by Steven Piziks
The McNamara Building in downtown Detroit doesn’t look like it’s full of people with guns. It’s a fairly tall, standard gray skyscraper with a really ugly sculpture out front made of smashed-up cars set in a vaguely Stonehengian arrangement. I parked my car and dropped quarters into the meter. For a wonder, I was wearing a shirt with a button-down collar, slacks, and decent shoes instead of my more usual ragged shorts and torn t-shirt. Under my arm I carried a zippered leather folder.
You want to look nice when you’re interviewing the FBI.
When you enter the lobby of the McNamara Building, all your stuff goes through an x-ray machine and you go through a metal detector. The guards are polite, friendly, and watchful. A creaky, shuddering elevator took me up past the Treasury Department and the IRS to the twenty-sixth floor and the FBI.
In the elevator foyer are pictures and descriptions of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. Bin Laden is still on the list, in case you were curious. You have to pass through another metal detector to get into the reception area. This one doesn’t give you the chance to empty your pockets, so your keys and change set off the alarm. (I rather suspect it’s less for safety and more to alert the receptionists, who are behind bullet glass, to your presence.) I walked up to the bullet glass with a polite smile on my face and my card in my hand.
The things I do for research.
When you say “research,” most people think of a pale person sitting at a table paging through a stack of musty books with one hand and taking frantic notes with the other. Sometimes this is the case. Unfortunately, however, books can’t answer direct questions, and often as I’m paging through some dusty tome trying to find out just when the ground was broken on Ann Arbor’s first cemetery, I find myself saying, “This is the sort of thing I could find out in less than ten seconds if I could just ask someone.”
Talking to people to get information is often faster and more efficient than flipping through a book. Living people can also answer questions and bring up further facts you never knew to ask about. But just how do you find someone to talk to? And how do you ask? Won’t they get mad that you’re bothering them? How much do you pay them? What’s the etiquette at an interview? These are some daunting questions, so let’s take them one at a time.
The first step, obviously, is finding someone to consult. Sometimes you just get lucky. My first book was a science fiction novel about a man with multiple personality disorder (MPD). I read everything I could get my hands on, but there were a lot of things the books didn’t say. As it happened, my wife was taking a psychology class at the time and she mentioned my book to the professor. He was fascinated! MPD, it turned out, was his specialty. When I heard about this, I promptly called the psych department to find out when his office hours were and I went down to talk to him the following day. As I said--lucky.
Luck, of course, doesn’t work all the time. A more reliable way to find contacts is simply to ask all your friends and family if they know anything about the field you’re researching. You’d be surprised at some of the contacts you can find this way. (“Didn’t you know your great-uncle Ben worked as a lumberjack for fifteen years?”) Even if this doesn’t yield a direct contact, it can lead you to the friend-of-a-friend system. When I first expressed interest in contacting the FBI, for example, a friend of mine told me his parents knew an FBI agent assigned to the Kalamazoo Field Office. Contact!
You can also do a cold contacts. This involves getting hold of people you’ve never heard of (and vice-versa), and it often calls for some preliminary research. I was working on a piece involving botannical cloning, and the friend-of-a-friend system was proving a dead end. I live in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, so obviously the next step was to track down the botannical laboratory.
I called University information to get the location and went down for a quick visit. The receptionist was quite busy and verged on being rude, so I didn’t tell her I was a writer looking for information. Instead I asked for any flyers or booklets about the biology department. The catalog she gave me to look at (she said I couldn’t keep it) listed all the professors and their specialty areas. I copied down several names and phone numbers, thanked her sweetly, and left. Over the next few days, I made phone calls until I located a researcher who was working on a botannical DNA project and was able to make an appointment for an interview.
Do I get nervous calling people I don’t know? You bet! I need the information, though, so I force myself to push those phone buttons. I have a tendency to babble when I’m edgy, so I often write out what I want to say in advance in case I start blithering or stuttering. When my source picks up the phone, I simply say (or read), “My name is Steven Piziks. I’m a novelist, and the book I’m currently working on involves Medieval English cooking methods. I heard you would be a good person to talk to about this. Would you be able to answer a few questions?”
A note here: I introduce myself as a novelist, never a writer. The reason for this is that the word “writer” is often associated with “starving” or “wannabe” or “failing.” The word “novelist,” however, has a more brisk, down-to-earth connotation. It boils down to the pre-conception that writers are artists (and therefore slightly suspect) while novelists are businesspeople. If you’re not a novelist and are doing research for a short story, say instead, “I’m working on a short story for submission to -----.” And name the magazine you intend to submit the story to. Again, this makes you sound more business-like--you already have a market in mind.
So you’ve done the preliminary research and are making the call. What if the contact is rude or unwilling to talk to you? The situation can still be salvaged: “No problem. Sorry to have bothered you. Can you, perhaps, recommend someone else I could talk to? I’d really appreciate it.”
Let’s assume, however, that your contact is willing to talk to you. Most of them will be. You are a writer--er, novelist, something many people find endlessly fascinating. You’re also giving them a chance to lecture about their fields of expertise. People love talking about themselves and their work, especially if what they say has a chance of ending up in print.
If you only have a few quick questions, a phone consultation will often do. (“It’ll only take about five minutes. Is now a good time or should I call you back?”) If you need something a little more elaborate, ask if you can make an appointment. You need to be flexible and operate at their convenience, of course. Remember, they are doing you a favor.
Some people will offer to consult via e-mail. This can work well if your contact is far away, making telephone calls expensive and personal interviews impossible. The problem you may run into, however, is that people often give too little detail in e-mail. They may be willing to go on for several minutes in person, but only give a terse, one-sentence answer if they have to write it down. Be prepared to reply with a polite request for more detail.
Now let’s assume you’ve set up an interview. That brings up the question of mechanics--what to wear, what to bring, and so on. If you’re talking to a total stranger in an office-like setting or in a private home, you’ll want to dress up a bit. I normally never wear slacks, but you can bet I did when I talked to the FBI! On the other hand, if you’re going to be in a barn talking to a farmer about the care and feeding of horses, your best bet is blue jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt. If you aren’t sure, err on the side of dressiness.
Bring whatever method of taking notes you prefer. I take a miniature tape recorder, but I always ask permission to use it. I also have a notebook and two pens in case one runs out of ink. (Asking to borrow a writing implement looks unprofessional.) Lastly, I bring my card. If you don’t have one, I really recommend getting some printed. Many computer programs will also let you print your own. Overall, cards are quite inexpensive, and handing one out adds a business-like touch. If you don’t have a card, write your name, address, and phone number on two or three sticky-notes and bring them instead.
You’ll also want to write out a list of questions in advance. You don’t want to waste your contact’s time while you hem and haw over what else you want to ask. Besides, pre-writing the questions is a more professional approach, and you are a professional.
What do you offer to pay a contact? As a rule, nothing. Instead, you tell them that you’ll put their name and title on the “Acknowledgements” page and send them an autographed copy of the book when it comes out. For a short story, you send an autographed copy of the magazine. And always, always, always send a thank-you note after the interview: “Dear Ms. Smith, I just wanted to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. Your help was invaluable and will make the book [story] far more accurate than I could on my own. If you think of any other information to add, please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
By the way, if you interview your contact over dinner or drinks, you are expected to pick up the tab, even if the contact was the one who suggested the idea. It’s a tax deduction, so save the receipt!
One last thing. If you deal with a government agency, be ready for red tape, and be persistent. Most government agencies have a specific person who deals with writers and reporters, and that may be the only person you’re allowed to talk to.
When I first contacted the friend-of-a-friend FBI agent, for example, he told me I had to talk to the Special Agent who dealt with the press. This Special Agent referred me to the main press office in the Washington, D.C. headquarters. I contacted the office there and was told to fax them a copy of the questions I wanted to ask and that someone there would call me back to answer the ones whose answers weren’t classified. I did this and got quite a lot of information over the phone. But I still wanted to see inside the Detroit Field Office. I made several phone calls to the McNamara Federal Building, but none of them were returned. I finally drove down there, zippered folder in hand, to see if showing up in person would net me a better response.
It did, though only a little better. I briefly met with a Special Agent, who told me I would have to clear a visit with Washington, D.C. first. So back home I went for another round of faxing and telephoning. As of this writing, I’m still working on getting that interview. Frustrating? Definitely.
But writing is an exercise in persistence.
The Write Class
by Steven Piziks
The English department bulletin board announced a new class: Creative Writing Seminar--Novel. Intrigued, I stopped to read the posting more closely. Looked pretty cool--I could get credit toward my major and have an excuse for all the time I was spending at the keyboard.
“Taking the class?” asked a friendly voice. I turned to see a tall, striking woman behind me. She was towing a small two-wheeled cart with a pile of books and a shoulder bag strapped to it.
“I might,” I replied, shifting my shabby little backpack. “I’ve sold three short stories and I’ve just started a book.”
“Oh? I’m teaching the course. What do you write?”
“Fantasy and science fiction.”
The change was amazing. Her nose tilted upward and her voice frosted like a root beer glass. “Well. I really don’t think that kind of writing belongs in a college seminar. We strive for something more literary and worthwhile.”
“Really?” I gushed. “How wonderful! You know, I’ve been trying so hard to stop writing interesting stories that sell to professional markets and start writing artistic stories that just--you know--wrench the soul.”
Well, actually I didn’t say that. That reply didn’t come to me until several minutes after the professor had strolled away. I was secretly hoping her nose-in-the-air posture would cause her to crash into a door or something, but it didn’t. I decided not to take the class.
Does all this mean creative writing courses are worthless? Not at all. It just means you have to screen them very carefully, especially if you’re paying for them.
What can a creative writing course do for you? Plenty, if you find a good one. If you have trouble motivating yourself to write, a good class can force you to develop better habits. You didn’t finish that story? Watch out for falling grades! You didn’t notice that your protagonists always have no personal problems, no backgrounds, and no life? Or that your plots are predictable? Or that your settings never contain sensory information? A good writing teacher will point out such flaws and help you correct them.
A good writing class also provides someone who will read and react to your work. Editors rarely give more feedback than a xeroxed rejection letter or a xeroxed contract. Good teachers, on the other hand, will tell you exactly what they like and what they don’t. It’s very satisfying to get back a story with “nice description here” or “I like this character” or even “hee hee hee” written in red on the margin.
The steps you take before signing up for a creative writing class are the same for both high school and college. First, keep in mind that such classes are rarely geared toward professional publication. Don’t be at all surprised to find yourself in a roomful of students who would never consider mailing a manuscript to a professional editor and will be amazed that you have the courage. Many will be there because they figure it’s a blow-off class, an easy A. Whether it is or not, of course, depends on the teacher.
The teacher will also probably know little about submission and publication. Most of the time, writing teachers “only” have degrees in English and are not professional writers, so only rarely will they know anything about researching markets or formatting mansucripts. This doesn’t, however, mean that they can’t help you learn to write.
Obviously, then you next need to track down the teacher and find out something about the specific class. Is it a workshop in which everyone reads everyone’s stories and critiques them? Or will only the teacher read your writing? Are grades assigned according to what the teacher thinks is “good” writing, according to how much you improve during the class, or according to something else? What will you have to write? Stories? Poems? Plays? Non-fiction? A little bit of everything?
Another important factor to know before signing up is if the teacher puts restrictions on genre. Some, like the snobby professor I met all those years ago, are obviously looking only for “artistic” (read, “incomprehensible”) fiction. Others will happily let you do anything you want. But do note that limitations aren’t always bad. A teacher who says, “Try another genre for this next assignment and see how you do” is trying to stretch you, not imprison you.
Finally, specifically mention that you want to write fantasy and science fiction. How does the teacher react? With pleasure? Puzzlement? Dismay? Disgust? The latter is unfortunately all too common. In that case, you may want to find another instructor or avoid the class altogether.
If, however, you still want (or need) the course but don’t want to risk your report card over literary snobbery, check into taking the class for credit/no-credit (sometimes known as “pass/fail” or “satisfactory/unsatisfactory”). That way, you can get the instruction and the credit, but it won’t hurt your grade point average. Just be prepared to fight for your genre’s honor.
Not all literary snobs, incidentally, are permanently snobbish. Although I decided against the novel writing course, I did look into a class called Creative Writing--Fiction. When I went to interview the professor, he told me straight off that he didn’t like science fiction or fantasy.
“To be honest,” he said apologetically, “I don’t see much value in that type of writing. I also won’t be able to help you make sure your material is appropriate for your genre. You might want to take another course.”
I decided to take the class anyway. This prof was honest without being cold or snobby. I also didn’t need help with the magical or scienctific aspects of my writing; I needed help with my flat, stale characters. I also needed the credit, and a creative writing class would be a welcome break from all the lit classes I was currently sweating through. And I do enjoy the occasional . . . debate on the merits of F/SF.
On the other hand, however, I didn’t want to jeopardize my GPA over another prof’s literary prejudice. So I registered the course for credit/no-credit.
Three weeks into the course, I submitted my first story. That’s when I discovered something—a few years ago, the professor had had a student who insisted on writing Star Trek ripoffs and Conan the Barbarian pastiches. This, he had assumed, was what fantasy and science fiction were all about.
“But if this is science fiction,” the prof said during the critique of my mansucript, “then I really need to get out there and read more of it.”
A nice ego boost. I would have had an A in the class, too, but by then it was too late to change the credit/no credit deal back into a grade. (Mutter mutter grumble gripe.)
So. You’ve talked to the teacher, decided you can get along well, and signed up for the course. Now what?
At this point, everyone’s experiences will be different, depending on the course and the teacher’s vision. You already, of course, know something about all this because you talked to the teacher before even signing up. However, things do occasionally go wrong. Perhaps you got the wrong impression about the teacher’s attitude toward F/SF. Or perhaps the schedule changes unexpectedly and the person you talked to isn’t the one who ends up teaching the course. Or perhaps you got a low grade on a piece and you very much disagree.
Solution? Open, POLITE communication. Make an appointment and talk to the teacher about the problem. See what you can work out. Perhaps the teacher made an honest mistake. Or perhaps the teacher will allow a re-write. The key here, however, is to be polite. Most (not all, but most) teachers are well aware that writing is not an exact science and that there is room for debate in grading the stuff. But snide remarks, curled lips, and snippy insults won’t get you very far. As a teacher myself, I’m continually amazed at how few of my students seem to know this.
Above all, don’t forget that once the story has been through the class, it’s time to send it to an editor. A teacher can scribble a comment on a story, but only an editor can scribble a signature on a contract.
What Every Beginning Writer Should Know
by Steven Piziks
Octavia Butler put it very succinctly. The secret to writing is in the single word "persist." If you want to be a writer, you have to send stories to editors. A lot. Over and over again.
You'll get rejected. Even Stephen King gets rejected. Yeah, it hurts, but any writer who wants to survive quickly develops the hide of a rhinoceros, along with the ability to say, "Well what does she know?" when that story comes back.
Before you submit a short story anywhere, you should send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) to the editor asking for the magazine's guidelines. The guidelines will tell you what the editor will and will not buy, what length she wants, and how much she pays. This will save you time and postage.
If you want to know how to format a short story manuscript, I suggest you check out Marion Zimmer Bradley's guidelines at Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine. Although the magazine sadly ceased publication soon after Marion's death in 1999, the site still gives excellent advice.
Cover letters are another matter. Here's my advice: keep them short and simple. The Writers Market has this contest in every issue for the best cover letter, and the winners they publish just floor me. They're always too long and explain way more than any editor I've met wants to know. One went into great detail about the amount of research the author had done before writing the story. I'll let you in on a secret: the editor doesn't care. Long cover letters are the mark of an amateur anyway.
The best cover letter follows standard business letter format (your address and phone number at the top, the date, and the editor's address). It says, "Dear Mr./Ms.
If you have any professional writing credits (not fanzines), you might add an extra paragraph: "By way of introduction, my fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance and in Sword and Sorceress." The editor does not want to know how you came up with the idea for the story or what kind of research you did or why you're qualified to write a story about the habits of South American fruit bats or anything else. And it's deadly to include a plot synopsis of any kind. A plot synopsis in the cover letter tells the editor that a) you're not a professional-caliber writer, and b) you don't think your own story stands up without help.
Novels are a little different from short stories. What you need to do is put together a submission package containing an outline of your book and three sample chapters. The outline is a chapter-by-chapter summary of what happens for the entire book, including the ending. (Write it in present tense and don't include dialogue.) As for sample chapters, you're probably best off with the first three. Editors want to see how much your opening grabs them, since that's what'll grab a potential reader.
Put all that together with a cover letter that basically says, "Dear
Most of them will eventually send the manuscript back, sometimes with a xeroxed rejection letter, sometimes with specific reasons why it was rejected (and you can decide whether you want to take those comments into account for rewrites or not). If an editor does ask for the full manuscript, send it in with a letter reminding him/her who you are and why you're sending this book. It's also a good idea to include a xeroxed copy of the letter the editor sent you. Write "Requested Material" in red ink on the box.
If more than one editor asks for the full MS, do not (not not not not) send it to more than one of them at a time. Outlines and sample chapters can go to many editors. Full manuscripts can only go to one editor at a time. The reason for this is that two editors may offer you a contract on the book, but you can only (obviously) sign one of them, and the editor who saved a slot for you on her publishing calendar is stuck with a hole to fill. This is the kiss of death for a writer because word will get around.
If you send a full MS to an editor and don't hear from her in six months, send a reminder letter. If three more months go by without a reply, you are justified in making a polite phone call. Remember, the editor asked to see your book, so it's not an unsolicited submission which goes to the bottom of the "read when I have time" pile.
Once in a while you might get your manuscript back from an editor with a letter that says something like, "This book is almost good enough, but it needs some work. We recommend you send it to an editing service. Here's the name of one." If this happens, grab your manuscript and RUN! Editing services (also known as book doctors) are very, very risky. So many of them are crooked, it isn't worth it to look for an honest one.
Eventually, you'll either get the manuscript back with a rejection letter or you'll get a phone call from the editor saying she wants to buy your book. At this point (rehearse this in a mirror) you say, "I'll have my agent contact you to discuss the terms." Do not say anything like "We have a deal" or "I accept" or anything like that. Thank her effusively for offering to buy your novel and say, "My agent will call you." If the editor asks who your agent is so she can call the agent, say, "My agent will contact you. Thank you so much!"
And then you dive for the phone book or the phone directory for any writer's group you may belong to in order to find a literary agent. You can also call other writers or editors you're friendly with (I called Marion Zimmer Bradley), explain what's going on, and ask for an agent referral. Surfing the web for writers (not agents) is another good way to find one, since authors will often happily give you an agent's name if an editor has made you an offer. I don't recommend surfing for agents on the web or in the phone book. It's too easy to get caught by someone who is incompetent or crooked. Never, ever send your manuscript to an agent who asks for a reading fee. Legitimate agents don't charge them.
Then you start calling agents. Here's where it gets expensive. Any agent who wants to sign you on will need a copy of your book fast. I had to FedEX a 500-page manuscript to New York. Yeesh.
Once you've found an agent you think you can work with (they typically take a 10% or 15% commission of whatever you make if they negotiate the contract for you), you're all set!
Some writers submit their books to agents just as they might to an editor. This is also generally fine. The format of the outline and sample chapters is exactly the same. In the cover letter, you would add, "Would you be interested in representing me?" or words to that effect.
There are a lot of scam artists out there, people who promise to make your name a household word and your book a rousing best-seller. Then they leave you with an empty bank account and a garage full of books you can't sell to your own grandmother. Here's the first, absolutely unbreakable, no exceptions rule of the writer:
The money always flows toward the writer.
No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how persuasive they are, no matter what excuses they give, real authors never, ever give money to editors or publishers. And agents only collect their commissions after the publishing company has paid you! (Actually, most publishers send the check to the agent, who cashes it, deducts her commission, and on the same day sends the rest to the writer. By overnight mail, if the author requests it.) If your editor, publisher, or agent ever says you need to send them money, demand the immediate return of your work and look for someone else.
There are absolutely no exceptions to this rule. Not a single one.
ALL ARTICLES ABOVE ARE COPYRIGHT STEVEN PIZIKS.
Now what I'm sure some of you would like to know -- WHEN IS CHAPTER 6 COMING?????? (Yes, Katie, I am referencing your comments here. XD) I'm working on it now, and hope to post it either tonight or at the very latest, Monday. Tomorrow's Canada Day, so I'm not sure how much work I'll be able to put in, but I'll do my very best. ^_^