Novel Boot Camp – Workshop #4: Ask the Editor


Week four of Novel Boot Camp is upon us! It’s going faster than I ever expected. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been great fun. And of course, it has sparked a lot of questions from all of you wonderful participants.

So this week I want to give everyone the opportunity to ask me your most burning questions! Since there’s no way I can answer a couple hundred questions this week, I am not going to be responding in this workshop. Instead, I will be compiling the questions that I feel will best serve the Novel Boot Camp community, and I will post the answers to these questions in a future blog post.

When will the post go live? This depends a bit on how many questions are asked, the types of questions asked, and how easy it is to pick the best ones to answer. I may use the questions to write full lectures or I may compile them into several blog posts to go up after Boot Camp.

The Rules

Please follow these rules when posting your questions:

  • Each writer may post up to two original questions.
  • You may request a lecture or blog post addressing an issue or aspect of writing or editing if you prefer.
  • If you see that someone has already posted your question, please reply to their comment with “me too,” “ditto,” or an explanation of why you too are interested in the answer. Please try your best not to start a new comment thread for a question that has already been asked.
  • Please do not answer the questions in the comments. This will prevent things from getting cluttered and will also protect writers from getting potentially inaccurate advice.
  • Questions may be directly related to your book, but please do not post any excerpts.
  • Questions may be general in nature and not directly related to your novel.
  • Please keep questions related to writing, editing, or publishing.
  • All questions should be posted in the comments below.
  • Please post your questions before July 27th.

Unless there is a crazy huge amount of questions, I would like to answer all of them eventually. This will most likely not be possible during Novel Boot Camp, so be sure to follow the blog in case I answer your question after camp is over.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Why is it so Hard to Get Published?


This is a question that a lot of writers ask. Maybe they’ve been submitting their book for a long time and haven’t gotten any interest, or maybe they got some interest but their book still wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. Most of us know that getting published is extraordinarily difficult, but why is it so hard? Let’s look at some of the reasons and what you can do about it.

Your Book is a Little Fish (and the pond is really big!)

Publishing is like a national (and sometimes international) competition. Agents and editors are looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. Not only are they looking to weed out the writers who are terrible, but they’re also weeding out those who are just okay, those who are pretty good, and even those who are great. They are looking only for the writers who are fantastic.

Publishing is like the writing Olympics. You have to train to get there, and even once you make it, you still have to beat out tons of extraordinarily talented people to get to the top. So your book is a little fish in a great big pond. Sometimes even exceptional work doesn’t stand out.

Solution: Figure out what makes your writing extraordinary and put that in the first few pages of your novel. Maybe it’s your character’s unique voice. Maybe it’s an unusually short, choppy style. Or maybe it’s a really cool idea that hasn’t been explored before. Whatever it is that makes your writing stand out, make sure the agent or editor will see it (or at least an intriguing hint of it) in the sample pages, and make sure it’s in your query letter too.

Publishing is Subjective (it’s all about opinions!)

While there are obviously standards that most readers expect a book to adhere to, writing as a whole is not very objective. Chances are, if you read through some of my First Page Friday posts, you won’t agree with all of my critiques, because we all have our own opinion about what makes a book great.

When you send your book to that agent or editor you love, they have to form a decision as quickly as they can so that they can move on to the next query letter (or partial or full manuscript). So not only are you at the mercy of their opinion, but you’re at the mercy of decisions that are often made in seconds.

Solution: Know that you can’t please everyone. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on one or two agents who you know are perfect for you. Query widely to everyone who might have an interest in your book and don’t let rejections get you down. Shake them off and move on, even if they come from someone whose opinion you really respect. They may have just rejected you because your book is too similar to something they already represent or because they were having a bad day when they read your query. Don’t try to analyze a rejection unless there’s feedback attached.

Publishing is About Marketability (sales, sales, sales!)

This is the part of the picture that a lot of writers don’t understand. Agents and editors want books that will sell, even if they aren’t as well written as another book in the slush pile. Publishers have to be able to place your book on the shelves, meaning that it has to fit in an established genre. It also has to have an audience that the publisher has the ability to reach, which can be different for different publishers.

This is why a crappy movie/TV tie-in book or one that focuses on a current area of public interest can rocket to the top of the bestseller list even if the writing is mediocre. It’s why a famous author can write a book that’s just okay and still make a killing. Meanwhile, your beautiful steampunk space opera horror story sits on your computer’s hard drive because publishers couldn’t figure out where to place it in the bookstores.

Solution: Know your genre and demographic. Figure out who you’re writing for so you can convey that to agents and editors, and make sure that your writing meets the expectations of readers in your genre. This does not mean you can’t be innovative and blend genres, but you should be able to identify the books that would compete against yours. Some agents and editors like this to be typed right into the query letter (for example: My book will appeal to fans of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series).

Want to learn how to write killer first pages and query letters? Check out my critique workshops.


“Edgy” YA Fiction: Is Sex a Selling point or Off limits?


Sex is a part of teen life, even for those not engaging in sexual activity. They see, hear, and read about it everywhere. We all know this (even if we’re moms, dads, or librarians), but for some reason it still creeps some of us out a little, especially when it comes to books.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of questions floating around like: Is it okay to put sex in a YA novel? Is sex a selling point in YA fiction? Is sex off limits?

To answer these questions I’m going to break down the biggest myths about sex in YA novels and give you the truth.

Myth: Agents and Editors Automatically Reject YA Novels Featuring Sex.

Truth: Agents and editors are interested in books that sell. They are not moral Nazis hoping to shelter our teens from anything society might find distasteful.  Sure, there are some agents who will not consider books with sex in them. There are also agents who won’t consider fantasy novels. You can’t please everyone so don’t try.

That said, most agents will reject novels featuring explicit sex that is intended to titillate (also known as “smut”). So long as you are not attempting to arouse the reader, you should be good to go.

Myth: Sex is Only Okay if Contraceptives are Used.

Truth: Sex in YA novels should be realistic. If the kids would use contraceptives, great! If they wouldn’t, that’s okay too. So long as you aren’t advocating unprotected sex, nobody’s going to get their panties in a bunch about it.

Myth: Sex is Only Okay if it has Major Consequences.

Truth: So long as you don’t depict casual sex as the best choice your YA character ever made, you don’t need to worry about destroying their life over sexual activity. They don’t have to get pregnant, contract an STD, or get suicidally depressed.

However, if there are no consequences to the sex at all, this calls into question the purpose it serves in your novel. Why include something that doesn’t affect the story?

Myth: Titillating Sex is Acceptable Now in YA Books.

Truth: Sometimes writers’ questions about sex in YA novels swing too far the opposite direction. Even if you were able to get titillating or explicit sex published in a YA novel, you would not be able to get it into most libraries, high schools, and book stores (meaning it wouldn’t sell). Book buyers have the right to not carry books they find objectionable.

Myth: Sex is a Selling Point.

Truth: With internet access in nearly every home, teens have way easier places to find information about sex than by reading novels. A sex scene isn’t going to rally teen interest in your book, nor the interest of agents and editors. Only the story can do that.

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7 Reasons to be Wary of Small Publishing Houses


Small publishing houses (also known as small presses or independent publishers) can be a great option for writers who have work that’s not cut out for traditional publishing or who aren’t quite ready to go it alone and self publish.

Some of the small publishing houses are fantastic, but some…not so much. Generally, the worst of the small presses are the e-publishers. The companies that publish entirely or primarily in e-book form.

This is not to say that there aren’t some awesome e-publishers, there are! But there are also some horrific ones. The key to not getting suckered into a crappy small press is to be wary and to ask the right questions before signing a contract.

Here are some potential pitfalls of going with an independent publisher (especially an e-publisher):

1. Quantity Over Quality

Some small publishing houses operate under the business model of “quantity over quality.” This means that they may accept all or most of what is submitted to them if it meets the most basic requirements of a novel.

Their theory is that by publishing as many books as possible as cheaply as possible, they are bound to eventually make a profit.

Why it’s a Problem

Often what happens with this business model is that the publisher over saturates the market with low-quality books. This means that their own high-quality novels get buried under dozens of low-quality ones. It also means that readers may buy one book from the publisher, have a bad experience, and never buy another one.

How to Check

Look through the independent publisher’s release schedule and “about us” or “employment page.” If the small press employs two editors but releases twenty books per month, that’s not a good sign. Some small presses hire freelance editors (as many as dozens) so unfortunately there’s no foolproof method of determining the ratio of editors to released books.

2. Incompetent Editors

Some small publishing houses are created by people who want to make a quick buck. They may be editors who failed as freelancers, who couldn’t get hired at traditional publishing houses, or who are failed writers. They may also be people with no connection to the publishing industry at all.

Why it’s a Problem

You want your precious novel to be edited to perfection. This is your name we’re talking about. If a publisher throws your book up with poor (or no) editing, the ensuing negative reviews could have a permanent effect on your career. Not to mention that the book you slaved over will be sent out into the world ill prepared.

How to Check

Look through the Amazon previews of a dozen or so novels that the small press published in your genre. Look for issues with the writing, like head hopping, tense mix-ups, and purple prose. Also look for issues with proofreading, like misspellings and incorrect comma usage.

3. Limited Advertising & Promotions

Some small publishing houses offer little or no help with advertising and promotions. Their idea of a marketing plan might be firing off a Tweet or two to their 300 followers on release day. Or they might get you book reviews or guest posts on blogs with only a couple hundred subscribers.

Why it’s a Problem

Giving your book the promotional backing of a publishing company is one of the primary reasons to go with a small press over self publishing. If the company isn’t promoting your book, you will be stuck doing all of the work on your own, just like you would if you self published, except you’ll be giving a chunk of your sales to the publisher.

How to Check

Search some of the small press’ titles and see what comes up. Is the book being mentioned on blogs with more than a couple hundred subscribers? Does it have reviews from sites other than Amazon? Did it have a book tour? Did the author do interviews? Make sure you check for at least five or six books. If one book has a great promotional presence but another doesn’t, it was likely the author who organized the promotion.

4. Bad Cover Art

Some small presses invest in very nice cover art, but others have artwork so bad it’s laughable. Often bad artwork is due to artists who are expected to churn out an unrealistic amount of book covers for a low price. The owners of the publishing company may also be creating the covers themselves.

Why it’s a Problem

No matter how many times we tell people to not judge a book by its cover, people do. We all do. An ugly or laughable cover is not going to lead to book sales. But even a gorgeous cover that doesn’t correctly portray the genre and subject matter can ruin sales because it won’t attract the right readers.

How to Check

Look through the publisher’s website and study the cover art. Is it attractive? Enticing? Read the description of the book. Does the cover accurately convey the genre and subject matter to the reader? Is the cover misleading?

5. Poor Sales

When you publish with a small press, the hope is that by teaming up with them, you will boost your book sales (as opposed to self publishing). But at some small presses, their book sales are worse than typical sales for a self-published book. Some small presses never see sales out of the double digits. One fairly popular small press typically sells about 10-30 copies of each book.

Why it’s a Problem

Publishing that doesn’t get you any sales defeats the purpose of publishing at all. You will lose the rights to your book (most traditional publishers will no longer consider publishing it even after the contract is up) and in return you get little more than a few copies of your book to give to friends and family.

How to Check

Most small presses don’t release numbers on their book sales and if they do, they only release numbers on their top-performing books. The best way to assess sales is to go to the source – find a writer who has published with them and ask. The best place to do this is probably the Bewares, Recommendations, and Background Check forum on AbsoluteWrite.

6. Dishonest Payment

A handful of small presses have been dishonest about how much they owe their authors. They’ve gotten in trouble for keeping more than their fair share of the book sale money. Though far from the norm, it’s something to be aware of.

Why it’s a Problem

You worked hard on your book, you deserve to get paid for the book sales. Also, a publisher that lies to its authors is likely to go bust and disappear. Then your book is stuck without backing from a publisher at all.

How to Check

To figure out if a publishing company has ever been dishonest about how much they owe their authors, just search the web. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to figure out which companies are being dishonest and just haven’t been caught yet.

7. No Print Run

Some small publishing houses never provide print runs. Other houses provide print runs on only their top-performing books. This means that even if you see that some of their books have gone to print, yours probably won’t and will be sold as an e-book only.

Why it’s a Problem

It’s not inherently a problem if the market for your genre is online. But if you write in a genre that tends to sell better in print, only having your book available online can dramatically limit your sales. And some writers just want to see their book in print and will be dissatisfied without a hard copy available.

How to Check

Don’t assume you will get a print run. Go over your contract carefully to see what is and is not promised to you. If a print run is important to optimize your book sales (which is probably true in every genre except erotica) and you believe your novel has a good shot at selling well in stores, don’t sign with a publisher who can’t guarantee a print run unless it’s your last resort.


There are some awesome small publishing houses out there. But there are also a lot of crappy ones. Don’t be the writer who is so thrilled with a contract offer that they sign it without doing research. And don’t be embarrassed to ask the publisher questions.

Above all, listen to the opinions of writers who have gone before you. Trust the authors who have published at a publishing company over the claims of the company itself. The publisher has a vested interest in selling itself high, but your fellow writer is probably going to tell the truth about whether their publisher was awesome or awful.

It can be tough to turn down a publishing deal, even from a publisher that sucks, but so long as you keep working at your craft, you won’t regret turning away a crappy small press. Who knows, your book may be just a few more revisions away from a traditional deal anyway.

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If you need a freelance editor, please check out my editing services.