By Catherine Rudy, 24-Mar-2013 18:43:00
WHAT A WRITER CAN DO TO HELP THE INDUSTRY
You say you are a writer and that’s great. You sit down for hours a night and bang out words on a computer, spilling your heart and soul into whatever project you’re working on. You believe your work is of great worth to share with the world, and you may even be right. But how do you get it out to the general public. This isn’t a rant to tell you how to do that. If I knew, I’d be able to get every work we support to the right readership and brag about it. But I don’t. There’s some secret formula I haven’t figured out. But that isn’t the issue I want to discuss now. I want to talk about how you’re going to save the writing industry.
“Me?” you ask. Why should you do anything to save this flagging industry. Unless you’re a published author (through the traditional houses) and have seen significant return on your investment of time and effort, you probably don’t think it’s your responsibility to help the failing book market. You would be wrong. You want to reap the rewards of mass distribution of your work, you better start thinking about how to beef up the demand for them. And don’t be fooled by prospectives that show how book sales have increased. Everyone knows the market is a numbers games. You can tweak anything to look either like it’s in a deficit or profit. However, the matter still remains that less and less people are reading for leisure and buying books. Many of them are buying second-hand books because they’re cheaper. If you’re all about the royalties, this hurts you. I look at it as another person who has enjoyed what you have to share, regardless of how they acquired it.
Those of us in the industry—writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, and educators—should be worried that there is a decline in what the future holds for us. For the most part, educators will always have to teach children how to read, but there lies the problem. What happens when teachers discover that children no longer want to read. Their students want to play video games or watch television. Or just text mindless dribble on social media sites. A teacher’s job has just become a lot more difficult. He must discover other ways of reaching a child. He has to pique a child’s interest in reading. If you are an educator, take a peek at the Wolf Pirate Project’s Reader Appreciation Class on the web site. It’s a pretty comprehensive curriculum about instruction on reading.
The problem for booksellers is obvious. No demand, no need for supply. Simple economics, end of story. Let’s move on to publishers, who find themselves in the same position. Booksellers don’t have so many people to sell to so they reduce their inventory. They order less books from publishers. Publishers become more discerning on what they invest money in. Whereas they were once putting out a hundred books because the demand was there for them, they are now putting out eighty. Other factors come into play, as well, on a publisher’s end. Printing costs go up. New taxes now put a demand on a publisher’s operating methods. Employees are let go. A work’s profit margin takes the hit. Marketing budgets get tight. Less books are produced. More books are only seeing ebook status, which is equivalent to the death knell to its prosperity. Yes, it’s in electronic form, but it’s virtually stagnant in distribution if there’s no heavy marketing to expose it.
Jump now to editors. They’re one of the employees that get let go in the budget cuts. Less editors now work in a publishing house to ensure quality control. Whereas the remaining ones had a week to editor a book, they now have three days. Someone has to pick up the slack. Sure, they’re still good editors, but if you rush perfection, you get mistakes. I’ve seen it plenty of times in books produced by the big publishing houses: grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and mistakes in continuity. I’ve even seen cases where the main character’s name changed to something different in places. Astounding, you say. No, not really. It’s hard to edit a book to the end and catch all the typos and mistakes a writer makes. And yes, he makes them—in droves.
Which brings me to writers. How do you fare in this flagging market? Isn’t it obvious. Haven’t you already experienced the drawbacks of a failing industry where readers are dwindling? Your work gets rejected by the publishers who count. Who are they, you wonder. Let’s name a few so you get the gist. Random House, Penguin Putnum, Berkley, Daw, Ace, and others. These are the ones we deal with at The Wolf Pirate Project. These are the industry greats who can get books out through distribution. Forget the small presses. They don’t get the time of day from distributors, who decide what books get peddled to bookstores. You didn’t know that? Surprise, surprise. You thought you only had to write a book and it would get published. No, that wasn’t the case. For one, good luck getting published by a large house that can do part-and-parcel of all the marketing and distributing for you. If you have been picked up, fantastic. You are one of the blessed. But for most writers, no matter how exceptional you are, you might not find a home for your work. Not to sound depressing, but that is a fact. You turn to the smaller presses or, God forbid, a subsidiary (one where you pay part or all of the printing process), thinking that just getting the book printed will save your writing career. Oh, not so. Many of these presses, especially the subsidiary ones, will only offer your book online at their web site. Yes, they will tell you that they will make your book available on Google and Amazon, as well, but you can do that yourself. Still amounts to no sales unless you have your book marketed to the public; which, of course, will be something they offer for an extra fee (heavy traffic through Internet search engines, which is not real marketing). Or—and here I cringe—if you send them your contact list, they will send advertising material to everyone on it. If you send them your contact list, you are only giving them a database to spam your friends. Don’t do that to your friends. So, what do you ultimately do. How can you change the industry?
You can’t. Not alone. Everyone has to do their part. You have to start with the basics. Encourage reading in others. Start with your children if you have them. Don’t shove your lovingly created book in their hands and tell them they’ll love it; let them pick what they want to read for themselves. Yes, it might kill you to see your own children read someone else’s book, but at least they’re reading. I have yet to have one of my children read one of the books the Project supports. Is that an embarrassing admission? It is on the surface. But, think about it. Reading is a personal choice. What you choose to read is based on what you want to read. You browse through a bookstore for books you want to read. The same is true for everyone else. If your book doesn’t pique their interest, there’s nothing you can do to make them read it. Maybe your mother will because she’s your mother. Or your sister, but chances are your spouse won’t. If he or she does, cherish him or her forever; they are the exception to the rule. The point is you can’t pick someone’s book for him to read. Choosing a book for yourself is like picking out your own clothes. Would you let your mother choose your wardrobe? I wouldn’t.
Be content with encouraging readership in others, regardless of what they chose to read. They might not want to read your book, but another writer’s child might want to read it. If more people encouraged reading for pleasure, there would be more demand for books. All different types of books. You would have an audience out there that might find your work interesting. This is only a tiny step in the right direction, but with the amount of aspiring writers out there, if everyone got just one person interested in reading, there would be thousands of new readers in the world. Once you’ve hooked someone on reading, they generally talk about what they read. They might even change another person’s mind about reading and convert them, as well.
This brings me to what I ultimately want to get at. This is for you writers out there. I want to be absolutely straightforward with you. What I have to say may not be what you want to hear, but you should listen. This is important. For the future of the industry, for your children, and for yourself. You need to get over yourself. You are not God’s gift to the literary industry. No one takes that prize. You may be a great writer, but you are not above partaking in the pleasures of reading yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from writers that they don’t have time to read. I only shake my head and rue the fate of this industry. If the world’s writers don’t read, what’s becoming of the state of our literary culture? How can you expect anyone to read your book when you don’t read any yourself? Reading is extremely important for a writer. You need to keep abreast of current trends in literature, familiarize yourself with your fellow writers, learn what attracts a publisher’s attention, and keep in touch with the working of proper grammar. Let’s be honest; I know why you don’t want to read someone else’s work. You’re envious of them. Their book bears the distinguished mark of a big publishing company’s logo on the spine. It’s not fair. They got published and you didn’t. They have some special in or know the publisher. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but the fact is, they did get published. They got in. It’s hard to be happy for them when you’re still on the outside looking in, wishing you were there. Out of spite, you stop reading. You immerse yourself wholly into writing because it’s the only thing that gives you pleasure. I want to tell you that you shouldn’t do that. For one, you’re setting a bad example to your children, the same ones you want to learn to read for pleasure so they might grow up to read your work. Secondly, all writers (or those without the special connections or celebrity to be published simply because) start off in the same boat. It is inevitable that some will grasp the brass ring. They’ve worked just as hard as you have but got lucky. They hit the right publisher with the right story at the right time. Give them some kudos for their accomplishment. If their work is up your alley, read it. It would behoove you to know what gets published. And remember, each book sold is another statement to the industry that it is still alive.
Let’s get right down to it. Writers need to be more supportive of each other. Not on the surface, fake-listening to each other, waiting for an opening in the conversation for when they can start talking about their own work, but actually communicating with each other. Start praising each other for their accomplishments and congratulating them if they get published. Ask to read their work. Buy their books (don’t just take the free copy). Become friends again, not nemesis. This is a dog-eat-dog industry to begin with. Fighting amongst yourselves will only see its demise. If we each do our little part in trying to revive it, we might see some reward came our way.
I, for one, am trying to do my part. I founded The Wolf Pirate Project to help writers learn to hone their craft. We offer editing for free if you’re willing to undergo the grueling experience of the Writer’s Workshop (and if you have tough skin to be critiqued). We give out books for free. We have writing classes to guide you through what editors and publishers are looking for. We even have a reader’s appreciation class to help parents and educators help others learn to read for pleasure. I even write these rants to be brutally honest with you, so you aren’t deluded in your writing career. Not everything is pretty, but I won’t lie to you. Other than all that, what more can I do? I’ve done my part to help this industry. All I’m asking is that you help as well. Turn just one person onto reading and start reading yourself. Take time out of your busy schedule and rekindle what you once loved to do. Escape from the troubles of the everyday world by immersing yourself in a story that takes you to different lands, ones you didn’t create yourself. Indulge a little.
By Catherine Rudy, 21-Mar-2013 16:38:00
WRITING WRITING OFF AS A TAX DEDUCTION
So you call yourself a writer. When you meet people, you might even introduce yourself as one, even though the way you support yourself is from your job as a bookkeeper, delivery person, or receptionist. After all, telling people you are a writer gives you a different dimension. At The Wolf Pirate Project, we look at you as an artist. However, in the practical sense, you should consider your writing as a business. The Internal Revenue Service gives you the right to deduct business expenses on your income tax. If you itemize your deductions, it would behoove you to take advantage of the business deductions as a writer.
The IRS states that you can deduct expenses for a business or trade if you intend that business or trade to produce a profit. So, if you intend to sell your work to a publisher or the public, your writing endeavor qualifies for the business deduction. If you only write for a hobby and don’t intend to peddle your work to publishers or have it self-published for sale to the public, you cannot take the deduction. Submission records and response slips from publishers would be the proof of the difference between these two endeavors. Be forewarned, though, the IRS will question whether your writing business is a for-profit endeavor if you do not turn a profit for three out of five consecutive years. This is a difficult pill to swallow, since many writers can tell you how disappointing sales are for their work. It is not a simple matter of selling your work at a craft show or distributing it to local bookstores. There are obstacles standing in your way. There are other factors you can use to prove you intend to make a profit with your writing rather than doing it as a hobby. Some of those include how you run the business, your expertise in your field, the amount of time you put into your business, previous profits, whether writing is your sole source of income, and if it is a type of activity that can be considered recreational or a hobby.
Diligent record keeping is the key to successful itemizing. Store your receipts and correspondence, including all those dreaded rejection letters. Staple them to a copy of the query letter you sent out so the form rejection letters have some validity. Keep your manuscript and business files on a separate flash drive that has no other personal files on it. If you have a home office, be careful not to share it with the personal aspect of your home life. The IRS is very particular about what they consider a home office used for business. You shouldn’t consider this a drawback, though. If you intend for your writing to be viewed as a business, then treat it like a business. Yes, writing is a creative function and there’s no reason why you can’t get enjoyment out of it, even as a business; but there is another side to writing than contributing art to humanity. There is the ugly business side of it, the angle where you have to sell of your life’s work to keep afloat or feed your family. Easier said than done.
In the meantime, if you intend your work to become published and make it onto a store shelf, take advantage of the business deductions. There are many costs you can write off, including ink for your printer, paper, stationary, postage, reference books, and computer hardware and software. In some instances, a computer is taken at a depreciated value. Check with your accountant or a qualified tax preparer for how this is done. The use of your car may also be deductible; however, you must determine what percentage of use you use the car for your business against its personal use and deduct only that percentage. Keep records on mileage to and from business-related trips. If you attend book fairs to sell your printed book, you may deduct the cost of space and certain items related to the trip. IRS Publication 535, Business Expenses gives a complete account of what costs you can deduct for a business.
If you have space in your home set aside for your writing, you might be able to deduct part of your home’s utilities, insurance, mortgage interest, repairs, and depreciation. However, the IRS is particular about what qualifies as a business office in your home. For one, the space must be exclusively dedicated to your business. You cannot share the space with personal or home activities. Secondly, the home office must be your primary place for doing business, even if you work outside the office. If you satisfy these two rules, you may deduct the same percentage off your utilities, insurance, mortgage interest, repairs, and depreciation as your home office is of your entire house. For example, if your spare bedroom is your exclusive business office and it is 200 square feet and your home is 2,000 square feet, you can deduct ten percent of the aforementioned items as a business expense. But, be forewarned, this deduction is applied only if you show a profit for the year. For more information, you can read IRS Publication 537, Business Use of Your Home.
On the surface, it may look appealing to deduct the cost of writing as a business expense, but please be aware of the rules to avoid future trouble with an audit. If you sell periodic articles, do freelance writing, or publish through any means that reaps financial rewards, it might be in your best interest to itemize your expenses. The IRS requires that you report earnings on your writing endeavors; it only seems fair that you should deduct the expenses required to make those earnings possible.
By Catherine Rudy, 22-Jan-2013 07:34:00
THE DECENCY IN REJECTION LETTERS
A Word to Submissions Editors
Yes, there is decency in rejection letters, although 99% of the letters writers get have none of that courtesy at all in them. This is a shame, considering that writers have shared their life’s work with publishers and agents in the hopes of sharing their stories with the world. I won’t go on and on about that, other than my initial declaration that writers spill their heart and soul into writing their stories, not to mention time and money, at the expense of spending personal time with family and friends, doing more immediately rewarding activities or even investing their time in a paying job. So, for all those editors at publishing houses and literary agencies, maybe you should keep that in mind before you shove one of your misaligned photocopied letters into the writer’s self-addressed stamped envelope to return to them. Yeah, yeah, we get it; your time is precious and you are inundated with queries. Pales in comparison to the amount of effort a writer has put into his life’s work.
I suppose most editors have stopped reading this by now, making note of my name to hold me in contempt forever, but I am done coddling editors in the hopes that being nice will gain any favor in attention for the works I submit to them. However, for any editor who’s bold enough to keep reading this, I applaud you. Maybe there is some hope for you after all. What I am proposing is nothing that will take up any of your time or impose any more work on your busy schedule.
First of all, I do understand your workload. I was in charge of a small publishing company for a few years and was swamped with queries, too. I got a taste of what editors in a publishing house and literary agency suffer. You probably snort in derision at my position in a “small” publishing company, daring me to compare the number of submissions I got to what you review on a daily basis. But I was the only one reviewing these works, while an editor at one of the traditional houses is just one of many others, or has assistants or readers who sifts through the piles of submissions for him. The point is not who had more of a workload, but to say that I was in a position to say I walked a mile in your shoes. I can speak with authority of what is wrong with your regular practices and how they should be fixed for the benefit of the writer.
The first thing to do is to stop being a martyr. Writers don’t care that you are pressed for time and can’t give them the decency of a personal response. They get it. They’ve had enough falsely sentimental rejection letters to know that. In fact, you’re just wasting the ink in your printer when you add those few lines of explanation in your form letters. Most writers zero in on that nefarious word, “Unfortunately,” and stop reading any farther. They know what the rest of the letter says. You might as well write a big bold NO on their query and be done with it. Telling a writer that you are overburdened with queries is a slap in the face to him. He’s just spent months and months working on a story to share with the world and you’ve just told him you don’t have the time to do anything but whisk a form letter off a stack of others and put it in his envelope. Yeah, he doesn’t care. And you aren’t making him feel any better.
Secondly, adding pat responses that don’t universally apply in your form letters is just cruel. As part of The Wolf Pirate Project, we sponsor excellent writers to the literary community. In that, we submit queries to publishers and literary agents to find our sponsored writers a home in a publishing house or with an agent. We create an entire query package customized for each writer and his work. This requires that we know the writer’s work backward and forward, analyze it, point out its strengths, and extol the merits of the writer. We also do an analysis of our interaction with the writer so the commercial editors can understand what they’re getting into should they begin a relationship with the writer. In other words, we invest a lot of time and energy with these writers. When we get a form rejection letter back from a publisher or agent, it is a slap in our faces, as well. We feel exactly what the writer feels. We also know when the patent excuses in the form letter are bogus.
Let’s take, for example, my favorite: “… the manuscript needs editorial work.” This is one that really gets my goat. All of the works we put out go through multiple edits, and I am the one to do the final edit. I not only teach editorial lessons to writers, but I constantly review and reinforce my understanding of editing by referring back to the Chicago Manual of Style. My hard cover copy of the Manual is highlighted and annotated from cover to cover. I keep it handy for any discrepancy I need to clarify. I do not rely on my schooling of the English language from years back. I study my craft! So, when I receive a response that one of the works we support needs editorial work, I want to know what that is. Educate me where I have failed. For heaven’s sake, I’d love to correct whatever misconception I might be passing along to students of our classes. This pat response—“the manuscript needs editorial work”—was recently given in the form of an answer when an editor had reviewed a manuscript after requesting to see the full book. I requested in a purely informative manner what kind of editorial work was necessary and if the editor could tell me what was wrong with the work so I could adjust our editorial protocols to fix future works. I got no response back from the editor. Amazing how an editor in the industry wouldn’t take ten minutes to pass along pertinent information to a purveyor of education to aspiring writers. I was led to believe that the rejection from this editor was just a patent response to avoid a lengthy explanation. Or maybe this editor doesn’t care about the future of the next generation of writers.
So, what to do about your patent responses in form rejection letters? Leave them out. Adding in the ambiguous phrase, “needs editorial work,” doesn’t help any writer. That’s like calling the police and telling them there’s a bomb in a building. It doesn’t help. It just causes panic and a lot of work that isn’t necessary. In the case of telling a writer that his manuscript needs editorial work, the writer takes it personal, starts doubting himself, goes over his work again and again to figure out for himself what’s wrong with his writing; when, in actuality, there might not be anything wrong with it at all. God forbid this distraught writer shells out big bucks to a book doctor to fix something that isn’t broken. If you want to help, leave that patent phrase out of your rejection altogether. If you don’t have the time or inclination to critique the writer’s work—which we all understand, because you are so busy—then don’t mislead the writer into thinking something that doesn’t apply to him.
The next tip in how to improve your rejection letters is not to lie to the writer. Stop ending your form letters with false sentiments that you wish him luck in finding a publisher or agent elsewhere. We know you don’t wish any such thing. You barely looked at his query, maybe didn’t even read his sample chapters. If you hope to see that his work gets published, you would have accepted the work yourself. Once again, this is just a waste of ink on paper. The writer doesn’t even read that far down on the page. Most likely, he’s opened the thin, single-page response, pulled out an obviously photocopied form that doesn’t even bear his name or the name of his work, and has no signature on the bottom, and knows it’s a rejection. All he looks for is, “Unfortunately.”
Now that I have lambasted you to no end, what is it I propose for you to do? A less heartless way to reject a writer would be to simply write, “Not for me,” on the author’s query letter. Write it yourself and sign it. I’ve gotten these before and I feel strangely more amenable to those. I see a human being putting an effort into communicating with me. When you send me back the query letter I sent you, I envision that you held it in your hands and maybe read it. Then you picked up a pen and scribbled a quick note informing me of your response. You might not think it’s much of a difference than shoving a form letter in an envelope, but it is. It’s the impression that seeing your handwriting on the query letter that makes it more personable. But more than that is the simple three-letter response, “Not for me.” You are telling the writer that the work doesn’t suit you. At The Wolf Pirate Project, we try to tell writers that the chance of getting accepted for publication or representation is subjective to each editor. Every editor is unique and has personal preferences in what they look for in a book. What one editor likes, another may not. Telling a writer that their work is not for you gives the writer hope that it might be for someone else. You are not dashing the writer’s hope completely.
Having been a publisher myself, I understand the myriad reasons why a work might be rejected. Those reasons are too diverse to write into a rejection letter, but I would like to share those with writers here. First and foremost, it may be that the work doesn’t fit the type of writing you publish or represent. This is a completely acceptable response for writers where it doesn’t crush them or their passion for writing. Perhaps, the work is too similar to another project scheduled to be published and you don’t want to get in a rut of repeating themes. It happens. It’s not your fault or the writer’s fault. The next reason might be that your catalogue has been filled for the upcoming seasons or that an agent isn’t taking on any more clients. Again, another acceptable response. This doesn’t attack the writer’s work or ability to write. Another reason might be the length of the work; it’s too long or too short. Again, understandable. Or perhaps you don’t feel there’s enough commercial appeal for the manuscript. This is your opinion, as we all know that marketing is behind commercial appeal. Marketing can make a blockbuster out of crap. And a writer should understand that. It is not the worth of his writing, but that your publishing house doesn’t have the funds to push his work in a big commercial promotion. That’s understandable. Then there’s the possibility that your publishing house or agency might have its own policies or theories about the length of a book. It’s not a slight against the writer’s work. Perhaps there’s even office politics at play. You might like the project but know it’ll get stonewalled by a senior editor. These are not a reflection on the writer’s work, but on fate. Do you see how many other excuses you can offer in a rejection letter that won’t hurt the writer or his dreams of becoming an acknowledged author. Well, at least the way they view their work after they’ve read your reasons for rejecting them.
If you’ve read this article all the way to here, I applaud you. Maybe you don’t realize the power you have over a writer’s self-esteem; or, God forbid, you do and you get off on crushing them. But your rejection of their work is an awful thing. It grates on them, ruins their day, or even finally convinces a writer to give up his dream of ever being published. Your rejection might stop a fantastic writer from ever trying to get his work out to the public. Is that the legacy you want to leave—crushing artistic talent? Is that why you became an editor? An editor is meant to correct what has been written. In essence, you are meant to be an educator. Have you lost sight of that? Take a good look at yourself and decide if you are a supporter of literary art or a commercial drone for marketing a public commodity.
By Catherine Rudy, 20-Jan-2013 07:50:00
I often lament over the distinction of categories for fiction, constantly quavering over what some of them mean. Literary, contemporary, commercial, mainstream: Is there any working man’s definition for these to navigate safely around? We can all figure out what falls within categories like romances, fantasy, science fiction, and the like; but it gets pretty murky when publishers and agents list literary, contemporary, commercial, and mainstream as their catch-all preference for fiction. I’m left wondering whether to include these people in the list of possible publishers and agents to submit a work to. Is it just an editor’s highbrow manner of deflecting writers of category fiction from submitting their work? Or is it a snub at writers of category fiction.
What is category fiction, you might ask. It is a broad term meaning fiction that can be sequestered into an identifiable category like science fiction, mystery, thrillers, and such. It generally excludes ambiguous fiction like literary, contemporary, and mainstream works. I have often discovered that some elitist editors use this term in a derogatory manner, as if there is something lacking in works that fall within category fiction. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth because the writer’s work has already been judged just by placing it in an identifiable category. These editors feel it is beneath them to give this type of fiction a read because it hasn’t been labeled “literary.” Shame on them. How could they possibly know that the style of writing in category fiction isn’t beautiful and important to the writer if they don’t even read it.
Let’s explore what the industry considers to be literary fiction. Works that can be classified as literary are those where the writer values the quality of style and writing above the story itself. In literary fiction, the writer applies imaginative techniques to his writing style over and above developing the appeal of the story. Literary fiction claims to have an elevated sense of artistry. To me, I find this to be a failure on the writer’s part. I would think a quality piece of fiction is one that meshes artistry with a great story. Why should readers settle for half of the whole thing? Why can’t a mystery have been written with the same “literary” flare found in a flagging “literary” novel? I’ll tell you why. Because publishers and agents demand that you categorize your novel before you submit it to the proper editor. You’re stuck saying your mystery is a mystery. Or your science fiction work is science fiction. Or your romance is a romance. Your category fiction may have a strong theme, well-developed characters, a good pace, and an exciting plot. And, in addition to that, your work may be exceptionally well written, with great care given to infusing vivid imagery, fascinating relationships, and beautiful narrative into a fascinating story. Yet you get snubbed by editors because you have been forced to classify your work as category fiction. I find this to be a travesty not only to writers, but to the industry as a whole. These exceptional works of literary art will never get a chance to shine in public because elitist editors refuse to recognize them for what they are.
However, category fiction editors will often acknowledge the merit of the types of works they prefer to review (mysteries, romances, thrillers, etc). These editors should be applauded for accepting category fiction in their repertoire of materials to consider. One of my most favorite writers comes from the fantasy category. Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor fantasy series is an amazingly entertaining volume of books written so beautifully and artistically that they should be listed as literary fantasies. These books were published by Orbit, a premiere publisher of science fiction and fantasy works, both of which are category fiction. In addition to that, these books are found in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of Barnes and Noble, a section most often relegated to the back of the store, behind the fiction and literature shelves in the front, where most fiction readers browse for new releases. A shame that Ms. Griffin doesn’t get the meritorious declaration of artistic work by being placed in the literary section, where her work might attract more interest by the casual browser.
In The Wolf Pirate Project’s Writer’s Class, we strive to give writers an understanding of what publishers and agents are looking for in writing. In both the Beginning and Advanced classes, there is a lesson about “purple prose.” The majority of editors frown upon the use of purple prose, yet I contend that this is exactly what literary-favoring editors are asking for in literary fiction. Taken directly from the lesson in the Beginning Writer’s Class, purple prose is “a literary term used to indicate flowery, elaborate narrative that overextends itself in terms of portraying the story. This type of writing focuses on the writer or the writer’s ability, not the story itself. It is self-glorifying on behalf of the writer. Moreover, it suffocates the purpose of literature. For all intents and purposes, literature is intended to be a gift to readers, not a platform for the writer to extoll himself of his skill with words. In this respect, purple prose is a blight on creative writing.”
If it sounds like I am against literary fiction, you would be half-wrong. I am in favor of beautiful writing in all types of literature. I am wholly against the rigid categorization of writing that excludes artistic works of category fiction simply because they have a definable plot. I applaud any writer who can spin artistry and style into telling a fascinating story for the purpose of entertaining readers with the enjoyment of that story, not because he’s created a swill of words that sound melodic but lead nowhere. Why can’t the “literary” writer bump up his skill level to create a stunning story with his beautiful prose? Why is it the category writer who is the one who’s deemed subpar? I believe it is because of the pretentiousness of the art world.
Literature is art, no doubt about it. And just like in every medium of art, there are elitists who try to elevate themselves by giving credence where credence doesn’t necessarily exist. They perceive more into a piece of work than there is. They use ostentatious words (like ostentatious) to extol the superiority of a writer. They state with definitiveness how other readers should view the writer’s work. They even interpret the work for other readers who might enjoy the work and come up with their own interpretation for what it means. In other words, they take the fun out of reading. Come on, guys, stop complicating things and just let the rest of us enjoy the story. You’re making it seem like literature is beyond the common man.
But let’s get back on track. The point of this rant is to encourage writers of category fiction to evaluate their work for quality in writing and style. Don’t sacrifice that for the sake of the story. I know I have already lambasted literary fiction writers for elevating the quality of their writing in lieu of crafting a good story with that writing, but I don’t want to give the impression to category fiction writers that they should settle for bland narrative just because they have a fascinating story to tell. The Wolf Pirate Project exists to help writers do that. Do yourself justice. Show the world that your great story is conveyed through stellar writing. Insist that in your queries to all publishers and agents. Extol your writing as well as the plot. Attest that you may have to categorize your story in a rigid classification such as a romance, fantasy, or mystery, but it is first and foremost written in an artistic manner. Reinforce that with samples of your writing. Don’t let elitist editors thumb their noses up at you because your story fits into a category.
Secondly, I want to chide literary writers for losing sight of what storytelling is all about. Yes, I applaud you for your ability to write beautifully. That is a skill not many writers have. But unless you are giving just as much attention and effort into creating a fascinating story, you are doing only half your job. Literature is not about you, the writer. It is about entertaining the public, giving them enjoyment for investing time and money into reading your story. When I pick up a book, I look first and foremost at the blurb on the back for what the story is about. I’m not swayed into putting down hard-earned money on a book in which the blurb on the back babbles ambiguously about a story that goes absolutely nowhere but is beautifully written. I might as well read poetry, if that’s the case. If the back blurb tells me the gist of an exciting story, I’m going to buy the book. If I then read it and discover the narrative is written beautifully, I consider it an extra bonus and the story will stick forever in my mind. I will remember it fondly and refer it to others. So, you can see how an artistically written category fiction book will have more return value for the reader than one of either half the accomplishment.
Lastly, I would like to scold the literary editors in the position to make or break writers for how they judge works of fiction. Shame on you for prejudging a book without its cover. Shame on you for forcing writers to make a choice of how they classify their book. Shame on you for giving writers of category fiction the impression that their work isn’t up to par because they don’t list it in the ambiguous category of literary fiction. Shame on you for falling into the rut of categorizing anything. You are right in demanding quality work from writers, but you’ve forgotten what literature is all about. It is not about the writer hyping himself up on how well he can put words together. It’s about entertaining the readers, giving them the enjoyment of immersing themselves into a story that holds them entranced for the duration of the book.
People, remember what the point of writing is all about. It is to please the readers of the world. No matter how large your audience is, writing has to satisfy the demands of those people who will pick up your work. That means giving them a world they can escape into for a short time, living vicariously through your writing. Should writing fail to do that, you will see the number of readers begin to dwindle, and you’ll only have yourselves to blame.
By Catherine Rudy, 09-Nov-2012 06:47:00
SELF-EDITING: CAN YOU BENEFIT FROM IT?
After all my years in the writing industry, if I was asked whether a writer can edit his own work and call it complete, I’d have to say—overall—no. But I believe self-editing is a prominent part of a writer’s responsibility. No writer excels so well in the craft that he can submit a first draft to a publisher in hopes of achieving acceptance. Please, please, please, don’t ever think you are the exception to the rule. In this case, the rule is absolute.
I have discovered that writers are truly unique individuals. They come from all walks of life, from different professions, and lifestyles. They are creative, passionate, and invested in their craft, all worthy qualities to have. But, for the most part, they are also self-absorbed, stubborn, and proud. These are obstacles in most writers, but they can also be employed to the writer’s advantage.
As a writer, you should be prepared to become self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses. It is imperative to ask yourself these questions:
Are you the best writer you can be?
Do you have a good grasp on today’s English language?
Are your stories the best they can be?
Have you created an original story?
Do you need the assistance of an editor to polish your work?
Humility is the first step to reaching the right answers to each of those questions. The first question—are you the best writer you can be—is always no. Writing is an ever-evolving process of self-improvement. The very fact that you gain life experience as time goes by makes you a better writer. You are able to create more vivacious characters by your interaction with different people in your own life, write scenes more credibly from memories of your own experience, describe relationships more intensely from an understanding of your own with friends and family, detail conflict more specifically from the trials and tribulations you experience in your own life, and devise more complex plots with a greater grasp of how life tricks you up. So, even though you think you are a great writer now, you always have the capacity to become a better one. That doesn’t even go into the prospect of continuing your formal education in writing and English.
Which leads us to the next question—do you have a good grasp of today’s English language? I’m not talking about being able to substitute for the local high school’s English teacher out on maternity leave, or to apply for a professorship at a college. You don’t even need a degree in Liberal Arts to qualify for editing your own work. But you do need to understand that English is a complex language that is wrought with rules and ambiguities. Ask yourself if you ever check your work in reference books. Do you have any English manuals to verify that you are using punctuation correctly, syntax appropriately, and verbiage in the right manner? Do you have a dictionary to check your spelling? God forbid you rely on your word processing program’s spellcheck function to catch misspelled words. A good writer surrounds himself with reference books to perfect his understanding of the English language and refer back to it in times of uncertainty. If you don’t have any, get some.
The third question—are your stories the best they can be—is a similar question as the first one, only that this one deals with your creation, not yourself. If you are used to calling it quits on a project with the completion of your first draft, you can rest assured that your story is not the best it can be. If you shelve your work for a month or two, then revisit it, you will inevitably discover that it doesn’t quite stand up to the standards you find satisfactory. Some writers are so anxious to finish a project that they don’t want to go back to it. Writing is a lengthy project. It takes months and sometimes years to write a first draft. When it’s completed it, you’re relieved. You feel accomplished. For the most part, you dread going back over it. Worse, you fear discovering that it’s inferior and having to rework it. God forbid you find discrepancies that don’t quite fit and must rewrite whole sections. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought up discrepancies in a storyline to a writer and suggested a rewrite, and they fought me tooth and nail just to avoid doing so. A sad state of affairs when a writer doesn’t work to make his project the best it can be.
Let’s move on to the fourth question—have you created an original story? In this day and age, where our lives are inundated with a myriad of creative works—television, movies, video games, and other books—our brains are bombarded with hundreds of stories, plots, conflicts, characters, and even imaginary worlds. We store them in our subconscious. We are even able to recite lines from our favorite movies. So, have you invested your stories with scenes from other works you don’t own, haven’t created, but have stored in your subconscious? Even the smallest addition of these borrowed aspects to your work is a slight to your authenticity as a writer. You must be aware of these plagiarisms. Perhaps they’re not extensive enough for readers to pick up on, but you know they’re not your original work. Is that okay with you? Of course, it’s impossible for you to know the entirety of all scenes, conflicts, and characters in all the movies, televisions, and books in existence, but you should be open-minded when someone points out the similarities they’ve noticed. Another reason for another set of eyes to review your work.
Lastly, but not least, is the question—do you need the assistance of an editor to polish your work? This is the key to all the other questions posed before this one. Do you feel you have the confidence to do your work justice? Do you have an objective eye to judge your work as an outsider would? Forget asking your mom or sister to read it and give you their opinion; they are most likely to coddle you. That isn’t the job of an editor. But independent editors will rarely take on your project for free. To rely on an editor to be your professional set of eyes is costly. Nowadays, most writers can’t afford the services of a professional editor. And is the payoff worth it? Probably not. The odds of being published are slim, even for excellent works of literature. So, is it justifiable to your family budget to spent $1200 to $2500 to someone to edit your work? Only you can answer that. For those of you who cannot afford that expense, there are ways for you to do service to your work on your own.
For one, be humble. Recognize that your first draft is riddled with errors. It’s rife with misspelled words, grammatical flaws, and mistakes in content. Be diligent in hunting those out. Never be satisfied that you have reached complete perfection. Eventually, you’ll settle for a version that happens to be good and be able to call it complete. So, in order to do that, let me help you with these tips.
The first thing to do is to get a comprehensive English grammar reference book. I rely on the Chicago Manual of Style, which is excellent reference for a creative writer. This book offers current rules, plus acceptable leniency for style. Once you have this book, use it. Use it liberally. However long ago it was that you took English in school, doubt your ability to recall everything you learned. Also be aware that the rules of grammar change over time. I would strongly suggest that you read your resource materials, no matter how clinical they may be. Mark them up with notes and an outliner to highlight oft-used rules. Dog-ear the pages and annotate the margins. Whatever it takes to make those your bible. If you are honest about your passion for writing, take it to the extreme. Do it right. Achieve greatness in all aspects of writing, even the tedium of grammar.
Another important reference material is a good dictionary. Find one that outshines the concise paperback you used in high school. Choose one that has appendixes that give quick references to grammatical rules, syntax, and other neat writing tools. I use an enormous Webster volume that weighs over ten pounds and makes a thunderclap went I set it on my desk. Is this necessary for the casual writer? You be the judge of that. Are you a good speller? Do you use highbrow words that can be found in an abridged dictionary? Please do not rely on your word processing program’s spellcheck function. Do not rely on its grammar check program, either. Get old school.
Editors not only check for spelling and grammar errors, but judge the content of your work. If you must edit your own work, this job falls on your shoulders. However, you are often too close to your work to do this. You must step outside yourself to view your work objectively. You must imagine yourself as another reader who has no previous understanding of your work or insight into your storyline. You have to judge if what you’re reading would be comprehensible to someone in that position. This is a very difficult job. You are the creator of your story. You know it inside and out. You know secrets about your characters and plot that you intend to reveal in stages, but are you able to notice where you might have let out too much or not enough? Sometimes, the only way to be that pair of objective eyes is to shelve your story for a few months and go back to it later. The time away from it, perhaps spent working on another project, will distance you from such intimacy with it. You can review it with more objectivity then.
In editing your story for content, don’t be shy about taking notes, if that helps you keep track of facts. You want to be sure that your protagonist who has brown hair and green eyes in chapter one has brown hair and green eyes in chapter five, twelve, twenty, and so on. You also want to make sure that your characters have the same name throughout the story. On that note, you want to be cognizant that not all your characters have names beginning with the same letter. I’ve encounters stories where there were an inordinate number of characters with names beginning in the letter A. Notes are a simple solution to keep you organized.
When you edit, be an objective judge of your storyline. Does it fall within the parameters of the story’s tone? Is your story a light-hearted romance that carries that sense throughout its recounting or a serious police procedural that requires a significant amount of gravity? Are the characters and verbiage credible to that tone? In that respect, are the characters true to themselves? Is the somber protagonist serious in his dealings with other characters or does his nature slip in and out of his intended behavior? You may have to reconsider the tone of your project if you discover that the characters are too somber or ridiculous for what you intended.
The two other factors I want you to be cognizant of in your self-editing are cheesiness and originality. Unless you intend for your work to be kitschy, you might have inadvertently written something less sophisticated into it. It will be up to you to catch these instances and judge whether they are within the realm of your intent. Perhaps they are; or perhaps they make you a little edgy leaving them in. Now that you are in the editing phase, you are in the position to make changes if you choose. And a word of advice: If something doesn’t sit right with you in your work, fix it so you feel comfortable with it. Otherwise, it will most likely come back to haunt you later.
Originality is an important aspect of writing. I caution writers to make sure their story concept is as original as possible. Of course, there are many premises that have already been explored in the mainstream, but a writer must always try to put a new spin on these traditional premises. But more than that, you should be aware of the originality of each scene and character. How embarrassing would it be to be called out on a rehash of a scene found in another book or—God forbid—movie. It is impossible for everyone to know every scene or premise ever written or created, but it is your responsibility to make sure that you do not copy those that you do know of. A successful writer is creative and an editor is responsible for ensuring that in a work. A self-editing writer needs to be a harsh critic of his own work.
So, can you self-edit your work? The only one who can answer that is you. Are you capable of being humble in your assessment of your work? Are you educated enough to catch misspelling, errors in syntax, poor grammar, and improper punctuation? Are you analytical and objective enough to judge your content and continuity, and can you be critical in picking out cheesiness and reproduction of other works? I understand the high cost in professional editing and encourage you to consider investing in yourself to be your own editor. It might not lead to a picture-perfect work, but it will impress more agents and publishers that you have a good work ethic in your craft.
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