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.):
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?
Do you visit schools, libraries and
bookstores? (updated 3/1/15) 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. 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
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.
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 atmy 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?
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.?
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?
How did you come up with the creatures in your books
(basilisks, hurroks, Stormwings, etc.)?
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:
Where do you get names for characters and places?
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
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?
Do you like poetry? Will you read mine?
Where do you get your ideas?
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?
How do you start a book or story?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
For writers ages 8 to 14:
For teen writers:
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?
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?
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?
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.