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July 19, 2006

Seven Semi-Serious Questions about Writing

By Elaine Viets

The Internet is abuzz with authors handing out useless, outdated and downright wrong information about writing. Why should the Lipstick Chronicles be any different? In the next few weeks, our mystery writers will take a stab at these literary questions.

(1) What was your worst mistake?

I didn’t have a lawyer go over my first agent’s contract. I was so thrilled to get a big-time agent, I signed it.

A year later, when the agent hadn’t sold anything and didn’t answer my letters, I wanted out of the contract. That’s when I went to a lawyer. I found out the agent was entitled to commissions on all my work "in perpetuity" – whether he’d sold it or not.

It took $2000 in legal bills to get out of that contract. It would have only cost a couple hundred if I’d gone to a lawyer in the first place.

That agent has gone to his reward (I hope he’s somewhere even hotter than South Florida) and can’t do you any harm. But there are plenty of scams for unwary writers, including agents who recommend dubious "editorial services" and rake off tidy commissions

If you’re thinking about signing with an agent, check out Predators & Editors, a site every professional writer should bookmark.


Want to know how an ethical literary agent should behave? Check out the Association of Authors’ Representatives at


My agent belongs to AAR, but he made me swear on my next royalty check that I won’t reveal his name.

Want to know how a real literary agent thinks? Read Miss Snark’s blog at


(2) What advice do you wish someone had given you?

Keep reinventing yourself.

If you want a long-term career in publishing, you’ll have highs and lows. There’s a good chance your series will be dropped, you’ll be asked to write a stand-alone or start a second series.

Don’t cling to your first character as if you’ll never invent another. Embrace change. You’re a creative writer. Remember, they’re killing your series, not you.

(3) Who told you you'd never be published, and what would you like to do/say to them now?

A college English teacher gave me a C on an essay. He said I should give up writing because I had no talent. The prof turned out dusty academic prose but fancied himself a "popular writer" because he reviewed for the local paper. Gossip said he was looking for a New York publisher, but they weren’t looking for him.

When my first hardcover, MURDER UNLEASHED, tied with Harlan Coben on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association list, I wanted to send the prof a copy.

But that would be petty.

I have only three words to say to him: Neener, neener, neener.

(4) If you could steal ideas from someone, who would it be?

Sue Grafton.

(5) Commas -- does anyone really care anymore?

I love commas. They’re the cashews of punctuation. I sprinkle them generously throughout my work. The copy editors at my publishing house regard them as cockroaches, and ruthlessly stamp them out.

(6) What do you do when your career isn't going well?

Whine and blame the publisher.

(7) If you could start all over again, what would you do?

Everything right.

This time, I would understand that writing is a business as well as an art.

The first time, I thought when I turned in my novel, my work was done. Now I know it’s just started.

I didn’t have a marketing plan. I didn’t know what my sell-through was. I didn’t visit enough bookstores. I didn’t go to the big mystery conventions until after my book came out. And when I did go, I attended all the panels and avoided the bar.

I learned everything the hard way.


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Fascinating, Elaine. That first agent....he, like, owes you. Too bad he can't pay up. I have no contract with my agent at ICM and, frankly, I like it that way.

I thought all agents were like Ari on Entourage.

Elaine - great post!

You're a better woman than I - I would've sent that prof a lot more than a copy of the book.

I think lots us who are readers tend to romanticize the writing business. I would've guessed that once you finished a book, the work was pretty much done. Bummer.

Yeah, maybe the best advice of all is that last bit: Go to the bar.

Um ladies, I hate to say this but the font it almost painfully small, even for my relatively young eyes =(

I hate commas *g*

Great advice, Elaine. Especially the reinventing yourself part. (And avoiding crooked agents. I've never signed a contract, and I think that's good.)

I, too, have made mistakes---particularly having the hubris to think that a good book sells itself. Not! One of these days I'm going to get out of the starting blocks faster. Maybe J.A. Konrath isn't really going overboard, after all. :)

I'm the blind Tart, so I have my "View" set on the max. You might try that while we attempt to negotiate with Mr. Typepad about the problem. But any reference to size makes Mr. Typepad pissy. Of course, if you're already reading the comments, you've managed to read the small font already, so---well, sorry.

Hey - I think it looks better now -

Cece and others - refresh your screen and see if it looks bigger - I think I fixed it in Typepad and made the font bigger.

Let me get this straight: Your advice is, while the novel is in progress, a writer should attend conventions and be whoever they'd like to be while frequenting the bar.

Elaine, I, love, you.

Bless you ladies! It's fixed! I'm a semi-blind soul myself--okay well horribly nearsighted anyway.

Jake there's got to be some sort of happy medium =\

I recommend the bar at conferences -- it's where I met an editor and got a good book deal, some short story anthology invites -- and lots of really good gossip.
To the bar, my children. It's for your career.

I love the advice about reinventing yourself. I'm sorry someone never handed it to you - but I'll for sure credit you for passing it on.

What a gift!


I like reinvention.
I find the more non fiction i write, the easier my fiction writing. I guess it start with "What if>>>?"
"What if i did not have to write this boing term paper about cataloging theory?"

I like reinvention.
I find the more non fiction I write, the easier my fiction writing. I guess it starts with "What if...?"
"What if I did not have to write this boring term paper about cataloging theory?"


"Boing" makes for a better story.

Are there any words scarier in the English language than "in perpetuity"?

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