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Alyson Noel Alyson Noel

FAQ: advice on writing/publishing

I wrote a book—how do I go about getting it published?
First you'll want to get an agent since it's nearly impossible these days to sell a book without one. Most of the bigger New York publishers won't even look at unagented manuscripts. Also, those publishing contracts can get pretty complicated so it's good to have someone who knows the ropes. Of course this applies to traditionally published books only. As I've never self-published a book, I'm not qualified to give advice about that.

Okay, so how do I go about getting an agent, then?
I'm not gonna lie, getting an agent is tough, but then, publishing is a tough business, so if you really want it, you can't let that stop you. A lot of agents are on Twitter, Facebook, etc. which allows you to get a good glimpse of the kind of books they represent as well as the kind of stories they're currently looking for. It's important to target the right agent for your genre. Sending your YA contemporary to someone who only represents sci-fi erotica is a waste of everyone's time.

Once you've decided whom to target, you'll need to write a one-page query letter that briefly describes you, your book, and why a publisher would want to buy it. It's a lot tougher than it seems, so be sure to take your time to get it in the best shape possible as this alone will determine whether of not the agent will request to see your book. If they don't ask to see more, don't get discouraged. Rejection is the one thing you can count on in this business, which is why perseverance is key.

I can't seem to finish my book, what do I do?
Honestly, there's no silver bullet here—it all comes down to B.I.C. ("Butt in Chair") it's really the only way to get from the beginning to The End. The initial spark of the story idea is always the most exciting part. Writing the beginning of the story is fun too, but then, somewhere around the middle, it becomes, well, not-so fun, and that's usually the time when a shiny, newer idea beckons. . .

But if you want to be a writer, you need to finish what you started. (Though make sure to record that shiny new idea in your Idea Folder—you have one of those, right?). The truth is, most would-be writers never actually finish. I should know, it took me 15 years to finish my first book.

Every time I start a new book I get a better idea for another one, and then all I want to do is write that book-how do I stay focused?
See above—it's all about BIC! BIC—one word at a time—one page at a time—the only way out is through.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?
I love names, especially unusual ones, and I collect them in a little something I like to call "My Unusual Names File" (I'm big on keeping files). So every time I hear a new one, I add it to the collection, then when I start a new book, I search through the list and pick and chose among them.

Should I outline my entire book before I write it?
If that works for you, then sure, why not? The important thing is to find what works for you, since there's no right or wrong way, just your way.

I like to do a general outline, (I use the Beat Sheet from Blake Snyder's amazingly useful book: SAVE THE CAT) listing all the major turning points along the way, which is sort of like a roadmap that leads me to my final destination, aka—The End. Though I still allow plenty of open road so the journey can take an alternate route if I chose. It takes a while to find what works best for you. The key is to try varying techniques and see which fits best.

How do you get past writer's block?
By refusing to believe in it. Seriously. If I believe in it, then I might experience it, and I just don't have time for that. Though, when I do find myself "stuck" I usually go back and do more research into my world, my characters, their motivations, etc, and it always spawns the next sentence. Always. Never fails!

What is "I-suck-itis" and how do I make sure I don't get infected?
I-suck-itis is that feeling you get when you're happily engrossed in your writing, everything's going great, and then smack out of nowhere that horrible, annoying, little voice in your head pipes in with all sorts of judging, and snarking, and shade throwing that's meant to convince you you'll never be as good as that amazing writer you so admire who, unlike you, probably never wrote a sucky word in their life.

When that happens, the only cure is to shut down the voice, and remind yourself that you are merely trying to get through the first draft. And since there's no such thing as a good first draft, you are free to make mistakes and write the sort of drivel that will certainly be deleted later. To quote Ernest Hemingway: The only kind of writing is re-writing. And to quote Nora Roberts: You can't fix a blank page! And to quote Me: Be kind to yourself and write-on!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
The best advice I can give any writer is to READ—and read widely. The books you like, as well as the books you don't like—they all have something to teach you. Reading a lot of books, in a wide variety of genres, goes a long way toward learning the rhythm of storytelling. It's seriously the most valuable tool at your disposal.

And then, of course, you have to WRITE. Get in the habit of writing when and where you can because the more you write the better you get. And again, allow yourself to write without judging, since you can (and should, and will!) always go back and revise your work later. I revise my books countless times before I hand them into my editor, and then, I revise them many more times before they hit the bookstore shelves. Once your work is finished, it helps to put it aside for a few weeks while you work on something else. It's amazing what you'll see when you revisit it with fresh eyes.

If you have writing classes available in school take them—if not, there are a lot of good writing books out there—two of my favorites are actually geared toward screenwriters, but whether it's a movie or a book, the story elements are basically the same. One is STORY by Robert McKee—and the other is SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. ON WRITING by Stephen King is really helpful as well—the first part is mostly autobiography (which is really quite interesting), while the second half is some really solid writing advice.

Oh, and don't forget to LIVE! Don't spend so much time writing that you're not out there living. Your own experiences will make for much richer stories, so make sure to walk away from your computer now and then and go make some memories!

How long should my book be?
Publishers go by word count, not page count. The average adult novel is 90,000 words, while the average teen novel is 65,000 words. Though the key word here is "average" there are countless exceptions.

How should I format my book?
Double space, 12 point font, Times New Roman.

How long does it take to write a book?
It really depends. My first book took 15 years. These days I write them in a few months.

How old do you have to be to get a book published?
There is no age limit. Publishers are interested in great stories—not birthdates!

Since becoming a writer, what's the coolest thing to ever happen to you?
Seeing my first book, Faking 19, on the bookstore shelves was definitely a dream-come-true moment, getting my first e-mail from a reader was completely amazing, and meeting Judy Blume in person and getting to thank her for inspiring me to write my books and live my dreams was truly over the top!

What's the best part about being an author?
Tie between wearing pajamas to work, the short commute from the kitchen to the home office, and getting to meet so many awesome readers!

Since starting your career as an author, what would you say are some of the most important lessons you've learned?
That I will always panic the week before a new book comes out, and that this is not likely to change.

That the brilliant ideas that stop by in the middle of the night always disappear by morning.

That it's never too late to follow your dream, though there's nothing wrong with getting a head start.

That there is no magic bullet—writing is hard work, much harder than it seems, and perseverance and a willingness to revise and adapt will take you a very long way.

That publishing is a tough business, one that is always changing, and the road is often long, and bumpy, and riddled with rejection. But if you really want it, you just have to keep going, reminding yourself that it only takes one "Yes!" to get you where you want to be.

That inspiration is not very punctual, so it's best not to sit around and wait for it to show up. Just get started, and know that if you keep at it long enough, eventually, it'll find you.