How to break in to non-fiction / fiction… a basic primer…

by Toni McGee Causey

You know I love you, my beloved ‘Rati, right? I do, more even than frozen chocolate M&Ms, and that’s like a whole freaking Grand Canyon of love, mkay?

But today? Today the words, they are flowing. I had a breakthrough and it’s rocking and as much as I love you, I’m going to post something I posted elsewhere. [I apologize in advance to our non-writer READER commenters… this one is so business related, you will likely be bored. I promise something fun for you next time.] A handful of you have seen it, but it’ll be new to most of you and I’d appreciate your help fleshing it out even farther. Further? Farther? Ugh. I iz a riter.

Anyway, it’s a how-to, as mentioned in the title. It’s not intended to be all-inclusive. There are books written on these subjects which still don’t manage to cover everything, but you can look at this as a sort of check-list of things you can do to get started without shooting yourself in the foot. 

That shooting yourself in the foot? Just happened to a guy who wrote to me this week. I didn’t know him, never met him, didn’t have a clue why he was writing to me because he launched into pitching his non-fiction book and asked me to visit his website and read his excerpts and then I could just call or email him back with an explanation of what he needed to do next. Hello? Did this Speshul Snowflake save my life at some point? Donate a kidney to me when I wasn’t paying attention? No, no he did not. It was the casual “you don’t have anything better to do than to see my genius” attitude that rankled. So… on the off chance that he and I had met somewhere and I, in some state of amnesia volunteered to take him to raise and coddle and read his stuff… asked him if we had met. Or knew each other from online? And he assured me that no, we hadn’t met, because I would know him–he’s the guy who looks like [insert fairly famous TV star here]. And that, apparently, was supposed to be reason enough for me to stop my own work to do his.

I did not haul out the big guns. I want freaking brownie points for that. Because seriously, he didn’t even bother to find out what I wrote, much less read it. I am so not the person to pitch a non-fiction book to. And the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I became because he’s going to keep writing to authors, thinking what he was doing was a great idea, a fabulous way to break in. What he’s really doing is marking himself as someone (I am being polite here) who doesn’t realize how the business works and even though I was actually intrigued by the title and tagline of the book he pitched, you couldn’t put enough chocolate covered strawberries in front of me to get me to read it now. And if someone is obnoxious in the way they ask me to read, I will be cranky.

You really really don’t want me to read your stuff when I’m cranky.

Besides… I’m not an agent. I’m not an editor. I am just a writer, like any other writer, with a secondary business I help run (construction) and family to tend to. I’ve also promised other people reads–some are people I owe huge favors to because they’ve read mine, some are waiting for blurbs and others who are waiting for feedback (the latter being close friends for whom I am willing to leash the cranky). 

The thing is, I was once unpublished and people helped me. I’d like to help. I hope that some of the blogs I’ve posted fall into that category, and I’ve read for contests and taught classes and try to give back at conventions. I try to find those who are standing on the fringes, terrified as I once was, and pull them into the group so they can start meeting people. I’ve read and referred people to agents and I’ve even sent an email to an editor when I knew she was looking for something specific and I had just read that very thing and thought it was wonderful and she might just think so, too. (That has happened maybe twice.) I *do not* do that frequently. For one thing, if you are constantly bombarding people, no one listens and secondly, that’s not my job. My job is to write. I do help, when I can, because I really love seeing people succeed.

There are rare times I will read someone’s unpublished manuscript, but it’s happened occasionally. (a) they win a contest where I’ve given away a read. I read one recently like this for a contest for donations when Nashville flooded… and CP Perkins won and her voice and story were refreshing and smart and delightful and I was very happy to read. (b) a referral from a friend I dearly trust who either has blackmail material on me and who is so fired up over someone else’s manuscript, I am curious and (c) people who comment regularly in the comments section that I’ve come to know and like and… yet, even then, I warn them about the cranky. (Look, I’ve inadvertently made people cry–men and women–and that’s when I thought I was being helpful. You have to understand that I came out of the screenwriting world, where there is no such thing as a gentle critique.) I will never ever ever, did I mention never? read a complete stranger’s stuff just because they sent an email. I have no way to know the crazy on the other side of that email, and honestly, there are legal ramifications involved that are too painful to be worth the risk. 

Okay… wow, for someone who wasn’t going to post much, I ended up ranting.

Still… you’ll see “networking” down below as one of the ways to get feedback and build relationships, which can sometimes help. Sometimes, as in occasionally. Not all of the time. Maybe even rarely. Don’t count on it. Lots of other ways to the end of the rainbow, etc. I believe in networking, but I also believe in respecting the other person’s time and commitments. Better than networking, though, is just being a good reader / blog commenter / convention participant / fun person. That will make you memorable in a good way.

Here’s what I’d ask of you today–and I’m posting this question above the very long blog post that’s about to follow, because many of you won’t need or want to read the whole thing, but it’ll be there for those who do. Many of you published writers will have a lot of other tips, though, and I would greatly appreciate it if you would:

1) tell me other tips on breaking in, fiction or non-fiction (flash-fiction success stories, for example)

2) tell me any books or classes that you’ve taken that were pivotal in your ability to break in

3) online resources? websites? blogs? Please feel free to include your own if you have writers’ resources listed there.


*****If you have a question not covered–and as long as this gigantic post is, I’m sure there’s plenty more–please ask in the comments and I–and hopefully some of the other ‘Rati–will endeavor to answer. Keep in mind this is just my perspective. Your mileage may vary.

(Also, check out at the very bottom the fantastic class Alex is teaching in a couple of weeks.)

And now, I’m off to enjoy the words flowing. Meanwhile, here is a very long piece about how to break in:

How do you get started writing for pay, for both non-fiction and fiction? 

I’ve been asked the above many times it’s a great question. What makes it difficult to answer is that every single person asking is at a different stage/level of writing, so there’s no “one size fits all” answer that will apply. Even so, I think there are a number of things a new writer can do in order to jump into this vocation. I really wish someone had broken some of this down for me, oh-so-many years ago. In honor of those questions and in light of the fact that I just realized I’ve been publishing for 25 years this year (in May), here are a few things (and this is not a complete, definitive list yet) that I think might benefit a new writer to do and/or think about. 

1) Do you absolutely NEED to earn money FAST with writing? If you’re going to spend extra time doing something, MUST it earn money in order to makes ends meet? 

Now, it might surprise you that I ask that question first, but I want to get this concern out in the open and addressed, because I understand the desire more than anyone knows: you have a talent that people have encouraged-whether it was a teacher somewhere along the way, or family or friends… and for reasons all too common, you have to earn extra money, but leaving the house to do it is damned near impossible. Maybe it’s because of having kids at home, or maybe it’s because of where you live or the high unemployment rate, but you’d really like to earn money quickly, and you’d like to do it from home. 

If this describes you, then you need to look at NON FICTION as a potential solution. Back when I started, our local newspaper still took on freelancers for various sections. The pay was not great—$75 per article, and, ironically, $75 per photo. I learned pretty quickly to include photos. It was a very happy day in the household when I had worked my way up to a whopping $150 per article and $100 per photo, because I was writing two or three articles a week by that point, and making a pretty good side income. 


Here’s some how-to tips and things to keep in mind: 

Even though the local newspapers on on the decline (and seriously, they’ve laid off staff right and left, so it’s going to be difficult—but not impossible—to land a freelance assignment there), keep in mind that many many places have their own websites now, and they may benefit from additional local coverage/articles. You have to think outside the box a bit more to find these places and to pitch them, but keeping a site updated with frequent content is very time-consuming for a local business or corporation, and if someone can solve that problem for them, fairly cheaply and with good quality writing, that person can end up creating a niche for themselves. 

Finding the market: Obviously, finding those businesses and sites (even regional and national sites) takes research. It takes looking at every site you cross, every local business web page with an eye to what you could do to make that site more of a “destination” site. Why would they need you? What could you bring to the table that would be interesting to their customers? How frequently would they need the content updated? 

Pitching: There are two general ways to pitch—one is a query letter, and one is to provide a sample, which we call “writing on spec” (speculation). While the former is the generally accepted method of approaching most businesses, I have to say that a simple cold query is almost never going to work for non-fiction. They’re going to want to know what you can do, and this is where you’d include samples of your best writing. If you don’t have any samples because you’re just getting started, then the best thing to do is write the article you’re pitching to them. Show them what you can do by doing it, and doing it so well, they really want to use it. On the upside, if they want it, it’s already done and you’ll get paid a lot faster. On the downside, you could put a lot of research into something and end up not making a sale. Never fear, though—because that article might be able to be slanted toward another market. I made several sales by taking an article that had already been written, looking at the needs of a different publication, slanting a rewrite toward that publication and then selling it there. 

What do you mean, slant? To “slant” something is to be aware of the demographic and/or the attitudes and needs of the publications’ audience. In the approach to a business, you want to be aware of who their target customer is. For example, let’s just say there’s a local Bed & Breakfast near you, and you realize that people who travel to the B&B might want to read about other sites to see and venues to visit near said B&B, and the B&B’s website is pretty static—nothing new there about what’s going on locally or how awesome the area is. Or whatever they have is the same thing they’ve had up for a year. So you want to pitch them a series of articles where you cover local attractions from the point of view of a local—great places to hang out that are off the beaten path, etc. You wouldn’t write this article with a lot of slang and angles on where to go skateboarding, because the audience is likely going to be older—couples—from retirees to newlyweds—not teens. You’re also going to see more middle-class visitors than wealthy, and many of these would be interested in saving money while seeing the sites, so you’d feature the more affordable things to do in the area. However, you could take that same information that you found while researching and pitch it to bigger hotels in the area, or restaurants, or travel guides or the local paper’s travel/fun section, etc. In non-fiction, research only used once is a missed opportunity. You can often rewrite the article to slant it toward different audiences, thus making more money for the same research. 

(I once sold an article about relaxation and endorphins toRedbook, and then turned around and used the same information to create a fun quiz for Madamoiselle.) 

Querying official markets: By “official” I mean the standard markets you’d think of for non-fiction: magazines and newspapers and some of the bigger news/magazine websites. MOST but not all of the requirements of the paying sites are going to be included in a publication called WRITERS MARKET. There’s a print version (usually) available in most libraries. There are other sites as well, such as—but I used WM almost exclusively for my non-fiction forays and I think it’s been around the longest. 

There’s a huge non-fiction section to these sites and specifically in WM, and you can look up the publication to see: 

  1. what they need
  2. what they pay
  3. how to contact them and a contact name


In every case, I would call the front desk of the magazine just to verify that the contact name was still at the publication. People move, get fired, etc., and you don’t want to send in a query for the new person’s predecessor—it’ll be obvious you’re not that great at research, if you do. You also, however, NEVER try to pitch these people over the phone. Ever. EVER. ON PENALTY OF DEATH. Okay? Because you will tick whoever that person is off, right then, and anything you send it later will be thrown away. 

Then you’ll follow their guidelines. Even if they say “snail mail only.” Because they are grumpy and you’re trying to get money out of them, eventually, you want them to think well of you. 

And please note that in order to approach the bigger markets, like national magazines, where the pay is much nicer, they’re going to want to see “clips” (published examples, taken from the source, or a pdf copy thereof) of your work for other paying markets. You can graduate quickly to a larger market, but having these clips is essential, so you’ll need to start either locally or regionally. 

Do not ignore the off-beat magazines which have a very specific following. For example, you may not normally think about writing a golf piece for a travel magazine, but if you live near a world-renowned golf course, there may be an angle there that you could pitch. Or, for the golf magazine, you might pitch a round-up of favorite local eateries for the people who will be traveling in to enjoy a major golf tournament. I dunno-this is where RESEARCH of the market is VITAL. It’s a good rule of thumb to read the last few issues of a magazine to see their TONE and APPROACH to topics, but also to see what they’ve covered in the last couple of years. Yes, two years, minimum. Most editors will not want to repeat a topic (celebrity stuff excluded, obviously) unless you can present a really new slant on that topic. Women’s magazines, for example, might have covered anorexia a year ago and won’t want to cover it again… but if you’ve heard about a new treatment or research or a myth-busting truth has crossed your path, you might be able to sell it. It’s got to be a fresh take, though, for them to be willing to bite. There are all sorts of odd, off-beat places and ways to get started. 

Keep in mind that sometimes, you have to give a little to build a reputation. Here’s a good example. My oldest son, Luke Causey, is an outdoorsman when he’s not working, and he loves camping/hunting/fishing, etc. A while back, he wrote a free review of a knife he’d purchased and posted it on a website where reviews were invited. His review was well received, and he reviewed more and more—to the point that knife makers would send him a knife for review and he was able to keep the knife. He ended up with enough positive reactions from his reviews that he started reviewing other equipment for a website called; his payment was that he could keep the item he reviewed, which, for him, was great. I’m very proud of his articles—he’s professional, easy-to-read, fun, and you can tell he has a sense of humor. He also does great “how-to” articles about how to improvise something you might need. The kid’s a regular MacGyver (along with his dad and brother), so it’s a perfect use of his talents. As a result of his articles, he’s been invited to contribute articles—for pay—to a new magazine that’s starting up called Pathfinder, which is founded by Dave Canterbury, who stars on the Discovery Channel’s Dual Survival Show. In this internet world where so many people blog for free, you may have to write a while and demonstrate that you have a knowledge base or a particular take on a topic that is unique and helpful or entertaining in order to prove to the paying markets that you deserve to be paid. 

Non-fiction books: Also, keep in mind that non-fiction is the lion’s share of books sold, so if you have an expertise in an area… or you know someone who does have an expertise… you may be able to break in with a non-fiction book. There are a lot of websites and information out there about how to do this, but the bottom line is, you have to do a tremendous about of market research to show why your book is needed. If you’re following a trend, you’re probably already too late—by the time the trend happens and “hits” big in the public conscious, there’s already a glut of those books sitting on editors’ desks, because everyone else has noticed the trend, too. You’ll need to find an angle about the subject that hasn’t been done, and a reason why the audience would need that information. How is it going to make their lives better? How is going to help anyone? Why does it fill a void the other books out there haven’t filled? How big is that demand? (Meaning, how big is that void? Is there a big enough audience to warrant the cost of publishing the book?) If you want to go this route, don’t start writing the book until you’ve really researched the how-tos. 

The writing itself: You might be thinking, “Well, I’d like to do this, but how do I know if I have what it takes?” And my answer is going to sound snarky, but it’s not meant that way:you can read. If you’re going to be a writer, it’s your job to read read READ read READ READ READ and DISSECT dissect dissect DISSECT the hell out of what you read. Look at a website you love and see how they do it. Ask yourself stuff like, “how do all of the articles start… with an anecdote? with a hook? with a fact? with a bold statement?” and then ask, “what is the style of this publication? is it breezy? snarky? factual? dry? sardonic?” etc. Write a few sample articles and get friends/peers to read and tell you if they remained interested throughout. Find out if you have confused them anywhere along the way. Did you make a point? Did the person care about it once they were done? Did you impart information that the person wouldn’t have known already? Did you give them a glimpse into something they couldn’t have ordinarily seen just surfing factual sites on the web? And so on. If you want to go this route, there are several writing books on the subject out there which will help you with the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself.Writer’s Digest almost always puts out excellent books on the subject, and their magazine had great articles on how to approach non-fiction markets. (I’m assuming they still do, though I haven’t read in a while.) 

The pay: Is almost always on publication now except for some of the really big markets, but if they’re a local business and/or are not going broke, then you might be able to negotiate payment upon acceptance. Check out markets of similar size in the Writer’s Marketplace to get a fair idea of what you should charge, if you’re pitching to someone “outside the box.” And it’s always a smart thing to present the “outside the box” types with an invoice once they’ve accepted the article for publication. That way, should they forget, you can remind them without looking like a fluffy bunny who’s just doing this for free. 

(There are good reasons to do something fo
r free—blogs, for example, have obviously taken over the world and they’re free and they offer a zillion viewpoints and bits of information, but if you’re going to write for someone else, they need to pay you, or be able to give you some sort of in-kind-trade, where you benefit financially.) 


2) “No no,” you say, “I don’t want to write non-fiction. I want to write my own stories. My own worlds. I just don’t have a clue how to go about getting started.” 

For what it’s worth, I said this sentence at some point in my non-fiction writing career, when I really wanted a change and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. The fiction world is SO BIG and SO AMORPHOUS and holy cow, there are about a billion ways to Oz, and I kept hopping from one path to another because I didn’t even really realize I was on a path, until about four or five paths later. So in order to help you keep from meandering in the wilderness for forty years, here are a few of the general things I’d suggest you think about and/or do to get started. 

The genre you love to read: Here is the very best place for you to start. Why? Because whether you realize it or not, you know a lot about it already. You know what the reader expectations are for that genre, because all you have to do is ask yourself, “What am I looking for when I pick up this type of book? What is it that I’m craving? What type of experience? What works for me? (Make a list.) What doesn’t work for me? (Again, make a list.) Ignore stuff that the author had no control over, like the back cover copy and the cover… focus on the story: do you like dark thrillers? do you like them to have romance in them, or not? if not, why not? (There are no wrong answers. In fact, you MUST be really honest with yourself here if you want to be successful.) Do you like light romances? Do you like a lot of angst or stories with more twists in the plots? Pull out your top ten or twenty favorite books in the world… the ones you’d read over and over again. What is it about these books that you love? Look for genre, but also look for commonalities: what is it about them that’s calling to you? Is it subject matter? Theme? Tone? Or a type of experience? Setting? Type of plot? 

When people give the advice to “write what you know”—it doesn’t necessarily mean for you to write about your experiences in your life… it means, write the kinds of stories you know how to tell, that you’d love to read and watch. Write something that you grasp the meaning to, the nuances and the lifestyle of, because you’re going to need that understanding to get you through the long slog. However, be aware that what you understand can apply to many other life situations. You may never be a spy, but you might have a grasp on cut-throat tactics and livelihoods at stake, and you might have access to a bunch of people in the spy business who would be willing to talk to you and you might have an understanding of what it is to be immersed in a world where you have no one you can trust, and if you put those things together, you could write a spy thriller. Especially if you love the spy thriller genre and you’ve read just about everything classic that everyone references as well as the new turks taking over the genre—then you’ll know if what you’re doing is good and original. 

The writing itself: There are a billion choices for you to go through to create that work of fiction-and each one of those can be overwhelming when you’re new. Things like “should I tell this in first person? or third?” have ramifications far beyond just using the word “I” a lot. Suffice it to say, those choices are too huge for this one blog. I have a few pieces of advice about how to write: 

  • read. READ READ READ. And then, READ. 
  • DISSECT. If you can’t figure out what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it, then you can’t utilize the technique. Now, you may dissect subconsciously, or you may be the type who pulls out highlighters and makes copious notes or you may fall somewhere in between, but good writers read with an eye to how the author accomplished what they accomplished. And the rare times I’ve read a book where I’ve gotten completely immersed and have forgotten to read with that eye, I go back and figure out where the author drew me in, and how. 
  • write write write write write. PRACTICE. Do not whine to anyone about how you don’t want to abandon your first book, that you think it’s got what it takes to make it and “those people” just wouldn’t know great writing if it hit them in the face, because I—and all the other professional writers around you—will want to bop you on the head. Unless you are a very speshul snowflake, you’re probably not going to sell the very first book you write. Or the first full-length fiction (if, as it was in my case, a screenplay). You may, however, show enough promise to get encouragement from peers and other writers, or place in some contests. You may even get some encouragement from some agents. But you need to be aware that just because you can type, or just because you’ve read all your life, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to automatically spew out a perfect novel that everyone clamors to read, one which will—if not make you wealthy—will at least solve your financial problems. It’s unrealistic. I don’t care how talented you are, it’s unrealistic. The one-in-a-million that it happens to is a fluke, and if you get so lucky? Well, good, I’m glad. But don’t go into this thinking that’s how it works, because it doesn’t. Plus, you will annoy the writers around you who could have offered you useful advice on how to improve, except if you’re all whiny about how great you already are, nobody’s going to want to help you. (Um, yeah, pet peeve. Moving on.) 
  • Peer review/critiques/feedback/beta reads… You will need these, in the beginning, at least. Again, there are rare people out there who are so talented, they may not need any feedback, and if you’re one of those people, congratulations, we all hate you. However, most of those people find out they are those people because they’ve already written stuff and submitted it and wowed everyone, or peers read and were blown away, etc. If you’re writing something and you hand it in to your critique group/peers, etc., and they are dying DYING dying to know what happens next, then you may well not need the critique group’s input. 
  • Finding a peer review group is a blog unto itself, but my caveat here is to find people who love the same genre in which you’re writing, or you’re going to get a whole lot of advice that sounds great and is logical and makes sense and may even resonate with you… but which could derail the story you’re trying to tell because it negates the very conventions of the genre of your story. And this derailing won’t even be intentional… but I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. 
  • Classes. I actually think taking classes is a beneficial thing—if it’s being taught by a really strong teacher. Please note that sometimes, really strong teachers aren’t always bestsellers themselves, which may have a helluva lot more to do with the vagrancies of the marketplace or something beyond their control. Conversely, there are also a lot of bestselling authors who don’t really teach well. And some who do both. Ask around, get suggestions from others who benefitted from the class. 
  • Don’t just take every class you hear about. Target your weaknesses and focus on classes for those things. Read how-to books, also. But mostly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, READ BOOKS that do well whatever it is you feel is your weakness and analyze how they accomplish what they do.

Polishing: Before you send out your book, please take the time to go back through it and polish it. Not just spelling and grammar, but look for logic holes, look for inconstancies, look to make sure your characters stay in character and aren’t just doing something you need them to do for the purpose of the plot, etc. Look at how you’ve told the story and ways to improve that. You only get one shot per agent to prove that you have the chops, and that agent is not going to care if you were writing this on the weekends and in the mornings and you have a really big mortgage and you’ve fallen behind and you need a quick sale. If that were the case, thousands of books would be bought instantly without being read, because the economy sucks and people are hurting everywhere, and there are all sorts of medical/family/work problems that a little extra income would solve. Agents can’t take that into consideration. They need to be wowed by your book, in order to pick it over all the other books on their desks or in their emails, and they have to be wowed enough to take you on as a client. If you’re lazy about polishing, they’re going to notice, and frankly, there are a lot of other people out there willing to put in the work to polish, so why should they choose you? 

Submitting: There are entire books and blogs devoted to this topic. Read them. As many as you can. Look up agents on QUERY TRACKER or ABSOLUTE WRITE and always check to see who the scam artists are from PREDITORS AND EDITORS (that is how they spell predators; I don’t know why). P&E has a very good database of the scum to avoid. You can find out all about who’s sold what lately, and who represents what you’re writing through various other sites, include

  • Do your homework. Look up the agent’s website and look at their submission guidelines. FOLLOW THEM. If they don’t want an attachment, and you try to be the exception, they’re going to be annoyed. Do you really want to annoy the person you’re trying to land as an agent? If they want 50 pages, don’t send them 100, or the whole manuscript. (Now, if your chapter ends on page 51, send that, too—find a logical place to stop.) Pay attention. This probably means keeping records, making yourself some sort of file/spreadsheet, so you can keep their requirements straight as to who wants what. It’s just part of the business end of the vocation. 
  • Do your homework. Figure out who would be right for your book based on what they’ve sold and who they represent, as well as what they state their preferences are in the various places where those things are posted. If they don’t represent S/F/F and that’s what you’ve written, don’t clog their in box and waste both your time and theirs. 
  • Do your homework. Write an amazing query letter. Don’t know how? Welcome to the club. There are about a zillion of us, but everyone’s got to do it at some point and there are some great resources (on the first two links in the “submitting” graph above) which has examples or threads discussing how-to, and there are books and there are agent blogs (quite a few now) which express how to and while it’s overwhelming, basically, it’s your job to learn it. Your goal here is to entice them to read your book. It’s the hook that they very well may turn around and use with the editors they submit to. If it’s well done, that same hook will be used by the editor to pitch it to her publisher to get the deal, and some variation will be used to pitch it to marketing and sales. So think of it like the back cover copy, or think of it in the way you’d tell a friend about the book, when you want to hook them into reading it. What is it that makes it different than other books out there. Mostly, why should we care?


Landing the agent: Once you’ve got things out on submission, you’ll either start getting form rejections, rejections with personal notes (those are great) or requests for the full book. (This is why you have the full ready, by the way, which wasn’t mentioned above, but I’m emphasizing it now. Unless you have a lot of credits elsewhere that proves you can write a novel, and write it well, they’re going to want to read the whole thing before signing you.) 

It is not only okay, but necessary, to query more than one agent at a time. Do not send form letters-personalize each query. (Again, that’s your job.) 

Once you get an offer of representation in, it’s customary to give all of the other agents who have requested partials or fulls a heads up that you’ve gotten an offer and you’d like to know if they’re still interested. Some will automatically say no (there’s too much on their plate at the moment). Some will read quickly and still decline (a zillion different reasons, but it’s often just not their thing or they have a client writing something too similar, etc.). One or two may say, heck yeah, we want it, too, and then you are in the enviable position of getting multiple offers and you get to decide who to go to prom with. Congratulations. 

Agent submission/sales, etc.: This blog is long enough, but suffice it to say that not everything that gets agented sells. (Oh, if only.) So don’t go spend your savings yet, don’t quit your day job, and don’t assume. Anything. There’s a lot that goes into the selling and the publishing aspect—that’s a whole other blog for maybe next time, but for now, I want to end this by address money, for the same reasons I started it. 

The money: People often want to write a book because they think it’s a quick, easy way to make a lot of money from home or out on their deck. (I will pause here while writers everywhere finish laughing… and crying….) 

Money is paid out as an advance. They are assuming they’ll sell your book, and they know you need to make somethingwhile the publication process grinds forward, and they’ll pay you about what they think you’ll book will earn. They’ll base that figure off what other books like yours have earned, whether or not you’re well known, or whether or not you have a huge commercial hook, or whether or not your second cousin is Oprah and she’ll endorse it, or whether or not they had great sex that morning. In other words, it’s a mystery as to why some books get bigger advances than others, and while it’s a business, it’s also a guessing game because the publisher is trying to predict the future as to what you might earn. 

They will then take that advance and divide it into three. Sometimes, they will divide it into four, but three is more common, I think, still. They will then give you 1/3rd of that money on signing of the contract, 1/3rd on what they call D&A (delivery and acceptance), which is the point where you’ve done whatever rewrites/polish the editor wanted and they have accepted it and you’re then moving on to the copy edit phase. And then they’ll pay the last third on publication. 

If your book sells more copies than they anticipated, they will eventually owe you royalties—but it’ll be more than a year, very likely, from the point of publication, before you see those royalties. (Again, that’s a whole other blog entry.) 

So, keeping the above in mind, the average advance is said (by those who gather that type of statistic) to be between $5K and $10K. That’s not a typo. That’s five thousand to ten thousand. Divide that into thirds, and subtract the standard agent fee of 15%, and keep in mind that it takes about a year from acceptance to publication, and you’re looking at maybe making between $3500 and $8500 for the year. Not including the time it took you to write the actual book, which, let’s be real, for a first book is probably about a year to two years (actual writing time, not calendar time.) 

Now, you may get lucky and be above average, but most of the sales I see on Publishers Marketplace are for what they call “nice” deals, which is about $25K, but that’s often for two books, or three. It’s not completely uncommon for a new writer to get an advance of $25 to $50K, but it’s not the norm. 

I tell you this because (a) it’s a fact of the business and therefore, that information is out there and (b) if you’re going into writing because you need the money, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, financially. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me they’re going to supplement their income—and this, when they’re already up against terrible stress—by writing. It’s not fast and it’s not easy. 

If you’re not doing this for the love of it, if you’re doing this for the money, then you might want to consider another field. 

Because those of us who write, can’t not write. So if that fits your take on the world, welcome to the nuthouse. The crackers and cheese and wine are on the bar. Please don’t run with scissors, except on Thursdays, when it’s scissor day, and by all means, feel free to bring cupcakes or brownies. 

Now, a very brief comment about e-publishing… especiallyif you read Konrath’s blog. I know of several established writers who are now starting to put their new works up themselves, and are making some money off it. “Some” though, is “not very much–a few hundred” to a couple of thousand. Others? Hardly any. So far, from all of the reports I’ve heard, not many people have made anywhere near what Konrath is making, and I think that’s partially because Joe’s got a great following on his blog—and has had that for years—and that following has helped him get the word out about his ebooks. In other words, he spent a tremendous number of years promoting the hell out of his books, and that put him in (what I believe to be a rather) unique position to reap the benefits of the ebook market… because the same problem that faces authors with editors and publishing houses is multiplied exponentially when you go straight to ebook, and that is, “How will the customer find you? How will they know you’re there? How will they know who you are?” 

That said, Joe has a very solid point and the publishing paradigm is shifting, and we’re going to see a lot of the stuff I wrote above become obsolete in the next five years. There’s a new business called FastPencil which just announced some initiatives in the press, which may very well change the game. Still, even with that in mind, I don’t think a brand new writer is going to get the attention from the public like Joe has managed, and that’s when a traditional publisher’s distribution system is a real plus. 


So that’s it — those are some basics. If you post a link in the comments, I’m going to come back and add a website list on the tail end of this (and I’ll also include it on my site.)

Meanwhile, for those of you who may not know, our own Alex is teaching a fantastic class about structuring your novel, titled “Screenwriting Structure for Novelists” — it’s for any genre, and you can read about it HERE.

23 thoughts on “How to break in to non-fiction / fiction… a basic primer…

  1. Marie-Reine

    Hi Toni,

    I think it's amazing that an author would give so much advice to writers starting out. I'm still wavering on my switch out of academic writing. Wavering, not in the sense of will I – as I must, but how will I – as I really don't know anything but doing research then writing it up.

    The part of your post today, though, that made so much sense to me, regarded article writing. By coincidence I was very recently queried by a UK TV blog asking if I might be interested in writing articles for them. I'd been interviewed for a TV special on their network a couple of times several years back. They said if I would be interested I should send them my ideas. Having zero experience at this I really had no idea how to do that. After reading your post here today, I think I do have a feeling for how I might go about it. It isn't fiction – also not academic – with the HUGE plus that the general topic is one of great interest to me. I've decided to give it a try… so thank you.

  2. Grace

    What a generous post for all us unpublished ones. The blog is brimming over with material worthy of thought and investigation. A real Sunday morning boost. Thanks.

  3. Karen in Ohio

    Good luck, Marie-Reine. Based on nothing more than our mutual blog posting I have an intuition that you will do wonderfully well. The best place to start is the beginning–onward!

  4. Debbie

    I brought some brownies and the scissors are safely in my desk drawer! Well Toni, that sure makes up for yesterday. (Please, no offence intended.) Great post.

    I'd add: know the word count. I wrote on inspiration, finished, began to research writing )I know backwards) and realized being that special kinda snowflake that my MS has a snowballs chance in hell. Still editing though. The reason, I want others to enjoy it and I hope that they do. Not for money necessarily, although that would be nice, but just because.

    One other thing I might have done…keep a writers journal. I'd like to see what I was reading when I wrote certain sections to see if I recognize the influence of said author/novel. Speaking to that, don't read 19th century fiction and books in the style of realism and not expect it to pour out from your fingers in a fantastically long way!

    Marie-Reine, that is so awesome. You have no idea how happy that made me this morning. Raise a toast to you and a biscuit to Kendall! I mean that, I really do.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    Marvelous post, Toni. I wish I'd had all of this information in one place when I was starting out.

    I think the only thing that I'd add is that it's useful, from the beginning, to know the business side of the business well — to take the time to understand copyright issues and contracts and so forth.

    Someday I'm going to write a post about why I gave up my wonderful agent. Much of the reason had to do with an acknowledgment that I'd abdicated responsibility for my own career. I'd put it all into his hands and that's not where I need it to be to progress as a writer.

    I know it's intimidating — especially when you're not published or newly published — but starting your career with your head on straight will help you massively no matter how you proceed.

  6. Dudley Forster

    Go get’m Tiger! Yeah. Yeah. Yet, another Toni the Tiger joke. Thanks for sharing such helpful and insightful information. I saved the MSW version, but this one seems to have more info so it’s saved as well. What are you doing reading this? Get back to the keyboard, I want to read the darker you. 🙂

    Marie-Reine — What Debbie said.

  7. Allison Davis

    The generousity of Murderati is at it again — thanks for these basics…just a short note from the trenches at Bouchercon…both Alafaire and Stephen were signing books after their 8:30 a.m. panels on Sunday morning… very brave and generous indeed.

    Thanks to all the Murderati who came out and participated in mine and Cara Black's Continuous Conversation at Bouchercon this year — we appreciate your time and contributions (Rob, Stpehen and Alex) and the many commenting attendees.

    Duly inspired all over again, I'm back at the writing table.

  8. Marie-Reine

    First off, I think it's important to note that I haven't actually done anything yet, and there is no actual offer – just an invitation to submit some ideas. However, THANK YOU for your well wishes, Karen, Debbie, and Dudley! It's really a good feeling to have those.

    They are an interesting group, these folks – and I do hope they like my ideas – but I don't know that they will. It's kind of a nerve-twitching juncture to be at with them. I learned from friends, still working in theology, that those interviews had become sort of a "cult classic" in the religious studies field. Dunno why– really!

    A producer from the same network had called me in Boston a few years ago to see about another interview, but that went nowhere – just like this latest query might go absolutely nowhere. I am very excited, though, to write it all down and hand it over. Thanks again, all.

  9. KDJames

    Frozen M&Ms? What an fantastic concept. Thanks, Toni!

    Okay, seriously, yes I read more than the first paragraph. Read the entire thing, even though I also read it over at MSW. It's an excellent piece and one every unpublished writer should study. Full of stuff I wish I'd known when I started writing novel-length fiction in earnest, things I've learned slowly and usually the hard way over the years.

    I don't have any advice for breaking in (since I haven't yet), but I see so many new writers making the mistake of impatience and submitting too soon. And then getting discouraged or blaming other people for their lack of success rather than doing the hard work of learning to write well. I kind of wish someone had told me how many years of practice it takes before most writers produce something worthy of publication. Not that I would have believed it, necessarily, but still.

    I will second your advice to take Alex's class. She's an excellent teacher. Other resources? This blog, for one. Writers who don't read this blog are really missing out. Any time you can take a class from Jenny Crusie or Bob Mayer, do it. A few years ago they wrote a year-long blog that covered everything you'd ever want to know about writing and publishing, and they answered questions. An entire YEAR. Free. Herculean effort. If you missed it, it's no longer on the internet (sorry), but both of them are outstanding. My RWA chapter has been a consistently amazing resource. We have some great teachers — Alex is one of them, but there are many others. I'd name them, but I'd forget someone and be mortified.

    Marie-Reine said: "I think it's amazing that an author would give so much advice to writers starting out." I'm not picking on you, M-R [and congrats on the new opportunity! go for it!], but that sentiment startled me. I guess I've gotten so used to the generosity of the writing community, of people who willingly share their knowledge and time, that I've *almost* come to take it for granted. Well, not to the point where I'd fire off a demanding email to someone I don't even know. Geez, what was that guy thinking? But that kind of support and encouragement really is the norm. It's one of the best things about being a writer.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, Toni. Hope your words are still flowing.

  10. JT Ellison

    Toni, this is fantabulous! I'm asked about breaking into non-fiction a lot and I never have any answers – now I can direct them to this. THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Marie-Reine

    Oooh, KD, I hope no one took my comment in any bad way, as I feel completely in awe– knowing how very, very busy authors must be, and yet… well here they are giving their precious time.

    You might find the Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer "expired" writing course by searching the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine < > if you have the exact URL. You can do a topic or title search, but they are not always successful at finding the exact expired site or page that you want.

    Thank you so much for your good wishes – means more than you might realize.

  12. KDJames

    Marie-Reine, nonono. I didn't take it in a bad way and no one else should either. You've made it clear that you're new to the world of fiction writing and I'm actually very happy for you, knowing all the pleasant surprises you have in store as you get to know other writers. Very different from what I've heard about the world of academic writing — not that they aren't completely lovely people. I'm sure they are. 🙂

    And I actually, ahem, printed out every word of that blog and its comments. Filled up five 3-ring binders which I refer to often. But I know there are other writers (and agents and editors as well) out there who have great info on their blogs. I hope more people chime in with links.

  13. Marie-Reine

    KD, writers of the academy – heh. And at the risk of offending some very old and dear friends, it's pretty cutthroat. Not that I'm glad I became too disabled to continue my work or anything, but now that I don't have to tolerate that stuff – gack – I find it a brilliant relief.

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Toni – brilliant as always, and extremely useful advice. I, too, am amazed at the cheeky emails sent by complete strangers (usually with t/s attached) who admit they've never read my work, but expect me to put in considerable time to give them detailed feedback on it.

    I started out in non-fiction, and everything you're saying here is spot on. I specialised in motoring very early on, going straight from a couple of pieces in a club magazine to a paying gig as a freelance.

    I may be biased, but I've found that photography is the biggest deciding factor on whether a story sells. Bad pictures will kill a good story. Good pictures will rescue a mediocre story.

    (Oh, and have my emails been getting through, by the way?)

  15. toni mcgee causey

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the comments – thank you everyone!

    KD, frozen M&Ms are the best. 😉

    Zoe – arrrrrrrgggghh, no I hadn't gotten any and now I feel like a heel. I have got to have something set wrong on this thing. Please re-send? Use toni[at]tonimcgeecausey[dot] com and see if that works better? So very very sorry!

  16. Laura

    Thanks for an interesting read Toni! I'm a reader (with no writing aspirations :p) and I found this blog really interesting. Working for an independent bookseller I've noticed the amount of people who come in and try to hand sell their work is incredible.
    And I will definitely be freezing some m&m's this weekend!!
    Laura 🙂

  17. Tammy Cravit

    Great post, Toni, and lots of great information. I think that the very best thing an aspiring writer can do (and especially an aspiring non-fiction writer) is to freelance for a newspaper for a while. That's how I got my start, and it grieves me that those opportunities are so much more scarce now.

    It also grieves me that the old grizzled news guys of the type I used to work for are a dying breed, because I think a few days working for one of them is worth at least a month's worth of weekend writer's conferences. I can still remember my first editor, a grizzled old guy named Russ (may his memory be a blessing), leaning over my shoulder with a cigarette in his hands, staring at a screen while I uploaded an article into their system five minutes before deadline.

    Russ used to say, "when it's ten minutes to press, and the 20-inch hole on page one is YOUR fault, writer's block is a luxury you can't afford!" Best single piece of advice I think I've ever gotten, and it taught me to write through the blocks, through the insecurity and self-doubt. Russ taught me to get the damned words down on the page first and worry about tidying up later, and that's been an absolutely invaluable lesson. God, I miss him.

  18. Cathy

    Toni –
    I'm just getting to the last week of Murderati blog posts, started yours and thought wow, Snowflake guy's a jerk. Actually, the exact word was a little stronger…

    I was already composing an email, wondering about interrupting your writing, to say again how HUGE it was that you helped me with marvelous insights (and adding a few more Thank you's if I didn't say it enough already) when I saw your comment about my story (which was so sweet of you and appreciated more than you can know, especially given the 'you suck' rejection I got last week).

    Speaking for myself (and probably a few others in the great unpubbed masses) the 'give back' that you do – and the insights and help all the Murderati crew offer here and in other venues/ways – is appreciated.


  19. Tracy Nicol


    I can't add anything that hasn't already been said, but thank you! As someone who is completely new to fiction writing, this blog couldn't have come at a better time! I just attended my first conference as well. I am very disappointed that I could not attend Bouchercon, but I will be there next year. I am thrilled that I was able to attend the incredible, Writer's Police Academy! I learned so much, had so much fun, and met such incredible and incredibly kind authors. I would not have known of the WPA, if not for Murderati.

    Now, Toni, you have given me my next steps, and I cannot thank you enough. I am very seriously considering Alex's class as well. My only concern is if I am too new to the writing process for the class. But, how could I lose with Alex teaching the class, not to mention the extremely small monetary investment!

    This is my first comment on Murderati, though I have been reading the blog for over two years. I have meant to comment many times, but as I read the blog on my Kindle, I often don't make it to the web site. That is changing now! I want to be more involved with the best blog in the world.


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