Seven Semi-Serious Questions about Writing

By Elaine Viets

The Internet is abuzz with authors handing out useless, outdated and downright wrong information about writing. Why should the Lipstick Chronicles be any different? In the next few weeks, our mystery writers will take a stab at these literary questions.
(1) What was your worst mistake?


I didn’t have a lawyer go over my first agent’s contract. I was so thrilled to get a big-time agent, I signed it.

A year later, when the agent hadn’t sold anything and didn’t answer my letters, I wanted out of the contract. That’s when I went to a lawyer. I found out the agent was entitled to commissions on all my work "in perpetuity" – whether he’d sold it or not.

It took $2000 in legal bills to get out of that contract. It would have only cost a couple hundred if I’d gone to a lawyer in the first place.

That agent has gone to his reward (I hope he’s somewhere even hotter than South Florida) and can’t do you any harm. But there are plenty of scams for unwary writers, including agents who recommend dubious "editorial services" and rake off tidy commissions

If you’re thinking about signing with an agent, check out Predators & Editors, a site every professional writer should bookmark.

Want to know how an ethical literary agent should behave? Check out the Association of Authors’ Representatives at
My agent belongs to AAR, but he made me swear on my next royalty check that I won’t reveal his name.

Want to know how a real literary agent thinks? Read Miss Snark’s blog at>
(2) What advice do you wish someone had given you?
Keep reinventing yourself.

If you want a long-term career in publishing, you’ll have highs and lows. There’s a good chance your series will be dropped, you’ll be asked to write a stand-alone or start a second series.

Don’t cling to your first character as if you’ll never invent another. Embrace change. You’re a creative writer. Remember, they’re killing your series, not you.

(3) Who told you you'd never be published, and what would you like to do/say to them now?

A college English teacher gave me a C on an essay. He said I should give up writing because I had no talent. The prof turned out dusty academic prose but fancied himself a "popular writer" because he reviewed for the local paper. Gossip said he was looking for a New York publisher, but they weren’t looking for him.

When my first hardcover, MURDER UNLEASHED, tied with Harlan Coben on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association list, I wanted to send the prof a copy.

But that would be petty.

I have only three words to say to him: Neener, neener, neener.

(4) If you could steal ideas from someone, who would it be?

Sue Grafton.

(5) Commas -- does anyone really care anymore?

I love commas. They’re the cashews of punctuation. I sprinkle them generously throughout my work. The copy editors at my publishing house regard them as cockroaches, and ruthlessly stamp them out.

(6) What do you do when your career isn't going well?

Whine and blame the publisher.

(7) If you could start all over again, what would you do?

Everything right.

This time, I would understand that writing is a business as well as an art.

The first time, I thought when I turned in my novel, my work was done. Now I know it’s just started.

I didn’t have a marketing plan. I didn’t know what my sell-through was. I didn’t visit enough bookstores. I didn’t go to the big mystery conventions until after my book came out. And when I did go, I attended all the panels and avoided the bar.

I learned everything the hard way.

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