Friday, August 13, 2010

Why authors love stupid questions

I know I’m supposed to repeat the refrain, “there are no stupid questions.”

And while I believe that’s true, there are always questions you feel stupid asking, especially in publishing where learning curves are steep and the rules are printed on tablets hidden somewhere in the New York City sewer system.

Last week, I attended a meeting of the Mid-Willamette Valley Romance Writers of America. Unlike the Rose City RWA group I belong to (which has 150-200 members), the Mid-Willamette group is tiny.

There were only two other people last week, both authors working on their first novels. At first glance, you might assume that I – with three books scheduled for publication starting next August – would be the most knowledgeable about our genre.

You would be wrong.

Like most romance writers, I spent the previous week following news from the national RWA convention, listening to updates about awards and lectures and rubber chicken dinners.

But unlike seemingly every romance writer on the planet, I was clueless about the Golden Hearts and RITA awards. Oh sure, I understood they're the big awards in the genre and we should all be willing to mud wrestle to get one, but what’s the difference between them? How do writers get nominated? Who decides the winners?

When I posed the questions to one of the women at that tiny Mid-Willamette RWA meeting, there was a moment where she just blinked at me.

And then she answered the questions – thoughtfully, knowledgeably, and without a touch of condescension.

Because the fact is, she had attended several conventions and understood that aspect of RWA much better than I did. She had knowledge I didn’t, and she was happy to share it.

I don’t know what was running through her mind, but I can guess. I imagine it felt damn good to help a fellow author.

Why do I think this? Because a few minutes later, the third author spoke up. Brand new to writing, she studied the information on my business card and fired off some questions for me:

You have an agent? How did you meet her? Is she local? How do agents get paid? How do you get an agent? How did you know how to write a query letter?

And you know what went through my mind?

It wasn’t frustration at the volume of questions or a mental eye roll at the notion that authors and agents might connect over cantaloupe on the produce aisle at an Oregon grocery store.

It was, holy crap, I know the answers, this is so cool!

I don’t care how long you’ve run the publishing gauntlet – there will always be things others know that you don’t, and knowledge you have that others want.

And how freakin’ amazing is it that we can gather at meetings and in online communities to share what we know?

It can be scary to ask a question you fear might be stupid, but the fact is, someone will feel good being able to answer it. I’m not suggesting you run out and badger every author with 100 questions before making an attempt to do some research on your own, but don’t be afraid to speak up if there’s something you’re wondering.

I know I’m glad I asked about those awards, and I’m doubly glad the other author was brave enough to ask me her questions.

Oh, and in case you share my previous ignorance, here’s some info about the Golden Heart and RITA awards.

And here’s the gist of what I told the other author about agents:
• Yes, I have an agent. I connected with her by writing a query letter.
• I learned to write a query letter from a variety of online resources, but my favorite is agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark.
• I’ve never met in-person with my agent, the brilliant and talented Michelle Wolfson, but I learned about her and hundreds of other agents through agentquery.
• Reputable agents never charge up-front fees, and only get paid when they sell your work. They earn a commission, typically around 15% (a bargain for the authors, in my opinion – agents work damn hard). There's more great info here about what agents do.

So how do you feel asking or answering so-called stupid questions? Are there any you’ve been afraid to ask? Any you summoned the courage to ask elsewhere and want to share with others? Please discuss in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer when I can, and will try to tackle some of the bigger ones in future blog posts.

Have at it – bring on the stupid questions!

24 comments :

Sharla said...

Excellent post Tawna! And I agree...I had a similar experience at the DFW Writers Conference in Dallas in April. I met some fabulous people, all conference newbies like me and all unpublished authors like me. I assumed everyone burned up the internet for info like I do, soaking up every agent blog and tidbit...but I found out differently. I was asked questions that surprised me...basic questions about the industry, and it DID feel good to know the answers!!

Crystal said...

If I feel like I'm going to being asking what I think is a stupid question, I go to google first. That probably seems a little silly, but I'm kind of an odd duck, with really, really odd and far reaching, non-connected interests. So I play it safe, and try to find out the answers I need on my own first.

But, with that said, I don't generally ask normal questions like how do you get an agent. I could need to know something like what stitch is this sweater knit in (so I can make something better in it myself), to what is this particular demon known for, to what paper did DaVinci use to sketch this one particular drawing of Venus on. All on the same day, too. Like I said, odd duck.

But, It would -really- nice to be able to ask someone those questions.

Patty Blount said...

Great post, Tawna.

I entered BORDER LINES IN the Golden Hearts last year did better than I expected. It's a great learning experience.

Your post underscores what we've all been saying about the benefits of social media. I work fulltime, have the typical off-duty responsibilities like house, family, chores, and find lack of time and money both prevent me from attending many of these conferences, but Twitter and blogs provide me with many of their benefits.

I've studied Janet's Query Shark site and also combed through agentquery.

Some day... it WILL happen.

Danica Avet said...

If you never ask questions, you'll never learn anything. Was I embarrassed to raise my hand during a Crime Scene Imagination workshop and ask exactly what deer eat off of dead bodies? Um, yeah, sure I was. Mostly because I didn't want people to think I was weird, but I did it anyway because I had to know. And the answer is hair and perhaps parts of the skin. Now you know and if anyone asks, you can feel good for knowing the answer!

If you want to know something bad enough, you'll ask regardless of whether it makes you look silly or not.

Jeannie said...

I find there is nothing better than meeting with other writers on occasion to help feel less isolated.

Sharing is the best and that's why, I think, people love their chapters and conferences...the connections they make.

kd easley said...

I always feel validated when someone asks an industry related question that I know the answer too. Like I've done my homework and passed a test. :)

The questions that make my eyes glaze over...I have this great story, you could write it for me and we could split the money. What do you think?

or

My brother wrote a book. He published it on Lulu. You want to read it?

Linda G. said...

Writers seem to embody the Pay It Forward spirit. Most of the ones I've had the pleasure of getting to know are generous with their time and knowledge.

Great community to be a part of, isn't it? :)

Kathryn said...

That's so cool to hear! Yeah, I can imagine feeling super helpful and excited when people ask you questions that others might consider "stupid".

Now if only the tech geeks could help me understand HTML without making me feel like a complete n00b. I'm guessing the helpful feeling only applies to us right-brained folks. : /

Terry Stonecrop said...

Nice post. Yes I hate looking stupid. It's so easy to do.

At the moment, I can't think of a stupid or intellignt question to ask. But thanks for offering:)

Jennifer Shirk said...

Great post! I LOVE answering stupid questions for writers newer than me. Those are usually the answers I know. LOL!
And yeah, it does feel good to share knowledge and help each other out like that. I wish I had more places to turn when I first started writing.

Alexa O said...

What I love so much about writers is that, even though we are theoretically all in competition with each other (esp. if we're in the same genre), we love talking about our craft and the business, and sharing what we know with each other.

In fact, I find that the best writers are the most willing to share (probably because they are the most confident).

Most of my query questions are answered by Janet Reid (LOVE her blog), but my big question remains: If you believe in your book, but you've gotten a lot of rejections, at what point do you say, "It's not them, it's me" and revise or scrap the manuscript?

Jeannie said...

I know, I already commented, but now I have a question.

Most people join a writing group to learn about the craft and the business.

You did pretty well for yourself without being part of an RWA chapter. What made you want to join one now? I don't think it's a bad thing--in fact I think it's very good--I'm just curious.

Jessica Lemmon said...

This is a great post - I'm bookmarking it immediately. I'd read each link in detail right now, but am braindead b/c my husband made me help with yardwork and it's roughly the same temp as the surface of the sun out there...

Whoops, was that out loud? ;)

Katt said...

The most fun I had at our local chapter con. was sharing info.
I sat in a query class and listened to the questions as well as pitches written out loud and couldn't help but offer to help a few after class.

Having taken a query master class from Janet the year before in Surrey, I felt like I had oodles of information that they needed! I simply wrote on a piece of paper...
GOOGLE READER
JANET REID
QUERY SHARK... and I handed it to a lady and said, please send your query to Janet. I think your story might be up her alley and query shark will maybe hurt at first but it's what you're looking for.

She seemed pleasantly surprised and a few weeks later she was giddy at having been posted (and ripped into) by the Query Shark... and now she's on her way.

The best part of the whole con was helping those other writers with information they had yet to stumble upon as I had.

Jan Markley said...

I regularly seek advice from those who have many more years in this business than me. it's great that they are nurturing and willing to give back.

lunarmom said...

Several things, first Happy Belated, couldn't comment yesterday as it is also the festive day of my father-in-law. Next, great post and very timely, I just saw that Mid-Valley group's website this week, and pondered...
Lastly, (here could be the stupid question, since I should have looked back to find out) is there a best time to watch your falling stars, over here on the damp side of the state?
I went out earlier, none. I'll try again closer to two.
Julie

Tawna Fenske said...

Sharla, it's been a loooong time since I was a brand new newbie author, but I remember feeling overwhelmed by all the websites and sources of industry info. I'm guessing that's where some of those authors you're talking about are coming from, which is why they're so lucky to have you doing a little hand-holding in these early stages.

Crystal, er...can't help you out with either of those questions, but report back if you find the answers!

Patty, sounds like you're already on the right track, so you're all set to take the world by storm when you start querying!

Danica, that info about what deer eat off dead bodies? Best thing I've read all week. Thanks for sharing it!

Jeannie, amen!

KD Easley, oh yeah, I get those questions a lot, too! My favorite are the people who say, "my life has been so interesting, you want to write about it and split the money?"

Linda G, indeed, it's a terrific group to be a part of. Kinda like the mob, only with pens instead of machine guns.

Kathryn, when you understand HTML, report back and teach me!

Terry, well if you DO think of a stupid question, we're here for you!

Jennifer, I've been doing this writing thing for 8+ and the number of writing blogs & online sources of information for writers has probably quintupled in that time. Amazing, isn't it?

Alexa, this is a really great question, and I promise to mull it over for a few days and maybe do a full blog post on the subject. Fair enough? I'll try to do it sometime this week.

Jeannie, also a great question. The short answer is that my agent suggested it would be a good idea to join RWA. That's not the whole answer though. I avoided joining for a long time because I felt like I was already getting the craft info & support I needed in online communities. Joining up with groups that met in-person just seemed like one more overwhelming thing I didn't have time for, so I chose to stick with what was working. Since my book deal and my day-job layoff came so closely together, I found I suddenly had the time and the the desire to be a part of something like that. I'm finding I really enjoy the discussions & presentations. For example, the RWA presentation I'm going to later today will be all about marketing for writers. Totally my cup of tea, and I'm looking forward to it.

Jessica, I should probably put some of those links in my blog sidebar, eh?

Katt, LOL, when you know someone who's been featured on Query Shark, don't you feel a little bit like, "Ohmygod, I met someone famous!?!?!" I know I do :)

Jan, and someday YOU'LL end up being the one to give back. Don't you love how that works?

lunarmom, funny you should ask this question right now while I'm over here on your side of the state visiting my parents. I've been seeing gobs of meteors in Central Oregon all week, but when we tried to view from Salem last night, I didn't see any. My guess is that the city lights over here are a lot brighter and there's a thin layer of cloud cover (even on seemingly clear evenings) that makes it tougher to see. Have you tried getting out of town a bit? I think I remember that being the trick when I was growing up over here. Good luck!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Matthew Rush said...

That's awesome Tawna. I can't imagine the feeling of really being able to help someone out so much when they're just starting to reach for their dreams. I bet that feels good.

Good for you.

Dr. Goose said...

I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with a man and woman who write romance stories together and publish them on the web. I think they said their audience consists of insomniac women who get on their website (at one in the morning) for a dollar a story. Have you heard of this?

Crystal said...

Oh! I'm so glad I came back!

(I did find the answers to those questions actually. They were old ones, from last spring, and I don't know where I wrote the answers down at.)

I'm glad I came back because... I know HTML stuff! And I will share!
So, if you need help, my twitter is @beingcrys .. any of you.

Alexa O said...

Very fair, thanks!

Renee' said...

What a great topic. I too belong to a fairly small writers group and I learn so much about writing as well as life each time I attend.

While I never mind answering any question and do get quite excited when I know an answer, asking a question is always hard for me.

-Renee'
@FunCityGal

Jessica Lemmon said...

YES! Links on the side! Good idea! :-)

Tawna Fenske said...

Matthew, funny, I attended another RWA meeting on Saturday (this one with the bigger group I belong to). A new writer started peppering me with questions about the early stages of writing and then apologized for doing it. "Go read my blog post from Friday," I told her. "Then you'll understand why I totally love this."

Dr. Goose, I haven't heard of that particular couple, though I know there are oodles of e-published stories out there that appeal to a variety of different readers.

Crystal, I may take you up on that the next time I get stuck doing something with my website.

Alexa, I'm thinking maybe Wednesday or Thursday. Stay tuned :)

Renee, I have to kick myself every time I realize I'm avoiding asking a question I think might be stupid. Just did it at my RWA meeting on Saturday, and it turned out it wasn't a stupid question at all.

Jessica, OK, OK...will add this to the to-do list. That, and archiving old posts to make it easier to find things.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna