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Fundamentals of Fiction, Part IX:
Writer's Etiquette

by Marg Gilks

Return to Fiction Tips & Techniques · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"For those who think there's some secret that published writers know and unpublished ones don't, or those who believe that it's 'who you know' and not how you write that makes the difference, my advice is: You're thinking of Hollywood. In the world of publishing, it's WHAT you know and HOW you write that make the difference . . . No editor or publisher that's worth anything is going to buy your work because it has an endorsement from a big-name writer or because you happen to know their cousin. There are no shortcuts." -- Orson Scott Card ("Fiction Factor" interview with Tina Morgan, 2002)

Since I have something of an online presence that handily includes my email address, I get a lot of emails from strangers asking me for advice, or to find a publisher for their book for them, or to read their story and comment or (worse!) go to some web site, find their story, and read it and tell them what I think.

I'm not alone. A quick Internet search on the phrase "don't send me your manuscript" turned up at least half a dozen author's web sites containing that phrase. Yes, they actually went so far as to post the plea on their web site: "If you have an overwhelming urge to send your manuscript to me for evaluation . . . resist it"; "I don't read other people's novel manuscripts"; "Don't, please, send me your finished book manuscript and ask me to read it"; "Please don't ask me for ideas about where to send your manuscript and please don't send me your manuscript"; and on it goes.

While I often do try to answer a quick question, politely phrased, I am not -- despite what some people seem to think -- sitting here at my computer, twiddling my thumbs, wondering when someone I don't know will let me jump through hoops for them. Neither are those authors, or the online publishers, or the presidents of writers' organizations. We're working.

The point of all this? It's not in our job description to respond to emails from strangers who want something for free. We do it as a courtesy. So think before you contact your favorite author or "in the know" person and ask her questions, or request a favor, or ask him to recommend you to his agent, or to read your attached novel manuscript. Don't just ask yourself why that stranger should help you; consider why they shouldn't.

Isaac Asimov bemoaned requests for book autographs from fans -- who didn't include return postage with the books they sent. Authors Bernard Cornwell and Kristine Kathryn Rusch echo his concerns. I've had strangers promise to send me a copy of a newsletter containing the article I've given them permission to reprint -- and then not follow through on the promise. Strangers have asked me questions -- and then not bothered to thank me for my response.

Would you want to be treated this way? Be considerate.

As for manuscripts, there's an important reason why most well-known authors won't read the manuscripts sent to them by others -- they don't want to be accused, somewhere down the road, of stealing someone's idea. If they don't read your manuscript, then your idea is safe -- and so are they. As Bernard Cornwell says, "blame the lawyers."

It's Not "Borrowing," It's Theft

Every once in a while, a piracy or plagiarism lawsuit will make the news. In 2002, historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were accused of plagiarizing the work of others in their books. In July of 2002, an unauthorized Harry Potter book written by a Chinese author was released in China, prompting agents for real Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling to announce, "We are taking this issue extremely seriously." Several years ago, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro sued a fan writer who used one of her characters in a fanzine story without her permission. In 2000, Harlan Ellison filed a lawsuit against parties who were posting his works on the Internet without his permission.

"Individuals seem to think that they can allow the dissemination of writers' work on the Internet without authorization, and without payment, under the banner of 'fair use' or the idiot slogan 'information must be free.' A writer's work is not information: it is our creative property, our livelihood and our families' annuity," Harlan Ellison said in the press release announcing his KICK Internet Piracy campaign.

Yup, this is serious business. When you use the work of another author without their permission (piracy), you're stealing it. When you incorporate the writing of another writer in your work and pass it off as yours (plagiarism), you're stealing it. The worst results of such theft -- like those above -- hit the news. They cost the thieves a lot of money. Copyright infringement can send the guilty parties to jail. But even if you're not sued, you can get yourself in a lot of trouble by using something someone else has written without their permission.

Let's think about what can happen when you're caught. The real author will ask that you remove the material from your web site (if you've posted it there), or send you a bill for the use of the work. If the author discovers their work in something that you've put your name on and submitted to a publisher, the author will contact the publisher and reveal that the material they paid for is not owned by you. That publisher will never want to work with you again. Think it will end there? When authors discover that their words have been stolen, they're mad. They usually want to tell others about the experience -- either as a warning to other writers, or simply to vent. Chat forums and writers' listserves are littered with subject lines like I'VE BEEN PIRATED!!! and THEY STOLE MY WRITING! Yes, in big, block letters -- they're mad, remember? One listserve I belong to started a blacklist of known offenders. News travels far and fast on the Internet. The result? Your name is dirt.

Taking Care of Your Business

Okay, so you're not one of those who expect others to do their work for them, or who think everything online or in print is theirs for the taking. You've written your own stories, done your own research, and now you're ready to send out your own submissions. What's the etiquette for submitting your fiction to agents or publishers?

Most important, of course, is the imperative to read the agent's or publisher's writer's guidelines -- and follow them. If they want only a query letter first, don't send them your first three chapters, or the entire short story. If they want a synopsis and only the first three chapters to start, don't send the entire novel manuscript. Make a good first impression -- do what they tell you to do.

What should you consider when writing a query or cover letter? First, keep the tone professional. Don't dash off something like "Hi! Here's my story. Hope you like it and want to publish it!" unless you're in kindergarten. Find out the name and title of the proper person to submit your fiction to and start your letter with that: "Dear Mrs. Jazinski" or "Dear Dr. Miike."

Next, briefly describe your novel or story -- its title, its genre, its word count, and a one-sentence summary of the plot. Don't tell the recipient how great your story is or why they should buy it. That's for them to decide. If you're submitting a short story to a publication that doesn't state what rights it buys, or if you are only offering certain rights to the story for sale (for instance, if you've already sold FNASR to the story, you might be offering Reprint Rights), state what rights you are selling. If you're querying or submitting a novel, it's also helpful to include information that can be used to market the book -- something we won't get into in this article.

It's customary (though not necessary) to include a brief paragraph about you, the author. Keep in mind that the recipient wants information related to your writing career, and the story you are submitting, or hope to submit -- not unrelated interests, hobbies, or details of your life. Include writing credits here, or what qualifications you have for writing the story -- you're a history buff who's written a historical fiction novel, or a lawyer who's written a crime story.

And here's something that may save you grief later -- state in your cover letter how long you are giving the recipient to consider the submission before sending it to someone else: "I will not send this manuscript to another [agent/publisher/publication] for consideration until June 15, 2003." If the writers' guidelines state their return time, then pick a date that gives them that amount of time (for example, if they say they respond in four weeks, choose a date four weeks from the date when they will likely receive your package). If there is no response time, allow 6 - 8 weeks for a short story and 8 - 10 weeks for a novel.

Why? Well, another thing that concerns many writers is the submission that seems to have disappeared into a black hole, effectively keeping them from sending the novel or story elsewhere for consideration for several months. If the response time stated in the writers' guidelines comes and goes and you've received no response to your submission, it's okay to contact the agent or publisher and politely ask about the status of your story. If you still receive no response, what do you do? Continue to wait, or send the story elsewhere? If you included a specific period for which you were granting the recipient exclusivity in your cover letter, then you can comfortably send the story elsewhere if that date comes and goes and your query as to its status receives no response. (And if you forgot to include a specific date in your cover letter, you can still send the story elsewhere if you again contact the agent or publisher and withdraw your submission from their consideration. You don't have to wait for their response.)

Do Unto Others . . .

Etiquette in the world of writing isn't all that different from that in everyday life -- use common sense, project an image that prompts others to take you seriously, and treat others as you'd like to be treated yourself, and you'll do just fine!

Read the Entire "Fundamentals of Fiction" Series!

Part I: "I've Got an Idea!"
You've got an idea -- but how do you turn it into a story?

Part II: Read, Read, Read!
If you want to write, you need to read -- and read, and read, and read! Here's why...

Part III: Critique Groups and Writers' Groups
How do you know if you're "good enough"? Feedback from a critique group can help!

Part IV: Writers Write!
Facing that blank screen can be intimidating. Here's how to get past the fear.

Part V: Learning How: Courses, Workshops and Tutors
For in-depth learning and feedback, nothing beats a good writing course.

Part VI: Learning the Lingo
Deciphering writers' guidelines -- and all the other terms associated with writing and selling fiction.

Part VII: Being Realistic
Before you mail out that story you just finished, be sure you know how the market works -- and whether you're ready for it!

Part VIII: Finding Markets for Your Fiction
It's not just about sending out your best writing; it's also about finding the best market.

Part IX: Writing Etiquette
Understanding some basic courtesies will smooth your writing path!

Part X: Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders
Cliches, lazy language, adverbitis, and characters who check themselves out in a mirror are just a few amateur errors that will send your story to the reject pile.

Find Out More...

Cover Letters: When, Where, and How to Use Them, by Moira Allen

Copyright, Public Domain, and the Wild Wild Web, by Moira Allen

Don't Do Us Any Favors -- Don't Steal Our work! - Moira Allen

Research or Plagiarism? by Moira Allen

Will an Editor Steal Your Ideas? - Moira Allen

Helpful Sites:

Interview with Orson Scott Card, by Tina Morgan, Fiction Factor

Copyright © 2003 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.


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