Gail’s Writing FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. Where do you get your ideas?

2. How do I get my book published?

3. Do I need an agent? How do I get one?

4. Do I need to copyright my work before I send it out?

5. How do I know how many pages, scenes, or chapters my book should have?

6. What’s the difference between manuscript pages and book pages?

7. Frequently used abbreviations and terminology


1. Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas can come from anywhere. I don’t think anyone can explain the way writers’ brains work! Some mixture of curiosity and imagination goes to work on a “spark”, but what strikes that spark in the first place? I really believe that God gives us the creative urge, the talent, and the “sparks” that strike us, and it is up to us to deliver something in return for all those gifts. My ideas come from all sorts of things, sometimes from research I’m doing, and even sometimes from dreams. There’s also a magical kind of “serendipity” that happens when you’re working on a story, which most writers experience from time to time. I’ve noticed that a story idea often evolves out of two separate “sparks” when I pair them together. We are always asking, “What if…?” Most of my books have developed from characters first, but some have come from situations or settings that attracted me.

2. How do I get my book published?

(Also see my articles “Top 5 Mistakes in Marketing Your Book” and “How to Write the Perfect Query Letter” on the Eclectics Writer Pages)

A. Write the very best book you are capable of creating. Give it as much time as it takes –if you get published, you will never again have as much time to spend on this process as with your first book. Study your craft, read books on writing, read books in your genre, go to workshops, take classes. Join a writers group.

B. Study the market. Where does your book fit in? Research which publishers would be likely to want your book. Publishers are conservative –they prefer books that fit into existing lines or are somewhat similar to other books they have published successfully. Make a “likely target” list of publishers you think would be interested in your book.

C. Find out all you can about each one, using the Internet, latest Writer’s Market, networking. Look online for their “tip sheet” or writer’s guidelines (or write to request this–always include an SASE). You may be able to get their catalogue, or at least study the offerings on their website. Then, get the name of an editor to contact. Sometimes an author will credit their editor in a book’s forward or acknowledgment or dedication. It is also possible to call a publishing house and ask which editor handled a specific line or book they’ve published (that’s somewhat like yours). Be sure to ask if that editor is still with the company and still handling that type of book! Editors switch around frequently.

Make sure you have the correct spelling of the editor’s name, the correct address, and have learned each company’s submission preferences.

D. Write a great, professional query letter and marketing synopsis. Follow submission preferences –i.e. if they accept “partials” (synopsis & first three chapters) with the query, include them, but if they say “query first”, send only a fabulous query letter they won’t be able to resist.

E. Always include a SASE with appropriate postage for a reply and to return whatever you want returned. If your full manuscript is requested, you may wish to include a SAS postcard for the editor to acknowledge receiving it.

F. Do not bind your manuscript or staple chapters together –all pages should be loose, held together with two large rubber bands, one lengthwise and one cross-wise. Make sure your header contains your name, the book’s title, and the page number on every page! (imagine if the editor drops it on the subway.) Use a manuscript sized box or else a padded shipping envelope to mail your manuscript. Be sure to include a cover letter anytime you send anything other than a query letter.

G. Only follow up on your submission after an appropriate length of time has passed. If you know the publisher’s average “report time” and it has passed that, it is permissible to call an editor to ask the status of your submission.

3. Do I need an agent? How do I get one?

The answer depends a lot on what type of novel you have written and what sort of writing credentials you have, your own preferences, what publisher you are targeting, etc. Research the publishers you think would be interested in your book. While some only accept agented submissions, others are willing to look at a query and/or partial without that requirement. Agents act as a sort of “pre-screen” that assures the publishing house it will only receive quality material to consider. Agented material usually will be looked at sooner than work that comes in “over the transom” or without any prior contact with that editor. However, it can be as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publisher –that’s one of the biggest “catch-22’s” in this field!

The way I broke in was to enter my work in contests that led to a reading by an editor. Once your work is already on an editor’s desk, it becomes MUCH easier to attract an agent’s interest! Remember that an agent will take 15% of your pay. Is it worth it? All agents are not created equal –some have no credentials or experience, so be sure to research agents very carefully. The Internet makes doing that much easier than it used to be!

Another way to catch the interest of an agent (or an editor) can be to meet them by attending writing conferences where they may be taking appointments. My best advice on this topic is: FINISH YOUR BOOK BEFORE YOU WORRY ABOUT THIS STEP.

4. Do I need to copyright my work before I send it out?

No. Technically, you are protected under the current copyright laws as soon as you have put your idea onto paper and someone else has seen it. Formal registration of copyright only expands certain protections built into the law. Putting a copyright notice and mark on your unsold manuscript may tell a publisher that you are an amateur who doesn’t trust the very people you are trying to sell to –not a good working relationship! It could also suggest that you value your own brilliance so much that you assume others need to steal from you –as if they don’t already have a million other projects or ideas of their own. If a publisher buys your book, usually they will register the copyright for you (in your name) as part of the contracted book deal. Remember that ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the actual words you have written to express those ideas in your own way. It is very common for similar ideas for stories to occur to different writers, and sometimes even to be published at about the same time!

5. How do I know how many pages my book should have?  How many chapters?

The answer to this question is different for every writer and also varies depending on the type of book, but there still is a “range” that is appropriate. You need to know what sort of book it is going to be, and where you intend to try to sell it –that is, where it fits into the publishing market. Short contemporary romances published by Harlequin can be quite short –50,000 words or so. This would be a manuscript of approximately 200 pages in standard format (double-spaced, 25 lines per page, in Times New Roman 12, one inch margins), probably 12-15 chapters. The formula uses an estimated average 250 words per page. The Signet Regencies I wrote were 75,000 words, about 300 ms. pages, usually about 20 chapters. The long historical romances can be 85,000-100,000 words –well, do the math, and you get the idea!

How many pages in a chapter?

I generally tell my students that any chapter longer than 25-27 (ms.) pages is too long for ANY genre. In mysteries, 25-27 pages is okay. In romance, we tend to go shorter than that (15-21 pages), sometimes -much- shorter.  Your chapters should (and will) vary in length within the same book. I happen to like fairly short first chapters –I feel it gets the reader into the book faster. They’re reading and then –next thing they know –they’re already into Chapter Two. They usually won’t give up on reading after that! What I think of as “fairly short” could be as little as 8-10 pages. But not all stories lend themselves to that plan. There’s a lot the first chapter has to accomplish (an entire workshop topic in itself).

How many scenes in a chapter?

Rather than pages, it’s actually better to consider how many “scenes” you’ll include in a chapter. Most authors have 2 or 3 scenes. There’s a nifty trick called the “two and a half” rule, where an author has two complete scenes and the first half of the next scene in a chapter, then breaks off in the middle of that third scene –often resulting in the cliff-hanger chapter ending. New chapter picks up with the second half of that spilt scene, which keeps your reader reading! But don’t overwork this technique, or the reader will notice and also be annoyed.

I think an average length for most authors’ scenes is 5-7 pages, but that may be after several rewrites. So given that (which is about my own average), 3 scenes would give you that good range of 15-21 ms. pages per chapter. But again, this varies. Sometimes there’s a scene that’s so important, or pivotal to the plot, that you want it to stand by itself as one whole chapter alone. You’re the writer –to a point, you can (and should) do what you want!

I think the way to approach writing a book is not to worry about the mechanics so much as the story and the characters first. But I realize it does help if you have a rough idea that an entire book might need 40 or 60 scenes. The thing is, if you think you have to come up with what they are all going to be before you can write, you may get discouraged or blank out from anxiety! Lots of authors start out knowing only the beginning scene, a couple of scenes from somewhere along the way, and maybe (not even always) the ending. Some just start out knowing the beginning and see what happens as they write! Every story changes as it goes along.

6. What’s the difference between manuscript pages and book pages?

Manuscript pages are double spaced, have one-inch margins, and are formatted as in the old days when writers used typewriters –25-26 lines per page, using Times New Roman 12 or similar font (publishers used to prefer Courier New 12 but no longer do).  The pages as they come out in a published book are formatted very differently, are not double spaced, and so they hold more words, sentences, and paragraphs per page than manuscript pages do.

The publishers have formulas that tell them almost at a glance how many pages a properly formatted manuscript would be as a printed book (that’s why they want a standard format in the first place). It works out to something like 1 & 1/4 manuscript pages equals one printed book page, but that also depends on what font size they’ll use for the book, margin allowances, etc. That’s why it’s very important to include the word-count on your manuscript. My 300-310 page Signet Regency manuscripts always yielded a published (paperback) book about 220-224 pages long, but the print was small!

7. Some frequently used abbreviations and terminology

Ms. =manuscript (not Microsoft)

WIP =work in progress, a writer’s current project

POV =point-of-view, a hugely important aspect of writing fiction (actually of any writing)

Arc =as in “story arc” or “character arc” –the progress of change over the length of the story

“ARC” = Advanced Reading Copy (often an uncorrected proof, provided by author or publisher, usually for purposes of a review)

Partial =a synopsis and first three chapters of a book

Synopsis =a brief summary of the characters, conflicts, and resolution of a story

Sequel =1) a story that comes after and follows up from an earlier one 2) a type of scene where characters react to what has just happened in the preceding scene.

Dominant impression =a “tag” (one or two adjectives plus a noun) that identifies characters by focusing on their most defining qualities

SASE =self-addressed, stamped envelope (for postage-paid return mail)