BREAKING INTO PRINT: The Art of Writing an Irresistible Query

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I’m delighted to announce the inauguration of a new Next Level online workshop, entitled “BREAKING INTO PRINT: The Art of Writing an Irresistible Query.”

The Course

          You’ve written a novel or memoir, edited it, polished it till it shines, maybe shown it to a beta reader or two. Now you’re ready for the next step: finding a publisher. For writers who aspire to traditional publication by a major publishing house, that path typically begins with the search for a literary agent. Those who prefer small publishers may be able to submit to them directly. Either way, the first essential task is to persuade those gatekeepers to read your manuscript.

You do that by crafting an irresistible submission package, consisting of a query letter, synopsis, and the opening pages of your work. Agents receive hundreds of submissions each year and typically take on fewer than a dozen new clients. Time is the agent’s capital. They can’t read even a fraction of the manuscripts they’re pitched, so how do you persuade them to invest time on yours?

 “Breaking into Print” is designed to help you do just that. This intensive three-week workshop will help writers edit their existing drafts into compelling, professional submission packages that stand out from the crowd and avoid the mistakes that sink the vast majority of submissions. A strong submission package will entice agents and editors to read. After that, it’s up to the book to sell itself, which is as it should be.

I was a literary agent for 14 years. Before that, I was an editor at one of the largest NYC publishers. [bio] During these years, I read more queries than I can possibly count, and I can tell you that people who read submissions for a living become, of necessity, very quick at sorting the wheat from the chaff. The three components of the submission package are designed to reveal essential faults in the work, so agents can quickly weed out work that is unlikely to prove publishable. A poorly worded query letter, riddled with grammatical errors, guarantees a manuscript of the same quality, and no one has time for that. Synopses can reveal problems including an incoherent plot, lack of a central, vital challenge for the protagonist, low stakes, problematic pacing and structural issues. Opening pages reveal how well the writer writes and how skillfully he/she commands the reader’s attention, essential factors in an agent or publisher’s decision.

If any of the three components is weak, the submission is likely to be rejected out of hand, and the book will never get a chance to make its case. Sometimes the rejected work really isn’t salable; most of what agents see is not. Other times it might be, but the submission package has failed to do it justice. Either way, the result is the same.

Gatekeepers use the query letter, synopsis, and opening pages to weed out unlikely prospects, but for skilled, savvy writers, those same elements provide a great opportunity to show what they can do.

The Goal

The goal of “Breaking Into Print” is to help participants to present their work in the best possible light, by strengthening each element of the query and avoiding the mistakes that trip up most aspiring writers. Demanding as they are, agents and publishers want to find writing they love; it’s what they live for. If your novel or memoir is ready for its close-up, this course will help you put together a compelling, professional submission package to showcase its strengths. If the work is not yet where it needs to be, if it has significant weaknesses, the course may reveal that. While that can be an upsetting realization, it allows the writer to address problem areas before sending the manuscript out to fend for itself.

How It Works

Over the course of three weeklong sessions, participants will submit their query letters, synopses and opening pages for critique by me and their fellow writers. There will be time to submit and get feedback on revised query letters, if desired. Each session will be accompanied by a lecture and discussion on various aspects of the agent/publisher search. Topics will include:

– – Query letter: elements and tone

– – Query letter fails: amateurish mistakes and ways to avoid them.

– – Demystifying the submission process through an insider’s view

– – How to synopsize a full-length work in three or four pages .

– – How to format like a professional.

– – How to think like a literary agent

– – How to put together a smart submission list

– – How (and how long) to persevere when rejected

– – How to recognize and avoid publishing scams

– – How to stay sane while submitting

Requirements

          1. A complete or nearly complete draft of a novel or memoir.

          2. A draft query letter.

          3. A draft synopsis.

          4. Enough time to read the lectures, participate in discussions, critique each other’s work, and edit your own: estimated 6 to 10 hours per week for three weeks.

Who Can Benefit

– – As-yet-unpublished novelists and memoirists

 – – Experienced writers in search of new representation

– – Previously self-published writers seeking traditional publication

Whether you are preparing to submit for the first time, or you’ve been submitting with disappointing results, this workshop will help you put your book’s best foot forward.

Dates and Tuition

          “Breaking Into Print” will begin on November 14, 2019. The duration is three weeks, but a few days will be added on to allow for a Thanksgiving break.  Tuition will be $175. For the 11/19 pilot course only, there will be a discounted tuition of $145.

          Class size is strictly limited, and admission will be first come first served, provided applicants meet the requirements listed above. For more information or to apply for the workshop, contact Barbara at Next.Level.Workshop@gmail.com

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SCAM ALERT

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This one has nothing to do with writing. The intended targets are anyone over 60 or so. Got another call just this morning. Here’s how it went.

Scammer on phone: Hi Grandma.

Me: Are you in jail in Mexico?

Him: What?

Me: Did you break your other leg?

Him: Huh?

Me: Can I wire you money?

Him: You fucking with me? I’m gonna come over there and–

Dog, on command: Frenzied barking

Me: We’re waiting.

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Register Now for One Good Scene

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Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course, One Good Scene, is now open for registration for January 2019 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I don’t just talk the talk; I’ve walked the walk, as a writer who also worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace. Before I gave it up to focus on writing, I had a successful 20-year career in publishing, first as an editor, then as head of my own literary agency.

I began teaching fiction writing at SUNY Farmingdale and Hofstra University. After initiating Hofstra’s online program with a course on self-editing, I founded my own online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and some of those are already taken by people on a waiting list. I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

 

 

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A PLEA AND AN OFFER

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I don’t use this blog for political messaging. That’s not what it’s about. But trump’s policy of tearing families apart, his state-mandated child abuse, is not a political issue but a humanity issue. As a Jew whose extended family perished in the Holocaust, I can’t turn away, and I can’t be silent. Dehumanizing refugees and asylum seekers, calling them an “infestation,” tearing infants and children away from their parents and interning them in concentration camps: these are deeply unAmerican crimes against humanity.

After Hitler, we all said “Never again.” And yet here we are.

The outcry against these crimes has forced trump to back down partially, but approximately 2300 stolen children are still dispersed all over the country with no assurance they’ll ever see their parents again. They are being traumatized now, even as you read this. We must ensure that every one of those children is returned to their parents; or we are complicit in an historic crime.

Time nailed it.

We are not helpless.  There are things we can do.

Here are some of the organizations doing everything they can to help these children and their parents.

RAICES

ACTBLUE

ACLU

THE FLORENCE PROJECT

ASYLUM SEEKERS ADVOCACY PROJECT

I’m doing my part as well. Most of this blog’s readers are writers. If you donate $50 or more to any of these organizations, I will do a free read for you: a professional, detailed critique of the opening 3000 words of your novel, memoir, or short story.

I have no idea how many writers will take me up on this, and there’s a limit to how many of these time-consuming crits I can do, so the the sooner you make your donation, the better. Email a copy of the receipt to Barbararogan@msn.com, and you’ll hear from me.

 

 

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“ONE GOOD SCENE” WORKSHOP SCHEDULED

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Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course,  One Good Scene, will soon open for registration for a fall 2018 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I’m a writer who has worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace.

Like most writers, I had a day job, but that “day job” was a 20-year career in publishing. I was an editor for Fawcett Books and a literary agent for many years. After I sold the agency to focus on my own writing, I began teaching fiction writing, first at SUNY and Hofstra University, then through my online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

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“Revising Fiction” Workshop Scheduled!

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Attention fiction writers: My annual “Revising Fiction” has been scheduled to begin on March 16, 2017, and is now open for registration.

Plato

For those who are not familiar with it, this intensive online workshop is for writers with a completed draft of a novel or a body of short stories to work on bringing their fiction to the next level. Whether it’s a first draft or a 10th, participants’ books will undergo a process that will result in much stronger manuscripts, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer; it’s geared not only to talented aspiring writers but also to published writers who know how important it is to keep growing their craft. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 10 to 16 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work.

Getting published is hard; staying published may be even harder. Writing for 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. Very few do. 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 print. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pinning it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to reject with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable. Often these were books by talented writers whose execution doesn’t quite measure up to their talent. They weren’t salable as written, and like most agents, I didn’t have time to teach aspiring writers how to finish their work.

Now more than ever, writers are expected to learn the craft on their own dime.

That craft includes the essential ability to self-edit, the final step in the actual writing of the book, before it is taken up by an agent or publisher. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But of course that’s easier said than done. Most writers want to revise their work, to bring it closer to the ideal novel they envisioned when they set out on this journey. They know that, no matter how impeccable we are, our first drafts are just a rough approximation of what our stories are meant to be. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying and enhancing theme.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Good writers are good editors.

Everyone knows that, and everyone aspires; but there are obstacles to effective self-editing. One is the difficulty of getting feedback of a quality high enough to raise our level of play. Another is the fact that by the time we finish a complete draft of the work, we’ve read it too often to address it with the objectivity required for editing. The “Revising Fiction” workshop was created to address both those problems, and to provide fiction writers with a methodical way of going about revision.

I’m proud that quite a few writers who’ve taken this workshop have gone on to find agents and publishers, but there’s no guarantee of that outcome. All I promise is that participants will come out of the course with better drafts and more tools in their writers’ toolbox. I back that up with a money-back guarantee: anyone who takes this course and decides within a few weeks that it’s not appropriate can withdraw and get their tuition back. I teach the course myself, read and critique every word by every participant, oversee peer critiques, guide discussions, provide lectures and supplementary material.

WHO I AM: I’ve worked in publishing and as a writer for over 40 years. I started out working for Fawcett Books, then a top paperback house. After that I became a literary agent, founding and running my own agency for 14 years. I also know the publishing world from the perspective of a writer, having had eight novels and several works of nonfiction published by major houses, including Viking/Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday and Morrow. I edit fiction and teach fiction writing, formerly at Hofstra University and SUNY, currently in my own online Next Level workshops.

That’s the short version. Here’s a longer one.

HOW TO REACH ME: If you’d like to apply for the Revising Fiction workshop or have any questions about it, email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

WHAT YOU NEED:

  1. A completed draft.
  2. Time. Most writers have day jobs, and I don’t expect you to quit yours or neglect your family, at least not totally. But you will need to carve out a minimum of 10-12 hours a week to devote to the workshop and your own editing.
  3. Dough. Tuition is $795, much less than you’d pay for an equivalent semester-long university course, but still a chunk of money. Don’t send any now, though! I’ll ask accepted students for a deposit after putting together my roster. There is a 10% discount for returning students.
  4. A writing sample, specifically the first five or six pages of your novel.
  5. An open mind.

For more specifics on the course, see my website; for comments from former participants, see the testimonials page…and check out the  publishing credits beside their names.

Don’t wait too long if you’re interested. I keep these workshops very small because I spend so much time working with each writer; 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. I generally offer only one of these workshops each year. If the timing isn’t right for you, but you know a writer for whom it might be perfect, please pass the word along.

And now, may the wild rumpus begin!

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Celebrate Halloween with a Spooky Good Read!

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Hey, readers and writers! Need a good spooky read for Halloween? Don’t want to toot my own horn, but…oh, what the hell. Here’s what the Washington Post said: “SUSPICION had its way with me from start to finish….If you can put this book down before you’ve finished it, it’s possible that your heart may have stopped beating.”
And my favorite comparison ever:  “Rogan’s smart reinvention of the haunted housewife, mad or menaced or both, is a honey…. Like Shirley Jackson, Rogan brings sophistication, skillful writing and subtlety to the business of ghosts.”—The San Francisco Chronicle

 

SUSPICION combines ghosts, chaos physics, and soccer. Yeah, soccer. If you haven’t read it yet, there couldn’t be a better day.

Suspicion: A Novel by [Rogan, Barbara]

Happy Halloween, all! Stay safe out there.

witch

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Two New Courses Scheduled!

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Attention Fiction Writers: Major announcement! I will be teaching not one but two online Next Level Workshops this fall and winter.

champers

The first will be One Good Scene, which will begin on Thursday, November 3, 2016.

There’s a story behind this course. Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor at Fawcett Books and after that, a literary agent. In those capacities, I read about a billion unpublished first novels.  In many cases, the plot idea was intriguing and original, but the writer’s skills were not yet where they needed to be. These writers had undertaken to write a whole novel before learning to write a single good scene, and the results were not pretty.  On the flip side, writers who could put together shapely, tense, fully realized scenes were generally able to produce creditable short stories and novels.

So when I started to teach writing, the first course I created was “One Good Scene,” for aspiring fiction writers who want to master and build on the essential skills of fiction-writing. It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures,  writing 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.  Fun fact: I’m so convinced of this workshop’s usefulness that I offer a money-back warranty…but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

One Good Scene is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and several spots have been filled with writers who were on a waiting list, but I have a few places open.

After that, I will offer an online Revising Fiction workshop, to begin in January 2017. Revising Fiction is a master class for writers who have completed a draft of a novel or a body of short stories and want some help in bringing it to the next level. The goal is for writers to emerge from the process, not only with a much improved manuscript, but also with tools they can apply to everything else they go on to write. I’m proud to say that quite a few novels that have gone through this process have ended up published and sitting on my bookshelf.  (Many of these are listed as credits beside the authors’ names on the website’s testimonial page.) The workshop is comprised of a series of separate edits, one per two-week session, each focusing on a different aspect of the work. Big ticket items come first: structure, pacing, conflict and characterization. We also look at theme, language and style. Every session includes a lecture and multiple discussions, the opportunity to share scenes from participants’ novels and to give and receive critiques, including my notes on every submission.

This workshop is intense and, as one participant wrote, “life-changing, or at least writing-life-changing.” Participants can log on at any time that suits them and join in ongoing discussions. The class is limited to six writers, primarily those who have already taken One Good Scene or worked with me as an editor. Applicants whose work I don’t know will be asked to submit a writing sample. You can read more about Revising Fiction here, including tuition cost and warranty.

If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or drop me a line at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

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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 , , | 16 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?

 

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