A Potpourri of Questions & Answers

Today I’m going to give my thoughts on several questions I’ve been asked the last couple of weeks.

Kathleen Elizabeth asked: Should you be basically finished writing your novel before you begin the search for an agent?

→ If you’re previously unpublished: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. The novel should be finished, edited, polished and ready to go. Published authors usually only need an outline and a few sample chapters. Nonfiction: you need a proposal and three sample chapters.

Janet asked: Is it reasonable to expect an agent to put together the book proposal?

→ Nope. You should have your proposal ready before you query an agent, especially with nonfiction. There are books and downloads available to help you write a book proposal. I’ve got some tips here.

Terri Tiffany said: I have worked on craft, but lack ideas for a great plot. How do I get there?

→ Most prolific authors come up with story ideas everyday, just from living life. They pay close attention to current events, conversations, what their friends are talking about. They look at situations and ask “what if…?” When you ask them, “How do you get story ideas?” they usually say that ideas are the easiest part. The question is, which ideas are interesting enough to develop. I’m not sure this helps you, Terri. Maybe you can get some books on plotting (try Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell) and I think there are even books and websites on how to come up with ideas.

Ilana asked: If you’ve been blogging, how do you include this in your fiction query?

→ In your query write, “I’ve already begun building an audience for my writing through my blog (include blog name and URL) which I’ve been writing for ___ months/years.”

But then Ilana added: Particularly if, like myself, you’ve been blogging under a pseudonym to keep your fiction career separate from your current (and much different) day job?

→ Well, Ilana, let’s be logical. If a blog is written by one person, and a novel is written by another person, exactly how can one be considered marketing support for the other? You’re right, it can’t. Begin blogging under your fiction pseudonym immediately. Or better yet, just write your fiction under your own name. (I’ll discuss pen names another day. In my opinion, they’re rarely warranted.) The point of a platform is to build an audience for yourself — people who will buy your book. You can’t build an audience for Ilana and expect it to help sell books written by Jane.

T-Anne asked: Is it okay legally speaking to have sample chapters of my unpublished novels on my blog?

→ Yes. Even once you’re published, this is a typical marketing practice. To be safe, I’d say don’t include more than 10% of the book, unless you’re pretty sure you’re not going to get a publisher.

Kat Harris asked: Would you ever considering looking at the revision of a project you previously rejected?

→ Yes, but usually only if I said in the original rejection, “I’d be happy to look at this again if you decide to do some revisions…” If I didn’t say anything like that, then go ahead and re-query, making sure to explain in your letter that you’ve done revisions and would like me to look at it again. The worst I can do is say no. (I’m not going to block your email address!)

Sharon A Lavy said: My character has partial lyrics running through her head. What do I have to do about it?

→ Every song lyric requires permission, and it often costs money to get that permission, so use song lyrics with caution! You should get your permissions prior to querying so your ducks will be in a row. An alternative is to make up lyrics to your own songs.

CRT wrote: I want to know what determines the value of a word? You know, the twenty dollar words, and ten dollar words…

→ Hmm. Well I guess it depends on who’s writing or saying the words. If Stephen King sells a 150,000 word novel for $2 million, then each of his words is worth $13.30 (including “and” and “the.”) If you have a lot to say, but nobody will actually pay you for your words, then I guess they are worth…. well, you get the point.

Anonymous asked: Why, oh, why do you accept “pretty much everything,” but exclude sci-fi and fantasy? Is that just personal preference? Is it harder to sell sci-fi ideas? Please enlighten me!!

*Sigh* (Wondering how many times I have to say this.)
→ Because I don’t enjoy reading it.

That’s all for today! If you have anything to add to my answers, feel free to pitch in. And keep the questions coming!

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  2. Janet on April 12, 2009 at 8:28 PM

    >Thanks for the answer, Rachelle. I will confess, I’m not much at ease with the idea of writing my own advertising copy (like back cover copy) but I guess I’ll grow into it.

  3. Alexander Field on April 11, 2009 at 8:40 PM

    >Rachelle, thanks for your answers to the questions above…no wonder your proposals rock by the time we see them! : )

  4. CRT on April 10, 2009 at 10:05 PM

    >Well I guess I should take up singing then.

    That way if people don’t want to hear my words they can pay me to shut up.

  5. Susan Cushman on April 10, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    >Ooops, somehow my comment didn’t link back to my blog. Trying again.

  6. Susan Cushman on April 10, 2009 at 5:17 PM

    >Just found your blog through Twitter and it’s really helpful. I’m a fairly new writer (7 essays published since Nov 07)with a memoir-in-progress and a book proposal I keep tweaking as I continue to query agents. Your advice is excellent and enjoyable. I’m a follower now. Have a great weekend!

  7. LUCI on April 10, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    >Oh, please do talk about pen names, because I’m planning to use pen name if one day I get my book published…

    Many thanks!

  8. Timothy Fish on April 9, 2009 at 9:38 PM

    >My thought on fair use is that it’s better safe than sorry. It’s one thing to quote someone and comment on something they have written, but when we start using the work of others as the primary piece of value, such as the quotes from a gardening book, Laurie mentioned or if we plaster someone else’s poem in our pages, we are crossing a line, albeit a very vague line. I would much rather spend a couple hours getting permission than to spend days in the presence of lawyers because I didn’t want to be bothered.

    The concept of fair use is defined by court cases, not written law. It seems to me that it is an attempt to balance the right of free speech, allowing someone to say something in reference to something someone has written, and the right of a person to make money from his intellectual property. These are two very fundamental rights in America and it is difficult to guess which a judge will favor. When in doubt, get permission and take it out of the judge’s hands.

  9. Jessica on April 9, 2009 at 9:20 PM

    >Nice pic Rachelle!

    Interesting about stylists and storytellers. I’m not sure which one I am but I’ll be thinking about it.

    Thanks guys!

  10. Heidi the Hick on April 9, 2009 at 8:00 PM

    >Thanks for the advice!

    I suspected it would be like this (my husband’s an engineer and has had to learn a lot about the legal side of the music biz) but I wanted to hear it from somebody in the book biz.

    Alright I’ve got more homework to do!

  11. Laurie on April 9, 2009 at 7:12 PM


    I love your blog! It’s so informative. The “fair use” discussion is especially helpful.

    In my novel, gardening is a central metaphor and I would like to begin each chapter with a quote from real gardening books. Since I would only be using one or two sentences (properly credited of course) from a whole book, can I assume that is “fair use?”

  12. Kristy Colley on April 9, 2009 at 5:55 PM

    >Thank you Rachelle!

  13. Beatriz Kim on April 9, 2009 at 3:58 PM

    >Thanks for this very informative post! I’ve started writing my memoir online, which now I realize may have legal consequences. Now I have to figure out what 10% looks like!

  14. Sharon Ball on April 9, 2009 at 3:42 PM

    >As always, Rachelle, great information that is very helpful for us writers. I do have one unrelated question for you, however. It’s about proposals. How imporatant is it for a writer to include market analysis information in the proposal? Is it something most agents will require?

  15. Joel Q on April 9, 2009 at 2:54 PM

    Could you explain a little bit on the difference between scifi/fantasy and supernatural, based on what you are looking for in regard to submissions.


  16. Teri D. Smith on April 9, 2009 at 12:32 PM

    >Thanks for the information about “fair use”. Very helpful.

    There’s a discussion on the ACFW loop about pitches. One agent last year at the conference said they liked a short pitch and then time to read a portion of the first chapter.

    The agent teaching the course suggested allowing for reading time wastes time to make a connection with the agent.

    What’s your take on this? Would you prefer a few moments to read a portion of the manuscript or use the time talking?

    Another question: When you ask for a proposal at a conference, is it sometimes “courtsey response” or do you only ask for ones you’re genuinely interested in. This subject has also come up on the ACFW loop, and I’m wondering about your take on it.


  17. Lisa Jordan on April 9, 2009 at 11:09 AM


    Thanks for your responses. They’ve been very helpful!

    I’m so glad you’ve decided to keep up with your social networking *for now.* There are some of us who really appreciate what you do. Igonore the naysayers.

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the new pic!

  18. Falling Around on April 9, 2009 at 10:48 AM

    >Very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

  19. Rachelle on April 9, 2009 at 10:47 AM

    >Important for everyone to understand re: FAIR USE:

    Fair Use is a doctrine that’s not clearly defined, and each publisher/copyright owner treats it differently.

    When thinking about “Fair Use,” look at the size of the original work (how many words) and determine what percentage of the entire work you’re using.

    When you use one paragraph of a 60,000-word book, that’s a miniscule portion of the entire work. But when you use 2 lines from a 10-line song or poem, you’re using a full 20% of the work, which is NOT “fair” by anyone’s definition.

    The smaller the work you’re quoting, the more you can be sure that you will need permission. Whether or not you’ll need to pay for it will vary according to who owns the copyright.

  20. lynnrush on April 9, 2009 at 10:43 AM

    >Great answers and questions here! Very helpful!


  21. Sharon A. Lavy on April 9, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    >I thought my use of the lyrics were “fair use” But I have contacted the owner and will abide by her wishes.

    Thanks Rachelle.

  22. Camille Cannon Eide on April 9, 2009 at 10:32 AM

    >Rosslyn: you have an amazing memory! I offered this theory for discussion with the loop, and the feedback told me that many writers could relate. (How funny: I read Terri’s question and thought to myself, I can relate, but was too chicken to admit it.)

    I love words and crafting them into art, and have to work at the storyline. My novelist son is a natural storyteller. I know this because when I complained that I was struggling to come up with a story idea, he seemed confused asked me how I could call myself a Writer. (*snort* Dude, because I WRITE, it’s like breathing.) I’ve heard of those who are natural storytellers whose first attempts to publish were crushed when told they need to work on craft. I envy the storyteller. But I do believe we can strengthen the areas in which we are not naturally strong. Is that not true in life?

  23. Rosslyn on April 9, 2009 at 9:27 AM

    >Terri – I wish I could remember who posted on your topic on the ACFW loop. I really liked the distinction she drew between stylist-writers and story-writers. (If you’re reading this, oh mysterious poster, please take credit! Camille, was it you?)

    Though we all have to master both style and story if we want to be published, the poster’s theory is that most of us are naturally stronger in one area than in another.

    Stylist-writers tend to be people who have studied writing and literature and trained for some time in the craft. They love language itself, and working with words. They can take a reader’s breath away not just because of what they write, but because of how they write it. Their execution is wonderful, but they have to work harder to develop a bestselling story idea.

    Story-writers are fountains of creativity who have umpteen novels running around in their heads because they just can’t stop dreaming up high-concept stories. They pitch to editors and get mss. requests every time. Their challenge is to learn how to write with sufficient polish and technique to make their characters and settings three-dimensional.

    I’m not saying these categories are mutually-exclusive, but I believe most writers tend toward one or the other, especially at the beginning of their careers. In my critique group, two of us are stylist-writers and one is a story-writer.

    It sounds as if you tend toward stylist-writerhood, so my advice is to list the themes and topics you really care about. Mine, for example, include social justice, freedom, courage, and faith. That makes it natural for me to write stories of bondage and freedom, both literal and spiritual. From there, I can decide what kinds of historical situations best illustrate that bondage and freedom. I also look for real-life historical events that contain the themes that move me to tears and laughter.

    Hope that’s helpful!

  24. Lady Glamis on April 9, 2009 at 9:18 AM

    >Just Me:
    Some of it might be fun, but just like some people don’t like certain food, some people just don’t like sci fi or fantasy. I’m one of them. I’m trying to be more tolerant… 😀

    Rachelle, these were great answers. Thank you so much for sharing! And everybody had great questions, too!

  25. Rachelle on April 9, 2009 at 8:22 AM

    >Katie & Heidi,
    If a song is in the public domain, then you don’t need permission. Just make sure you verify public domain. There are websites that list this information.

    To get permissions for songs not in the public domain, you have to contact the copyright holder. First, find out who owns the copyright. Then track down a phone number, address, or email address and call or write them. They usually have a specific person who is responsible for handling rights. This can be a cumbersome process. You will have to do your homework, do your research and figure out how to do this… or don’t use songs!

    Katie, when people query me and they’re blog readers, I DO like being told that. Thanks for asking!

    Just Me, It’s challenging for me to answer your comment without too much snark factor. 🙂 But I assure you, we (editors and agents) know what we enjoy and don’t enjoy, just like you know what you like and don’t like. After more than 30 years of being a voracious reader, taking numerous literature classes, working for publishers and editing books, you can also be sure we have all read more than *one* book of fantasy and/or sci-fi. I understand it’s frustrating when others don’t enjoy the same types of books you do (and therefore, it’s more difficult for you to sell your work), but please don’t assume it’s because we haven’t read enough of it or we don’t know what we like. I’m glad you’re having fun with sci-fi and I wish you the best finding your market!

  26. Pam Halter on April 9, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    >THANK YOU for the “because I don’t enjoy reading it.”

    Why would anyone want an agent who doesn’t enjoy their stuff?? Good heavens! I want an agent or editor who will champion my work.

  27. Heidi the Hick on April 9, 2009 at 7:33 AM

    >Oh- the song lyrics question! I’m glad somebody asked that. I have one more.

    How would we go about getting our permissions?

  28. Just_Me on April 9, 2009 at 7:26 AM


    I wish people more people would give sci-fi and fantasy a shot. Too many read one book and can the genre as all bad.

    Not that you really have time for extra reading outside your usual set, I’m sure you’re swamped. But still… sci-fi is fun!

  29. Rachel on April 9, 2009 at 6:59 AM

    >I love this post. And your new picture is fan-stinkin’-tastic.

  30. Sharon A. Lavy on April 9, 2009 at 6:45 AM

    >Thanks for sharing.

  31. Katie on April 9, 2009 at 5:08 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I have a question about songs. I would like to include lyrics from an old hymn in my book – It is Well with My Soul, by Horatio Spafford.How do I go about getting permission to use an old hymn when the author is long gone? Is there a publishing company I would get a hold of?

    Another question: When people query you, do you like to hear that they follow your blog? Or is this best left out?

    Thanks so much!

  32. Joy on April 9, 2009 at 4:11 AM

    >very helpful. thanks!