Sunday

The Five Cs of a Good Critique Group

By Chris Stewart

In my first post on this subject, I talked about the biggest contributor to a good critique group (sometimes people also call these workshops, though not meaning one you sign up and pay for) - chemistry. To refresh your memory this link should, in theory, take you to that post: Chemistry

A critique group is a partnership, so let's move on to the other four factors.

The first is Commitment. Pretty self-explanatory. If you agree to take part in a critique group then commit to at least six months. Ideally you should be meeting every 2-3 weeks, but even if it's once a month, it takes about three or so sessions for you to start feeling comfortable and for the group to find its groove (or for you to find your place within the group if you're joining one that's already established). Then it takes another few meetings with your guard down to determine if you are getting what you need in terms of critique (I'll touch on that in more detail in another post when I discuss how to comment). Are they 'getting' your work as well as challenging you to go deeper, experiment, explore? And do you respect them, as well as their comments? If you find yourself at odds with another member to the point where things devolve into sniping and you're in danger of leaping over the chips and salsa to strangle them with their scarf, perhaps you should find another group. Or an anger management class.

The rule here is: you can't bail. If one meeting really stinks - maybe the discussion was lackluster, someone spilled soda or wine on your (insert designer of choice here) dress/pants/shoes, or no one told you how fantastic you are (horrors! You must get over the need for that and leave your ego at the door), or even two meetings, you have to give it the entire six months and then make your decision about whether or not to continue. People are busy and sometimes come to group tired and crabby. Groups can also be in a bad mood as a whole. Not every session can be a love-in. Be fair. You aren't 'all that' 24/7.

Continuity - this is 'part b' of the above. You committed to coming so, show up to each meeting, and on time. Email everyone your writing by the agreed upon deadline, print and read everyone else's work as soon as possible so you give yourself enough time to try to understand and feel each one, and comment in writing on each, signing your name. Everyone needs to be able to count on - meaning - trust each other. In this day and age trust is pretty miraculous. I mean, let's face it, letting someone read and critique your work is more intimate than sex, isn't it? That said, knowing that picturing others in their underwear levels the playing field, and being that we all love a good metaphor, I'm not advocating going as far as requiring nudity during the critiquing process to make a point, okay?

That brings me to Care. Take care with each person's work. Treat it with the same seriousness and heart you would your own. I said above that you should feel it and I meant that. Fast, superficial readings are not allowed. Read each piece at least twice (four times if it's a poem), and make your comments keeping in mind what you think is the goal/meaning of the piece, and the voice of the writer. Don't rework it so it sounds like you. Don't be fooled - this is a very difficult thing to do. It takes alot of - you guessed it - care.

Last is Contribution. What you turn in to the group will depend on your motives for joining a group. Ideally, you should have a project in mind. You should have a firm idea of what you want to accomplish. Don't offer up random writing from ten or five or two years ago because the deadline crept up on you and you hadn't written anything. Don't turn in anything you don't care about. You're going to get out of this group what you put into it. If you put in crap - guess what? Write something new for every meeting. Even if it's only five pages, or an outline of upcoming chapters, or a few revised poems the group has already seen - permit me a twist on Ezra Pound's famous saying - 'Make it new.'

A good critique group is really a good relationship, just with three or more people (what you've always dreamed of, right?). It requires all the Cs above and more, including communication, which we'll get to in the commenting post. As such, it's a growth experience, for you and your writing. Plus it gets you out of the house, which, for hermit writers, is a good thing.


Chris Stewart is the founding director of the Write Here, Write Now workshops in Baltimore, and the program director for arts in education and literature with the Maryland State Arts Council. Her website is www.therealwriter.com.

Thursday

How Agents Build Writers' Careers

By Richard Curtis

A literary agent's life involves far more than reading, lunching, and deal-making. His or her services embrace the literary, legal, financial, social, political, psychological, and even the spiritual; and the jobs they are obliged to tackle run the gamut from computer troubleshooting to espionage. But because our business is a day-to-day, book-to-book affair, we tend to lose perspective. With our preoccupation with advances and royalties, payout schedules and discounts, movie rights and foreign rights and serial rights and merchandise rights, with option clauses and agency clauses and acceptability clauses and termination clauses, it is all too easy for us to forget that our primary goal is to build careers, to take writers of raw talents, modest accomplishments, and unimpressive incomes and render them prosperous, successful, and emotionally fulfilled.

This endeavor demands the application of all the skill and experience we command, plus something else: vision. Vision in this context may be defined as an agent's ideal of the best work an author is capable of achieving, matched to the best job his publishers can perform. An agent's vision should illuminate the author's path, oftentimes far into his future, if not for his entire career.

In order for our vision to be fulfilled, three conditions must be met. First, we have to learn and understand what the author's own vision is. Second, we have to align that vision with our perception of the author's talent: do we believe he or she has what it takes to realize that dream? And finally, we have to help the author fashion his or her work to suit the demands and expectations of the marketplace.

I cannot overstate how much easier said than done the process of building an author's career is. Human nature being what it is, the forces militating against success are heartbreakingly formidable. The agent's vision and the author's vision may be at serious odds with one another, or at odds with the publisher's, and sometimes it's at odds with the vision of the fans! Authors' a talents or stamina or financial resources may simply not be up to the task they have set for themselves. Their publishers may not like or understand their work. Their audience may reject it. Every imaginable contingency may beset an author along life's path: death and disability, divorce and disaster - the same ones that beset everybody else, plus a few that are indigenous to creative people. The attrition rate for authors and their dreams is extremely high, and the odds against talent flourishing under perfect conditions are prohibitive. With so much at stake, it should come as no surprise that agents approach the building of their clients' careers with the utmost solemnity.

When a writer becomes my client I sit down with him or her to explore immediate and long-term goals. I ask writers how much it costs to live comfortably, how much they earn per book, and how long it takes them to write. It should then be a matter of simple arithmetic to determine what I must do to keep their careers on a steady keel: simply divide their yearly expenses by the number of books they are capable of producing annually. This gives me the amount of money they must earn (after commission, I hasten to remind them) per book to make a living.

Unfortunately, life is not a matter of simple arithmetic. Even in the unlikely event that authors live within their means and nothing untoward befalls them and their family, there is no room in the above equation for profit, and visions of greatness require an author to earn a profit.

Now, books that earn a profit for authors are not easily come by (not, at any rate, as easily come by as books that earn a profit for publishers). Good luck and good agenting may sometimes make one happen, but it is unwise for an author to depend on either. This means authors have to make it on their own by writing a breakout book. But how can they do that if they can't afford to buy the time?

Even if you are blessed with an unexpected windfall, there is no guarantee that you will achieve your dream, thanks to Fehrenbach's Law. T. R. Fehrenbach, the brilliant Texas historian, once wrote to me that, "Expenses rise to meet the cost of every sellout." In other words, the profit that authors make does not necessarily go into the fund marked, "This Time I'm Really Going to Write That Book." More likely, it will go toward something that is easier to grasp, like a new Buick, a home theater with all the bells and whistles, or a two-week vacation on Lake George.

The truth is that writers are no better equipped to fulfill their dreams than are other middle-class people, because compromise is an easy habit to get into when it is rewarded with comforts and luxuries. Austerity, integrity, sacrifice, relentless determination, and other virtues associated with uncompromising artistic endeavor are seldom a match for a brand-new living room suite or wall-to-wall carpeting for the master bedroom. And so an author's dream gets postponed a bit longer, and a bit longer after that, until perhaps that terrible day comes when the dream deferred pops, in Langston Hughes's phrase, "like a raisin in the sun." Death and disability, divorce and disaster are not the only terrible things that can befall an author, or even the worst things. Giving up his dream is the worst thing, and that is truly tragic. I believe it is an agent's sacred duty to keep this from happening, to keep the flame of hope burning in the author's breast, to encourage him or her in every way possible to seize the moment when an opportunity to reach for greatness presents itself.

Just as importantly, the agent must make a judgment as to whether your talents are up to your ambitious projects. They are not always, by any means. Authors are no more objective about their strengths and weaknesses than anyone else, and when their self-perceptions are deficient, it is vital for their agents to shed light on those blind spots.

Another way that agents help authors build their careers is to match their "product" - an unpleasant but useful word - to the demands of the marketplace. In other words, to make it commercial. It is not enough for a writer to fulfill his dream if his dream happens to be to write perfect imitations of Virgil, parodies of Thackeray, or metaphysical poetry. The agent must therefore be as intimate with publishing and reading trends as he is with the soul of his author, and to make sure the author's work plays into those trends.

The problem doesn't always lie with the author. Some publishers are simply better at publishing certain types of books than others, and an author's development may eventually reach the point where the publisher simply can no longer accommodate it. Then it may be time to move the author to a house that understands the author's needs and work and offers an environment in which these can be nurtured properly. It is not always greed that motivates agents to switch authors to new publishers. (Most of the time, yes, but not always.)

If all goes well - and we have seen how seldom it does - you will gradually, or perhaps suddenly, move on to a new and lofty plateau, maybe even onto the very summit itself. Hand clasped in your agent's, you will breathe the heady, rarefied atmosphere of success. You will have fulfilled your dream, your talent will now be a splendidly fashioned tool, and you will be published by a publisher that knows how to realize every dollar of commercial value from your masterpieces for your mutual enrichment. Only one thing remains to be done to place the capstone on your sublime triumph.

Why, fire your agent, of course.

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

Speaking or Should I Say Viewing of Book Trailers

By Anthony S. Policastro

A colleague of mine directed me to an excellent site devoted exclusively to author videos called Meet the Author.

Here you can view a personalized video of your favorite author. The copy from the site says,
"The video clips are NOT reviews, they are NOT written by the marketing departments of publishers - these are authors speaking from their heart - to YOU.

Meet the Author is updated daily..."

The site also has a Marketplace, where they tell you how to pitch your book idea to agents, publishers and readers by making a personalized video.

And lastly, the site has an Authors' Lounge, where published authors talk to you about their books and how and why they wrote them. Some of the authors include Patricia Cornwell, Preethi Nair, David Baldacci, and Tim Bowler among others.

Take a look and start promoting your work with a book trailer.

Friday

What Your Agent Has Done For You Lately

By Richard Curtis

One day, I got a phone call from an agitated editor. His voice was trembling and he could scarcely contain his emotion. The emotion was fear.

It seems that a hotheaded client of mine had gotten so upset over some editorial work done on his book that he'd threatened in a loud voice, during a visit to the editor's office, to pulp his face. Some of his colleagues had interceded and ushered the distraught author out of the building. Of course,
beating up your editor is a time-honored writer's fantasy, but my client had taken it further than most authors do. Pulping an editor's face is a serious breach of etiquette.
"What can I do to help?" I offered.

"Restrain him," the editor said.
"You mean, physically?"
"Yes, if need be."
I could not suppress an ill-timed laugh.
"What the hell is so funny?" he demanded.
"Well," I said, "I've done everything else, I might as well be a bodyguard for an editor, too."
After settling the dispute by eliciting promises of good behavior from my client in exchange for assurances of more thoughtful blue-penciling from the editor, I reflected on some of the unusual things that agents are called upon to do in the course of their careers. I am often asked to speak to groups of aspiring writers and to explain just what literary agents do. I wonder how the audience would react if I told them that among other things, literary agents babysit for their clients' kids, paint their clients' houses, and bail their clients out of jail. They even fall in love with their clients and marry them. In fact, I have done all these things and more.

Years ago, before it merged with another agents' organization to form the Association of Authors' Representatives, the Society of Authors' Representatives issued a brochure describing some functions that authors should not expect their agents to perform. Most of my colleagues would lose half their clients overnight if they took these guidelines seriously. For instance, the brochure advised that you shouldn't expect your agent to edit your book. But most agents I know would consider themselves remiss if they did not do some light, and sometimes heavy, editing to improve a book's chances of acceptance.

Here are some other things the brochure mentioned:

* The agent cannot solve authors' personal problems. As a writer myself, and a friend or agent of many writers, I can testify to how tightly interconnected the personal, financial, and creative elements of an author's life are. Trouble in one area almost invariably indicates trouble in the others. The agent who turns his back on an author's personal problems may well be diminishing that author's earning power. So for reasons of self-interest if not compassion, agents may find themselves playing psychiatrist to clients, sticking their noses into authors' marital disputes or taking depressed clients to baseball games.

* The agent cannot lend authors money. Ha! In this age of glacial cash flow, agents are being asked more and more frequently to play banker. I'm not sure authors always appreciate that the agent who advances them money lends it interest-free, or that the agent's total loans to clients at any given time may come to tens of thousands of dollars. But I don't know too many agents who can gaze unflinchingly into the eyes of a desperate client and say, "If you need a loan, go to a bank."

* The agent cannot be available outside office hours except by appointment. Double ha! with a cherry on top. Many business and personal crises arise for authors at times that, inconveniently, do not correspond to regular business hours. Book negotiations can carry over into the evening, and global time differentials put Hollywood three hours behind New York, New York at least five hours behind Europe, and Japan or Australia half a day away. An agent's day is not the same as a civil servant's. Many of my clients have my home phone number. I only ask them to use it sparingly.

*The agent cannot be a press agent, social secretary, or travel agent. A lot of agents I know take on these functions to supplement the author's or publisher's efforts. Literary agenting is a service business, and anything within reason that an agent can do to free a client from care should be given thoughtful consideration. Rare is the agent who has not driven clients to the airport or booked them into hotels, arranged business or social appointments, or helped them secure tickets to a hot Broadway show. We stop at procuring intimate companions, but many of us have made love matches and a few have had babies named after them. The roles of agents have shifted in the last decade from mere dealmakers to business managers.

Like my colleagues I have a large quiver full of sales techniques ranging from sweet talk to harangues. But I wonder how many agents have donned costumes and performed burlesque routines to sell books? It happened. Some clients of mine had written a satire of the best-selling book The One Minute Manager. Theirs was called The One Minute Relationship, demonstrating how you could meet, fall in love, marry, and divorce within sixty seconds of the first heartthrob. It was to be published by Pinnacle, but about a week before Pinnacle's sales conference, the editor-in-chief called me. "I'm thinking of something different for presenting this book to the sales staff. Could your clients cook up a cute skit?"

I promised to see what I could do, and called my clients. They came to my home and we brainstormed a skit over take-out Chinese food. The shtick we came up with featured an Indian swami who has developed the One Minute Technique. He has to wear a white robe and a turban with a jewel in it. The "jewel" in this case was a thick slice of kosher salami, and we called it the Star of Deli. My clients and I fell on the floor laughing. Then they suggested that since I had the robe, the turban, and the salami, and did a passing fair imitation of a Hindu fakir, I should perform the starring role in front of the Pinnacle salespeople. It took several bottles of Chinese beer to make me agree, but at length I went along, reasoning that these days, whatever it takes to sell books is okay by me. The skit went over well, climaxed of course by my gleefully stuffing the Star of Deli into my mouth. Pinnacle loved it so much they took our show on the road, videotaping our performance and featuring it at the American Booksellers Association convention. Last time I looked, The One Minute Manager was ranked #6,150,172 on Amazon.com.

Agents are not the tight-lipped stiffs that some have made us out to be. Like Shylock, we bleed if you prick us and laugh if you tickle us. I have cried with and for my authors when misfortune strikes, and rejoiced with them at their weddings and the births of their children.
I have also had some great laughs, not a few at the expense of clients and colleagues, for I am an inveterate practical joker. A client and good friend who'd bought himself a telephone answering machine (long before voicemail) was so anxious about missing important calls that whenever he was away for any length of time he called home every fifteen minutes to get his messages by means of a remote control signal. He worried that machine to death. If he returned to find no messages, he would examine the phone and the answering machine for malfunctions.

One day, I decided to indulge his worst paranoid fantasy, and left the following message on his answering machine: ". . . Studios. If you don't return my call by five P.M. we will assume you're not interested and we will withdraw our offer." The poor fellow spent an hour phoning movie studio executives on both coasts explaining that his phone machine had malfunctioned in the middle of a message, and asking if they happened to be the studio that left an offer on his machine that day.

Most people do not think of literary agents as leading adventurous lives, and that is largely true. Most of the time our conduct is as tightly circumscribed as that of business people in any other profession. Our greatest thrill is grappling in close combat with an editor during a six-figure negotiation, or stalking a check through the treacherous thickets of a publisher's bookkeeping system. Accounts of such adventures make for exciting listening only if you happen to be another literary agent, but somehow they don't carry the same weight as the tales of mountainous seas and mutinous tribes, challenging mountains and charging rhinos, that you can routinely hear at any meeting of the Explorers Club.

Nevertheless, because our profession brings us into contact with unusual characters, we do occasionally find ourselves carried far from the stereotypical role of submitting manuscripts in the morning, collecting checks in the afternoon, and going to lunch for three hours in between.
Early in my careerI was in London setting up the English office of Scott Meredith's literary agency. Novelist Evan Hunter (since passed on to his well deserved reward) and his wife were passing through London on their way to the Cotswolds, and we spent a delightful afternoon dining al fresco at my boss's expense. I bade them goodbye and wished them a pleasant journey, and figured that was that. About a week later, however, I got a call from Evan in Southampton. They were about to embark on a ship for America when his wife realized she had left her jewelry in a safe in the Ligon Arms Hotel in the Cotswold town of Broadway. "I'm going to ask an important favor of you," Evan said. "I want you to take a train out there and get the jewels back. Bring them to London and we'll arrange for them to be shipped home."

At that time I was in my twenties and, beyond getting stuck in an elevator for two hours and having my tonsils taken out, I had never been at hazard in many "real life situations." This sounded like an opportunity to experience the kind of peril that confronted the Burtons, Spekes, and Hilarys through whom I'd lived vicariously.
"They're not just going to hand the jewels over to me," I protested.
"Of course not," said Evan. "There'll be a password."
"A password?"
"When you get to the hotel, go to the desk and tell the lady you're there to recover our jewelry. Then say the password."
A password! This was a scheme worthy of Evan Hunter, who under the pen name of Ed McBain had created my favorite police procedural series, "The 87th Precinct."
"And what is the password?" I asked.
There was a long pause and I sensed that Evan was looking furtively around for eavesdroppers. He uttered a phrase in voce so sotto I had to ask him to say it again. "'Phoenix Rising'," he said. "Repeat it."
"'Phoenix Rising'," I said. "Heavy!"

That afternoon I caught a British Railways train to Evesham, the station closest to Broadway. The taxi driver I hired to take me to Broadway looked like Central Casting's notion of a Dickensian cutpurse, including addressing me as "Guv'nor." When he asked me, just being friendly, my business in Broadway, I told him, "Just touring." He arched an eyebrow. I wore a three-piece English-cut suit and a tense smile and didn't look remotely like a tourist. I looked like a man trying not to look like a man who was soon to bear tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry on his person.

The Ligon Arms Hotel had been built in an era when Englishmen were four feet tall, as I quickly discovered when I grazed my skull on a lintel. I wobbled to the desk and found a diminutive woman peering at me who looked as if she would crumble into powder if I spoke too loudly. I cleared my throat and murmured, "Phoenix Rising." She gazed owlishly at me and my heart sank. Something had gone wrong. Evan had not told her the password. He had told her the wrong password. She had not heard it correctly. She had stolen the jewels.

"Phoenix Rising. Phoenix Rising," she muttered, searching at least ninety years of memory for an association with this mysterious phrase. Then the light of recognition kindled in her eyes. Her hand leaped to her mouth. "Phoenix Rising! You're Phoenix Rising! EVERYONE, IT'S PHOENIX RISING! HE'S HEAH, HE'S HEAH!" Whereupon bellhops, maids, cooks, and guests poured into the lobby to see The Bearer of the Password. I doubt if anything quite like this had happened here since the Norman Invasion.

We crowded around the safe as the jewels, rolled in a pocketed length of embroidered velvet, were set before me. Delicately, my friend untied a drawstring, making certain not to touch the jewelry itself. I stared at a handsome collection of baubles. There was a hurried conference when we realized I had no inventory of what was supposed to be there, and I was required to sign a receipt itemizing each piece. The staff gathered at the entrance to bid adieu to Alias Phoenix Rising. "Quick tour, Guv'nor," my driver observed as I stepped back into the taxi. "Saw what I came to see," I replied tersely, clutching the pouch in a death grip.

Obviously, these days authors don't merely ask their agents what they've done for them lately, but rather, what else they've done for them lately, and I guess just about anything goes.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in
Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

Wednesday

Use Caution Before Choosing Writer Conferences

By Michael Neff

A couple things to be aware of before choosing a conference.

Just recently, a writers conference in America advertised on Publisher's Marketplace and implied in their text that anyone who attended this event could "Pitch [their] manuscript to the 27 literary agents and editors attending ..." Okay, to any veteran of writers conferences, this is as close to TALL story as you can get. Maybe a flunky at the White House might believe it, but you gotta be smarter if you ever hope to be a published author.

I personally know writers with boundless energy and a full wallet who have wildly bounced around to as many as a dozen agents at a huge conference like Maui ... but 27? No way. There will be 27 present, yes, but you will only get the opportunity to personally interact with a small portion of these individuals--the actual number depending on circumstances.

Next, a few writers conferences appear to do their best to humiliate rather than help writers. They place writers in an American Idol-like context, i.e., they force the writer to stand up before a panel of agents and get lashed. Some agents can be helpful, while others behave badly, as if they are competing for the Snarkster of The Year award. But take it from me, this is NOT an environment conducive to learning. Writers need to know how to fix it, or at least, how best to acquire the skill of literary mechanic. Simply tearing them down in front of others only benefits the predators.

Writers need to be in an honest and beneficial environ, and they need time to interact one-on-one with professionals in a relaxed atmosphere. Even writers conferences that don't grill you in public often make you wait in long lines or run to the sound of bells (to get in long lines), and there you are ... one of hundreds waiting to see agents who will be glazed over and dreaming of escape long before you talk to them.

Be careful out there!