Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fiction Writing Advice from a New York Times Best Selling Author

Today's guest post is by the fabulous Kim Hammond. 

Many authors are generous with their time and give talks on the craft of writing. They offer advice, tell their horror stories, and share their love of fiction writing. I love attending these talks and was fortunate to be able to attend one put on by the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

The author in residence was New York Times bestseller Taylor Stevens. Right from the introduction she wanted you to know her background so you would better understand her comments and advice. The audience sat mesmerized as she described what sounded like the plot of a thriller, but was actually her own life growing up.

Born in New York state and into the Children of God cult, she was raised in communes across the globe and denied an education beyond sixth grade. Forbidden books and television, she secretly obtained a notebook and wrote her own fiction, only to be discovered and severely punished, her stories burned. Stevens was in her twenties when she broke free and entered the foreign world of general society, trying to cope and fit in.

With little formal education and no writing background whatsoever, she wrote The Informationist over a three year period. It’s no coincidence that the setting of this book is in East and West-Central Africa, where Stevens lived for four years. The Vanessa Munroe series, now on its third book (with a fourth in the works) has received critical acclaim and the books are published in twenty languages.

Taylor was entertaining and funny. She described her informal writing process, riddled with procrastination, and her long road to publication. She shared with the audience what she called her Five Myths of Publication:

1. You can make a living from writing - not unless you’re James Patterson or Lisa Scottoline.

2. Writing is an art - If you want to be a bohemian writer for self fulfillment that’s okay, but publishing is a business and if you don’t write what people want to read then you won’t sell books.

3. Authors have control over what happens to their books - the only thing you control is words on the page and you may have to even fight for some of those.

4. You have to know someone in publishing to get published - she’s living proof this isn’t true. Her advice is write a good book and write a good query letter. Remember that “rejection is part of the gauntlet you run to publication.”

5. Writing is about the writing - No again. There’s a threshold that the average reader will tolerate. They won’t read below a certain level of writing and won’t read above a certain level of writing. You just need to be within that threshold.  Most read because of the subject and the story, not the quality of the writing. There are some authors who's writing isn't that great, but they sell a ton of books. The writing has to be good enough, not perfect.

Stevens then discussed the top five questions she’s asked:

1. I have an idea. How do I get it published? Write a book. Ideas don’t get published, books do. You have to be a big name or have a track record to sell a book that isn’t written yet and even the big names usually have to submit a synopsis and outline.

2. How do I find a publisher? You don’t, your agent does.

3. How do I find an agent? Research, then research some more. Do your homework. A few places to research are Publisher's Marketplace and Agent Query. Make sure the agent represents your genre, is taking new clients and accepts email queries. Go to the agent’s website and read the submission guidelines. Do EXACTLY what it says. Stevens was fortunate enough to have had two agents interested in her. She went with the one who scared the crap out of her because the agent was tough as nails and Stevens knew the agent would fight for her.

4. How do I write a query letter? Stevens was not specific on this, but she did offer suggestions on how NOT to write a query letter. Check out Query Shark and Slush Pile Hell 

5. Should I self-publish? This is a very personal question that only you can answer. The pros are: you can keep more money; you’re in control; you get your book in print faster. The cons are: it's a lot of work and if you don’t know how to do it all, editing, marketing, promotion, social media, etc. you are at a disadvantage; it’s hard to get discovered when you self publish.  

Stevens described the traditional publishing route in a very entertaining way. Her book is a car built out of legos and it’s a Toyota. She gives it to her agent who pulls it apart, removes some things, adds some things and gives it back to Stevens. Stevens rebuilds the car and it’s now a Mercedes. Then the book goes to the editor who pulls it apart, removes some things, adds some things and gives it back to Stevens. She then rebuilds once again and now she has a Lamborghini. The public only sees the Lamborghini.

As you can see, I paid attention and took copious notes, while laughing all the while.  If you have a chance to hear Stevens speak, whether it’s at a writing event or an author event, I recommend seeing her. She’s worth your time and is one author to keep an eye on.


  1. Great post Kim. Loved reading this.

  2. Wow, that sounds like an interesting event. She has lived quite an exciting life.

  3. Great post, Kim. I loved your copious note taking! The only thing I might clarify is that myth #1 isn't that authors can make a living off writing -- many in both self- and traditional publishing, including myself, do pay the bills through writing. The myth is that writing is a lucrative business. :)