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

How to Make the Most of Book Signings

By Karyn Langhorne

Back in October, a friend of mine suggested I try to set up a book signing in a bookstore near where he works. It’s a great location for book signings: a heavily trafficked mall surrounded by federal office buildings and built above a subway station. I talked with the store manager, a nice but somewhat harried young man named Richard, and made my case. We set a date for an event for December . . . and I nearly forgot about it. Until this week, when Richard called to remind me that I was “on,” scheduled for Tuesday between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. — the heart of the noon-time break. He suggested I arrive early to “set up.” When I arrived, I understood a little better what he meant.

There was a long table set at the store’s entrance, loaded with about 30 of my books, arranged in neat stacks that made the table look far too long and empty. There was a little blackboard on which the words “Appearing today: Karyn Langhorne” were written in colorful letters. And that was it.

“Basically, the way this works is you snag people as they come in and tell them about your book. Or you can step out into the mall concourse and encourage them to step into the store and buy,” Richard told me. “That’s pretty much it. Good luck!”

I stared at the too-long table, the thirty books, the busy mall concourse just outside the store entrance and the please-don’t-approach me looks on the faces of the book browsers already in the store. My stomach sank. I’m a writer, not a saleswoman. Could I really do this?

Book signings for established and well-recognized authors can mean lines of excited fans, ready to purchase, and eager for the author’s John Hancock. But for the rest of us, “book signings” is a misnomer. The mission we’re on is a “book selling.” And book selling in this context means the same things it always does, whether you’re looking for an agent, a publisher or a reader: know your audience, refine your pitch to appeal to that audience, and ask for the sale.

Although I hadn’t been told exactly what to expect for this signing, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have a line of fans stretched out the door. So, I’d made some efforts. I sent out e-mails to friends and family, telling them about the book signing and asking them to forward the announcement to anyone they knew who worked in the area. I made my pitch to these friendly sources a little personal — and, I confess, slightly pathetic. “Please drop by if you can,” I wrote. “I’d hate to be sitting in a bookstore with a stack of unsold books . . . Sad and lonely and all by myself!”

Cover of Karyn Langhorne's A Personal MatterThen I gave some thought to how I wanted to present myself for the book signings. With the holidays around the corner, I decided a holiday sweater and a Santa hat might be festive and attention-getting. And since it is holiday time, I figured that would make a good pitch: an inexpensive present for a friend or co-worker, made personal and special by an author autograph. To bolster the feeling of holiday spirit I invested in festive container and filled it with mini-candy canes — sweets I hoped would attract people to pause a moment. And I brought my little stand-alone foam board of the book’s cover. This I set up on that long empty table, facing the mall entrance. I grabbed my roll of the glittering gold “Autographed by author” stickers I’d ordered from Wax Creative months before A Personal Matter was even released and my good “signing” pen, then took a deep breath. Show time.

The first fifteen minutes were awful. I sat at the table and greeted every customer that came into the store . . . most were polite, but not interested. Finally, antsy with the fear of abject failure, I abandoned the seat behind the little table and paced the store’s entrance, smiling encouragingly at passersby. Again, most were polite . . . but they felt like I probably would have felt: uncertain about being talked into anything by a little brown woman in a Santa hat.

My strategy, good as it had seemed before my arrival, wasn’t working. Suddenly thirty books seemed an impossible number, way too many for me to possibly sell during the hour allotted to me. Just how was I supposed to do this? That was a critical moment there when I almost became discouraged and gave up — until I remembered what salespeople everywhere know all to well: Every no is one step closer to yes.

I stopped a nice-looking man rolling a cart full of trash with the words “Are you looking for an inexpensive gift for a special lady?”

He laughed. “I’m the janitor. I ain’t got no lady!”

“Sure you do,” I continued, observing him carefully. This guy was way too handsome to spend his evenings with the remote control. And he carried himself with a certain cockiness . . . like he knew how pretty he was. “I bet you have two or three!”

He liked that. He blinked his long, dark eyelashes at me and asked, “What you got?” then listened to the whole pitch about my book, about how an autographed copy would be a perfect stocking stuffer for whichever of his two ladies was a reader — or both of them, if he’d like. I certainly wasn’t going to tell on him.

He liked that, too. And he bought two books. I signed one for “Felecia” and another for “Jeannette” and asked no questions. He came back five minutes later, with three other guys from the maintenance staff. They each bought a book for their lady friends — and I signed them all.

I stopped two ladies as they passed the bookstore and gave them the spiel. This time, I emphasized that it was great gift for a friend or co-worker. I told them that I was a local writer, that A Personal Matter was my first book, and that I would really appreciate their support, since that was a pretty big stack of books on the table, and it would be pretty embarrassing to have them all still sitting there when my hour was up. Lady One looked at Lady Two, said, “Merry Christmas,” and came inside to buy her friend (and herself) signed copies. This approach ended up working very well — I stopped three more sets of ladies with it, and all of them bought copies for themselves and friends. Then a couple of my friends who got my e-mail dropped by . . . and eight more copies went away. The commotion at the signing table started to attract people into the store without me saying a word. When I finished a whirlwind of signing and chatting and things got quiet long enough for me to look up, there were only five copies left. These sold easily enough, partly because I felt confident and partly because the hour had taught me what worked.

At 12:45, there were no more books. None. All thirty, gone. So were the candy canes. In fact, two people I’d stopped earlier came back to buy books and there weren’t any left. And I had learned several important lessons, some of which might be helpful to any of you with book signings in your future:

Book Signings: Tips for Success

  1. Don’t sit behind the table. Things improved as soon as I stood up, walked around, and started reaching out to approach people.
  2. Have different pitches for different types of buyers. I thought the one-sized fits all “holiday gift” approach would work . . . but it turned out different arguments worked better with men than women. When I appealed to men to buy the book as a thoughtful present for the women in their lives, it worked. When I appealed to women to buy the book for their co-workers and good girlfriends, it worked.
  3. Make the personal connection with people. My janitor friend taught me to use all those “writer-ly” powers of observation to my advantage. When I started paying attention to people, they listened to me.
  4. Don’t let “nos” scare you. Easy to say, hard to do, it’s true. But the salespeople are right: keep plugging until you get to “yes.”
  5. Ask for people’s support. I know several people bought books because they could relate to how tough it would be to stand there for the full hour and not sell anything!

Always invite everyone to everything. A lady showed up after the books were all gone and introduced herself as a friend of a friend of a friend — who had been forwarded my e-mail begging not to be left alone and lonely. She said she worked in the area, and was curious. The books were all gone at that point, but she ordered a copy — which made Richard, the manager, even happier than he was before.

Happy holidays — and happy book signings!

Karyn Langhorne Folan is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, with over 25 books so far. She’s  written for the groundbreaking educational novel series, Bluford High as well as an exciting line of post-apocalyptic fiction called Ashes, Ashes. Karyn Langhorne Folan has a Website.

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.

Writer’s Group Etiquette Tips

By Julie Rogers and June Ford

My editor and I frequently talk to writers—many who are or have been members of writer’s groups. More and more we find ourselves pulling out these tips because we believe healthy writing etiquette among peers in writer’s groups encourages good writing habits. When a writer begins working professionally with an editor, the writer’s group carryovers from training, etiquette, and experience become clear. If a writer is inflexible or impatient, that comes out in the process. On the other hand, if an editor is a frustrated writer, the end product will be overwritten and stylistically untrue to the writer’s original vision.

We encourage struggling writer’s groups to put the following writer’s group tips into practice for at least three meetings. We believe the best writing comes from writers who, by hard knocks or intention, are moving into higher realms of personal growth. Above all, we encourage all writers to continue becoming good writers, a process we believe never stops—by studying the craft, reading, and of course, writing your dream.

Writer’s Group Tips

  • Inventory—Who are the participants in the writer’s group, and what are they writing? A writer’s group with longevity caters to the writing interests and skills of the entire bunch. Periodic surveys are helpful in determining whether needs are being met.
  • Involvement—Encourage members to speak to the group on topics they feel comfortable presenting. Topics don’t necessarily have to center around the craft of writing, but can pertain to work, experience, hobbies, etc.
  • Reviews—Book or movie reviews teach writers about elements of critique and how to examine their own work. Encourage writer’s group members to present reviews, allowing ten-to-fifteen minutes, or one per meeting. When writing a review, include all statistics (genre, author, screenwriter, publisher, producer, director, year of copyright, etc.). Give a brief synopsis of the story, including the protagonist’s external and internal conflicts. Compare the work, if applicable, to other works that author/writer has produced. List strong and weak points of the work.
  • Written Critiques—Divide into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. The subgroup should be no larger than three people. Members should bring a predetermined amount of material (usually around five pages) to be read. The subgroup will read every set of pages silently for ten minutes and make notes or corrections on the copy. When all sets of pages are read, the group or subgroups will discuss each manuscript for ten minutes.
  • Oral Critiques—Divide the writer’s group into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. Each member should bring a predetermined amount of typewritten pages (no more than ten) to be read out loud. Allow ten minutes after each reading for oral critiques from other members of the subgroup.
  • Guest Lectures—If the writer’s group has no coffer for paying guest speakers, seek out possible freebies from new authors, editorial services, agents, area experts, and area colleges. Remember that these lectures should not center on the craft of writing. Area newspapers, and radio and television stations are good resources for who’s who or the latest up-and-coming in your area.
  • Positive Feedback—Read the entire work. As a general rule of thumb, find and list three positive points first about the work you’re critiquing.
  • Negative Feedback—Critiques that offer solutions to correct a problem are preferable. If you offer negative criticism, be prepared to present two possible solutions for every negative comment.
  • Share the Work—Whether by election or by proxy, members should rotate secretarial and moderator duties to avoid staleness and burnout.
  • Socials/Outings—Downtime and socials provide a more casual, less structured and intimidating atmosphere for discussing lengthier projects or writing woes. If the group consistently meets at one location, this change of setting can do wonders for fueling creative energies.
  • Respect Craft—Writers who truly love the craft will respect its difficulty and be enthused by any effort to write. Whether a manuscript is great, good, or terrible, someone took the time to write it. That’s commendable. No one writes the best work the first time out. We encourage writer’s groups to respect writers who really work at craft regardless of ethnicity, background, or education. These writers may be the very ones who become really good working writers.
  • Second Opinion—Most writers share the experience of limping away from a critique. Subjecting your baby to criticism—even good criticism—is tough. Collect a spread of criticisms, usually between two and five, and never, ever rework a manuscript on one critique alone. Good critiques will adhere to the feedback tips given above and will genuinely seek to be helpful, versus simply ripping someone’s work apart. If a writer in your group goes home, puts away the project, and never pulls it out again, due to a critique—there’s a good chance it was a bad critique.
  • Read, digest, study—Writing is challenging enough, and making time to read can be even more challenging. Listen to audio books while doing house chores or exercising. Stowaway books and audio books in your car. You’ll be surprised how much time you have on the road, waiting in line at the bank, or the post office, or at restaurants—even if it means reading in snatches.
  • Share book and movie reviews with other writers. You obviously don’t have time to read everything, but a comprehensive review from another writer or book club member can broaden your horizons. Read good, acclaimed works, classics, trades, magazines, breaking news and events.
  • Read what interests you, but also try broadening your perspective (and writing capabilities) by reading a variety of genres. Consider forming or joining a book club. Reading lists are available from Writer’s Digest as well as some editorial services, book clubs, and online writers’ web sites. Reading story analyses and summaries is good practice, as well. Study what works. Cliff Notes usually offer good story, character, and writing element analyses.
  • Golden Rule—Sadly, many conferences and online critique groups today feel they have to post requests for participants to be kind to each other. Cutthroat behavior can permeate a writer’s world at any level. We encourage writers not to play that game. Working writers with longevity in the industry establish their careers with genuine courtesy and appreciation of other people, especially other writers.

Julie Rogers’ articles have been featured in numerous self-help, inspirational, and fiction publications. She is the author of Happy Tails: How Pets Can Help You Survive Divorce, and the 1999 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Grand Prize Winner for her short story “House Call.” She is a producer at True Grit Films and represented by Jeff Ross Management. Julie is a journalism graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Julie Rogers has a Website.

June Ford has worked in a variety of editorial positions for publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers, including in-house for publishing companies as a managing editor, project editor, and editor. She has been commissioned to write trade books ranging from psychology to business and finance, coffee table pictorials to true crime. June has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Editor Speaks: I Like This! Have You Thought About Changing It?

By Selina McLemore

“Karyn?”

I bet she thinks I sound young. Really young.

“I’m Selina and I’m going to be your editor on this project.”

I love calling debut authors. I feel like I can really relate to the rush of excitement a new author feels. She’s worked so hard on her manuscript, rewritten it countless times, and finally she’s found someone who also sees all the great qualities it has. And with just a few more changes, it will be perfect.

For a lot of authors, new and experienced, hearing that their work — their baby — still needs tweaking is tough. And to be honest it took me a while to understand why. From my perspective, revisions are a natural part of the process, and to be expected. And after all, I don’t acquire an author if I don’t enjoy his or her work, so why would hearing about ideas to improve it be considered criticism?

But that’s how a lot of new writers view the revision discussion. Suddenly the warm, fuzzy feelings of making your first sale fade and are replaced by doubt: first, Will I really be able to do this? soon to be followed by, Does my editor really know what she’s talking about?

The answer to both questions, by the way, is yes.

I’m not saying editors are beyond error, but our goal is to make your manuscript as strong as we possibly can. And remember, we have some advantages you don’t. For one thing, an editor comes to the book with fresh eyes, just like the reader does. The most common problem I see in debut novels is a lapse in logic that the author, due to her familiarity with the work, can’t see. So a revision I often request is for an author to go back and add in explanation.

In my experience, most authors don’t have a problem when you ask them to write more. Go figure. What they are usually less receptive to is my second most common request, the request I made of Karyn: cut this.

Sometimes it’s a paragraph or a few lines here and there, sometimes it’s a whole character or an entire subplot —  whatever it is, no one likes losing material she’s worked hard on. But the request to cut is not just about making page count. It’s about rhythm, pacing, flow. It’s about making sure descriptive passages don’t dominate the book, taking away from the action. Think of every page as valuable real estate. There’s only so much, so you want to be sure you’re using it in the best way possible.

But if there’s one type of revision that’s even more difficult to discuss than cutting, it’s something I call the audience factor. Publishing is a business, and part of being successful in that business is knowing your audience, what they expect, what they’re looking for, what they’re missing. The audience factor comes in to play a lot when I request revisions to a character. It’s wonderful to have a main character who raises questions and calls on readers to really think about what’s before them. But the catch is that the reader still has to like her. If a reader doesn’t finish the book because the heroine is too abrasive, then her transformation at the end is lost. And if, because that reader didn’t finish the book, she doesn’t recommend it to a friend, you’ve lost another potential fan. Sometimes to get the message across, you have to soften the messenger.

So the lesson is: whatever revisions your editor requests you should immediately do? No. Of course not. But I am saying, pick your battles. Thinking you can avoid any revisions is unrealistic, but if you’re strongly against making a change, say so. No one agrees all the time, and Karyn and I are no exception. But when you keep an open dialogue and trust your editor, the fun of the first call can last through all those to follow —  like when we talk about your copyedits and cover art and publicity plans and galleys and quotes and option material.

Currently an assistant editor at Avon Books, Selina McLemore has worked in women’s fiction for three years. In addition to contemporary romance titles like A Personal Matter, Selina also works with authors who write historical romance and chick lit.

Last month, Karyn Langhorne Folan, the author of A Personal Matter, offered her perspective on working with Selina.

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