Thursday, November 5, 2009

MWPA Online Book Sale

Get your holiday shopping done early!

This year, the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance is hosting their annual Holiday Book Sale online in conjunction with the USM Bookstore. Forty Maine authors are featured, including yours truly, representing a broad selection of children and adult books. Each book purchased will be personalized by the author and shipped to your door in time for the holidays.

The sale runs from now until November 30th.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Don't Take His Word For It

The other day I was editing a scene I had written when I came across a mistake that seemed to have slipped by me a few times. The problem lies in the point of view, which is told in close third person through the eyes of the main character, Ovid. See if you can spot the error:

Ovid’s voice, as he so marvelously discovered after the fact, bounced cleanly in the ceramic box and reverberated the steel in the piercing manner of a tuning fork. The ring momentarily broke the rhythm of the kitchen as all the cooks stopped their work to look up at him. Behind Ovid, the back door clacked against its frame. Curiosity seemed have bested the dishwasher, who was now standing in the doorway, his lips sticky with mango juice.

Did you catch it? If you said “sticky” was the problem, give yourself a big pat on the back. For those of you who aren’t sure why this is a problem, picture yourself in Ovid’s shoes for a minute. The dishwasher walks in with mango juice on his lips. Short of kissing him, how is it that Ovid knows his lips are sticky? Sure, we know from our own mango-eating experiences that mango juice can be sticky, but saying so is making an assumption. Ovid cannot know the dishwasher’s lips are sticky because the word sticky denotes a sense of touch. All Ovid can do is look, so I changed sticky to shiny. Problem solved.

Point of view errors are among the easiest mistakes to make in fiction. Why? As an author, you can easily slip in and out of the heads of all the characters, forgetting that your characters cannot do so with each other (unless, of course, you’re writing sci-fi). Sometimes, the errors are sensory in nature, but more often, they involve thoughts. For example, in an earlier scene, Ovid is crossing a dark parking lot behind the restaurant, trying not to be noticed, when he is spotted by the dishwasher who is taking a break by the back door. How does Ovid know the boy has spotted him? Because he cranes his neck and is looking in the old man’s direction. If you’re not careful, it would be easy to write the following sentence:

The boy recognized Ovid or at least knew about the car. He obviously realized something suspicious was going on.

The above sentence would work fine if I had an omniscient narrator. However, since this is in close third, the lines are a problem because they contain assumptions stated as fact. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with one character guessing what another character is thinking, just be sure to let the reader know that what is being stated is an assumption, not fact. Our perceptions color everything we see, so the character’s conclusions may or may not be correct. Here is a better way to write the above example:

The boy must have recognized Ovid or at the very least knew about the car—knew enough, it seemed, to realize something suspicious was going on.

By using phrases such as “must have” and “it seemed”, we are notifying the reader that the following is merely the character’s perception and must be taken with a grain of salt.

One could say that such distinctions are picky and would largely go unnoticed by the reader, but I would argue that it is precisely these distinctions and careful attention to detail that elevate a work of fiction.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Inspiration of the Moment: Andrew Bird

Saturday night, I had the pleasure of catching the St. Vincent/Andrew Bird concert in Portland. Both performances were fantastic. I’ve been to upwards of a hundred shows in my day, and never have I seen an audience so completely entranced. For three hours, it seemed as though no one hardly moved or breathed or even blinked.

Part of what made Andrew Bird’s set so special was that he was performing solo. With just a violin (and occasionally some guitar) he recorded a series of loops live, on stage, and used a bank of foot pedals to trigger the loops as needed. Layer by layer, he built each song right in front of the audience—perhaps some percussive plucks to start, a few mandolin-like strums over that, then a gorgeous melodic line repeated in two, then three-part harmony. On top of this, he played guitar, whistled, and sang. Spinning behind him was a custom, double-belled-gramophone-shaped Leslie speaker.

There is a nerve-wracking element to creating live loops. Right away, I started thinking, “What if he doesn’t time it right? What’s he going to do?” I found out soon enough. He recorded a loop that ended up being a little too laid back for the song and then just simply stopped, explained the problem, and tried again. There were a few more times throughout the show where he had to re-start--and you know what? It didn’t matter one bit—not to him, not to us. This wasn’t about his ego; this was about making gorgeous music. This is the mark of a true artist. He embodied his art so completely, I started to wonder if he would be able to exist without it.

For those of you who live in Maine, you can catch Andrew Bird and St. Vincent on AUSTIN CITY LIMITS on MPBN, October 28th at 10:00pm. For the rest of you, check out this performance from last year at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Time Traveler's Strife

I want to love ABC’s new drama, FLASHFORWARD. I really do. First, there’s the great cast (Joseph Fiennes! Sonya Walger! The guy from HAROLD & KUMAR! among many others). The premise is irresistible: everyone in the world blacks out for 2 minutes and seventeen seconds. During the blackout, as you can imagine, all kinds of catastrophes take place (plane and car crashes, fires, a large number of people die just falling and hitting their heads) and there are enough explosions and general chaos to make Michael Bay proud. As the story progresses, we learn that during the blackouts, everyone gets a glimpse of their future, six months from now. For some, the glimpse is as mundane as reading the newspaper on the toilet, while for others, it’s earth-shattering: a woman leaves her husband, a sober cop falls off the wagon, a man who sees nothing grapples with the possibility that he will soon be dead.

Cool, right?

The hope here is that FLASHFORWARD will be the next LOST, but I’m having my doubts. Because I’m an intensely curious person and I want to know who is behind the blackouts and why, I keep watching. I’m hanging in there even though much of the dialogue seems lifted from an action movie, even though I feel bad for the actors, who seem so much smarter than the stories they’ve been handed, and despite the fact that the show is constantly three steps behind its audience, when it should be three steps ahead. This story is ripe for a heavy exploration of predeterminism vs. free will, but so far the characters are just moping about, resigned to their various fates.

Writing about the manipulation of time is always dangerous territory. Unlike writing about, say, vampires, who may or may not be allergic to garlic or sunlight or silver, depending on who you ask—we all have a pretty solid opinion on how time works. The writer who chooses to explore time travel must be ruthless in his authority and meticulous in his construction. No matter what his particular theories are about time, the writer must be certain the story adheres to its own internal logic. He must be on constant lookout for anachronisms and inconsistencies. Even a small slip-up and the audience will be unable to suspend their disbelief.

One of the difficulties FLASHFORWARD has is that the story takes place in a framework of an otherwise normal world. The characters inhabit a world like ours, in present day, with lives just like ours. Except for the blackouts, these characters adhere to rules and logic not unlike our own. This makes any sort of reach into the fantastical a bit harder to swallow. When we put ourselves in the characters’ shoes, we have less tolerance for their inaction. The world they are in we know well—and we also know what they need to do about it.

LOST, on the other hand, beautifully side-steps these problems because it takes place in a world that below the surface resembles nothing of ours: smoke monsters, moving islands, immortal characters—just for starters. The world of LOST is so fully imagined that once you throw a little time travel and precognition into the mix, no one hardly notices. We’ve already bought into that fantastical world and are ready to accept whatever the writers give us.

I’m hoping that FLASHFORWARD will eventually take its cue from LOST and start creating its own world. Something that leads us to believe this is a well-thought out story and not a hapless rip-off. There are a few hints that the show might take that direction—misplaced wild animals, hidden codes, people immune to the blackouts, etc. So, for the time being, my curiosity has the best of me. That, plus it's a lot of fun to yell at the TV.

Now, if only they could do something about that overwrought dialogue…

Friday, September 25, 2009

That Old Fiction Magic

Now that the kids are back in school, I’m hoping to get back into the blogging groove. Friday, I was called for jury duty which, along with instilling me with a feeling of civic pride, gave me time to delve into THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC, the latest novel by Richard Russo.

For those of you who don’t know, Russo was one of my writing professors at Colby (along with Jennifer Finney Boylan). Both taught me everything I know about writing. Russo brought a sense of humility and respect to the classroom, taught us never to be genre snobs, and always found something genuinely kind to say about everyone’s work. Later, when I was trying to sell my manuscript for THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, Russo took the time to help me with the process, even though by then he had already won the Pulitzer Prize for EMPIRE FALLS everyone and their uncle wanted a piece of him.

One of the things I’ve loved most about Russo’s novels, and have tried my best to emulate in my own writing, is his good, old-fashioned storytelling. His works are epic and cozy at the same time. When you crack open one of his books, you can almost feel him sitting beside you, saying, “Hey, listen. I’ve got this great story to tell you…” Russo fans know what I’m talking about, but for the uninitiated, I recommend starting with THE RISK POOL, NOBODY’S FOOL, or EMPIRE FALLS.

THAT OLD CAPE MAGIC seems promising so far, too, with Russo’s humor in top form.

I’m happy to say that as far as my new novel goes, it’s finally starting to take off. How do I know? I was in the middle of writing a scene the other day—a scene that was about to end with my main character making a specific choice—and out of the blue, my character did the complete opposite of what I wanted him to do! Cheeky bugger! His action was so strong and so surprising to me that I had no choice but to follow. What grew out of his choice was something suspenseful and funny, something I don’t think I would have come up with on my own. It’s moments like these that make the writing process so fun. It makes me feel like I’m the Blue Fairy and my character is Pinocchio—he now has a life of his own. I can’t wait to see where he takes me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three Looks at the Publishing Business

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Bowdoin College to a group of teenagers who are participating in the Upward Bound program this summer. I have to say I these young people really impressed me—they were so much more savvy than I ever was at their age. Most seemed interested in the writing aspect of the publishing business, but I gave them a very quick overview of different career options within the industry. And then I thought, “Gee this might make a good post.” So if you know you’d like to be involved in publishing but you don’t know exactly what you’d like to do, this post is for you.

Even if you do know what you want to do, read it anway. Nothing wrong with a little refresher.

This is a very simplistic breakdown of the three major career options available to you in book publishing. It by no means encompasses all the options, but it gives you a good breakdown of the general categories and what they entail.


Pros: You are the reason this industry exists. As a writer, you have the freedom to create a story or a work of nonfiction on any topic you choose, in any style you choose. The work is deeply satisfying and can give you the freedom to live the kind of lifestyle you want. You are self-employed and can live anywhere. There are no start-up costs for your business, only a pen and paper. There is no limit to the amount of money you can make. You can be famous, yet move about with anonymity. A good portion of your job involves travel and meeting interesting people. You get to experience the great thrill of seeing your words in print or your story come alive on the big screen.

Cons: Your success is not solely dependent on how hard you work—a lot of it has to do with luck and timing. Writing is hard, lonely work without any guarantees. Publishing is a slow business and it can take a long time to be paid and to see your book in print. While some writers make enough to sustain themselves, most do not make enough to live solely on their writing income, which makes another job necessary. Those who do support themselves have to grapple with the high cost of health insurance. Most writers do not become famous or receive much recognition. A good portion of your job involves travel, but usually not to glamorous destinations.


Pros: If you want to get rich, an agent is what you want to be. You have the satisfaction of discovering new talent and managing your clients throughout their careers. You work with authors and editors. Socializing is a big part of your job—you’re on the phone most of the day and have lots of lunch meetings. Invitations to all kinds of parties and events allow you to rub elbows with famous people. You will most likely have to travel a few times a year to the big book fairs, like Frankfurt, and to some writers’ conferences, like Maui, if you so choose.

Cons: Odds are, if you really want to be successful, you’ll have to live in New York (or at least live within commutable distance in Connecticut or New Jersey). Agents work long hours and have a never-ending flood of manuscripts to look at. Their clients can be eccentric and demanding, and often require a lot of hand-holding and ego-stroking. You have to have a fair grasp of legal matters and accounting, and should a disagreement happen between the author and the editor, you will have to play mediator. It can take a long time to build the necessary contacts and client list needed to be a successful agent. If you work for an agency, the company takes a portion of all your commissions.


(There are many kinds of editors—this is your run-of-the-mill book editor.)

Pros: As an editor, you get to play literary Indiana Jones, looking for The Holy Grail of books. You meet with agents regularly and sift through piles and piles (and piles) of ho-hum manuscripts until you find that one jewel that excites you so much, you just know it’s going to be The Next Big Thing. You find great satisfaction in discovering new talent and using your creativity to bring out the best in an author. As an editor, your work has a nice mix of quiet time and socializing. There are many opportunities for parties and lunches, and travel is a big component of your job. A good editor will travel often and have many opportunities to meet famous people. If you do your job well, the climb up the corporate ladder can be relatively quick.

Cons: Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Your life is one big deadline. You work long hours and rarely take vacations. The pay can be low, at least to start. It can take a long time to prove your worth as an editor, i.e. bring in a bestselling or well-respected book. The job requires you to be exceedingly well-rounded; social yet disciplined, literary yet extroverted, creative yet practical. You must learn how to get your points across to sensitive authors without stepping on their toes. In addition to working with authors, you have to coordinate deadlines across many departments in-house (sales, marketing, design, etc), which means that many variables are out of your control, yet still your responsibility. If anything goes wrong, you will bear the brunt of the author’s anger. Nearly all the big houses are located in New York.

Other Options

If you decide to explore the editorial side of publishing, you’ll quickly discover that there are many opportunities: sales, publicity, book design, copy writing and fact checking, just to name a few.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Multi-Book Deal: Is It Worth It?

Just imagine: an editor is so in love with your work that he wants to not only buy your manuscript, but he wants your next book, too. And it hasn’t even been written yet. Ahhhh….this is the stuff that aspiring writers dream of –the multi-book deal. But are these deals all they’re cracked up to be? I’m not sure first-time authors understand all that they’re getting into with these deals, for better or worse. Here are some things to consider before you sign on the dotted line.

Money, Money, Money
One of the best things about multi-book deals is that you get a higher advance than if you sold just one book, right? Well, sort of. Publishers sometimes use the multi-book deal to buy two books at a discount. For example, if you sold only one book, they might pay $10,000, but instead they offer $15,000 for two. That’s only $7,500 each.

One way to look at this is to say that if you take the multi-book contract you are guaranteed $15,000—which is $5,000 above the hypothetical single book offer. If your first book ends up tanking, this might not be a bad deal. It might be hard finding a publisher who will pay you $5,000 the second time around.

On the other hand, what happens if your first book becomes a runaway bestseller? In the case of the multi-book contract, you’d be on the losing end of the deal to some extent. If you had signed a one-book contract and the book made millions, you’d be virtually guaranteed a huge advance for your second book. Alas, if you signed the two-book deal, your advance would remain the previously agreed-upon $7,500 and the terms would remain at the newbie author level, instead of reflecting your status as a bestseller. You can take some comfort, however, in knowing that you’ll be rolling in royalties.

Creative Accounting
Multi-book contracts are accounted for a little differently than one-book contracts. This can occasionally work to your advantage, though often it doesn’t. The first way it works against you is in the payout. For those of you who are new to the world of advances, it’s important to know that publishers do not pay your advance in one lump sum. Instead, it is divided into installments. Here’s a typical payment schedule for a $10,000 advance:

      $3,333 on signing of the contract (which is paid immediately)
      $3,333 on delivery & acceptance of the complete manuscript (several months down    the road)
      $3,334 on publication of the book (maybe a year or two later)

Now here’s the payment schedule for the two-book contract described above, with an advance of $15,000:

      $5,000 on signing of the contract
      $2,500 on delivery & acceptance of the complete manuscript of book #1
      $2,500 on publication of book #1
      $2,500 on the delivery & acceptance of the complete manuscript of book #2
      $2,500 on the publication of book #2

In this scenario, you’re getting slightly more on signing, but your payouts are smaller. Considering how long it takes to write and publish a book (let alone two), it could be several years before you see the final two payments.

Another form of creative accounting in multi-book contracts has to do with royalties. Since the books were sold together they are accounted for together, which is called basketing. This means that all earnings are bundled together and treated as one unit.

For example, let’s say that your first book does well and you earn $8,500 in sales on your statement. If this was a single-book contract with an advance of $7,500, you would earn out your advance and be paid the excess $1,000 in royalties. In a multi-book deal, however, that extra $1,000 gets applied to the $7,500 advance for book two, instead. You will have to earn out the remaining $6,500 on that advance before you see a dime in royalties. As you can see, if you have a contract for many books it will take you damn near forever before you start to see some royalties.

You’re On the Clock
Before entering into a multi-book deal, it’s important to carefully and realistically examine the delivery schedule of your manuscripts. The publisher will want a deadline commitment and you’ll want to be sure you’re not getting in over your head. Committing to a schedule is a great motivator for many of us creative types and can work very well if you already have a completed outline or first draft of your next book. But if you don’t know what your next book is going to be, proceed with caution. Negotiate for as much time as possible. Beware that if you are unable to deliver your manuscript as promised, you may be asked to return that portion of the advance. Usually, by the time this happens, the money is long gone.

Job Security: The Good News and the Bad News
One of the best aspects of a multi-book deal is that you have the security of knowing when your publishing home is for the next several books. You’ll develop solid relationships within the company and you’ll have a chance to prove yourself if your first book isn’t a hit right out of the starting gate.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is you might hate your publisher. You might discover early on that you don’t click with your editor, there is too much politics, promises aren’t kept, your promotion is nil. In this case, you’re stuck through the next several books.

So Is a Multi-Book Deal Worth It?
That depends on you. If you’re a first-time author it’s hard to say no to any offer that comes your way. If you’re dealing with a good, solid publisher, then by all means take the deal—being aware of the pitfalls. Well-seasoned authors have greater options and the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks. Either way, it’s important to thoroughly understand any contract before you sign.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Understanding Your Royalty Statement—Part II

As I mentioned before, royalty statements can be confusing to read, but it’s in your best interest to become familiar with them. In general, the larger the publishing house, the more confusing the statement. On the other hand, big publishing houses also give more information, which can be helpful. Because statements vary so much, you may or may not find some of the elements I’m about to discuss. Know that if you ever have any questions about your statement, your agent or editor will be happy to help you make sense of it.

Know Your Editions

Most books are published in several different forms, so you will often find separate listings for each edition of the book. For example, we’re all familiar with the hardcover and paperback editions. Did you know, however, that paperbacks are divided into two categories? There are the fancy, larger-sized, more literary-looking trade paperbacks and then there are the cheaper, drugstore variety mass market paperbacks. Most hardcover books become one or the other, unless you’re a mega-bestseller, in which case you might become both.

Other editions you might find on your statement are library editions, large-print, electronic, and audio books. Your publisher may or may not control the rights to these editions (look at your contract to know) so you may or not find them on your statement. If, for instance, your agent sold the audio rights to another company, you can expect to receive a separate statement from that company.

Check the Contract

When you receive your first royalty statement, it’s important to have your contract open and to compare the details with those on the statement. Is the pub date correct? Is the advance correct? Do they list the correct royalty payout (very important)? Is the retail price correct? If any of these numbers are off, it will affect your bottom line.

Units Vs. Earnings

Your sales are represented in two ways: units and earnings. Units are the number of books sold and earnings are your monetary share of those sales. For example, if you sell 100 books at $20 each and your royalty is 10% of sales, your earnings are $200 (100 x 20 x .10 = 200). Therefore, under the heading “Units” you’ll see 100 and under “Earnings” you’ll see $200.

On your first few statements, the number of units sold will be a pretty decent number. DON’T GET EXCITED JUST YET. Now is not the time buy a boat or head to the nearest watering hole and buy everyone a round of drinks. The units sold on your statement is actually the number of books purchased BY BOOKSTORES and not by consumers. For example, a Barnes & Noble might say, “Sure this looks like a good book—we’ll put five copies in each store.” This purchase is what you see on your statement. The catch is that if Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell those copies, they have the option of returning them to the publisher for a refund. This is why your publisher will occasional hold back a percentage of sales, called a “Reserve for Returns” until a certain amount of time has passed (more on this here). For the first several royalty statements, you’ll see all kinds of sales, and then after a few accounting periods have gone by the returns will kick in and you’ll start to see negative units (unless, of course, you’re Stephenie Meyer). It’s a discouraging sight, but take heart—it happens to most authors.

As far as earnings go, it’s important to remember that just because there were sales, it doesn’t mean you’ll be seeing a fat check anytime soon, due to that pesky thing called an advance. Advance is short terminology for “Advance Payment Against Royalties,” meaning you won’t see a penny of your royalties until you “earn back” your advance. Any amount above the advance is your true royalty. The nice thing about an advance though, is that you get the money up front and if you fail to earn enough to equal your advance (also known as “earning out”) you still get to keep it.

Be Aware of Escalations

Many contracts contain different royalty percentages, depending on sales. For example, the publisher might agree to pay you 10% of sales for the first 10,000 copies sold, 12% for the next 10,000, and 15% thereafter. This is called an escalation. If your contract contains an escalation, it is very important you pay attention to the number of units sold, and that the royalty percentages escalate properly.

Cumulative Units and Earnings

The cumulative columns are the most important part of your statement. This is where you’re going to find mistakes, if there are any. The cumulative columns show the total units sold to date and the total earnings to date.

This is where you need to do a little math. When you receive your second royalty statement, add the units sold with the units from the first statement and make sure it agrees with the cumulative units on the second statement. Do the same with the earnings. If you have an unearned balance from your advance, you’ll also want to subtract cumulative earnings from the initial advance to make sure the balance is correct. It sometimes helps to keep a small ledger of just statement dates and unearned balance amounts, since this is the most important number to know.

Next Time--The Multi-Book Contract: Is It Worth It?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I've Changed My Mind--I'm Going With Harper Lee

Before I get to explaining how to read a royalty statement (which I keep putting off because, let's face it, it's not the most interesting topic to write about) I thought you might be interested in hearing this interview with James Patterson that I heard on NPR last night, where he describes his writing process. Since the process seems to involve more editing than actual writing, I'm changing my answer to Harper Lee.

That said, Patterson has a point. Artists have been taking their concepts and hiring them out to others to execute for years. Take Jeff Koons, for example. Patterson argues that people have a hard time accepting when a writer does this (though they shouldn't because it happens all the time, whether readers are aware of it or not).

We could argue all day whether Patterson and Koons are producing real art or pure product, whether there is a difference between hiring someone to craft a sculpture or a paperback, whether you can truly call yourself the creator of a piece of art if you have a hand only in the concept but not the execution. I will say, however, that when you choose to skip the actual process, something is lost in both the art and the artist.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Understanding Your Royalty Statment--Part I

This has been a long time coming. In fact, I’ve been wanting to cover this topic ever since I started this blog—over a year ago—but I kept putting it off. For those of you who don’t know, I spent many of my formative years in New York City, working in the accounting department of a literary agency. A big part of my job (aside from chasing down info from my famous co-workers, storing old documents in the rodent-filled basement, and eating copious amounts of take-out Indian food at lunch) was auditing unearned royalty statements. And yes, we found mistakes. Lots of them.

If you have an agent, the accounting department of your agency will likely be scanning your statements for errors (reason #812 to have an agent). If you don’t have an agent, you’ll need to be looking for errors yourself. Either way, it behooves every author to know how to read a statement and check for errors. Far too many of us right-brained authors are at a total loss when it comes to the business side of things and it’s crucial that we keep ourselves informed. Sure, reading royalty statements is about as much fun as filing taxes, but it doesn’t have to be painful. So open that desk drawer, dig out those unread statements, and let’s have a look, shall we?

The first thing you need to know is that most royalties are reported twice a year. It used to be that all the major publishers reported at the same time, but now the dates are spread out and every house has its own timetable. To find out when your statement is reported, look at the top of the statement. It should say “For Period Ending __________”.

Let’s say your statement says, “For Period Ending June 30, 2009”. Just because the accounting is finished on this date, it doesn’t mean the statement will make its way to you anytime soon. It can take as long as three months for the publisher to compile, print, and send out the report. So that statement for the period ending June 30th won’t make it to you or your agent until the end of September. If you have an agent, you can add at least another month for processing, meaning you might see it in October or November. It might feel like everyone’s sitting on your statement, trying to make the wait as long as possible, but I can assure you that a lot of work goes into getting the statements out to every author. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that at royalty time, my colleagues and I in the accounting office were surrounded by foot-high stacks of statements, covering every available surface. Be patient; you will get your statement.

There is one quirky instance, however, when you can wait up to a year for your first royalty statement. This happens when the release date of your book falls close to the end of an accounting period. Let’s say then that your book comes out in mid-June and the publisher’s accounting period ends June 30th. The publisher will, most likely, not issue a royalty statement because there isn’t any data to go on. In that case, your first statement will be for the period ending December 31st. Add in the usual four-month wait time for processing and you’re already at the end of April—nearly a year since the release of your book.

So you finally have your statement—now what? We’ll delve into the meaning of those numbers on the next post.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oprah Vs. James Frey

In old news...

According to this article in TIME magazine, Oprah has apologized for ripping James Frey up one side and down the other on national TV. Unfortunately, the damage has been done. Too bad she chastised him in public and apologized in private--it should have been the other way around.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Breaking the Rules

One of the things I love about starting a new creative pursuit is that it has a way of informing all your other endeavors. For example, I was recently thumbing through my brand-new copy of BEND THE RULES SEWING by Amy Karol, when I came across this little nugget of advice in chapter one:

“You have to be good enough to know when you can bend the rules.”

This reminded me of something I’d read in Molly Wizenberg’s cookbook/memoir A HOMEMADE LIFE a few weeks ago. When trying a new recipe, her mother urges her to follow the instructions to the letter the first time through. After she has prepared the dish the intended way, she is free to improvise the next time. This way, she can have a better understanding of how all the components work together if she should choose to improvise the second time around.

These two anecdotes, of course, made me think of fiction writing. I’m all for breaking the rules, but you need to know what you’re doing in order to break them. I’m sure most people would agree with this statement. But let’s take this thought a bit further…is there a limit to how rules you can break at once?

A few weeks ago, I probably would have said no. It’s kind of silly to have a rule about breaking the rules, right? But then I saw Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and I started to have a change of heart.

(Forgive me on commenting on such an old movie. Long gone are the days when I used to see one or two movies a week. Sadly, the last movie I saw in a theatre was WALL-E. )

The movie, which received excellent reviews and earned Penelope Cruz an Academy Award, starts breaking rules right from the first scene and continues throughout the movie. All along the way, broken rules start to pile-up like roadkill on the highway: the story is propelled by an omniscient voice-over narration rather than by the characters themselves; major events happen off-screen; there is little conflict, and the conflict that exists is short-lived and easily resolved; a major character is introduced late in the story; clich├ęs abound in both story and stereotypes; in the end, the major characters return to their normal lives unchanged…just to name a few.

There were so many broken rules, I started to wonder if Woody Allen had written the movie as an intentional exercise in rule-breaking rather than focusing on making a good story. I mean, the guy knows what he’s doing and he’s broken rules forever, but this time the result felt overwhelmingly shallow. The movie received such glowing praise that I’m in the minority here, but it left me thinking that rules are best broken in moderation. There’s something admirable in going for broke, but sticking to a few rules while breaking others might be necessary to give your experimentation some legitimacy.

Perhaps I’m just generalizing based on a mediocre movie—but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there a limit to how many rules you should break at the same time?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert On Creative Fear

First, I want to send a hearty congratulations to my fellow Mainer, Elizabeth Strout, who has just won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories, entitled OLIVE KITTERIDGE. This brings our state's grand total of Pulitzer Prize winners to around four or five. Not bad for a small, rural state.

My dear friend Bonnie sent me this link to a video of Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of the wildly successful EAT, PRAY, LOVE) talking about creativity and fear. She also addresses the problems related to writing a follow-up to a huge bestseller, which made me think back to the old Lee vs. Patterson debate. The video is about 20 minutes long and I highly recommend you take a look.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For Word Nerds

In this chilly little part of the world, spring has finally arrived. The crocuses are in bloom and the winter blues have melted with the snow. Time for yard work, digging in the garden, and finding creative inspiration in nature. I've found tiny leaves of rhubarb unfurling in my patch, and a tuft of chives in the herb garden. All that potential energy is so exciting--like when a story is burning inside you but you have yet to sit down and write the first word. Anything feels possible.

Speaking of writing...yesterday was the 50th anniversary of that ubiquitous grammar manual, Strunk & White's THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Author Marc Acito pays a hilarious tribute to the book on NPR's All Things Considered, which you can listen to here.

Enjoy the weekend.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

American Idol Redux (Or, How Not to Get a Big Head)

Here I am, blogging about American Idol again. I can’t help it. There’s so much the show has to teach us about being artists—maybe I should do a whole series of posts on what we can learn from watching this bit of reality fluff.

Last time, I wrote about how important it is to learn how to handle criticism well. The focus was mainly on negative criticism, but as I’ve been watching the show this season, it’s occurred to me that we need to talk about handling praise, too.

If you’ve ever watched the show, you’ll know that when a contestant stands before the judges after his performance, one of two things will happen: he’ll be praised or criticized. If he’s praised, the contestant will often sigh with relief, throw this head back, and close his eyes as if to say, I’m good, I’m really good—even Simon thinks so! The crowd will cheer, affirming that this praise is the gospel truth. If he’s criticized, he’ll make excuses, become defensive, or declare it is “simply the judges’ opinion” and the crowd will boo. Apparently, if the comments are negative, they can’t be true.

Where does this attitude that praise is always true and criticism isn’t come from? As I mentioned before, automatically dismissing negative criticism is harmful to artists, who should always be striving to improve their craft. What may be even more harmful, though, is believing every nice thing said about you.

Now, I’m all for self-confidence—you can’t send your art into the world without having true faith in yourself—but I am against believing your own hype. Everyone in the entertainment industry, from movie producers to publishers, is always on the lookout for the next BIG thing. They want it so badly that when they find a project they really love, they hype it to the high heavens, sometimes forgetting that there is a person attached to this project who might be getting their hopes up.

This happens to new writers all the time. You sell your book to a publishing house and suddenly your agent and your editor are telling you about all the important people who loved your book. They tell you about the movie scouts who called. They tell you about the foreign publishers who are lined up to buy it and all the marketing campaigns that are planned. There is loose talk about trips, tours, TV shows. Oprah. Awards. Soon, the reviews come in and you’re compared to Mark Twain or Charles Dickens.

And it this point it would be so, so easy to sit back and think “I’ve made it.” For a few, this will be the case. For most, it won’t. And while your agent and editor were genuine in their excitement, neither one has the power to control the market nor the ability to know just what will strike a chord with the reading public. Sadly, if you’ve bought into all the grand predictions and none of them pan out, you’ll end up feeling like a failure, when you’re nothing of the sort.

Or maybe all the predictions hold true and you become a superstar. Wonderful. But be on guard—the moment you begin to believe the hype, you’ll be in danger of becoming complacent and your work will suffer.

A few years ago I had the terrific opportunity to sign copies of my book at Book Expo America. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to be sitting only a few booths away from people I’ve long admired—Michael Cunningham, Spike Lee, Bill Maher. There were posters and stacks of post cards with the cover of my book on them and a long line of people who wanted to get a copy. I did a reading, a phone interview, met some of my foreign publishers. At night I collapsed in my hotel room overlooking Central Park and in the morning I woke up to room service. I was in heaven.

But after a few days, I have to say that I was starting to get a little sick of myself. All that praise and special attention was addictive, but it was also beginning to ring a little hollow. And here I was, just a first-time novelist. I could only imagine what it felt like to be a true celebrity, when people licked your boots all day, every day.

At the end of my trip, at a special dinner thrown by my publisher, I asked my college mentor, Richard Russo, how he handled praise. He’s certainly had his share, especially after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel EMPIRE FALLS. In answer to my question, he pointed to his wife, saying that she helped keep him steady. He also said that no matter who you are, there will inevitably come a time when people won’t talk about you anymore—or at least not as much as they did—and if you aren’t secure in yourself, you risk falling apart.

It seems to me that when it comes to praise and criticism, it’s important to keep a certain baseline of confidence that holds steady in the face of scathing reviews or spectacular praise. Any comment thrown your way should be received with proper perspective and a little distance. Remember that the work is being judged, not you. Your value as a person has nothing to do with your level of fame or talent, and cannot be altered even if you become a giant success or spectacular failure.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Harper Lee vs. James Patterson

This is my sixth day of being stuck in a house full of sick people—bad colds for my husband and me, pneumonia for my little girls. Nothing serious, thank goodness, just a lot of fevers and runny noses and cranky moods all around. And ramen noodles. Loads of them. Even though I’m sleep-deprived, I thought I’d attempt a post anyway, since it beats watching yet another kids’ movie. So forgive me if the following is a bit pointless—it’s the best I can conjure under the circumstances.

A few years ago, when I spoke with a group of high school students who had read my novel, one young man posed an interesting question: “If you had the choice of having the career of Harper Lee or James Patterson, which would you choose?”

It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer. On one hand we have Lee, whose only novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, so elegantly written yet politically powerful, has become a staple of the literary canon. On the other, we have the wildly popular and prolific Patterson, a mainstay of the bestseller lists. I can see the battle lines being drawn right now—literary writers for Lee and genre writers for Patterson. But let’s not kid ourselves. Every literary writer secretly hopes for popularity and every bestselling author yearns for respect. Unfortunately, the two intersect only for a very lucky few.

So, which is better—critical acclaim or popularity? In a way, it’s a moot question since both are largely out of one’s control. Getting reviewed at all (let alone getting a favorable review) is often a function of economics, taste, and dumb luck. Popularity is largely a function of timing and dumb luck, though an author with a great deal of savvy and excellent resources can affect this somewhat. Sustaining one’s critical acclaim or popularity over time is another story. Lee’s book remains one of the best American novels because it lives up to the hype. Patterson still reigns over the bestseller lists because he consistently delivers gripping stories. So while it’s easy to play the literary snob and say Lee, Patterson also deserves some respect.

The key to this question, for me, was the number of books each writer produced. Although I would love nothing more to create a work with lasting impact, the idea of writing only one novel in the course of a lifetime seems, well, a bit depressing to me. Creating a single masterpiece makes you a god forever, but it also leads a void, where everyone (including you) wonders what else you could have done.

So, to my surprise, my answer was Patterson. Not because I care about sales over quality, but because I want writing to be my lifelong career, and not just a brilliant spark that burns out too soon.

It’s funny, though. Even now, I keep asking myself if that was the right answer.