Writers among the News

By Midge Raymond,

Continuing a wonderful trend of publishing literary work among hard news and features, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is starting a writers-in-residence program in which it will publish new, unpublished work by some of the Northwest’s best-known authors.

The program launches next Friday with National Book Award winner Pete Dexter. A list of all twelve authors — including Sherman Alexie, Tom Robbins, and Ann Rule — and their bios is on the P-I web site.

Post-Intelligencer managing editor David McCumber ran a similar program when he was at the San Francisco Examiner, and the P-I joins other newspapers — including the New York Times and LA Times, which publish fiction in their Sunday magazines, and the Washington Post, whose Chapter One publishes the first chapters of new books — in highlighting literary work. Let’s hope this trend continues to grow and to bring more authors to larger audiences.

Behind the Big Prizes

By Midge Raymond,

Lemn Sissay‘s article in today’s Guardian revealed rather shocking news about literary prizes (the big ones), pointing out that the nominees are not simply authors whose books their publishers admire but authors whose publishing contracts guarantee them prize nominations. And if this weren’t enough, Sissay also notes that this isn’t exactly breaking news. The article quotes Francis Bickmore, an editor at Canongate Books, as saying, “It’s standard for the big hitters and big prizes” (though Bickmore adds that he isn’t aware that Canongate has any such contracts). At any rate, this is not good news for writers who don’t realize that these prizes are something to negotiate before their books come out.

As a judge for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Fiction, Sissay was unaware that this sort of agreement exists and believes most other prize judges are as well. Though literary agents, too, are in on the secret (“It’s a way of guaranteeing press coverage,” literary agent Emily Hayward told Sissay), most writers are probably not. It may make writers who didn’t make the short lists feel a little better — or not — but it will definitely have them thinking twice about their next contract.

Embracing Bad Writing

By Midge Raymond,

Last week in a workshop, I asked writers to make a list of excuses they use not to write. (These were long and very creative.) Then I read them a passage from Natalie Goldberg‘s Writing Down the Bones and posed her question: “Why Do I Write?” (They later compared their two lists, discovering that the lists of excuses were longer than the lists of reasons they write.)

It was deja vu all over again when I read Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, in which the playwright Greg Kotis begins an article on writing with a “short list” of excuses he has to avoid writing (“do the dishes; do laundry; do the Internet (Playbill.com, the Drudge Report); read the paper; install shelves; help my kids with their homework; follow the Red Sox; go to the gym; listen to podcasts (“This American Life,” “Meet the Press”); call my friends to talk about not writing; write lists”). His essay also quotes many of Goldberg’s words of wisdom from Writing Down the Bones.

Kotis’s point, though, offers insight into why our lists of excuses to write are longer than our reasons to write: perhaps we worry too much about writing bad stuff. Kotis, therefore, writes about “embrac[ing] the badness,” concluding that “the exhilaration of abandoning the effort to write well — sort of like the fun in destroying a sandcastle you’ve just made — leads to the desired oblivion. Eventually, the writing stops being strictly bad. It starts keeping to its own rhythms and rules and finally begins to feel sort of OK.”

He’s right; we need to get rid of our self-editors, at least initially, so we can find the “creative voice” that Goldberg writes about. And sometimes it feels even better than OK.

“American Idol” for Writers

By Midge Raymond,

It looks as if Simon & Schuster isn’t giving up its plan to publish an unknown writer — today’s New York Times features a story about a contest on Gather.com (a social networking site described as “MySpace for adults”) in which unpublished novelists can enter by submitting a full-length manuscript. The first chapters will be posted and voted upon by the members of the site, then a second round will follow with the top twenty second chapters, and so on until a winner is chosen by a judging panel.

The good news about the First Chapters Writing Competition is that, unlike the Sobol Award, this contest is free to enter, from now until the March 15 deadline. (See below for posts on the expensive Sobol Award, the winner of which Simon & Schuster was to publish until the contest was cancelled this week.) More good news is that the winner (if one is chosen) will receive a $5,000 prize, a standard publishing contract with Simon & Schuster, and promotion and distribution by Borders (subject to all the fine print, of course).

The fine print posted at the site is not unlike other contests, requiring that manuscripts be unpublished, original works not under consideration elsewhere, and that authors agree upon entering to sign their rights over to Simon & Schuster. Of course, it includes this caveat: “In the event that less than 200 Submissions meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Competition are timely received by Gather, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award the publishing prize.”

Because the contest is free to enter, this competition will likely have fewer problems than the Sobol in attracting manuscripts. What’s unusual is that until the manuscripts are whittled down to the top five, the voting will be based upon the first three chapters only. While there are always exceptions, most publishers do not purchase books based on only three chapters. Hence another caveat: “If the Panel determines that there are no Submissions of publishable quality from the Round 4 finalists, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to review all Submissions from Round 3 (i.e. the 10 semifinalists) to determine the Grand Prize winner.” The rules don’t indicate what happens if none of the semifinalists’ books are “of publishable quality.”

In addition, there are bound to be additional questions from writers, among them what constitutes “book length” as well as “commercial fiction,” both listed in the guidelines without further explanation. And because it’s using the “community” voting system, which brings to mind images of a writer’s friends and family casting vote after vote, the contest has already announced that “Gather will monitor the Competition for irregular voting patterns and fraud, and will disqualify votes and entrants if, in the Sponsor’s sole judgment, we determine that the integrity or fairness of the Competition has been, or could be, compromised.”

Though unconventional, this contest does take into account what makes a book sell: readers. And by asking readers to vote, the publisher is assuming that the most popular book will win, and hence will sell in book form. It’ll be interesting to see how this new model is embraced by writers, readers, and the publishing industry alike.

Sobol Award Cancelled

By Midge Raymond,

The much-disputed Sobol Award, which I wrote about back in September, has now been cancelled for lack of entries, according to the award’s web site.

The contest, inviting writers to submit novels with a hefty $85 fee, promised a $100,000 award to the winner, plus “representation” by the Sobol Literary Agency, a brand-new entity apparently founded for the sole purpose of administering this contest (it has no clients and is not a member of AAR). The award did not include publication until a division of Simon & Shuster offered to publish the top three winning manuscripts.

This, along with a few high-profile judges, gave the contest some legitimacy — but the fact that this award did not receive enough submissions to sustain itself (even after extending the deadline) brings up some interesting questions. Perhaps writers, always vulnerable to publishing scams that are still rampant in the industry, are becoming more savvy. Perhaps the increasing ease and lower costs of self-publishing have reduced the need for a writer to go the traditional publishing route.

The contest, which hoped to draw 50,000 submissions, had received only 1,000 manuscripts by December. And the contest rules stipulate that “in the event less than 2,000 entries meeting the minimum standard criteria of the Contest are timely received by Sponsor, Simon & Schuster reserves the right to not award any publication prize.” This caveat, as well as the writer’s requirement to sign on with the yet unproven Sobol Agency, might have been among the many reasons writers did not respond as enthusiastically as the contest’s administrators hoped.

We may never know whether this contest would have turned out to be a good one, but the way it has ended certainly speaks volumes. The good news is that writers have lost nothing but their time, and the cost of paper and postage; the Sobel Award has promised to refund all entry fees. And, thanks to the contest’s outspoken industry critics, the even better news is that the contest’s failure might indicate that writers are feeling more confidence in their own work. The fact that this contest couldn’t continue seems to show that rather than forking over hefty reading fees, writers are willing to wait for their right to representation that reflects the industry’s ethical standards.

Ship Lit

By Midge Raymond,

Authors and publishers have found yet another way to create buzz for their books … the New York Times ran a story yesterday on literary cruises, one of the newer trends in bookselling. The cruise featured is called “Book It to Bermuda,” which leaves out of Boston and entails five days at sea with popular authors. Rough seas aside (one presenter had to give her talk sitting down, due to high waves), both authors and readers — and especially publishers — are optimistic about the idea of books at sea.

Readers, of course, reported enjoying the authors as well as hanging out with others with similar literary interests. The authors’ experience was “special”; the story quoted one writer who was approached by fans in the bathroom and at the spa. And the book distributors reported good news on sales: authors sell books on the ship and have also seen increased sales after a cruise, thanks to travelers’ word of mouth.

The article notes that a typical Ship Lit cruise passenger is “older and female,” which creates a good match for such books as romances, as well as health and fitness books — but if the trend continues, we may see a wider variety of authors and themes. If you are in the market for a cruise, a literary cruise might be worth looking into — especially if you’re an author with a book to promote and you respond well to Dramamine. Bon voyage!

This Is It

By Midge Raymond,

In today’s LA Times Book Review, California’s poet laureate, Al Young, offers up his New Year’s resolutions. Among them is to remind himself that This Is It, that “this melting moment is it, is all you’ve got.” Young plans to remind himself by writing the words on a sticky note and putting it on the bathroom mirror so that, as he says to himself, “morning or night, when you glance or gaze at yourself, you’ll know the score.”

“This Is It” sums up so many things about resolutions, as well as life in general, and I found his other resolutions inspiring as well. Among them are to write three pages a day of his novel (pointing out that even a page a day adds up to 365 pages by year’s end), memorize one poem a week, write by hand, and speak less and listen more.

I’m normally not the type to make New Year’s resolutions (I used to, but after years of forgetting or breaking them, I gave up) — but more and more I’m beginning to think that it’s a good idea for all writers to make them. In classes I’m always encouraging writers to establish goals for their work, whether it’s finishing a novel or sending a short story to an editor. Establishing and revising one’s writing goals would, ideally, happen more than once a year, but we all have to start somewhere.

So tonight (or tomorrow, or at least sometime before 2008), think about what you want to accomplish with your writing. Try to focus on what you can control (i.e., “finish my novel” vs. “become rich and famous”). Picture where you are a year from today. And then make it happen.

Happy New Year!

More Doublespeak

By Midge Raymond,

The Associated Press ran a story today on the latest in government doublespeak (I last wrote about doublespeak back in July when Dell recalled computer batteries due to “thermal incidents”). This AP story is even more disturbing, covering the use of such terms as “food insecurity” for the problem of hunger in America, and the idea of “redeploying” rather than “retreating” from Iraq.

It’s as if the government thinks no one will catch on if suicides are called “self-injurious behavior incidents” and prisoners are called “imperative security internees.” It’s not just the current administration that is taken to task; the story also points out that the Democrats’ stand on abortion is invariably called the “right to choose.”

The article quotes Timothy Lynch of the Cato Institute as saying, “By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability.” Yet to me, it doesn’t seem as if doublespeak actually fools people — rather, it simply talks down to them. And this, of course, violates not only one but at least two tenets of good writing: be clear, and respect your audience.

You’re Not Paranoid

By Midge Raymond,

Recently a writer asked me to have a look at a publishing contract she’d just been offered — she was wary because the agency had responded so quickly with an unequivocal “yes” that she thought it must be too good to be true. She was right.

The agency, it turned out, is well known by several bloggers and web sites warning writers of scams. And this writer’s instincts were right on — while finding an agent can happen miraculously quickly for a lucky few, usually it is such an arduous process that when an agent responds immediately with a contract, writers are wise to be cautious, perhaps even a little paranoid. At the very least, doing a little more research is never a bad idea.

At best, a scam agency will waste your valuable time. At worst, it can cost a writer hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in addition to his or her valuable time. There are plenty of good resources to help you avoid some of these illegitimate agencies, among them Victoria Strauss and A.C. Crispin’s blog about scams, as well as the popular Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors sites.

But more important than recognizing a bad agency is knowing what a good agency is. And the only way to find this out is to do your research: to invest the time, to get to know the industry. This is usually the last thing a writer wants to do when he or she has just finished a manuscript and is eager to send it out — but of course, this is what the illegitimate agencies count on.

But try looking at your agent search as you would the writing process itself: as something that takes time, sometimes quite a bit of time, to be done properly and well. Subscribe to PublishersMarketplace and/or Publishers Weekly long before you’re ready to send out your queries. Look at sales records, and look for these sales on the bookshelves. The more time you invest in the process and the more knowledge you have, the more confident you’ll feel in getting good news.

Save the Cash for Postage

By Midge Raymond,

In our Getting Published seminar last weekend, we discussed everything from submitting stories to literary magazines to querying editors at the glossies to the best strategies for finding an agent. When I went through a list of DOs and DON’Ts for submitting to literary agents, a few students were amazed at some of the examples I brought up of what not to do — i.e., don’t claim your book is a surefire best-seller; don’t mention all the other agents who loved it but inexplicably rejected it anyway. “People actually do that?” they asked.

Yes, actually, they do — and it was fun this morning to catch part of an NPR interview with local author Debra Ginsberg, who spoke about some of her experiences working at a literary agency (her first novel, Blind Submission, released this month, is set at an agency).

When asked what sorts of books make a good impression on an agent, Debra mentioned the usual things that capture agents’ attention: being on the cusp of a trend, being a celebrity, having a strong writing and publishing background — but she also mentioned that more obvious is what makes a bad impression, among them poor spelling, punctuation, and grammar, as well as claiming that your book is the best in the world. She has worked at agencies that receive 75-100 manuscripts a day (some, she said, actually arrive with cash stapled to them). When dealing with this sort of volume, it’s easy to see how rejection can be swift; as Debra said, while it’s hard to say what types of books are accepted, it’s easy to say what types of manuscripts and proposals get rejected.

Of course, it wasn’t surprising to hear that the publishing industry is as competitive as ever — but it was good to hear that a great story, presented in a professional, polished manuscript, is still the best way to make a good impression.

The Million-Dollar Comma

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times features a story about the importance of punctuation — and while it is a distressing story for the the two Canadian companies embroiled in a contract dispute, it’s a joyous occasion for all of us who have (usually unsuccessfully) attempted to teach writers that a comma is never just a comma.

The article outlines the dispute between a cable television provider and a phone company over their contract; at the heart of the argument is a comma that tips the grammar in favor of the phone company, at a cost of 1 million Canadian dollars.

The sentence in question reads: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.” Most grammar sticklers, including myself, will agree (as did Canada’s telecom regulator) that the placement of the second comma does, in fact, indicate that the contract can be terminated after one year, as the phone company asserts. The cable company disagrees, of course, and is arguing the rules with the help of an expert in contract language. It also has another resource: the French version of the contract, which in Canada has equal status under the law.

But as unusual as this case may be, I just have to take this opportunity to exhort all writers not to underestimate the comma — or any piece of punctuation, for that matter. One day you may be glad you paid attention.

Writer Beware

By Midge Raymond,

While the Sobol Award (see previous entry) may have raised the hopes of unpublished, unagented writers, it is also raising great ire among agents and publishers. W.W. Norton executive editor Robert Weil told Reuters yesterday, “I feel extremely sorry for the thousands of eager writers who will pay $85 in the hopes it might get them started on a successful career…I do not think this is a serious way of getting published.”

In the same article, agent Gary Morris, of the David Black Literary Agency in New York, compared the contest to a lottery and pointed out that it would behoove writers to find an agent who is actually known to editors. As I pointed out in my previous blog, the Sobol Literary Agency has no known clients or sales — something that should raise a red flag for any writer seeking representation.

My favorite response to the contest comes from Miss Snark, an anonymous New York literary agent whose blog on agenting gives the Sobol Award no mercy. For all you writers out there who are thinking of submitting to the Sobol Award, I’d suggest reading Miss Snark’s blog first. She may be a little cranky about this particular award, but she does know her stuff … and maybe you’ll decide you have better places to spend your $85. And if not, at least you’ll be submitting with your eyes wide open.

No agent? No publisher? No problem. (Maybe.)

By Midge Raymond,

The Sobol Award, a new award for unagented and unpublished writers, opens tomorrow, offering the winning novelist a $100,000 prize and representation by The Sobol Literary Agency. Unlike most contests, it also offers all entrants a reader’s report on the strengths and weaknesses of their manuscripts (which helps explain the hefty $85 entry fee). The award also offers representation and cash to the top 10 finalists.

The unusual thing about this contest, aside from the high fee and amazingly high amount of prize money, is that it’s being held by a literary agency rather than a magazine, nonprofit, or small press. Most other contests pay much less to the winners (closer to the neighborhood of $1,000 than $100,000), but they do publish winning manuscripts. In this case, writers get representation (and, ostensibly, far more money than they would likely earn as an advance on a first novel) — but no promise of publication.

Of course, as the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Generally speaking, literary agencies taking reading fees from writers goes against the Association of Authors’ Representatives’ canon of ethics. (The Sobol Literary Agency is not an AAR member, as far as we can tell, and it seems to have been created for the sole purpose of representing the winners and finalists of the award; it offers no information about other clients.) Writers may also recall the infamous Zoo Press fiction award, for which the press collected hundreds of entry fees without awarding any prizes.

The Sobol Award was founded by a self-published technology entrepreneur, and its management team and panel of judges comprise former television and publishing executives. And it will either comfort or alarm writers to know that the Sobol Award is represented by an attorney, F. Robert Stein, who previously turned down the job, telling the Associated Press that he thought the award “sounded terribly suspicious” and that “I thought it would destroy my reputation.” But, he continued, “I laid out conditions for the contest, including that winners are not bound forever to being represented by the Sobol agency … I have been over every word on the website and every word of the promotional material. I have been absolutely satisfied.”

It’s tempting for any writer to jump at a chance to win what the Sobol Award is offering, and we hesitate to discourage anyone from entering what could turn out to be the contest of the year. But there is a reason contests like this don’t come up every day — and as with contest or agent search, writers should proceed with caution.

Got Writer’s Block?

By Midge Raymond,

Tuesday’s Portland Oregonian featured a story on the International 3-Day Writing Contest, which puts writers to the task of beginning and finishing a novel within 72 hours (making the term Labor Day Weekend truly appropriate). The contest draws 300 entrants from around the world, and its $50 price tag allows the sponsors to offer publication to the winner (though it’s not clear by what criteria novels are defined or winners chosen — this year’s winning novel was only 80 pages).

I’m a big fan of Anne Lamott’s aptly named notion of Shitty First Drafts (see Bird by Bird for her brilliant chapter on this) and therefore am not sure any novel written in three days should be published. In fact, many novels that take a hundred times that long should not be published (including my own first attempt). This contest is clearly more about speed than literary quality (in only three of the contest’s twenty-eight years have the sponsors found no winning novel) — but to its credit, the contest gets people past their writer’s block and gets them writing. For some writers, it may be the competition that jump-starts their work; for others, it’s the possibility of publication. For most, it’s probably just knowing that other writers, somewhere out there, are suffering along with them.

This contest makes NaNoWriMo look like a walk in the park. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a soon-to-be nonprofit that every year inspires writers to pen novels during the month of November. The rules for NaNoWriMo make a little more sense: the minimum word count is 50,000 (about 200 pages); it’s free to sign up; and any writer who reaches 50,000 words is declared a winner. NaNoWriMo doesn’t publish any of the finished novels and acknowledges that this approach provides a starting point only (though many writers who began novels with NaNoWriMo went on to revise and sell their books to such publishers as Warner and Berkley Books). But perhaps best of all, the organization collects donations to help the children’s literacy non-profit Room to Read fund libraries in Cambodia and Laos.

For anyone who has writer’s block but not $50, I’d suggest setting your own Labor Day Weekend goals — devise a personal contest of your own, or challenge a few writer friends to help each other finish your long-neglected projects. And if this weekend doesn’t do the trick, November and NaNoWriMo are just around the corner.

Too Much Truth in Fiction?

By Midge Raymond,

Most often when the subject of libel comes up in our workshops, it’s in the memoir classes. But of course fiction writers, too, draw stories from real life, though as Rachel Donadio notes in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, “it’s extremely rare for a publisher to drop [a novel] because of libel concerns.”

Yet according to Donadio’s essay, that is just what happened to J. Robert Lennon’s novel Happyland, which according to Lennon was dropped by W. W. Norton at the last minute due to its storyline being based on an actual woman and actual events that took place in upstate New York. While Lennon maintains that aside from this foundation, the rest of his novel is entirely fictional, apparently the publishers were concerned enough to let it go.

It’s enough to make any writer paranoid. Many fiction writers do base characters and events, at least in part, on characters and events from their own lives. Then they either let the characters take on entirely new personas — or they very carefully disguise them in hopes that they won’t be recognizable. But libel is always tough to prove, particularly in fiction, so most writers don’t worry too much about it. When my students ask, I turn to my favorite source on the subject, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. For her take on the matter, see Part Five: The Last Class. She says it all.

The good news, as the essay reports, is that Lennon’s novel did receive publication — as a serial in Harper’s. As Lennon told Donadio, with its circulation of 200,000, Harper’s may have provided a better vehicle for the story anyhow. At any rate, it’s good to see that the First Amendment has prevailed. Donadio also reports that the real-life subject of the novel has no intention of either reading the novel or suing over it. It’s a lesson for writers nonetheless: write whatever inspires you, but do it carefully.