Transcripts

 

The Care and Feeding of Editors

with Helen Chappell

 

Dec 19, 2002

   



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

mary rosenblum

Hello, all. This is our regular Professional Connection live interview.

 

Tonight, we're visiting with Helen, Chappell, reporter, editor, journalist and novelist, will join us for our December 19 Professional Connection. A Jill of All Trades, and author of more than 35 books, Helen has sat on both sides of the editorial desk. In her chat, Helen will field any questions you ask regarding editors, what they do and don't do, and how to make the most of your relationship with one of these fin, blue-pencilling folks. For a taste of her new novel, 'A Whole World of Trouble', due out this April from Simon and Schuster, visit her website at : http://www.oysterback.com and click on 'What's New'. You can read a chapter and take a look at the very nice cover art. Her editor at Simon and Schuster is Chuck Adams, whose stable of writers includes Mary Higgins Clark and Jackie Collins, so she can tell us what it's like to work for one of the 'biggies'! We're very fortunate to have her expertise.

 

I know that when I started writing, I didn't have a clue as to what editors were like and wasn't even quite sure that they were human! So Helen, welcome! We're delighted to be visiting with you!

Helen Chappell

Thank you, Mary! And hello everyone! Nice to be here. There's a big full moon out there, and the holidays are upon us, so I appreciate your coming tonight!

mary rosenblum

As do I! Everyone is busy, this time of year!

Helen Chappell

I'm ready to talk about editors, or indeed, anything. But I know editors as much as one can know editors.

 


 

And thanks, Mary, for having me here tonight. Folks, she really is great!

mary rosenblum

So what do you think editors want most from us writers?

Helen Chappell

I asked a couple of editor friends that question

 

for this chat. And I was told basics were important

 

a good sized font. A serif font. A clean ms, and

 

your name address and phone or email on the title page.

 

It's amazing how little things mean so much when

 

someone is taking a first look at your ms.

 

Beyond that, they all said show me a good story --

 

something that keeps me reading,

 

something that I can use in my magazine or we can

 

publish at our house. Those are the basics.

mary rosenblum

Your experience is mostly with book editors, right Helen? How do they handle the 'slush' pile?

 

Very few books that come in over the transom get a look,

 

but I hear editors who say they look at everything that crosses their desk.

 

Do I believe it? Not often. But some do.

mbvoelker

By "title page" do you mean a separate page with nothing but the title and contact info or the first page -- with the title halfway down it? And, how long does a manuscript have to be before it deserves a separate title page?

Helen Chappell

Hi, MB! No, just putting all that info on your first page will do.

oma

What is "over the transom"?

Helen Chappell

"Over the transom" means a ms. arrived unsolicted and without an agent,

 

meaning it came through the transom of an old fashioned door. It's an old fashioned expression. I'm showing my age!

 

Many major houses say they no longer look at unsolicited material, or material that is not agented.

 

The days when you could find a large publisher without a rep are pretty much over,

 

but small presses seem to be more welcoming of the unexpected ms.

 

Still it's wise to query with a synopsis and a few chapters first.

bettyboop

Brenda Dixon asks, do you have to get a few writing awards or win competitions before an editor will take you seriously?

Helen Chappell

Betty Boop! Love it! No, you don't have to win and award or a competetion.

 

Just give them the best work you have.

 

That's what will make the sale.

mary rosenblum

Since agents are so important, how does an unpublished newcomer find a good one? Any tips?

Helen Chappell

Many state arts councils offer grant competitions for

 

writers. Check into it for your own state.

 

The submissions are judged blind, and unpublished writers have as good a chance as the published.

 

And often, there's some money involved. ..

 

So, it doesn't hurt to mention these awards and grants in your query letter.

 

If you win, of course.

mary rosenblum

Since you brought this up, on the website in Craft of Writing, the Market Update topic, I've posted the Santa Fe Literary Awards Project.

 

This is exactly what you are speaking of, and accepts 75 pages of your best writing.

 

The awards total about 6000$

 

and include publicity and publication.

Helen Chappell

Check it out, folks.

charleygal

Helen, what type of titles really grabs an editor to pick it out from the rest? Meaning, does the title grab the interest for the editor more than a synopsis of the story?

Helen Chappell

Hi Char! Good question! Titles are a great hook.

 

A title that grabs my interest is more likely to be read first.

 

But after that, it's the quality of the work that counts.

 

But yes, work on those titles!

mary rosenblum

Are the guidelines posted in the market listings enough to go on? Or is there a better way to get a sense of what a particular publisher is looking for?

Helen Chappell

Yes! Read the magazine! Please. Often they say one thing and want another,

 

so reading an issue of the magazine will give you more of an idea of the character of it's content.

sojourner

Any tips on finding a good agent?

Helen Chappell

A good agent. Yes. Check the AAR website. Ask your friends who have agents.

 

Write query letters. Tell them a little about

 

your work. Find out who else they represent.

 

Someone who handles only science fiction won't want your romance.

 

Check the acknowledgements pages in the front of books you like.

 

Often a writer will thank his or her agent. Than you can track that agent down through the web.

 

Often younger agents are easier to find than the more

 

experiened agents. Many young agents are

 

former editors, and they want to build a client list.

mary rosenblum

Just a caveat here – an agent who represents mostly SF might WANT to represent your mystery, but that agent may not know the mystery editors well.

nina1

What is AAR?

Helen Chappell

Also, attending writers' cons can put you up close and personal

 

with agents. Sorry, I missed that last question. Can you repeat?

mary rosenblum

Nina wanted to know what AAR stands for.

Helen Chappell

Association of Artists' Representatives.

sjoconductor

Do agents handle short stories, or only novels?

Helen Chappell

Conductor! Most agents are only interested in handling books.

 

You have a better chance of placing magazine pieces on your own. ..

 

and no agent or commission! Actually

 

getting some stuff into magazines gives you a track record that a potential agent will like,

 

becuase it shows you can sell.

sojourner

Will I need to pay a retainer to 'book' an agent?

Helen Chappell

In my experience, agents who ask for reading fees and retainers aren't people who you want to deal with.

 

If you go to writer'sblock.com, you'll see a whole list of fraudulent agencies and people

Helen Chappell

who are ready willing and able to rip you off. Stay with

 

agents who are part of a professional organization like AAR,

 

because they have to answer to certain rules and regulations.

chatty lady

Speaker, have you heard of the book by John Wood...How To Write Attention Grabbing Query & Cover Letters?

Helen Chappell

Hi Chat! No, I haven't, but it sounds like a good subject

 

and I should probably take a look at it.

 

Query letters. My best responses have come from

 

letters that were one page, brisk, brief and businesslike. The shorter the better. This seems to work.

mbvoelker

What things would an editor consider marks of professionalism? Things that would make a favorable impression?

Helen Chappell

MB: No drool or coffee stains on the ms. Clean copy, a readable font, with serifs, and my favorite trick --

 

address your cover or query "Dear Mary Jones"....

 

People in publishing always seem to address their first letter with the recipient’s full name. It's almost like an in-code. I have no idea why this is, it just is.

 

Forgive typing and spelling, friends. It's the full moon.

mary rosenblum

Instead of addressing her as Dear Ms. Jones?

Helen Chappell

Instead of. Use "Dear Honoria Gobsmack". I think this is to avoid gender confusion.

jim

Are book manuscripts double-spaced like magazine manuscripts? It seems like a lot of extra paper, copy, and shipping charges.

Helen Chappell

It's one of those little in things. Use it. Can't hurt

chatty lady

How soon do new writers have to worry about agents? I thought most won't represent story fiction writers anyhow.

Helen Chappell

Hi Jim. All manuscripts are double-spaced. This allows the editor go get in there and edit. It's professional.

 

Hi Chat! No, when you freelance to a newspaper, which I have done, you don't need an agent. Check out the

 

masthead or web site of the newspaper for the editor of the section, and address your query to that person.

 

Newspapers are generally interested in features, travel pieces, that sort of thing. Hard news is staff written, but they need a steady supply of features, and often depend on freelancers to supply the need. It's a good way to try to break into publishing.

mary rosenblum

Helen, everyone knows that sooner or later we need agents, but what do they actually do?

Helen Chappell

A masthead is the place where the editors of each section of a paper are listed.

Helen Chappell

A masthead is the place where the editors of each section of a paper are listed.

 

What do agents do? I personally think they take three hour lunches and drink martinis with editors.

 

But having worked for an agent, I can tell you they

 

work hard to sell your work to a publisher. They negotiate a contract that is beneficial to you, rather than the publisher.

 

They navigate those contracts, including the fine print...they scan for legal problems.

 

They fight hard to pry money out of the bloodless hands of the accounting department for you.

 

They represent your interests with the publishing house.

 

They will stand between you and an unreasonable editor if need be.

 

They sell your film, paperback, electronic and whatever other rights to other sources.

 

In short, they are the guardians of all your interests.

sojourner

Will your agent read or edit your ms before marketing it?

Helen Chappell

And a good agent is worth its weight in gold.

 

Hi Sojourner! Yes, an agent better read your ms before submitting it. Often they will advise you on changes you need to make, and try to steer you in a marketable direction. They can be your best critic.

arfelin

Are agents attorneys at law?

Helen Chappell

BTW, agents generally get 15% of what they make for you.

 

No, most agents are not attorneys, although I have known lawyers who were agents.

charleygal

After contracting with an agent, do they hound you for more work after getting you published?

Helen Chappell

But it's a rare combination.

 

Char: Do they hound you for more work? Of course they do. They want you to continue to publish.

 

But a good agent is also a sort of mother.

 

They will try to help you through that writer's block. Generally, writers and agents don't have

 

a written contract. But even if you part ways, they will always represent and collect a commission from the work they sold for you.

chatty lady

Aren't all the good agents in New York near the BIG boys of publishing. Like I'm sure there are none here say in Las Vegas, or Podunk, Arkansas, say.....So how do we find them and why would they care about the new kids on the block?

Helen Chappell

Ah ha! Chat, not all the good agents are in NYC. Amy Tan's agent, for instance, lives in San Francisco.

 

In these days of escalating Manhattan rents, many agents are moving to New Jersey.

 

Now, nothing against am agent who lives in East Armpit, in these days of phone, fax and email, but I personally prefer an agent to work in the city.

mary rosenblum

My own agent is in New Jersey, actually. But I think it's wise to check out the client list of an agent in, say, Portland, OR! Make sure they really do have good New York connections.

Helen Chappell

Now getting the big agents, that's another story.

bettyboop

Generally, how many writers does one agent handle at a time, or is this not an issue. What I mean is if they are overloaded, would this be a reason for them not to have time to give you individual attention?

Helen Chappell

You better be a big name. Then they come for you.

 

Boop. Good question. My agent has about 200 clients. Now, not all of us are working at one time.

 

Some may be dormant, some may have active rosters. But if an agent isn't giving your work the attention it needs, you might want to consider another agent. With assistants, most agents can handle quite a load.

sojourner

But how do you get to be a big name without an agent?

Helen Chappell

Sojourner. You can have a young agent and make a big sale. It happens all the time. Just because Binky Urban is a big agent doesn't mean all her clients are bestsellers. You get an agent you can work with. And you focus on making your work the best it can

gail

I've heard about artists who have been used and abused by agents and managers. Do you have any advice on how new writers can safeguard themselves?

Helen Chappell

Good question. See my response about www.writersblock.com .

 

Don't be afraid to ask questions, and find out who else the agent represents.

 

Be certain the agent belongs to a professional organization to whom you can complain,

 

and remember; if they promise you the sun and the moon, it's probably too good to be true. Trust your instincts, but do your research!

sojourner

Does the Publisher assign an Editor to a particular writer? For life?

Helen Chappell

Good question, Ms. Truth. No, your agent approaches an editor or you approach an editor for a specific project. You're not chained together for life. Sometimes

 

agents and writers develop a great relationship and really fight to stay together.

 

Sometimes it doesn't work, and either one can ask to resign.

 

But in the course of a writing career you can deal with many, many editors,

 

or you may follow one editor from house to house. No, you can deal with all kinds of editors.

gail

I should've been more specific -- I was talking about giving an agent or manager power of attorney, etc, when I asked how we could safeguard ourselves.

Helen Chappell

Gail. I would never give my agent power of attorney, as that would

 

imply she could write my checks, buy and sell my stocks, etc.

 

What we give our agents is the power to work and speak for us in a specific project.

 

And what they do is represent our interests. If you can't trust someone, why would you work with that person?

charleygal

Wouldn't it be best to meet your agent face to face, if possible? To actually see who they are, know what they're like?

Helen Chappell

I've never been cheated by a legitimate agent.

 

Char: by all means, yes. Meet with your agent face to face. It's a great way to establish a relationship. And don't be afraid to ask questions. All kinds of questions.

sjoconductor

If you can get an established writer to read and recommend your work, would that carry any weight with an editor?

Helen Chappell

Yes, it would, sj. A word from the right person can mean a great deal.

mbvoelker

Is it true that you have to be loyal to the publisher that accepted your first book? Or can you respectably have books with different publishers?

Helen Chappell

mb; When you publish a book, there is generally a – I

 

believe its called "right of refusal" clause, which means the publisher gets to see

 

your next book (outline, ms, whatever.). But this is very loosely enforced.

 

You can go anywhere.

gail

Regarding the subject of including clips with a cover or query letter...as a new writer, aspiring to write fiction, and with only few publishing credits, all of which are non-fiction or poetry, how would one present oneself to a fiction editor?

Helen Chappell

Gail: I'd just casually mention where I've published, titles of magazines, say,

 

and I’d say: "Here's a story I think would fit your magazine." Honestly? I don't think people read a lot of clips.

gail

If a publisher has "right of first refusal", yet you feel your previous book was mishandled -- for whatever reason – is there any way to get out of this clause?

Helen Chappell

Oh yeah. Either you tell them you weren't happy, or, and this is the most fun --

 

you give them a sample of something so rancid no one would publish it. This last is more fun!

mary rosenblum

I like your sense of humor. I'll remember that!

bettyboop

Have most editors and agents written books themselves? I've noticed that a few I’ve read about had, and wondered if this was common?

Helen Chappell

Thank you Mary. Boop, I know a couple of editors who have written books. Michael Korda, for instance, writes well and often. So it's not impossible.

jim

Is 'Right of Refusal' just on the next book, or many future books?

Helen Chappell

Jim: just on the next book. And generally, if both parties are unhappy with each other, that's the deal breaker. So not to worry.

charleygal

Helen, is it, then, easier to freelance short work first before going all the way to book writing?

Helen Chappell

Char---yes, I would say it is better to build up a portfolio of magazine work before you go to publishing a book. Those shorter pieces

 

are not just good training for a longer project, they are

 

living proof to an editor that you can write and publish. Gives you a track record.

mary rosenblum

I know that a lot of new writers and students, are really taken aback by the long response time from editors, as well as the form rejections. Care to comment?

Helen Chappell

Mary---GRRRRRR! Boy, that does annoy me as much as everyone else!

 

Six weeks, six months, it's all the same to them.

 

But in their defense, many of them are overworked and underpaid and buried beneath a mountain of manuscripts.

 

But yes, too long! Too long!

mary rosenblum

Brenda would like to know how much writers get paid for articles. Is there a scale?

Helen Chappell

Drives me crazy. I'm mumbling about it constantly.

 

Brenda. As far as I know there's no scale because writers don't have a union, which is another story. No,

 

there's no scale. It's a buyer's market, so they can set the rules...but you can negotiate, after you've sold a couple of thins to them.

haber

How many magazine articles would equal a good portfolio?

Helen Chappell

A good portfolio, Haber? Good question. From three to ten would be my guess.

bingocliff

How important are deadlines? That is if you have one...

Helen Chappell

Depending on quality and length.

 

Bingo! Deadlines! You better make those deadlines when you're starting out!

 

All of publishing runs on deadlines,

 

which seems to be that they take their time, then turn around and say to you,

 

we need this yesterday! Get cracking! But seriously,

 

the ability to meet a deadline is professional and essential. Pay attention to them.

charleygal

Brenda has a question, "When you sign on with a publisher is it by the book or by all the books that you will write?

Helen Chappell

Char: generally, it's book by book. But I have written, under a pen name,

 

which I have taken a blood oath never to reveal,

 

a series of romances on a multi-book contract.

 

So it does vary, depending on the situation and everyone's feelings about it. Multi book contracts can be good

 

when you're starting out or writing a series, like mysteries or romances,

 

because it locks in an income. It depends on the situation.

mary rosenblum

I have to put my two cents worth as mystery author in here. Often, in mystery, the house will contract for three books in a new series at first. Then they buy from one to several at a time.

Helen Chappell

Yes, Mary is right on the money here.

 

When I write mysteries in series I like a multi book contract.

jim

Have you seen the TV advertisment, claiming that with their modern technology anyone can get published? Any comment?

Helen Chappell

Jim. Well, POD and epub are a whole different bag of worms. Mainstream publishing types tend to look down on it.

 

I believe iUniverse is more or less a vanity press from what I hear.

 

And vanity presses, are, well, vanity presses.

gail

Is it possible to write under a few pen names, selling the resulting mss. to various publishers specializing in the different styles or genres?

Helen Chappell

You pays your money and ends up with a shed full of books.

 

Gail: absolutely. As I said before, I wrote romances under a pen name,

 

and journalism and maintstream fiction and nonfiction and mysteries under my own name.

bettyboop

Speaking of pen-names, do you advise in your query or coverletter that you want to use one, or is this somelthing that is dealt with after they decide they want your ms? How do you establish a pen name?

Helen Chappell

Ms. Boop! I'd tell them upfront that I'd like to use a pen name. How do you establish a pen name? You chose one you like.

 

My pen name was my grandmother's maiden name.

mary rosenblum

I have simply used my penname on the 'by' line beneath the title, then put my real name at the top left, with my address. No further comment is needed.

Helen Chappell

Lots of writers use pen names. btw.

bettyboop

I just wanted to drop my last name and go by my first and middle name, I guess that would be okay?

Helen Chappell

Sounds perfect to me!

 

It's nice to have some sentimental attachment to a pen name.

jim

In market research, if I see a genre repeated over and over, how do I know if it's overworked or a hot topic.

Helen Chappell

Excellent question, Mr. Jim! How do we know when a topic has jumped the shark?

 

I don't have an answer for that. Some genres go on and on and on, like mysteries and romances and westerns. Others, like true crime, seem to run a course. I think when you, Jim,

 

walk into a bookstore and think "Oh, no, not

 

another book about green haired vampires who love the Simpsons,

 

then you know the idea is played out, because at

 

that moment, about 3000 other people are probably

 

thinking the same thing. You seem to know your marketing, so you're probably more aware of this.

nvelwrter

How has the romance genre changed over the years and what is accepted today?

Helen Chappell

Nvel? Romance? Well, as I recall, it started with Gothics. You know --

 

the girl running from the house on the cover.

 

It moved into Sweet Savage Hair, and Regencies, which I wrote.

 

The Regencies not the bodice rippers. And now it seems to be modern love.

 

Tell you what you do. Look at this month's Harlequin list. That will tell you about every romance subgenre there is that's selling.

nvelwrter

Can a gothic style still be written today? Perhaps in a different way and still be accepted?

Helen Chappell

NV; I think there is always room for a good story. Always.

 

You can't keep a good genre down!

mary rosenblum

Helen, we have really been working you hard tonight! Would you like to tell us about your current book?

Helen Chappell

Thanks. I've really been enjoying this. Good questions make me think.

 

A Whole World of Trouble is all about a small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland

 

where anything can happen and frequently does.

 

In this case, it's the tale of two sisters who find they have to

 

do a lot of fancy footwork when their man hungry mom dies unexpectedly,

 

and leaves them with the problem of what to do with the hapless escaped convict that

 

Momma was busting out of jail. It's a comedy.

mary rosenblum

It sounds like a hoot! It's coming out in hardback, right? When will it be on the shelves?

Helen Chappell

It is a hardback, and it will be out in April from Simon and Schuster! ! I'm so excited !

bettyboop

I read the chapter you have on your website, and I loved the voices that Carrie and Earlene talked in. I am working on putting more voice into my characters to make them have such appeal.

Helen Chappell

Thank you, Ms. Boop! I find if you listen to the way people talk,

 

not just what they say, but how they say it, you can really learn a lot about voice and dialogue.

bingocliff

If haven't mention this before Helen, who was your idol ?

Helen Chappell

Oh wow. Eudora Welty, Raymond Chandler, Kaye Gibbons,

 

Joan Hess, Margaret Maron, the list goes on and on.

 

If I could write as well as Anne Tyler, I'd die happy.

charleygal

Thanks, Helen, and Mary, too, for answering our questions and hoping for us to be as aspiring as you. Merry Christmas, Happy New year and congrats to you on your new book!

mary rosenblum

I thank you, too, Helen...

 

You have been great, and I will definitely invite you back!

Helen Chappell

Thank you, Char! And merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

mary rosenblum

Have a very merry Christmas, Helen and a great New Year. I'll be watching for your book.

 

Thank you for coming, Helen! We'll let you escape finally! You did a GREAT job.

Helen Chappell

And thank you all for some really good questions! This is always such a good group.

Helen Chappell

Thank you, Mary. ANd thank you all. You're wonderful.

 

Merry Christmas and thanks! Keep in touch, Mary!

 

Bye all! Thank you!

mary rosenblum

Our next speaker is on January 2...the first speaker of the new year.

 

Eva Shaw, Ph.D., is the author of more than 60 books and 1000 magazine articles. Her latest book for writers is "Writeriffic: Creativity Training For Writers" a journal/workbook filled with writing prompts. It's available from www.writeriffic.com and bookstores. She teaches writing online through Education to Go, www.ed2go.com and colleges worldwide. Contact her at www.evashaw.com. Come join me as we visit with her on January 2. 2003 for our first Professional Connection interview of the new year, as Eva talks about , 'Creativity and Beating Writers' Block.

 

Good night all, and thank you for coming!

   
 

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