JUST SAY NO: A WRITERS’ MANIFESTO

 

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!

 

Publishing as a Career for Writers

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.

 

Speak Up, I’m Eavesdropping!

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.

MANNERS!

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.

WRITERS, LIES, AND FILTHY LUCRE

money

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.

 

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

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.

 

ON WRITING AND GARDENING

 

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.

A Talk with J.A. Jance

We met under the happiest of circumstance. The celebrated  J. A. Jance had read A DANGEROUS FICTION and enjoyed it enough to agree for the first time in many years to write a blurb. I wrote to thank her, and a pleasant exchange followed. We stayed in touch. Recently we had an email exchange in which Judith shared some very important lessons about making one’s living as a writer: building a brand, as it’s called these days. I found it extraordinarily useful and relevant; I think any writer, published, self-published or hybrid, can learn a lot from it. With her kind permission, I am sharing that conversation with you below.

J. A. Jance had mentioned in a previous email that she was embarking on a book tour.

“Book tour?” I answered wistfully. “Do publishers still do that?” The Penguin paperback edition of A DANGEROUS FICTION had just come out, and with the help of a kind and diligent Penguin publicist, I’d been doing some modest online promotion, but nothing strenuous, mostly from the comfort of my office.

Jance “Yes,”  J. A. Jance replied, “three weeks on the road.  This morning I’m home, sitting on my own back porch in the Seattle area and trying to keep the damned heron from poaching my goldfish.

I cut my teeth in the lowly world of “original paperbacks” where mysteries supposedly had a 90 day shelf-life.  I’m happy to report that my first novel, Until Proven Guilty, is still in print 29 years later!!!  The guys, local old hands at writing and all of them male, took me to the woodshed and  told me to jump ship with Avon and go with someone who would pay me some “real” money.  Fortunately, I disregarded that advice and stayed put.  As for them?  They’ve all lost their early books through . . . well . . . jumping ship.

When that first book was due to come out, I was so elated.  Remember, I hail from humble pie Bisbee, Arizona.  I was being published by a NY publisher.  When I called my editor and asked when the book publishing party would be, he nearly choked on his coffee.  Party?  What party???  So we threw a party ourselves, and my agent–my agent then and my agent now–my sister and I, a grand opening party complete with a visiting llama who peed in the elevator on his way up to the party room.  (The building manager was NOT happy!)

My inquiries about a tour were met with similar derision, so my agent–that same agent–set up 30 signings for me.  THIRTY!!  I went all over hell and gone in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona–ON MY OWN NICKEL–signing books at any B. Dalton or Waldenbooks that would give me a table and let me hawk books inside or outside the store.  Because I didn’t know how much the first two on-sale weeks mattered, I WENT ON VACATION!!! before those signings started.  In the long run, it turns out that was the right thing to do. Avon printed 30,000 copies of UPG and shipped most of them.  Then when orders for the signings started coming in, the book was OUT OF PRINT!  That caused something of a stir.  How could an original paperback from an unknown writer in Nowheresville, USA, be garnering that kind of sales?  As far as New York was  concerned, that second printing came like a bolt out of the blue!

And then the second book came out.  Back then and even now, I do two books a year.  When the second book came out, we went back to those same stores–Washington, Oregon, Arizona–and did the same thing.  Only this time, I could sell two books at the same time–the first and the second–instead of just one. That strategy worked up to and including book number four.  I write series books, and I always told new readers that of course they should start with number one.  All during that time, I was doing free (but you must have books for sale) events for libraries, civic groups–Rotary or Kiwanis anyone?–book clubs, and ladies auxiliary luncheons.  Give me an audience and let me talk to them.

My first nine books were all original paperback and was looked down on with almost the same disrespect as e-books receive now.  There was no publisher paid tour.  My husband had a sales job and,whenever possible, I went along for the ride and set up signings coming and going.  He did his job during the day and during the week and helped with the signings evenings and weekends.  He doesn’t write, but he’s my partner, and none of this would be possible without him.  By the way, our first date as the “llama peeing” grand opening party for the first book.  Now I say that “I write the books and he writes the checks” because he handles the business end of the business.

In college, I was excluded from a Creative Writing program because, as the professor told me, I was a girl.  “Girls become teachers or nurese; Boys become writers.”  That’s a direct quote by the way, engraved on my psyche and the reason a fromer professor of Creative Writing is the crazed killer in my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter.

I taught school for a few years, worked as a school librarian, and then spent ten years in the life insurance business.  For that first party, we invited everyone in my Rolodex–called them on the phone and invited them.  For the next book the grand opening party was at a local restaurant rather than in our building.  That restaurant, the Doghouse, is long gone now, but before every grand opening we called the people in the Rolodex and that became The Doghouse List.  What was once primarily a phone list has now morphed into an e-mail list with 14,411 names on it as of now.

In the last few years, the publicists in New York have done only the bare minimum as far as setting up tours.  They go to the places that are easy for them–in other words, they call the places that they have on file and book signings there without any regard about who and where my fans are based.  The note I sent to you–asking for a physical location–is one of several thousand I’ve sent out in the past few days.  Time spent waiting in airports, riding on planes, and living in no known time zone–is not creative time, but I’ve turned it into useful time by getting physical locations on literally hundreds of people for whom I previously had only e-mail addresses.  That way I’ll be able to SEND OUT ANNOUNCEMENTS INVITING THEM TO SPECIFIC EVENTS!  And that makes my list a more effective marketing tool.

After last year’s tour disaster, I took things in hand and booked the first seventeen events of this tour–local events–my own damned self!  Worked like a dog that first week, taking my show on the road and doing two to three events a day–30 minutes of Q and A before the actual starting time.  The Q and A is my warm up act.  (I’m sorry, I can’t help but roll my eyes at “Where do you get your ideas?”  Grrr!  That one drives me nuts.  Do they think I go out hunting ideas with a butterfly net?)  Then I do an hour long presentation and close with a Janis Ian song–At Seventeen most often.  The presentation is followed by a signing.  Two hours in all.  No intermission.  I don’t read at signings.  I talk at signings.  I tell about where the ideas for that book came from.  I tell about my own origins and history.  I tell stories people tell me about reading my books–most of which have come in through e-mails that I ALWAYS ANSWER MYSELF!  But the thing about doing local events?  As I learned in those early years, those numerious signings were in my neck of the woods,  but if reporting stores are doing the selling, those sales count and numbers, even regional numbers, rule.  By the way, if you’re not comfortable doing public speaking, you need to get that way fast.  I took the Dale Carnegie course first and then spent a year in Toastmasters.

All this is to say, Barbara, go out and find your own fans–in libraries or wherever.  (Ann Rule and I used to be known as the queens of drug store and grocery store openings.  If the stores wanted us, we went.)  Make sure the various venues have SOMEONE THERE TO SELL THE BOOK.  I do NOT sell books out of the back of my car at events, and neither should you.  Collect names.  Get those early readers to become loyal readers.

My first ICD sales rep, Holly Turner, who sold paperbacks to the wholesalers–back in the old days when there were LOTS of wholesalers and no Amazon–told me once, “One personal contact is worth ten readers.”  I believe that’s true.  In this digital day and age, when we send out notices in advance of books going on sale, people have come to regard those letters as personal notes from me.  They are points of contact.  After the announcements go out, I spend days responding to the replies, but those people hear from me.  They are my PEOPLE, and they make my life possible.

So here’s a whole tankful of unsolicited advice. All of which is meant to say, don’t let the turkeys get you down.  Don’t just grumble.  Do something.  Do events.  Get people in your corner.  I still encounter people who say, “I met you the first time selling books on a card table outside a Waldenbooks in wherever.”  Fifty plus books later, those people are still reading my books.  And that counts!

JAJ

REMAINS OF INNOCENCEThat’s it. I trust you’ll agree with me that J. A. Jance is a class act, not only talented but extremely hard-working and as loyal to her fans as they are to her.  I appreciate her willingness to share the lessons she’s learned along the way. She has a new book out in her Joanna Brady series, by the way, and it’s wonderful: REMAINS OF INNOCENCE.

 

 

For lots more writing and publishing interviews and advice, subscribe to this blog through the links above and to the right. And here are a few links to previous interviews:

 

Writer Diana Gabaldon

 Writer Lorraine Bartlett

 Literary agent Gail Hochman

 Viking Editor Tara Singh

 Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Marysue Rucci

 Book publicist Brian Feinblum

Why I Signed the New York Times Letter

 

On Sunday, August 10, an open letter to readers signed by over 900 writers appeared as a full-page ad in the New York Times. The letter does not take sides in the merits of the business dispute between Amazon and Hachette, but rather protests the collateral damage done to Hachette writers by Amazon’s tactics.

I was one of the signatories.

I signed the letter for a few reasons: First, out of empathy for the writers whose books recently came out or are about to come out with Hachette. Writers only get one chance to launch a book, and if the largest distributor in the country refuses to carry or discourages readers from ordering it, those lost sales will never be made up. So many things can go wrong during the publishing process, and they so often do, that any writer who’s been around for a while must empathize with those unlucky writers. (Or so you’d think…but I’ll get to that later.)

Second, because as a writer myself, I object to writers being used as cannon fodder. Self-serving, no doubt, but there you go.

And third, because what are the odds of me ever again being on the same list as Stephen King, Scott Turow, Barbara Kingsolver and James Patterson?

Kidding. I didn’t know who else was signing the letter when I added my name to it, though I was pleased when it came out to see that many writers with far more to lose than I were willing to append their names.

But I signed the letter with a heavy heart, because the reader in me loves Amazon. I love the company’s customer service and efficiency. I barely have time to think of a book before it is displayed before me, accessible at a click. Obscure backlist books by writers I love? No problem; if Amazon doesn’t have it, they’ll tell me who does. Endless bargain bins, daily specials, and unlimited bookshelf space in my Kindle: what’s not to love? I’m not alone in this. Lots of publishing people who consider Amazon the great Satan read submissions on their Kindles.

As a writer, though, Amazon scares me. I fear that in its relentless quest for low prices and ever-greater market share, it’s morphing into Walmart. It has also taken out whole sectors of the publishing eco-structure. First it discounted most brick and mortar bookstores out of existence. Then it took a shot at publishers themselves. The plan was to siphon off a cadre of best-selling writers, cutting publishers out by offering writers a much larger share of the profits. But the increased e-book revenue came at the expense of print book sales, as brick-and-mortar bookstores refused to carry Amazon’s books. A few writers went over to Amazon, supplemented by several best-selling self-published writers, including some of those currently spearheading the pro-Amazon campaign I talk about below. But on the whole, the attempt to cut out publishers fell flat.

There is, of course, one sector of writers that has been greatly helped by Amazon. The company has been hospitable to self-published authors from the very beginning. They do self-published writers the service (and readers, I would argue, the disservice) of not distinguishing in their listings between published and self-published books. Over 7000 of these writers have weighed into the dispute with their own petition, a pro-Amazon screed denouncing Hachette and “New York Publishing.” I’d like to quote and comment on just a few lines from that long petition:

“New York Publishing once controlled the book industry. They decided which stories you were allowed to read.”

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Can’t you just see that committee of old white men locked in an airless board room, making their decisions about what you can or cannot read? It’s a good story, if you like dystopian fantasy. In fact, commercial publishing is made up of separate and competing businesses, including the so-called Big Five but also many smaller houses. Each of them is striving to do what all businesses strive to do: make a profit. Each buys the books it believes will be profitable. Each turns down books they deem commercially nonviable for their company. Because there is far more supply than demand, they are extremely picky about what they choose to publish. That is their business and their right.

One might argue that it’s also Amazon’s business and right to do whatever it can to maximize its market share and improve profits. It’s the nature of businesses to expand if they can; it’s what shareholders demand. The big chains Amazon crushed got where they were by gobbling up smaller chains. These are reasonable arguments to have. But point of the letter I signed is not to adjudicate the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, only to protest tactics that scapegoat writers.

 “The establishment media and many big name, multi-millionaire writers are out in full force to spread this propaganda.”

This is also a favorite theme in the comment sections of many articles on the dispute, and it’s both revealing and absurd. Of the 900 or so writers who signed that open letter, maybe a dozen are household names in literate households. Of those, several are millionaires. But the vast majority of writers are working stiffs like me, who earn less from writing then they would have from almost every other field of endeavor they might have chosen.

Marie AntoinetteThis is really one of the saddest parts of this dispute is the pitting of writers against one another. Everywhere you look you see writers bashing writers, or lecturing them on their true interests, which is about as much fun as being buttonholed by Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Amazon has democratized publishing,” wrote one typical commenter, while Big Publishing and its lackey house-writers fight to uphold an outdated, elitist model. Go ahead and picture Marie Antoinette gouging on cake while the people starve; you’re meant to.

Hachette writers have a direct interest in this matter. Commercially published writers do as well, since Hachette is only the first to take on what will undoubtedly be an issue of contention with all the other major publishers. But why would thousands of writers jump into a dispute in which they have no part, taking sides against their fellow writers?

I think the advent of self-publishing is on the whole a force for the good. Many I know have revived careers by reissuing backlist books, while others have launched their careers through self-publishing. It’s a great thing that writers now have options. Nevertheless, some self-published writers, despite impressive gains in market share, harbor enormous resentment against the trade publishing houses who declined to buy their work. They feel they are regarded as second-class citizens in the literary world, and when the opportunity presents to pile onto an embattled publisher, they seize it. This animus spills over to the “privileged” writers who do publish with those houses. Sympathy for Hachette’s unlucky writers? Let them eat cake, those writers scoff. They’re all rich anyway.

I wish! But let’s not go into that again. It’s a little-known but well-established fact that writers, when they meet, spend most of their time discussing, not literature, but money, which comes from having too little of it. Poets are the worst, because they make the least. What helps is the sense that we’re all in it together.

Something to think about.

Here are some good posts if you want to learn more about the Amazon-Hachette battle and what it means for writers.

Mike Shatzkin

N.Y. Times

Jake Kerr

 

Some book news to share: The ebook of A DANGEROUS FICTION is now just $7.99, and the paperback’s available as well, in stores and online. The launch of the paperback is drawing some renewed attention from critics, as well. This terrific review just came out from Joe Meyer of CT News. If you haven’t read it yet, summer’s awasting.

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Diversity in Books

 

A group of authors concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s literature launched a campaign on social media recently to raise awareness and influence decision-makers in the publishing industry. On Twitter, their  hashtag,#WeNeedDiverseBooks, trended for several days. They had a big presence on Tumblr as well (http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/), where numerous contributors posted pictures of themselves holding signs explaining why we need diverse books. I encourage you to visit it; many of the entries are moving and thought-provoking.

diversity

The State of Diversity in Publishing

There’s no doubt that minorities of all kind are underrepresented both as writers and characters in children’s literature and fiction in general. The School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tracks the number of books about and/or by people of color published in the US. In 2013, out of approximately 5000 children’s books published, only 93 were about black people, 69 about Asians, 57 about Latinos, and 34 about Native Americans.  (If there is a similar survey of LGBT characters, I don’t know of it, but I think we can safely assume the results would be similar.)  These numbers were substantially worse than the results 10 years ago.

Publishing has contracted in general, but it seems as if a disproportionate number of the voices forced out were minority writers. American publishing lags behind the other arts and media in its representation of this country’s diversity. Not so long ago it was taken for granted that all political TV pundits were white males; this is far from the case now. Racial and gender diversity is the norm on television dramas and comedies; shows that lack diversity (“Girls”) are singled out for criticism. Music has long transcended class and racial boundaries. And yet publishing still skews overwhelmingly white.

When I first started working in publishing, many years ago, the industry was progressive in that it employed many women in senior positions; but the only black employees I ever met worked in the mailroom. It was a big deal when Random House hired a black editor in 1979. Most opening positions were filled by Ivy League graduates from families who could subsidize their offspring’s pittance of a wage. When you walked through the editorial and executive floors, the faces you saw were overwhelmingly if not exclusively white.

 

If that were still the situation in publishing, it might explain the paucity of books by and about people of color; but it is no longer true. A great many young editors still seem to come from the Ivy leagues, but those schools themselves have become more diverse. Why, then, have books become less so?

Publishing Economics 101

The answer, I believe, lies in a basic understanding of the economics of the industry. Publishing is a profit-oriented business, even though the profits tend to be relatively small compared to other industries. All the large houses are owned by corporations. Publishers of imprints are judged by their bottom line; consequently they judge their editors the same way. An editor whose books do not make money will not thrive in commercial publishing. As for literary agents, having been one for many years, I can tell you how they think. They ask themselves two questions about everything they read: Do I love it? Can I sell it? If the answer to the second question is no, the answer to the first is irrelevant.

kite runnerAs long as editors believe that books by and about LGBT and non-white people will appeal only to “niche readerships,” that belief will factor into their decisions and those of their publishing boards. The best way to dissuade them of this belief is by proving it wrong. Awards are nice, but nothing garners respect like sales figures that exceed expectations. Books about people of color that break through to wide popular readership — books like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner — probably open more doors for other diverse writers than anything else could. But the odds of such breakthroughs shrink to insignificance when so few diverse books are published to begin with.

Remedying this situation will take concerted action by publishers, writers and readers. But before I get into that, I want to take a step back and talk about the goal itself. What is diversity in fiction?

What Diversity Is and Isn’t

Let me start with a true story. Years ago, I wrote a novel called A Heartbeat Away, a modern adaptation of my favorite book in the world, Pride and Prejudice. The novel was set primarily in a large inner-city ER, secondarily in a number of jazz clubs. The two main characters were black, and many of the secondary characters were black or Latino. When the book was finished, my agent sent it to my long-time editor at one of the Big Six publishers, who called me a few days later to tell me I had just written the best book of my career.

Heartbeat AwayI expected that an offer would follow soon. In fact, six weeks passed before we had any further response. It came in the form of another call from my editor. She said she had shown the book to others in the company, who all agreed it was a first-class novel. Some, however, wondered whether I, as a white writer, should have been the one to write it. There had been some debate, but eventually they had agreed to publish.

I was astonished. If they had said the characters were unconvincing, that I had failed in that way, I could have accepted it. But to say in one breath that I had succeeded in creating true and affecting characters, and in the next that I did not have the right to create such characters, seemed to me a total misunderstanding of what fiction does and how it works – and this from publishing people.

The characters in that book were black or Hispanic because they had to be for the story I wanted to tell. For a long time I had been looking for a modern setting with the extreme class stratification of Jane Austen’s world. One day, a very long day spent with a sick child in a grim Brooklyn emergency room, I found that highly stratified microcosm. I spent some time in the cafeteria and noticed that the groups at various tables were segregated by rank, not race. Doctors sat with doctors, nurses with nurses, aides with aides. There were doctors of many races and ethnicities, but on the lower rungs of the hierarchy, the employees were almost all black. Since my story, based on Pride and Prejudice, was about a love affair that crossed class boundaries, I chose as my protagonist a woman whose housekeeping job put her on the bottom of the ladder. Her lover was at the top: the director of the Emergency Department. Given the novel’s setting, the housekeeper pretty much had to be black, which meant her lover must also be black. If he weren’t, the novel would come to be about the crossing of racial boundaries as opposed to class boundaries, which was my interest.

I didn’t want to be published halfheartedly or apologetically, so we took the book away and sold it to Morrow. It came out to wonderful reviews, was optioned by MGM, and published in five languages, so my story had a happy ending. Not so for a writer friend of mine, who wrote a wonderful folkloric novel set in what seemed to be but was never identified as a Native American village. She submitted to multiple literary agents, a number of whom liked the book very much but told her that they didn’t believe publishers would buy a book about Native Americans written by a white woman.

Does diversity refer only to the race or sexual orientation of the author? Must that race or gender identification match that of the book’s subject? Should writers restrict themselves to their own race, class, nationality, religion and gender?

I understand the objections of some Native American writers to those who “appropriate” a culture that is not theirs. When that culture is distorted in the resulting work, the distortion itself is legitimate ground for criticism. But I disagree with the concept of appropriation, because it implies an ownership that does not exist. This is, of course, an old, ongoing argument. When William Styron published Sophie’s Choice, many people criticized him for “appropriating” the Holocaust – as if anyone could own that.

children readingOne of the goals of diverse fiction is to allow all readers, especially young ones, to find people like themselves in books. But another is to allow readers to experience lives very different from their own, to see through the eyes of characters different from themselves. Diverse fiction expands the reader’s world, dissolves barriers and promotes empathy. Stories transcend boundaries in their origins as well as in their effect on readers. Writers are most fairly judged on how well they succeed, not on what they attempt.

The Remedy

Publishers, writers and readers all have a role to play in creating a more diverse pool of literature.

Publishers are the ultimate gatekeepers, which to my mind imposes a positive obligation to seek out and publish diverse literature, instead of taking refuge in notions like “niche readerships.” Designations like that can result in lowered expectations and consequently less support.

rainbow-157845_640Writers need to broaden their spectrum. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean stick to your own backyard. It means doing what actors do: finding a commonality with diverse characters and working outward from that common core. Of course, writers need to populate their stories with characters appropriate to the plot and setting;  I’m just saying they shouldn’t automatically default to the writer’s own race and gender. If you have a group of kids in the story, why not put one in a wheelchair? Why not mix it up a bit racially? Why not give one of the characters two Dads instead of a Mom and a Dad? That level of diversification can in itself be effective; and it needn’t be the focus of the story unless the writer wants it to be.

Readers need to seek out and support excellent diverse books, and by support I mean buy, review, discuss and recommend. Reading endless variations of genre books may be comforting, but it’s mac and cheese for the soul. We need to challenge ourselves more. Ursula Le Guin once said that, “First sentences are doors to worlds.” Readers are adventurers by nature. With so many worlds to explore, why limit ourselves to Planet Vanilla?