Auntie Deborah’s Advice Column for Aspiring Writers

Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I find a real publisher for my YA novel, instead of one of the many vanity or scam presses? — Tearful Wannabee

Dear Tearful: Do your research about publishers. Find out which accept unagented submissions. Check them out on Writer Beware or Predators & Editors!!

Get an agent. Again, do your research on which agents are legitimate and represent your genre. (See above resources.) A decent agent will do the submissions for you, using their professional contacts, plus access to publishers that require an agent (which, today, is most of them).

Hang out online with other YA authors and pick their brains, see who publishes them, so you can hear about newer publishers and agents who might be open to your type of material.

Get support. Hobnob with other writers, particularly those at or a little beyond your career stage. Writing is such a lonely business at best, and we need to glomp together — even seasoned pros with decades of sales — for mutual encouragement. And gossip.


Dear Auntie Deborah: I keep wanting to revise as I write my first draft. I’ve been told this a terrible thing to do. I keep second-guessing myself when I do, and I’m afraid I’ll end up creatively paralyzed. Help! — Second Thoughts

Dear Second, I think you’re halfway there in understanding why many find it important to plough through that draft so you can look at the whole thing when it’s time to revise. It’s tempting but (for many of us) deadly to halt forward progress and nitpick. Here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  • Beginning each session with reading the last page or so but not making any changes in it.
  • Reminding myself that the only draft that counts is the one on my editor’s desk. And that what looks like an error may point me in the direction of a deeper, richer story, so I need to preserve all that drek the first time through.
  • Reminding myself about author B, whose work I greatly admire, who told me that no one, not even her most trusted reader, sees anything before her third draft.
  • Giving myself permission to be really, really awful.
  • Falling in love with the revision process. I can hardly wait to get that first draft down so I have something to play with.
  • Writing when I’m tired. Believe it or not, this helps because it’s all I can do then to keep putting down one word after another.

All that said, sometimes editing is the right thing, like when it feels as if I’m pushing the story in a direction it doesn’t want to go, or I’ve written myself into a hole I can’t dig out of. Usually that means I’ve made a misstep earlier, not thought carefully about where I want to go. Or whatever I thought the story was about, I was wrong, and the true story keeps wanting to emerge. How do I tell when this is the case? Mostly experience, plus willingness to rip it all to shreds and start over.


Dear Auntie Deborah: How can I prevent myself from making all my characters versions of myself? — Mirror Image

Dear Mirror:

  1. Do your work in creative well-rounded, idiosyncratic characters. Give them warts, particularly those you really, really don’t want to have, yourself.
  2. Don’t worry about it. You will always put something of yourself into your characters, even if it’s your imagination.


Dear Auntie Deborah: I’ve been told to introduce the conflict in my novel on the first page. Should I? — Slowly Developing

Dear Slowly: Like so much in fiction, it all depends. Some stories call for context before external conflict. For sure, your opening has to do two things: tell the reader what kind of story this is (cozy mystery, obscure literary, dark fantasy, etc.); and arouse the reader’s curiosity (the “hook”). That doesn’t have to be the central conflict, but it does have to create momentum.


Dear Auntie Deborah: What do you do with deleted scenes and unused ideas? — Holdsonto Everything

Dear Holdsonto: I stick them in an idea file. Sometimes they build stories-that-fit around themselves, like a grain of sand creating a pearl in an oyster. Other times, I chalk the time and energy as another %^&* learning experience. Sometimes it seems that just the fact I wrote it, that I put those words together, is enough.

After 30+ years as a pro writer, I truly believe that nothing creative is ever wasted.


Dear Auntie Deborah: I’m pretty good at writing dialog, but my narrative skills are terrible. What should I do? — Script Writer

Dear Script: I’d bet you are not so much terrible at narration as unpracticed. Dialog comes more easily to some of us because (a) it’s what we speak in; (b) we compose scenes as scripts, as characters talking.

When I was a young writer, I overused dialog, often to the utter bafflement of my readers. One critiquer suggested I eliminate dialog and tell the entire story in narrative. The first scene was agony. The next one was worse, but then it gradually got easier. The exercise forced me to see what dialog was good for and when it was a lazy way out. I also learned — by necessity of practice — how to write serviceable narrative.

That’s my third point. You may be setting the bar too high on a skill you’re still clumsy at. Forget gorgeous language and brilliance. Aim for simple, translucent prose. Keep your sentences uncomplicated, your verbs direct and unfussy, and your modifiers and qualifiers to a minimum. If you don’t know what those are, take a step back and learn about the basic tools of language.

And take every opportunity to read the finest prose you can lay your hands on.



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