New Title Trend

Happy 2012, everyone! (It’s not past the point where I can still say that, right?)

I’m beginning my 2012 posts the same way most writers begin their novels – with titles.

Titles matter. Sometimes a bad title can ruin a good thing (Cougartown, anyone? But more on that later.). I’ve been having a problem with titles lately. Specifically, titles of television shows. It’s not so much what they are as what they reflect on society. I’m not liking what I see. Usually when I talk about TV on the blog, it’s about something that translates to novel writing, and the title trend I’ve been seeing in the latest crop of sitcoms is no different.

I’ve spoken before about “strong female characters” and what term means to me. Surprisingly, I think TV has been getting “strong” right more often than many novels lately. There was a lull in the past decade (I blame producers who tried to find “the next Sex and the City” by missing the point of the show.) Things are far from perfect, but in recent years we’ve been reassured that characters like Mary Richards (and Rhoda!), Murphy Brown, and Roseanne actually mattered. Women have come a long way. We get to be in charge of our sexuality, choose our own destinies, and have dragon tattoos (but more on that later). We get characters like Alicia from The Good Wife, Leslie from Parks & Recreation, and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries.

So if I’m so happy with the way women are finally starting to be portrayed, what’s my problem? Men are my problem.

Don’t mistake my italics for an emphasis on “men.” I like men, as most feminists do. My problem with Men are the titles the word keeps appearing in. It’s talked about less, but men suffer from sexism on TV, in movies, and in books too. The difference is that most of the better characters are written for men, so the good often outweighs the bad, and the sexism isn’t always as noticeable. But apparently someone over at ABC noticed and wants something to be done about it. Only instead of creating better characters for women, they’re leveling the playing field by creating worse characters for men.

ABC seems to be leading the Man Revolution, beginning with its already-canceled Man Up and Tim Allen’s return to TV, Last Man Standing. Both shows are about men taking their gender back. From whom, you ask? Apparently women, liberals, and gay/intellectual/vegan/hipsters who are not considered “real men.”  

Man Up is about friends who need to grow up, but can’t seem to shake their college lifestyle. It’s a typical boys will be boys character trope that we’re used to seeing in small doses, usually through a supporting character in an ensemble cast. Not to be outdone, CBS had the good sense to kill its new show How to be a Gentleman before it spread, yet is holding on tight to the wizened patriarch of all Men shows, Two and a Half Men. Like Man Up, both of these shows feature men in their 30s and 40s behaving like boys. It’s all fast cars, hot babes, no ambition, and zero self-reflection. On the other side of the “man” spectrum is Last Man Standing, in which Tim Allen has sacrificed his manhood by living in the same house as his wife and daughters, and now needs to return to his manly, undomesticated roots.

ABC’s crowning achievement this year might be their mid-season replacement, Work It, a remake of Bosom Buddies, which should tell you all you need to know. But to elaborate, this is a 2012 sitcom with a premise that was tacky and outdated even in 1980. Two men – extra macho-looking for comedic effect – decide the only way they can get jobs is by dressing up as women. Hilarity, weak premises, and sexism ensue. From the previews, the men look as convincing as women as the Wayans Brothers looked in White Girls. Not only do they neglect shaving and general upkeep even though they are passing as women, but they only wear shoulder-padded pantsuits that I can only assume ABC still had laying around from Bosom Buddies. It’s offensive to men as much as it is women. There is no equivalent to these men in real life, and the level of immaturity and stupidity they celebrate is insulting.

But I digress. Back to Men.

I described these shows in case you hadn’t heard of them, but what it boils down to is that every man featured on these shows wishes for simpler times (for men) when gender roles were defined and all men were created equal, with the same interests, thoughts, education level, and goals. While each show features men in arrested development, they still get to proudly wave their Man title high. And yet, every magazine cover, news article, and end-of-year round-up has been about women (“finally”) being recognized as equals in comedy.

We got to see Bridesmaids… and, um… If you’re waiting for me to name another well-received all-female comedy made in the past year (or ten), then you’ll have to wait until Bridesmaids 2 comes out. Our “Year in Comedy” consisted of one movie, and two new sitcoms, New Girl and 2 Broke Girls.

Notice the immediate shift in title choices. The irony, of course, is that while Men get to celebrate their lack of growth, the Girl shows feature young women trying to make it on their own as adults. Admittedly, New Woman doesn’t have the same cache, but even teen heroines Buffy, Clarissa, Veronica, and Alex Mack got to at least have their names in their titles. (Oh, this year we also got Whitney, which did for female empowerment what its ad campaign did to get me to watch the show.)

Once women are old enough to be taken seriously in the real world, television and media find new ways to infantilize them. Isn’t it so darn cute how those Girls are single and independent and trying to live in a man’s world? Someday they’ll make 3/4 of what those Men do. Then maybe when they outgrow their youthful optimism they can move to Cougartown or become a Good Wife or if they really snap under the pressure, remain a Girl, but ones covered with dragon tattoos. I suppose it’s too much to think they’ll ever be called Women though, right?

Since two of these Man shows have been canceled already, I have some hope that this trend won’t last. I hope that writers will stop thinking that the type of humor that worked 30 years ago is still relevant today, and that the most critically acclaimed shows on TV right now are the ones that challenge gender stereotypes and create non-archetypal characters. And mostly I hope that you, the novel writers, won’t let this trend infect your work.

(Parting exercise: Type in “wife” into the Amazon search bar under Books. Scroll through the bestsellers and acclaimed novels that tell stories of women overshadowed by powerful men. Then type in “husband.”)

What’s the Deal With Self-Publishing?

I’m very excited to begin a new week on the blog with a very important, very specific theme. It will be a week-long series of interviews and stories, and I hope you all learn a lot from them. But first – some back story.

Since 2008, the publishing industry has been… confused. Technology caught up with it just in time for the recession, and it was left not really knowing what to do with itself. Since then, there have been who-knows-how-many articles and blog posts predicting the death of books. These rumors have been greatly exaggerated. It took publishing a while to recover, but we’re doing just fine now, thank you. No matter how books will be read in the future, there will always be an industry responsible for making them.

It’s still uncertain, the way every business is uncertain in times of economic instability, and it’s competitive as ever to get your book published. While publishing was at its weakest, technology allowed a new viable option – self-publishing. And it sure looks attractive these days. Self-publishing has been around long before 2008. Lulu.com, for example, began almost ten years ago, even before self-publishing was as simple uploading a PDF and having your book immediately available for download.

In a way, self-publishing is a bit like internet dating. First, it was only for those who didn’t have what it took for “the real world.” The stigma was massive; it was something to be ashamed of. Then you hear about your friends doing it, and suddenly you become less skeptical. And now it is practically commonplace.

Commonplace, but not without stigma that is.

I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been guilty of looking down at self-published authors. After all, it’s my job  to make sure authors aren’t doing this alone. No one in publishing wants to see an author get taken advantage of, which is why we’re always telling writers how much value there is in traditional publishing. In fact, I like the tradition. Agents are important. Editors are important. Publicists and copyeditors and subrights managers are important.

There are writers out there who believe agents and publishers are “threatened” by self-publishing because it bypasses the steps we usually handle. They claim that’s why we in the industry “hate it.” I can only speak on behalf of myself, but that is not why self-publishing makes me nervous.

There are three things about self-publishing that scare me, actually.

1) There are still writers out there who aren’t aware that companies like PublishAmerica and AuthorHouse shouldn’t be charging them to publish their books, and that they should be the ones paying the writers for the privilege.

2) Too many forums and comments online have enforced an idea that agents and publishers are greedy or want to hinder writers’ creativity. This turns many writers against traditional publishing, making them take matters into their own hands. And that’s when writers can do themselves a disservice without even realizing it. Writing takes a lot of time and then even more time to get right. All writers need an editor. Then, even once the book is finished and you press that Publish button, the work doesn’t stop. You become your own accountant, publicist, agent, and assistant. Where’s the time to write your next book? It’s a lot of responsibility that most people are not experienced in having all at once.

3) Then there are the success stories. We’ve all heard them. Amanda Hocking and John Locke are self-made millionaires. Barry Eisler walks away from a $500,000 advance to self-publish instead. These success stories are wonderful for the authors involved, and they serve as proof that self-publishing is no longer a dirty little secret among writers. The stigma, however, remained in a way that was even more polarizing. The allure of self-publishing was even greater because now, in addition to avoiding rejection, there was a chance of becoming a millionaire. Doing anything for money is always a bad idea. Always. Chances are, you won’t become rich. Like the person on the news who won the state lottery, success stories can be great and inspiring. But they are too rare to rely on.

For every writer who uses self-publishing to become success story, there’s one who is just sick of being rejected. Those are the two extremes, and unfortunately they have clouded the judgment of many, myself included. I also believe that most people don’t fall under extremes. Most writers have nothing against tradition; they just want their stories to be heard and found a way to do it. Truthfully, sometimes self-publishing is the better option (as explained in more detail by literary agent Meredith Barnes), and if traditional publishing can have mid-list authors, why can’t self-publishing?

These smart, talented, tech savvy mid-list authors are who I’m devoting this week to here on the blog. Self-published writers Marilyn Peake, Tracy Marchini, Michelle Davidson Argyle, and Karen Hooper, who did not self-publish but decided to go indie without an agent, will all share their experiences on going it alone.

NOTE: Yes, I am still a literary agent. Yes, I will always tell writers to exhaust all traditional options before looking into self-publishing. This week isn’t about me. This blog is, and always has been, for writers and as a place for writers, it’s important to me that I present any helpful information I can offer. Glass Cases is mine alone, and does not represent the agency I work for in any way, shape, or form. I cannot stress that enough.

Hope you enjoy this break in our regularly scheduled programming, and check back in tomorrow to hear about sci-fi writer Marilyn Peake’s road to self-publishing.

Explaining Your Art to Warren

Barry Lyga had a brilliant response to the horrific Wall Street Journal article that was talked about all weekend. Granted there have been many, many responses to this article, and my own opinion is no different than anyone else’s. It was disgusting and offensive, and the WSJ’s sad attempt at salvaging what they printed was patronizing and unconvincing.

I didn’t want to read the WSJ article because I knew what my response would be. I’m sparing you that full response here because everything I want to say has already been said, and frankly I’d prefer to put this trash to rest. But Barry Lyga’s post reminded me of a simple quote from the underrated movie, Empire Records, after a kid named Warren asks why someone would glue quarters to the floor. Response: “I don’t feel that I need to explain my art to you, Warren.”

If you’ve never seen the movie, you do not need to know who Warren is to see the relevance this line has. Yes, it’s a silly little ’90s slacker movie, but this quote seems especially apropos. As Mr. Lyga says, he refuses to justify his art. And really, why should anyone?

Yes there was the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter this weekend and the many, many blog responses about how clueless the author of the article is. And clearly she is. While I don’t know her, I can picture her. She’s Tipper Gore senselessly fighting to ban 2 Live Crew. She’s the librarian in Small Town, USA who refuses to stock Laurie Halse Anderson. She’s the news anchor who asks whether Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine. She’s Reverend Lovejoy’s wife on The Simpsons who screams, what about the children??

She’s Warren.

She sees something she doesn’t understand, and when she doesn’t get a satisfying response, jumps to her own conclusions. Her opinions, though wrong, are forgiven. She, after all, did not publish that article in a national newspaper by herself.

While that’s all true, I have to remain on the side of Barry Lyga. Why bother? There will always be people like her, and there will always be people who get upset by people like her. Nobody needs to explain their art. No one needs to defend themselves. If you are a writer, all you need to do is write.

Yes, it is always difficult when someone – OK, a lot of people – demoralizes you, claims your work is inferior, refuses to see the good you do, and doesn’t understand your importance. The stigma that YA literature is somehow “less than” is hurtful and wrong and should stop immediately. But it won’t stop immediately. We need to show people the power of YA and its credibility as a genre. Books are powerful enough to do this, but it will take time.

If YA gets taken seriously, then maybe teenagers finally will too, and then maybe people won’t be as concerned about their precious virgin eyes and ears that need to be protected. But until then, all we can do as writers, and workers in the publishing industry, is produce stories that need to be told, hope the right people read them, and not let anyone else tell us we don’t belong.

To borrow another relevant quote from Empire Records, “Damn The Man.”

Rags to Riches

In the words of those old poets, the Backstreet Boys – “Oh my god, I’m back again!”

That’s right, friends. I am back from my hiatus – and a little earlier than expected, no less. Thank you for bearing with me during these busier-than-usual weeks. I’m very happy to be back!

Actually, there’s a reason I came back early. See, there’s been a rash of self-publishing stories recently and for the most part, I don’t really have much to say about them except, “Hey, good for them.” But then I read something that made me want to respond in more than 140 characters, and I didn’t think I should wait to post it for the sake of waiting.

Future (current?) publishing superstar, Meredith Barnes, recently wrote in a blog post (which you should read), “Agents today, if they have one forward-thinking bone in their body, consider self-publishing a viable option.” Very, very true.

Much like online dating, self-publishing is no longer attached to the stigma that it should be only considered as a last resort. There are many reasons why I’d suggest taking the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing means you will be unedited, unmarketed, and generally only sold via a few retail outlets – among other problems. If you’re fine with this or you are willing to put in a LOT of work in addition to writing the actual book, then who am I to stop you?

Like I said, there have been a lot of self-publishing success stories lately, especially in this past month. I think this is a great boon to this often chastised method of publication. But it’s also dangerous to writers who may not have the same resources or popularity to make their self-published book rank up there with Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath.

That’s why when I read this post on Mr. Konrath’s blog last week, I felt that the self-publishing rags-to-riches stories needed to be addressed. (I had been letting others, who are much smarter than I, handle this ’til now.) Like I mentioned above, there are TONS of blog posts about how self-publishing is hard and that you probably won’t be as successful as the authors who are benefiting from it. Most writers know this and will still turn to self-publishing because they just want to see their book in print.

This is perfectly acceptable, writers. And it is especially fine for the writer who wanted to thank J.A. Konrath for “saving her life.” Sometimes all we need is to retain our creativity in order to feel we still have self worth. This writer was frustrated with rejection and became depressed because she did not see a point to keep writing if it could not be her career.

I feel for this writer. I do. And I’m happy she found peace again by releasing her book on her own terms. But there is more to this story. Or at least, there is more to this blog post.

More than the writer’s own feeling of rejection, what’s referenced several times here is the lack of money in traditional publishing. She laments that with “rock-bottom advances,” she saw no point to keep writing. Mr. Konrath also admits that he had been counting on his next advance to “feed his family.”

Now, writers. I don’t mean to cheapen anyone’s financial concerns here, but… seriously?

I will elaborate.

No one – I will repeat: no one (not agents, not editors, not publicists, and not booksellers) – goes into the book business for the cash. Writers are a huge part of this business; they are not excluded from this list. All books, even ones destined to be bestsellers, are passion projects. We do this because we love it. We love writers and we love the written word and we love stories. Despite our four-walled offices and health care, we are all just starving artists who believe you can’t place monetary value on what we do. Hence the lack of money being passed around.

But on a less idealized level, we already know about the notoriously low wages in publishing and the dwindling advances that have only gotten lower since 2008. The fact that our cups do not exactly runneth over is not news, which is why published author, J.A. Konrath should not have relied on an advance to avoid malnourishment.

If publishing is a business, which we constantly remind people that it is, then debut writers are our entry-level employees. For those of you with day jobs, try to remember what your entry-level salary was. Sucked, right? Well, whatever that salary was will probably be more than your debut advance. People like Amanda Hocking exist, of course, but if you are expecting publishers to play tug-of-war with two million dollars over you, you might as well just play the lottery.

I will take this opportunity to pause once again and say I’m sorry if this comes off harsh. I hate playing the role of the realist because rags-to-riches stories are supposedly what “the American dream” is all about. Crushing dreams is not fun for me. Plus, I like you.

Moving on.

If you are a writer waiting for your advance to “save you,” remember that publishing takes forever (as we learned in more detail from Jennifer Laughran). If you sold a book (yay!), you might receive half of your advance upon signing the contract. This comes relatively quickly. When the advances are split like this, the rest of your money could come after the publisher receives the full manuscript (most common with sequels in a series or nonfiction projects) or upon publication. Friends, publication might not happen until two years after you sign the agreement.

Ask yourselves if you’re financially secure enough to wait that long in between paychecks. If you have a day job, you may want to keep it until you no longer need to worry about when your next royalty check is coming. If you don’t have a day job, and are impatiently waiting for an advance, it probably wouldn’t hurt to call a temp agency. 

The reality of this situation is sad for those who want writing to be their career. That’s why I get self-publishing. It’s a way to avoid inevitable disappointment. Plus, it is awesome to see your book in print. I get that too.

But I guess my point is this – why be disappointed in something you already know to be true? Most jobs won’t pay you enough in your first year. You’re expected to prove yourself and work up the ladder and break ceilings. Then, usually, you’re able to get a raise, some extra perks, and eventually a summer home. So why should your first year in your new career as “writer” be any different?

Restless employees can go on to do great things. Biz Stone left a sweet gig at Google to help create a silly little start-up called Twitter. Pretty much everyone drops out of Harvard and becomes gazillionaires. And Barry Eisler can walk away from half a million dollars in traditional publishing to go rogue.

When these things happen, they are newsworthy. And the reason they become news stories are because they are rare and they provide hope. The millions of writers who continue to do their jobs well and stay loyal to their companies (i.e. publishers and agents) aren’t reported on so much because, well, they are the norm. Likewise, the millions of writers who go directly to self-publishing and don’t make a million dollars by far outweigh the writers who do make millions, so they tend to go unnoticed in the media too.

Like in any career, you want to get paid for what your work is worth, but rarely is that reflected in your paychecks (aka: royalty checks) when you are new to the game. Just because a system should change doesn’t mean it will change. At least not any time soon. Publishing is not Wall Street. Most of us (writers included) won’t be able to retire after our rookie year. If you were expecting to, then maybe you are in the wrong business. But if you’re willing to accept the realities of most new employees, advance on your own merits, and continue to be awesome at what you do, then we’d love to have you.

In Virtual Reality, What Can’t We Do?

Social networking continues to prove just how powerful it is, more so now in the past few months than ever. When people aren’t using it to oust dictators or organize movements, they are using it simply to connect. I have said before that people who scoff at Twitter, or think online-only friends can’t have real value, clearly have no idea what social media is, and should therefore not talk about it.

Since I just can’t stop talking about Joss Whedon lately, I thought I’d use the latest utilization of the Internet to segue into my topic today. God-among-nerds, Nathan Fillion, recently said in an interview that if won $300 million from the California lottery, then he’d buy the rights to Firefly and distribute it online. Well, the geek world went nuts and a few devoted Browncoats launched this website to “Help Nathan Buy Firefly.” Firefly‘s cancellation is hardly akin to Middle Eastern oppression, but hey, some of us need to create our own problems.

This bit of nerd news does have a point. Cult favorite TV shows like Firefly and Arrested Development have been off the air for over five years, but these shows in particular never seem to have died. This is arguably because of the Internet. Getting canceled these days is not what it used to be. Fans have voices now, and they can mobilize. These are the people who got Family Guy back on the air. Even though I don’t watch Family Guy, the impact that had is not lost on me. A network listened and maybe it’ll happen again with other cult shows…

… But what about cult books?

Have you ever wondered what would happen if your favorite book goes out of print? Probably not – we live in the age of Espresso Book Machines and ebooks, after all. But what about those pulpy noir paperbacks with the awesome covers that, try as they might, just can’t get reprinted. Or what if (heaven forbid!) an agent can’t seem to give away those darn ebook rights? There are so many titles that have fallen by the wayside for either being too old, not frontlist-worthy, or the estates are holding them back. What’s a reader to do?

What would happen if the social media savvy decided to save books the same way they do for canceled beloved TV shows? Do you think they’d stand a chance? If Margaret Atwood or David Foster Wallace were suddenly pulled from the shelves, would publishers notice a public outcry?

Rejecting the Rejections

I mentioned via The Twitter today that I wished my standard form rejection could read “Sorry, but your agent is in another castle.” Obviously, I was joking (even though that would be sweet), but a number of followers responded that it would certainly soften the blow. This got me wondering about form rejections in general.

They are designed to be as impartial, encouraging, and non-threatening as possible, despite the fact that they are completely impersonal. As writers who are publishing-savvy, you are no doubt aware that no agent likes giving such a reply, but the sheer volume of queries we receive sometimes make it impossible to personally respond to those we need to pass on.

So, a bit of a project for all of you who have either experienced the dreaded form rejection or are still living in fear of it. How can we agents “soften the blow” without resorting to lines from late ’80s video games?

Welcome to the fake-agenting world, writers! Leave your one-to-two sentence professional form rejection in the comments. Maybe we’ll learn a thing or two.

Once, Twice, Thrice

If you’re a member of Team Coco like I am, you may know that Conan O’Brien launched a campaign to bring the word “thrice” back into our daily lexicon. While I have little occasion to use the word, I fully support this endeavor. There are probably tons of words that have fallen out of the mainstream that are due for a comeback.

And so I ask you – what words do you want to see return?

For me, I like the word “scram.” I always have and think it’s hilarious. And why don’t people get called “nimrod” anymore? Or hear people say “forthwith?” These are valuable words, people! If we, The Literary Ones, don’t bring them back, who will? The Save the Words website can only do so much!

So what say you? Which words do you want to rescue from obscurity before they permanently fall to the wayside?

Crossing Over with YA

I often get queries that state plainly, “I’m writing to you because I know you enjoy crossover YA and I think my story is perfect for you.” Yes, it is true I prefer my YA to be more enjoyed by more than just teens, but I noticed that many of the eager writers are missing the point when submitting their crossover manuscripts. Like with most things, there is no “one ultimate rule” when defining what makes crossover YA. There are, however, many traps writers set for themselves when trying to write in this style. As a fan of the genre when it’s done right, I’m hoping to debunk the spiral of lies that writers often fall into so that the wide definition of Crossover becomes a little more narrow.

Crossover YA Means Older Teen/Younger Adult Characters:
Having a college-aged main character or a senior in high school who find him-or-herself in “adult situations” can mean that older readers will latch onto your story. Though, for the most part, having an older character, in my opinion, can do your YA a disservice. By focusing too much on having the age of the characters match that of your intended audience, you not only risk alienating a wider audience, but you could also lose focus on the story you want to tell vs. the story you think you should tell. Writing what you want should always take precedent. Worry about where characters’ ages fall later.(This is also true in deciding on Middle Grade vs. Young Adult.)

But Adults Won’t Read Books With Narrators/MCs Under 14:
Tell that to J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Orson Scott Card – to name a few. While J.K. is the only one on that list to have a “true YA premise,” the others have proven that just because a character’s voice hasn’t yet changed doesn’t mean it can’t still resonate with the big kids.

OK, but back to this “true YA premise” – Won’t that alienate adult readers?
Fair point. I’ll return to the Harry Potter example from above. Tell the average grown-up that you’re reading a book about eleven-year-old wizards who attend a magic school and regularly encounter giants, unicorns, and dragons, and they will probably say, “That’s nice, Junior; now go run along and play.” Tell the same person you’re reading a book about three friends who work together to battle a force of evil responsible for the deaths of the main character’s parents, and they might be more inclined to take you seriously. Adjust the general plot for the more fantasy-minded reader, and you have a book they won’t want to put down, regardless of age. In other words, a great story is a great story. What a reader chooses to take from isn’t always what the author writes intentionally.

My Main Characters Takes a Bunch of Illegal Drugs, Has Sex With Four Different People, and then Murders Someone Within the 1st Thirty Pages. Not exactly the stuff YA is made of.
How old is this drug-taking nympho murderer? Who was murdered and why? Does another teen have to solve the case? Is there a lengthy and potentially boring-for-teens trial? Will the main character learn something about him-or-herself by the end?

The answers to these questions will help you decide which age group this falls under, but never assume that something can’t be YA just because of content. There are always contributing factors that make it go one way or another.

A Book Without an Target Reader in Mind Won’t Sell
According to my query pile, writers seem very concerned about which section of a bookstore their work will be displayed. I completely understand why writers of crossover YA would be concerned about this. That said, it should in no way effect how you approach writing your novel. Sometimes you will find that given then story you created, the only logical age your characters can be is around nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one. Where they end up in a bookstore, in these cases, is dependent on the nature of the writing and the plot.

So that means I should, like, make my characters talk all YA, even though the plot is epic and totally more appealing and appropriate for people, like, way older?
No. Your characters need to make sense given the situations they are in and the tone you are trying to master. If a teenager is in an adult situation that can only be an adult situation, write their character accordingly.

Fine. But what if my freshman-in-college protagonist and her senior-in-college boyfriend go on a road trip in search of the mother she thought she lost in Katrina, but when they arrive in New Orleans, the only thing they find is… themselves.
Other than having an overly sentimental cliche on your hands, I’d say you have a perfect example of “either/or.” In this case, use your instincts. I’ve given advice to make a character younger or older based on the plot and writing style. Likewise, I’ve had writers tweak their plot to better suit a younger audience. These minor changes are inevitable when you have this type of novel. But, for the most part, the minor changes are never deal-breakers.

So, what you’re saying is I should just write my story and stop freaking out that it’s not YA enough or too YA?
Right. Be mindful of a potential audience, keep your story in keeping with the characters, and let the characters adapt to the plot in a way their ages and life experiences would realistically allow. But don’t get wrapped up in who’s going to read it. Just focus on the story you want to tell.

This, of course, is all easier said than done. The best way to avoid the spiral is to remember to trust your reader while writing, and then trust your agent and editor while trying to publish. Mostly though – trust yourself as a writer to get across what you want to say to the people you want to say it without even trying 🙂

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

When someone asks you what you do, what do you say? Writer? Author? Artist? Do you mutter a general job description and immediately follow it up with … but, ya know, I’m just doing this for now!?

There’s always a little bit of a debate in the yet-to-be-published community on whether they are “writers” or “authors.” I know industry people who think they are one in the same, that the words are interchangeable. I am not one of these people. To me, a writer is a person who is serious about his or her craft and has the drive, knowledge, and skill to someday get published. An author is someone who has been published.

Now, there was some news this week about a certain Jersey Shore cast member and her work of fiction that looks astonishingly like her real life. Folks, I hate to say this, but Snooki is an author. I know. I’ll give you a minute.

OK, now that we’ve calmed down, a slight digression: When I was little, I wore Barbie lip gloss and ate Flinstones vitamins. The packagers stuck a familiar face on an otherwise commonplace product so that they could better compete within specific markets. Enter Snooki’s novel.

In the same way that Hanna-Barbera Productions did not manufacture pharmaceuticals in between creating beloved cartoon characters, Snooki having a book with her name on the cover does not make her a writer. (This is also in part because her book was, presumably, largely ghostwritten.) That’s not to say other celebrities who have written books aren’t writers. It’s just that Snooki and her ilk (be it Kardashian or Hilton) are the brand of celebrities that are, well, brands. The line is a fine one, but it’s there. President Obama, for example, is a writer. For one, he actually penned his words. And two, he was not a celebrity or even a politician of much note when his memoir was published. And in the manner of being fair and balanced, I’ll admit that Bill O’Reilly is also a writer. I repeat, it’s a fine line, but if you look closely enough, the differences between real writers and “people who have book deals” are clear.

So, back to you.

If not all writers are authors and not all authors are writers, where does that leave you? I bring this question up because I think it’s something fun to think about. There is no right answer. It’s only slightly bothersome to me when a writer queries me claiming to be a “published author” when they mean “I know how  to click a button that will bind my manuscript for me,” which is why I make my own distinctions between writers and authors. But writers who are serious about what they do deserve more than just being called “people who write,” so they have every right to claim that label proudly for themselves. But you tell me – what do you call yourselves? Or do you just say “I’m awesome” and leave it at that?

Finally, as you ponder what to call yourselves this weekend, I leave you with this week’s Winner of  the Internet, James Van Der Beek and his Vandermemes. Personally, I’d like to thank Mr. Van Der Beek for finally justifying my preference of Dawson over Pacey. It  took over a decade, and I was getting tired of defending my choices (you’d be surprised how often it would come up over the years), but I feel that my love of the Van Der Beek and my indifference to Joshua Jackson has been vindicated. Well done, sir.

Read. Prey. Exploit.

By now you have probably heard of the ghastly “James Frey Fiction Factory” news that broke over the weekend. In case you were away, this paragraph from the NY Magazine article sums it up:

“This is the essence of the terms being offered by Frey’s company Full Fathom Five: In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.”

Gross, right? The always brilliant Maureen Johnson had an equally brilliant blog post about it as well.

Writers, if this is not evidence of the importance of agents, I don’t know what is. Desperation to get published is never an excuse to settle for anything less than what you deserve. What’s more, Mr. Frey is going into my old stomping grounds – the MFA classroom – to prey on his victims. What strikes me as odd about this is that the average MFA candidate is not taught “high concept,” or even knows what it means, and they usually scoff at genre fiction, but it seems as if that is all James is looking for.

The desire to get published and work with “super famous author” can make a person compromise their style, and I am not above advocating “commercializing” a novel for the sake of publication. But! You should never, ever compromise your ideals – whether it’s in your writing or in your own self-worth. You are worth more than $250. Much, much more.

Speaking from an industry professional’s point of view, this is appalling on many levels. It is an agent’s job to protect the writer from contracts like this. Not only would the writer not get paid nearly enough for their work, but Frey makes it so his company can decide not to pay you at all. Add in a little stripping of rights, final say, and ability to protest and you have a nicely packaged fascist agreement. Writers, this is not the future of publishing. And while I know all of my loyal readers are too smart to fall for a contract like Frey’s, there are others out there who hide behind larger advances and prey on the un-agented, feasting on their unprotected, and often uninformed, flesh.

My anger toward this is not motivated by selfishness. Yes, the very essence of my job is being tossed aside and put into question by this “other option,” but there’s a reason agents become agents. And it’s not fame or fortune, trust me. It’s also not to force writers into a bureaucracy and reap so-called benefits from them, like some writers (usually the rejected ones) sometimes believe. We get into this business because we love books and writers and want to see them succeed. And yes, the more money you make, the more money we make. This is our job, after all. While I can’t speak for all agents, I’ll say that a huge commission check is just an added bonus. Most of us do this because we honestly love it. We’re your advocates and protectors who speak on your behalf because too many people like Frey exist.

Now, there’s that other side of me. The one who is now going to speak as an MFA graduate. What makes me afraid of this Fiction Factory is that I know how many people will be tempted to take Frey up on his offer of doom. I have many opinions about my MFA, not all of them positive and most of which having to due with it being an expensive and useless degree. But, I entered a “NY literary scene” I was desperate to be a part of and it did, truly, make me a better writer.

That said, all I “learned” at The New School was how to be a better writer. My writing seminars and literature courses only had one educational motive – craft, craft, craft. No one ever bothered to prepare us for actual publication, or even how to go about getting an agent. If I wasn’t already interning at an agency at the time, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about the actual logistics of getting published. In fact, hardly anyone mentioned the word “published” at all, but we were all forced to attend a three-week seminar on teaching. I guess for when we all failed and needed a fall-back career. No one went to this seminar after the first meeting, myself included.

Writers, as followers of blogs you know this, but as a reminder: getting published is not just (finally!) seeing your book in print. It’s, ideally, your new career, and like any job, you are guaranteed protection for your contributions to “the company.” We’re like your boss, but instead of enforcing a dress code or making you attend awkward office parties, we just pay you. While it’s a fun and rewarding business, it’s also a business, and to think otherwise is irresponsible. This is one of my biggest problems with MFA programs. Writing for the sake of writing is all well and good, but if you want to turn it into a career, writing students are discouraged more than encouraged, and are rarely, if ever, given the facts.

If all you want is to just see your book in print, then self-publishing or Frey-style rip-offs probably would suit you just fine. But if you want to be an author, then hard work, perseverance, and having “the system” give you your due is what will make you successful. The easy way out is very tempting, especially in a business that makes you wait for every little thing, but giving in to a Frey contract is against your best interest and just plain heartbreaking for those of us who know better. You deserve more, writers.