Can you Really Write a Book in Two Weeks?

By Magdalena Ball

“You can write a novel in 14 days or less!” Sound familiar? I’ve seen a number of advertisements recently selling “how-to” guides on speedwriting. They offer some tempting promises, including that you will be able to (guaranteed!) write a fabulous book, either fiction or nonfiction, within a very short space of time, then market and reap the extraordinary benefits, including fame, fortune, regular speaking engagements, and sponsorship deals. The premise is based on the concept that the faster you write, the better your writing will be, and also the well-known adage that you should write about what you know, and that all the material you need is already floating around in your head.

While the idea of writing quickly, and without overt interruption from too much proofreading before the concept is fully realized, is not a bad one, especially for dealing with writer’s block, the idea of rapid and unfiltered writing, from idea to market, is a dangerous one that could potentially result in an author, even a good author, putting inadequately edited books on the market before they are ready. One of the English speaking world’s most skilled modern novelists, Julian Barnes, says he rewrites every page something like 40 times, and avoids a computer because it makes his work look too good too quickly. James Joyce took 10 years to write Ulysses. Real masterpieces don’t happen in 14 days. They take time, and skilled crafting, rewriting, recrafting, and lots of work. That is part of why they are masterpieces.

The well-known Australian publisher Hilary McPhee writes about this notion in her recent book Other People’s Words (Picador, 2001), in which she discusses how working with writers editorially is no longer considered efficient: “the old maxim rules: the reader is a mug and the writer is a commodity — sell 50,000 copies before anyone discovers they’re not much good.” (285) E-publishing and speed writing feeds perfectly into this philosophy. I’m not suggesting that e-books necessarily lack quality — I’ve written one myself, and have read many carefully constructed e-books, but it is an area where there are few quality controls in place, especially for self-publishing, which is now so inexpensive that anyone can do it. As McPhee suggests, it is marketing, rather than literary skills that make for an online bestseller — or maybe a combination of both. The market is so vast that a racy, easy to read e-thriller will probably do better in sales than a carefully constructed work of great literary fiction.

Nonetheless, literary masterpieces are still being produced. Authors like Rushdie, Barnes, Peter Carey, Umberto Eco, and a host of others are writing 20th century novels that will rival anything in the literary canon, including the works of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Mann. However, these authors do not produce their novels in 14 days. Some of them, like the wonderful de Bernieres, may take 14 years. While this may be a publisher’s nightmare, the output of these authors, however popular, is not measurable in purely monetary terms, nor is it measurable in business styled cycle times. Books like History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Oscar and Lucinda, or Foucault’s Pendulum are extraordinary, powerful, and change the way we imagine our language. A writer’s craft is like that of any artists. It can be carpentry — either skilled or shoddy, or it can be art — which works beyond simple craftsmanship.

Naturally a writer can write quickly — knocking out an article in a few hours, or less. Every journalist requires the skills to begin working, and to write fast. Not everything a professional writer will produce is going to be literary fiction. However, good literary work requires time. Not only in the original creation, but in the editing, the re-working, re-writing, and re-thinking. There is research involved, even if the work sits squarely within the area of a writer’s expertise, and there are characters, plot, setting, and linguistic drama to create. A 14-day novel is not going to add to the literary canon. That may be fine. As long as you don’t expect to produce the next Ulysses, or change your reader’s world. If writers want to do that — to write something truly wonderful, they will have to plan on spending more than a few weeks on it.

Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer and interviewer, and is the Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader (compulsivereader.com). She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and online, and is the author of several published books of poetry and fiction, including, most recently, the poetry book Unmaking Atoms (Ginninderra Press) and the novel Black Cow (Bewrite Books). Magdalena Ball has a blog.

How to Get a Top Literary Agent & Sign That Coveted Six-Figure Deal

By Susan Harrow

Top literary agents get about 400–1,000 unsolicited queries every month from hopeful book authors. Publishing houses sometimes juggle 5,000. Most of my private clients and participants in my seminar “How to Get a Six-Figure Book Advance” ask me, “How is a non-fiction author supposed to get an agent’s attention when there is so much competition?”

First of all, don’t write a non-fiction book—write a non-fiction book proposal. To capture a reputable non-fiction literary agent’s attention, you’ll need to show that you’re a media star, or a star in the making. Good writing can be bought but star power can’t.

Five Tips for Landing a Top Literary Agent

  1. Do your research.Literary agents for non-fiction specialize in very specific interests. For example, my agent loves tearjerkers but won’t take on books that involve children in peril. You want an agent who has represented books similar to yours, who sells books on a regular basis, who is devoted to you, and has the time to give you a little guidance through the publishing labyrinth.

Sometimes a newer, less experienced literary agent who is hungry for business is more dedicated and has more time to spend with you than an established one with a reputable cadre of authors. I recommend two ways to find the literary agent right for you:

  • Look in the acknowledgements of books similar to your topic. A happy author always thanks his literary agent. Once you’ve located your ideal agents, become familiar with their tastes, learn everything you can about their interests, pet peeves, and preferences, and review their websites for submission guidelines. Show that knowledge in your query letter or initial phone conversation.
  • Read Publishers WeeklyPublisher’s Lunch, and Variety to see who sold what and for how much. You will get a sense of an agent’s sensibility and be able to speak knowledgeably about the types of books they prefer when you know what’s happening in the industry in general and in your area of expertise in particular. You’ll know more than most people who submit proposals as you’ll be apprised of books that aren’t even published yet and movie deals in the making. And you’ll get a sense of market trends.
  1. Write a book proposal that reads like a thriller.

After you’ve located the agents you want to approach, the next step is to complete your book proposal. Once interested by your call or query letter, many literary agents move at hyper-speed.

There is a real art to writing a best-selling book proposal that makes the literary agent you’ve chosen say, “I want this person as a client.” To make your book proposal read in one sitting, you’ll want to write in short paragraphs with strong headlines. Be sure to give the chosen agent an immediate impression of how your book will read by writing the proposal in the same style as your book.

Find unusual, quirky, provocative tidbits about your subject that will entice the literary agent to say, “Wow, I never knew this.” Imagine the kind of tips that a terrific magazine article would include. When an editor at a top New York publishing house is reading your book proposal she is thinking, what kind of media exposure will we be able to get for this book? Can we get magazine feature articles, newspaper pieces, radio shows? Will the subject matter and the author interest the producers of Good Morning America, The Today Show,  CNN, or Oprah?

  1. Prove you have a platform.

The one thing that thrills a New York non-fiction publisher the most is your platform. Your platform is simply your reach. How many people are influenced by your ideas worldwide? To simplify this even further, a publisher wants to know one thing and one thing only (once they are interested in the subject matter of your book), and that is . . . how many books are you going to sell and to whom. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re a great media guest, that you have an audience eager to snap up your books, and that you have a proven track record for selling your books or wares.

  1. Reveal how your past performance predicts future behavior.

Map out each venue and determine how many people are in attendance and how many of those people will buy your book. Include workshops, seminars, fairs, media appearances, book signings, keynotes, teleseminars, webinars, events, newsletter lists, blogs, partnerships, etc. Quantify everything in great detail. Estimate and base potential sales on past sales you’ve completed.

  1. Show you are the one.

Show that there is a clear need for your non-fiction book and that you are the only one who can write it. In other words, what problems are you solving and why are you the undisputed expert? What gap in the market are you filling? One of my clients whose topic was about how to be the very best at what you do and who you are, had a black belt, was a concert violinist, and had given seminars at The White House. She walked her talk, and lived her words. You need to have top-notch skills in order to gain the interest of a high caliber literary agent.

Follow these tips, and you can land a top literary agent and a six-figure deal. I hope to see your name on the New York Times best-seller list!

Media coach & marketing strategist, Susan Harrow has helped speakers, authors and entrepreneurs get 6-figure book advances. Susan Harrow has a Website.

Beating the Block: 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Cure Writer’s Block

By Magdalena Ball

You’ve got writer’s block?  So did I, for more than five years. I had plenty of grand ideas about what I wanted to write —the literary masterpieces which would stun the critics, the lofty poetry.  With idols and role models like Joyce, Woolf, Yeats and Faulker, it isn’t surprising that my meager efforts seemed hopelessly trite and mundane.  We live in a world of instant gratification, but quality takes time, hard work and many drafts.  No one simply brings forth genius in automatic and effortless writing.

The cure for my block was a simple one, and perhaps obvious too, but it took me a lot of lost writing time to work it out. Germination? The gaining of maturity and perspective?  Nonsense — just lost time.  The one and only way to beat writer’s block is to write.  It doesn’t much matter what it is.  Writing a full length novel is perhaps the hardest, most structurally and emotionally challenging type of writing you can do, so if you are having trouble starting, try something quicker and easier to get your work moving, and don’t worry if it isn’t an epic full of depth and pith.  That will come, but only with lots of rework.  In the meantime, here are a few ideas to get you through the block:

  1. Read the newspaper and pick a real life story that captures your imagination. Turn it into a fictional one.
  2. Keep a dream journal. The very process of translating those vague bits of imagery that make up a dream is the stuff of fiction writing.  Pick any dream theme that interests you and turn it into a full blown story.
  3. Pick a period of your life — any period. The year when you stopped believing in fairies, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, your first love (and breakup), the loss of a pet, childbirth — anything powerful, and write it out.  Have fun and change the ending to suit your story better — improve the characters, make that boyfriend suffer as you leave him instead of the other way around.  This is not only cathartic, it can make for very good writing as you recall those deep sensory impressions — the ring of truth will increase your impact.
  4. Pick an era or historical subject that interests you and research it like mad. Then write up a biography, historical paper or fictionalized story based on the original.  Some of the best examples of fictionalized stories based on real characters include Atwood’s Alias Grace or Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.  There are plenty of untapped famous characters whose lives make for excellent material.
  5. Write a pastiche of your favorite author. Try stream of consciousness, a sonnet, a short drama — anything you fancy.  Use it as a springboard for whatever theme you want to explore.  Try varying the form — do a sonnet and then turn it into flash fiction.
  6. Change tack. If you’re blocked on your normal style of fiction, try writing in a different genre.  Give horror, romance, science fiction, flash fiction, a children’s story (if you have children, try targeting their age group — you will have a good understanding of what will and won’t work) or fantasy a try. While this type of writing may not be your cup of tea, it can be quite liberating to write to a formula and you may produce something quite unusual by working across your normal genre.
  7. Try nonfiction. Write a book review, a piece on your last holiday, advice for saving money, for raising a child, for throwing a birthday party, gardening, make up a recipe — anything!  There are plenty of markets for this kind of work and it can be rejuvenating to produce a finished piece.
  8. Join a writing group. This is not for everyone, but if you are a socially inclined person, the pressure of having to produce something combined with the stimulation of being able to obtain criticism and support immediately could be just the sort of thing you need.  There is probably a local group in your area which would involve meeting up in a specific location with other like minded writers, and many of these are supported by a wider network.  The camaraderie, assignments, local submission information and support is worth the trouble to get to one of these groups.  You could also join or set up an online group.
  9. Take an on-line course. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
  10. Buy a book filled with inspiration.There are many on the market.  One of my favorites is Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days, which gives you a mini-assignment for every day of the year and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  Any writing book will provide inspiration, though.  Another favorite, which is a ‘must have’ for any writer is your local Writer’s Marketplace.  This has different names in different countries, but it is an invaluable list of markets, and very thorough.  Just reading the book will inspire you to produce material for submission.  Just read through its pages and stick a Post-it note on any of the markets you are interested in.  Then write for them!  One acceptance will generally pay for the cost of the book, so it is a very worthwhile investment.  In the US you can try the  Writers Market published by Writer’s Digest Books.  For other countries, just do a search at your favorite search engine on “Writer’s Market” + the country you live in and you should get a decent list of publications. The most current edition is also usually available at your local library if you want to just browse and say, choose a market a month to target.
  11. The secret is that writing begets writing. Your first efforts may well be trite, but the more you write the better you will get and the easier the words will flow.  Don’t ever use “lack of time” or “lack of inspiration” as an excuse. Inspiration comes out of the writing process — not before it, and time is an illusion. No one ever has time. Make time. You don’t need much as long as you are consistent and regular. Commit to writing something, anything, every day. If you wrote a page a day, you’d have a fat novel by the end of a year, a full length short story every month, or 2 articles a week. Few authors produce more than this. Even a half hour a day is worth committing to. Don’t make the mistake I did.  Write through the insecurity, the uncertainty and self-doubt and your block will most certainly disappear. Don’t expect immediate perfection, either. Ulysses took James Joyce 10 years to write. If you visit the archives containing his handwritten drafts, you’ll see that the first jottings were nothing like the finished product.  The main thing is to keep writing. Your own masterpiece is just around the corner.

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader and is the author of The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything.  Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications. Magdalena Ball also has a website, and blogs.

Author Appearances: Top Ten Tips

By C. Hope Clark

Cover of C. Hope Clark's book The Shy WriterYour heart races, banging against your ribs, your chest, your throat. Fingers grip a pen to disguise the shake. The other hand flattens on your leg, your side, and your leg again drying the moisture that never disappears. You did not bargain for exhibition when you entered the world of writing. What started as a reclusive haven for your creative muse evolved into a public forum to sell your work. Good work should sell itself, you say, you wish. But nonetheless, there are invitations for author appearances.

Stepping before people, forcing yourself to say a few words, and pretending to enjoy the experience is the hive-causing, palm-sweating, mouth-drying bane of many an author. If the trauma of public appearances makes you question your chosen profession, stop and ponder ways to improve the experience and mitigate the stress.

Ten Tips for Author Appearances

  1. Take an assistant with you. Author appearances at book signings, book fairs and conferences are great places for an author’s “assistant.” The gregarious son, the extroverted spouse, or the effervescent niece can do what you cannot in many ways. While you sign books, your assistant can work the crowd and attract the customers. They charm the folks and lead them to the celebrity author (you), where you busily smile and sign books. Makes you look professional to have hired “staff.”
  2. Pretend you are famous. This is an age-old trick of actors and comedians, many of which who are painfully shy. Take a moment and paint on the persona of someone confident, energized and famous. The people feel it, and your confidence rises. Makes your voice a little louder, too.
  3. Hold a pacifier. Well, not literally, but holding something in your hands tends to settle a few jittery nerves. Jane Pauley fingers a paperclip when she makes author appearances. An author holding a pen is quite expected. Put a token of affection in your pocket to remind you to chill. A handkerchief in your pocket gives you something to fiddle with as well as wipe off sweaty palms.
  4. Share the spotlight. There are so many ways to do this. Sit on a panel instead of speaking alone. Have your assistant speak talk about you, introduce you, and close a function with you only saying thanks for coming. Share a booth with an outgoing author or other salesperson who draws people. Partner with a speaker who shares your topic’s expertise, and split commissions to have him incorporate your book in his presentation.
  5. Gimmicks speak alone. Branding yourself is common advice, but did you know that brands speak on your behalf? If someone recognizes FundsforWriters instead of C. Hope Clark, that’s fine because the connection is made either way. Without you saying a word, your image, logo, color scheme, or design says, “Here she is!” So hone that gimmick.
  6. Dress the part. As a “famous” author, you need to present yourself as polished at your author appearances. Hate pantyhose? Dressy slacks give a cool representation these days. Dressing like a gypsy does not speak professionally unless your book is in tune with that costume. If you dress casually, you tell customers you are casual in all ways, including the writing and marketing of your work. The sharp image attracts customers and lends an air of trust.
  7. Label yourself. Permanent nametags introduce you to others. Wearing your branded self on a professionally designed legible lapel pin is just like walking up to a person and saying, “Hello, I’m Jane Doe, the author.” You will find more people initiate the connection and relieve you of the icebreaking task when you wear a conspicuous form of identification.
  8. Visually dodge the group. Look at only one person at a time. Imagine a bookstore with hordes of people wandering around while you do a reading. Envision 200 people at a sit-down banquet. Think about a writers’ group of two dozen members. The numbers do not matter. Pick one person and communicate a thought. Move to another one and communicate your next thought. Keep the connection singular, and you tune out the sea of eyes and reduce it to a one-on-one coffee chat.
  9. Toss it back. Putting the spotlight on the other person takes it off of you. When meeting a stranger, compliment him, ask him questions, and keep tossing the conversation back to him. People love personal attention, and it relieves you of the same. In a group, ask for people to give examples or explain their experiences, releasing you of the entire speaking obligation. Not only do you release your own pressure, but also you become so special in their eyes. Oprah Winfrey is known for this talent, and everyone loves her.
  10. Preparation is everything. Memorize pat answers to questions like: What made you write this book; Why are you a writer; Where do you get your ideas; Are your characters taken from real people; and so on. You know the ones. Recite them at home and be prepared. You sound crisp and on cue when you do. For a speaking engagement, write the speech or lesson ahead of time in great depth — every word. Something about writing the words implants them on your brain. Reread your own book, if you need to make the words fresh in your mind. Preparation removes the stress from impromptu. You may know your work, but review never hurts.

The writing world is not the island of words it once was centuries ago. Electronics and media phenomena now place authors in front of their readers making them accountable. Fans want to see and hear their idols, plus, there is something about seeing an author that makes you real and credible. You might hate public author appearances, but options do exist to make it more palatable. By getting creative, you reduce the stress-factor while still giving your readers what they want.

C. Hope Clark is the author of The Shy Writer, and several mysteries. She is also the editor of FundsforWriters.com, and she blogs at TheShyWriter.com. You can find her personal Website at chopeclark.com.

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com

Book Review Barbara Wallraff Word Court

Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done
By Barbara Wallraff

Review by Andrea M. Chester

Barbara Wallraff’s Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done reminds me of my favorite English professor, and her charming way of correcting us. She taught her pupils to love the flow of a well-written piece, whether it was penned by Shakespeare, or Kipling, or Mark Twain. She made using good English seem relevant to our everyday lives, fun and flexible, and useful.

The author, Barbara Wallraff, is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, a benchmark of correct usage to many readers. Ms. Wallraff reassures her readers that they already know a lot more about good use of language than they think they do. She also wields a deft stick-pin, ready to puncture the over-inflated ego of those who think they’re the only ones who ever speak well. She’s funny, knowledgeable, and approachable.

The book is an amusing compilation of her columns, reflecting questions her readers have written her over the years. Some of them seem priggish. (As my teenage daughter would say, “Like, who cares?”) Others pick on some of my own peculiar notions about the way we speak, or should speak. Yet, for all its authoritative judgments on what’s standard and what’s preferred, this book is entertaining, rather than stuffy. It’s useful, rather than just another rulebook to collect dust on the shelf of the English Department at the community college.

More and more, new words, or old phrases with new meanings, crop up in our language. English is one of the most “wordy” languages in the world. With so many words, we can be more precise than most other languages allow, but we can also get into more trouble with those words. (For instance, would you rather someone said you were “a sight” or “a vision?” The words mean the same . . . or do they?)

People who wish merely to speak with each other may not be concerned with whether their choice of words carries the full flavor of their ideas. After all, in the time it takes to read 100 words, most of us can hear and process more than 400. We can talk ourselves into and out of misunderstandings, given just a bit of time and a person willing to listen. Written language, however, must capture and hold readers more quickly. To the writer, words matter very much, and precision is paramount. Our words influence readers to take us seriously, to trust our knowledge and integrity, or to consider us buffoons.

Those who write letters to each other or occasional letters to the editors of our newspapers might seldom use the wisdom in this book. For others—those who craft articles, or construct technical brochures, or devise business communications—Wallraff’s Word Court could be quite valuable. Whether you read it to become more accurate or to amuse yourself, you’re in for a good laugh from time to time, and perhaps a lesson or two about clear communication.

A compact handbook of preferred English usage, Wallraff’s Word Court is a fine addition to any working library. It can double as a college-level text, and makes a wonderful gift to anyone interested in being correct without being a pain in the lower back. In fact, if I can just track down my old professor, I intend to send her a copy!

Andrea and her husband Charles live in the mountains of western North Carolina, with three cats and a shaggy black dog. She’s a freelance writer and a community educator for a domestic violence agency.

Getting the Scoop on Poetry Contest Scams

By Linda Alice Dewey

“Congratulations! Your poem has been selected for our next anthology.”

Every year, these words bring tears to the eyes of thousands of poets, first from joy— then from anger. Why the anger? Because in many cases, they’ve been swindled.

Submitting work to a legitimate writing contest can be a rewarding experience, but before you send in your entry, there are a few things you should know.

Scams get your money through flattery or something-for-nothing ploys. Many times the prizes go as high as a million bucks. And the big prize-winners? Not legitimate either, often not even real people.

Some contest sponsors aren’t interested in quality writing at all. In fact, you’re guaranteed to be a winner. There’s just one hitch: it’ll cost you. Want a copy of the anthology your poem will be in? Fifty bucks, please. Add your bio—$25. Typesetting? You guessed it. Be included in a future ‘Best of’ Anthology—for a fee. You can even get a plaque or cassette, but not for free.

We’re talking big business here. Consider a company in Maryland that published more than 50 anthologies last year. Say each has an average of 300 pages (most do), with 3-6 poems per page at approximately $50 per poem. You have a little company making lots of cash.

Poetry on scam contest websites is sometimes “borrowed” from famous poets to give the site authenticity. One well-known author, while researching scams, was surprised to find his work posted on a site. He promptly sent them a letter, and they removed his piece.

One of the more infamous but still functioning contest websites has a page for posting poetry about the September 11 tragedy, preying on the emotions of a grieving people to further their ends even more. Some specifically prey on children. And it isn’t just poetry they want: they’ll go after short story, essay, fiction and nonfiction writers, too. Authors looking for agents get taken by companies charging up front fees who may also refer you to fee-charging book doctors.

Crooked come-ons lurk in literary magazines, newspapers, online and in writer’s guidebooks right alongside their legitimate counterparts. How can you tell them apart? Well, take heart. Fraudulent contests share several characteristics, and once you educate yourself, you’ll easily spot one from a distance.

Here’s the scoop.

  1. Avoid “free” contests. Surprisingly, legitimate competitions normally charge a nominal fee (up to $35) to cover judging and prizes. The freebies will more often than not respond to your submission with a flattering letter about your wonderful poem. For just X dollars, it could be in the next anthology, it’s so good, etc., etc.
  2. Research background information. Two or more dubious answers to the following questions indicate a possible scam.
      • Who is the sponsoring organization? Does the name sound or look like a well-known publishing house or organization? Is their address merely a post office box or a real person’s name with a physical address? Could this be a one-person organization?
      • View last year’s winning entries. Who were last year’s winners? Try to find out if the names listed are real people. If they are, they’ll have credits, a website, an email address—something. Of course, a few new legitimate contests are born each year, so if they weren’t around last year, that alone doesn’t make them dishonest.
      • Who are the judges? Search the web for more information about these people. If they’re authentic writers or real editors (and again, the worst scams “borrow” names), you may have a legitimate contest.
      • Are contest guidelines clear and concise regarding format, what information to include, fees, prizes, judging, cost-free publication, and what rights you may be relinquishing?
  3. Beware of overly flattering response letters that ask for fees not mentioned up front. Legitimate organizations are businesslike and tell you what the fee is before you submit.
  4. How frequent are contests sponsored by this organization? If often, then they’re either after money or they’re trying to fill up anthologies and magazines.
  5. Are there perks? If so, you shouldn’t have to pay for them.

Want to get published? Want to get exposure? Submit projects to literary magazines that print work similar to your own. Get a few credits, then start freelancing for serial publications. Literary newsletters often relate success stories of how an editor or agent saw a story/poem published in this or that magazine and contacted the author. The rest is history.

In his recent jewel entitled On Writing, Stephen King suggests that one way to catch a publisher’s eye is to win contests. However, he also recommends submitting non-contest pieces on a regular basis to magazines. In the first instance, you pay them an entrance fee at the very least. In the second, you’ll never pay, and it is entirely possible that they will pay you. Now tell me, potential award-winning writer: which would you prefer?

If you’re good enough to win a prize, you’re good enough to get published in a legitimate publication on your own merit. So get out there, get writing, and get published.

Contest Evaluation Resources

SFWA’s (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Writer Beware on Contests

Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss on Writing Contests: Facts and Fakes…And How to Tell the Difference

The United States Postal Inspector’s fraud report form

Post and read warnings for writers about deadbeat publications and writing scams on Absolute Write’s “Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check” forum.

Sources for legitimate contests:

Good Luck!

Linda Alice Dewey is the author of Aaron’s Crossing: A True Ghost Story, available in bookstores and Amazon.com. It will be re-released by Hampton Roads Publishing in the fall of 2006. Her current projects include adapting it to a Phantom-like musical and a screenplay about a WWII Mission involving her father, a former pilot of a B-24 bomber, one of a very few to make it back to England after a vicious air battle. You can visit her website at lindaalicedewey.com.

© 2002 Linda Alice Dewey

Editor’s note: links updated 2018

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.
By Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Writer’s Digest Books
298 pages
2001
Amazon.com price: $13.99

Victoria Lynn Schmidt is a screenwriter for both film and television who was once told at film school that she couldn’t write a script about a female hero because those stories don’t sell. She vehemently disagreed and spent the next few years searching for the female hero’s journey. Despite taking every class she could find on the subject and learning a lot about myths, writing and feminist theory, she could find no answers, until she found a book about the journey of the goddess Inanna, the oldest myth in history. Then she knew she’d found what she’d been looking for—the female myth.

When she did, Jack Heffron at Writer’s Digest Books threw a monkey wrench into it by asking her, “What about the male hero?” Although she felt that the male hero had been done to death, she began to explore it, and discovered that the human journey was a part of both men and women. It could more appropriately be termed “feminine” and “masculine,” she felt, for men and women both took descending inner journeys albeit at different times and with varying results.

Cover of Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original CharactersHer research and thoughts on these matters became 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, which offers writers a new way of developing characters and plots through the use of archetyped characters taken from the pages of ancient myth and modern literature as well as from the screens of film and television. Ms. Schmidt has a lot of interesting things to say about archetypes and their journeys and how fiction writers can use them to produce blueprints from which to work and maps to plot out where their stories are going. One caveat, though—many of her examples will only make sense to readers who are conversant with U.S. popular culture.

Whether you agree with her theories or not, though—in fact, whether or not you even understand them completely—Schmidt’s archetypes are liable to change the way you write as well as the way you watch television and films, the way you read, even the way you look at friends and acquaintances. If, after reading this book, you find yourself unable to watch your favorite television show or read an entire novel without saying to yourself, “Oh, yeah, she’s a Nurturer!” or “He’s a typical Fool” and you catch yourself at the next family dinner trying to figure out if your cousin is a Father’s Daughter or a Backstabber, just remember—you were warned.

Book reviewed by Betty Winslow

I footnotes