Tag Archives: getting published

On Fiction Writing Rules

The conversation was about the “rules.” Mr. McGrumpypants insisted that he knew what agents and editors wanted, despite having never actually landed an agent, and having only been “edited” by a very, very small press publisher who went out of business shortly thereafter, and many years later by a one-man shop “e-book publisher.”  In spite of  his extremely dismal sales numbers, he was quite adamant that his ability to have “sold” to a “publisher” gave him special insight that all others lacked, and if we’d only read Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. we’d be enlightened and as successful as he.

The above took place on a forum in one my old haunts — an online writer’s community filled mostly with those desperate for publication. I found the same “debate” raging as when I left months before. Except it wasn’t exactly a debate, since all but one old sourpuss seemed to be in agreement.

I don’t claim to know what anyone wants. I’ve never landed an agent despite several “full manuscript requests” for Loisaida — A New York Story.  I know a few people who found agents who were enthusiastic about their work, but failed to sell it to editors. So apparently even those gatekeepers don’t always know what editors want.

I should know more. I have one of those MFA’s, but  I’ll tell you a dirty secret — at least back in the 1980’s when I got it, we almost never talked about publishing though we probably should have. That was at Sarah Lawrence. I’m pretty sure they were talking about publication at Columbia.

The truth is at this particular moment in publishing history, as I wrote months ago, “nobody knows anything.” Bookstores are closing, even the big chains that not so long ago devoured the independents. Some legitimately published writers like Stephen Leather are choosing Kindle to self-publish their old titles and the ones their agent couldn’t use. The success of a purely “indie” author like  Amanda Hocking is a shock to the system. Yet, yesterday I read a story of a first novel being published by a major house. It read like a fairytale, and was enough of an anomaly to make it to the pages of The New York Times, but is it sign that good books will always find a way?

As a reader, I know what I like. What I like isn’t formulaic. It bends and breaks “the rules” and does so with such grace that the writer makes it look as natural as Fred Astaire’s dancing.

As a reader who’s also a writer, it gives me a thrill to see the risks great writers take in their storytelling especially around “point of view” and “backstory.” Think of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with a man about to be shot by a firing squad, remembering an incident from his childhood. Then we go into the “backstory” including the lives of several characters besides the man in front of the firing squad, and we don’t get back to the firing squad for another 200 pages or so.

More recently, Jonathon Franzen, pulls off a similar trick with Freedom which starts off with a distant narrator telling a story about some neighbors who moved away long ago and were recently involved in a “scandal” which we don’t get any details about. We then go back twenty years or so to when they first moved into the neighborhood. Later we go further into the past and then up to the present with shifting points of view including a journal in which the first person narrator refers to herself in the third person. Neat trick, that. We don’t find out about the “scandal” till around the last quarter of the book.

Then there’s James Hynes, whose novel Next almost stopped my heart. It’s a close third-person tale. The story itself takes place over the span of a single day. A man travels from one city to another for a job interview. We are privy not only to what occurs in real time, but his thoughts and memories. You know the rule about avoiding “info dumps” or “too much backstory?”  This is almost all “backstory” and it’s riveting. And while its ending is perfection, I can easily imagine an editor rejecting it for not being “upbeat.”

Warning: The following statements are purely the opinion of the blogger, and may not lead you to find an agent or write a bestseller. The following “advice” is meant for writers interested in honing their craft for non-commercial purposes:

I’m not advising that untested writers attempt the trickiest ways to tell a story, but I am suggesting to think more of guidelines than rules and not to be afraid to drive off road for a while. Even a failed experiment might teach you something, or yield unexpected results.

Writing guidelines can be simple and should be aimed at keeping the story moving. As Elmore Leonard helpfully suggests, “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” I would humbly add that most of us may need readers to tell us what those parts are, so its a good idea to  have some workshop buddies, or others whose reading skills we respect, who are willing to be honest with us, and it’s a good idea for all of us to be open to critique.

This brings me back to Sarah Lawrence, and one day in a writing workshop taught by the late great Grace Paley. There was a conversation about the short-hand “rules,” like  “show don’t tell,” which Paley joked she sometimes turned around. Someone brought up, “write what you know.” Paley replied that if you only wrote what you already knew, it would be boring, and then she stated the one rule that I always attempt to follow, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”

To Serve Writers

I was over snooping around some aspiring writers’ site and it hit me.  People pay big bucks to get opinions on their work.  Back in my Authonomy days, I heard of writers spending hundreds of dollars for “critiques” by professional editing services.  One author published her critique, which basically advised her to dumb it down and sex it up.

Meantime, other writers at that site (owned an operated by Harper Collins UK, a Rupert Murdoch joint), spend an incredible amount of time trying to make it to the “Editor’s Desk” to get some junior editor’s review.  They don’t have to pay anything to get those reviews, but it means clawing your way to the top of a virtual slush pile by reading and often praising other people’s work.  If you calculate labor, it would be cheaper to just pay a freelance editor — though getting the opinion of an “authentic” but anonymous industry “insider” has a definite appeal.  Often what the editor has to say is not so different from what the more honest readers have been pointing out all along.  In some cases, it’s just plan wrong.  (HC panned and turned down at least one romance/mystery that’s been a bestseller in UK’s Kindle store for months and garnered much critical praise.)

Other aspirants pay hundreds for reviews by Kirkus Indies (formerly, Kirkus Discovery).  For $425, or $575 if you want shorter than a 7-9 week turnaround, someone whose name and qualifications you’ll never know will write an “official” review of your tome.  This isn’t exactly like hiring Michoko Kakutani to do the job.  But then again, why would you want to?  The idea behind Kirkus is that if it’s a good review. you can use it as part of your publicity if you self-publish.  People might mistake it for a “genuine” Kirkus review which will boost your sales because they have so much integrity.  They are now apparently working with Amazon’s Create Space to sell this awesome service.  If  the review stinks, you don’t have to publish it, and could theoretically use the critique to make changes or just take up origami or something.

Of course there are other options — creative writing workshops abound and are even available online if you live out in the boonies.  Most community colleges offer classes at reasonable rates.  Things being what they are, these classes may be taught by  “real” published authors.  This would be the best way to go if you’ve never taken a class or haven’t written in a long time, though not all published writers are decent teachers, and your classmates may or may not offer useful feedback.

Some people wind up throwing money away, falling for some slick ad, and going to an “editor” with nefarious credentials.  This might cost thousands.  And despite the “self-publishing revolution”, there are still all sorts making money off the desperate through “author services,” and “subsidized publishing.  Fake agents lurk all over the Internet and publishers who promise that you’ll “never” pay a dime will still somehow extract a few thousand before they’re done.  Best to check out all offers first!

So here’s my pitch.  I have one of those useless MFA’s degrees.  I was “real” published long ago, once.  I’ve taught writing.  I even  had a story edited for publication by an infamous and controversial professional editor.  (His method was basically to  cut the vital organs out of any story that came his way.)  I’m now a member of a collective of “independently published” rogue writers; some of whom are extremely talented (though I make no claims for myself).

I could use some money and I’ll undercut Kirkus and other services.  So how’s this:  I have no publishing connections and don’t work in the industry.  I can’t get my own work agented.   I can critique your work and give you an honest opinion on  plot, pacing, dialogue, writing mechanics and all that jazz.  You couldn’t pay me enough to actually proofread or edit it, but I can offer some tips and tell you whether or not you’re anywhere near ready to even go to an editor.  I can also tell you whether or not I found it compelling.  Believe it or not, the MOST likely reason an agent is going to reject your work, is simply because he or she found it boring.

I won’t promise you that if you do everything I say, you’ll get a contract.  The sad news is, you probably won’t get your novel published (by someone who isn’t you) unless you know someone or made sure to include vampires, zombies or  some kind of Jane Austen parody involving paranormal romance, or unless you’re a celebrity.  If you’re a celebrity, I’ll tell you the truth, which is more than you’re getting from your sycophantic assistant, but I’ll charge you double because you’re worth it, and you wouldn’t believe me if you thought I was cut-rate.

I can tell you if what you wrote is amazing, ordinary or embarrassing.  I could be wrong.  Most likely I am.   It’s entirely possible that you are a genius, and I just didn’t understand your work.  But then again, who am I anyway?  If I don’t like what I tell you,  you can always tell people that I’m a fraud and an idiot.

So let’s say $200 for a five-page crit of up to 300 double-spaced manuscript pages, and  $50 for each additional 100 pages (pro-rated).  Payable through Paypal with a 2-week turnaround.  (Add 20%  for rush jobs.)  Just respond with a comment if you’re interested.  I’ll be waiting to take your money.

There’s More to Publishing Than In Jonathan Galassi’s Recent Op-Ed

In a New York Times opinion piece, There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen, (1/3/10), Jonathan Galassi — President of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, writes of the decision by the heirs of William Stryon’s estate to put out e-book versions of the author’s work. Galassi wonders whether e-books are “a new frontier in publishing” or “simply the latest edition of the books produced by publishers like Random House.”

He points to the contributions made by traditional publishers in creating the finished product that goes to the public. In addition to marketing, design and layout, Galassi speaks of the role of editors in making sure that the final version of a book is the best that it can be.

Galassi does not discuss the other important role of traditional publishers. They have been the gatekeepers, not only ensuring that no book would bare their imprint before it was ready, but that any book with their stamp would be one worth reading. Publishers could be depended upon to bring us new and interesting authors, and beyond that to expand the very foundations of literature.

But the publishing industry abandoned these tasks long before e-books came on to the scene.

Any visit to a bookstore will show that nowadays it’s only name brand best selling authors and celebrity writers getting onto store shelves. If William Styron were starting out today, an editor would never have taken a chance on a book like Lie Down in Darkness (unless perhaps Styron added vampires or zombies) and Styron himself might have been forced to publish only as an e-book if for no other reason than to prove to potential agents or publishers that he could gain a following and his books would sell.

While books may still need “the care and dedication” of a good editor, publishing houses are not going to provide that to any novels they don’t believe are marketable and most of the books they believe will sell, no amount of editing will help.

The result of this is that sales are down and the publishing industry is in trouble. If only it would occur to those involved to look inward, they might find that the problem is not competition from e-book distributors. Perhaps what they need to do is look for books that have literary merit to begin with. Maybe they should be using that marketing acumen to make serious reading “sexy” again, or to find out what kinds of books would compel readers who aren’t buying theirs. Of course they need to make other changes as well. Changes might include a different type of distribution, the realization that e-book and print pricing can’t be the same, a rethinking of how royalties are set, and new ways of incorporating digital marketing. As in any industry, new technologies require new approaches.

Galassi makes a valid a point. The publishing industry plays an important role in the production of books. If they are going to continue to play an important role in the production of important books — both print and electronic, they need to change.

(This blog also appeared in Marion’s Open Salon page with lots more comments.)


I’m turning 50 and still an aspiring writer which is like running around in a string bikini with a belly ring. At 50 even if you’re Madonna, it’s kinda sad.

Last summer, I enter the 3 Day Novel Contest – it’s Canadian. You start and complete a novel over the labor day weekend. On the honor system. Oh Canada.

The winner gets published. The rest of us shmucks are out 50 bucks.

Now it’s late January and I’m awaiting the results as though it were a biopsy, obsessively monitoring contest updates for hints about when they’ll announce, and meanwhile the brain won’t stop thinking about how my life will change if I win, how I’m destined never to win anything, how the producers of Who Wants to Be Millionaire sense my loserliness and I’ll never sit in the hot seat across from Meredith, how I showed early promise once, but let it slip away and ti-i-i-ime is not on my side, and maybe HRT would be worth it, even with the cancer risk…

And so I turn to the internets for distraction. It’s not surfing. It’s driving. It’s aimless driving with free gas on a highway with infinite exits, attractive rest stops and no reason to hurry home. I type my name, I type Pogo (the name of a story I’d written over 20 years ago – my entire published oeuvre) and I type The Quarterly (the name of the literary journal in which it appeared).

I get the usual: find Marion Stein, irrelevant links. Somewhere on the second or third screen there’s something in a language that’s not English. I click. It’s a course description in Danish with enough English words – titles and names of units for me to get the gist. The authors include Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, and William Shakespeare. And there in a unit called Man vs Nature: Marion Stein, Pogo, The Quarterly. There’s my story. All grown up and living in Europe.

It’s a secondary school.

I find my way to the school’s website. There’s a thumbnail of the teacher – graying curly hair, forties at least. I close my eyes and see her young, maybe during her gap year. In Chiang Mai, she stays at a backpackers hotel run by a German – don’t talk about the war – and his unstereotypicaly assertive Thai wife. Her friends are out hiking, but she’s getting over the effects of some bad Ecstasy. There’s a rooftop patio with comfy chairs and an astounding mountain view. Books left by fellow travelers mostly English but she majored in English. She picks up a weather beaten copy of The Quarterly, Issue 9. There are a couple of pieces she likes, so she holds onto it. Years later she’s working on the curriculum, has an idea and remembers reading something that would fit. Where was it again? She goes to her shelf and picks through several Grantas, a couple of Paris Reviews and oh there it is! Oh yes, that will do.

I email the teacher. A week later, I hear back. She first read Pogo in a class she took at the Southern Danish University and has been using it for years as an example of a “postmodern” text.

Okay, this isn’t exactly lunch at Balthazar with Scorcese discussing my screenplay. It’s not winning the 3 Day – which I found out today I’m not even shortlisted for . It’s not getting my shot on Millionaire, but somewhere out there, this story was floating like a note in a bottle and it was found, and miraculously, I found out that it was found, and in a moment of everyday despair, of hopelessness, Denmark sent me a lifeline.

God bless the internets.
God save Queen Margarette..

Famous in Denmark

So last week (1/10) I wrote about discovering that a story I wrote a lifetime ago was being read in a high school class in Denmark.

Now I’ve heard back from the teacher:

“Dear Marion!
How strange that I should receive an email from you. Yes, I can understand that you must have been surprised to see your story as part of a Danish final year in advanced English curriculum Way back I attended a university course at South Danish University about
short stories. Your text was there among many others. I got hold of The Quarterly where it was printed and I have used it many times in various contexts. Both when the theme was “Man and Nature” and as an example of a postmodern text. It must have touched a special nerve in me, the description of the good dog that gradually turns brutal, wild, and repulsive. Also the beginning with the allusion to the retarded, not-so-charming looking sibling in the smiling family photo, I have always found full of teaching possibilities.
So the fact that I have not grown tired of it is a sign that it is a very good story, indeed. I will keep your letter and read it to my English class. They will enjoy imagining their 60- year-old teacher as a backpacker, picking up a weatherbeaten short story somewhere far away from Odense.

Best wishes
Karen Dickmeiss
Odense Katedralskole”

I’m going to work on a story about this. Next week’s topic at The Moth (www.themoth.com) is going to be HOPE. So I’m going to tell a story for everyone out there who’s waiting to hear back about that manuscript, hoping that the boss will say a kind word, waiting for some sign that the lover appreciates you or that your familly “gets” you, or that the work you do every day actually has some meaning. Because all this time I’m thinking I’m obscure, I’m being read in Denmark. How fucking cool is that!