Publishing FAQ


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.

Other ideas come from my past obsessions. As a child, I read anything and everything I could find about knights, the Crusades, and the Middle Ages, before moving on to fantasy novels and Arthurian legends 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.

Another way I get ideas is from people, from talking to them and listening to their input and suggestions. Current events and history are also fertile ground for ideas. 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; 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 start a book or story?
First, 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 a computer and keyboard, or with a brand new notebook. Figure out what time is best for you, and 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, 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 a 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 do you deal with writer’s block?
Here are some fixes I use when I get stuck:

  • Introduce a new character. A strong character with an individual style in speech, dress and behavior, who will cause the other characters to review their own actions and motives to decide where they stand with regard to this new character.
  • 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 can break down; your characters can be attacked; a natural disaster may sweep through. 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 point of view, try narrowing your focus down to one character telling the story in first person. You can even insert a nonfiction-like world-building segment 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.
  • Talk to somebody. If you have a friend who’s into the things you’re writing about, talk it out with them. 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. Whether you finish something or not, 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 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). Intermediate/Young Reader books are about 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, I end up having to cut it to meet my page limit.

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, and Random House gave me an extra 100 pages for Squire. However, I typically prefer to keep the story to around 200 pages to keep the story direct and moving, and the cast of characters short. For me, that seems to work very well.

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.


How can a new writer get an agent?
The best guide to agents is the annual Guide to Literary Agents, published by Writer’s Digest Books. The annual Writer’s Market guides, by the same publisher, additionally include information that can help you find an agent and get published.

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, what kinds of book they represent, and whether or not the agent will accept simultaneous submissions to more than one agent. The listing will explain the terms of the contract, what form they want to see for your manuscript, writers they already represent, conferences they attend, and tips.

When making a query as a young writer, it’s best not to state your age. If your work is good enough to measure up to that of adult writers, you should give your age after an agent and publisher take you on. This will give them 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 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 them: make sure they like the kinds of things that you write now and what you want to write in the future. 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.

You can find the Guide to Literary Agents and Writer’s Market in the reference section of your library, or at most bookstores, under the section that carries reference books for writers. If you wish to purchase the books online, the 2017 Guide to Literary Agents can be found here, and the 2017 Writer’s Market guide here.

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 they can sell the manuscript as-is or if it needs more work. The agent then sends the manuscript to editors/publishers that they believe are right for this particular book; often, these are people the agent knows professionally through networking. When a publisher makes a contract offer, the agent is the one who negotiates the terms, including payment, foreign rights, movie rights, e-book rights, etc. Although the agent is your advocate, 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. Agents will also take in and send on your fan mail, and explain the mysteries of the publishing industry. Once they have taken you on as a book client, most agents will also do all this for any magazine pieces—stories and articles—you may write.

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


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 to the not-so-tender mercies of the adult publishing industry, but would like to have respectable publishing credits to your name, here are some sources you might try, depending on your age:

For writers ages 8 to 14:

  • Stone Soup Magazine: A long-established publication by and for young writers. You can find copies of the magazine at just about any vendor that carries magazines for writers, and you can check their website to see about guidelines, etc.
  • New Moon: Girls World Magazine: An online community for girls and their parents, which also includes a magazine by girls, for girls. New Moon is focused on empowering girls and giving them the means to express themselves.

For teen writers ages 13-19:

  • Teen Voices: Now operating under Women’s E-News, Teen Voices accepts submissions from girls around the world, including first-person narratives and articles about issues affecting girls. Teen Voices is an online publication.
  • Teen Ink: A monthly magazine featuring articles, essays, poems, pictures, and stories from girls and guys. The magazine is usually distributed to classrooms and libraries, but there are subscription options and free online content on the website.

If you decide to try a publisher or magazine directly, you should check out the annual Writer’s Market guide, as discussed here. This book will tell you what kinds of writers a publisher or magazine is looking for, what they’ve published in the last year, their address, and how they want you to send material to them. If they charge a fee to read manuscripts, I wouldn’t send anything to them.

Do think about 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.

Writers with 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, then selling the books online or at conventions and conferences that appeal to the target audience. Again, there’s a remote possibility that a mainstream publisher will notice and pick that book up.

Although Writer’s Market doesn’t seem to cover online publishing, there are sections on what you should charge, 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.


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 rewrite is needed, then rewrite, 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 their work out, while the other gave up after one, two, or three turn-downs. Even best-selling writers like Tom Clancy and J. K. Rowling were turned down by many publishers until one took a chance on them.


Do I have to rewrite my work?
Yes, at least once or twice. 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 rewrite. 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 trying to see things through their 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. 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 their 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 is your stand on fan fiction? 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 (and their attorneys) will mind as well, would be if someone tried to sell work using my characters, maps, etc. That’s copyright infringement, 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, 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 cliché, 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. We all have bills to pay, 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 can’t take the chance that someone else’s ideas might enter the stew where my creativity happens and surface years later: that’s how writers get sued for copyright infringement. It’s nothing against fanfics or their writers, and everything to do with me covering my behind.


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, and all kinds of other short stories. 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.


How do I get published in comics?
This answer was written as a special guest addition by Molly Durst, online comic writer/artist/publisher(Note: mature subject matter!) It was reviewed and approved by Tamora Pierce in October 2006, and reviewed again in March 2016.

Let me start by saying that these two websites I’m about to list are the best resources for girls who are interested in comics:

These websites are for The Friends of Lulu and Sequential Tart magazine. They are both organizations which promote female readership and authorship in comic books. These two sites have tons of information, including book reviews, ratings of published material and support for artists and writers.

My general advice for getting started in comic books is, Don’t worry about getting picked up by the big publishers. Most of the major companies are looking exclusively for established talent. They are not a good place for new creators to try to break in.

There are a lot of smaller press comic publishers which are female friendly. SLG, or Slave Labor Graphics, publishes a lot of female writers and artists. But there are others… The Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market, which is published annually just like the Writer’s Market series, has many listings for comic book submissions.

Also, if you want to break into comic books, go to the conventions. There are listings of local comic book conventions all over the Internet. It’s easy to find them everywhere in the U.S. (Your local comic book stores will also post information about nearby conventions.) Most conventions feature panels where writers and artists give lectures on how-to’s and how-not-to’s.

Most small publishers DO NOT want to see your idea. They do not want a script without art or art without a script.

Standalone art, even if it is good, doesn’t tell the publisher that you can create art sequentially, which is what they need for a comic. Most small publishers want to see a finished product. It would cost a small publisher money to hire an artist or a writer to collaborate with you, and they have limited budgets.

Every small press publisher with a web page will have submission guideline information on their websites that will tell you just what they are looking for.

So what do you do if you are a writer but not an artist, or an artist but not a writer?

You are going to need the other half. Meeting other people interested in creating comics will happen fairly organically if you visit con (convention) circuits enough, post an advertisement in your local comic book store for a collaborator, or join on-line news forums to meet people.

On working with a partner: If you’re working with someone else, remember this isn’t all your show. There’s a give and take. If you let your partner do some things her/his way, s/he should let you do some things your way if the partnership is going to work. Keep an open mind. Listen to what the other person is saying, and ask her/him to do the same for you. Remember that the final product will be different with every new partner. What usually happens is not that you get something that is half you and half the other person, but the creation of a third entirely new creator, when you work in partnership.

I prefer the one-woman-band method myself. Self-publishing is MUCH, MUCH more affordable than ever. If you have a decent home printer and desktop publishing setup, you can get cranking.

You can also publish very cheaply (or even for free) on the web. There is a fairly good listing of free hosting sites on this page.

To sum up, my advice is…

  1. Research: Look around for female-friendly publishers using resources like Sequential Tart and Friends of Lulu; talk to people; and visit conventions to learn everything you can.
  2. Research some more: Pay attention to those FAQs and submission guides when you send out your stuff to potential clients. They post them for a reason.
  3. Create a complete work: Find yourself a companion or do it all yourself.
  4. Submit and/or self-publish: Well, that’s self-explanatory, isn’t it?

And good luck! Remember to keep trying – keep writing new material, keep practicing your art, keep trying new partners if one doesn’t work out. But just keep at it!


Where can I find [X] in audio or ebook format?

When in doubt, ask the publisher. Who publishes the print version of that series? Who published the other audiobooks in that series, or the other ebooks? They’re your best bet for finding out when or if the other stories will be available in your chosen format. The more they hear from fans who want it, the more likely they are to publish audio or e-version of your favorite stories!


Will you read/blurb/intro my self-pub novel?

All blurb requests must come from the editor of a work, for the sake of the author and for the sake of Tammy’s schedule. She can’t afford to take on self-published requests, because she simply does not have the time.


Can I interview you for my blog?

It depends on her schedule. You can always ask, but there’s no guarantee she’ll have the availability.


I’m an aspiring author. Will you Skype with me?

Short answer: no. For much the same reason she can’t take self-pub blurb requests. Again, we’re very sorry about this, but Tammy’s schedule is already packed with travel, meetings, editorial commitments, and of course, writing. She just doesn’t have the time to take on more responsibilities. But please don’t be discouraged, and please do look at the rest of her FAQ to see if there’s anything there you find helpful. Best of luck, and here’s hoping we see you on the shelves someday.