Dear friends:

I am complimented that so many people have recently asked me for advice.  Unfortunately, I no longer have the time to answer every letter in as much detail as I would like.  Everyone must find his or her own way in this business, but here are a few pieces of advice that address some common questions.  

1. Join the school newspaper staff if you haven't already.  Journalism will teach you much.

2. Read as many books as your leisure time will allow.  Be adventurous and try many different authors and types of books.  (You may have zero interest in westerns or romances, but read one anyway just to find out about the genre.)  If you are particularly moved by a passage in a book, reread the section with attention to the word choice, sentence structure, punctuation etc.   Read some of the masters.  They tell some pretty good yarns.

3. Start writing. To write well takes a great deal of practice.  One of my major regrets is that I did not write more when I was younger.  If I had, I'm sure I would be better at it today.
4. Set aside time to write every day, even if it's only a few minutes.  I have never heard of anyone making it as a professional without working a regular schedule.  Keep to your schedule even when you don't feel like writing.

5. Don't talk too much about your ideas and stories.  Writing is something very personal.  Get your ideas and stories down on paper, then you can share them.  If you talk too much beforehand, you’ll find that your ideas lose their freshness and excitement.

6.  Keep your eyes and ears open.  The world is a tremendously exciting place with all sorts of stories waiting to be told.

7.  Concentrate on writing good dialogue.  Become a student of how people talk.  Dialogue moves a story better than narration.

8.  Don't get hung up on fancy descriptions.

9.  Keep your sentences in the active voice.  Use active verbs instead of is, are, was, were, will and the other forms of to be.  Tip: avoid starting sentences with there, this, or that; they are almost always followed by a form of to be.  (The use of active verbs can be overdone but it's tough.)

10.  Don't think every sentence has to be fancy.  The simple subject-verb-object is just fine for most purposes.

11. Rewrite. Rewrite.  Rewrite.  Very little is good in first draft. I am firmly convinced that good writing is the product of careful rewriting. I usually go through a piece twenty to twenty-five times before it is published.

12. Investigate the books on writing in your local library.  About 75% will be of doubtful value, but the other 25% will help a great deal.

13. Find a friend who will give you an honest reaction.  Take the advice and rework your piece.  Sometimes, you'll discover that the piece is garbage.  Chuck it and start again.

14.  There are some excellent summer programs in writing for young people.  Check them out.  If you really want to be a writer--and I don't doubt that--skip the job flipping burgers next summer and go to one of them.  Your school counselor or the head of the language arts department can probably help you.  You might want to write to the National Association for Young Writers, P.O. Box 3000, Dept. YW, Denville, NJ 07834 for information.  

15.  Have faith in yourself.  Many writers have been published quite young.  S.E. Hinton published THE OUTSIDERS when she was only 18.  Lois Duncan and Gordon Korman were even younger.  However, success at such an early age is quite rare.  Most writers get a lot of rejection slips--I certainly did--before making a sale.  Unfortunately, most people trying to become writers give up on a piece after a rejection slip or two.  Then after two or three pieces get rejected, they give up altogether.  Don't do that!  Persistence more than talent separates published writers from unpublished dreamers.

16.  Develop a thick skin.  Take criticism gracefully, use what's useful and discard the rest.  A writer can be forgiven a lot of things, but never for quitting.  

Good luck.

Best wishes,

Alden Carter

(mostly boring stuff for adults)

1.  Learn as much about the markets as early as possible.  Some forms of fiction are extremely difficult to sell.  I have plots that I would like to explore but that simply don't seem viable in the marketplace.  There are a number of books on getting published.  Probably 75% of them are garbage, but you'll learn a lot from the other 25%.  One that is well-regarded is HOW TO GET HAPPILY PUBLISHED.

2.  Learn the rules of the various genres.  It seems that I am constantly running into people who want to write children's books featuring little animals talking in verse.  I have yet to run into one of these people who has taken the time to do word and page counts on current children's books; to learn anything much about the techniques of poetry (or the current unpopularity of the form in children's lit.); or to figure out that cutesiness is the kiss of death in this business.   So, they are doomed before they start.   There are also genre rules for romances, westerns, gothics, science fiction, and even YA stuff.  There is an entertaining book on the subject by Dean R. Koontz with a title something like WRITING SCIENCE FICTION AND OTHER GENRE FICTION.  And, once you know the rules, you can know when to break them.

3.  Poetry is great, but it doesn't pay well.   I'm not saying don't write it, but keep the day job.

4.  Unfortunately, short fiction rarely pays well.  Today's paying magazine market is so small and the competition so tough that it is easier to get a book published.  There is a slowly growing market in books of short stories, but novels are still much easier to sell. 

5. Some people are prolific enough they can make a living writing nonfiction magazine pieces, but you need to sell a lot to make it pay.  The nonfiction market in books is good, and some people are making a real killing.  The children's and YA nonfiction markets don't pay very well, but it is a good genre to get a career started.  By the way, about 75% of the YA nonfiction is contracted for by the publisher.  If you can get on an editor's list, she'll keep you busy.  (Most YA editors are female.)

6.  Once you've decided what you want to write (if you haven't started out sure of that), WRITE.  Set aside time to write even if it's only a few minutes a day. I have never heard of anyone making it as a professional without working a regular schedule.  Keep to your schedule even when you don't feel like writing.  Be careful not to talk your ideas to death.  The less time you spend talking about them and the more time writing, the better off you'll be.  Likewise, don't show your work to ANYBODY, spouse included, until you're really ready.   And, of course, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.  It's a drag, but very little is very good in first draft.  A dozen times is none too few.

7.  The internet can do many things but good reference books are still important.  Some of the ones I use:

The Chicago Manual of Style.  This is the ultimate style book.  If you need to know how to footnote in Icelandic, check Chicago.

Words into Type.  Good advice on style.  Excellent on the mechanics of publishing.

AP Stylebook.  A good, quick reference to journalistic style.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. (I believe the TENTH is now out.)  That dictionary you used back in college?  It's dated.  Badly.

The Careful Writer  by Theodore M. Bernstein.  There are many good handbooks, this is one of the best.

Roget's Thesaurus.  Somehow the electronic ones still don't quite make it.

The Writer's Market.  The Bible for the freelancer: contains market information, lists of agents, awards etc., and many good articles on submission, query letters etc.  This is an expensive book.  Unless you're doing a lot of magazine articles, use the library's copy.  This year's edition will be on reserve, but last year's may well be in the stacks.  Look for older editions in the library's annual book sale.

The LMP (The Literary Marketplace).  This is the publishing industry's guide.  There are many long lists of editors, agents, imprints etc.  Use it in conjunction with The Writer's Market as needed.  (No need to buy it.)

Modern English Usage.  This famous book will untangle your stickiest questions about usage.,

Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.  I own both and use both.  If I were to own one, I'd choose the first. 

Reader's Encyclopedia.  A good, quick reference to literature. 

The Columbia Encyclopedia.  Short accurate articles on just about everything.

Compact Oxford English Dictionary.  The O.E.D. is the ultimate authority on word meanings and origins.  The compact edition, complete with magnifying glass, comes in two thick volumes.  It is often offered as a bonus for joining Book of the Month Club or the like.

The Ultimate Visual Dictionary.  Want to know what that thingamajig is really called?  Check here. This is the best of the three visual dictionaries I own, but all are useful. 

Partridge's Dictionary of Slang.  I'm not very fond of this.  It's extensive but heavily British in outlook.  I'm looking for a better slang dictionary. 

The Timetables of History.  An outline of history with handy cross-referencing of developments in various fields. 

Times Concise Atlas of World History.  One of the best historical atlases.

Hammond's World Atlas.  I need a new one.  Where are some of these countries ending with -stan anyway?

8.  The quickest way to become a professional is to act like one.  The books on getting published will tip you off on some of the amateur mistakes.  For example, never send a piece to Fiction Editor.  Send it to a person. The name will be in THE WRITER'S MARKET or THE LMP.  Example two: don't tell them how much they should like your piece; they're not interested in your opinion but in your work.  Do anything you can to show that you are a professional, intent on being a professional, or at least know the rules of the game.

9.  Submission format is not difficult: double space with one inch margins all around; use a heading (name of the piece/your name/Page - #) in upper right hand corner of each page; start the first page of the piece or chapter halfway down (this is to give the editor a space to make notes).  Include a stamped return envelope until you are really established.

10. Don't bother copyrighting your material before submitting it.  All you need is a dated copy.  Chances are almost non-existent that anyone will steal your work.  By in large, publishing is an honest if exasperating business.

11.  Rejection kills most writers in the ol' proverbial bud.  One or two rejection slips and they toss the pieces and their ambitions aside.  Rule 1: Never worry about the quality of a piece until it's been rejected at least ten times.  (There are just too many reasons for a rejection other than quality.)  Rule 2: Never let a rejected piece spend the night in the house; get it out again.  Rule 3: Remind yourself as often as necessary that if the jerks can't recognize brilliance, that's their problem.  Rule 4: Always be working on another piece.  The more you have in the mail, the less the individual rejection hurts.  I used to keep a dozen queries, grant requests, sample chapters, or completed pieces in the mail at all times.  That way there was always hope, even in the years I was building a huge collection of rejection slips.  Even now, I usually have at least a half dozen things out at any one time.

12. Agents. Most won't take you unless you're published, which seems rather a Catch 22.  But give one a try if you feel that you have a large part of a marketable book.  (Very few handle articles, poetry, or stories, and then only for the big names.)  The worst he or she can say is no.  Then try another or try to sell the book yourself.  Just don't give up.

13. Don't pay reading fees.  Ever.

14.  Children's picture books are deceptively simple in appearance, but they have some strict rules.  There are a number of good books on the subject.  I would suggest that you visit a first-class library for a look at the books available.  Perhaps even better, visit or write the Children's Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin--Madison (600 N. Park St., Madison, WI 53706) or one of the other children's book centers around the nation.

15.  Unless you are a professional illustrator, do not send the MS. with illustrations.  Do not arrange for a friend to illustrate it either. Publishers will almost always reject collaborative efforts.  The editor will line up the illustrator. 

16. Consider joining a writers' group or organization.  The local ones are handy for manuscript criticism and mutual support.  Just don't get hung up on the organization and forget that your focus is on becoming a writer.  By its nature writing is a largely solitary profession.  Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  It is fairly expensive but I recommend it highly for the newsletter and workshops.  Address: SCBWI, 8271 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. 

17.  You can learn a lot at a workshops or in a class.  However, as with writers' groups, don't let attendance at workshops become a substitute for writing. 

18. No matter how you do it, keep faith. If you keep working at it, eventually you'll make it.  (Now and then, glance at the garbage on the paperback rack.  It helps to remember that some real idiots get published.)

Greatest good luck,

Al Carter