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Friday, January 23, 2015

Top Ten Best Writers Conferences and Checklist

Typical Conference Panel of Dubious Worth
Below, we've assembled what some feel are a few of the best writers conferences going. Please keep in mind your goals as a writer. Where do you want to be in five years? And consider asking yourself these questions also: 
  • Do I know how to properly pitch a project?
  • Will I settle for self-publishing or no?
  • Do I know precisely what genre I'm writing in, and is the genre found on the shelf, searchable as a category on Amazon? 
  • Do I know my genre comparables and how to best choose them? 
  • Have I immersed in my chosen genre well enough to know how it has evolved over the past ten years?
  • Will this writers conference be a networking opportunity that puts me in touch with business professionals who also provide advice on my work?
  • Will this writers conference be honest with me in terms of reaction and feedback?
  • Will I learn things at this conference I can't learn in a writer magazine?

(Disclaimer: this list was compiled by an attendee at an Algonkian event)

1. AWP Conference
The AWP Conference is one of the biggest and most popular conferences in the writing world. By BEA standards, it's small, but more than 12,000 writers and readers attend annually, with up to 650 exhibitors and a large book fair. Tip: don't buy any books until Sunday because by then the frustrated indie booksellers will practically be throwing them at you. Keep in mind this is mostly for literary writers/authors. If money is tight, genre writers should steer clear.

2. Algonkian New York Pitch Conference
An event held four times a year in the publishing capital of the U.S. for upmarket, literary, and all genre novel-length fiction except for mainstream romance. Features include extensive pre-event novel foundation assignments; attendees allocated to small-group editorial/pitch workshops; one-on-ones with commercial acquisition editors in an environment without timer buzzers or background noise; and each writer's workshop leader present during all pitch sessions for support and project clarifications as needed. Workshop faculty include successful agent-authors and former acquisition editors at major houses. Programming also includes first-page "hook analysis" and the famous/infamous post-pitch drinking fest on early Saturday evening (all secrets revealed--attendance not mandatory).

3. Santa Barbara Writers Conference
The Santa Barbara Writers Conference focuses on writers honing their craft and networking with other authors. Informative, yes, but for commercial genre writers, networking with publishers and/or good agents is a better idea. But it’s held during the summer in Santa Barbara, and that is a plus due to the terribly beautiful paradise of SB where the moon rises in the east.

4. San Francisco Writers Conference
Of all the conferences that make you feel like your are part of a grand but futile horde, the San Francisco Writers Conference is an event that should not be missed. From the opening gala to over 60 sessions with presenters, as well as 3 minute-timer pitch sessions. If a big conference with lots of agents and panels is what you want, it doesn't get much better (or crazier) than the SFWC. The location on Nob Hill in SF is stunning, and don't miss the parties!
 
5. Agents and Editors Conference/ Writers League of Texas
This conference is a great place to network with industry professionals and other writers, while learning "everything" about publishing. Expect the usual panels, lectures, one-on-one meetings with editors, and opportunities for authors to pitch books to agents. Pretty much the usual fare, similar to SFWC. If in Austin, a bonus, of course.
 
6. Yale Writers Conference
This conference in New Haven, Connecticut has two sessions; session I is an intensive nine-day long conference for those who wish to explore craft. Session II is for writers who are focusing on a more specific genre. If you’re looking for an intimate workshop, this is a conference that might well impact your writing career. If you can stick it out for such a long time, and afford it, you deserve a medal.
 
7. Writers Digest Conference
This is a conference for networking and learning about the publishing industry, and you get to buy a martini for Chuck Sambuchino! You have arrived. Seriously though, a good event for newbies looking to lay a foundation.
 
8. Chicago Writers Conference
This is a conference that shows writers how to get published through conferences, workshops and different literary events ... We're not sure what this means. Best to investigate.
 
9. Women Writers Conference
This is the longest running literary festival of women in the nation and has over 1,000 attendees per year. At this conference you can get advice on how to improve your manuscript, speak with editors, and connect with other female writers. 

10:


Sales Down the Crapper! Yet Another Reason to Reconsider Self-Publishing

OMG! Sales are Going to Hell!!!
Amazon is screwing its Kindle customers with a sudden change in pricing that allows customers to pay an all-you-can read sum of ten bucks per month for the privilege of reading tens of thousands of self-published and commercially published books. As a result, monthly revenues to the ever-swelling mob of the self-published have decreased dramatically.

From an article at the NYT:
Holly Ward, who writes romances under the name H.M. Ward, has much the same complaint about Kindle Unlimited. After two months in the program, she said, her income dropped 75 percent. “I couldn’t wait and watch things plummet further,” she said on a Kindle discussion board. She immediately left the program. Kindle Unlimited is not mandatory, but writers fear that if they do not participate, their books will not be promoted.

Ms. Ward, 37, started self-publishing in 2011 with “Demon Kissed,” a paranormal tale for teenagers, and quickly became one of Amazon’s breakout successes, selling more than six million books, according to her website. She said in an interview that she does not understand what her partner Amazon is thinking.

"Your rabid romance reader who was buying $100 worth of books a week and funneling $5,200 into Amazon per year is now generating less than $120 a year,” she said. “The revenue is just lost. That doesn’t work well for Amazon or the writers.”

Continue reading the main story

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Defining Success: How Three Authors Made Their Publishing Dreams Come True

By Paula Margulies

Success often means different things to different people, and that is certainly true for most authors. While the majority of authors would probably agree that being able to complete a book is an accomplishment in itself, many define success as more than just the act of writing.

For some, success is achieved through obtaining a contract from a major publishing house. Others want to build their own writing empires by going the self-publishing route. For many authors, success means landing a book deal after being self-published. Others wish to achieve a certain status on the bestseller lists, while others desire to develop a solid core of readers. Some aspire to become established in a particular genre, while others write only for themselves or their family members

There is no right or wrong when it comes to an individual author’s goals. And the definition of success will be different depending on what authors believe is most important to their personal plans for themselves.

The following authors are clients who have been successful in their publishing efforts. They come from different backgrounds and write in different genres. And although their individual goals differ, each of them has managed to achieve the level of success they envisioned. Here’s how they did it:

Corey Lynn Fayman
Author of the San Diego-based Rolly Fingers mystery series, Black Beach Shuffle, Border Field Blues, and the soon-to-be-released Slab City Rockers. www.coreylynnfayman.com

A powerful new voice on the crime-fiction scene (ForeWord Reviews), Corey Lynn Fayman is the creator of Rolly Waters, the San Diego, California-based guitar-playing detective first featured in the San Diego Book Awards nominated mystery Black's Beach Shuffle. Encouraged by this early success, he set about writing a second Rolly Waters Mystery, Border Field Blues, winner of the Genre Award at the 2013 Hollywood Book Festival, and has inked a deal for his third novel with Severn House Publishers. Corey hails from San Diego, where he's worked as a keyboard player for local bands, a sound designer for the world-famous Old Globe Theatre, and an interactive designer for organizations both corporate and sundry. He also teaches at various colleges and universities.

What specific goals do you have for yourself as an author and how have you achieved those goals?

My initial goal was just to find out if I could write a mystery novel, one based on the idea of a guitar-playing detective that had been rolling around in my head for a while. About halfway through the process I realized that one book wouldn’t be enough if I wanted to do justice to the character, as well as find finding my authentic voice as a writer. I committed myself to writing two more books in the series, not matter how long it took, no looking back. The second book, Border Field Blues, took much longer to write, but I learned so much in the process. It taught me how to write, and prepared me for the challenges of completing the third book on a much tighter deadline. My other goal in writing three books was to give the series a chance to be picked up in the marketplace. Getting a contract with a well-known and respected publisher like Severn House gave me a great shot of confidence. People like Rolly Waters. I’m on the right track.

What's the next step for you as an author?

Getting to know the business better, and figuring out how I can become more active in advancing my writing career without becoming an empty shill. There are so many ways to promote your work these days, from traditional book tours to blogs to social media to book trailers. You can’t do them all. You need to settle on the ones that work best for you. I’m partway there, but it’s still something I’m working on, finding my promotional voice, so to speak, now that I’ve developed my writing voice.

What advice do you have for authors who are just starting out?

Learn to read your own work with a jaded and objective eye. Don’t fall in love with the stuff you thought was brilliant and important when you first put it to paper. Let your characters lead. Let them help you discover the story. Your book may not turn out to be what you originally had in mind, but it will end up being a better book. I remember feeling surprised when I had Rolly Waters run from the crime scene in the opening chapter of Black’s Beach Shuffle. I didn’t know why he did it, except that it felt right at the time. It ended up being a great way to introduce a key fault in his character (poor impulse control), as well as setting up later plot points.

On the business side, try everything and find out what works for you. Go to conferences, develop a blog, enter contests, and join writing groups (online and in person). Anything that keeps you moving forward is valuable. Learning what you don’t like to do is valuable too.

Pamela Fagan Hutchins
Nonfiction author of several how-to books, including What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes, and How Can I Be One, Too?, and creator of the romantic mystery series, Saving Grace, Leaving Annalise, and Finding Harmony, and the first spin-off, Going for Kona. www.pamelahutchins.com

Often compared to Janet Evanovich for fiction or Erma Bombeck for nonfiction, award-winning author Pamela Fagan Hutchins writes romantic mysteries and hilarious nonfiction, and moonlights as a workplace investigator and employment attorney. She is passionate about great writing and smart authorpreneurship, and her books have hit the best-seller lists multiple times.

What specific goals do you have for yourself as an author and how have you achieved those goals?

The most important goals for me are to write and publish the books of my heart as best as I can create them, and to make writing novels my full-time occupation. To write the books of my heart, I had to eschew the traditional publishing path (although I had published one nonfiction book traditionally, before), where each agent wanted me to rewrite my novels differently to appeal potentially to their editor contact. I wasn’t on board for that, not at this time of change and opportunity in the publishing industry. I decided to publish them independently. To make my indie novels the best they could be, I modeled my process after traditional publishing and ensured that my books received multiple levels of topnotch interactive editing attention. It was expensive, but paid for itself immediately. While no author is the best judge of the quality of her own books, I hope that the contest wins, amazing sales, and the thousands of reviews are a positive indicator of the results of this process.

As to the full-time novelist goal, that has become a reality after three short years of publishing, but ten long years of writing. To meet this goal, besides writing books that would appeal to readers, I had to develop my own brand, cover my own expenses, and create my own income stream. I modeled my writing career after successful hybrid authors like J.A. Konrath. Konrath stresses that an indie writer needs to produce quality volume at an attractive price. To this end, I publish one full-length novel every six months. While working on my brand and visibility, I studied the paths of some successful erotica and YA indie novelists and their first-in-series-permafree strategy. While the thought of giving away my best-selling book scared me, I decided to try it, and it worked. I supported it with aggressive, ongoing online advertising, and my writer income became sufficient to give up my day job as an attorney. You can read all the ins and outs of this journey and process in What Kind of Loser Indie Publishes, and How Can I Be One, Too?, an updated version of which will be released in February 2015.

What's the next step for you as an author?

Write, write, write! I have my next seven novels lined up in a row to write, and I’m really looking forward to it. I brainstorm collaboratively with my husband, too, so that’s a lot of fun. After the impact of my 2013 60-cities-in-60-days book tour across 17,000 miles and the 2014 America-the-Beautiful tour over 11,000 miles of North Western states, I’m also hoping to schedule a book tour trip up the west coast of the US and Canada to Alaska one summer soon, and a bicycling-across-America book tour one spring in the not too distant future as well.

What advice do you have for authors who are just starting out?

I coach a lot of published and unpublished writers, on writing, on publishing, and on promotion. By and large, I see them in too much of a hurry to get through the writing part to get to the publishing part only to eschew the promotion part. Put in the work, and the time, up front. It takes hundreds of thousands of words to develop voice, and millions to develop your storytelling ability. I wish I’d seen different for any writer, but I haven’t. This goes double if you’re going to publish independently, without the extensive editorial support of big publishing. Slow down and write a book that won’t net you scathing reviews. The Internet is forever, my friends, and a name once sullied with a reader is hard to overcome. (And even if you write a super book, you are really the only one who can “sell” it, no matter how it’s published, so be prepared to get your hands dirty with promotion.)

C. L. Hoang
Author of the historical Vietnam War novel, Once upon a Mulberry Field www.mulberryfieldsforever.com

C. L. Hoang was born and raised in South Vietnam and came to the United States in the 1970s. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and earns his living as an electronic engineer, with eleven patents to his name to date. His debut novel, Once upon a Mulberry Field, a love story set at the height of the Vietnam War, has won multiple awards, including a Gold Medal (Historical Literature Fiction) in the 2014 Global Ebook Awards, a Grand Prize (Fiction) in the 2014 LuckyCinda Book Contest, an Honorable Mention in the Writer's Digest 22nd Annual Self-Published Book Awards (2014), and a nomination as a Finalist (Historical Fiction) in the 2014 National Indie Excellence Book Awards.

What specific goals do you have for yourself as an author and how have you achieved those goals?

My goal in writing Once upon a Mulberry Field was to share different perspectives and stories from various people, both Vietnamese and American, whose lives had been affected by the Vietnam War. Thus, many of those stories may prove of interest to such diverse audiences as American veterans who served in Vietnam during the war, their families and friends, Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in America after the war, as well as the baby boomers who came of age during the tumultuous sixties. The general themes of love, loss, and redemption may appeal to a female audience, and there may also be interest from history buffs or younger folks curious about that chapter in history.

To try and reach all those different audiences, I offered to give a talk about my book at as many venues as I could get access to: book club, library, church group, rotary club, spa resort, writer’s group etc. It was nerve-racking at first since I’m not a born public speaker, but it did get easier with time and practice. The ultimate reward that makes it all worthwhile is the direct, personal connection with my audiences.

Book awards, both regional and national, also serve to validate and highlight the quality of a book, especially when it comes to self-published works. In my case, they helped to open some doors for me that might otherwise have been off limits.

What's the next step for you as an author?

After Once upon a Mulberry Field was published on Valentine’s Day of 2014, the rest of the year was devoted to promoting the book to its intended audiences. That was a full-time effort that left little room for anything else, which made me realize just how much I missed my quiet writing time. So hopefully 2015 will be a year of rejuvenation for me, if you will, as I will try to scale back on my book marketing duties and reserve some time to write again. There are still many stories floating around in my head demanding to be told, and I would love to capture them for a second book that I hope won’t take six years to write!

What advice do you have for authors who are just starting out?

Believe in your story with all your heart, and tell it in the absolute best way you can. Write, edit (with professional help), rewrite—until you start spinning around in circles! Then go out there and promote the daylight out of it, all the while remaining realistic about your marketing goals. Seize on any public speaking opportunity to share your story, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel (for it gets easier with practice). After all, who else can tell it better than you can, right? Enter book contests to get an idea how you stack up against the competition. Besides boosting your confidence, a book award can distinguish your work from the rest of the field and win you some good will—even potential new readers. Some contests also provide helpful commentaries from the judges. But most of all, stop and savor every small accomplishment along the way, and no matter what happens, never lose that sense of fulfillment already achieved just by finishing your book. Happy writing and best wishes with your publishing efforts!
__________
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Friday, November 7, 2014

How to Query a Book Publicist

When I first started offering publicity services for authors (many years ago), the winter months were often a slow time for me workwise. Now, with so many authors self-publishing, I receive more queries in the fall and winter than at any other time of year.

To help authors get the best response with their queries, I’ve listed some general tips on the best way to approach a publicist.




Do a little self-analysis first.

Before you decide to contact a publicist, take a few moments to consider whether your book and your own personal platform are ready for the kind of promotional work that a publicist will do for you.

Has your book been professionally edited? Has the cover been professionally designed? Do you have a website and social media sites? Have you thought about who your readers are and where you can best reach them? What kind of platform do you have? If you don’t have a platform, are you in the process of creating one?

Know what you’re looking for in the way of promotion and what you can afford.

If you have a platform and a book that has been professionally edited and is ready for distribution, your next step is to think about what kind of publicity you’re interested in pursuing. Some authors want to take their books on tour, others want media exposure, and some prefer online marketing. There is no right or wrong way for any author to promote, but those willing to do the most work to expose their books to their target audiences will make the most headway. If your budget is tight, that’s fine – know how much you’d like to spend, and then think about what you’d like to do within that budget framework.

Query only when your work is ready.

Even though I state on my website that I only work with authors whose books have been professionally edited, I still receive copies of books with typos, incorrect grammar, and significant writing flaws. The same goes for book covers – many of the samples sent to me have covers that have not been professionally designed. Please be sure your book is ready for publication before you send it to me for review.

Put your best foot forward.

The email message you send or the telephone call you make to a publicist is often the first indication of what it will be like to work with you. I receive many email messages where the author requests info about pricing or types of promotion, but offers no information about his book or the type promotion he’s interested in.

Oftentimes, these email messages demand information with no introduction. Messages like: “Hi Paula, Can you send me your prices on publicity?” are not likely to receive a positive response. If you truly want my help, then help me know more by telling me a little about what kind of books you write, what kind of background you have as an author, and what you’re looking for in the way of promotion.

Don’t send queries via Twitter and Facebook.

I’m surprised at how many authors will ask questions via social media, especially Twitter, about services and fees. Since we're only allowed 140 characters in a Twitter response, it’s difficult to answer questions in any kind of detail this way. If you’re serious about querying a publicist about publicity work, and/or if you have questions about the process, it’s probably best to email that person directly (you can reach me at paula@paulamargulies.com).

What I like to see in a query:

1. The title and a brief description of the book.
2. A brief summary of your background and experience as it relates to the book’s contents.
3. A brief statement of what you’re looking for in the way of publicity.
4. A sentence indicating whether the book will be traditionally or self-published and expected publication date.
5. If self-published, a sentence indicating whether the book has been professionally edited and designed/formatted and who has done that work for you.
6. For a book that is already published, a link to its Amazon page, website, or other retail site, so I can easily access that info.
7. Your full name and contact information, including email address and telephone number in case I would like to reach you by phone.

And here’s what not to include in your query:

1. Don’t attach a full manuscript. I may not represent the type of book you’ve written and even if I do, I generally don’t print out books sent to me by email.
2. Don’t tell me how much your friends and family loved the book or that others have deemed it a potential bestseller.
3. Don’t include pages of testimonials or blurbs from others about the book. A simple description or brief list of who has offered to blurb the book will suffice.
4. Don’t try to negotiate some type of commission structure for payment; most publicists charge a monthly retainer or an hourly rate for their services and do not work on commission. It’s best to wait until the publicist agrees to take you on before discussing payment options.

The majority of book publicists have websites with information about the types of services they provide, and specific advice as to what they’d like you to include when you send a query. It’s best to check the website first and follow the individual publicist’s requirements as you put your query together.

Finally, be patient with us if we don’t get back to you right away – sometimes we’re on deadline for current clients, traveling, or busy with other issues, so it can take a few days to respond.

As always, if you have any questions about what I’ve listed here, or about the query process in general, feel free to contact me at paula@paulamargulies.com. Happy querying!

__________
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What Your First Conversation with a Publicist Might Look Like

For those who've never spoken with a publicist and wonder what the initial conversation might be like, I've compiled the list below of the items we typically discuss when authors contact me about their books (note: these will vary depending on the type of book and the individual needs of the author). I always ask for a copy of the book to read first, so we usually won’t have this conversation until after I’ve finished reading.

1) Editing and Cover Art
I'm a stickler for books that have been professionally edited, and even though I specify that on my website, I'm often sent books that contain typos and grammatical mistakes or suffer from general writing problems. These are often easy fixes in the hands of professional editors, but many authors choose to skip this step in the publishing process. More often than not, authors will swear that their books have been edited (by multiple people, as one author recently claimed). But in most cases, authors assume that having a few beta readers (i.e., friends and relatives) review the book is enough to fix any editing errors the book might contain. Sadly, these are books I usually have to turn down, mainly because I cannot send them to reviewers, booksellers, bloggers, news editors, or reporters - the grammatical or typographical errors would not get past these folks, whose business is correct writing.

Similarly, the cover art is so crucial to selling indie books these days, that I will usually urge the client to consider a re-do if the cover seems overly homespun or inappropriate for its audience. If either the cover or the editing seems lacking, I'll discuss options for getting those issues taken care of before moving forward with publicity for the book.

2) Platform
I like to find out as much as I can about potential clients, so if the client's book is ready for publication, we’ll usually discuss platform first, including education, work experience, publications, awards, teaching experience, celebrity status, or anything else that can help me know how to best position the author and his book to the media, reviewers, booksellers, readers, etc. We’ll also discuss personal branding strategies and any other marketing efforts that an author has made that might be relevant to the selling of the book.

3) Genre/Audience
I also like to discuss genre, if relevant, and possible target audiences for the book, including different types of readers, tangential or secondary audiences, and content or themes that might be newsworthy or resonate with different groups.

4) Outreach/Appearances
We’ll discuss what areas are possible options for promoting the book, including book launches, outreach to bloggers and blog tours, personal appearances (bookstores/libraries/professional venues, etc.), conference appearances, university and corporate speaking engagements, general media, and targeted media, including written articles, social media, web and blog sites, etc.

5) Social Media
I like to go over the various social media outlets out there and discuss which might be best for authors to target so that they have a social media presence to tap into once the book is released. For those who are new to social media, I usually recommend working on building a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads as soon as possible, and also suggest that they consider developing relationships with readers via regular blog posts on their websites and blogs.

6) Beta Readers/Giveaways
It’s important to think about generating reviews both before a book launches and immediately afterward, so I’ll usually recommend reaching out to beta readers and using the giveaway features offered on sites like Goodreads and those who host blog tours.

7) Contests and Reviews
Entering contests and submitting the book to review sites is an important part of publicity, because winning awards and receiving reviews are good reasons to issue press releases once a book is launched. There is also some initial PR to consider, such as creating a general press release to be used for media and blogger queries, and getting that release up on the newswires. I’ll usually discuss how this might affect the book’s release date, along with the timing for certain PR activities (including pre-release activities, such as getting the press release written, getting a Q&A sheet formatted, gathering book cover and author photos, etc.).

8) Publicity Budget
I usually discuss my fees and what the potential client has in mind for a budget, along with items like initial deposits, how invoicing works, the duration of the publicity campaign, and what to expect for the amount of work the client is interested in having me do for his book.

9) Other Items to Include in Budget
I usually suggest that in addition to all the options listed above, authors should also be sure to budget for the following:
- cover design
- professional editing
- formatting (mobi/ebook files and pdf/print files)
- uploading to distribution sites like Amazon, Createspace, Smashwords, Draft to Digital, etc. (for those not familiar with the process or those who prefer to have someone else do it)
- printed copies of the book (for giveaways, contests, reviewers, book signings, appearances, etc.)
- promotional giveaway tools (bookmarks, posters, etc. – Vista Print is an inexpensive way to go for these items)
- postage (for mailing print copies to reviewers, giveaway recipients, contests, etc.)
- travel (if appearances are part of the author’s promotional plans)

11) Schedule
I also recommend deciding on a publicity budget and then prioritizing what the client would like me to do. If he wants a book tour, I’ll suggest making a list of dates, times, cities, etc., so I know where/when to focus those efforts. Also, I’ll ask clients to list any times when they will not be available for interviews, travel, and/or email communication.

12) Photos, Bio, and Book Cover Art
When we’re ready to get started, I’ll ask for jpgs of the author’s headshot (hopefully shot by a professional photographer) and the book front cover art, along with any biographical info the author can provide. Also, if he has any other descriptive text he can share (back cover copy with book description, blurbs, etc.), those are helpful for me to have on file..
__________
Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Michael Neff Loses it At Algonkian Novel Workshop


Yes, that's him. Michael Neff. And where is he? In the AEI Films and Books office in LA? Yes, that's it. He was holding a workshop there, attempting to talk a few genre writers into analyzing screenplays before rewriting their novels. So why does he look crazed? He's rejecting a bad manuscript, or maybe a bad film pitch. That's what he's doing. A pitch too far, and now, he's lost it. He tried to be patient, but it didn't work. The writer was a narcissist, a flipping ego maniac, thus escorting Neff to the brink, to the point where he actually resembled the Cage man himself.

Look at him! What is he saying?

"I'm sorry, Alva, it's just too late. Too late to add a plot line with a cliffhanger. It's all TOO LATE!!!"

To which the now terrified writer replies: "I'm sorry, Mr. Neff, I'll search passionately for a plot, and premise first, yes ... a premise that will sell, and--"

"TOO LATE!  TOOOOOO LATE!"



Author Salon Reviews of Craft on Algonkian

Announcing that Algonkian is adopting Michael Neff's craft advice observations and reviews included at Author Salon for all Algonkian writer events and workshops. A summary of a sampling of advanced craft articles are found here.

Sample from a review article as follows:

A STUDY IN THIRD PERSON POINT OF VIEW
      Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript

   By Michael Neff

Let's get right to the point on this issue. Yes, we know that CATCHER IN THE RYE and HUCKLEBERRY FINN could never have been the famous novels they were without the engaging first person voice of their protagonists. And yes, first person seems to be in vogue with paranormal YA and some fantasy here and there, however, third person point of view is the best way to relate a dynamic work of fiction, hands down. Unless the first person voice is so remarkable, unique and/or compelling that the novel could not exist without it, third person is strongly advised.

For purposes of this study, we define four levels of third person point of view (3POV) as follows:

  • Author-POV
  • 3POV Distant
  • 3POV Close
  • 3POV First-Close
The Author-POV or APOV, refers to the author, the detached or "omniscient narrator" who steps in now and then to set the scene or make artful commentary at the right time (just *please* don't address the reader directly because that is so irritating and breaks the reader's immersion into the fictional dream).  3POV Distant or 3POV-D occurs at such time the narrative focuses on a specific character and we watch her or his actions as if we are the camera actively filming this character. 3POV Close or 3POV-C takes us into the character's head and camera viewpoint shifts to the character, i.e., we see or experience, for the most part, only what the character is viewing or experiencing. 3POV First-Close or 3POV-FC dives deeper into the character's head and effectively mimics first person POV, but naturally without the usual limits of first person POV because the author can cut from the 3POV-FC and pull all the way back to APOV.
More at Author Salon Reviews of Craft on Algonkian
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Saturday, June 7, 2014

As the Publishing Industry Changes, So Does the Way We Promote Books

As a PR professional who’s been working in the book publicity business for a number of years, I’ve watched the industry go through some major changes. And as the industry has changed, so has the way we market books.

But what's different now? Well, for one thing, authors who self-publish their work must hire professionals, particularly cover designers, editors, and formatting specialists, to help ensure that what they put out is a quality product. Some authors choose to perform these tasks themselves, but doing so is risky. Unless they’re experts in all these arenas (which is rare), the end product may be viewed by readers as low quality, and sales may suffer.

Even our concept of platform has changed. Where in the past, platform was dictated by the size of the audience an author could bring to his work based on celebrity status, experience, or expertise, now it is heavily influenced by the number of books an author has published and the size of his online presence.

Authors are finding that certain genres, including erotica and fantasy, seem to have an easier time finding an audience, while others, like traditional and literary fiction, sometimes struggle. Manipulating pricing is crucial, as authors lower and raise price points to help move online sales rankings, and new methods of packaging books, including bundling and box sets, have become commonplace. Authors are learning that they must continue to write new books in order to be known, and consumer familiarity with technology is opening the door to concepts like interactive books, apps, and online access for readers.

As the industry has changed, so have the channels for distribution. Brick and mortar stores have been replaced by online brokers, making the Internet the primary book sales and event channel. Authors are replacing book signings with blog tours and partnering with other authors online to bundle their work and cross-promote.

Finding readers has become one of the biggest challenges, as the sheer numbers of authors, along with the noise that readers face, makes it difficult for authors to create an audience. Many authors have found themselves relying less on traditional media and more on social media and word-of-mouth promotion, as access to readers becomes more relationship-oriented.

If the industry is changing, does that mean that the way we promote books has changed, as well? Absolutely. As authors create more books, they realize that being able to build their own brand, connect with readers, and get the word out about their work is all-important, and sometimes more difficult, than ever.

And what are publicists doing now for their authors given the industry changes? Well, in my own practice, I’m seeing changes in the services I offer authors. In addition to writing press releases and getting them on the newswires, I’m helping my clients find bloggers who are willing to feature their books in the form of interviews or reviews on their blog sites. I’m doing a lot of work with online media outlets to create buzz and helping with branding and identity by pinpointing what is unique about an author’s work. I’m also helping my clients to reach their target audiences by identifying niche markets and working to create exposure opportunities, including submitting written articles to targeted print and online publications, booking presentations, and setting up appearances at select venues and events.

For some of my clients, especially those who feel that exposure via traditional media is less important, I’m working to help them to reach out to readers via review sites, blog sites, social media, and online reader sites. Even so, I still feel it’s important for authors to connect with their readers in as many ways as possible, and that includes face-to-face meetings at book signings, launch events, private readings, presentations, and other author appearances.

The bottom line is that even though the publishing environment has changed, there are now more promotional options than ever for authors who wish to connect with readers. And the more of these options that authors are willing to explore, the more likely it is that they will be successful in finding an audience for their work.

What are you doing to get the word out about your book?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fool's Gold, . . . or Not

  By CeCe Baker

Questions, questions, questions! What happens when a writer decides to pen what could possibly be his or her break-through novel?  Are previously-written works taken seriously?  What will be the impetus to write another one? Barbara Kingsolver said, “There is no perfect time to write. There’s only now.” Steve Martini said, “If the writer has a masterpiece within, he had better save it on paper. Otherwise, none of us will ever miss it.”

What single act or thing is it that begins our process as writers? My best ideas come to me when I’m near water. And while it can be something so subtle as a relaxing soak in a hot tub or as exotic as sitting behind a waterfall watching the sheen of its water dissolve as it hits the rocks below, still there’s something about moving water that gets my creative juices going.  Knowing what does it for me, I can’t help but wonder what it is for Barbara Kingsolver or Steve Martini.
The one quote that steers me most though is by E. L. Doctorow, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  With best sellers such as “Ragtime,” “Homer & Langley,” and “Billy Bathgate,” E. L. Doctorow’s continuous leaps of faith set an example for all of us to follow.  Every day I write and every day I struggle to see beyond the headlights.  
When I first started writing, I was sure there was a definitive process. Every how-to-write book implies that. Those of us that believed in those how-to-write books kept looking for our process  by skimming through every writing book we could find on the shelves of book stores and libraries. We learned about style and other techniques. We had many fits and false starts on stories we were convinced would be our break-through novel.  I remember one well-known author telling me that in order to find their process all new writers should put themselves among those who ”really write.”  She used adverbs sparingly, but wasn’t afraid to place her emphasis on the word “really.”  This little snippet was some of the best writing advice I ever received. 
You can do this in a number of ways; but, the easiest is to simply read other authors’ works that have already proven their word worth. The first rule of writing is “Read! Read! Read!”  We get that.  We read veraciously and, when we tire of reading, we study the construction and choreography of television programs, movies, and plays and try to translate their formulas for success to the body of our written works. 
We cultivate other writers as friends, go to conferences and carefully select our muses.  A few of mine are Jeannette Walls, Dorothy Allison, Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, and Nora Ephron – but, not necessarily in that order, and that’s certainly not all of them. We dance, drink and play word games that are mostly appreciated by other writers and truly surprise those that are non-writers.  We word-paint scenes that display our souls – perhaps even more intensely than singing, dancing, or using an artist’s brush and palate.
And when we learn nothing more than just the basics of writing, we become the harshest judges in the world of our own talents.  In doing all of these things we are learning what our “process” is.  We also learn that no two writers have the same process.  Buzz words for writers’ processes include words like “planner,” “pantser,” and “percolator.”  As you can tell, they’re pretty self-explanatory.  As for myself, I’ve learned that depending upon the plot or characters in a potential work,  I can be one or a combination of all three of these processes. I do know that I tend to mull over the essence of what I’m going to write longer than most writers.  When I do that, I’ve found that most of the time I’ve spent has been used on deciding whether or not I believe my words will be accepted by the reading world.
James Baldwin said,” Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”  Every writer has to be doggedly determined to overcome this perceived conspiracy.  And, while we aren’t exactly sure that the odds for others’ realization of the value of our words are greater than those of finding fool’s gold, we are still dedicated enough to realize that our only true answer for this riddle is to put them down on paper. So, with a leap of faith, we do that - fool’s gold or not.   Having done this, there is one thing of which we can be assured.  Along with James Baldwin, other authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Steve Martini and E. L. Doctorow would be proud. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Are MFA Programs Worth it? Some Unvarnished Thoughts on MFA Programs and the “Literary-Industrial Complex”

Reprinted with permission from The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block by Hillary Rettig
 
The question is often asked: are MFA programs worth it? Are they worth the tremendous outlay of dollars and time? Perhaps some more than others (see our note below) ... The following is what popular writer Hillary Rettig has to say on the issue. Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Need we say more? Yes, we need to say much more.
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MFA programs promise training and mentoring that will improve your writing, but often don’t deliver. Tim Tomlinson, in the introduction to The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, writes, “Many people find it hard to believe that I passed through two years of an MFA program, four separate workshops, and received not so much as a comma back on a manuscript. But it’s true, and my case was not exceptional.”

I can believe it, because I’ve heard many stories of absent MFA teachers, and neglected MFA students. One MFA graduate told me, in a typical comment, that, “Though the faculty were great, most were over-committed writer-teachers and only quasi-present. My peer group did most of the teaching.” She attended one of the most highly regarded programs, by the way.

And when teachers aren’t absent, they’re often inept or negligent. Tomlinson offers ten types of ineptness, including teachers who believe writing can’t be taught (“enables lazy teaching”); those with a “Moses complex” (“Anything that doesn’t fit into their narrow definition [of good writing] is treated as an abomination.”); and those who fail to “establish any critical vocabulary with which to assess manuscripts” (“…the critiques are almost guaranteed to be either dull or chaotic or both.”).

Teachers with these failings will inevitably leave a trail of damaged and discouraged – not to mention, financially cheated – students.

Gross negligence and ineptness are far from the worst you hear about MFA programs, however. In my classes and elsewhere, I regularly hear about teachers who were hostile or belittling; who encouraged vicious criticism within groups; who marginalized students because of who they were or what they wanted to write; or who committed sexual discrimination, harassment or exploitation. (See the section on teacher malpractice in Chapter 2.8.)

And then there’s the hero worship and favoritism, which are present in many educational settings but often taken to an extreme in MFA programs. Favoritism is not just demoralizing (and, sometimes, devastating) for the students who aren’t favorites, but often a mixed blessing for those who are. Here’s Jane Smiley, from her essay “Iowa City, 1974,” in Mentors, Muses & Monsters (Elizabeth Benedict, ed.):
there was a story going around that one of the instructors had taken a particular shine to the work of one of our fellow students. He expressed his admiration for her potential by devoting himself to trashing her work. He would have her into his office, and then subject her to brutal line-by-line criticism, making her defend every word, every phrase. He “held her to a very high standard” and only praised her when she met it….Thank God, I thought, that I was not this teacher’s pet.
I’ve already mentioned the unhealthy mentor-protege relationship at the center of Tom Grimes’ memoir Mentor (Chapter 3.9). Here’s Grimes on what it was like to be the favorite of Frank Conroy, director of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop:
Frank had defended, praised, and, in a way, isolated me from my classmates. With the exception of Charlie, I existed apart from everyone. I had Frank’s approval, friendship, and affection. When it came to most of the other students, he barely knew their names. And I imagined my classmates thinking, Tom Grimes was published by Frank Conroy’s publisher. He didn’t write a good book; he received an undeserved gift. I didn’t want to feel ashamed, disgraced, or haunted by second guesses.

So he went with the publisher who hadn’t published his mentor – but that didn’t save him from being haunted. Later that evening, he told Conroy, during their celebratory drink, “I’ve made a terrible mistake…I went with the wrong house.” Which turned out to be true.

This brings us to one of the root problems with graduate writing programs: that most of the teachers teach primarily to make money – which means, inevitably, that many will have little or no aptitude for teaching, or interest in it, or even respect for it. Grimes quotes Conroy about accepting the Iowa directorship: “Forty, broke, unemployed and in debt, I accepted an offer to come to Iowa…more from a sense of desperation than any deep conviction that I’d know what to do when faced with a roomful of young writers.”

I commend him for his honesty – and, to be clear, I believe his lack of preparedness is the rule, not the exception, for MFA teachers. And so these broke and desperate, but not necessarily skilled or committed, teachers wing it, which means that, even when their intentions are good, they can leave a trail of woe.

Finally, to top it all off, MFA faculty are also notoriously unhelpful with, and often openly disdainful of, problems with procrastination and blocks. So, good luck handling any disempowerment you may be experiencing – and that the program itself might be causing.

About Those Career Advantages…


What about the supposed career advantages of MFA programs? Mostly illusory. First of all, even if MFAs did confer a huge advantage on graduates, there simply aren’t that many opportunities for writers or writing teachers to start with. Here’s Jane Smiley, again: “Every so often, a tall, big-shouldered editorial power would swoop into Iowa City and…court one or two [students], then return to New York.” That’s one or two students out of dozens. And Tom Grimes, discussing a reunion with three other Iowa graduates, “We represented a typical workshop graduating class: three out of four hadn’t survived as writers.”

To survive as a writer, you need to make the leap from the literary magazines to writing that pays real money – usually, books, screenplays and feature magazine articles. Unfortunately, that’s the point where the value of an MFA shrinks to near-zero. Despite pervasive propaganda to the contrary, many agents and editors, when being candid, will admit that an MFA degree confers, at best, a slight edge.

What about teaching? An article entitled “What Becomes of an MFA?” by Daniel Grant in the February 26, 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education1 cited a University of Florida at Gainesville survey of its MFA graduates that found that:
60% were teaching on the college level (although more than half of them were adjunct faculty), 10 per cent were working in publishing or actual writing (technical writing, for the most part), another 10 per cent were employed in fields unrelated to writing, and the remaining 20 per cent were pursuing another degree.
So, fewer than 30% of graduates got a permanent teaching gig – and it’s safe to assume that many of those were part-time. It’s probably also safe to assume that many of the approximately 5% who wound up doing technical writing initially had another career in mind, since technical writing is not what people enroll in an MFA to learn.

Finally, it’s also safe to assume that the percentage of successful careers among the 40% who didn’t respond to the survey is even lower than among those who did. (Kudos to the University of Florida / Gainesville for at least surveying its students and publicizing the results – most schools don’t.)

Tomlinson, in The Portable MFA, says literary agent Noah Lukeman always answers those who ask him what he thinks of MFA programs thusly: "Take the $35,000 – $50,000 you’re going to spend on the degree, buy yourself a good laptop and printer and a bundle of paper, and go off to a cabin and write. At the end of two years, the worse that can happen is you have nothing. Less than nothing is what you’ll almost certainly have at the end of your MFA program, because, besides nothing, you’ll also have a mountain of debt."

Some will probably claim that I – and Tomlinson, Lukeman, and Anis Shivani, author of an essay entitled, “The MFA Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing”2 – are biased against MFA programs, writing programs or even literature in general. What I really have a bias against is obfuscation in the service of exploitation: the kind of thing that confuses smart and dedicated people into thinking that teachers who are only “quasi-present” are “great.”
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Is the MFA Program worth it? This will be the first of two or three artciles at Writer's Edge on this subject. Regardless, if you must attend an MFA program, we recommend UNC and FSU as places you should look at first. Their programs are unique and pragmatic when compared to most others.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Michael Neff of The Writer's Edge Interviewed by Authornomics

Sample from the Authornomics Interview. More can be found here.

What do you usually look for in a pitch? What’s one of the biggest turn-offs for you in a pitch?

A pitch that is imprecise, muddled, or way too long, or some combo thereof, creates a condition of frustration for all concerned—unless and until a way can be found to correct it. For many, this actually involves a rewrite of the novel. The pitch is simply a method of artfully communicating what your novel or nonfiction is about. If you can’t communicate a project that will sell, it usually means you have not written a project that will sell. At this juncture, we use the pitch as a means of driving further into the story. The intent is to discover what is working, what is not, and what, if anything, is missing. Plot, premise, characters, theme, everything is out on the table. Many of our writers have completely rewritten their novels as a result of the pitch process, and several have been published because of it. A good example is Kim Boykin, the author of The Wisdom of Hair.

What does your position as an associate for AEI Film Productions involve? How did you first get into this area?

I moonlight as an agent and developmental editor for AEI and StoryMerchant. I’m now the AEI Associate for the SF Bay Area. The owner, Ken Atchity, became acquainted with Algonkian and attended some of our events. Recently I have helped develop, edited and agented, or co-agented, two important books: Rise of the American Corporate Security State—Six Reasons to Be Afraid, a nonfiction by Beatrice Edwards (Berett-Koehler), and Killer on the Wall, a “social media cozy” by Wendy Eckell (Thomas Dunne). Several more novels are on the way, including another high-concept cozy mystery and an adult fantasy novel with series potential. Also, several Algonkian books have been ushered into contracts with AEI/SM, most recently The Last Scribe by Rachel Walsh, currently in development.

On the film side, we are working to produce Firehouse Shih-tzu, a comic film about a hero “firehouse dog” out to stop a dangerous arsonist in Brooklyn. I co-wrote the script. The sequel, Up Shih-tzu Creek Without a Poodle, is being written. It’s amazing what inventiveness can erupt from three bottles of Napa Cabernet.  Additionally, we are also working to produce Message to Shigatse, a controversial humanist film from NextPix productions about the Chinese kidnapping of the Panchen Lama. The hunt for a lead actress is underway. We have feelers out to Kate Winslett’s camp at the moment. Fingers X’d!

What are some of the biggest challenges you find in transforming books into films? Can a film ever be as good as a book?

High-concept genre books are generally easy to convert to the three-act film structure. They hit the same plot points and notes. But we all know that the film medium is limited to what it can display or provoke. Novels are not. The great novel will always outweigh the film because it can contain so much more, go more places, reveal more things. That’s not to say a good movie can’t be better than the novel upon which it was based. There are always exceptions. I’ve heard competing opinions re SIDEWAYS, for example.

[ More ]

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What I’ve Learned about Being a Hybrid Author

By Paula Margulies

He who would do great things should not attempt them all alone.
~ Native American Proverb, Seneca


Yes, I’m both a book publicist and an author. And back in 2005, when I was lucky enough to be represented by an agent and, later, have my first novel, Coyote Heart, accepted by a small press, I was overjoyed.

My first years of being traditionally published were good ones. I traveled to four different states promoting the book at bookstores, libraries, festivals, fairs, writing conferences (where I spoke, on occasion) and, since the book had a Native American theme, at local pow-wows and regional gatherings.

After a few years, since I was busy with my book publicity business and college teaching (along with helping both of my kids with applications, recruiting, and move-ins at their respective colleges), I left more of the marketing to the publisher and focused on writing my second novel, Favorite Daughter (part one of which will be released later this year).

Flash forward nine years later, and the publishing world had shifted its focus. Many brick-and-mortar bookstores closed their doors, the publishing giants capitulated and stuck their toes in the ebook waters, and a number of authors, including me, decided that being traditionally published was no longer the only way to go.

In 2013, I hired an attorney and was able to obtain the rights back to my first novel. And I decided to self-publish a collection of short stories that I had written many years ago.

But that isn’t the end of the story - once I decided to self-publish my short story collection, Face Value: Collected Stories (and the second edition of Coyote Heart), I was faced with the decisions all self-published authors encounter.

Here’s what I’ve learned as a hybrid author:

1. If you’re self-publishing, it’s worth every penny to hire professionals to do your editing, formatting, cover design, and (for first-timers) uploading.
When I began the process of putting Coyote Heart out after regaining the publishing rights, the first task was having a professional editor scrub it so I could reissue it as a true second edition. In addition to giving it an overall grammatical proof, the editor I hired, Carol Newman Cronin, deleted entire paragraphs and whittled sentences down to their tightest form. I also hired cover designer, Troy O’Brien, who (bless his soul) was infinitely patient with me and sent numerous proof copies, along with making uncountable tweaks and design changes, until the cover layout was just right. And my formatter, author and artist Bridget Chicoine, spent many days designing section marker motifs, adjusting spacing, and making improvements to the layout until we had a final version we could both be proud of. I purchased ISBNs and asked Devin Whipple and Moana Evans to help me upload the books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other sites.

And, yes, I could have done all of this myself. But I view the people I hired – my editor, my cover designer, my formatter, my uploading gurus – as experts in their fields. I relied on them to guide me in making decisions in all of these areas and deferred to their judgments when I wasn’t sure which decision was best. And I feel blessed to have had their expertise and guidance to rely on.

2. There are a lot of distribution options for self-published authors. If you’re not sure where to place your book, let the experts guide you.
Deciding where to place the book online involved a lot of decisions I didn’t have to make as a traditionally published author. In its first iteration, Coyote Heart was marketed primarily as a print publication and distributed through Ingram and Lightning Source. I was able to help my traditional publisher by putting together a marketing plan for the small press department at Barnes & Noble, so we could get distribution through its stores, and I also helped him to eventually distribute the book in ebook format.

But after regaining rights to the book, I had to decide if the second edition would go the same route. After examining the different options offered by Createspace and Lightning Source, I decided to go with Createspace. Similarly, I had to decide where to place the ebook versions of the novel. There are many options and choosing which to go with was, at first, a little daunting. Luckily, Moana and Devin were both there to guide me through that process, helping me to place the book with the right online sources (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, draft2digital, etc.), to get it to my target audience.

3. Every author has a different reason for writing a book and should market accordingly.
Deciding who my readers were and how to list the book were important decisions. The publisher for the first edition of Coyote Heart had relied on me to do the majority of the marketing, so I was able to learn quite a bit about where to place it and who its likely readers would be. I also discovered where it sold well, where it was least likely to sell, and where I might consider other options for it, which has helped me to make decisions about how to promote this second edition.

But unlike many other authors, my goal as a writer is not to sell so many books that I can quit my day job. I like my day job. My writing goals are to create stories that others will (hopefully) find interesting and beautiful and to improve my craft as I continue to write. I enjoy the learning process, as well as the writing process (and now, the process of self-publishing), but the primary purpose behind my writing will always be to simply create and explore, as I see fit.

4. The best way to sell a book is to write a good book.
Enough said.

5. And an even better way to sell a book is to write more books.
Readers who like books by certain authors want more of them, and the sheer volume of self-published books out there has turned selling books into something of a numbers game. So, the more the merrier – I plan to keep writing and continue to learn and grow as an author. But how and when I do it is up to me. This is one of the many perks of being self-published: the only pressure to produce is what you place on yourself – you can crank out a book a week, if that’s your style, or spend years dabbling with different story ideas. It’s up to you (which goes back to point #3 – how much you produce depends on your reasons for writing). And that part I really, really like.
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Paula Margulies is a book publicity and promotions expert in San Diego, California. You can reach her at paula@paulamargulies.com, or visit her at www.paulamargulies.com, on Twitter at @PaulaMargulies, or on Facebook at Paula Margulies Communications.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Must a Reader "Like" Your Characters?

by Robert Bausch

NO! You NEVER have to worry whether or not the reader "likes" your main character--or any of your characters for that matter. You only have to worry that the reader "knows" enough about your character to have an emotional investment in what happens to her. Readers who put down books because they don't like the characters are not very good readers, so you don't want them anyway. I've heard editors at major publishers say they do not want a particular book because the character is not "likable," so the philistines are on the march and it's clear the woods are burning. But it's a rigorously stupid idea that we should "like" the characters we read about. If that were actually true, we could instantly eliminate fully half of the world's great literature and forget about it, starting with Richard The III, and coming forward to Portnoy and "Rabbit" Angstrom. 

I worked really hard to make the main character in my novel, A Hole in the Earth a 39 year old case of arrested development. And I've had people tell me they threw the book across the room they disliked him so much. One former teacher (and grandmother, she hastened to tell me) said, "I don't want to waste my time reading about such a person." I said to her, "What do you want? Stories about wonderful people and the nice things they do and think, and where they went to do them and all the things they saw and what they ate?" Really serious fiction, humorous or not, is about real people--human, flawed and quirky people--in real trouble and it traces what they try to do about it, or not do. It isn't about success, or goodness, or badness, or justice or mercy, or love, or kindness, or cruelty or bestiality, or any other thing. It's about life. All of it. Good and bad. And it does not concern itself with whether or not the reader is either comfortable or happy. It only concerns itself with what is true, pure and simple. John Updike once said that the action of reading is so private, and such a quiet exchange between writer and reader that as writers we have an obligation to be as truthful as we can; as truthful as we'd be in our own thoughts to ourselves. 

I am so tired of the pea-brained idea that the reader has to be made happy or pleased by what we write. Readers who believe that are people who make demands on their reading: they say things like, "I only read mysteries," or "I like detective stories," or whatever. They are narrow, usually not very interesting, and what they say and think about other kinds of work is almost always not worth listening to. We should let our reading make demands on us; we should read as widely and eclectically as we can, as many different kinds of books as we can: poetry, fiction of every stripe and kind, non-fiction, biography, history, anthropology and so on. 

It is how we prepare as writers. 

If I’m reading a novel about a young woman named Elizabeth, I will care about her if I feel like I know her. I don't have to be a woman, a young girl, or even American, to respond to her. I will want what she wants because SHE wants it; I will fear what she fears, because SHE fears it; I will hope for what she hopes for because SHE hopes for it, and so on.

Here are six basic principles to remember and apply in order to read wisely and well:
  1. An author is usually NOT his narrator, or any of his characters.
  2. An author does not put things in his story or poem to stump the reader. Or to “get a point across.” What we find in stories and poems—the metaphors or symbols, or themes or whatever—comes from a waking dream, the author’s unconscious mind at work. Most authors don’t insert secret meanings or messages any more than you insert those things in your dreams. When you dream, what is there, is there. You respond to it by dealing with its possible meanings, without asking yourself what you intended. You didn’t intend anything. You didn’t put anything in your dream on purpose. You simply dreamt something. The author doesn’t intend anything either. 
  3. You don’t have to like or approve of a character to identify with him or her. You only have to be engaged in what happens to the character. We become engaged in the characters of a work of fiction the more we know about them. Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? We were interested in that not because our interests are puerile, (if he were an obscure plumber who lived out there we never would have heard of him or the crime) but because most of us felt we knew him--or at least enough about him to be interested in what happened to him.
  4. Most authors work very hard to make their characters real, human, quirky and alive. And, in some cases, deeply flawed. The character’s flaws are not the author’s flaws. To reject a novel or a story because the characters are not "likable" is a profound act of closed mindedness and misunderstanding about the purposes of literature. We do not read literature so that it will present us with characters we approve of, who say things we like to hear. Literature is about people in trouble, and it is usually trouble where action makes no difference; where we are helpless. And if it is worthy literature, it is peopled with characters who we don’t like and who say things we don’t like to hear. 
  5. Most novels and poems are not autobiographical. Unless study proves otherwise, we should assume a writer writes with his experience, not about it. 
  6. We don’t have to approve of what a writer’s vision is to appreciate it. One does not have to be an atheist, to appreciate the work of Albert Camus, who is. One does not have to adopt Camus’ rejection of God, in order to understand that he is doing that. It is foolishly ignorant to reject Camus’ work because he rejects God; or to condemn Hemingway’s novels because he was “macho.” It is rigorously stupid to disapprove of Kate Chopin’s work because she was a feminist, or Ann Rynd’s novels because she was a materialist. It takes a truly small mind to reject Walt Whitman’s poetry because he was gay. We read to understand the other, as well as ourselves in relation to the other. We do not read to have everything we believe about the world confirmed, but rather to test what we believe against all of its opposites and oppositions. We read to widen our awareness of the world, not to constrict it. 
 In other words we read to learn not to name things so readily, and to see what we can see, and we judge a work of literature based on what IT is, not on what WE are. 
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