultaneous submissions (submitting a manuscript to more agent than one).  The listing will explain the terms of the contract (particularly the percentage of each sale that is the agent's fee), what form they want to see for your manuscript (complete book, sample chapters and outline, outline only), writers they already represent, conferences they attend so you can meet them in person, and tips. 

Writer's Market does not list agents who charge a reading fee, so you don't have to worry about being taken for a ride with no benefit to you.  The agents may charge for mailings, photocopying, etc.--you have to check with them for that.

If you are under twenty, I would not use my age in my query.  If your work is good enough to measure up to that of adult writers and an agent, then a publisher, take you on, that's the time to give your age.  Then it will give your publishers an incentive to give you extra publicity.  If you tell them ahead of time, and your work isn't up to an adult standard, you risk being published before a very hostile critical audience that will trash your work and diminish your chances for good sales and contracts for future books. 

One thing we have to learn as professionals is that we always have to keep an eye on our futures.  Yes, we want to publish books now, but we also want to make sure that we keep publishing them.  That's why it's important to look at what your agent has sold before you sign a contract with her/him: make sure s/he likes the general kind of thing that you write now and that you want to write in the future.  Try to remember now that you don't have to put everything in your first book, because if you work hard, there will be future books.  Put it in the back of your mind that you want to work on future books, so your brain will start cooking ideas.  That way, when agents and editors ask you what you plan to do next, your brain will have put together ideas while you were doing other things.  There's nothing that agents and editors like more than to hear an author whose first book they like is developing more.

You can find The 2011 Guide to Author's Agents and The 2011 Writer's Market in the reference section of your library, or in the section of most bookstores that carries reference books for writers.  (The holidays are coming if your family is good about hints!)  The 2011 Writer's Market comes out in July, so starting about November; you should always check any particular agency's website to make sure there aren't any major changes.

You're going to get turn-downs.  You will be depressed, but you can't let that stop you from sending your manuscript out again or from working on a new book.  The more work you can send out, the better chances you have of getting an agent.  Also, if someone asks to see whatever you're working on next, they really want to see it.  They are not being nice.  Finish it and send it to them!

Oh, one more thing.  Make sure your book is finished before you write to anyone.  Agents and publishers need to know you can finish a book before they'll take you on. 

What does an agent do?
An agent's services depend on the agency. First, an agent reads and comments on your manuscript and advises about the need for rewrites, depending on whether the agent thinks s/he can sell the ms. as is or if it needs more work. The agent then sends the ms. to editors/publishers s/he believes are right for this particular book; often these are people the agent knows professionally through meetings at lunches, conferences, and professional parties. When a publisher makes a contract offer, the agent is the one who negotiates the terms: not only how much money should be paid and how it should be paid out (on signature of the contract, on delivery of the finish book, on publication), but also who controls foreign rights (some publishers have their own divisions in other countries where they feel the books will sell; others will leave such rights in the agent's hands), movie rights, book club rights, and most recently, electronic book rights. The agent also negotiates how much of each sale the writer gets, and the terms for when books go out of print (it's sometimes possible to get out-of-print books back from publishers, and re-sell them to new publishers). The money from the publisher goes to the agent, who checks how many books were sold and to whom and if you got the right amount of money for the number of books sold (some publishers aren't honest--it's the agent's job to keep an eye on them, though you should learn to read your own contracts and statements in case your agent misses something or neglects to pay you all that you are owed). The agent takes out her/his percentage of the money (you didn't think they did all this for free, did you?).

Agents' commissions run from 10 percent to 25 percent of all the money that comes in for you, depending on what services the agent provides.

Most agents will also do all this for any magazine pieces--stories and articles--you may write--once they have taken you on as a book client. If someone wants to quote from your work, an agent is the one who handles the legal agreement and sets a fee on the use of your work. Many agents have relationships with literary agencies overseas; if your publisher doesn't control foreign rights to your books and you do, your agent will send copies of your books to their foreign agencies in countries they think would like your work. Agents will take in and send on your fan mail, and explain the mysteries of the publishing industry.

How can a new writer get a publisher?
This depends on what kind of publication you're looking for. If you don't feel you're quite ready to throw yourself on the not-so-tender mercies of the adult publishing industry, but would like to have respectable publishing credits to your name to put on applications to schools and universities, here are four sources you might try, depending on your age:

For writers ages 8 to 14:

  • Stone Soup Magazine: Stone Soup has been around for a long time as a publication written and illustrated by and for young writers. You can find copies of the magazine at just about any magazine vendor which carries magazines for writers, and you can check the site online to see about guidelines, etc.
  • New Moon: the Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams: I've had this link on my links section for years. I love New Moon and everything it promotes. Once again, this is largely written and illustrated by and for young writers, particularly girls (though guys might see if they are interested in any writing about girls from a guy's point of view).

For teen writers:

  • Teen Voices, an all-female magazine for teen and young adult women, an alternative to glossy teen magazines that seem to be about only looks and boys. Like Stone Soup and New Moon, you can find copies of Teen Voices at news stands which carry magazines for writers and for teenagers, or you can check them out online.
  • Teen Ink, a tabloid newspaper-sized publication with newspaper-like printing, chock-a-block with articles, essays, poems, pictures, and stories from girls and guys. I don't see it at news stands very often, but you can definitely check out the online site for submission guidelines.

If you decide to try a publisher or magazine directly (writers with just one book, or two, try publishers at the same time you look for an agent--if the publisher accepts the book, you can go to an agent and say, "I already have a publisher", which will obviously weigh in your favor!), the book you need is [the current year--the new issues come out in July] WRITER'S MARKET. Like the versions for agents, children’s books, and poetry, this book will tell you what kinds of writers a publisher or magazine is looking for (some publishers specialize--you don't want to send your novel to someone who publishes only textbooks), what they've published in the last year, whether or not they charge a fee to read manuscripts (if they charge a fee, I wouldn't send anything to them), their address, and how they want you to send material to them. (Some want just three chapters and an outline, some want the whole ms., some want a query letter.)

Listings include: book publishers (U.S.), Canadian and International Book Publishers, Small Presses, Consumer Magazines, Trade Journals, Newspapers, Screenwriting, Playwriting, Greeting Cards, Contests and Awards, and Resources such as Professional Organizations.  Even if your primary focus is books, you can earn walking-around money if you have a knack for articles in a particular area, or greetings, or short fiction.  Not only that, but every time you try a new area, you bring back tools you can apply to your normal craft.  Most of us sport very motley resumes by the time we’ve published our third or fourth books!

Do think about those small and international presses if you’re not having much luck with the larger ones.  The advance payments will be smaller than those from large houses, but this can mean that if your book sells, you will see more money sooner.  Also, when a book does well for a small publisher, sometimes larger publishers will pick it up. 

This is also true of self publishing (I notice the MARKET does not carry listings for self publishers).  You do still run into a certain amount of prejudice against self publishing, but that has changed some in the last decade.  People who publish books meant for a very specialized market—homeschoolers, say, those with celiac disease, people who are trying to live a completely natural lifestyle—often find they are better off self publishing.  The writer or friends will sell the books online or at conventions and conferences where people who take an interest in their subject gather.  They will make their money back and get something of a profit.  Again, there’s a remote possibility that a mainstream publisher will notice and pick that book up.

The book doesn’t seem to cover online publishing, but there are sections on “what should I charge,” and what publishers look for and what you should give them.  Don’t sign away rights before you’ve read every inch of a contract and talked it over with someone you respect.  See in the MARKET what other publishers demand, and never give everything away.

There is a section for literary agents that covers agents who are looking for new clients.  These agents do not charge for reading, critiquing, or editing, though they may charge for photocopying, foreign postage, long distance calls, and express mail service if they take you on.  Read an agent’s agreement carefully before you sign.  There is also a separate volume, THE [that year] GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS, which lists more agents and their requirements.

The annual MARKET will also tell you how long it usually takes for that publisher gets back to you. Most important of all, this book gives you the exact format and method for sending work to publishers, from how a page should look to including a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE, for short). I learned everything I had to know about creating a professional-looking manuscript and cover letter from the annual WRITER’S MARKET.   There’s even a section on building yourself a public presence—a “platform”—as a writer in order to show a publisher you’re already making yourself a name.

Now that more publishers and literary agents are online, do yourself a favor and search online for their websites before you submit anything to them.  If any changes have happened with that publisher or agent since the WRITER'S MARKET came out, it will be on the site.

If you write or illustrate children’s books, there’s a WRITER’S MARKET just for that.  This is also true for poetry.

Go on, set your work in a professional format, and send it out. What have you got to lose?

What if my work is turned down?
If an agent or publishing person turns you down, it may have nothing to do with your writing, and everything to do with what that person likes and doesn't like. If they comment on your work, read it carefully and think about it, sifting out what's useful and what isn't.

Don't let a turn-down discourage you. If you think a re-write is needed, then re-write, but be sane about it. I rewrite twice, then send things out, and I keep sending them out while I work on something new. Many times the thing that makes the difference between someone with talent who gets published and someone with talent who doesn't is the fact that the one who got published kept sending her/his work out, while the other gave up after one turn-down, or two, or three. Tom Clancy, I believe, went to more than 15 publishers before the Naval Institute Press agreed to publish his first book, Hunt for the Red October, which then became a best-seller. Jerzy Kozinski, a prize-winning writer, took his first big book, that won him many awards, changed the writer's name on it, and sent it to 19 publishers before someone thought it was worth publishing. J.K. Rowling was turned down by quite a few British publishers before Bloomsbury, a relatively small house (well, it was then) took a chance on her.

Do I have to re-write my work?
Yes, at least once or twice; Judy Blume rewrites four or five times per book; Jane Yolen has mentioned seven rewrites on one book: you will always find things to fix or change, because you learned more about writing as you got that book or story on paper. Chances are that even when you sell something, your editor will ask for a re-write. You may hate that, but here's the chance to show what a professional you are by gritting your teeth, having the courage to admit your editor has a point, and by trying to see things through her/his eyes. Remember, you're probably 'way too close to your "baby" to see its flaws like an outsider will. What many writers forget is that most editors aren't in the business to make your life a misery, but to make your work better. Any halfway decent editor will see ways that you can make your "baby" excel.

Don't let anyone fool you: every writer needs editing. Every writer. If someone tells you her/his work doesn't need editing, then either that someone is lying or s/he is a bad writer who will never improve.

Be sensible about criticism, though. Think about everything you're told, weigh it, decide whether it will improve your work or whether the critic has some need of his/her own. With editors and agents, if you disagree, state your argument politely, and think about the other person's reply. Listen to your own instincts. Try to be open-minded, but have faith in yourself as well. It sounds--and is--hard, but you have to try, because you are the writer. The final responsibility for your work is yours, and you owe your readers (the people who pay money or time to read you) the best possible effort you can make.

What do you say to people who want to become writers?
I say, Write what makes you happy. Write what makes you want to write more. Write to please yourself first, because you may be the only audience you have for years and years. Listen to what other people tell you, because there may be something in what they say that's useful, but learn also to trust in your own instincts about your writing.

Write the kind of thing you like to read. Try different kinds of writing, because each new form helps you to see your writing--and what you want to do with it--differently. So far I've written: stage plays, radio plays, screenplays (none that were made into movies, though), poetry (bad poetry!), articles, movie reviews, stories for women's magazines, all kinds of other short stories, articles about computer games. I've also worked as an editor, copyeditor and proofreader, which has been very useful. Helping other people sort out their mistakes teaches you how to avoid some of them yourself.