Frey-flavored Kool Aid for writers

Everyone has been talking about James Frey since Suzanne Mozes’ New York Magazine article on his “fiction factory” came out last week. And there have been several comments on the New Yorker site, and on Twitter of people shuddering at Frey’s further foray into despicableness.

But how’s he different from most other businessmen?

1) Frey recognizes that publishers want to make money

2) He knows that the best writing often isn’t the stuff that makes the bestseller list

3) He’s aware that publishing is hard to break into for new writers

4) Despite being a fraud, he has a lot of publishing contacts

5) He’s willing to take advantage of those desperate to be published

Businesses regularly identify the demand for something and try to meet that demand as cheaply as possible with the least amount of risk. By offering his writers a measly $250 for a book and a contract that binds them like mummies, he’s ensuring that there’s no risk on his part. If the book doesn’t sell, he’s only out $250. He probably has that in his couch cushions. And if the book does sell, he gets all the credit, and 60-70% of the money, maybe more depending on how much he deducts from the writer’s actual paycheck for miscellaneous fees and whatnot.

So is he really to blame for preying on the desperate? Or are the desperate to blame for taking the bait? He isn’t forcing anyone to work with him. The guy who wrote I AM NUMBER FOUR, their bestselling first venture, made out OK. Though now his relationship with Frey is over and he seems awfully bitter about it despite the oodles of dough he made from the book/movie deal.

It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? Start a business specifically to make money in the publishing industry by churning out mediocre high-concept YA books that the public will eat up. And for the writer, they give up their integrity to create the mediocre books in the hope that it will garner them a lot of cash.

Frey’s an opportunist. A hustler. But there are hundreds like him on Wall St. What’s sad about this whole thing is the willingness of writers to drink the Kool Aid and the willingness of his business partners to walk in the muck.

But people do a lot of things for money.

Who needs Barnes & Noble?

When there are great indie bookstores like Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, NJ, the appeal of large chain bookstores goes out the window. I’m not just saying that because the bookstore was the scene of my first bookstore event, or that they recently had me back to talk about the children’s publishing industry, but because they have an ongoing commitment to books, and to the people who create them. Their Writing Matters series goes into all the lovely nooks and crannies of the publishing industry, so that their customers can learn stuff. For free. And then the customers can become authors themselves, who will be welcomed back for awesome book events!

Man, I love book people.

Here are some pix of the night with me and the other children’s authors, Susanna Reich, Crystal Velazquez and Troy CLE.

We're introduced, surrounded by beautiful books.

Like all Trinis, I talk with my hands.

My kids wonder if I'll ever stop talking.

Done! Whew!

The end is near?

I recently came across this quote: “Literature was formerly an art and finance a trade; today it is the reverse.” It’s a sentiment I keep hearing and certainly a reality in our current economic crisis, but this quote is by Joseph Roux, a French artist who lived in the 1700s. So it’s really hard to believe all the doom and gloom in publishing (and the economy for that matter) if people were saying the same things 200 years ago. It’s also hard to believe the prognostications by agents and editors that it’s a Great! Time! to be a Writer! And Things! are Looking! Up!

Drama is great for storytelling and for getting attention on a corner with your cardboard sign, but the truth is that neither the doomsayers nor the crazily hopeful are correct. It’s just a regular time in publishing and the economy. So don’t get swept up in either tide. The tide will knock you off your feet. And you need those feet planted firmly on the ground if you’re going to get your work done.

Now is the time to hunker down and do your best work, the same as it always has been.

When publishing shoves your face in the dirt…

I’d love to tell you to just dust yourself off and try again, but that’s a load of something I can’t write on this blog since sometimes small children read it.

The first thing you have to do is deal with it. You just got rejected by an agent/publisher/your own agent!/your writing group/a random slush-pile intern. So yeah, feel sorry for yourself. Go ahead. You worked on something,  you sent it out, and nobody understood it, so it’s only natural that you’d feel badly. Go have a drink, buy a new pair of shoes, scream into the abyss. Do it! Your neighbors might judge you but I won’t, I swear.

The next thing you have to do (and this is important): DON’T BLAME THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY. Yes, it sucks, yes, it’s imperfect, but you’re trying to break into it, aren’t you? If it’s so bad, you’d be doing something else. And if you weren’t rejected, you’d probably be singing its praises or making burnt-manuscript offerings to its gods, so don’t go there. Don’t be that guy.

What comes next is pretty critical. Go find your friends, or your mom/husband/wife/significant other. They are there for you to complain to. Only they know you well enough to know that you’re pretty amazing, and they are going to give you some comfort. I happen to have a pretty stellar group of friends myself, all of whom I rely on pretty heavily when the you-know-what hits the fan. Your mom/husband/wife/significant other is probably also going to give you a nice speech about being strong and taking chances and keepin’ on keepin’ on. That’s good too if it gets you off your behind to do the next thing.

And that is, write something else. Like, immediately. Nothing gets you over that last breakup like the next relationship (at least that’s the way it worked when I was dating) and writing is a lot like that. The next story will heal what ails you from the last one. I gah. ran. tee.

Now if you’re like me (super competitive, extremely ambitious, and not wildly successful) all of this will get you to move on, but it won’t be enough to really get your self-esteem back on track. For that, you’re going to need to pull out the big guns: CRAFT PROJECT! I know. Bear with me. You are going to have to dig out every last thing that anyone ever said or wrote or drew or sang about you and your writing and put it up on a bulletin board and put that whole thing over the spot where you write. If you move around, get a small bulletin board and move that thing around with you. If you like to write in coffee shops, take a picture of it and make it your wallpaper. You need to remind yourself why you’re doing this and surround yourself with the encouragement of those who believe you can.

Look, self-doubt comes with the territory. Every artist is plagued with it, but when you’re just starting out and there isn’t a lot of support for your work, you need to generate it for yourself. So go find that 5th grade paper that Mrs. Kellerman thought was better than Proust, and go find that margin of one page in your manuscript where someone in your writing group wrote, “this line made me cry.” Get them all together and make the best damn bulletin board EVAH! Because if it keeps you out of the dumps, it will keep you writing, and the more you write, the better you will get, and the better you get, the more marketable your writing will be, and the more marketable it is, the more likely someone will pick it up and say, “where has this story been all my life?” and then you will have yet another thing to put on that awesome board for the next time publishing rubs your face in the dirt. Because honey, it’ll probably happen again, even if you do become wildly successful.

Publishing sucks. Deal with it, or get out.

When my editor at Simon & Schuster signed me, she expressed an interest in developing new writers. Anyone who’s read Gladwell’s New Yorker article understands that it takes time for many artists to develop. It’s true for me. But that was nearly seven years ago. The market was different then. I doubt that anyone is looking to develop writers now. And that is not a bitter recrimination on editors or agents or the publishing industry, it’s just that the market is so terrible and this is a for-profit industry and that’s just the way capitalism goes.

Many have been saying that it’s the end of an era for midlist writers. Publishers are just going to drop them in the future. So if you’ve had moderate success with one or a few books, but haven’t developed your fan base or your writing style yet, you’re out of a job. Permanently. And if you’re a newbie coming into the publishing industry, that first book had better be a best-seller, or else you too are out on your ear.

Now I’m worried. a) Because I’m one of those midlist writers who hasn’t found her stride or her fanbase yet. b) Because by getting rid of a vast number of writers (About 80-90% of writers are midlist) the industry would be squelching a great deal of terrific books and people. And c) Because without an opportunity for writers to develop, and lopping off those who don’t score best-sellers right away, the industry would be killing-off artistry (insert comparison to Kara DioGuardi here). Let’s face it, blockbuster books, while enjoyable, aren’t the best writing there is out there. (Here’s an interesting article about unpopular, but great writing.)

I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not Mary Walters, and I’m not bitter. I’m sure everyone’s already seen her venomous blog post from last week that garnered so much response, and even roped in Nathan Bransford who tried to bring his own perspective to the mix. Frankly, that was painful to read. And my mother has a saying, which she usually saves for clerks at department stores: If you don’t like your job, get another one.

And that’s just the thing. There are other jobs out there. Ms. Walters has had a career in publishing, and maybe it’s time for her to move on to a job in, I don’t know, demolition. It might help to alleviate some of that anger. When the midlist axe drops, there are going to be a lot of writers looking for other things to do. Fortunately, most of us have other jobs, so it’s not like we’ll be begging on the streets (we’re already there, kind of), but we’ll certainly be looking for other outlets. Maybe we’ll revolutionize the industry by doing more POD and making our own rules, setting up our own writer-centered industry. It could happen.

In the meantime, you can either despair and blame everyone else for your lack of success, or you can keep working and pushing yourself, or you can simply get out and do other things with your time that aren’t so frustrating with odds that are more in your favor. Life is too short. There are plenty of other enjoyable things out there.

And look, it’s earth day today. Go do something nice for the environment. I will be writing. As maddening as it is, I really love what I do. And even if I never get another novel published (cringe!) I’ll probably still be writing, and hoping that I don’t turn bitter. Because really, is that any way to live?

Vampire + Zombie + Cat = awesome

So my online writing class ended this weekend and during the chat session, someone mentioned that at a recent conference, editors were saying that they didn’t want to see any more zombie or cat stories. Of course immediately, I thought about a zombie cat. Poor thing! And I know that the whole vampire thing should be dead, but remains, characteristically, un-dead. Even Nathan Bransford is polling people about the demise of the vampire. Which led me to think of a vampire zombie cat. I know. My brain is… well… it’s interesting in here.

And since I’ve already (pretty much) finished my Meyer outline and sample chapter and tomorrow is April Fool’s, I’ve decided to treat you all to a story that I know will never be published.

Tomorrow, look for Chapter 1 of: The Vampire’s Zombie Cat.

Mwah ha ha ha ha!

(Oh and if you want a fast and dirty and HYSTERICAL summary of the Twilight series, you can get it here.)

Endless Loop

It took me about 4 years to write my last novel. I have no idea where it is at the moment. Over a year ago I handed it to my editor, who deemed it “problematic” after holding on to it for months. So I rewrote for another 6 months, then handed it back to my agent, who was really excited about it. She passed it on to my editor again, and it’s been about 4 months now that I’ve been waiting for word.

The publishing industry is not for the weak, or the impatient. It requires stamina and a will of iron.

The thing is, my agent and I (and my best bud who read it before I sent the final revision to my agent) may be the only people on planet Earth who think this book is any good. Then what happens? Four years with nothing to show for myself. It’s no wonder some artists are self-destructive.

Writing involves an endless loop of waiting. Waiting for the words to come. Waiting for your agent to call. Waiting for your editor to read it. Waiting for the contract. Waiting to see what the cover looks like. Waiting for the book to go to print. Waiting for the release date. Waiting for the reviews. Waiting to see what kind of sales you make.