Feb 24


Loyal readers of this blog (if you've cheated on me by reading some other blogs recently I forgive you, but don't let it happen again… :) ) may remember that I was recently working on my second book; I've completed it now, and am in the process of querying agents.  For the uninitiated this may seem like a relatively simple process: send a letter telling an agent about your book, if he/she is interested he/she asks to see more, and if all goes well you get representation and everyone has a Merry Christmas.  Ah, grasshopper, how much you have to learn.  Because the truth is that while technically it is more or less like that, in actual practice it's a long, long way from reality (even the rewritten kind).  No, in fact the process of finding an agent tends to be a long and arduous lesson in patience, humility, and a whole lot of gnashing of teeth, sackcloth and ashes optional–and it all starts with the sacred Query Letter, the key to agent bliss.  Having been through this process several times now I think I've started to get the idea–er, ideas–about how this all works, and so at the risk of stealing the thunder from my friends over at LROD, I now present the Five Steps to Writing the Query Letter of Righteousness (I considered "Justice" instead of "Righteousness," but decided that the latter term has got a touch more religious fervor).  Feel free to use this plan if you like, so long as you credit me once you've landed your agent…and, uh, so long as you put me in touch with that agent.  No reason, just would like to talk to him/her.


Really.  Short.  If you think you've already made your query short, you're wrong.  Make it shorter.  No matter that there isn't any conceivable way to communicate what your story is about in two sentences; do it, or there's something wrong with you as a writer.  The agents say that this is necessary because of the hundreds, thousands, or millions (the numbers keep shooting up every time I look, so I'm extrapolating on the fly a bit) of queries they receive every week; if you can get things down to a few sentences, they might have a chance of getting through the query backlog by the fall, if all goes well.  They also claim that this demonstrates your ability as a writer, and there's something the matter either with you or your work if you can't distill your magnum opus into a few simple, easily remembered phrases.  And I'm really not making this up:  on Colleen Lindsay's blog, she quotes Shelly Shapiro's (editor-at-large for Del Rey) advice:  "I tell people that I want to see your plot summed up like a TV Guide entry:  three sentences.  No more.  If a writer can't do that, I know there's something missing."  (Such as the ability to compress a complex novel into a Powerpoint presentation, I suppose, but I digress.)  So I've taken up the challenge and have written a few sample queries for famous novels using this advice.  How many can you get right?

A.  "White whale.  Wooden-legged weirdo.  Want manuscript?"

B.  "Big-watered river.  European cannibals–the horror, the horror!  Like more?"

C.  "Guy bites necks, lives a long time.  Gets bored, does interview, keeps on un-living.  Whaddya think?"

D.  "Guy meets girl.  Girl seduces guy.  Girl's twelve.  Thoughts?"  (I cheated a bit on this one, but I'm still working on it.)

These probably wouldn't get picked up today–they're still too long for our overworked agents–but at least it's a start!


Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack?  One that makes an agent say "now THIS book, different from any other one I've seen described in three or fewer sentences, is one I can sell!"?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 2.


Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack without convincing the agent that you're a lunatic ("Come on, now, who the hell is going to want to read a book about a talking Xerox machine that plays a mean game of golf?  Get real!  Where's a good vampire book when you need it?")?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 3.


Much of the time agents want to know a lot about you–your credentials, background, awards, that sort of thing.  It's important that they know this so they can understand the kind of person they're dealing with.  Much of the time agents don't want to know anything about you.  It's about your book, not the workshops you've enrolled in or the pieces of paper you have hanging on your wall.  What the hell would make you think that you should tell them about all of that stuff?!

Oh.  Right, yes, there is the first part of that paragraph.  Hmm.


Most agents prefer a personalized letter with a formal mode of address:  Mr. Kleinman, say.  Calling them by their first names is juvenile and unprofessional.  But try that on other agents and you will get not only rejected but laughed at en route:  

    "Thanks so much for bringing it up in the first place, Ms. Lindsay."

    "Oh, GAWD!  Don't call me 'Ms.'  It's the most ridiculous thing ever."

Well, of course it is!  Who would even dream of calling an agent by her last name, with a professional honorofic attached?  Where would they have gotten that…oh.  Yes.  Hmm.

Were I a cynic, I might think that all of the above contradictory and sometimes whimsically arbitrary edicts were indicative of a larger problem in the agenting business–say, a tendency to substitute one's ego for common sense, and a belief that most of the people submitting manuscripts to agents–manuscripts on which these agents depend for their livelihoods, by the way–are cretins who don't know any better than to ignore "obvious" directions.  But of course I haven't gone down the cynic's path quite yet.  In truth there are a number of excellent and well-meaning agents, who live normal lives and are solid, good-hearted types; I know some of them, and they're good people.  And it's obviously true that a lot of writers have a sense of irritating entitlement, believing that it is the world's responsibility to publish their work regardless of its perceived or real artistic worth and value.  But I must admit that there are some times when it's hard not to get annoyed at the attitude expressed by some of the "gatekeepers" who seem stunned ("Oh GAWD!!!") by and dismissive of authors who just don't get how to do a query letter "properly"–and would be equally stunned at the idea that any of their fellow guardians of the publishing industry might be demanding things in direct opposition to them.  To those agents, a simple request: a measure of compassion would be much appreciated.  You really aren't the only one reading queries, and it isn't always easy to jump through your particular hoop at your particular time.  And while we sympathize with your workload, we must respectfully point out that it's one you freely chose to take on.  At the point that you make that choice, I think a measure of kindness blended with the savvy business sense necessary for your profession becomes a major part of your job description.  And remembering why you got into that profession in the first place might help you place those rules in their proper perspective.

In the meantime, I'm looking through every TV Guide I can find to get some pointers.  I may accidentally still use the "Ms." term again…but at least I'll have a super short description of my book to compensate for it, and who knows?  I think "Raft.  River.  Racism.  Read?" has got promise…even if it takes me some time to work out the details.

You think? 

Jan 19


There's an interesting discussion going on over at Absolute Write about the newest plagiarism scandal to rock the romance world.  I admit to being a bit late to this topic, since romance novels and I have kind of a hate-hate relationship (which is really understating the case; nothing says "supermarket line" quite like a Fabio cover).  Anyway, apparently the fine folks at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books (the subtitle is even better: "Come for the Dominican Bitches, Stay for the Man Titty") have outed one of the most popular romance writers in America (i.e. another person I've never heard of), Cassie Edwards, showing how she plagiarized large portions of Luther Standing Bear's Land of the Spotted Eagle and an article by Defenders of Wildlife for her book Shadow Bear.  The evidence does seem pretty damning:

1.  From Spotted Eagle: "There was no kneeling, no words were spoken, and no hands were raised, but in every heart was just a thought of a tribute. No assembly ceremonies were held in the morning, each and every person on his own account holding his moment of worship."

    From Shadow Bear: "'That is because there is no kneeling, nor words spoken, nor hands raised, but in every Lakota heart there is just a thought of tribute,' Shadow Bear proudly explained. He turned to her so that their eyes met. 'You will learn that no assembly of our people is required for that tribute, either. Each and every person, on his own account, holds his own moment of worship.'"

Hmm.  Well, maybe just a harmless mistake, right?

2.  From Defenders Magazine: "Ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets clamp a suffocation bite on their sleeping prey — an impressive feat, considering that the two species are about the same weight."   

    From Shadow Bear: "'I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight,' Shiona said, shivering at the thought, for to her one animal was as cute and precious as the next."


3.  From Spotted Eagle: "So the sunflower and the buffalo were two beloved symbols of the Lakota. So first, last, and throughout existence, the Lakota knew that the sun was essential to health and to all life. In spring, summer, and winter its rays were welcome. In the spring its warmth brought forth new grass; in the summer its heat cured the skins, dried the meat, and preserved food for storage…"

    From Shadow Bear: "She paused, swallowed hard, then said, 'The sunflower and buffalo are two beloved symbols of our Lakota people. The sun is essential to all health and life. In spring, summer, and winter, rays are welcome. In the spring, its warmth brings forth new grass; in summer its heat cures the skins, dries the meat, and preserves food for storage.'

Okay–what the hell!?

I've been teaching long enough to know that this is flat out plagiarism from the word go, and not particularly artful plagiarism at that.  If I had an example like this from one of my students (and I have), the paper would get a zero and the student put on notice in my class and in the department that one more such case would result in immediate failure of the course and the student referred to the Dean.  In the world of publishing, of course, the situation is a little different, and the consequences ought to be worse.  You would assume that Ms. Edwards would release a public apology, the book would be pulled from the shelves, and some settlement made to the authors who had their work blatantly stolen.  Maybe she could become an advocate for truth in writing from this point forward…giving seminars, talking to aspiring writers about what she's learned…right?

Nope, not so much.  Not only did her publisher (Signet) not apologize for the plagiarism, it actually claimed she had done nothing wrong

"Signet takes plagiarism seriously, and would act swiftly were there justification for such allegations against one of its authors.  But in this case Ms. Edwards has done nothing wrong.

The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original. Also, anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain. Ms. Edwards’s researched historical novels are precisely the kinds of original, creative works that this copyright policy promotes.

Although it may be common in academic circles to meticulously footnote every source and provide citations or bibliographies, even though not required by copyright law, such a practice is virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market."


Leaving aside the not-so-subtle shot at academics in the last paragraph (although you jackasses may waste your time asking permission to use other people's work, we're too busy making money and don't have to put up with that crap.  Stealing stuff is what we're all about.  Run along now and play in your ivory tower.), this is perhaps the most ass-backwards explanation of plagiarism I've ever heard.  "The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original"?  Uh–no, no it doesn't.  First of all, fair use applies to the educational arena (you know, where us naive academics like to play) and specifically non-profit and/or public good purposes.  I promise you that if I start quoting Robert Jordan like it's going out of style in my next novel Tor isn't going to smile beatifically as I start cashing checks.  Second, do any of those examples I just cited strike you as "reasonable"?  Particularly when half of what Edwards is plagiarizing is from an actual Native American!?  The resulting outcry from this ridiculous answer apparently caused Signet to reconsider, releasing a second statement that they now "believe the situation deserves further review."  Uh-huh.  As does their legal team's initial advice, no doubt.

But surely this is just the money-grubbing publisher's issue; Ms. Edwards, who claims to be sensitive to Native American causes and culture, obviously feels terrible about the whole business, right? 

"Hi, Lisa,

I just got on My Space and I found your wonderful encouraging letter. Thank you for believing in me, for I have done nothing wrong. My publisher is standing behind me 100%, for they know my work better than anyone, and they know that all romance authors who use research for historicals have to use reference books to do this. My readers love this accurate material about the Indians. And if I couldn’t use this material my books would not be worth anything to my readers who depend on me.

The sad thing is that I am writing these books now in a way to honor our Native Americans, past, present and in the future. And I am honoring my great grandmother who was a full blood Cheyenne. She would be so proud of me if she could read what I am writing about the Indians who have been so maligned for so long. And do you know? I feel picked on now as our Native American Indians have always been picked on throughout history. I am trying to spread the word about them and what do I get? Spiteful women who have found a way to bring attention to themselves, by getting in the media in this horrible way.

Right now I am getting hit from all sides….CNN, The New York Times, AP, everyone who those women could think of to contact. And what is also sad is that a fellow author, has spoken up and condemned me.

Thanks again for your support. When I am feeling stronger I plan to write a bulletin on My Space, but right now I am totally drained of energy from what has been done to me. I hope that you will tell your friends, who are so much also mine, the wrong that has been done to me, and tell them that I will get through this. I will be found innocent and vendicated of any wrong.

For now, it’s all too raw and horrible, but I will be alright.
Love, Cassie" 


(The "fellow author" who condemned her, by the way, is Nora Roberts, who I have heard of and who knows something about plagiarism issues.) That's right, kids: not only does Edwards not want to apologize, she thinks she is the victim…and not only the victim, but a victim just like the Native Americans were.  

Let's just let that sink in for a minute.  (As one of the commenters put it: "Pointing out copy-pasted paragraphs of statistical information about ferrets: the smallpox blankets of the twenty-first century.")  

I'm not sure what I find more stunning–her breathtaking defiance of the evidence right in front of her ("Sure I was holding the ax which was in her head, and naturally I was yelling at her, and of course I had told all my friends and family I was going to kill her with an ax, but I didn't do anything wrong!!!!") or the almost obscene reversal of blame she engages in ("you know, no one ever thinks about the murderer's feelings!").  It's Patriots Videogate redux–I'm just the criminal, man, don't blame me.  But however you want to slice it, it's apparent from her reaction and that of a lot of her fans that something's getting lost in the translation here: either she doesn't get it (which would imply a level of ignorance from a bestselling author so staggering I can't freaking deal with the possibility), or she does get it and is involved in one of the most disingenuous and reprehensible campaigns of "screw you, stop attacking me, I'm a big time author, bitches!" I've ever seen.  Neither option is particularly appealing, especially concerning a woman who claims to be honoring Native Americans while referring to them as "Indians" in the same breath.

In a way none of this should be surprising.  Teachers routinely ignore blatant examples of plagiarism in their classrooms because they just don't want to take the time to track down the relevant material, and as a result a number of students sail through their educational careers merrily stealing and robbing other people's intellectual property without once being slapped down for the practice.  The result?  They get out into the "real" world (well, pseudo-real in the case of publishing) and do the exact same thing they learned would get them places earlier–steal like mad and angrily deny culpability if and when they get caught.  Does anyone think that Cassie Edwards never did this before?  She never wrote, say, some tenth grade paper on Moby Dick using something other than her own, er, rapier-like wit and silky smooth prose?

There's this cool bridge I know, see, and there's a big sale going on…

The point is that mindsets of this kind develop early, and it's incumbent on all the "first responders," if you will, to change that mindset as soon as possible, despite the tearful pleas and the furious denials.  You do your students, children, or reprobate authors no favors by looking the other way for a minor infraction.  Because the longer you wait, the more you let go, the stronger the suspicion becomes that there are no consequences for wrongdoing, and stealing really isn't that big a deal, and "everyone does it anyway" so who really gives a damn?  And that, my friends, is where the Cassie Edwards of the world start to pop up.  This certainly isn't the first time plagiarism has reared its ugly head; it's happening all over the place, in fact.  But unless we stand up and say something now, we're going to have a hard time slowing it down.

So kudos to the Smart Bitches for the revelation.  As I've often said, never was so much owed by so many to so few.

What do you mean that sounds familiar?

Jan 16

End of an era?

Posted by A Writer


I don't have time for a long post today, but I had to mention something about this.  Looking at a few comments over at LROD (my favorite private dancer site) I noticed one posted by Gerard Jones, and the name stirred a memory…and then I remembered Ginny Good, and everything came back to me at once.  Back when I was first starting the submission game in 2004 I went looking for literary agent sites, and stumbled across Everyone Who's Anyone.  The site is technically a listing of literary agents…but it's actually way more than that.  Jones, a Haight-Ashbury refugee who's never gotten over the flowers in his hair, even though he sure as hell isn't a gentle person himself, starting querying every agent he could find in 2001 about his book Ginny Good.  And I mean every agent.  Seriously.  He sent out thousands of E-mails to agents…and got bupkis.  Well, that's not totally true–he did get some people to notice his style, which is, well, unique:

"Your children and grandchildren are gonna see your name among the thousands of chicken-hearted, money-grubbing schlock-peddlers and giggly twits and useless goons who dismissed my beautiful books and chose instead to go gaga over the unspeakably inane, mind-numbing twaddle that will become known as American literature and culture of the early 21st Century.  And you picked it.  Wow.  Should you feel good about yourself, or what?"

Heh.  Writer, Rejected, eat your heart out.

What really got Jones on the map, though, was his website Everyone Who's Anyone, where he listed every agent he had queried (and more he could find) on the site, including E-mail addresses.  He also put E-mail interactions with said agents on his site, and when they objected, er, rejected them right back:

"Hmmm.  That's a pretty insulting letter regarding Al Zuckerman that you've posted on your site!  Emily Kischell, Assistant to Al Zuckerman.

Dear Emily:  Really?  You think so?  I thought it was sort of funny myself.  Tastes vary wildly vis-a-vis humor, however.  Thanks.  G."

And when they asked him to remove their addresses, sometimes with ever-increasing annoyance, he would post all of those messages too.  In short: he ignored them, just like they tend (let's me honest, agents have something like a 90% rejection rate) to ignore us.  And boy, did that feel good for those of us who were getting tired of being told how "unenthusiastic" a given agent was about representing our work.  

Well, Ginny Good eventually sold, and since then Jones has gotten other books out there, but he's now announced that he's finally done updating his directory…which is kind of sad.  Even when I wasn't actively querying books it was nice to know that someone somewhere was fighting the good fight.  And as W, R points out, Jones really got a lot of the "who gives a damn" crowd a voice in writing, and that was a big deal too.  Of course Jones isn't dead, and he's not going anywhere anytime soon (God forbid!), but still…there's something a bit sad about not hearing as much from the guy who wrote "[My book is] about a billion times better than any of the giddy, contrived, touchy-feely, 'redeeming' horsepiss that have won pussy Pulitizers or namby-pamby National Book Awards lately, that's for sure. It's tough being the best writer alive when everybody's been so brainwashed by preposterous puke that nobody even knows how to read anymore. Thanks."

Thanks right back at you, G.  The rest of us clowns got a lot from you, even if we don't dig Scott McKenzie.

Jan 14


I've had marketing and promotion on my mind lately, as for whatever reason I've been finding examples of it in a lot of areas in my life.  My band is starting work on its second album, and still trying to sell the first; gotta promote.  I've just had an academic book come out; gotta promote.  My first novel is due out next year; it's early, but in this business, gotta promote.  I've got this site called Rewritten Reality, see, and…

Well, you get the idea.  Gotta promote.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of self-promotion in theory.  There's over six and a half billion people on this planet (damn, bro, that's a lot of people), and a lot of them are doing the same kinds of things I'm doing.  Not all of them, and not exactly the same things, and certainly not all of the same things at the same time…but close enough.  And of course I'm in a temporal game, too; if I were a pro football player, I'd only really be up against a little over a thousand people who could do what I do at that given moment.  Sure, if I want a crack at history I'd need to be much better…but just to draw a paycheck and be successful at my position I would only need to be better than others in my peer group, which in that case would be pretty darn small (er, in total numbers, not size.  These are big freaking guys.  If you're one of them, you're big, and I'd appreciate it if you not go after someone who, well, isn't.).  But there is no potential plagiarism or staleness in that model; if I'm a great running back, and run for 150 yards and three touchdowns a game, no one is going to yawn and say "yeah, but seriously…I saw Barry Sanders do that in a game once too…what's the big deal?"

This, unfortunately, won't wash in writing or playing music, where my output is always getting measured not just against contemporary work but against everything which came before it.  I've got to deal with countless numbers of people who have written books and played and recorded music in the past in addition to the current crop of said artists, which makes standing out from the crowd even more difficult.  So I've been seeking out information about how I might stand out more (and legally, of course…standing out through illicit activity isn't too tough), and made a horrifying discovery:


Hmm…kind of catchy.  Hyperbole aside, TSPWCFTD is a scary thing.  The term refers more to a type of individual than one specific person (although I have a couple in mind), and has a couple of clearly discernible characteristics–I note them here as a warning for future people who might be drawn into TSPWCFTD's spell.

1.  TSPWCFTD is not a writer.  He/she was a writer at one time, certainly, though what was written is immaterial.  Cookbook, memoir, mystery, romance…it doesn't matter.  What matters is the book was finally written and must now be promoted with the fury of a thousand suns.  (That would also be a cool title, so don't steal it.)  Promotion is now the number one job: t-shirts, pens, postcards, stress balls must be purchased; book signings, one a month at least, must be scheduled; online message boards must be spammed; websites must be designed (more than one); contests must be run; famous authors must be contacted and begged for attention and blurbs.  All available funds must go towards promotion.  All bookstores in a hundred mile radius of the author must be contacted, as well as all newspapers, radio stations, and schools.  There is no God, only Zool.  *SLAP.*  Sorry.  Anyway, you get my point; writing has faded into the background here.  All that matters is promoting the book to anyone who will (and even those who won't) listen.

2.  TSPWCFTD has learned through experience, as he/she will sagely tell you, that publishers cannot and will not promote for you.  It's up to you.  Besides, you know better than anyone else what your book is about, so who better than you to explain its benefits?  And TSPWCFTD is nothing if not sure of him/herself, kids; the strength of his/her belief is often directly proportional to his/her desperate need for this book to succeed.  I suspect that like most true believers, there is something else going on below the surface with the TSPWCFTD…much more is tied into the book than just its pages and cover.  

3.  TSPWCFTD loves to suggest group activities.  "Why don't we do a group book signing?" he/she enthuses.  "That way we can save costs and have fun at the same time!"  And it seems reasonable; it would be cheaper, and it does sound fun, and often it is those things.  But just as often, unfortunately, the kind and friendly person who made the suggestion in the first place will quickly turn into TSPWCFTD in the presence of potential customers, and all of a sudden what seemed like a pleasant experience with a few fellow writers has become a Republican presidential debate, where no holds are barred, no quarter given, and no advantage unseized.  Afterwards, when leaving the scene, TSPWCFTD will revert to his/her charming self:  "Wasn't that wonderful?" he'll/she'll say.  Try not to let your jaw hit the floor upon hearing this (it can be painful).    

All of this probably seems more funny than anything else.  What's the big deal with promoting one's own work, after all?  So some people go a little overboard…who's it hurt?  But the problem, you see, is that self-promotion is not in fact a victimless crime, and on a lot of levels TSPWCFTD does much more damage than you (or even he/she) might think.

1.  Your job is to be a writer, not a promoter.  I like stress balls as much as the next person, but let's be honest: no amount of squeezing some rubber for anxiety relief is going to cause books to magically fly off the shelves to your readers, at least in the amount you're able to produce them.  The Random Houses and Penguins of the world can afford to make promo items like this recognizing that there will never be any one to one relationship in terms of stress ball received / book purchased, because they're buying them in bulk and because they know the more the author's name recognition goes up the more books they can ultimately sell.  But they also know it's not just this book they're selling, but your next one and next one and next one.  They're building you into a brand, and they can't do that if you haven't written anything else…which you won't be able to do if you're spending twenty, thirty, forty hours a week or more on promoting your first book.  The moral of the story?  You should be building a career where you, and everyone else, expects your next book to be as good or better than the first one, not trying to promote your one and only great work.  Both publishers and readers want staying power from the authors they read.  Besides, you're a writer, not a salesperson; there are people who do that latter job very well (and if you have that much fun doing it, you should become one–the world needs better salespeople and publicists (and I'm not being sarcastic…it's an extremely important job).).  Authors promote books; publishers promote authors.  It's an important distinction.

2.  It's true that publishers will no longer (if they ever did) simply take your manuscript, go forth with it and make millions while you hole up in your secluded cabin working on your next great work.  You do have to be proactive in promotion.  But that may mean you need to hire an independent publicist, or you might have to go to some conferences and book signings here and there; it does not mean that you need to hit every bookstore, sign every copy, or go door to door like you were selling vacuum cleaners out of the trunk of your car.  First of all, legitimate publishers have better contacts and better distribution options than you do; if they didn't, you simply would have self-published and kept every cent of the money for yourself.  Most authors don't do that because they know the way to get their work in front of the largest possible audience is to trust the people who have been doing that for more than a century: the publishers.  Second, publishers (usually, not always) know how to run promotional campaigns without making them feel like Nigerian E-mail scams.  No one wants to be seen as "that guy," but that's exactly how TSPWCFTD comes across–amateurish, desperate, and annoying.  And just like the spam which shares these characteristics, people like this get ignored, dismissed, and sometimes actively rejected by readers who want to be enticed into reading good work, not worn down into buying an author's book just so he/she will leave them the hell alone.  What's worse, other authors end up getting lumped in with these people…so that readers start avoiding authors altogether.  That's obviously bad for all concerned, including you.             

3.  And that's the most important facet of all this: you.  What does being this desperate, begging, and ultimately ineffective figure get you?  Ostracized, very possibly; marginalized, quite likely; humiliated, almost certainly.  No one wants this.  You want your books to sell, you want people to turn to you as a source of entertainment, intellectual stimulus, and ideas, and you want to make a mark on your little part of the universe.  Losing friendships, contacts and group affiliations just so you can sell an extra book or two (and that's really what this comes down to…none of the activities of TSPWCFTD has any large selling impact, because the scale just isn't large enough to make that happen) isn't even remotely worth it.  

None of this is meant to suggest you shouldn't have an active presence out there, and that you shouldn't be letting people know about your book (and why it's cool, and it obviously is, right?).  But it is meant to temper the enthusiasm of the first time author a trifle and remind him/her that the best way to promote a first book is by writing a second one even better than the first.  Your job is to write.  Do so, and leave TSPWCFTD to their stress balls.  They'll probably need them more than you in the long run. 

Jan 7

Andrew Olmsted’s last post.

Posted by A Writer

I stumbled across this entry at Kristin Nelson's bloga posthumous entry from Andrew Olmsted, a soldier who's had a blog for the past five years of his time serving in Iraq.  He wrote this last entry and instructed it be posted in the event of his death, which happened on January 3, 2008.  There is something eerily haunting and deeply powerful about this entry, and try as I might I can't think of anything sarcastic or pithy to say about it.  In fact there really is little to say at all; I had never heard about Olmsted until now, and I'm not sure if I would have agreed with him politically, but this isn't about soldiers, or politics, or even opinions about why we should or shouldn't have gone to Iraq in the first place.  This is really just about one writer's final words, and I think for today we'll let him speak for himself.  I'll have another post up soon.

Jan 2


Everywhere you look, dire warnings about the current state of the publishing industry abound.  "The publishing industry is in a state of change, shock, and reformation," the San Francisco Public Library Herb Caen Magazines and Newspapers Center proclaims (man, someone at the name bureau was asleep at the switch with that one).  "This industry is in a shambles," moans Simon Barrett (I think Writer, Rejected ought to take a look at this one for a real pick-me-up).   "Publishing is truly difficult.  It's about taking risks in a fundamentally broken business," Seth Godin asserts.  Yes, everywhere you look you can see the locusts and the dying fish; we are living in the last days, my friends, and you'd best settle up with your literary maker before the royalty check comes in.

The situation might not be quite this apocalyptic (although as you all know, I do love me an apocalypse), but it certainly seems as if the industry has gotten far more difficult to break into, and in some ways even harder to stay when you do break in.  And the rise of the blessed word processor has made things even worse, since now everyone who thinks they've got a sweet new idea about a vampire who's really sorry he has to kill people, see, and he's filled with angst and he likes goth music and he's bisexual and…is now submitting to the same people we are.  In other words, the ever-daunting slush pile has gotten filled with road dirt, and cleaning through it has become a holy horror for publishers and agents alike.  It's no wonder that rejection rates have hit 90% and are climbing, and that authors are looking for other avenues as a result.

And fortunately, a new avenue has opened, for in to fill the void left by traditional publishing, arriving to save the world of books from itself in the nick of time, is the non-traditional vanity press: a publisher where you pay so they don't have to.  Yes, for the low, low fee of whatever you're willing to pay to make sure your book is "successful," you too can hold a printed and bound copy of your hard work in your hands.  Then you can strut around at dinner parties and make oblique comments about obscure caviar brands, because hey, you're a published author, and membership hath its privileges.  Okay…that's really a little unfair, because as some have pointed out, a lot of these presses aren't about vanity at all.  They're just about changing the stodgy old cigar smoking publishing world, dragging it kicking and screaming into the new century:

"Some people are afraid of progress.  Any kind of progress.  Even when it comes to things like the creative arts, there are those who would rather eat sewage than to see something succeed by using new methods of doing business… [A WRITER'S NOTE: this is true.  I once watched an agent friend of mine immediately order a heaping helping of "Jenkem Surprise" at a restaurant after I mentioned hearing about something called a "website."  It wasn't a pretty picture.]  Many people out there are under the mistaken impression that PublishAmerica is either a vanity press or some form of self-publishing.  On the contrary, they are a regular publisher…Sometimes, you have to take the road less traveled to reach your destination.  We can't always follow the well-defined path…We are all intelligent enough to know good writing when we see it."

Amen, sister, amen.  And you ought to know what you're talking about, since PublishAmerica published you.  Who the hell do these conservative pantywaists think they are?  If they would only be willing to see the value of a new way, we could all be published authors, and the rusty, locked gates of this dinosaurs' world would be blown wide open.  Sign me up for PublishAmerica, the U.S.'s number one publisher, and progress!  Because, I mean, it is progress, right?  It is something different than the norm, right?  Places like PublishAmerica pay their authors…and so…they really care about us… 


Sadly, Virginia, no.  There is a Santa Claus, but he didn't bring you a legitimate publishing contract this Christmas.  Because when you start looking below the surface of these places, ones which throw things like "progress" and "change" and "the road less traveled" around like they're going out of style, you start to see some rather ugly truths.  PublishAmerica does indeed pay its authors: $1.00.  Yep.  That's it.  For whatever you write.  Send them a four hundred page historical epic with glossary and citations from Barbara Tuchman included: $1.  Send them a ten page "graphic novel" about your cat, using the underutilized Crayola medium: $1.  Send them your shopping list: $1.  (Don't laugh…it's non-traditional, you luddite!)  PA does exactly what all vanity presses do: it promises validation and delivers disappointment.  And whether you're the new Kurt Vonnegut or the old Louis L'Amour (was that dude ever below fifty?): you get $1.  Next in line.

Of course, PA advocates will say, it's not about the one size fits all one dollar advance: that's "symbolic," anyway.  It's about PA taking a risk on new and edgy material which other publishers (the cigar-smoking stodgy ones, remember) won't touch.  It's about getting books in the hands of eager readers.  It's about the goddamned road less traveled!  And of course that's a compelling argument; it really shouldn't be about the money, or at least not at first.  But the problem is that it's not doing those other things either.  First of all, the material isn't new, or edgy, or even copyedited, because PA accepts anything.  I mean it.  Unless you write a book entitled PublishAmerica Iz Deez Nutz (and that might work if you could get around the copyright problems of the last two words), you're in.  Don't believe me?  Then feast your eyes on this:

"Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday. . . ."

Ah, the sweet, sweet prose of Atlanta Nights.  This book, expertly written by the well-known author Travis Tea, was immediately accepted by PublishAmerica upon submission.  The only problem, of course, was that Travis Tea was actually a bunch of well-respected published science fiction writers who had decided to test how selective PA actually was by writing the worst book they could…and quickly found out the answer.  Of course PA immediately withdrew acceptance after it found out about the hoax, but, well, someone had to tell PA about it…apparently the QA department wasn't fully awake that day.  But even the stuff which isn't intended to be bad usually is–in fact the vast majority of PA material is absolute trash, largely because it hasn't been through the process of (sorry, Writer, Rejected) rejection and subsequent revision.  In other words, instead of being told to go back to the drawing board–with those who don't have the work ethic or inclination to do so leaving the rest of us blessedly alone–these writers have been told that they're great…so great, in some cases, that they don't even need editing services.  Nope, they're just flat out geniuses from the word go.  And it's only because of kindly PublishAmerica that anyone found out.

Except, of course, for the second problem: no one will find out.  PA claims to have published more than 20,000 people (PA actually claims a whole lot, but this one might actually be true), and proudly trumpets that over 800 PA books are bought per day.  But as James MacDonald points out, a quick analysis of these numbers shows that this means that about 13 copies per title are actually bought per year by all the bookstores in America combined.  In other words, PA authors will sell one book a month to someone other than themselves and their understanding but overtaxed families.

Road less traveled…must remember the road less traveled…

But look.  If the books aren't being sold to bookstores (who can't order them at a standard bookstore discount, by the way, and can't return them if (when) they don't sell, and thus won't buy them), and Amazon never has any in stock (for the same reason), then who the hell is buying them?

Why, the ones to whom PA is most beholden.  The ones who are most grateful for PA's help.  The authors.

Yep, the authors themselves, as it turns out, are the ones to whom PA really markets.  They get a 40% discount on the title…so if they just buy a few copies, they can sell them to people themselves.  And who better to market a book than the person who wrote it, right?  Just pick up a few copies…well, ten…hmm, not selling anywhere, better make it fifty…er…

In fact, if you check through the threads at PublishAmerica's site, or even better at Absolute Write (where the overtly critical PA posts won't be instantaneously deleted), you'll discover that many of these writers are so desperate to see their work in print, and so horrified when they discover their mistake with PA, that they'll sink hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars into buying, marketing, and selling their own books just to keep from feeling the pain of their massive, massive error.  (Y'all know that whole "sunk cost theory," right?)  But the amount of money lost by these poor writers doesn't even matter–because the truth is that even if they do somehow figure out a way to do nothing but market and spend every last dime buying and selling this worthless merchandise, at the end of the day they will still have a book published by the laughing stock of the industry.  A PA published book is a negative for future sales.  Better start warming up that name machine again, because your current moniker will be permanently ruined as that of a legitimate writer worthy of respect, attention, or the "risk" of being published by a mainstream publisher…one which, for all its stodginess and cigar smoking, makes its money by selling your books to readers, not to you.  

But look, you say, this is old news.  There is no shortcut to becoming a better and then published writer; you have to learn, to edit, to take criticism, to make your work better, to get through the rejections before getting published.  Everyone knows that this is a scam.  But that's just it: they don't know.  Thousands more authors every year fall into this trap, and hundreds of more posts and websites pop up warning people to watch out, and yet the sucker line keeps growing.  PublishAmerica is probably the worst offender, but there are many, many more of these places which promise the moon and deliver, well, sewage–and in the process not only clutter up the industry, making it more difficult for legitimate authors to get through, but drain the bank accounts and break the hearts of countless writers who thought they had what it took to get published and noticed, and did: a bank account.  Yet vanity publishers like PA continue to skirt the law, whistling merrily along past their astonishingly unethical business practices, absurd threats of legal action against those who would fight back and outright lies to their customers while cashing check after check after check.  They traffic in dreams, and buy and sell egos, and all the while have the unmitigated gall to claim that they're doing it in the name of progress and the road less traveled.  And writers, hopeful, dreaming, desperate, whip out their credit cards and follow the Pied Piper right down to the bank.

And there's your apocalyptic lesson for today, boys and girls.  Virginia, your little friends might have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age, but I think they were on to something.  Take a good look at your Santa Clauses, everyone; not everyone with a beard and a little round belly is the genuine article…and not everyone who claims to be a publisher really is one.  Even if they are doing it all, of course, in the name of progress.

Dec 30


Yesterday I stumbled on a website which has apparently created a fair amount of buzz in the literary world: Literary Rejections on Display.  Despite the hideous name (seriously, folks, what kind of an acronym for a blog is LROD?  Now, RR on the other hand…), the site itself is pretty funny…or devastatingly sad, maybe, depending on your particular situation and whether you preferred Tigger or Eeyore as a kid (I've known devotees of each character, and, well, let's just say the shoe fits.  I guarantee Billie Joe Armstrong was an Eeyore guy, even if he denies it.).  Ostensibly developed and maintained by a published and award-winning writer, the site essentially celebrates, er, rejection–at least of the literary kind.  Writer, Rejected (God help him/her/it if he/she/it ever posts at the Chronicle using that name) or one of his/her/its readers will post some rejections, add some witty repartee ("Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about my 'general air of bitterness.'  The blog is supposed to be helping me with this.  Or so says Lady Shrink.  I hope this means you'll come back."), and then let the comments fly.  Posted rejections vary from the apparently bitter ("Literati Roll," where a number of high-powered contest judges is added to the list of those who rejected poor W, R because since he/she/it didn't win the contest he/she/it obviously lost it, thanks to these bastards) to the evidently bizarre ("It's Not Easy Being Gay," where one reader sent in a rejection which actually said "it can be difficult to publish a male gay novel successfully").  I say "apparently" bitter because W, R claims he's/she's/it's not, or at least not as much as it might seem (and besides, W, R has an agent and is published now, so he/she/it says)–he/she/it just has a sense of humor, thinks the publishing industry is B.S. (see, there's an acronym you can go to the mat for), and wants everyone to know it.

On one level this guy/girl/acronym has really got it going on.  First of all, he's/she's/it's (let's just go with HSI from now on, 'kay?) gotten people to notice–and people in the industry at that.  Editors and agents alike post on HSI's blog either defending themselves, desperately trying to explain what publishing or agenting is really all about or bemusedly trying to figure out what the hell is going on, with (generally) predictable results.  There are more than a couple of industry execs who have made it their business to run around the Internet crying foul at anyone who dares question their methods for whom I imagine W, R is a spawn of Satan (sorry, S.O.S.), and boy, would they blacklist the hell out of him/her/it if they could find out who it was (more on that issue in a minute).  Second, W, R is utterly unflappable, so much so that even if you find HSI annoying and self-indulgent, the attitude starts to grow on you.  In one post, HSI responded to the comment "A normal person would just give up.  Why post evidence that you are a BIG FAT LOSER for the world to see?  I don't get it.  You must suck as a writer." with "Hey, wait!  I recognize you.  You're the voice inside my head!  How did you get out?"

LOL, W, R.

It's particularly amusing to see people try to play psychological games in the apparent hope that Rejecto-man will rip off the mask and come forward with a sobbing confession about HSI's true identity, when it's obvious that even if HSI weren't obviously having a blast outing, picking on and often humiliating agents and editors (all except Rosemary Ahern, who has won the coveted GAK! or Golden Apple of Kindness award (that's W, R's acronym, not mine) and is kind of a mock patron saint of the site), there's no way HSI could reveal his/her/its identity now: far too many bridges have been, well, annihilated (burned isn't strong enough) to take the chance, and after all, it's a lot easier to be brave behind The Mask Of Internet-Anonymous Strength.  I should know.

Which leads to the other, not so nice side of the LROD.  Given the anti-heroism of the mysterious W, R, who throws out names like they're going out of style without any intention of doing the same for himself/herself/itself, what, really, is the point of all of it?  It's not really a "this editor is a bastard.  This agent should be thrown to the wolves" place; there's certainly more than a fair bit of carping at the industry, but the minute an agent or editor posts a response, W, R's tone becomes absurdly conciliatory and rational. ("Jim!  You are good to stop by and give us some insight.  Listen, I think maybe you bring up a very good point here.  Your intention is to help and you want to offer some kind, useful advice, but blah blah blah brownnose brownnose brownnose can I do your laundry for you thanks!"  Okay, I was paraphrasing the last part.  HSI actually offers to wash the guy's car.)  But it's also, clearly, not a "let's all have a rational discussion about the problems with the publishing industry, of which we all want to be a part."  And it's sure as hell not satire when it spends half its time bitching about how crappy it is to get rejections and how lousy agents and editors are on their respective power trips and the other half backfilling frantically when a member of one of the aforementioned groups shows up in person.  It's not a heartwarming rags to riches tale about one writer's struggle for recognition (since, according to W, R, "in the eyes of many, I am still a literary reject"), but it's equally not a "wallowing in failure" blog…since, as W, R insists, HSI is published and award-winning.  It's just a site that says things.  About people.  Anonymously.

And that ultimately is the issue here: LROD is really like cotton candy.  It tastes good; W, R can obviously write, and is such a great mixture of self-deprecation and absolute aplomb that you stick with HSI.  Any criticism leveled at HSI will meet with the same kind of "what, me worry?" rejoinder.  It's so clever that it's sweet, and it's fun, and it's even a little decadent, but it's also, well, candy: it isn't real sustenance, and too much of that same diet gets awfully old after a while.  Someone, back behind the invisibility screen, read these rejections and was bothered by them: really bothered, so bothered that HSI needed to create a site and a persona, one part Tigger and three parts Eeyore, to call the bastards who did this to HSI out.  But we'll never see that person, both because HSI doesn't have the guts to do what HSI does to agents and editors on an everyday basis (and I wouldn't weep for them either…they're public figures, and they ought to be able to take the heat) and reveal who HSI is and because we'll never see a real reaction from him/her/it either.  Everything is for the funny, the joke, dude, relax, we're all having a good time, or you're right, I'm a bad person, I know I am, that's why I write this.  It's all about the smile of the court jester, and if you've ever watched a jester (or the modern equivalent, a clown) for long enough there comes a point where you start wondering where the human is behind the "look, I'm hilarious!" game.

I assume that if and when W, R stumbles on this post HSI will leave a comment poking fun at me, or HSI, or both.  That's cool; it's the typical postmodernist "nothing matters, even my saying this" game, and HSI plays it really well…HSI is one funny dude/dudette.  And there's no doubt that some agents and editors need to be taken down a few pegs.  But still, I can't help but wonder a little bit about how exhausting it must be for Writer, Rejected to play this shell game all the time, and what would happen if HSI ever slipped up…you know, posted something about a rejection really pissing him/her/it off, or said "you know, guys, I'm really feeling down today.  Really, this time, I promise.  I really need help.  Really.  Can someone help me?"  Would anyone actually step forward?  Why would anyone have any reason to believe the emotion was genuine this time?

But nah, it's all about the joke, anyway.  We'd rather have fun, right?  Pass the cotton candy…I love it when he does this next juggling act.

Dec 28

Seek and ye shall find.

Posted by A Writer


Just about finished with book two, so only time for a short post today.  This week's coolest search string:

disappearing car door

Hey, if you found your way here because you're looking for an invisible portal for an automobile, more power to you…I guess… Smile

Full length post on the way shortly. 

Dec 27

Yo hablo diversity, I swear.

Posted by A Writer


If there's anything the holidays are great at, it's giving you the chance to reconnect with loved ones, friends and family…

…even if they're bigots.

Well, not bigots, exactly.  Actually my family is pretty cool by and large, compassionate, caring, and smart.  It's probably because my family is all those things that I find the dinner table exchanges that often happen a little tough to take.  Let's take an example, shall we?

Cousin:  The problem is that you don't have any standards any more.  Anyone can just do whatever they want.  I mean, the deli I go to every day for lunch, I can't even order a sandwich anymore.  They installed this system where you order your food through a computer thing.  You know why?

Me:  Why?

Cousin:  So they could hire people who can't speak English.

Me:  Uh…

Cousin:  That way they don't have to pay benefits.  And the immigrants there, they don't have to pay Social Security taxes or anything.

Me:  But that's not true–Social Security gets taken out of their checks before they get them.  And if they're illegal immigrants, they can't collect Social Security, because they can't register for it.

Cousin:  Oh.  [Pause]  Still, though, why can't they freaking speak English when they come here?

Me [getting up]:  Oh, look, the ham's ready!  

This is pretty much the extent of a conversation I had with a family member during Christmas, and on the drive home (after I got over being horrified) I started thinking about what would cause this kind of an attitude.  This is the kind of guy who would–in fact, who has–helped a total stranger whose car had rolled over get out, helped get his kid out, and stayed with him until the police arrived…and gave him his cell phone number in case he needed a place to stay that night.  And the kicker?  The guy was Hispanic, with a heavy Spanish accent.  

What the hell?

Assuming my cousin isn't a lunatic, or hasn't watched Sybil one too many times, there's got to be some explanation for this disconnect.  What causes him to be a private Samaritan and a public Know-Nothing?  Because it is that private/public split, I think, which is at the root of the illegal immigration debate which has reached such a fever pitch in this country.  Show me a Republican candidate who wants to fire off a new salvo against the country's porous borders, and the way immigrant labor is destroying our economic and moral authority in the world (I think this might have more to do with that second issue, but I digress), and I'll show you a Republican candidate who employs more than one of these on his staff.  The dirty little secret no one wants to discuss, of course, is that immigrant labor, legal or otherwise, currently makes up much of the workforce for those jobs which we'd rather forget need to get done.  It's fine to claim that American workers are just falling all over themselves to get these low-paying jobs, but the truth tells a different story: for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, the immigrant population (which has been largely excluded from other positions) has been more willing to take the jobs the rest of us haven't.  

But I don't think this really gets to the crux of the matter.  No, beyond economics, beyond resentment for perceived wrongs, beyond just plain old simple racism, I think what really underlies this issue is what my cousin was suggesting while passing the mashed potatoes and gravy: they don't speak English.  Now that was fine, I think, so long as it was a problem confined to the border areas; hell, we all like Tex-Mex food, right (sure, even my cousin)?  But when non-native English speakers began showing up in the Midwest, Northeast, and other areas previously considered bastions of, er, the "America for Americans" attitude, all of a sudden everyone became fascinated in keeping the English language safe for democracy, or something.

Now on one level I can't object to this phenomenon: I teach English in college, I'm a writer, this whole freaking blog is about "literature, language and life rewritten," so obviously I like English.  I even like the English.  And on a basic level, I do think it's important that people who plan to be here long term work to learn the English language during their time here, for their sakes as much as anyone else's.  But my objection to the "English NOW!" people is a much more complex one:

1.  English is an exceedingly difficult language for non-native speakers to learn.  Its rules are constantly subject to exception, it's (see what I mean?  Smile) forever adopting and assimilating words, phrases, even rules from other languages, and it often doesn't read the way it's spoken…all of which makes it a lot harder to pick up than just sitting in a couple of classes or listening to a few tapes.  In other words, it takes time, far more time than we're generally willing to give.  Add that to the problem of having to culturally adapt to a new environment, which foreigners who come here are often much better at doing than we are when going elsewhere, and you can see that the "why can't they speak freaking English" theory isn't a particularly good one.  And speaking of the ugly American

2. …we really have very, very little right to say anything about anyone else's ability to adapt to us.  If you've ever traveled and been embarrassed by an American tourist loudly complaining about the lack of English speakers–in Greece–you'll understand what I mean.  As with other aspects of our foreign policy, we could use some serious humility lessons before we get all hot and bothered about having ATMs give options in Spanish.

3.  There is something particularly hypocritical, and mean-spirited, about the anti-immigrant, pro-English crowd who are themselves all immigrants or descended from same.  I'll leave for now the point that none of us are native Americans except for, well, Native Americans.  But what about the immigrants whose families themselves showed up here a hundred years or fewer ago?  What about the O'Malleys, the Santorellis, the Kaplans, the Beauchamps?  Do any of those people, whose fathers and grandfathers fought their way through the mistrust and suspicion of those who thought they were taking their jobs, stealing their women, speaking strange languages (hmm, why does this sound familiar?), have any right whatsoever to slam the country club door shut now?

An admittedly rhetorical question, with an admittedly clear answer: no.

Now none of this is to suggest that schools should drop English courses and just teach languages based upon regional conditions.  For many reasons, simplicity among them, it just makes sense that English should remain the dominant language of a country which still mostly speaks it.  But demanding that every immigrant who arrives in the U.S. must immediately drop everything and sit in language classes until they "get it" is not only unrealistic but ineffective and, frankly, hypocritical in the extreme.  And given America's sorry history of treating those it views to be different as very, very different, it would seem to me we ought to be especially careful handling the situation now.  In the meantime, we'll just have to muddle through those bizarre holiday dinners the best we can.  If worse comes to worst, I guess we can all just talk sports instead.

Hey, at least we'll be getting to what really matters!

Dec 23

Bah, humbug.

Posted by A Writer


I'm frantically trying to finish my second novel before the end of the year, and so only had time for a quick post today–so I thought I'd head over to WordPress and find a snowfall plugin for the holiday season.  Well, it turns out there are lots of snowfall plugins, and they all just require you to install and activate them, right?  Sure, so long as you add footer code, make a "simple call" to the main file, use the Plugin Editor, re-alter the main file, change the orientation of Mars and Venus…Sure.  Thanks.  Have I mentioned that I'm a writer, not a computer programmer?  Furious

Sorry, dear readers–it may be a White Christmas for you, but not on my site, I'm afraid.  More (on something very different, I hope!) tomorrow.