Boost Your Creativity with a Smile

By Monica Di Santi

Humor, which is the ability to find a comic or amusing quality in a situation, action or group of ideas, can help you not only to laugh and have fun, but it can be a great tool to help you harvest new ideas, overcome writer’s block and improve your craft.

To be creative, you have to break routine and take renewed approaches to writing, and one way to do so is to loosen up your mind with humor. Browsing  comics, reading funny captions, and writing your own jokes will help you relax and produce a good piece of writing.

What is laughter?

Laughter is a psychological response to humor that brings you physical and mental benefits, and sharing a joke produces an immediate social bond, showing you feel comfortable in that environment.

Scientists believe laughter makes you healthier because it lowers blood pressure and increases the oxygenation of our blood. Laughter also provides us with a natural process to cope with hard stressful situations and negative emotions, and it brings you mental comfort and well being. Laughter is associated with play and that’s why children laugh much more than grown-ups.

Laughter is a spontaneous reaction to a comic or absurd situation that is provoked by a real situation or a story you have read, and it’ll make you belly-laugh if you see yourself, your profession, a friend, or a spouse in that ludicrous situation.

How to Write Jokes, Riddles and Tongue Twisters

To unblock your mind, read some jokes and become familiar with them. You’ll relax and open up your mind to creativeness, and if you bear in mind that you should write about what you know, it would be easy to write jokes about your profession, your parenthood, or any area of expertise you have.

There are several ways to write jokes, but you’ll read only a few here, as the purpose of this article is not to instruct you to master the art of writing jokes but to use humor to be more creative.

1. Be unexpected.

When you read a joke, the set-up premise shows you an ordinary situation you are familiar with, and you automatically associate that idea with other logical ideas anticipating what’s coming (this is what you always do when you read), but then you reach the punch line, which makes you relate the first premise to an illogical conclusion or a minor detail you haven’t thought of. For example:

First Premise

On Monday morning, an editor told his staff writers, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have enough money to publish all the articles.”

You anticipate the next premise by applying your logical thoughts, so you connect bad news with something going wrong in the company, but then you read:

Second premise

“The bad news is that they (the articles) are still out there in other writers’ minds.”

And this makes you laugh because it surprises you.

2. Play with words.

To write riddles, think of a word related to the writing world — let’s say “reader” — and write down some meanings, synonyms, related ideas and homophones, like “reeder.” Then ask a question whose logical answer is the homophone reeder.

Example: Why do writers enjoy visiting textile factories?

You can’t find a reason why a writer should enjoy going to such a place unless he or she is writing a book about that. So you give up.

The answer is:  Because they love to meet the reeders. This word sounds like the original word (reader) and as it is out of context, the joke can make writers smile.

3. Ask a question and think of a ridiculous, goofy answer.

How can a writer beat a writer’s block? The logical answer that comes to your mind is doing something different, going for a walk, paging at different magazines, attending a conference but you never expect an answer such as “With a hammer,” because it’s ridiculous and it’s using the word block in another sense.

4. Trigger people’s curiosity.

Why do writers like to travel? This question intrigues you and you’ll think of logical answers such as visiting exotic places, meeting new people, collecting new idea, experience new situations. Then comes the answer, “Because they get to book the hotel rooms.” The joke plays with the two meanings of the word “book.”

5. Use common information your audience can easily recognize.

“What kind of pain can a writer have?” The question misleads your thoughts as you think about the writer’s body and diseases. Then the answer provides common information all writers will recognize immediately though it’s used out of context: “Rejection-ache.”

6. Create a fun comparison.

A self-published writer behaves like a teen rebel who likes to go his own way, no matter what his parents say.

7. Write a twister; choose two or three words that sound alike and combine them in such a way that the statement you create turns it difficult to say quickly and correctly.

Writers have the right to write about what they think is right to write but after they write, they lose the rights on what they write right away.

Where Can You Use These Techniques?

These techniques help you stretch your brain and reach a playful state of mind, boosting your creativity via humor. They train you to think about the unexpected and look at things from different perspectives. Some applications of these procedures are:

  • To brainstorm ideas beyond the logical connections
  • To create expectancy and surprise in your text
  • To approach a subject from a different point of view
  • To create a twist at the end of the story
  • To write catchy phrases
  • To turn sharp thoughts into inoffensive statements.

Advantages

These exercises come in little chunks so they can be done any place, any time. So, whenever you have spare minutes, try’these techniques. And as you can go from beginning to end in a short time, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that makes you feel satisfied.

Let’s relax with these jokes for writers:

1. God creates people for free but writers do it for money.

2. Which is the difference between a beginner writer and an established one?  The first one doesn’t know whether he has to write “it’s” or “its.” The established one doesn’t care. The editor will check it.

3. A beginner writer says to a friend, “I followed the editor’s advice but my work hasn’t improved at all.”
“What did you do?”
“I wrote ten copies of my work.”
“Ten copies? Was that editor nuts? What did he tell you exactly?”
“Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”

4. Many a times a best-seller starts as a bet-seller.

5. “So you got published but not paid?” asked a man to his writer friend.
“Yeah, but I got my first CLIP.”
“A clip?  Are you about to open a stationery store?”

6. If you’re a regular person you have a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job, have a regular pay and pay your bills regularly. If you’re a writer you have regular writer’s block, regular free time, and regular debts.

7. A fan said to the writer who was signing a book, “I love the title of your book. It’s so thought-provoking.” “Thank you,” answered the writer as he thought, “That was the editor’s idea.”

8. When you publish your book with a POD you become a Prisoner Of a Dream.

9. Where do writers go to ski?
To the slush pile.

10. The writer’s husband looks at his empty fridge in dismay, confused because his wife just came back from the market.  “Sorry, honey,” she says.  “I got writer’s block when I was working on the grocery list.”

Conclusion

You won’t develop new approaches if you stick to routine. Try some humor.  Stop playing safe and challenge yourself. Write some jokes for fun!

Sources

Bob Baker. Ignite Your Creative Passion. Spotlight Publication, 2000.

By Adler, Rosenfeld and Towne. Interplay: The Process of Interpersonal Communication. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, .

Flora Davis. Non-verbal Communication.

Monica Di Santi has been published by Faces, The Canadian Writer’s Journal, Inkspot, Writing World, the Institute of Children’s Literature, and Working As A Family, among other publications. She’s a full member of the SCBWI

The Healing Journey of Journaling: Madness, Rapture and Angst

By Julia Rosien

Women in conflict with the law have taught me more about my own journals than any book or motivational speaker ever will. I teach journal writing at a federal prison for women. They write to heal. And their writing reflects a path filled with heartache, shame, courage, and for some, hope.

We gathered for the first time on a snowy afternoon in November. The wind pushed against the institutional windows as I wrapped my hands around my steaming coffee. I had just handed each woman a journal. Some leafed through the pages to read the quotes, while others nervously twirled a pen or munched on a bag of chips.

I pointed to a prompt I had written on the board and asked each woman to write it on the first page of their journal.

I am hopeful.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes,
knowing that from those remains comes
A new beginning.

Then I asked them to write a poem using that as a model. They could use a list of things to describe themselves and every sixth line had to begin with I am. I sat back as they began to write. When we shared what we’d written, their descriptions of themselves surprised and delighted me. These women were bruised, but not broken.

Here are some of their words:

I am summer,
still as a steamy afternoon,
alive with promise,
the sky is mellow, like an vanilla cookie,
comforting, like my grandmother’s hug, my daughter’s warm hand.

I am a diamond,
a complicated pattern of emotions,
joy, grief, anger and love,
compressed into a perfect, admired jewel,
sparkling and priceless.

I am navigating solo through my life,
the space between sinner and saved,
so much like my other
of a lifetime ago.
similar on the surface, changed inside,
learning the ropes, getting burned, but holding on…

I am hopeful.

Permission to Enter, Please

Each woman stood at a doorway. Some walked through, eager to begin their journey of self-discovery. Others hovered, waiting for guidance. One woman locked her emotional door and left the class. She thought the demons behind that door were just too huge and too powerful to conquer.

My doors differ from a fellow teacher’s doors and from our students’ doors, but they exist. Some people swear they don’t harbor “emotional baggage”; they bury it in a place no one can touch. Instead of the ground though, they’ve buried it behind that door. Each time something terrible happens it gets shoved “in there.” And another padlock is added to that door, until its weight bears the soul down.

I began journaling again during a severe depression. I retreated to my journals to heal, to find a way to live my life with happiness and purpose. Writing created a bridge between my past and the future, between my fear and courage. I soon realized I possessed everything all writers have—paper, pen, language, my mind. I required no special talent, skills or experience—only a willingness to explore my despair and my ecstasy.

Looking back through the journals I’ve kept throughout my life, I wonder about that girl who wrote of her life in melodramatic prose. Her first journal entry is at twelve years old and her letters sit like fat little balls of dough on the lines. At sixteen her free-spirited strokes glide across the page like sails on a boat. Sometimes though, her writing resembles a soul searching desperately for a body as her words trail down the sides and across the bottom. It’s as if she’s afraid she’ll run out of time and forget what it was that was so important. Nothing is written in passive tones; it’s all emotion and angst and tears.

Journal writing is not second nature though, and there have been times in my life that I’ve reduced it to a luxury, something I only do when I have time. But I’ve learned self-care is anything but luxury. Self-nurturing provides the foundation for a fulfilling life. Journaling can be a vital component of that journey.

Moving Beyond

Each of us has unique stories to tell, yet we shy away. When we write to express our feelings, we often censor our true thoughts. When the raw truth puckers our taste buds, we deny the specifics rather than confronting them head-on. Perhaps telling it like it is, rather than how we wish it to be, is not so easy. Editing our words, or sugar-coating the truth, makes swallowing easier.

journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth.

Perhaps you’ve thought of writing, but the time didn’t feel right. Or maybe you thought you didn’t have anything to say, or felt that you couldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard). But journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth. Your words, the color of ink, the slant of your handwriting, and the doodling (or lack of it) makes these stories uniquely your own. There are no deadlines, grades or judgments. Only you determine the start and finish.

Your stories, like fingerprints, memories, emotions and way of processing information make you unique. Dressed up truth is like donning gardening gloves when you’d really rather just stick your hands in the cool, dark earth.

If you can’t delve into the garden with both hands, try using a shovel first, working on the border. Instead of stepping into the middle with a shovel, sit on the edge and examine each event in your life as you would examine a weed or a flower. Write about what you saw one day, what you felt the next. Take baby steps. Remind yourself that expressing your story without censorship is necessary and beneficial.

When you’re ready, take off your gloves. Give yourself permission to bleed and then heal.

We are not who we present to the world, but a complicated tapestry of emotions, experiences and beauty that can’t be realized with a cursory glance. Like the underside of a tapestry, our journals reveal the loose threads of life, the knots and lumps. Looking below helps us understand, even years later. Maybe our journals are more of a guide than anything else. They help us navigate our lives, and maybe they’ll help others understand us after death.

They’ll be our defense and our alibi. They’ll be our secrets, our lies and our truths.

Write it by yourself, for yourself.
Write for your loved ones, your children, your parents, and your significant other.
Write for someone not born yet.

Here are a few suggestions for rediscovering you within your journal:

1. Make Sense of Pain

Write down your traumatic experience using your five senses and your feelings. Keep writing until it becomes less painful and loses its power to hurt you. If you have a chronic or life-threatening illness, for example, a journal can be the perfect place for you to discover your inner strength.

2. Take Control of Your Life

Instead of worrying, turn to your journal. Draw a line down the center of the page. On the left side list what worries you and on the right side list what steps will help you resolve the issue.

3. Stay Focused and Motivated

Whether you are trying to reach a weight loss goal, a financial dream, a spiritual plateau, or an educational aspiration, use your journal to log your progress.

4. Use Your Journal to Practice Positive Thinking

Taking time to list at least one thing you give thanks for. Finding and focusing on at least one positive thing in your life makes it hard to paint your whole world black.

5. Make Scribbling in Your Journal A Happy Habit

Pick a comfortable spot with minimal distractions and try to write for at least 15–20 minutes a day, depending on the subject. A log-type journal requires daily entries while major life issues are best dealt with if you write for a few days in a row.

Julia Rosien wields her pen for newspapers, international magazines and various on-line venues. She teaches creative writing at a women’s penitentiary, and at community college. Words she tries to live by: “Happiness is a way of life, not a destination.” You can find Julia Rosien at her website

Record-keeping for Your Sanity

By Jan Weeks

I eased into freelancing while teaching middle school. Back then, record-keeping for tracking expenses and income was easy. I just added my meager writing pay to my form 1040 and filed it with my W2 from my regular job. Then I started submitting and selling more, and suddenly all those scraps of paper with mileage and expenses written on them that piled up on my desk from January through December took on a demonic life of their own, and my accountant advised me that I was cheating myself out of legitimate deductions because of poor record-keeping.

I tried using columnar pads meant for bookkeepers for record-keeping but they didn’t help me track all the things I needed to. I tried keeping separate spreadsheets on my computer but couldn’t remember where I filed them. Phone bills disappeared before I could separate the business calls from the personal ones. Editorial contacts, daily word counts, and other important information served as lunch for the labs and tabbies; at least I couldn’t find them when I needed them and had to resort to “Gee, I think I talked to you about a month ago” when contacting editors. I’ve always been organized in hard copy (my favorite birthday present was color-coded file folders) but if it didn’t go in a metal drawer immediately, it was gone for good.

Through 20 years of writing, I’ve refined my record-keeping to three simple systems: an all-purpose Excel spreadsheet, a phone log, and a store-bought daybook. Now I can keep track of everything my CPA and the IRS will ever need to know. Here’s my record-keeping system.

Use a Spreadsheet for Record-keeping

Nine columns tell me and my accountant who, what, where, when, and why:

Image of a nine column spreadsheet for record keeping
Spreadsheet for your records

This format allows me to sort information by category, know when and where I sent queries (abbreviated “?” on the sheet), how much it cost to send, how much I earned, and if a submission was accepted. What more do I need to know? If I wanted to, I could add columns for the publication name, address, and editor’s name, but I already have that information on the query or cover letter, which I file as a Word document, and in my daybook. After I post my expenses, the receipts go directly into a “2005 Writing Receipts” file in my desk drawer. My record-keeping means no more searching for bits of paper.

A code system lets me arrange information quickly at the end of the year, and I don’t have to manually sort data. My codes looks like this:

  1. Postage (Anything that goes USPS, UPS, or FedEx)
  2. Office Supplies (Paper, ink, toner, paper clips, etc.)
  3. Utilities (Phone, lights, Internet server)
  4. Equipment (Computer, printer, etc.)
  5. Travel Expenses (Meals, lodging — I use the standard mileage deduction, so I don’t keep track of gas purchases.)
  6. Professional Development (Writer’s magazine subscriptions, conferences, workshops, etc.)
  7. Photo Supplies (Camera, film, developing)
  8. Income (My favorite!)
  9. Mileage (To and from interviews, research trips, book readings/signings)
  10. Charitable Contributions (What I’d charge if I was paid for editing the church newsletter or writing the press release for a charity bake sale)
  11. Electronic Submissions (Everything e-mailed to an editor: queries, articles)

Postage record-keeping is a little tricky: I don’t enter the amount I shell out for a roll of stamps, because adding that in will inflate my postage expenses. Instead, I trust the IRS (which may be a huge mistake) to understand that a query letter won’t go anywhere without a stamp. I enter the cost of mailing each piece into the spreadsheet as it goes out. If I add proof-of-delivery or other special postage to the envelope, I get a receipt and add that both to the cost of mailing that piece and to my receipt file.

On January 1, I sort the spreadsheet by category, insert a couple of lines below each category, subtotal each category (if money’s involved), and then enter formulas that let me calculate my total income and total expenses. Within an hour, I have the information printed out and on its way to the accountant, which frees up a lot of energy to use on something besides dreading the April 15 deadline.

The Phone Log

The second form I use for record-keeping is a phone log. I don’t have a long distance carrier; instead, I use a prepaid phone card to make business calls. I enter the price of the card in my spreadsheet, then track each call made on a phone log, in case the IRS ever wants documentation of that expense. Since I use my office phone only for business, I record my regular Qwest bill under Utilities in my spreadsheet. If your phone service includes long distance charges, enter them into the spreadsheet as expenses. Get into the habit of recording each call when it’s made, and you’ll have info-at-a-glance if you need to know when you contacted an agent or client.

Image of a spread sheet containing a phone log
Phone log

The Daybook for record-keeping

My preprinted daybook (free from a local savings and loan company) contains monthly, weekly, and daily calendars, which have plenty of room for notes and appointments. In it I keep track of my daily word count, monthly writing goals, to-do lists, and any other notes about writing, such as contest deadlines, websites, and frequently called business phone numbers. Conversations and confirmations get noted, as well as submissions and business appointments. An adjunct to my daybook is transparent business card pockets from the discount store that fit into the same three-ring binder I use for my phone log and hold all the cards I collect.

Even though you’re a creative free spirit, earmark an hour to think like a business owner. Set up your spreadsheet and print your phone log, and you’ll be able to let your cursor do the walking to any record you need. Your tax preparer will love you, your desk will be neater, and you’ll have more time to do what you love: Write.

Jan Weeks is a freelance writer/editor currently living in western Colorado. She wrote her first “book” at age eight; she published her first novel at — well, later. Her articles, poetry, and short stories have appeared in literary journals, newspapers, and regional and national magazines. 

Writer Beware: Sharks in the Literary Waters

By Victoria Strauss

There are sharks out there in the literary waters. 

Be wary: literary deceptions abound, from fee-charging agents to dishonest book doctors to fraudulent subsidy publishers to fake contests. Some of them are staggeringly successful. Edit Ink, for instance, a book doctoring firm that engaged in a kickback scheme with disreputable literary agents, and established its own bogus agencies to send yet more business its way, made millions of dollars before writers and writers’ groups finally blew the whistle. The owners of Edit Ink have been indicted, and ordered to pay massive fines as well as reparations to the writers they defrauded. But the vast majority of literary frauds go unpublicized and unpunished, leaving unscrupulous individuals free to deprive unsuspecting writers not just of their cash, but of their hopes and dreams. The good news is that you can protect yourself. Below are some tips and resources to help you be wary.

When You Should Be Suspicious

If a literary agent requires an up-front fee. 

This means a fee of any kind: reading, submission, contract, processing, or anything else. Up-front fees are absolutely not legitimate. Reputable agents make money solely from commissions on the sale of literary properties. Anything else is non-standard practice, no matter what you may hear.

Fee-charging violates the basic premise of the author-agent relationship: a shared financial interest in the sale of the author’s manuscript to a royalty-paying publisher. If an agent makes money right off the bat, his/her interest has been served, but the writer’s hasn’t. This is where the problem arises. Since a profit has already been made, the incentive to submit to a legitimate publisher is diminished. In fact, many fee-charging agents — some of whom have hundreds of paying clients — never bother to send out manuscripts at all. With writers becoming more educated about reading fees, questionable agents are increasingly taking to calling their up-front fees something else. For instance, you may be asked to pay a “marketing” or “submission” fee — supposedly, a share of the office expenses required to sell your manuscript. This is no more legitimate than a reading fee. While many reputable agents do pass on certain non-routine expenses to their clients (courier fees, extra galleys, overseas phone calls and the like), they do so after the fact, not up-front. And reputable agents absorb basic office expense as part of normal business overhead. They’ll never charge you for things like paper goods, local phone calls, or routine photocopying. Alternatively, you may be asked to pay an “evaluation” fee. In this version of the up-front fee, you’re promised not just a reading, but a critique. Once again, this is not legitimate. Reputable agents don’t double as paid editors. If they think they can get your manuscript published they’ll accept you, if not they’ll reject you; either way, they won’t charge you for their opinion. (These quickie critiques are rarely worthwhile, anyway. Most are worded so generally they could apply to any manuscript, or are padded with generic “how-to” advice.)

If a publisher offers you a contract that requires you to bear all or part of the cost of publication.

Such contracts are known as subsidy, joint-venture, or co-op contracts. Supposedly, what you pay is only a portion of the publication cost; the publisher kicks in the rest, and in addition provides warehousing, marketing, and distribution services. In reality, most subsidy publishers charge inflated prices that not only cover the whole cost of producing a book, but generate fat profits for the publisher. Such publishers routinely renege on their marketing and distribution promises (and even if they try to fulfill them, subsidy publishing is so poorly-regarded that it’s unlikely that booksellers or critics will be interested). Books may be shoddily-made, with badly-printed covers or missing pages. Subsidy publishers may also lie about print runs: you may think you’ve paid for 2,500 books, but in reality only the 100 copies you were given to distribute to friends and reviewers were ever printed. Subsidy publishers frequently pitch themselves to new writers by saying that the risk involved in publishing an unknown makes cost-sharing necessary, and it’s normal for new writers get their start this way. Don’t believe it. The new writers getting a start are those published by advance-paying publishers willing to put editing and marketing dollars behind their product. Subsidy-published books are not regarded as genuine publishing credits.

Subsidy publishing isn’t confined to print. An increasing number of electronic publishers offer pay-to-publish services. They’re much cheaper than print subsidy publishers, and less likely to be fraudulent (though they are, often, deceptive in billing themselves as self-publishing services). But subsidy publishing is subsidy publishing, in print or online: you’ll face the same difficulties with marketing, recognition, and respect.

If an agent or publisher refers you to a service for which you have to pay. 

The basic idea behind the quest for publication is for the writer to make money. If instead the writer is asked to pay, there’s something fishy going on.If you’re referred to a specific outside service — a book doctor, for instance — it’s likely that a kickback arrangement is involved. Either the agent or publisher has been promised a fee for each referral, or s/he receives a percentage of what you pay for the service (Edit Ink, mentioned above, is a good example of this). Some subsidy publishers also engage in kickback schemes, offering agents a finder’s fee for each client they persuade to accept a pay-to-publish contract. Sometimes the agency or publisher itself will own the service to which you’re referred, which enables them to make an even bigger profit from your use of it. For instance, a publisher may own a fee-charging literary agency, which is recommended to writers who send in manuscripts. Or a literary agency may run a separate editing branch, to which rejected manuscripts are routinely referred. An agency may even own a subsidy publishing company, into which clients are funneled once they’ve racked up enough rejections to become desperate.

Be wary, therefore, of any agent or publisher that also runs a paid service — even if you’re not referred to it. There’s a serious conflict of interest inherent in such arrangements, and they are an open invitation to abuse. How can a referral that makes a profit for the referrer really be trusted? And how can a writer have confidence in an agent or publisher who is willing to support him/herself by such profits?

If you’re asked to buy something as a condition of publication.

Occasionally, unethical publishers attempt to duck the subsidy label by shifting their charges to something other than printing. For instance, you may be required to purchase a large number of books for “promotional” purposes. Or you may be told that the publisher doesn’t have a big budget for publicity, so you must hire a publicity firm (from a list the publisher provides, of course). On the surface, this may sound more legitimate than a straight pay-to-publish contract. But the bottom line is that you’re still paying to see your book in print.

Be wary of poetry and short story “anthologies” that require writers to purchase the anthology in order to be included. These vanity anthologies often solicit business via a faux contest, in which just about everyone who submits becomes a semi-finalist. Some companies also bombard writers with offers for expensive extras, such as having a poem mounted on a plaque, or having a story made into an audiotape, or buying membership in an authors’ registry maintained by the company.

Because vanity anthologies employ no editorial screening, publish anyone who is willing to pay, and never see the inside of a bookstore or library, they aren’t considered a genuine literary market. As with a subsidy-published book, inclusion in an anthology will not count as a professional writing credit.

If you’re solicited.

Reputable agents and publishers are overwhelmed with submissions, and have no reason to look for more. In general, the only people who actively solicit writers’ business are those who want to fleece them. Some questionable agents, publishers, and book doctors purchase subscription lists from writers’ magazines. Others solicit writers who register their copyrights. Still others cruise writers’ forums and bulletin boards on the Internet: be wary of submission requests from agents or editors you’ve never heard of.

On a related note: reputable agents and publishers rarely advertise. Beware of ads you see online, or in the backs of writers’ magazines.

If reasonable requests for information are refused. 

It’s your right to ask an agent or publisher about contract terms, commissions, marketing, distribution, and so on. Reputable agents and publishers are glad to answer, since they have nothing to hide. Questionable agents and publishers, on the other hand, have quite a lot to hide, and are often very reluctant to provide information. Be especially wary of the agent who tells you that his/her sales list is confidential. Reputable agents are proud of their track records, and will have no problem giving you this information. An agent who refuses to do so is probably trying to conceal something, such as the fact that s/he’s never sold a book to a legitimate publisher.

If there’s a double standard 

An agent may tell you that she usually charges a reading fee, but because your query was so terrific, she’ll read your manuscript for free. Or a publisher may tell you that, while it usually enters into traditional advance-and-royalty contracts, for new authors it offers a special joint venture deal. Or a book doctor may tell you that he usually charges $5.00 per page, but if you send in your manuscript right away, he’ll give you a 20% discount. Don’t be fooled; be wary. You aren’t receiving special treatment, just a calculated marketing pitch. The agent thinks that if she makes you feel you’re getting a freebie on the reading, you’ll be more likely to pay the $500 marketing fee she plans to ask for later on. The publisher thinks that if you believe it’s a legitimate small press, you’ll be more likely to go for the expensive subsidy contract, which is probably the only kind it offers. The book doctor thinks that if you’re convinced you’re getting a bargain, you’ll be more likely to make a quick decision to purchase his editing services — which only cost $4 per page to begin with. Reputable agents, publishers, and editors don’t employ double standards or issue discounts. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

be wary if you encounter any of the following:

Rudeness or chastisement
Especially in response to requests for information. Questionable agents especially are fond of browbeating writers who ask too many questions.
Extravagant praise and/or promises
Reputable agents, publishers, and book doctors don’t indulge in hyperbole — at least not to unknown authors — and they know better than to make guarantees.
A claim to specialize in new or unpublished writers
There are exceptions, but agents and publishers who are actively searching for new writers are usually doing so because new writers’ inexperience makes them easier to defraud.
Correspondence and other official documents containing typos, grammatical errors, and the like
This may sound obvious, but a publishing professional should be able to write correctly. It’s amazing how many questionable agents, publishers, and book doctors send out correspondence or maintain websites full of such mistakes.
For agents: if they don’t maintain membership in the Association of Authors Representatives (AAR).
AAR membership guarantees that the agent has been in business for at least 18 months, and has made a minimum of 10 sales to legitimate publishers; it also prohibits reading fees, referral fees, and other abuses. Most successful, top-selling U.S. agents are members of AAR. Non-membership doesn’t necessarily mean that an agent isn’t reputable — some agencies are too new to qualify, or have other reasons for not joining. However, you’ll be safest if you focus your agent search on AAR members.
For book doctors:
The statement that manuscripts must be professionally edited before a publisher will look at them. A reputable book doctor won’t make such a statement, for the simple reason that it isn’t true. Your manuscript needs to be finished, properly formatted, and as polished as it can be, but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish this yourself.
For publishers:
If there’s a reading fee. As with literary agents, no reputable publisher will ever charge you to read or submit your manuscript. Last but not least: remember the cardinal rule of writing. Money flows toward the writer, not away. The only place you should ever sign a check is on the back! Be wary about payment demands for services.

Resources to Help You Protect Yourself

Writer Beware http://www.sfwa.org/beware/
I maintain this website-within-a-website for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There’s more detail on each of the issues discussed above, plus links to many online resources.

Absolute Write’s Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check

E-mail Writer Beware beware@sfwa.org
Writer Beware staff have collected documentation on more than 250 agents and publishers who engage in the practices identified above. Send us a name, and we will research it for you.

Association of Authors Representatives
This website hosts a list of AAR members.

Publishers Weekly Online http://www.publishersweekly.com/
Knowledge is your best defense. Publishers Weekly is an excellent source of information on all aspects of the publishing business.

Examples of the Schemes Discussed Above

Edit Ink
The whole Edit Ink story.

The Case of the Woodside Literary Agency
A fee-charging literary agency that fought back when writers blew the whistle.

Management Alternatives
The story of Commonwealth Publications, a now-bankrupt subsidy publisher that’s being sued by the writers it defrauded.

The Deering Literary Agency
A fee-charging literary agency that owned a subsidy publishing company, and took millions of dollars from writers who never saw their books in print.

The National Library of Poetry Page
The National Library is the largest of the vanity anthology companies.

—VS
©1999 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is the author of nine novels, including SF and Fantasy, and YA, and is a co-found of SFWA’s Writer Beware, the publishing industry watchdog group.

Dry Dock: When Real Life Takes Writers Ashore

By Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

To set things straight, I am not a writer who suffers from writer’s block. Yes, the occasional lull passes through me and I feel stymied, but writer’s block is not my issue — real life is. Since becoming a writer, I have seen patterns emerge that interfere with my writing life; those life events that fall into our paths regardless of our professions, circumstances we must tend to which take us away from writing.  Yet, I have come to see these periods not as fallow, empty or unproductive, but as quiet times, absorbing times, periods when we come out of the water — as a ship in dry dock — while we take care of life’s responsibilities.

All of us experience low points in life and make the necessary adjustments to cope with these challenges. Writers are no different. When crises hit, we too, must take time away from our work to find solutions or tend to issues that hopefully are short-lived, but can be chronic and ongoing. We’re lucky if it’s simply a plumbing problem, but often it is taking care of an aging parent or tending to a sick child.  What’s important to realize is that these times away from our writing are not really “lost” times, they are simply periods that are dormant, because they must be, as we turn our attentions off the page and to the problems at hand. Though we are not actively writing, we are collecting images, documenting events, and absorbing our life circumstances to use in future writing.

Being in dry dock allows us to take in life, deal with the concrete nuts and bolts of it, and then get back into the water — the writing life — with a renewed depth and a broader range of material from which to draw upon. I have come to resist these quiet times less, as I realize that almost on a daily basis something happens which takes me away from my writing, whether it’s a family concern, a load of laundry or even a phone call from a friend.

As all writers know, our need to produce constantly and regularly is almost obsessive — perhaps even uncontrollable — yet we must allow ourselves to be freed from this strong need in order to attend to the practical aspects of daily living. We must believe in ourselves and in our capabilities. We must know that we can indeed, retrieve our words and thoughts at a future time to write about them when life is not pulling at us so vehemently. If we wrestle with this dilemma, then we are wrestling with ourselves, for life will continue to happen, regardless of our being writers.

I recently had an illness and found myself in bed for three days — nowhere near my computer.  I actually didn’t miss being in my office because my focus was on getting better; writing was simply at the bottom of my list. Yes, I was conjuring stories and articles in my feverish delirium, but I didn’t have a compulsion to get up and write. I tried to have trust in myself that these inspirations would reappear at a later time if I were meant to write about them. I think this is why writers are at times so tormented; perhaps we feel that if we don’t write, right now, it will all evaporate and be lost forever. Though pens and notebooks are great companions, we must trust in our ability to retrieve our words.

We are the captains of our own ships and we can choose to remain at the helm when in water, or when in dry dock. Life will continue to infiltrate our writing time and we can continue to resist it, unless we look at these breaks as times of gathering. Even though our fingers are not at the keyboard, if we are open to the experiences falling into our paths then we can use what we have learned for better writing in the days ahead. This is when we can incorporate the range of emotions and circumstances we have collected . . . until we sail once again to the open seas, as writers filled with bounty.

Sarojni Mehta-Lissak is a poet, fiction and freelance writer.  Her work has appeared in Wild Violet, The Birthkit Newsletter, Midwifery Today, FamilyTravelFun.com and Moondance.org. She has a website

Profit Vs. Pleasure: IRS Rules Strict on Losses

By Julian Block

Those obliging folks at the IRS allow write-offs to ease the pain for losses you suffer in ventures entered into make “profits.” But long-standing rules disallow deductions for losses incurred in pursuing “hobbies.”

Because of that distinction, the feds program their computers to bounce returns that show full-time salaries and other sources of income offset by losses from sideline undertakings that turn out to be hobbies — writing, photography, and painting, to cite just some of the activities that are likely to draw the attention of the tax collectors.

How do IRS examiners determine whether your intention is to turn a business profit from, say, your writing — or just to have fun? They get their cues from Internal Revenue Code Section 183, which provides guidelines on how to distinguish between a hobby and a business. To take advantage of Section 183, you have to establish a profit motive.

To cut down on disputes, the law presumes that you are engaging in a business rather than a hobby — with the IRS as partner who is entitled to a portion of your profits — as long as you have a net profit in any three out of the last five consecutive years. Net profit is IRS-speak for an excess of receipts over expenses. (By the way, Congress, in its wisdom, decided that writers and the like are not as deserving as individuals involved in the breeding, training, showing, or racing of horses. It conferred an easier standard on the latter: two out of seven years).

So, usually, not to worry when you have at least three profitable years during the last four. Satisfy that stipulation and you are entitled to fully deduct your expenses this year, even if this is a loss year.

A QUESTION OF “PROFIT”

What if you have red ink in more than two out of five years?  A much misunderstood point is that flunking the three-out-of-five test is not fatal. You still can establish that you conduct a “for-profit” business, provided you pass an IRS “facts and circumstances” test.

These are some of the circumstances that the IRS takes into account in determining your intention to make a profit:

  • The way you conduct your writing activities — for instance, membership in writers’ organizations.
  • How much time and effort you expend in the conduct of your writing career. The burden of proof to establish that is on you, not the IRS. To back up your deductions, in the event of an audit, save such records as queries to publishers and programs from writers’ conferences. Note, too, that employment full time in some other field (as is the case with most freelancers) does not trigger an IRS refusal to classify you as a professional writer.
  • Your success in carrying on other business endeavors.
  • The amount of occasional profits, if any, that are earned.
  • The elements of personal pleasure or recreation.
  • Your history of income or losses from writing. In particular, is there a string of losses?

Your activity has to be real work; you can not use a hobby that has no income and lots of expenses to offset other income. If you want to write the Great American Novel and have been at it 30 years, if there is no income, there are no deductions.

Copyright ©2004 Julian Block. All rights reserved

Julian Block is a syndicated columnist, attorney and former IRS investigator who has been cited by the New York Times as “a leading tax professional” and by the Wall Street Journal as an “accomplished writer on taxes.” This article is excerpted from his Tax Tips For Freelance Writers, Photographers And Artists. His publication covers key changes introduced by the 2003 tax act, shows how to save truly big money on taxes — legally — and explains the steps you should take to reduce taxes for this year and even gain a head start for future years. Julian Block has a website. His books are available on Amazon.

Contract Basics: Read This Before You Sign on the Dotted Line!

By Jodi Brandon

Hurrah — your book proposal or your magazine query has been accepted, and a contract is on its way. “Great,” you say enthusiastically to your agent or editor, even though you’re thinking, I don’t know how the heck to read a contract!

Don’t panic. Perhaps the most common misconception among writers—especially new writers—is that contracts aren’t negotiable. Certainly some clauses aren’t, but I bet you’ll be surprised to learn that many are. You can’t negotiate what doesn’t exist, though—on paper. Do oral contracts count? Maybe. When it’s your word versus that of a publishing house (big or small), having the legality on paper is definitely to the author’s advantage. Let’s get started.

Book Contracts

Book contracts can certainly be daunting. All those pages, all that legalese. Even if you have an agent and/or a lawyer (and we’ll get to them shortly), my opinion is that it’s not a bad idea to familiarize yourself with the basics.

Keep this question in the back of your mind: Who writes the contract? The publisher’s lawyers. It goes without saying, then, that if the contract is going to favor one party over another or be more advantageous to one party, it’s not going to be you, the author.

Now about those agents and lawyers. Both are valuable, and both probably have more experience reading contracts than you do. Is one of these “experts” better than the other? An agent’s job involves dealings with publishing houses every day. He or she has read and negotiated many contracts. He or she is familiar with various publishing houses’ standard contracts. Furthermore, it’s in an agent’s best interest to get you, as his or her client, a good deal. (Don’t forget that he or she works on commission!)

If your contract is with a smaller publishing house and/or you don’t have an agent, absolutely have a lawyer take a look at your contract. Publishing law is a specialty that many lawyers choose, so look for someone who has the expertise you’re looking for.

Now for the meat of the contract itself. Publishing experts disagree about what the most important element/clause of the contract is. Some say it’s the royalty rate, some the rights clauses, some the option clause, and so on. Let’s take a look at some of these critical clauses.

Royalty/Advance

Your advance is the amount of money the publisher pays you up front. Authors get a portion (generally half) of the advance when they sign the contract and the rest when their final manuscript is accepted. The real term is advance against royalties. That means you won’t see a penny in royalty money until your advance has earned out. Publishing lawyer Jonathan Kirsch, in his books Kirsch’s Guide to the Book Contract, likens the advance to “a prepayment of royalties.”

So which is more advantageous to an author: a large advance or a generous royalty rate? It depends. How sure are you that your book will earn out its advance? Many, many books — unfortunately—do not, which might make a larger advance (read: up-front money) appealing.

Description of Work

You’ll find this clause early on in a contract, and you could miss it if you blink. Many agents attach the initial book proposal to the contract as an appendix. Therefore, instead of “Author shall deliver the Work (a complete, 50,000-word manuscript on editorial jobs at book publishing companies) on disk no later than June 1, 2002,” there’s a reference to the appendix. The idea is to leave no room for confusion over what you’re submitting versus what the publisher is buying.

Rights

You’ve got basic print rights, which aren’t negotiable (after all, you do want your book in print), as well as a slew of subsidiary rights — everything from foreign rights to book club rights to serial rights to film rights to…you get the idea. Sub rights are negotiable — insofar as which rights you’ll handle yourself (or your agent will handle) as well as the income split from sub rights sales.

A quick word about electronic rights merits mention. When many of today’s contracts were written, electronic rights basically meant that a book would be made into a CD-ROM. Oh, how times have changed. Now there are Wweb sites, e-zines, on-line libraries, and so on to deal with. As Jonathan Kirsch reminds us in Kirsch’s Guide to the Book Contract, “Electronic rights are still too new and changing too fast to allow for settled legal definitions.” The fact that there aren’t standard — or settled, as Mr. Kirsch says — definitions makes this clause an especially touchy one. Pay special attention to it to make sure you aren’t giving away anything you don’t want to (or aren’t aware of).

Manuscript Rejection

Somewhere in all that single-spaced fine print is a clause that gives the publisher the right to reject your manuscript if you don’t turn in what the publisher wants/expects. I previously mentioned attaching your initial proposal (or at least an outline) to your contract. This should prevent any confusion or questions about the content you’ve delivered.

Revisions

You don’t need a new contract if a revised edition of your book is being issued. Where this clause can get sticky is regarding the amount of revision required. Remember that when the time comes for you to make revisions (if the time comes), you’ll have moved on to other projects. Will you have the time — or the inclination — to devote to revising your book? It can be a fine line between extensive revisions and a new, updated edition — for which you’d be issued a new contract and a new advance.

Keep in mind that, as publishing lawyer Lloyd L. Rich notes, revision  clauses for fiction aren’t usually necessary.

Frontmatter/Backmatter

Make sure you’re clear about who’s responsible for providing (and obtaining permissions, if necessary) photographs, tables, charts, an index, appendices, a glossary, etc. Obtaining (or commissioning) these materials can be both time-consuming and costly. Know what you’re responsible for before signing the contract.

Option/Right-of-Refusal

If you can avoid an option and/or a right-of-refusal clause, say the experts, do so. An option clause gives your publisher the right to publish your next book. Brad Bunnin spells it out for writers in his book, The Writer’s Legal Companion, when he says “. . . neither the option nor the right-of-refusal clause does you — the author — any good. They buy you nothing; at the same time, they restrict your freedom to seek the best market for your book.”

Let’s assume your book did great: It continues to sell well, you landed an interview on Good Morning America (or Reading with Ripa, if that’s more your style), you’re still selling subsidiary rights left and right, and so on. Now you’ve got a new book ready to submit to a publisher. You’d be in a great bargaining position if it weren’t for that pesky option clause that was part of your first contract. That publisher now offers you the same terms. You’re much more marketable and bankable this time around, but you’re stuck. The option clause has come back from the past to haunt you.

If one is better than the other, the right-of-refusal clause is the one. The right-of-refusal clause allows your current publisher the first look at your next manuscript. You still want to avoid it if you can, but if it comes down to option or right-of-refusal, go with right-of-refusal.

Warranties, Representations, and Indemnities

These words are just plain scary, aren’t they? No matter how many times you see them on paper, and no matter how many times your agent assures you that you aren’t going to get sued (either individually or via your publishing house), they’re still scary. As an author agreeing to this clause, you’re basically saying to your publisher, “My book isn’t going to cause you any legal trouble, but if it does (whether the claim is true or not), I’ll be financially responsible for some (or all, depending on the specifics of your contract) of the costs.”

You might be thinking, No problem. No one could bring a claim against my book. I haven’t infringed on anyone’s copyright and I wasn’t libelous. But what if someone does? The clause doesn’t say a valid claim; it just says a claim. Whether you win the lawsuit or not, you’re still financially responsible. Surely you’re familiar with the recent publicity had by Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, two highly public and respected writers with regard to copyright issues.

In his book, Negotiating a Book Contract, Mark L. Levine recommends getting the indemnification clause to be free of the words claims and allegations. Certainly you’re responsible if a claim against you turns out to be true, but, Levine asserts, if someone merely claims that they [your representations or warranties] are wrong, but they are not, you should not have to reimburse the publisher; that is a risk the publisher properly takes as a business enterprise.

Here’s how you can at least partially protect yourself, because you’re not going to get these clauses removed from your contract. Publishing companies have insurance policies just like you and I do. Get yourself listed on that policy. Interestingly, the July 15, 2002 issue of Publishers Weekly cites that insurance companies are raising premiums and deductibles on policies involving copyright and libel. For example, according to the article, Random House’s deductible just went from $1,0 to $1 million. That’s quite an increase! In turn, Random House has announced that its authors will take a greater financial responsibility in the event of a lawsuit. Other publishers will surely follow Random’s lead. Stay tuned.

Magazine, Newspaper, and Web Contracts

The idea behind these contracts is the same as it is for book contracts, but the contracts themselves aren’t likely to be as lengthy or as cumbersome. Indeed, you could get a two-paragraph writer’s agreement serving as your contract. As long as the basics are covered (deadline, payment, and rights sold and retained), the length and format of the contract don’t matter.

With magazines, newspapers, and work for the web, you’re more likely to have a verbal agreement (than you are with a book deal). If you find yourself in this situation, make sure you follow up the conversation with a letter that outlines the terms discussed and agreed upon.

As book writers do, magazine, newspaper, and web writers have several rights that they can sell part and parcel. These include the right to publish in an anthology and foreign rights. Again: Be especially careful with electronic rights. As Moira Allen cautions in “Know Your E-Rights” (published in the August 2oo2 edition of The Writer), “Watch out for a contract that asks you to grant a publication the ‘nonexclusive right to distribute the material electronically.’” Allen also reminds writers that electronic rights are not necessarily included in FNASR (first North American serial rights), according to Tasini v. The New York Times (the milestone case for freelance writers). FNASR are what most writers are selling to magazine markets most often.

You’ll also sign the scary warranties and indemnities clause. The caution here is that it’s not standard practice for a magazine to put a writer’s name onto its insurance policy, if it has one. (You’ll remember that was the protection I recommended in the section on book contracts.)

Do your darndest to negotiate a kill fee in the event that a magazine, newspaper, or Web site changes its mind about publishing your article after signing an agreement with you. Once you’ve negotiated the kill fee, make sure it’s included as part of your contract.

Finally, I want to mention work-for-hire agreements briefly. The advice is simple: Avoid them if you can. By signing a work-for-hire, you’re handing over all rights to the publication (whether it be a book publisher, a magazine, a newspaper, or a web site or e-zine), including your copyright. This kind of agreement is clearly not in favor of the author—the one who’s done all the work to get the material written in the first place!

***

Navigating the maze of legalese that comes with getting a book deal or having an article published either in print or on the web can be tricky, but with the right tools—namely knowledge (and perhaps the assistance of a smart agent and/or lawyer) — you’re well on your way to a successful career as a published writer. Good luck!

You can learn more about Jodie Brandon on her Website.

Writers’ Resolutions for the Newly-Published—and the Yet-To-Be Published Alike

By Karyn Langhorne 

It’s that time of year again: the time of reassessment and reevaluation, renewal and revision.  In short, it’s time to resolve.

Since we’re all writers here, it seems appropriate to use this space to make some writing resolutions for 2005, resolutions that are true for me—and might also resonate for you as well. I’m writing them down here to solidify them for myself . . . and in the hope that the public confessional aspect will help me to stick to them better in the year ahead.

So here they are, my Top Three Writing Resolutions for 2005. Feel free to adopt as many as apply to you—and Happy New Year!

1. Let ’Em Live!

If you’re like me, you probably have a least a couple good ideas every day—and maybe more. Sadly, though, most of my good ideas die quick, brutal deaths. They should be killed off by editors, agents or publishers. But those folks never even see them, never even hear about them.

Why?

Because I kill my good ideas first . . . before anyone else can.

It may be only me, but I think writers get so used to rejection that we exercise a kind of “preemptory rejection process” or PRP.  PRP means that, in the speed of thought, we talk ourselves out of viable plans, possible story ideas, and future revenue streams. In short, we save ourselves the trouble of writing out proposals, and the pain of rejection by “getting ourselves . . . before THEY can.”

When I write about it in a column like this, it’s obvious to me how damaging and dangerous PRP is.  Sure, there are times when an idea is really half-baked and needs to stay in the oven a little longer . . . and there are ideas that we probably should toss out with the trash before they stink up the whole room. But there are many more ideas that need to have their moment in the sun– or least to be offered to the world– that never get their chance because PRP reinforces our laziness and appeals to our desire to protect our tender feelings from the possibility of further rejection.

And that’s the problem. PRP thrives in a mindset that assumes rejection. But maybe, just maybe there’s an acceptance or two or twelve out there with my name on it— with your name on it.  With PRP as my default expectation, I may never know how many acceptances are possible for me, and if it’s your default expectation, you’ll never know how many acceptances belong to you, either.

The truth of the positive possibilities of presenting ideas more aggressively was confirmed by my talented editor, Selina McLemore, who, when I informed her of the deluge of ideas coming her way, responded enthusiastically.

“I think it’s great to pitch as many ideas as you can,” she said. “When editors talk to new writers BEFORE they sign them, they’ll ask questions like ‘Do you have other projects you are working on? Are you developing any other story ideas?’ You want to have as long a list as possible. Lots of ideas shows an editor you’re always thinking . . . and that’s a good thing.”

So, my first resolution for 2005 is to change my selector from “assumed rejection” to “I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-but-I’m-willing-to-give-it-a-shot.” I’m not quite willing to assume that what I submit will be accepted . . . but I’m willing to give up PRP and see what happens.

What about you? Are you squelching your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow? Maybe you should consider resolving to replace your PRP with something a little more optimistic in 2005!

2. Review the contents of the “The Drawer” for marketable ideas and get them out there.

You know “the drawer.”  The place where dead ideas go.  The home of stories with great beginnings that never grew middles or endings.  The holy repository of finished projects that were rejected all over town, and for unfinished projects with no clear future. Every writer has a “drawer,” a file folder,  or a floppy disc (or several of them) of projects that never quite made it out into the world.

The drawer is suspended animation.

Too often, however, writers consider the drawer not as project hibernation, but as the project graveyard. Once surrendered the drawer, the project is never revived again– except in reminiscent conversations, “Yeah, I started a story about that once, but it’s gone to the drawer now.”

Opening the drawer is like revisiting the skeletons in your closet– sometimes it’s a reminder of weaknesses, a chance to confront failures. Shifting your view of the drawer from death to life means being willing to confront your failures and to see them as stepping stones to a better, stronger and more vibrant future project.

In 2005, I’ve resolved to go deep into the drawer– and to look hard at its contents. I’m going to stop looking at the drawer as “defeat” and start seeing it as a “resting place” for those projects that I either didn’t have the ability, maturity or life experience to finish back then… but that might just have a shot now that I’m older and wiser.

Or not.

The point is, I’ll never know if I’m not willing to re-read, re-open, and reconsider.

Again my editor, Selina McLemore, agrees: “If you have one idea I like, I’m going to ask you about your other ones.  Even if those ‘dead ideas’ aren’t your absolute best, it’s great to be able to present as many ideas as possible. You might say something to an editor like, ‘Well I’m always thinking, and while I’m not in love with everything, some of my ideas have been x, y, z…’ And as I said before, having lots of ideas shows me you’re thinking all the time. That’s what editors want to see from writers: new ideas, all the time.”

How about you? What’s in your drawer? Maybe 2005 is the year to revisit a project from the past– and make it your magnum opus for the future!

3. Network with other writers.

Friends are good things—not just because it’s good to have folks around you who have similar interests, but because you never know whom you can help– or who can help you! Already in my long and checkered path to becoming published, I’ve met people who have turned out to be great supporters, friends and resources (some through this column, thank you!) who have helped me in innumerable ways.  They’ve taught me that the more willing I am to share, reach out, network, and assist others, the more good things come back to me in ways both anticipated and unanticipated.

I’ve been hesitant to share in the past; partly because I’ve doubted that my experiences would have meaning or value to others. And it’s true, not everything I do or say has worth to everyone. But that doesn’t mean my words are worthless to everyone either.  Sometimes, one little comment goes a long a way to one person, and that alone is enough to make the communication worthwhile.

Are you holding back because you think your contributions won’t please the masses?  Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about “the masses,” and start thinking about the impact you might have on just one person, if you’re willing to put yourself and your work out there!

In 2005, let’s all resolve to help each other—as fellow writers and as human beings—and see what a difference it can make!

Happy New Year—and happy writing!

Karyn Langhorne is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, who recently signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her first novel, A Personal Matter, will be released in September, 2004. She has also written several screenplays and a play, Primary Loyalties, which was produced off-Broadway and was optioned by NBC-TV in 2000. Karyn Langhorne has a Website.

Review: Ask the Pros: Screenwriting 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting
101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Edited by Howard Meibach and Paul Duran
Lone Eagle Publishing Company
2004
205 pp.
Amazon.com price: $12.57

Review by Patrick Beltran 

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is not your typical screenwriting book. Edited by Howard Meibach (of Hollywoodlitsales.com fame) and writer-director Paul Duran, this book does not attempt to teach you how to write a screenplay – at all. The book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals.

Now, I have to admit that when I first sat down to read it, I did not think I was going to like this book or find much value in its approach to screenwriting “education.” A big fat frequently-asked questions (FAQ) list, in book form, for screenwriters? Containing such hoary gems as, “what makes a screenplay great?” (that was the first question of the first chapter). As a well-read wannabe, I prepared for the worst; I expected to find all the same questions and answers that I’d already read and heard in various forums, and in a thousand different ways, from every screenwriting seminar, how-to book, and advice columnist on the web.

So you can imagine my surprise when I started liking the book – and my total shock when I realized that I was actually learning from it.

Based on the “Ask a Hollywood Pro” forum from hollywoodlitsales.com, the premise of the book is deceptively prosaic: Gather a long and impressive list of working Hollywood professionals – writers, directors, producers, agents, studio executives, etc. – and get them to answer, in detail, the most common questions that screenwriters always ask about writing, selling, making movies, and breaking into the business. Arrange the answers according to question topic and the profession of the answerers, pepper the pages with sidebars to give extra details and relevant definitions, and voilà, you have Ask the Pros: Screenwriting.

But the real value, I discovered, comes not from the individual answers but from the collection itself – from seeing how each answer compares, side-by-side, with answers by similar professionals responding to the same questions. Look, we’ve all heard stories about the capricious nature of Hollywood, about the Politburo-like mindless conformity that supposedly permeates the corridors of power and leads executives to march in lock-step, regularly rejecting mega-blockbuster scripts like, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (“You’ve got to be kidding, right? There’s just no Greek demographic.”). Intellectually, we know that’s not the whole story – we know that good scripts rise or fall for a lot of reasons, and that somewhere on the other side of that monolithic Wall there are individual human beings with differing tastes, opinions and abilities.

Well, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting puts that diversity of opinion in stark black and white, right on the page for all to see. Sometimes the effect is comical: for example, one of the questions the producer-experts answered was, “How much does [script] coverage affect your [development] decisions?” One producer said, “coverage is very important”; a second one’s answer started off, “coverage is a waste of time”; and a third one said, in essence, “It depends.” Other contrasts weren’t so dramatic, but everywhere I looked, I detected subtle shades of difference in approach, attitude, and expectation. I suddenly realized – hey, these guys are professionals, and even they don’t agree on the best recipe for wannabe success.

This was the first, best lesson I learned from reading this book: When it comes to an artistic, creative endeavor such as making movies or writing screenplays, there is always more than one right answer.

The second best thing about Ask the Pros is its sidebar blurbs. I especially like the “Buzz Word” definitions, which explain various “Hollywood-speak” words in ordinary English. These are terms that most of us in “flyover country” (everything between NY and L.A.) don’t use in day-to-day life, but that regularly appear in industry magazines such as Variety. For instance, did you know that “tyro” means first timer? (As in: “Tyro scribe Jim Jones just sold his spec script ‘Drinking Kool-Aid’ to DreamWorks for an undisclosed six-figure sum”). Or that Praisery is another word for public relations firm? And if you ever see a film directed by Alan Smithee, you’ll know (after reading Ask the Pros) that this is a Director’s Guild-allowed pseudonym, and it is probably being used because the real director didn’t want his or her name associated with what he considered to be a train-wreck of a picture.

Ask the Pros also includes a CD-ROM with a demo copy of the latest version of Final Draft script formatting software. If you’re serious about your wannabe status, and if you want to have any real hope of ever tasting success on the other side of that Wall, then you absolutely must invest the money to buy a scriptwriting software package. I don’t care, save your dimes for a year if you need to, cause this type of software gives you 50 spoons’ worth of traction when you’re digging for that next killer script. Final Draft is one of two packages recognized and used throughout the industry (the other one is Movie Magic Screenwriter). The demo CD enclosed with this book has a full-featured copy of Final Draft that you can take for a time-limited test drive. If you like it, you can activate the full copy simply by purchasing and entering a valid serial number.

Bottom line — Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is useful for getting inside the heads of the many Hollywood professionals interviewed. Although the book won’t help you with the mechanics of writing a script, it will give you a clearer picture of how the whole Hollywood success thing works (or doesn’t). It also helps prepare you for what you’ll encounter once you type “The End” and want to scope out which section of the Wall you’ll slam yourself into first. It’s a first-rate spoon, this one: I give it an A. Now go, young wannabe tyros — dig and be happy.

Patrick Beltran is a screenwriter, independent producer, and freelance writer who works as an IT professional during the day to pay the bills. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three daughters

Sales Tracking: New Ways to Drive Yourself Absolutely Crazy

By Karyn Langhorne

Just when there’s no more re-writing and revising . . .

Just when the book is finally on the shelves . . ..

Just when the efforts at promotion seem to be finally paying off . . .

There’s something new to worry about.

Sales. And a fresh crop of ways to drive an author attempting to build a career completely crazy.

Let’s start with the one of the most-widely known and easiest to become utterly and completely obsessed with: Amazon.com.

As most of you know, Amazon ranks books on its site according to number of copies it has sold. When you research a book on Amazon, you’ll find a little number that indicates its sales rank in comparison to the other million or so of books listed on this mega-sellerÆs website.

On the first day of its release, A Personal Matter/cite> ranked 1.3 million—dead last, or close to it, I’m willing to bet. A few days later, the book had risen to a rank of 52,000. A few more days later, it jumped up to a ranking somewhere around 8,000. When it climbed to a number in the 4,000 range, I started imagining myself making the top 100, seeing myself in reach of the Holy Grail—Amazon’s numero uno

Until it fell back to 8,000-something the very next day.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, that same day, I learned that Ingram Book Group, the book wholesaler responsible for supplying many libraries and independent bookstores, has several tracking tools authors can use to monitor sales . . . and drive themselves even crazier.

Apparently, Ingram tracks the Top 50 Titles by Demand in a number of categories. Since A Personal Matter is classified as a romance novel, there’s the Most-Requested Romance List, a weekly run-down of who’s hot . . . and who’s not. I haven’t figured out how to access this one yet, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll just have to add it to my weekly “things to do” list. You can also call Ingram and check out your progress through their automated stock report line. (1-800-937-8000, then press 4, then press the ext # 36803.)

You can learn lots of useful things with a simple phone call. The automated stock reports hotline can tell you: whether Ingram had to reorder your book (which is always a good thing); how a new book is selling compared to a previous one; whether demand for earlier books increases when a new book comes out.

New York Times top ten bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon, author of Night Play and the upcoming Seize the Night, recommends that obsessive authors making their first call to Ingram’s stock line need to call in before the book hits Ingram to see what the pre-order is. The average midlist author will have a preorder that falls between 700-1500 copies. While she adds that there are a few authors who are above 5,000 — and even some above 10,000 — there aren’t many who fall into that category. Armed with the pre-order numbers, an author can use Ingram’s stock line to get an overall look at how the book is doing.

But Sherrilyn is quick to remind excited newbies (like me) that Ingram, as an on-demand distributor, is just a small part of the overall market and while the information is helpful, it’s like looking a single slice of pie and calling it the whole.

Of course, I had to try it. Had to. Right away.

It was too late to check on the preorder — my book had already been available for a month when I found out about Ingram and this automated stock line. So I just had to dive in and find out what I could. I dialed tentatively, with the same hesitation I now feel when I visit Amazon.com. Will the news be good? Or will it indicate that there’s no demand for my book whatsoever?

I learned that Ingram has 219 copies of A Personal Matter in stock . . . and that it shipped 13 this week. Since August 31 (release date) it had sent out 384 copies.

Thank goodness — someone bought a few copies of the book!

But beyond that, I understand the caveats of my betters. I’m not exactly sure what this information means . . . any more than I’m sure of what the ranking numbers (beyond, let’s say, the top 100) on Amazon really tell an author about how a book is doing in the wide world out there.

Which means I’m going to have to ask some more questions.

Next Month: The skinny on how publishers track author sales.

Karyn Langhorne is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, who recently signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her first novel, A Personal Matter, will be released in September, 2004. She has also written several screenplays and a play, Primary Loyalties, which was produced off-Broadway and was optioned by NBC-TV in 2000. Karyn Langhorne has a Website.