Wednesday, October 17, 2012

5 Simple Questions To Ask Before Choosing a Writing Mentor

Or, "There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch"

One of the things that greatly enriches my life is acting as a mentor or writing coach to other writers.

We're all climbing the same ladder, but if I can help someone climb up a rung or three, I am honored to do so. Why? Because I have always appreciated those who helped me take my writing to another level. Mentoring works both ways: if you are willing to take at one point, I firmly believe you should be equally willing to give back later.

Whisker-lickin', nose-pickin' hungry dog is hungry!
Not so many years ago, I was in the "hungry" stage of my writing career. As in: Hungry for bylines. Hungry for print credibility. And running out of ramen. So I freelanced for a time for several of our local newspapers and magazines.

Near the end of my writing-related Hunger Games, our local rag of a newspaper, owned by a large and impersonal conglomerate, as are most newspapers in the country,  sent out the following announcement, which is a study in How NOT To Mentor:
Dear Faithful Correspondents:
Note the condescending pat-on-the head initial tone. This is not a religious, publication, mind you. “Faithful,” here doesn’t mean “pious” or “honorable,” so much as it means “lapdog.”
You are invited to a writing session on Nov. 16. It will begin in the conference room at 11 a.m., and I assume it will easily go until 12:45-1 p.m. If anyone wants to hang around after that to ask questions, we'll hang around too.
Big of them, don’t you think, to invite writers to a writing session and then offer to “hang around” to answer their questions?
We will provide a catered lunch and also will pay you $30 (the rate of a simple feature story) for your attendance, because on the next day we will also pay our full-time staff members for their attendance at a similar session.
So many comments beg to be made. First, did you catch what the going rate is for a feature article? Thirty bucks! Assuming that you spend an hour interviewing all your sources, half an hour transcribing your notes, an hour typing like a fiend while writing the article, and half an hour proofing it, you’ve made a grand total of… $10 an hour! Before taxes.

Of course, that’s assuming that you don’t get an overly talkative source, that you can do all of your interviews via local telephone calls (so you don’t have to spend money on gas or long distance), and that you can write a worthwhile feature story in an hour.

Sadly, you can bet that the full-time staff members won’t even be paid $30 for their time at the same event the next day.

Finally, I find it fascinating that the writer (one of the editors) felt compelled to tell the correspondents how much they made on a simple feature story. As if the correspondents, who are responsible for their own billing, didn’t know.
The purpose is to go over some writing tips and no-nos (especially the most common lapses and mistakes). City Editor XX and I have collected lots of examples of writing that could be improved. The examples are both from full-time staff and correspondents, and we will do our best to keep the writers anonymous!
They’ve collected “lots of examples,” have they? Not “many examples.” Not “scores of examples.” They haven't even simply “collected examples.” No – “lots.” This is a newspaper, after all. Dedicated to getting the facts right and to unbiased reporting.

Bomb Detector Kitty -
I’m thinking that if they’re going to go over writing that could be improved (“rife with colloquialisms,” “use of slang,” “imprecise measurements…”), they could start with the opening sentence of that last paragraph.

Here’s my personal favorite:
The focus will be on getting the little things right, because cumulatively they add up to big things.
We'll only have a short time to deal with larger structural issues of story construction. We also anticipate this will be a convenient time to answer your questions about such things as staffing of the Metro Desk on nights, submitting your correspondent pay sheets, sending digital pictures, and so on. Photographer YY will attend part of the meeting to talk about j-peg transmissions and picture compositions and to answer any questions you may have.
It’s too bad that they won’t have much time to deal with the larger structural issues of story construction, because it appears that someone could use a refresher course in paragraph design.

A paragraph is not very strong. It can only contain one topic. That’s all it’s capable of holding. That's why, for example, asking a single paragraph to contain information about “getting little things right,” “submitting your correspondent pay sheets,” AND “picture compositions” is quite unreasonable. One topic per paragraph. One.
As most of you know, we will be increasing the pay rate for some categories of stories and pictures for correspondents. That will take effect with the December pay period. We intend to have new pay sheets available at the meeting.
And thus the road to hell is paved…
If you cannot attend the Nov. 16 session you are welcome to attend the Nov. 17 session with full-time staff. It will also begin at 11 a.m. and have a catered lunch.
Since these starving writers are making only $30 a pop for their articles, why not get a double dose of composition advice from the masters? That would not only result in two “free” lunches, but it would also allow them to compare who got the better catering service. It would answer one of life’s niggling little questions: Is it worth it to be a staff newsperson?
Please let me know in the next week or so if you can attend. That will help us in ordering the food.
I eat you now, k? - lolcats.comAnd voila, a letter about the importance of good writing skills ends with a masterpiece of construction.

That particular letter made me realize several things.

For one, I was done writing for that newspaper.

More importantly, I realized when it comes time to seek writing advice (and seeking such advice is necessary at all levels of the craft), it was vitally important to do one's homework. Ascertain whether or not the mentor offering “advice” is worthy of your time and attention. It behooves you to ask yourself the following questions:

1.   Does this person have practical, professional experience in my field?
2.   Does this person exhibit writing traits that I admire and wish to emulate?
3.   Can this person construct a coherent sentence / paragraph / piece?
4.   Do I respect this person’s professional accomplishments?

And, last, but not least:

5.  Can I get a free meal out of this?

If the answer to three out of the four is “yes,” go with God and make the most of your time with your mentor.

If, however, the only positive answer is followed by, “What’s on the menu?” perhaps it’s time to find another guru to guide your career.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Six Words of Fleeting Fame

Fleeting magazine (Now Fleeting Books, see note below), publisher of made-ya-think fiction, poetry, and "X Questions for ____" interviews with Interesting People, ran a Hemingway-inspired six-word short story contest this summer.

Almost 5,000 entries poured in. On a whim, I sent in what is essentially the six-word pitch for a short story I was thinking of tinkering with but didn't have the time to really flesh out because client work kept calling my name while stamping its feet. I hate when it does that.

Well -- cool beans! -- my entry is one of eight that got shortlisted. (Which makes me think maybe I shouldn't expand the piece into a short story at all. Sometimes less is more...

Conversely, perhaps this means I should delve into the idea deeper and see how rich the story ore is.

Odd, how I never do this kind of vascillating with client projects. Maybe it's that dratted foot stamping that keeps my focus sure.)

The shortlist entries are worth a read. They're all quite individual. Some rely on witty banter. Some on nuance. Some on subtext. Active verbs do their thang. Linking, passive verbs are nowhere to be seen. (Huh. Irony. ::wink, wink; nudge, nudge::) It's fascinating how, when offered unlimited words from which to choose, with a mandate only to reduce word count, each author's unique voice shines through in just six strokes.

I wonder if there is a tipping point where voice would be lost. Five words? Three words? Two? I suspect if one had to tell a "story" in just one word, the word chosen would speak volumes -- if only about the one who chose it.

Congratulations to my fellow finalists. It is an honor to be in your company.

Have a six-word story? Share it below!

*** Update: Imagine my surprise after writing & posting this to receive a note from the lovely contest Grand Poobahs informing me that I had won! I was sitting in Panera, sipping an overly-acidic cup of coffee & chowing down on a chocolate babka when I read the e-mail. "Holy Cow!" I said aloud, though I was alone. Other patrons immediately gave me a wider berth. Anyway, it's always nice to hear one has won something. Here's the official version of the story from Fleeting.  A.H.  

****Update, October, 2013: Fleeting Magazine is officially now "Fleeting Books," a literary consultancy. See Editorial Assistant Charlotte Seymour's comment below. Here's wishing them all the best!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Signs of Trouble...

I took a trip through southern Ohio (aka: The Red State to the East) recently, accompanying my BFF on a cross-country jaunt to a Shire horse dispersal so she wouldn't have to drive 11 hours (there and back) by herself.

We drove into the state -- one I know well, after having traversed it numerous times since I'm a Pennsylvania girl who went to university in Michigan. Plus, one of my best friends lives there. Much of what I've seen of Ohio is:

* Interstate 80. ::snore::

* Cleveland. Both "The Clinic" -- where WunderGuy has gone to visit Veddy Important Brain Doc who knows a lot about brain tumors and is able to say things like "oligodendroglioma" and "resected" to your face without flinching -- and a gi-normous arena where the formerly mentioned friend & I fried our ears at the kickass Bon Jovi "Have a Nice Day" tour.

* Columbus, where said friend lives, and annual Equine Affaire venue.

* US 31. Which includes half of the stoplights and stopsigns in the continental U.S., and which is the only way to get from southwest Michigan to Columbus.

* Kalahari in Sandusky. The site of a wonderful 3-day Thanksgiving weekend where the family went to the waterpark while I sequestered myself away in the room to write the end of my NaNoWriMo novel.


* Geauga Lake in Aurora. The now-defunct amusement park I visited when I was a kidlet.

As we drove across the state line, BFF noted, "Huh. Ohio. I've never been here."

I was stunned. "You're kidding!"

"Well, no," she answered. "Why would I?"

Since she has had no reason to visit Cleveland Clinic, and has never attended Equine Affaire with me, I conceded that she had a point. "It's beautiful," I told her. "Lots of rolling hills and lovely farms."

In addition to a wealth of car-sickness-inducing scenery, we discovered, Ohio also has a much to offer in highway reading.  Giant billboards point the way to "Heini's Cheese Chalet" (I am not making this up. Evidently they have bona-fide awesome cheese.). Other, equally imposing, signs advertise massive green John Deere heavy equipment with the go-get-'em slogan "DRILL, BABY, DRILL!" in 15 foot high letters.

Interspersed along the picturesque literary landscape were signs like this:

No mud this year. Guess the drought affected everyone in different ways.

and this:

I have nothing more to add...
If that ain't a sign of the heartland (or of the Apocalypse), I don't know what is...

Monday, October 01, 2012

Is it Money You Need? Really...?

The publishing world was all atwitter last week at the news that Penguin filed lawsuits with the New York Supreme Court against 12 authors. The publisher charges that the authors in question did not deliver the books they were contracted to write and demands the return of not only the advance for the books, but also a significant chunk of change for "interest" on the monies in question.

Ah, Ben. How I wish we were better acquainted...
In short, Penguin is trying to re-collect over $412,000 of advance money and tacking on an additional $138,500 for interest. Which begs several questions -- not the least of which is where the heck does Penguin invest, and how do I get me some of that action?

This will be interesting to watch play out. On the one hand, I firmly believe that if a writer signs a contract he or she cannot honor, any money advanced for the project in question should be returned. Writers rarely get paid enough for work they have done, let alone get paid for work they haven't. If you want to get paid for NOT doing stuff you said you would do, you should be in another profession. Like politics.

On the other, after extensive searching of my book-writing contracts, I find no mention of any "pay us back with interest" clause which my publisher could invoke if feeling especially pissy.

Oh, sure, there's language that says I'm obligated to turn in Project X that follows certain mutually-agreed-upon parameters and to do so at a mutually-agreed-upon time. Failure on my part would result in my being obligated to return the portion of the advance already paid out. But nowhere does my contract say anything about my responsibility to invest my advance in such a way as to afford my publisher a 20 - 33% return on it.

Every day, I read the blogs and tweets of writers who seem to believe that what they really need is a publisher to throw money at them, which will then make all their dreams come true. (Variations of this theme exist, beginning with "I need an agent" at one end of the spectrum and "When my book makes me rich and famous" at the other, but it is pervasive.)

What these writers don't realize is that book advance money doesn't buy you respectability, talent, or even a career. It merely buys you a little time. Occasionally (Praises be!) it puts food on your table and diapers on your kid's butt. More often, it's earmarked for things like publicity and promotion.

Advance money is a business partnership that makes you contractually obligated to get that book not just done, but done to the publisher's satisfaction. (If ghostwriting, make that "BOTH the expert's AND the publisher's satisfaction.")

It's also -- everyone involved hopes, with fingers crossed and breath bated -- money that will, if put to good use, prime the pump to spur sales so the book earns out its advance, thus (HAPPY DANCE ENSUES) earning both author and publisher more money.

So let me ask you... Right now, as far as your writing career is concerned: Is it money you need?


How would a five-figure advance impact your writing life in a meaningful, positive way? Would it make you take your career more seriously? If so, why? What would a sudden influx of cash allow you to do that you aren't already doing?

Would it make you more productive?

Would it make you more seriously approach growing a solid readership and fan base?

Would it make you write every dang day -- no excuses -- until that manuscript was pitch-perfect?

Would it make you feel validated as a writer? As if you had finally "made it?"

If you're saying Yes! Yes! A thousand times Yes! well butter my behind and call me a biscuit, but that's an awful lot of clout to give to a few pieces paper, innit?

Truth is, lack of money is often a crutch, a widely accepted excuse for not doing what one is perfectly able to do regardless of funding. A five-figure advance -- which includes all of the advances cited in the Penguin lawsuit -- isn't enough for a person to quit his or her day job. It's a nice shot in the arm of liquidity, true. But living advance to advance is still the writer's equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck. Is that what you need?

Lest you misunderstand, I'm all in favor of advances. The bigger the better. Especially those that come on checks with my name written on them. They mean that a publisher has ponied up the dough, put a marketing team on alert, and is joining forces with me to get this book done.

But I'm equally in favor of small (or no) advances. They mean that as soon as the book starts selling, I start collecting royalties immediately instead of waiting for the book to earn out its advance.

I can't speak for all writers, but I don't need money to write a book. I'm perfectly happy to do the work first and then get paid. Big advances don't make me a successful writer any more than big diamonds make a successful marriage. Some of the work that I'm proudest of has earned far less than just fair-to-middling stuff I earned top dollar for.

I'd be a hypocrite if I said I didn't care if I got paid for my work. However, money is not what drives me. I daresay, it's not what drives most writers.

What, pray tell, drives you? What is it you need... really?