Happy Birthday, In Cold Ink!

It’s been just over a year since I started In Cold Ink. Like most anniversaries, this seems like a good time to reflect on the experience.  As you can see in my first post, I started out with some trepidation. I juggle a lot of jobs, and when I write I’m prone to obsession.  I worried that a blog, in my hands, would become just one more thing to neglect. And you can’t neglect a blog.  It’s like babysitting the neighbor’s kid, except that you can’t plop the blog down in front of the t.v. and expect it to amuse itself.

But I had things to say, as a writer but also as a longtime publishing professional. Before I gave it all up to write my own books,  I was an editor in a large New York publisher and a literary agent. My career path has given me a multifaceted perspective on the industry, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned and demystify an industry that from the outside can seem remote, strange in its ways and potentially hostile.  I also wanted to learn from others. Publishing is an industry in turmoil, on the cusp of profound change, and I wanted to explore that evolving world.

The results have exceeded my expectations. A surprising number of readers found their way to the blog: nearly 24,000 visitors last time I checked. Many left comments, and I’ve met some smart, interesting people through the blog. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some publishing pros, who’ve shared valuable insights and perspectives, including literary agent Gail Hochman,  Viking editor Tara Singh, and Editor-in-Chief of S&S, Marysue Rucci. Among the writers who’ve graced my doors are Diana Gabaldon, Tiffany Allee, Lorraine Bartlett and Mika Ashley-Hollinger.

dianagabaldonIt was interesting to see what posts attracted the most reads. The most popular by far is my two-part interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon, of Outlander fame…and I do mean fame. Her fans would follow her anywhere, and they followed her to my blog.  Second in popularity is my interview with literary agent Gail Hochman, also a two-parter, and very meaty in terms of how agents work, what they look for in new writers and what they avoid. Third is a post called “Ten Things Writers Should Expect from Literary Agents,” which I wrote because, while lots of writers are busy hunting for agents, few know what to expect once they nab one.

Looking over the list of posts also reminded me of some of my favorites, which I’ll mention just in case you missed them. “What if J.K. Rowling Had Self-Published?” is one. It’s my fullest answer to a question I hear frequently: “If I have a choice, am I better off seeking an agent who will then seek a publisher or self-publishing?”

Medicalert: The Scourge of Premature Submission” is a comical piece with a serious message. “Digging up Blurbs” shares some of the Dickensamazing blurbs my latest book received posthumously, from writers like Jane Austen, Hemingway, and Dickens. (I thought it was funny, anyway, even if one reader took it way too seriously and accused me of literary grave-robbing. )  “Too Much Body Language, She Said, Frowning” focues on the essential matter of craft in writing. Finally, this one has nothing to do with writing but is so worth reading: “A Former Slave Writes to His Master.

The last year has been a momentous one for me, with a new book on the way and five (five!!!) earlier books reissued. Happy events; but like other Happy Events, very time-consuming. If it weren’t for the support and engagement of this blog’s readers, I would never have been able to keep it going, but now the blog is a part of my life.  I look forward to an exciting year ahead, with lots more interviews with publishing insiders, writing advice, and reflections on our changing industry. I also look forward to sharing with you all the events surrounding the publication of my new novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, coming out in less than a month with Viking Books… including all the fun stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

Thanks for reading.

Have red pencil; will travel?


Should writers hire freelance editors? It’s a vexed question, much debated on the writers’ forums and blogs. My own opinion has evolved over time with the changes in the publishing industry, and it may surprise those of you who know that I myself have worked as a fiction editor. My default position is that they should not… or at least, not right away.

Whenever this question is discussed on other blogs and forums, invariably someone will say, “It’s the writer’s responsibility to edit his own work. It’s part of the job,” to which I say, Amen. First drafts are not finished novels, and shouldn’t be regarded or presented as such. They are the imagination’s playground: rough, and meant to be.  Revising is where the real art comes in. That’s where writers deepen their characters, vet the structure of the book, deal with unruly subplots, refine the language and imagery, and find ways to bring out the theme, which often presents itself to the writer only after the first draft is written.  “Every writer,” Jane Smiley wrote, “has to learn to…come at each piece of work again and again with as close as he can get to a new mind and a new sense of joy.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and novels are not written in one pass. Most of the published writers I’ve known spend at least as much time revising as they to writing the original draft.  “I am an obsessive rewriter,” Gore Vidal once said, “doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say but a great deal to add.”

Nevertheless, writers need editors. As writers we can only see what we see; we don’t see what we can’t see. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Every artist gains through smart, objective feedback. Beta readers can be helpful if the writer chooses well and gets lucky, but it’s not at all like feedback from a professional editor with professional standards. A good editor knows not only when something isn’t working, but also why and how to fix it. The result is a better book, and that, I believe, is what every true writer wants most for his work. The process is also educational, since learning from smart editing is one of the primary ways in which writers grow. What they absorb through the editing of one book, they will apply to the writing of the next one.

Why, then, if editors are so essential, do I advise writers against hiring their own? For purely financial reasons. If the book sells, it will be edited at the publisher’s expense. Edits are not forced down the throat of writers, by the way, contrary to propaganda put out by some self-publishing advocates. Edits usually come in the form of questions or suggestions. The final word is always with the writer, although in extremely rare cases, when communication between writer and editor totally breaks down, a publishing house does have the right to withdraw from a contract if the book is not, in their view, publishable. (The reason such occurrences are rare is because publishers don’t usually buy books that need tremendous amounts of work unless they’re by celebrities, and in those cases there is usually a professional ghostwriter attached.) Paying out of pocket for the same level of editing would be exorbitantly expensive. First-rate, experienced editors charge a lot; $10 and upwards per page is common, and that is just for the first edit. To duplicate the services provided by trade publishers, you’d also have to pay for an edit of the revision, as well as copy-editing and proofreading: maybe $18, $20 a page. (Let me anticipate objections by conceding that yes, you can hire editors for less; but as is usually the case, you get what you pay for.)  That’s a lot of money to invest in a book that may never sell. And the sad truth is that the vast majority of first novels, edited or not, do not sell.

That’s why I recommend that when writers have finished a novel (by which I mean they’ve edited it thoroughly, shared it with a trusted beta reader or two, and revised again to implement whatever useful feedback they receive), they send it out to test it in the market. Of course, to give the book a fair chance, writers have to bone up on submission protocol,  write a great query letter, and assemble a list of suitable literary agents. Having done all that, it’s time to let the book go forth and seek its fortune in the wide world. If it attracts an agent who then sells it to a publisher, the publisher will provide editing services at no cost to the writer. That’s a big part of what they do, along with production and marketing.

But such a scenario is the best of all possible worlds. Suppose it doesn’t go that way? What if you’ve written a novel, sent it out, and gotten nothing but form rejections from agents:  no encouragement, no criticism, no feedback at all. It happens. Agents stop reading the moment they determine that a book is not for them; they don’t finish the ms. and write thoughtful critiques. Writers can accumulate a stack of rejections without an inkling as to what went wrong and how to fix it. Or they might come close—requests for full mss. from agents, even an offer of representation followed by no sale. What do they do then?

Once, for lack of any other alternative, these unwanted works would have been shelved, mourned over, and eventually forgotten. These days, writers have choices. They fall into four categories:

Option 1. Writer decides that agents are bums and stink at their jobs; tells himself that no one gets published without knowing someone in publishing; concludes that the game is rigged; and, rather than deprive the world of his work and himself of the glory, decided to self-publish. None of these suppositions, by the way, is true. Celebrity authors aside, publishing is one of the few remaining meritocracies. In the past year alone I’ve had the pleasure of seeing four of my Next Level students sell their first novels, and none of them had any connections or “platform.” (If you want to learn how they did it, two of them, Tiffany Allee and Mika Ashley Hollinger, answer that question in interviews on this blog.)  Writers who choose to self-publish are well-advised to hire an editor, and not just any editor but the best one they can find and afford. Sending a book out into this market without editing is like dropping a toddler off to play in Times Square; it will be squashed flat in no time at all. It makes economic sense, too, to invest in editing. In a recent study of self-published books by the Taleist magazine, researchers found that edited fiction outsells unedited fiction by a wide margin.

The advent of inexpensive self-publishing and the rise of the ebook has given writers options they never had before. I do think self-publishing is a very difficult road, especially the marketing aspect. In the U.S., over 300,000 books were self-published in the last year, and they are all competing furiously for attention, reviews, sales. But that’s a whole other topic, and if you want to hear my take on it, you’ll find it in a post called “What If J.K. Rowing Had Self-Published?” My point here is that having choices is a beautiful thing. Over the years I have read some brilliant early novels by writers who didn’t have instant commercial success. Maybe they get to publish a second novel, maybe not; but an awful lot of wonderful writers disappear from the market because their sales figures killed them in the eyes of the increasingly monolithic (and well-informed) publishing industry. Who knows what they might have written had they been able to continue? Today such writers have other ways to find readers, and readers to find them.

Option 2. Writer concludes that the book is not good enough yet and goes back at it again. In this case, it makes sense for the writer to consider hiring an editor to provide skilled, objective feedback. It’s also possible to find professionals who will do detailed evaluations of the book or part of it, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of the work in a very specific way without actually doing the edit for the writer. Evaluations are usually much less expensive and possibly more educational, because the writer has to do more of the actual work of revision, rather than having it done for him. It must be said that making this investment of time and money does not assure publication. It will result in a better book, but whether it’s publishable or not depends not just on the quality of editing but the quality of the original material. What the edit is bound to do, I think, is teach the writer a lot about the craft. I see it as an intense, detailed tutorial that focuses on the writer’s own work; and given the uncertainty of publication, this may be its greatest value.

Option 3. Writer gives up on that book and goes on to the next, building on what he learned from writing the first. Most published writers have an early unpublished work or two in their drawers. (For current and future generations of writers, that may become “an early self-published work or two.”)  One novelist I knew—Ted Whittemore, author of the brilliant Jerusalem Quartet—wrote seven books before selling his “first” novel.

Option 4. Writer gives up on writing and takes up another pursuit. It happens, and not necessarily for lack of talent. To succeed in this tough business, people need also need fanatical perseverance. (As Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”) They need another source of income, too, since only a small fraction of writers support themselves through books alone.  And let’s not forget the luck factor, lest it forget us.

Writers who choose Options 1 or 2 might also consider as an alternative to editing putting their books, and themselves, through a rigorous writing workshop that will allow them to work specifically on their novels. There are quite a few available, both in brick-and-mortar institutions and online. In my opinion, if a first round of submissions has not led to a sale, it’s worth delaying a second round, or self-publishing, in order to do your very best to improve the book in hand.

Whether you choose a course, an editor, or an evaluator, it’s essential to do your homework and find someone who’s both well-qualified and suited to your particular project. In my next post, I’ll set out a list of criteria for writers to consider before making that choice.

Can Writing Be Taught?

My last post about the bloodsuckers who prey on writers stirred up some interesting discussions on writers’ forums that I frequent. One writer, Cammy May Hunnicutt, agreed that paid reviews and submission services exploit naive writers and provide no real benefit, but she questioned my assertion that the one thing worth paying for is education, learning the craft.  “People,” she wrote, “are dying to think they can spend some money and become ‘good’ writers.  Not really so.”

This is an interesting statement; and based on 15 or so years of teaching fiction writing, I have to agree with it, if by “good” we mean extraordinary, publishable. To get to that level,  there has to be some natural ability in the mix. But talent isn’t everything; it isn’t even enough. Writers need craft, too. We don’t make it all up from scratch each time we start a story. We learn stuff and build on what we’ve learned to do more, the same as in any art. Just as painters need to master perspective, so must writers master point of view. Just as musicians must learn structure to write fugues, so must writers  learn to structure their stories for maximum effect. These techniques can be taught to any reasonably literate, motivated person, so I believe that nearly everyone can learn to write better; and that is something most writers aspire to.

But Cammy, bless her, was not convinced. “‘[You say] ‘You can’t learn to be good, but can learn to be better.’  Let me ask you how much that counts for.  You see writers who are really sweet and don’t get published, others who write junk and make millions.  If I can use athletics as a metaphor, I’ve seen the workshops and camps and coaching.  And being ‘better’ is seldom good enough at the level that the average person can access.  I don’t see it as an investment that will return, but a money drain.”

Cammy asks tough questions, but fair ones. It’s true that all the training in the world isn’t going to get a mediocre hoopster onto the Knicks. Writers who study with me are strongly motivated—they have to be, to participate in my strenuous workshops—and over the years, quite a few have gone on to publish.  I take enormous pleasure and pride in  their success–but they are a minority. The hard truth is, many of my students will never publish unless they self-publish. The bar to trade publication is extremely high, and even for the most talented, there are numerous obstacles along the way. So what is the point of writing classes for those who won’t achieve that? Could teaching itself be exploitative?

I don’t believe it. People deserve a chance to strive for their goal, however difficult it may be. Besides, you can’t always tell who will and who won’t end up getting published. I’ve been surprised more than once. Sometimes a genre gets really hot and the bar is lowered a bit as publishers scramble for material, so that agents and editors may be willing to take on a manuscript that needs more work than they’d normally invest. Other times I’ve seen students who start out with major deficits learn really, really quickly—just soaking things up because they’re ready for them. (See Mika’s story.)Where a writer starts isn’t necessarily an indication of where she’ll end up.

Some of my students are going to end up self-publishing their work–a statistical certainty these days. In those cases too, I think they’re doing a good thing for themselves and their books and their eventual readers if they learn all they can about the craft of writing. Doesn’t have to be through classes, either. A detailed critique by an editor or writer with serious chops (scroll down on this page for a list of things to look for in a writing teacher and editor) can be an eye-opener, serving not only to improve the work in question but to provide the writer with tools they can apply to everything they write thereafter.  If that’s not in the budget, there are excellent books on writing available, and libraries where they can be had for free.

To me it seems self-evident that writers, like painters and musicians, need to master the tools of their trade; but, as Cammy was brave enough to point out, I have a vested interest in believing this. So let me ask the writers among you to weigh in with your thoughts and experience on Cammy’s challenging question: Can writing be taught?


My purpose here is not to tout my classes; in fact, I’m taking a hiatus from teaching and editing for the next 4-5  months to work on a book. If, however, you are interested in taking one of my workshops when I resume, the best way to get in is to get on my emailing list, which you can do by emailing me at www.nextlevelworkshops dot com.

The Five Qualities Writers Need

Today I’d like to start by introducing you to a wonderful writer, Mika Ashley Hollinger, whose first novel just came out with Random House. I have a very personal relationship to this book and its author. Mika was my student for several years while she worked on PRECIOUS BONES, so I feel about this book as a midwife feels about the babies she helped deliver. But friendship and admiration aside, I think Mika’s own publishing story is an instructive and inspirational one for all writers.
Barbara:   Tell us a little about your novel, PRECIOUS BONES.  What’s it about?

Mika: PRECIOUS BONES is a young adult historical fiction, about a ten-year-old girl growing up in the Florida swamps of 1949.   I did extensive research on the life cycle of Florida’s swamps and inhabitants. It was at one time an incredible wildlife habitat and I wanted that time to be forever remembered.

The book’s setting feels entirely real.  Did you grow up in the Florida of that time?  Is the novel based on your own life?

Yes, I was born and raised on the east coast of southern Florida.  The book is loosely based on my childhood memories.  I chose 1949 because that was just the beginning of Florida’s drastic changes, both environmentally and socially.  After being away many, many years, I returned to visit where I grew up and was devastated by the changes that had taken place.  It woke up all those memories.

Did you read much as a child?  What were your favorite books?

I loved to read stories about animals and about the South.  Some of my favorites were;  The Yearling, Charlotte’s Web, Gone With the Wind and of course To Kill a Mockingbird.  I was fifteen years old when I saw the movie and it had such a profound effect on me, I knew from that moment on I wanted to write books. I wanted to tell stories from the innocence of a child, but with the wisdom of an adult.

When did you first start writing PRECIOUS BONES?

About twenty years ago I started compiling memories and facts about Florida and my childhood.  It didn’t actually become a story draft until I took an online Writer’s Digest course in 2004 with you, as my teacher!  From that experience I gained the confidence and knowledge that I could actually write this story.

When was it published?

It was published by Random House in May 2012.

How many drafts of the novel did you write?

I would say there were at least three or four along the way, I don’t really remember.  Of course, my most serious and extensive re-writes were with my agent and then my editors at Random House.

Was the path to publication smooth?  What kept you going?

The path to publication was a long and winding road filled with speed-bumps.  I have a folder filled with rejection slips.  I had two different agents, at different times, but neither one knew where or how to sell the book to a publisher.  There were some very discouraging times and on more than one occasion I thought about just giving up.  But through the support of my husband, and your support and encouraging advice, I stuck with it.

Before the book sold, did you ever consider self-publishing?

No, that was not a consideration.  I held true to my own conviction that it had go through the proper channels and be published.

What sort of strategy did you have before selling PRECIOUS BONES?

In hindsight, one of the problems, from 2005 to 2010, was I didn’t have a strategy.  I was so new and naive that I just sent queries out to any agent.  I got a lot of positive response, which led me to believe I did have a good story, but no one knew how to sell it.  After one particularly discouraging event, I told my husband I felt like it was a hopeless situation.  His advice to me was, do some research and find agents that represent the type of story you have, and that is exactly what I did.  I read young adult books with a southern theme, and stories with the same type descriptive writing style I was using.  I sent out a few more queries.  There was one agent in particular whose work I so admired. Within six weeks, I got a phone call from her and I had the agent of my dreams:  Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management.  She was wonderful to work with, she understood what needed to be changed or added to make the story bigger.  We worked together on a couple of rewrites and within one year she had it sold to Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books.  A true dream come true!

Tell us about the phone call…was it a call?…in which you learned the book had sold.

Catherine kept me informed on all transactions, which relieved a lot of anxiety on my part.  On February 24, 2011 she emailed me with the wonderful news that Michelle Poploff of Delacorte Press, loved the story and wanted to publish it.  It’s one of those moments when you have to read the sentence over and over again to let the true sense of its meaning sink in. Working with Michelle and her assistant Rebecca Short was also an incredible experience.  These ladies were so professional and accommodating.  Getting published with a house like Random House was well worth the wait.

What have you learned as a writer from the evolution of your first novel?

Believe in yourself.   Be prepared for those rejection slips and just file them away.  And when you do sign with a publisher, be ready and willing to listen to their advice and suggestions. There may be some major changes taking place with your story.  Work with them, it’s what they do; they know how to take your little story and turn it into a bigger one.

What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

Persevere. No one is going to come looking for you, you have to look for them.  Do your research and find agents that represent your genre of writing!

What comes next for you?

I am working on another young adult historical fiction, set in Georgia in 1969, during the height of hippies, The Vietnam War and integration.

I can’t wait to read it. Thanks, Mika!


I wanted to bring Mika and her novel to your attention for several reasons. First, because PRECIOUS BONES is wonderful, one of the best young adult novels I’ve ever read. Over the course of its evolution I read it multiple times, and it still makes me cry. It’s a book that children and adults can enjoy equally, and I recommend that you buy it immediately. It’s available as an e-book, but I’d suggest getting a print copy, because I have a feeling that first editions of this book will someday be valuable.

The second reason is that Mika exemplifies the five qualities I believe writers need if they aspire to be published, as her story illustrates.

Talent is the first requirement. Anyone can learn craft, and even the most talented writer needs to do that; but talent is a gift, just like athletic ability and perfect pitch. Mika had talent in spades. The first time I read her work, when it was little more than a gleam in its author’s eye, she was in a class of 10 or 12 writers. Even in  its embryonic form, I still remember how her language, descriptions and characters jumped off the page.

Craft is the second. Serious writers study the craft. Mika invested in her dream and became a better writer than she was. These days, with self-publishing as popular as it is, there are lots of people offering all sorts of services to writers. In my opinion, the only thing a writer ought to pay for is good instruction in the form of classes or manuscript evaluation.

The ability to learn from good criticism is the third requirement. You can only go so far on your own. At a certain point you must seek out discerning readers, learn to distinguish good criticism from bad, and implement the good advice. Criticism is like fertilizer; it can be hard to abide, but it grows the writer. Mika was open to that process.

Perseverance is the fourth requirement. Mika’s novel was 20 years in the making, eight years in the writing. She had agents who failed to sell the book and many disappointments along the way. She could have given up at any point. She didn’t. She believed in her book. If the author doesn’t, who will?

A focused goal is the fifth. Mika was determined to be published by a trade publisher. She did her homework and focused on agents who represent her type of writing. Agents and editors bring real value to their books. Because Mika held out for commercial publication, PRECIOUS BONES is a much better book than it would have been if she had self-published an earlier version–and I say that as someone who read and loved the earlier versions.

PRECIOUS BONES is available on Amazon and B&N. Order it now, or at least read an excerpt and decide for yourself. What was that Sandra Bullock line? “You can thank me later.”

If you’re a fiction writer willing to work hard to improve your craft, give me a shout. I offer several online writing workshops through my Next Level website.