New York Times Bestselling Author Kay Hooper
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For Writers Kay's Basic Primer for First-time Novelists

I answer some specific questions in the FAQ for Aspiring Writers section, but there are also a few even-more-frequently-asked-questions I tend to hear. So this is my basic primer for first-time novelists:

Manuscripts are typed or printed, on one side of the paper only, using a good quality white bond paper. No colored paper or onion-skin. No hand-written pages.

Any easily readable font is fine (editors do a lot of reading, so don't strain their eyes unnecessarily). Some writers are still using Times New Roman or Courier; I prefer Bookman Old Style or Georgia. 12 or 14 point is usually fine. Double-space your lines.

One-inch margin all the way around.

On the upper lefthand margin (using Headers if your program allows) of every page, have your last name and the title of the book. At the upper right margin, set your page numbers. Number your pages consecutively from first page to last. Start a new chapter on a new page by spacing down several times (about a third of the way down the page) before you put the chapter heading (Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc.), then space down again to begin that chapter.

Unless otherwise requested, manuscripts are sent to agents and editors unbound, either in a padded mailer or appropriate-sized box. IF you're using an envelope in which to mail it, putting a large rubber band around the manuscript is fine. These days, email submissions are not uncommon, but always check to make certain an agent or editor prefers electronic over hard-copy submissions.

As The Writer's Market will tell you, most publishers prefer agented to unagented submissions when it comes to novels, so acquiring a literary agent is generally a necessary first step. Agents are listed in The Writer's Market as well as on numerous online sites. Warning: there are scam artists galore on the web, we all know that. It does not require special training, education, or a license to call oneself a literary agent. So check out any agent before you contact him/her to ask about representation. One well-known informational website is called Predators & Editors, and there are other sites as well. Take advantage of these resources. Google and other search engines can be your best friend.

Do your homework. We all did. We all had to.

Most agents prefer to be queried rather than have complete manuscripts land on their desk, uninvited as it were. Query letters are, basically, business letters introducing your book or concept to an agent briefly — and interestingly enough to make them want to take a look at your work. Again, there are amazing resources online to help you prepare a strong and intriguing query to present to an agent.

Writing is a tough profession, and getting published is seldom a quick or easy process. You can make it less difficult on yourself if you do your homework and understand the publishing industry before you venture into it.

Go to your local bookstore. Look at the books on the shelves. Take note of which publishers are publishing the sort of books you write. Look especially closely at those books. The addresses for those publishers are in the front of their books. Sometimes a particular author may have mentioned his/her editor in an acknowledgment or dedication — so there's the name of an editor who obviously liked a book similar in some ways to your own.

You should, by the way, be able to say with confidence, "My book is like X, Y, or Z (insert titles)." Not because you've copied or in any way duplicated those books, but because if you're writing commercial fiction, chances are pretty good you've been influenced by other writers and will tend to write within their genre. And also because you should be able to tell an agent or editor where your book would be shelved in the bookstores. Is it mystery? Romance? Suspense? Horror? SF or fantasy? Or is it a literary novel?

You should know what the differences are. You should be able to define your work within the parameters of that particular genre. Reading a lot will help. So will joining a writer's group, either local in your area or online; they can help you learn the basics.

Again, do your homework. Make sure you come across to an agent or editor as a professional committed enough to a writing career to have taken the time and trouble to understand how publishing works.

Lastly, if you wish to become a published author, understand that there are plenty of vanity presses out there that will happily take your money to print up a hundred or so copies of your book — and that does not make you published. If you have a family cookbook or genealogy you want to see "in print," then a vanity press might be just what you need. But if you want your book on the shelves at Barnes and Nobles or Walmart, stay away from vanity presses.

Legitimate, traditional publishers have distribution systems to get your books on the shelves of major bookstores, they have departments to handle cover art, they have experienced editors to work with you, and they pay you to publish your book.

There are other companies which claim to be "traditional" publishers because they do not demand money up front and "pay" royalties, but which provide only highly- priced trade or hardcover POD (print-on-demand) editions which are not shelved in chain or independent bookstores — and that does not make you published either.

Do your homework.

And if you have specific questions I haven't addressed here, feel free to write and ask. I'll either respond to you directly or else add your question and my answer the next time the site is updated. In any case, click on the link below for answers to the questions I get frequently from aspiring authors.

Click here for aspiring writer questions

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