Leslie Charteris

By George Alex Windish

Leslie Charteris is not a forgotten writer. Though he wrote other things, he will go down in literary history with his character, Simon Templar, the urbane, sophisticated, gentleman-adventurer better known as the Saint.

Charteris was born in 1907, the son of Dr. S.C. Yin, whose roots could be traced to the old emperors of China. Charteris was christened Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, and learned several language before he learned English. He was not a distinguished scholar, but did manage to write a novel while he was attending Cambridge. He continued to write, but seldom made money at it. To keep himself fed, he worked as a policeman, drove a bus, prospected for gold, worked in tin mines, fished for pearl, tended bar, and became a professional bridge player.

In 1926, he legally changed his name.

In 1929, he wrote Meet The Tiger, the first Saint book.

Meet The Tiger sold very well, and soon the followup adventures of Simon Templar were making Charteris famous and rich.

In 1932, he moved to the United States.

His style of telling a story was very breezy, fast-paced and exciting, and the Saint has always held the fascination of readers. The character has appeared in movies in the 30s & 40s, on radio, in comic strips and on television. A new generation was introduced to an updated version of the Saint n the movie starring Val Kilmer. There is also a meticulously researched website for Leslie Charteris.

Forty years ago, when I was 10, I picked up and read a copy of The Saint At Large, a collection of short stories. I have been writing ever since.

Leslie Charteris died in 1993.

George Alex Windish has been writing for many years, and has become a better typist, if nothing else. He has placed nearly a dozen short stories of horror and science fiction, has had a weekly column in a local Baltimore newspaper, and has written for and edited Country Line, a small Pennsylvania magazine. He has also done ad copy and correspondence for businesses. He has long been a fan of genre literature and truly tacky movies, as well as being a collector of vintage records.

Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

Becoming a Writer
by Dorothea Brande
First printing: Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1934
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981
175 pages

Some of the amazing things about Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, a writing how-to book (in addition to the fact that it was written in 1934), are the techniques used by  Brande to loosen up a writer’s creativity. The fact is that, without creativity, a writer cannot write, so all the technical information in the world cannot unlock the muse, thus causing the writer discontent. Brande believes “that basis of [this] discontent was that the difficulties of the average student or amateur writer begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing.” She goes on to say that the frustrated writer seems to think there is a magic or trade secret that successful writers have, and she says in a way he is right.

Her target audience includes “those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

Motivated to write the book by attending one too many technical classes where the instructors never addressed the magic, Brande breaks the problems down into four categories; the difficulty of writing at all, the one book author, the occasional writer, and the uneven writer.  She suggests that “we must try to cure them where they arise—in the life and attitudes and habits, in the very character itself.” Addressing them one at a time through the lens of character, Brande zeros in on the issues and creates exercises to practice.

First, the two sides of the writer, the child and the adult must be discerned in daily activities. Creativity is the child’s world, spontaneous and imaginative, and the adult is the business manager; first work, then play. Call it left brain and right brain, or child and adult—some part of the writer has to dream up the plan and some part has to execute the plan. Brande gives us hope that they are both embodied in us and can be recognized and utilized at the right time and place to reach our writing goals.

As we learn to know ourselves through Brande’s exercises, we progress to levels of writing discipline very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages and writer’s date. Natalie Goldberg’s techniques are similar, as they involve freeing yourself to write anything without the internal editor, stopping us at every word to check for accuracy.

Following the exercises religiously frees our creative side (the child) and honors the adult to provide for the real passion (the writing). Set up a time for writing. Under no circumstances stand yourself up. If you do, she warns, “give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.”

Her intention here is not to discourage, but to encourage the writer to set up a time daily to invite the unconscious to come and play. If the child (the unconscious creative mind) knows it is acceptable to come out every day at eight in the morning, come it will, and serve until it is put away when the adult must provide structure so that the child can come another day.

She says simply, “for the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect. There is much that the conscious can do, but it cannot provide you with genius, or with the talent that is genius’ second cousin.”

In a way, this simplifies the writing process. Turn it on and turn it off. Although, when you are a writer, you are writing all the time. But there is a time to turn the faucet onto the paper, and that is the delicious part of writing. To see the words you have been nurturing in your unconscious take form before your eyes.

Brande has several other very practical suggestions. She advises exchanging coffee for Maté and enjoying a meditation session before your writing appointment. She also advises to pay attention to the people who encourage your flow of consciousness and those who do not. If watching television stifles your creativity, do less of it (she would advise!). Be aware of what puts you in a creative mindset and what does not. Be disciplined! “If you are unable to finish a piece of work at one sitting, make an engagement with yourself to resume work before you  rise from the table. You will find that this acts like a posthypnotic suggestion in more ways than one. You will get back to the work without delay, and you will pick up the same note with little difficulty, so that your story will not show as many different styles as a patchwork quilt when it is done.”

I liked this book. I loved this book. The fact that it sat on my bookshelf for nine years has nothing to do with the book. Had I picked it up sooner, I would have avoided many pitfalls.  Brande’s 1934-style prose was a little difficult to wade through at times, but soon I found myself sitting down with her for a cup of Mate and discussing my latest writing block . . . this review!

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago and later attended Mrs. Starretts’ School for Girls and the University of Chicago, Lewis Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. She held editorial positions at Chicago Tribune, and the Board of the Journal of American Medical Association. She taught private writing classes and lectured throughout the country. Among her other books are Most Beautiful Lady, a novel, and Wake Up and Live, which sold over 2,000,000 and was published in eleven languages. (I remember it on my mother’s bookshelf.)

According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 39, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an Episcopalian, a Republican, and enjoyed reading, knitting and embroidery!

I leave you with her words. “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. This is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.”

Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the "Square One Writers Guide" series. Rudy has been responsible for the acquisition of more than 1,000 books, many of which have become bestsellers. He has lectured on the topic of nonfiction publishing at numerous universities and colleges across the nation.

How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?

I began my career in publishing as a field representative for a college textbook publisher. Basically, I’d go out to college campuses and try to get college professors to adopt my company’s textbooks for their classes. Having never sold before, it was a great learning experience. My next job was at another college textbook publisher, but this time, in addition to being a representative, I was also an associate editor. That was great training. I would look for professors to write books that I thought would sell based on my own selling experience.

After several years of doing this, I had the silly idea that I could do it better on my own. In 1976, I co-founded Avery Publishing Group. Initially, we produced college textbooks. As time went on, though, we began producing trade books for a more general audience. While I had had some great experience working for other companies, it was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience that provided the core of my publisher’s training.

In 1999, I sold Avery to Penguin Putnam, and two months later, I founded Square One Publishers—and I am still learning.

As you mention in the book, small publishers usually don’t offer the kinds of advances big houses can offer. What are some of the reasons why a writer might prefer to work with a small publisher?

While big houses do offer larger advances, statistically most of their authors never see more money than their initial advance. Part of the reason for this might be that today’s large houses tend to put in minimal editorial and marketing time on the vast majority of the projects they handle.

On the other hand, some well-run smaller publishers put much more emphasis on the editorial process, so that the final manuscript is as good as it can be. Additionally, they often spend much more time promoting a title (in their own way) than do larger houses.

Another benefit that smaller houses offer is longevity for titles. Many of the large companies keep their average book in print for approximately 18 months–only 1 1/2 years. Many smaller publishers keep a book in print for years. In some cases, they treat their backlist (older) titles as though they were front list (new).

However, let me point out that all small publishers are not created equal. Therefore, before signing any publishing agreement, it’s vital to check out the publisher.

Why is so important for a writer to identify the category in which his or her book would fit?

There are many reasons a writer needs to know what his or her book’s category is:

  • Identifying a category allows writers to more accurately target specific markets and audiences.
  • By knowing a book’s category, a writer can better select potential publishers who have experience publishing and selling in that specific area. Without a clear understanding of a book’s category, a writer simply chooses publishers at random.
  • When a book does not fit into any established category, there may not be any commercial publisher equipped to sell the book. Such a situation usually leads to negative responses from publishers.

In writing my book, I found that the chapter which identifies the twelve categories of books was the hardest to write. Once completed, though, I think it became one of the strongest features of my title.

Let’s say my book has been orphaned by a publisher. Is it wise for me to mention this in future proposals, or might this work against me?

The fact that a writer has had a book in print always strengthens the author’s credibility, and should definitely be mentioned in a cover letter. It is the fact that an author’s book was accepted by another publisher that impresses an editor, not that it may now be out-of-print.

I liked that you suggested a touch of humor in the writer’s response postcard. Are there other places writers can interject a bit of “personality”or humor, or is it usually best to “play it straight?”

Many times the nature of the project provides the ground rules for using humor. If a work is serious, humor may not be appropriate. If the topic is somewhat neutral, the use of humor may be fine. I’ve been told that you never know who’s at the receiving end of a query letter, so you may not want to take a chance with humor. While that is a legitimate point of view, if the topic allows, I think a natural infusion of humor can put an editor in a more receptive frame of mind.

You surprised me with a statistic: most books only sell about 5,000 copies. At big houses, a book will typically go out of print quickly if it doesn’t sell well right out of the gates, but at smaller houses, backlist titles may stay in print for years, even if sales are slow. As a writer, what should I hope for? Is it always good for a book to be technically “in print” even if it’s barely selling, or should I hope it goes out of print so I can try to sell it again or self-publish?

This is a complicated question and I probably can’t adequately answer it in a few paragraphs, but what the heck. If writers do their homework correctly, they should have some idea of how many copies a book like theirs will sell in the marketplace. Having a realistic number will provide them with more realistic expectations of success.

Here’s where it gets cockeyed. Sometimes it is best to have a publisher hold onto a book even though its sales are low. Sometimes taking a book back from a publisher is absolutely better. Writers have to ask themselves three things:

  1. Is the market really that big?
  2. Can I do a better job than the publisher?
  3. Do I really want to become-and can I afford to be-a bookseller/publisher?

If the answer is yes, the writer should still think about it before taking the first step.

Why is it a bad idea for an author to say their book is unique?

Unique books are one of a kind. They are different. Editors hate different. Different books have no established markets. If one unique book actually makes it to bestsellerdom, there is a likelihood it is an exception to the rule. Most editors know this and avoid publishing exceptions. Aspiring authors should never say they have a “unique book” unless they enjoy the feeling of rejection.

Once I’ve been offered a contract, do I have time to start looking for a literary agent? Should I bother, if I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t budge on fees?

If your project has the true potential of selling in big numbers, it is wise to consider getting an agent. If your project has a limited market, consider reading my chapter on “The Deal.” It tells you what you can do to negotiate a more favorable contract.

What do you think about the system of bookstores sending unsold copies back to the publisher? Do you think this is likely to change? Would authors make a great deal more money if there were no returns allowed?

The system of taking back returns was started shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression, it was a way publishers could keep bookstores in business. Before the crash, bookstores kept what they ordered. I personally think that the present system is terrible, but as far as bookstores go, there is little likelihood that things will change soon. If the system did change, I don’t think it would make too much difference regarding the royalty payments. However, it would eliminate the need for publishers to hold back portions of an author’s royalty due to the possibility of returns.

It seems that for better or worse, Pandora’s Box was opened in 1929 and it’s not going to close until technology figures out a better way to produce and sell books.

Let’s say I have the terrific fortune of having two publishers interested in my manuscript. Now I want to start my own private "bidding war." Do I tell Publisher 1 who Publisher 2 is? Do I get into specifics about what the other publisher offered?

As a rule, I would not tell one publisher who the other publisher is. As far as specifics about terms go, let one publisher know what the other is offering, and see if they can match or better them. Do it in a very business-like manner; do not sound as if you are playing a game. My advice is simple: Get the best deal from the best company.

As a publisher, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

I love publishing. I think I even like the things I don’t like. The hardest part of the job is the amount of work required to do a good job.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did I mention that my book is available through your website, and that my book is part of an ongoing series called The SquareOne Writers Guides, which includes How to Publish Your Poetry, How to Publish Your Articles, and How to Sell Your Screenplay? Did I also mention that all our other titles can seen by visiting our website at www.squareonepublishers.com? And did I mention that I have numerous employees who need to be fed and sheltered, and that any purchases of our books would be greatly appreciated?

Why Editors are Not the Enemy

By Mridu Khullar

Editors can be mean, unethical and downright unprofessional. But not all editors fit that bill. In fact, most editors would rather give you money than take it, would rather make no changes than rewrite whole pieces two hours before deadline, and would rather accept a piece than start their mornings sending out rejection slips. But step into an editor’s shoes, and you’ll know why that’s not only hard, it’s just plain impossible!

Here are the most common complaints writers have, and why editors aren’t always guilty of them.

Completely Changing Your Work

An editor I frequently work with was in distress. One of her regulars had just written to complain about his perfectly brilliant beginning being chopped off. “They sometimes don’t get our style,” she told me over lunch. “We need more quotes, we put them in. We need a stronger beginning; we change it. There’s nothing much I can do about it. It’s the way we work.“ But while this editor was very forthcoming about her reasons, and gave the writer an explanation, you’ll usually get no further correspondence. That doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the anguish you go through. But editors have word limits, voice and style limitations, and a dozen other factors to keep in mind. Editors simply don’t have the time to offer explanations to each writer.

Paying Less or Not Paying At All

Most writers believe (or are led to believe) that editors just don’t want to dish out the cash. Sure, if they’re running a small business from home and can hardly pay their bills, they probably won’t. But editors in big offices don’t really care whether you earn $100 or $1,000. After all, they’re not the ones paying from their pockets!

I was in a publisher-editor meeting the other day, and one common concern was raised — why weren’t suppliers (including freelancers) paid on time? A complaint unanimously raised by . . . editors!

An important thing to remember is that while it may appear so to us, editors aren’t really the ones calling the shots all the time. That’s the publisher’s job. So hating the editor’s guts won’t get you anywhere. While some editors may be creeps, most of them are on your side! So, if you want more money, just ask for it. Chances are the editor is the only one who can help you get it.

Not Responding

Editors would love to respond to every query, you know. But there’s only so much they can do. And while each e-mail you send will determine where your next paycheck comes from, an editor will get paid regardless of the number of queries rejected. Their job is putting together quality content. No one’s going to promote them for being nice to freelancers. It’s a simple matter of priorities. And when the choice is between finishing up the issue and answering yet another freelancer’s query, get real — editors will finish up and go home.

Killing Articles

We tossed a coin. The losing editor would have to tell the freelance writer that his article had been killed. That, too, after we asked him to send us a dozen writing samples, come up with a dozen off-beat ideas, get a feel of our style, and send us a 600-word piece. We’d even negotiated the price. It would have taken him at least a day’s work, if not more. We felt cruel, but decided that the guy had potential for future assignments.

I lost the toss and sat down to draft the e-mail. I explained at length how our policies had changed, told him that we’d be willing to give more assignments, and even added a touch of humor. But the writer was obviously blinded. He thought of me as the devil. And by doing so, he’d just lost a perfectly good opportunity for more assignments.

Editors aren’t out to take advantage of freelancers or make their lives miserable. In fact, if you get to know them a little, you’ll find that they’re often a very friendly bunch. Stop looking at your editor as the enemy, and you might just find a friend.

Mridu Khulla Relph is based in London and New Delhi. She has written for  The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, The Independent, Forbes, The CS Monitor, Ms., Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo, and more. She has a website, a blog, and has written several books.

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 Dreaded Daily Word Count

By Chris Stewart

Open any book on “how to write,” and somewhere you will find a discussion of how many words you should write every day. Forget the struggle to get ourselves to the paper or the computer every day, now we have to produce a certain number of words?

Me? I don’t write every day (Quick! Call the Writer Police!), I don’t do 2,000 words, and you don’t have to either. So what’s the pace you should aim for and how do you figure that out? I’ll show you.

Rather than order yourself to write a certain number of words a day, here’s your free entry into the Design Your Own Word Count program.

find your daily word count in three easy steps:

  1. Give yourself an easy word count limit, say ten words. Ready? Go. And… stop. Hurray! Congratulations, you’ve met your goal. You’re free to go do the laundry or have some ice cream. Your choice.Seriously, note how you’d feel fairly ridiculous if you stopped there. Remember that feeling and keep writing. Check in whenever you find yourself pausing and see if you still feel that way (i.e., lame, lazy, if you’re laughing— picture yourself telling a writer friend, “I wrote 27 words today, isn’t that awesome?” Picture the look on their face). Now, keep writing.
  2. As long as you feel interested and excited in what you’re doing each time you check in, keep going. Even if you’re nervous and a little scared, keep going. Those feelings will propel you past superficial writing about how much you’re looking forward to that bowl of Ben & Jerry’s.
  3. When do you stop? When you first notice you’re controlling word and image choice. When you notice your thoughts turning negative. When you feel yourself sliding downhill into the Tar Pit of Despair. Dig in your heels and turn your eyes back to the sun (your page or computer screen). Look what you’ve accomplished! It’s important that you end the session still feeling positive and excited about what you’re writing.

Hemingway always stopped at a place where he could leave himself something to start with the next day, something to look forward to. Do the same. Jot down where you want to pick up the next time and stop. Work your way up to the count that feels right, through practicing the above exercise. The amount of time you spend lost in your enthusiasm (sometimes even the nervousness) for what you’re writing will get longer and longer the more you stick with it.

We all really love writing. It’s not the act itself, it’s the fear that everything we produce will stink and everyone will find out. Pssst, let me tell you a secret: everybody writes garbage. I’m including the greats too.  Some publisher should dig up some of this bad writing from the best writers of our time and publish it. It would make us all feel better.

Here’s another tip—Stop trying to impress the people in your head. Whoever they are. Who cares what they think? This is about discovering what interesting things you have to say, what visions are in your mind’s eye. Maybe they don’t come out as polished as you’d like, but they are still important. You’re not going to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel right out of the gate. Give yourself a break. Just get it on paper. You can fix it later in the editing process. If you’ve got a blank page, you’ve got nothing. Can’t give a haircut or new hairstyle to a person who is completely bald, right?

I’m giving you a free pass to write garbage. In fact, that’s your first assignment. See what truly awful stuff you can write. I dare you.

As for writing every day: Promise yourself you’ll write three or four days a week and stick to it. If you end up not writing for a week or even two months, and the next time you do you really enjoy it—and end up writing for two weeks straight before taking a break—I’d consider that a successful writing practice.

I believe what keeps you writing is that electric loss of self—when you’re inside the experience, flowing with your thoughts and vision—even if that feeling only lasts for ten minutes.

It’s the process, not the product. Stop when you’re still feeling good. Leave yourself wanting more.

By the way, the word count for this article is 793. Not 2,000 but who cares? What matters is: I wrote today. Did you? More importantly: did you have fun? Good for you. Write it on a Post-it note and slap it on your computer screen. Make sure you use lots of exclamation points. You deserve it.

Christine Stewart is an artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore. She has an M.F.A. and M.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She mentors and leads private workshops for adults and teens, and has taught writing in the extension programs at Los Angeles Valley College and Pasadena City College in California. Christine Stewart has a Website.

Writing a Memoir: Should You Do It?

By Lisa Silverman

With the tremendous success of such memoirs as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion in the genre. The boom was seen in the number of memoirs acquired by publishers, the number of titles shelved in the memoir section in bookstores, and, as a result, the number of memoirs unfolding on writers’ computer screens across the country. But the brutal truth is that without a few crucial elements, your memoir will have no chance of finding a literary agent’s representation, never mind becoming a bestseller.

Autobiography vs Memoir

It might help to consider a question that’s always puzzled me: What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Webster’s defines a memoir as “a narrative composed from personal experience” and an autobiography as “the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself.” (The second definition of “memoir” is “autobiography,” indicating just how blurry the line is.) I think of a biography as a life story—a full life, that is, unofficial “biographies” of Paris Hilton or Justin Timberlake aside. Most memoirs, by contrast, don’t begin at the author’s birth and provide a thorough chronological history of a life now in its twilight years.

Cover of Mary Karr's book about writing memoirs The Art of MemoirMemoirs are, of course, written by authors of all ages, and their narratives can encompass fifty years or one week of experience. The first element necessary to a successful memoir is that experience. Lots of us have led interesting lives, or had unusual experiences. But not all of those interesting lives and unusual experiences are memoir-worthy. At the same time, the life experience you want to write about doesn’t need to be earth-shattering to be the basis of a successful book—if you’re a good enough writer. Whether your memories should jump from your head onto the pages of a memoir is difficult to judge when you’re the one whose life’s literary value is in question. If you didn’t think it was worth writing about, you wouldn’t be thinking about a memoir in the first place. But it’s a judgment you must make honestly and objectively if you don’t want to waste a lot of time writing a manuscript that will never sell.

Think Like A Reader

So how do you know if your idea is a book in the making? Try to gain some distance and look at it as a potential reader. Would you pick such a book up off the shelf if it were about a total stranger with no other claim to fame? Would you read the description on the book’s flap and be intrigued? Or would the words “Oh, it’s another person who . . . ” enter your mind? Jaded and insensitive as it may seem, agents discard query letters all the time uttering the words “another victim of abuse” or “another recovering alcoholic” or “another cancer survivor.”

That’s not to say that if you fall into one of those categories, or another that encompasses a lot of people and has seen a lot of memoirs published, you should abandon yours. But you need to bring something new to the table, whether the experience itself is different from everyone else’s or the way you tell it is. And, unless you’ve led a truly wacky life, more likely it’ll have to be the latter. How to make it different? Well, that’s the hard part. And the part you’re going to have to figure out on your own.

As with any genre in today’s book market, publishers are more likely to acquire a memoir if its author has a platform, i.e., comes with a built-in marketing plan. While writing the book, start a blog discussing the experience or issue about which you’re writing. Become affiliated with any advocacy organizations, etc., who might help promote your book. It’s tough out there if you’re not a celebrity or an author with a track record. For every Dave Eggers, a thousand memoirists can’t even clear the hurdle of finding an agent. This week, publishers bought memoirs by a Washington Post columnist, Cary Grant’s daughter, the former head of a record company and the Air America radio network, and a woman with a New York Times bestseller to her name. But take heed: another author sold a memoir “about a typical divorce transformed by a lyrical yet brutally honest voice and narrative style.” That author figured out how to tell an old story in a new way.

As important as marketing is, the memoir, perhaps more than any other genre, depends for its success on one simple thing: writing skill. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that fascinating experiences make for fascinating reads, no matter who writes about them. If you’ve never written before, take some classes. Work on your book in a workshop or in a writers’ group. And if you look in the mirror and see someone who doesn’t have the writing chops to tell their story right, contract with an experienced ghostwriter or coauthor to help out. After all, everyone has lived a story, but only a select few have both the right tale and the right talent to create a winning book.

Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York’s most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. 

Reprinted with permission articlecity.com

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.

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