James Floyd Kelly

Writer and Swashbuckler-for-Hire

Writing Advice – Take or Leave

I originally wrote and  posted this on my Facebook page in March 2009… only friends could read it.  I’m reproducing it here with permission of the author… he’s very understanding.


A friend of mine told me yesterday that he wants to write a book but doesn’t know how to get started or if he should even try. Here’s a summary of what I told him (and something I can point others to in the future rather than have to repeat the same info):

1. Publishing is a business. A publisher needs a few things to make a decision – a Table of Contents, deliverable dates, estimated page count, and list of competing books. In addition, it helps if you can provide an argument that the book is unique and/or a hot topic and explain why with sources such as magazine article or television coverage. Special TIP: If it’s the same topic as a “______ for Dummies” book, 8th edition, it’s likely not going to be of interest to any publisher.

2. Half the battle is the TOC and due dates. Publishers want to see that you’ve thought out the structure as well as how long it will take to write your book. Don’t know how long? Write the first three chapters – they’re likely to ask for the first 3 chapters anyway if they are in any way interested in the book’s subject. How long did it take you to write each chapter? Multiply that by the number of chapters and you’ve got a rough estimate – build in some wiggle room such as sick days, writer’s block days, and goof off days. Vacation? Don’t call it that – call it research time and add it in. Now, if the time to write the book exceeds 6 months – forget it. Unless the book is going to be a 1000 pages and the publisher sees it as a best seller, there’s no way they’re going to commit to a book that takes 8 months to a year (or longer) to finish. Shorten it or write faster. It’s easier to cut.

3. Page count? Again, figure out the average of your first three chapters and multiply that number by the number of chapters. Most likely the publisher will tell you (if they’re interested) what page count they’re looking for – they may even give you a range (260 to 320 pages). It’s voodoo math – seriously, just make a number up per chapter and try to stick to it. I was told to keep my latest book under 300 pages at the beginning – I’m well over that as of Chapter 18 (of 20) so I know there will be some heavy editing later. Of course, if the publisher likes what they see, they can be very forgiving if you go over.

4. In #2 above, i said TOC and due dates are half the battle. The other half is actually writing the thing. Can’t help you there other than to say you need to organize and develop a writing schedule – if the publisher has given you 4 months (16 weeks) and you’ve got a TOC with 32 chapters, you need to be cranking out 2 chapters per week on average. If you get behind 3 or 4 chapters, the publisher will be on you fast… if you get behind more, the contract will probably include some language to get the publisher out of the deal. Deliver 3 chapters a month early? Are you insane? Do you really want them thinking you can crank out chapters that fast? Expect your next contract to be for a 50 chapter book due in three weeks… you’ve been warned. Instead, keep writing, submit the chapters on schedule, and use the free time to catch up on sleep and Survivor reruns.

5. Do some digging and find out if any books have been published on the same topic. If so, and they bombed, you’ve got some convincing ahead of you. Publishers are very wary of repeating other publishers’ failures. Don’t worry about digging up sales numbers – just get the titles. The publisher has access to software that will give them sales numbers on competitor books. They’ll let you know fast if the other eight books that are out all sold less than 1000 copies – likewise, if there is only one other book on the subject and it’s hit 5000+ copies or more, you may have a chance. (Of course, you’ve actually got to be able to write on the subject…)

6. Write the entire book before finding a publisher? NO! Are you crazy? Maybe write one or two chapters if you must – the publisher is going to be base his/her decision on your query letter and not examples of your writing. (And if you violate a publisher’s rules about submissions by sending chapters before a query letter, you’ll actually hear the door slam, even if it’s in another state or country.) Do some research on the publisher, find out how they wish to be contacted (most likely a query email or letter first) and follow their rules. Break one… you show them that you’ll break more. And there are SO MANY MORE…

If the publisher likes the idea, let him/her tell you how they wish to proceed – they may ask for one chapter sample or three… or ten. Who knows. Publishers are strange.

7. Advance/Royalty? At this point, don’t even think about this stuff. Get a publisher interested and then they’ll introduce the topic. You’re not going to have much negotiation here as most publishers have a standard first-time author amount they go with. The exception, of course, is whether they feel you’ve got something that’s going to earn a ton – even then, they’re not Las Vegas so don’t expect much risk taking. Listen to their offer, figure out if you can live with it (pay bills, that is) and if it doesn’t put you below minimum wage when converted to an hourly rate, sign the contract. Your first book will open doors, so don’t risk losing this chance over something like money. As for royalty rate, anything less than 10% and you’re being taken advantage of… anything more and try not to smile. Expect the rate to go up incrementally when certain sales goals are met (15% at 10,000 copies sold, for example).

8. Got a contract? Good… don’t waste time. Start writing now. You may find as I have that the first 50% of the book flows… then you hit the wall. The last 50% begins to crawl. You still need to make your deadlines, but writing begins to feel like work… and I didn’t decide to be a writer because I wanted to work. I write so I can go see all my favorite movies at matinee price in the afternoon. That, and it’s the only time I can catch up on my TiVo recordings.

9. Writer’s Block will hit you – argh. It’s awful. Do what a mentor told me and take 2 days off, even if you owe a chapter during that time period. Text your editor and tell her that your laptop died. Only call if you can pull off a fake cough with confidence. Whatever it takes. Just don’t think about the book. Go see three movies in a row… do some “research” at the pool… do some laundry. Repeat Step 9 as often as necessary.

10. Did I forget to tell you about Author Review? Oh yeah, as you turn in chapters, they’ll be edited and looked over by one or more people. They’ll add comments and suggestions for improving the chapter – add something here, go into more detail here, provide a better example there. You, of course, have to do all this while your still writing first draft chapters. Your editor will expect second draft chapters to be returned at a reasonable rate, so you’re work just increased about 30-50%. Yes, you’ll find your editor suggesting that you change the word “underneath” to “below” and asking you to rewrite entire paragraphs because they “lack something” (but no explanation as to what they lack). It’s mind-numbing… but necessary. Why? Because your first draft chapters really do stink – that’s why you have an editor. Do what they ask and make the changes you can because they typically know what they’re doing – it is their job.

BONUS COMMENT #11: Finish the book. Don’t drop out halfway in the contract – you’ll have to pay back your advance and publishers have some super secret web forum that they use to swap names of troublesome authors (I know someone who did this and she’s never been able to get another book proposal accepted). Plus, they have lawyers. I’m married to one, so I know what they can do if publishers decide to involve them… just finish the book.


February 26, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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