JUST SAY NO: A WRITERS’ MANIFESTO

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Long ago in a galaxy far away, I was a literary agent. One day, a writer who was not yet a client came to me for advice. “I wrote a novel,” she said. “Mr. Blank, of Blankety Press read it and liked it, and he wants to publish.”

The actual publisher she mentioned was a well-known, respected house with a track record that included bestsellers. “Congratulations,” I said. “What’s the offer?”

“They’ll publish the book entirely at their own expense.”

“Of course,” I said. “But what advance and royalties are they offering?”

“None for the first edition,” the writer said. “But if they reprint, they’d pay a royalty on those sales.”

“Say no,” I said.

discontented writer“But they’re such good publishers! And Mr. Blank explained to me that their expenses are so high on the first edition that they would lose money if they had to pay a royalty.”

“Does he get paid? How about the typesetters and the printers and the paper suppliers? Do they donate their services?”

“Of course not.”

“The distributor and the bookstores will take their cut?”

“I assume so.”

“And yet your story is what’s going to sell the book, not the paper or the typesetting. So why on earth should you be the only one to go uncompensated?”

“I know, but it is my first novel. Mr. Blank says it’s a way to get my name out there and start building a readership.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Mr. Blank knows you can do that without giving your work away for free. He controls the price of his books, and he can take your royalties into account, just as he does for every other writer on his list.”

“But what if he won’t pay? I could lose my chance to publish.”

“It’s possible. But if the book is good enough that he wants to publish, there’s a reasonable chance others will as well. You can’t negotiate if you’re not willing to walk away.”

“I know you’re right,” she said worriedly. “But…”

I understood that “but.” I was a writer myself, as well as an agent. I knew what it felt like. Writers need to publish; why else would they write? Writing is an act of communication, a transaction that is incomplete until the work is read. For first-time writer especially, the need to publish can feel as pressing as the need of a woman nine and a half months pregnant to give birth. You’ve carried that story as long and as far as you possibly can; now it’s time for it to go out into the world.

And guess what? Publishers know this, and they use it. They are, after all, in business to make money; so if they can persuade writers to donate their work for free, that’s one less major expense.

That, by the way, is one of many reasons that writers need agents. Having professional representation means that negotiations will be conducted on a more businesslike, less lopsided basis.

arm-wrestling

And that is what happened with that writer from long ago. Rather than tackle Mr. Blank herself, she hired me to do it. He wasn’t thrilled to have me inserted into the mix, but we did a lot of business together, so he didn’t kick too hard. We negotiated a reasonable advance and royalty for my client. The agency’s fee cost her 10% (Yes, Virginia, agents used to work for 10%), but since the novel never earned out, the 90% that the writer got to keep was money she would never have seen otherwise.

I was reminded of this incident recently when a friend — let’s call him Chester, because why not? — called to say he’d received an offer from a magazine that wanted to reprint one of his short stories. It was a fine little magazine, and my friend was delighted; but their effusive note had strangely failed to mention remuneration.

“Ask,” I suggested.

“And if they say there is none?”

hard labor“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Chester agreed. He wrote to ask what the magazine proposed to pay for the story, expressing the hope that their response would not include the word “exposure.”

Silence ensued. Weeks of it, then months. Chester put the matter out of his mind, inured, like most writers, to disappointment. It’s not unusual that magazines, both print and e-zines, failed to pay contributors. So many aspiring writers are willing to work for “exposure” alone that they can fill their pages many times over while paying nothing at all for content.

Then, out of the blue, the magazine editor called Chester. They’d hadn’t ignored his question; rather, they’d been thinking hard about whether it was time to start paying contributors. In principle the unanimous answer was yes; in practice, given the magazine’s finances, the payment would need to be modest.

“How modest?” Chester asked.

The editor named a sum.

woman in burqa“You call that modest? I call it full burqa!”

“It’s the best I can do,” the editor said.

“Better than a kick in the teeth,” Chester said philosophically, and the deal was sealed, leaving my friend, as one wit said, well on his way to becoming hundredaire.

And now a third and final anecdote on the same theme. A former student of mine, let’s call her Violet, had struggled long and hard to find a publisher for her first novel. She had no interest in self-publishing; she wanted a traditional publisher, preferably one of the big five. After trying more than 80 literary agents, she’d given up on that route and started submitting to small royalty-paying publishers who were willing to consider work from unagented writers. Finally she struck gold. A small publisher offered to publish her novel in both print and electronic form. They offered no advance, but paid standard royalties on all copies sold.

man reading contractViolet asked if I would eyeball the contract just to see if anything jumped out. After the usual disclaimers (I’m not a lawyer and I’m no longer an agent) I agreed. And something did jump out: an option clause that gave the publisher right of first refusal not only on the next book, but on every book the author wrote thereafter.

“It’s the publishing version of indentured servitude,” I told Violet. “There’s no possible reason to agree to this clause. It would mean handing over control of your entire career to this company. Ask them to limit the option to your next book or cut it altogether.”

“But what if they won’t?” she fretted. “If it’s part of their standard contract… After all this time, I don’t want to lose a bird in hand for a pair in the bushes.”

“This stuff matters, unless you plan to be a one-book author. Options are inherently unbalanced to begin with, because they oblige one party but not the other. But writers and agents generally agree to a limited option on the next book, to incentivize the publisher to do its best for the first book. But this clause, this is just greedy, and it’s got ‘future headache’ written all over it.”

Violet took the advice she’d asked for and went back to her publisher, who promptly agreed to change the clause. Back in the Paleolithic era when I was an agent, publishers had different contracts for agented and unagented writers. They knew what the prospect of publication meant to aspiring writers, knew they’d sign away their firstborn child for the chance, let alone options on future unborn books.

Hence the overreaching. If by chance the writer objects, they amend the clause. Most don’t.

Now, as you’ve no doubt realized, the moral of these three stories is the same. There are times when writers must say no. (For a truly profane and heartfelt rant on the subject, I refer you to this video by Harlan Ellison.)

And so I call upon my fellow writers to take the pledge. Respect yourself and your work, for if you don’t, who will?

Say no to working for free.

Say no to rights grabs.

Say no to onerous option clauses.

Unity

Writers of the world, unite!

 

Posted in Contracts, Mainstream publishing, Submitting, the writing life, Writers beware, Writing tips | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS

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There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books in which Ginny Weasley looks up from her seat in the Great Hall and remarks, “There’s Harry. He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Harry PotterShe’s exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. When he’s not actually bleeding, Harry is suffering a searing pain in his scar, a broken arm or a smashed nose, not to mention assorted psychological tortures. There’s a reason for his torment. There’s also a reason that magic potions taste like pus and earwax instead of lemonade, and that Rowling’s other series’ hero, Cormoran Strike, has an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. It’s the same reason, and it’s one all writers need to understand.

I’ll tell you what that is in just a moment. First I want to cite His Holiness, Mark Twain. “The writer’s job,” he famously said, “is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.”  By dropping them into situations of conflict, we strip away the social masks and force their true selves, the way a gardener forces a bulb. Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes. Until they are tested, they can neither succeed nor fail; they cannot change, and change is essential in fiction.

Life is a struggle; all grownups know that. Fiction must be as well, or readers will not care or engage. We need protagonists who are passionately invested in some enterprise, something they need to achieve or avert despite all obstacles. The novel is a chronicle of that battle.

Dorothy2As readers we know this. We expect conflict and trouble in fiction; we demand it. And it needs to come, not all at once, but throughout the story. Imagine this alternative version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lands safely in Oz. Instead of taking the ruby shoes from the witch she killed, she receives them as a gift. The Munchkins tell her that in order to get home, she needs to see the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road and meets many helpful people on her journey. They point out the way and give her whatever she needs. After a pleasant walk, Dorothy arrives in Oz and is taken at once to see the wizard. He listens to her story and agrees to send her back to Kansas. Following his instructions, Dorothy clicks her shoes together and is instantly transported home.

The end.

Do you love it? Of course not. You may even be asleep by now. Without its dangers and challenges, Dorothy’s journey would have been long forgotten. She might as well have stayed home.

So here is the reason Harry’s always covered in blood, and I’ll thank you to remember where you heard it: In fiction, every gain needs to come at a cost.

Dickens knew that. Tolkien knew it, too; and Rowling’s got it down in spades. By the time Harry Potter has to battle his nemesis, he’s acquired great abilities and knowledge, every bit of which cost him dearly, with the costs escalating throughout the series. Harry can read the enemy’s mind—but to do so he must bare his own mind to assault. When he needs essential information, it’s obtainable—but it costs the life of a key ally. He’s given the means to defeat his enemy—but  only if he’s willing to die in the process.

Nothing comes for free (except this blog).

mountainSo here’s the takeaway for writers. I teach writing, and before that I was a literary agent for 14 years, so I’ve read a ton of beginner fiction. One of the most common weaknesses lies in the writers’ tendency to smooth the way for their protagonists. If a detective needs information, someone’s sure to volunteer it. If our hero is stranded on a mountaintop, help will arrive in a four-wheel drive. If his house were on fire, the heavens would open in a dowsing rain. These authors are benevolent gods.

But that is not what fiction needs. To be kind to their readers, writers must often be hard on their characters. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in fiction for good luck or gratuitous kindness: a gift of information, aid, comfort. But how much more powerful are those moments if everything else is hard-won? Don’t present your characters with gifts on a platter. Make them work for everything they get, make them pay a price; and readers will love them for it.

 

 

 This is one in a series of posts on the craft of fiction writing. Here are some others: The Biology of Fiction; Game of Words; Settings; and What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones.  You can subscribe to this blog via links to right and above. For more information about my online writing workshops, visit my website. And finally: if you or anyone on your Christmas list has a taste for literary mayhem, may I recommend A DANGEROUS FICTION?

 

Posted in Craft, Fiction, Writing, Writing tips | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Publishing as a Career for Writers

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In a recent blog post, Donna Shear, director of University of Nebraska Press, advised aspiring writers not to work in publishing, but rather to seek their day jobs in other fields. She offered a list of reasons to back up her argument, all perfectly sensible.  Recently, though, I mentored a young writer in an MFA program who asked my advice on seeking a career in publishing, and my answer was the polar opposite.

“It’s a great way to go,” I told him. “Not right away: you have to live life before you can write about it. Have some adventures first. Find something that scares you and do it. Live someplace where you don’t speak the language; travel.

“But after that,” I said, “when the time comes to choose a career, publishing makes a lot of sense.”

It’s counterintuitive, I know. Publishing is an industry in flux, almost in crisis; and even in its heyday it never paid well. Still, for seriously aspiring writers, it’s a brilliant choice. Here are ten reasons why.

1. New York. Yeah, okay, there’s publishing in other places, too, but still: New York.

New York

2. Since aspiring writers usually start out as avid readers, publishing as a career has obvious appeal. Even among successful, well-published writers, only a tiny minority can live on what they make from writing, so the day job had better be satisfying in itself.

3. You will learn to speak Publishing, which has its own distinct lingo.

4. You’ll have the satisfaction of helping other writers along the path to publication. Publishing folk take great pride in the successes of “their” books. It’s good karma, too; what goes around comes around.

5. You’ll meet all sorts of people who can help you professionally: agents, editors, publicists and marketing mavens. None of them will take on a bad book as a favor; publishing is a bottom-line business, and professional courtesy only goes so far. But if you’ve got the chops as a writer, having friends in the industry can give you a big leg up.

The_philosopher6. Working in publishing will make you a better writer. Other people’s mistakes are always easier to see than one’s own. Editing sharpens the critical eye you need to apply to your own work.

7. It will make you a smarter writer, too. You’ll witness writers making every possible career mistake. When your turn comes, you’ll be savvier. There’s an old Jewish saying: It’s better to learn to shave on someone else’s beard.

8. punchIt will take you out of yourself. Many writers are natural observers, fly-on-the-wall types. The isolation inherent in writing can exacerbate this tendency. Working in publishing will teach you to speak up, lean in, even land a punch now and then (metaphorically speaking, for the most part.)

9. The people you’ll meet, the places you’ll go! I worked in publishing on two continents before starting my own literary agency. Apart from nearly starving the first year or two, I had an amazing career until I gave it up to write full time. I traveled widely, sold hundreds of books, and met writers, publishers and agents from all over the world, including people I’d admired all my life.

The pay’s a joke, especially in junior positions, but this profession has never attracted people whose primary motivation is money. The publishing people I know are smart, passionate, intellectually curious people who at some point in their lives were gobsmacked by a book and never got over it. You can’t find much better company than that.

10. Did I mention New York?

 

If you’re curious about my publishing career,  this post may be of interest.

 

Posted in Mainstream publishing, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Speak Up, I’m Eavesdropping!

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I put it off as long as I could. Covered up, as people do; smiled and nodded. Finally I gave in and went to an audiologist.

She sat me in a booth and covered my head with large earphones. I could see her through the window, taking notes. If there was a period of silence, I watched her face for clues. It was a test, after all; I wanted to do well.

Afterward, we went over the results. “Mild hearing loss,” she said cheerfully. “Comes with age. You probably don’t even notice it except when you’re trying to have a conversation somewhere noisy.”

I didn’t mind so much about conversations. One can always shout. But noisy public places are prime eavesdropping territory, and for a writer, that matters terribly.

spyingWriters are nosy. I say this without apology, as nosiness is a requirement of the trade. For writers, as for actors, observation fuels invention. Our natural aspect is that of a fly on the wall, our patron saint Harriet the Spy.

As both human nature and language are the proper study of writers, eavesdropping is not a trivial pursuit. It’s a means of staying in touch with the ever-evolving vernacular and transcending our narrow personal circles. Hearing in general is so vital to writers that deaf writers are as rare on the ground as deaf musicians; yet some degree of hearing loss is almost inevitable with age. The first time I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I thought someone had finally come up with a practical solution, cheaper than hearing aids, though limited in efficacy; there’s only so much you can lean in without landing in someone’s soup.

Eavesdropping has always been a rich and essential resource for me. I once spent 36 hours in a Brooklyn ER with my younger son, waiting for a bed to open up. Despite my anxiety, I spent that time doing what writers do: observing and listening. And before my son was even released, I knew that I’d found the perfect setting for a book I’d long wanted to write.

Café_de_FloreIt’s not just me. There’s a reason, apart from coffee, why so many writers work in cafés: they’re great places to eavesdrop. Buses, trains, waiting rooms and bleachers are all excellent resources, but my personal favorite was always the diner. The booths provide enough illusory privacy to encourage revealing conversation, enough real privacy to allow me to take notes. I’ve overheard break-ups and make-ups, quarrels and seductions, women dissecting men, men puzzling over women, doctors dishing about patients, cult recruiters exchanging tips. My favorite bit of found art was a conversation between a father and his young son.

“You know, Dad,” the child said thoughtfully, “some of the best things in life are things you can’t buy with money.”

“Yes, my son?”

“Like friends,” the boy said. “And a family that loves you. And picking your nose.”

So I didn’t take the audiologist’s diagnosis well. Any degree of hearing loss threatened me where I lived; think of a painter with cataracts. Everything else aside, hearing loss is associated with encroaching old age, which has its own particular terrors for writers.

Coming_out_of_the_closetIt’s not discussed in polite circles, age being the last remaining closet. But the truth is  that there are commercial penalties for WWO — Writing While Old. One is no longer in the running for “hot new writer.” There is, sadly but inevitably, a tipping point at which the books become sexier than the author. Older writers in search of a new agent or publishing house are at a disadvantage compared to young writers with decades of work ahead of them.

Nor is hearing the only sense affected by age. Others may decline as well; yet fiction is grounded in sensory detail. A permanent dimming of sensation can force the older writer to resort to life’s pale cousin, memory.

Physically, writing a novel is far more labor-intensive than most people think. To produce a manuscript of 100,000 words, the writer might easily type five times that many in drafts. Travel, too, becomes more onerous as writers age and commercial planes devolve into sardine cans–yet nothing is more nourishing for writers than travel.

For some aging writers, there is also anxiety. Writing doesn’t come with a pension. This startling realization dawns on most writers around the time their non-writer friends begin retiring with comfortable nest eggs. No doubt it should have occurred to them sooner, but they were too busy reveling in the perks of their profession: setting their own hours, working at home, and making a living doing what they loved.

Robert_Frost_NYWTS_5Fortunately, these drawbacks are offset by advantages that allow writers, unlike dancers or athletes, to continue playing at a high level even in old age. Experience is a great asset. One doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see into the human heart, the wellspring of all fiction. Older writers have lived, learned, read, suffered and survived more. “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” said Robert Frost, who kept writing well into his 80s.

Older writers have skills, because the good ones never stop growing. They tend to value simplicity and clarity over ostentation. They put the story first. They’ve found their voice.

The extreme turbulence of youth is behind them. When productivity is the goal, it’s better to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to be currently under fire.

Technology gives us tools as well. Google Earth is no substitute for travel, but it sure is a great backup. And writers afflicted with arthritis can now resort to first-rate dictation software.

Bottom line, it’s not as if we have a choice. Writers write, whatever the circumstances. As for me, I’m making my adjustments. I thought of handing out cards — “Speak up, I’m eavesdropping”—but  decided that might have an inhibiting effect. Instead, I practice leaning in, though I find it’s not much needed. Recently in an airport departure lounge, I heard a young woman on a cell phone describe in excruciating detail the party she’d gone to the night before. She’d gotten wasted, she said, passed out, and woke the next morning in bed with a stranger. As the young woman strolled off, still spewing into her phone, a flash symposium broke out among the dozen or so stunned passengers within earshot.

I hate it that I don’t hear as well as I used to. These days, though, people talk more loudly and openly than ever before. It’s wonderful how things work out.

 

For more on the writing life, check out Writers, Lies and Filthy LucreOn Writing and Gardening; and The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer.

Posted in ABOUT ME, the writing life | Tagged , | 10 Comments

Revising Fiction

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Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin on August 13 and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

writing class

I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunkIt’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to eight writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.

Posted in Barbara's workshops, Craft, Editing, Next Level Workshop, Revising fiction, Writing | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

MANNERS!

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Huddle up, writers. This post’s for you.

As social media has eroded the once formidable barrier between writers and readers, it is now commonplace, even expected, for readers to contact writers directly via the writer’s website, Facebook, Twitter or other online venue. For the most part this is a good thing for writers. Hearing from readers is encouraging and a balm to the essential loneliness of the job.

lurkerBut with greater contact comes greater friction. Writers are now exposed to unvarnished reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book venues, and therein lies the problem. Stories abound (and rebound) about writers retaliating for bad reviews by outing anonymous bloggers and harassing, stalking, threatening, doxxing, even physically attacking reviewers.

Writers, of course, have a long and storied history of bad behavior, but this particular form of misbehavior is seen primarily (though by no means exclusively) among self-published writers. This makes sense, because at its core, the behavior arises from a boundary problem. Overly reactive writers are like helicopter parents, fiercely protective and unable to distinguish themselves from their offspring. Writers who publish traditionally give their work over to specialists who expertly edit, package, produce and market the book. It takes close to a year. By the time the book is released, the writer has already let go and most likely is working on her next. Self-published writers go through a much shorter process, in which they control every phase. The cord is never severed, so when the book comes out, it is still flesh of their flesh, undifferentiated.

This is not a good thing. There’s a reason we speak of “releasing” books. They are finished works that we send out into the world. However they’re published, once released, they must be allowed to stand on their own. Readers have every right to their own opinions and interpretations, which at that point are just as valid as the author’s.

Much is changing in the publishing world, but some values remain constant. I have therefore taken upon myself the role of Miss Publishing Manners and jotted down a few simple guidelines:

Rogan’s Rules of Writerly Decorum

1. What do we writers owe readers? In return for their investment of time and sometimes money, we owe readers an entertaining and/or edifying experience, preferably both.

What we don’t owe are explanations or justifications. These are not good uses of our time and attention. The book stands on its own and speaks for itself.

2. What do readers owe writers? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Their side of the contract is fulfilled by reading. Specifically, they don’t owe us reviews, recommendations, accolades, attendance at events, or financial support in the form of book purchases. We are, to be sure, grateful for any of these, but we are not entitled to them.

But writers are not saints, you may protest. We can’t be expected to turn the other cheek when our work is maligned. I agree, being neither constitutionally nor culturally equipped to turn the other cheek.  There are times when strong language is indicated, and writers have great stores of the stuff on hand. We should feel free to vent in private to friends and family about the astonishing blindness and stupidity of certain critics.

But in public? Shtum.

dianagabaldonI have a friend and colleague, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Her reply to a post from a critical reader struck me as the epitome of class, economy, and good sense.

“Not all books are for all people.  I hope you enjoy whatever you read next.”

 

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, subscribe to In Cold Ink  via links above and to the right.

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ONE GOOD SCENE

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Attention Writers!

I promised you a major announcement, and here it is.

Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor and a literary agent for many years, and I still mentor many writers. Consequently I’ve read a ton of first novels. Most have issues—hence the difficulty, of which you’re surely aware, in selling these novels. In many cases the story itself is intriguing and original; the problem is that the writer’s skills are not yet where they need to be for the book to attract a publishing offer. I always feel it’s an awful shame that these writers had undertaken to write a novel before learning to write a scene.

writing classSo I created a course for aspiring fiction writers who want to master the skills of the craft. It’s called “One Good Scene,” because scenes are the basic building blocks of fiction. The skills that go into the crafting of a single good scene are precisely those needed for the crafting of a novel, and any writer who can master the former can succeed in the latter.

It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures, assignments, writing and reading assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course. Personally, I think the workshop is so useful that I’d make it mandatory for every fiction writer…but then, I may be somewhat prejudiced. I will say that I offer a money-back warranty for people who start the course and find it’s not what they expected, but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

“One Good Scene” will begin on April 2, and is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and more than half the class is filled already with people who were on a waiting list, but I have several spots left. If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or email me at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com. If you have writer friends who might be interested, feel free to  share this post. I’m always interested in students who are serious about learning the craft.

Posted in Barbara's workshops, Craft, Fiction, Next Level Workshop, Writing tips | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

WRITERS, LIES, AND FILTHY LUCRE

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Lately writers have been talking about a piece by Ann Bauer in Salon. Entitled “Sponsored by My Husband,” the essay reveals that Bauer’s writing career is subsidized by her husband’s comfortable salary. “All that disclosure is crass,” she writes. “I’m sorry. Because in this world, where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have.”

breaking_upWe don’t? Over the course of my career in writing and publishing, and as a frequent presenter at writers’ conferences, I’ve met countless published writers; and I’ve yet to take part in a conversation that didn’t devolve within seconds to talk of money. It’s an obsession, probably because there’s so little of it to be had in the profession. If you see a few professional writers at a table with their heads together, I guarantee you they’re not talking about the use of metaphor in modern fiction or the latest linguistics theory. They’re dishing about advances, royalty rates, and the monetization of backlists.

Of course, that’s talking writer to writer. When it comes to public speaking, writers have a different agenda. They talk about art and transformation, hard work allied with inspiration.  Bauer attributes this to their desire to present an Olympian image: the Celebrated Author descending from on high to disperse wit and wisdom to the adoring throngs (or semi-throngs; the usual book event draws an average of 8 to 12 attendees, half of them related to the author.)

slushThere are more generous explanations; but even if Bauer’s is right, should we begrudge writers their little affectations? I don’t think so. In real life, most writers are working stiffs with mortgages, kids, and too little money. Once in a while, though, we get to dress up and play rock stars; and what’s the harm in that? Consider the writer’s life. For years at a time, she leads a cloistered existence, laboring in isolation without feedback, encouragement, or paycheck. Then her book is published, and there is a great flurry of activity. The writer takes off her sweats, dons her official writer clothes,  and emerges blinking from her cave to toasts and accolades. It would take a hard heart to deny her a bit of basking and a glass or two of champagne before shutting her up again.

But writers should tell the truth, insists Bauer, though I’m not sure why; no one else does.  “We do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community,” she writes, “when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed.”

Depends, say I. Sometimes a little obfuscation can be a good thing. As a fiction writer, I have, admittedly, an ambiguous relationship to the truth; that is, I think it takes many forms beyond the literal. But in this case, my objection to excessive truth-telling is practical. If authors were to use public appearances to complain about how poorly they are paid (which is absolutely true), how would audiences react? They’d still see the author as privileged, only now they see him as privileged and whiny. Every profession has its drawbacks. Very few writers would swap theirs for, say, coal mining or sausage making. Personally, I’d rather use those rare public outings to shine a light on my work than on the conditions under which it’s produced.

I’m all for honesty and openness, in their place. This blog’s mission is to provide just that sort of honest, down-to-earth guidance to other writers, both published and aspiring. I believe writers need to share information and experience in order to plot our path through the rapidly changing publishing ecosphere.

But don’t cork up that champagne just yet! If we can’t have riches, we can at least have fun. One of the characters in my last book, A DANGEROUS FICTION, makes an appearance at her book launch dressed as Cleopatra, borne on a litter by four strapping young men in togas. Ms. Bauer might think this over the top. To me, it seems about right.

woman in litter

 

Major announcement coming soon, of particular interest to writers. If you haven’t already, you might want to subscribe to this blog through the links on top or to the right.

 

Posted in Promotion, the writing life, Writers | Tagged , | 7 Comments

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

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I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined CritiqueCircle.com. One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to SwoonReads.com. Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.

 

Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.

 

Posted in Barbara's workshops, Craft, Interviews, Submitting, the writing life, Writing tips | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

ON WRITING AND GARDENING

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WinterIt’s been a cold, snowy winter in New York, good writing weather, but I’m ready for spring. Right now the view from my office window is nearly black and white: snow, bare branches against white sky, and the crenellated tips of fences. Soon the snow will melt, though, and in a month or so I’ll see the first pop of color in my rock garden, the irises and crocuses.

There’s a backstory to this garden. About 12 years ago, I got sick and had to undergo an unpleasant course of treatment. My husband and sons sought a way to show their support in a material way. What they came up with was a large rock garden, which they installed just outside my home office window, so I could enjoy it not only when I went outside but every time I sat down to work.

I’d never been a gardener. Gardening entails dirt, sweat, bugs and blisters, none of which I’m fond of. Often there are worms. Faith is required, gratification always delayed. And did I mention worms?

Nevertheless, I loved my rock garden, and after I recovered, I began to work on it. (I named it, too: the Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden, which no one but me thought was funny.) Little by little, I discovered that gardening metaphors were creeping into the way I thought and talked about fiction writing, and with good reason: they are similar endeavors in so many ways.

THE BIG PICTURE: In the beginning, I would go to my local nursery, buy whatever perennials caught my eye, and plant them anywhere I had room. The result was a disappointing hodgepodge. The flowers themselves were pretty, but the composition had no rhyme or reason. In a good garden, as in a good novel, all the parts exist to serve the whole. If they don’t, then no matter how pretty they are, they have to go.10486199_10152369477687865_5901926996832331028_n

WEEDING: However natural they may look, gardens are man-made compositions in which every element exists for a reason. The most beautiful specimen plant will go unseen if it’s surrounded by weeds.

Occasionally, in my students’ work, I come across a particularly well-crafted phrase or image or encapsulated thought, one that conveys with beautiful economy everything the scene is trying to achieve. These are the lines that “say it all,” if they’re allowed to do so without being smothered by surrounding verbiage. Editing showcases what is beautiful in our work by removing those elements that don’t contribute.

LABOR: Gardens repay sweat equity. So does writing; and writing novels in particular is more labor-intensive than most people would imagine. Before a book makes it to market, the writer may have produced a dozen drafts, each one better than the last.

Writing “effortless prose” takes huge effort. In fact, most things that seem effortless aren’t.

PATIENCE: Gardens aren’t built in a single season. Perennials often need a year or two of settling in before they bloom profusely. Much of the work goes on underground, out of sight.

Ideas also take time to germinate, and writers’ skills grow over time. Barbara Kingsolver said it took her 30 years to feel ready to tackle her masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Novels take a long time to research, develop, write and edit. Like gardens, they can’t be rushed.

10274166_10152154759247865_6382013076439694242_nTIME: A garden is not a static installation; it changes as the growing season progresses. Things that were hidden spring to life: a patch of grassy stems transforms overnight into a carpet of red lilies. My rock garden looks entirely different in April than it does in August. In novels, too, time is a necessary dimension. A poem may immortalize a moment; but fiction is a vehicle for change, and change takes place over time.

THE SENSES: It took me a ridiculously long time to understand that gardens are not all visual. We’ve always had Russian Sage in the rock garden, and early on I took to crushing a leaf or two between my fingers to release its scent. Then one year we planted some Asiatic lilies. The following summer I walked outside one evening and was struck by the most alluring, intoxicating scent I’d ever encountered. For weeks those lilies perfumed the whole yard.

Fiction, too, infiltrates through the senses. Words are not things in themselves but symbols of things. Much of fiction’s work lies in making the abstract seem real, through the use of vivid, specific, selective description. Until a setting feels absolutely real, nothing that happens there will matter.

FAITH: at some point in every novel, the writer hits a snag. It might be a character who refuses to come into focus or a plot complication that’s gumming up the works; whatever it is, it feels dire. One of the advantages of having written a bunch of novels is that when I inevitably hit those snags, I know a solution will emerge in the course of writing. I have faith in the process.

Gardening, too, requires faith. We dig a hole, plant a bulb or seed, give it some water and trust it will grow. When snow blankets the garden and eradicates all signs of life, we trust that life and color will return.

spring

And so they will. Spring is just around the corner.

 

But just in case you need a good mystery to while away the time until it arrives, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION, now available in Penguin paperback.

Posted in ABOUT ME, Fiction, the writing life, Writing | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments