Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Writer's Thanksgiving Prayer

Dear Lord,

I know You probably think this is going to be yet another prayer asking for an agent – much like most of my earlyteen conversations with You involved fervent pleas that You send me a horse -- but it’s not.

For one thing, we’ve covered the agent issue enough lately that I am confident it remains foremost in my file.

For another, it’s Thanksgiving. I just wanted to take some time to say “Thank You.”

I give thanks that people like Sooki and Kim Kardashian have book deals. Every time I start to get discouraged and suspect that that perhaps my writing isn’t good enough to get published, You have provided shining beacons to remind me that many publishers truly don’t care about the quality of the written words they put into print.

I thank You for the Buffy reboot. (Though someone must have made a deal with You-Know-Who to cut Joss Whedon out of the action.) And for the Superman reboot. Every time I come to You asking for new inspiration, simply point me toward these testaments that the industry isn’t looking for something new.

Thank You for giving me friends and family who literally could not care less about what I write. I don’t think any of them have read the book I had published this year – and that’s ok. They’re not horse trainers. They’re not the target audience. They make me realize that there is more to life than just work.

Thank You, too, for my clients and friends in the film and publishing industry. For they do care about my career. They continue to challenge and encourage me. I know while You were here, You had a few close friends who cared about what You were trying to do. I’m eternally grateful for the pros You’ve introduced to me. We all support each other as we continue onward and upward. It’s a blessing to know that I’m not in this alone.

Thank You that though I have yet to make the New York Times bestseller list, I will still be able to put more food on my table tomorrow than many people on this planet will see in a month. I may sound glib, but I’m not. I am deeply, profoundly grateful to be able to feed not only my family but also the friends who will share Thanksgiving with us.

I cannot thank You enough that I don't have to fly this holiday season. Getting groped and scanned by gruff, irritable people always puts me a little off my thankfulness game.

(I'm not presuming to tell You how to do Your job, but here's a thought: inspire someone with clout to mandate that all our elected officials undergo the same TSA screening as those of us who voted them into office. I bet that would instigate some changes that would make many travelers sing Your praises.)

I am exceedingly thankful that I live in a country that still lets me talk to You -- or not -- on my own terms.

I’m also thankful that the furnace and electricity works, the car runs, and we’re all relatively healthy. I realize that some of the things I regularly complain about others would welcome as a blessing.

Finally, I thank You that I was not born a turkey. Seriously. I’m grateful.

Thank You for hearing my prayer and for blessing me and my family through this past year. Special thanks for eventually granting my horse request. Now, about that agent...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cake or Death?

St. Joseph native James Frey is back in the publishing news again. He's the literary establishment's equivalent of Brittney Spears or Levi Johnston: tabloid fodder guaranteed to generate controversy.

(Long-term readers may remember my Frey-based rants back in 2006 when fallout from his fictitious memoir hit the proverbial fan and when Oprah lambasted him for lying. I mentioned him again last May when Oprah reversed her earlier decision and apologized to Frey for saying that his lying to her was a bad thing. I have nothing against Mr. Frey. Honestly. It's just that he keeps doing stuff that merits... discussion.)

Yesterday's post brings us up to speed on Frey's latest Death-By-Dishonor venture: the book packaging company and intellectual property black hole of Full Fathom Five.

Their motto should be: "Why Should You Profit From Your Words if We Can Instead?"

For a fascinating dissection of Full Fathom Five's contract, see YA Writer Maureen Johnson's blog post that also takes prestigious MFA programs to task for graduating students gullible (or desperate) enough to sign such a contract.

Here's the thing: James Frey is not evil. He may be a huckster, a liar, and a fraud, but he is not holding a gun to the heads of these writers and forcing them to sign their lives away. He's only capitalizing on inherent flaws in a system that includes self-appointed gatekeepers and elevates platforms over merit.

This is the system that publishes Snooki's novel and the "memoir" of 16 year old Justin Bieber.

It's the system that puts a multitude of "Cat Who" books in print when every reader and writer knows that if an unpublished author were to submit any one of the last 10 titles in the series for publication, they would meet with instant and unequivocal rejection.

It's a system built upon desperation. And Full Fathom Five's stable of overtalented, underpaid, uberdesperate writers only shows what the going rate for "desperate to be published" is.


I am not disparaging work-for-hire writing contracts. Far from it. The first book I ever wrote that got into print was a write-for-hire. I made enough money writing it to put food on my family's table. It gave me the opportunity to work with a brilliant horse trainer. It introduced me to a wonderful group of publishing professionals. It provided the impetus that drove several other book deals that weren 't write-for-hire.

However, in the past year, I turned down a "sure thing" ghostwriting project. The book would have been published. I would have had the chance to work with a legend in his field. I would have made significantly more than $250. But it wouldn't have been enough to live on.

Since I know how much time it takes me to write a book from scratch start to polished end, the project literally would have paid me pennies per hour. I suggested a more equitable compensation for my time, but our numbers were too disparate.

So we parted ways (amiably) and moved on.

The brilliant comedian Eddie Izzard has a classic routine in which he asks "Cake or Death?"

Obviously, if given the choice, no one in his or her right mind would choose "death." But one could easily substitute the words "creative career or Frey cook?" Evidently, at least 28 would choose the second option.

As long as there are writers desperate for publication, there will be people ready and willing to exploit their talents. In any case, someone's going to make a killing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Full Fathom Five: Thy Father Lies

or Why Writers Should Shy Away from Signing With Death

Last week, both the Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine took a long look at St. Joseph homeboy James Frey.

WSJ's piece, written by Katherine Rosman and Lauren A. E. Schuker, is the kinder, gentler one. With some puzzlement, its final paragraph states, "There is still residual hostility toward Mr. Frey" for his 2006 antics in which he wrote a work of fiction and told the world it was true.

One can almost picture the WSJ staff scratching their heads at such ill will, for the rest of the piece focuses primarily on his financial successes ("His debut book... was named Amazon Book of the Year and has sold eight million copies in more than 30 languages") and on namedropping his current affiliates (Michael Bay, Stacey Snider, Steven Spielberg... The list of luminaries goes on and on.).

New York Magazine, in contrast, ran an "Emperor's New Clothes" style article in its Books section wherein Suzanne Mozes exposed the New-York Times bestselling writer's Full Fathom Five book packaging company.

The article explained how Frey trolled prestigious MFA programs in search of drones to do his dirty work writing. It painted a word portrait of a man who was intemperate, unapologetic, charismatic, and ballsy. It evoked nothing so much as a mental image of the Wicked Witch of the West auditioning flying monkey minions.

lol Black flying monkey =P Pictures, Images and Photos

According to both articles, Frey is looking for talented writers to work for next to nothing creating content that he oversees. The contract they sign specifies that they will be paid in peanuts 2 installments of $250 each, if they're lucky. It also says that the writer's name may or may not appear as author and that Frey owns all content created for his company.

Understandably, the pieces provoked significant discussion among the publishing pros (writers, agents, publishers, and editors) I follow on Twitter. While all agree that Frey isn't technically doing anything illegal, few are condoning his actions. For it is painfully obvious to anyone even remotely affiliated with the publishing industry that Frey's business model is just the sort of thing your mother warned you about when you said you wanted to be a writer.

We writers spend much of our time writing words that will garner more rejection in a single month than Big Bang Theory's Howard Wolowitz will have to endure in a lifetime. So when someone comes along and suggests that we have talent, that he believes in us, and that he will get us published, it's enough to make us beg for a pen so we can sign a deal with the Devil Full Fathom Five.

Ah, how we imperil ourselves and our careers when we forget the classics. Of course, the whole situation smacks of Faust. But the name of Frey's company alone should engender feelings of panic and the desire to wash oneself thoroughly with germicide. It should sound nigglingly familiar to any writer worth his or her pay. For Shakespeare coined the phrase before Frey used it. In The Tempest, Ariel sings:

Full fathom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange.
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

In other words: Dad is dead and lost in the depths of the sea.

Which is where your self-esteem, your credibility, and, in all probability, your writing career will end up if you sign on Full Fathom Five's dotted line.

(In case you misunderstand me, I'm not at all against write-for-hire agreements. I have some experience with them, you see, and they have served me and my career well. Tomorrow's post will explore this topic further in "Cake or Death.")

What's your take on the Frey-for-all? Would you sign? What's the minimum amount you'd write for? Drop a comment below. But remember -- play nice.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010


Last month, several people I follow on Twitter had an honest discussion about self-censorship. They shared stories of pulling back on their words and hiding what they wrote. I was struck by the honesty and the underlying sadness of the exchange and asked if one or more of them would be willing to share their experiences with my readers. I am very grateful to Michael T. Rusk (Twitter: @DeciduousTree) for rising to the challenge and providing today's guest post.


There was a time in my early life when I wrote what I thought and felt in real time. Some came out as poetry, some as prose and some ended up as songs. The subject matter was either satirical, poking at the establishment and people in power or disturbingly dark sexual references and anti-religion. The first set of writings were somewhat acceptable in a public venue and our folk trio, including my soon to be wife, sang some of the songs at assemblies in our Catholic high school. A couple of the times there were audible gasps as I poked fun of the Principal, an imposing and feared nun.

I continued to write in my first year of college, feeding off the growing anger against the Viet Nam war and the simmering racial unrest. I never gave any thought that my writing was connected to real life in a way that could affect employment. I worked on a highly secure military facility at the time as a co-op student. Che Guevara and Malcolm X writings were common companions in my briefcase. I was oblivious to the uproar it would cause if I was discovered reading this on the base.

We got married between Christmas and New Years, 1967. Working full time, enrolled full time in college and starting a family took a lot of my time. I continued to write as much as I could but my wife was very uncomfortable with my subjects. She had a deeply ingrained mindset that a person should never write anything down.

She continued the criticism and warnings until my passive-aggressive personality made me put the writings away. They stayed away for a very long time. Until I heard Terry McMillan answering a question posed by a student regarding Terry’s concern about how her mother would react if she read Terry’s books. Terry’s answer struck deep in my heart – “I write for myself. I don’t think about how other people will react.”

Her 1993 comment was enough to unlock my pent up writing. I was suffering through very turbulent emotional times. Repressed hostility and hatred was festering in my brain. I wrote poem after poem spewing forth my emotions, draining the toxic venom from my body. The cathartic effect probably saved my life. I continued, underground, only a few close colleagues knew of my writings and offered feedback.

I changed jobs and started what would have been a modern day blog. It was written and printed with a strict rule of one page limit. I was one of the troops and I resumed my satirical, sarcastic mode of writing poking fun at the leaders of the company while delivering nuggets of real information. First issues had a circulation of 12 just for the people in the department. It wasn’t long before other people in the company requested copies and within a year the subscription list included most of the employees.

As luck would have it, I advanced rapidly in the hierarchy of the company until I was one of the Chiefs. Still pumping out my newsletter but it was becoming increasingly difficult to poke fun of senior management since I was one. Besides, I knew too much inside information and I had a hard time not telling the folks about it. It was extremely difficult to keep things light when I knew we were going to do a layoff. I suspended publishing for a couple of weeks prior just so I didn’t have to deal with it.

By this time, the delivery was through email and copies were being forwarded to family and friends. I decided to go public, remove the proprietary company content and target a general audience. There was enough material in the DC area that I could draw on to have a good time in the same style. My family became interested in reading my material. Not thinking, I added my wife and her friend to the subscription list. My wife was a frequent subject of some of my humor, “wifey-poo”, never in a mean way but just what I considered funny situations. She was immediately offended by these references.

I began to get a lot of orders of what not to put in my newsletters regarding “private” information. Turns out “private” was a very broad term which I couldn’t avoid violating at least once in every edition. The final straw was just after our first grandchild was born. I proudly announced the fact to the subscribers in my newsletter – not all the private details just name, size, weight – the normal things you’d see on a birth announcement. My wife went ballistic when I got home. Somehow, she felt I had stolen my son’s thunder! We had a rather heated debate, until I went silent.

That was the last issue of “Mikey’s Muse”, May 16, 1997.

Along comes Twitter, February, 2010. I started by following random people based on their tweet content (plus how cute the avatar was). The selection process favored authors, artists, creators and for some reason political activists. I felt inspired and started to venture back into writing, creating a blog and posting some short stories. But the old feelings of hiding, sneaking, being underground came back to me. I minimized screens when my wife would walk in. She assumed I was having an affair and hiding my conversations with my girlfriend.

I finally told her what I was doing so she could quit worrying about a girlfriend. In retrospect I should have let her keep on thinking it was a girlfriend. I got the standard lecture about how things written will come back to haunt you, what if your boss sees what you write, what are you writing about the family, maybe the family doesn’t want you mentioning them … on and on and on.

I went back to my computer, my Twitter friends, my Blog and thought about my life past and life future. Trying to decide if any of my writing was worth all this upset and confrontation. Here I was, either going to start self-censoring again or quit writing and find some other creative outlet. I had to consider 42 years of marriage, constantly being criticized for expressing myself, trying to avoid conflict, but look forward to our golden years living in our nice home, comfortable, status quo … it was quite a fork in the road.

So, I chose to quit … my marriage.

Epilogue: It’s been a little over two months since our separation and I’ve settled into a cozy one bedroom apartment. The setup provides the creative space I craved, the ultimate writer’s workshop. I converse freely with my friends on Twitter and can write behind the scenes on my book. However, I have felt very reluctant to post anything to my blog since the legal work is still in progress for the divorce. Ironically, I don’t want to post anything that can be used against me.

Do you have any experiences with self-censorship? Have you ever been worried that what you write can be used against you? Have you ever had your words come back to haunt you? I invite you to comment below. And keep on keeping on.