books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Artistic Freedom vs. Crowdsourcing, Censorship, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

by Anne R. Allen

Ruth and I often get requests to censor our posts when a word or link or piece of news has offended somebody. We usually comply. We don't want a minor distraction to interfere with our purpose—which is to share information about the writing business in a straightforward, lighthearted, encouraging way.

But the complaints are getting more frequent, and we're beginning to feel a little battered.

I'm not talking about our helpful readers who point out typos, errors and broken links—we're sincerely grateful for that kind of help, and we never pretend to be infallible. Keep it up. We really appreciate our watchdogs!

But I'm kind of scared by the number of permanently "offended" groups who think their needs trump all others. They seem to believe that one offended person—whether or not an offense has actually been committed—is more important than our creative freedom, or indeed, the creative freedom of the entire artistic community.

I fear we're moving to a sort of neo-Darwinism: survival of the whiniest.

Self-pity and self-righteous rage have become the drugs of choice in the Internet age. (And both ends of the political spectrum use them to maintain government gridlock and fill their coffers.)

This week I had to remind myself that self-righteousness doesn't make a person actually right. And self-pity is a bully's most potent weapon. Most abusers feel sorry for themselves.

Our complainers come from all points of the sociopolitical spectrum, and they contact us by email, Tweet, DM, G+, FB, etc. but they all have one thing in common: they advocate censorship.

But personally, I'm not a fan of censorship and I feel the need to take a stand. This post is probably going to lose us a few readers and I'm sorry about that.

But enough is enough.

It's not as if this blog is particularly edgy or pushes a political or religious agenda. (Ruth and I have never discussed our political or religious affiliations, even with each other.) But we think we (and our guests) have a right to our own unique voices.

Unfortunately, a handful of people find reasons to object to pretty much everything we  do:

  • We've had complaints from people outraged by our use of humor and irony, because individuals with certain brain configurations can only understand words on a literal level. (These complainers would be blissfully happy in China, where recently the use of puns and wordplay has been banned in journalism.) 
  • They also don't want us to link to blogs that use vulgar language or don't support a particular sociopolitical or religious belief system. (We will include warnings in the future.)
  • Some people think we shouldn't be allowed to give advice to those who want to publish traditionally. 
  • Others think we shouldn't write about self-publishing. 
  • Some argue we shouldn't talk about publishing at all, since not all writers care to be published.
  • Some don't want us to list writing contests that charge a fee or include magazines whose submissions are competitive. (I do vet the contests and only list ones that seem to be a good deal.) 
  • People complain because the heroine of my comic mysteries uses things like hairspray and a well-placed stiletto heel (and excruciatingly good manners) to battle the bad guys. They say "she sets women back 1000 years," because she doesn't behave like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a dress. (Which I agree would be hilarious, but it's not my story.)
  • Some object to the fact that I have LGBTQ characters in my books. Others say they're not LGBTQ enough.
  • We've also been asked to change the wording of posts or eliminate paragraphs because of some personal meaning or power the complainers have assigned to those words. 
  • I've been called "ageist" for saying we Boomers have more trouble dealing with technology than Millennials who were born into it. (This is where actual Boomers are totally ROTFL.)
  • I got complaints when I compared gangs of online bullies to the Taliban—from people who believe that criticizing the Taliban is an insult to Muslims. (Of course the complainers are the ones insulting Muslims. That's like saying dissing the Charles Manson Family is an insult to Americans.)

It struck me recently that a lot of these complaints are examples of something called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Dunning and Kruger are scientists at Cornell University who proved that people who are the most confident and vocal are generally the most ignorant and incompetent.

In other words, the loudest complaints usually come from the least-informed people.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being uninformed. We were all born uninformed. But some of us are more open to absorbing information as we move along in life.

Yes, of course we need guardians and watchdogs and whistleblowers. The Internet can feel like the wild west and people who work to keep the general discourse respectful are doing everybody a favor. But there are others who go way beyond this. They want everything censored to reflect their own world view...even if that view is not based on facts or infringes on the personal freedom of others.

Does Censorship Improve a Community?

As far as I know, America's morals weren't improved by banning Lady Chatterley's Lover; teen angst wasn't eradicated by banning Catcher in the Rye; and Islam didn't get a PR boost from the psychopaths who slaughtered the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo and murdered a free speech advocate in Denmark.

Here's a list of the most commonly banned books in the US. From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, it looks like a reading list for a basic course in American literature.

Yes, people should be allowed to choose what they put in front of their eyeballs. I thoroughly dislike ultra-violent books and movies. I lasted about 45 minutes into Game of Thrones before I wanted to throw up. But do I think George R. R. Martin should be banned? Of course not! I think he's probably a genius.

I don't know of any instance in which censorship and suppression of the arts has made a society safer, more prosperous, and/or content.

I get it. Art is scary. Art is messy. Art is diverse...and its diversity may not fit into your sociopolitical comfort zone. But consider the alternative.

Do you really want to be like those thugs from ISIS who destroyed the 2500 year-old artifacts in the Mosul museum?

Physician, Heal Thyself

The Political Correctness Police have always seemed pretty silly to me, even when I agree with their intentions. Usually the people most in need of  political correction are the ones trying to "correct" others.

I remember a time—at the height of the 1970s women's movement—when a male friend turned on me in fury for calling his 3-year-old "a bright little girl".

"She's not a girl, she's a woman!" said he. "The word 'girl' is insulting."

I told him no, the word "girl" is not insulting unless you believe that being a girl is a bad thing.

This was the same era when a boyfriend ordered me not to wear a bra because otherwise people might think he wasn't a feminist. He wouldn't appear in public with me if I wore anything to support my 36 C chest.

My health and comfort didn't matter. His ego did. Talk about unclear on the concept. (No, the relationship didn't last.) 

Most religions and philosophies teach a version of what the Gospels say about how it's better to ignore the dust mote in your neighbor's eye and deal with the big old log in  your own eye. I think the world would be a better place if more people—religious or not—could get their brains around that.

Humor vs. Censorship: Which is More Effective?

I think the original Saturday Night Live did more to raise awareness of gender bias when Dan Aykroyd used the opener, "Jane, you ignorant slut" than anybody who wants to ban the words slut, broad, chippie, hussy, minx, ho, tart, skank, bimbo, tramp, floozie, demimondiane, streetwalker, hussy, trollop, doxy, bawd, jade, harlot, strumpet, and all their disrespectful cousins. (Did I forget any?)

Making fun of people who use words to hurt takes away the power of those words. But burying the words under taboos makes them stronger.

I used to be upset when people called me fat. Now I own it. I quit smoking and slowly became a fat lady, in spite of strict diet and exercise. (The high-carb "low-fat" diet may be the greatest cause of obesity every invented.) But I'm strong and healthy and I've outlived most of my skinny boyfriends. If you have trouble with fat people, you can stay out of my way. And if you're skinny, you do NOT tell me what I can call myself.

Dealing with insults can be like a game of whack-a-mole. Get rid of one and a nastier one will pop up somewhere else. What we need to change is not the way other people talk, but the way we think about ourselves.

I believe the great Richard Pryor gave a stronger message about dignity for all races in his iconic 1975 Saturday Night Live sketch when he delivered the line "dead honky" than all the censorship in the world.

I believe humor, not censorship, is the more powerful weapon for change. And laughter has been proved to be good medicine.

Censorship in the Age of CrowdSourcing

But the Internet age has brought a whole new kind of censorship. As Kathleen Parker said in her column this week, we now must obey a collective "Twitter Conscience."

She asked "will our uber-sensitivity eventually render us humorless robots uttering pre-approved giblets of meaningless verbiage?"

It has already started. Technology has liberated us in many ways, but it also invites the general public to provide input for creative work and shape that work according to their own opinions, tastes, prejudices, and level of (in)competence.

This can be through "enhanced ebooks" that allow a reader to contact an author directly through the reading device. (This is supposed to be coming soon. Maybe it already has. I still have a second generation Kindle, so I'm behind the curve on this.) 

They also do it with comments on blogs, news stories, forums and in customer reviews.

There are also communities created for the purpose of giving feedback. These communities, like Wattpad, Readwave, Readership and many others, allow writers to post work as they write it and get immediate feedback.

These communities seem good for newer writers who don't have an in-person critique group, and I've recommended them.

But veteran publishing industry journalist Porter Anderson wrote a warning about these writing communities recently at Thought Catalog, and his piece struck a chord with me.

He asks "if it takes a village to write your book, is it your book?"

Some people take to these sites and enjoy using them for critique, and that's great. For writers who are able to cherry-pick useful comments, and don't feel forced to make changes by the crowd (or the most vocal members of the crowd), it's an inexpensive way to learn to write, and I still endorse them.

But I fear all this has created a sense of entitlement in the general public, who now think they have the right to change and mold the work of professional artists to their own tastes and world view.

And of course the Dunning-Kruger Effect people are the most likely to feel that entitlement.

So there are two things to consider here:

1) Do We Really Want Our Art to be Created by Consensus?

What immediately pleases the most number of people is not necessarily the best or even the highest-earning work over time. Yes, of course we have examples of authors like Shakespeare and Dickens who created great art that instantly appealed to the masses, but they are exceptions, not the rule.

How many people remember the bestselling novel of 1903, Lady Rose's Daughter by Mary Augusta Ward? Books that were also published in 1903, but didn't sell so well were: The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler, The Ambassadors by Henry James, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Nathan Bransford had a great post on the subject last year.  He provided a list of bestsellers of the last century or so. It seems the bestselling novel for 1933 AND '34 was something called Anthony Adverse, by Hervey Allen, and in 1972 through '73 the bestseller was Richard Bach's immortal Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (What? You don't have a copy on your nightstand?)

How many people are still reading Lloyd C. Douglas or James Gould Cozzens, sales-toppers of mid-20th century America?

These authors were popular at a particular time, but they didn't prove to be more popular in the long run than slower-selling authors who were more innovative or had individual vision.

In other words: instant mass appeal doesn't mean long-term success.

And remember Fox cancelled Firefly after only 11 episodes because it "didn't have an audience". Yeah.

2) Almost all Innovative Art is Initially Rejected.

Here's the thing: our most popular art was generally disliked by the public when it first appeared.

Everybody hated the Sound of Music when it came out. It got terrible reviews everywhere.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town—the most-produced play in U.S. history—was initially hated so much the audience walked out on opening night.

Edouard Manet's paintings were considered ridiculous by his peers.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was universally panned, banned and burned  across the U.S., even in Steinbeck's own hometown.

In a crowdsourced, market- and consensus-dominated world, we might squelch the Thornton Wilders, Manets, and Steinbecks...and end up with nothing but Sharknado #27, paintings of big-eyed kids, and Fifty Shades of Boring.

Right now, we are living in a golden era of television. From Breaking Bad to Downton Abbey to Orange is the New Black and How to Get Away with Murder, we have amazing art being made for the small screen. And what makes these shows so brilliant?

Because of the smaller audience of cable TV and streaming services, the writer-creator has been allowed more artistic control. Writers like Vince Gilligan, Julian Fellows, Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes are bankable, star-power names because their shows reflect their own unique artistic vision.

Do we really want to give those up for endless reruns of  Real Housewives Dancing with the Biggest Loser?

Your Loudest Critic May be the Least Competent.

Being offended has become a competitive sport in many areas of the Internet. You can see whine-offs happening on book review sites, forums, and comment threads everywhere.

  • "I'm so offended that this book has no gender-neutral green Albanian squirrels!" 
  • "Where are the Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu/ Mormon/Baha'i gender-neutral green Albanian squirrels?" 
  • "Not one gender-neutral green Albanian squirrel in this novel has a gluten sensitivity!" 
  • "How dare this author write about gender-neutral green Albanian squirrels when ze is a gender-neutral blue Albanian squirrel?!" 
  • These gender-neutral green Albanian squirrels have no moral character. They copulate like vermin. 
  • This story is cruel and heartless to people who suffer from musiphobia, the fear of rodents.
  • "The word 'squirrel' is an insult to the rodent community. People use the word 'squirrely' to mean mentally deranged. Your use of this word is is hurtful. From now on, call them 'agile, tree-dwelling rodents with bushy tails'!"

There is no way to please people like this. And now I realize I've been wrong to try.

Why? Because they LOVE being offended. It's what they live for.

In trying to please them, I've been robbing them of their source of joy.

I was being cruel and heartless.

Ruth and I don't want to water down our posts for a handful of readers. We average about 90-100K hits a month. There's no way that every post can appeal to every single one of those people.

If you have something different to say, please chime in with a comment. We welcome respectful discussion. (But if it's bullying or spammy or contains ad hominem attacks, we'll delete.)

It's our blog and we reserve the right to express opinions, keep discussion civil, and occasionally laugh at ourselves.

My advice to all of our readers is to do the same: follow your own muse, no matter where it takes you. Listen to criticism, but don't let yourself be bullied by it.

The world needs unique voices!

And most of all: don't censor yourself because a few complainers high on self-righteous rage think the world should revolve around their personal belief system or unresolved psychological issues.

I've written before about how taking too much advice from beta readers or a critique group can lead to some pretty awful writing.

But when I wrote that piece last summer, I hadn't yet learned about the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I didn't take into account that, although it may seem as if the whole group wants you to do this or that, the negative critique may only come from one or two confident, but less-than-informed persons.

The wiser readers may be afraid to speak up. That's the Dunning-Kruger Effect, too: The more you know, the more you're likely to hesitate or question yourself.

Learn the basics, listen to criticism, then follow your instincts and ignore the noisy incompetents. It's your work. Don't let anybody bully you out of your right to follow your own artistic path.

Some people think there is only one path: right in back of them, with your lips firmly attached to their behinds.

Those people do not matter. Your art does.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you prefer that your book reflect your own vision, or that of a group or community? Do you think humor is dangerous? Do you think people should be allowed to decide what to call themselves even if somebody disapproves? How much input should other people have in an artist's work? Have you felt pressured to censor your work? How did you react? Do you have an attack of the vapors when you hear the word "strumpet"?



from March 1st to March 4th! 

"Anne R. Allen’s book of short stories explores womanhood in all seasons. I’ve read this book twice and get something new to appreciate each time. It is the kind of book one returns to periodically, just to revisit characters and stories like old friends that help clarify ages and stages of life and the changing world. Her poems are timely, tying stories together with theme, grace, and humor.",,,Mary J. Caffrey

a short book of short stories


Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madam Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…

Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel


The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

CANADIANS! The Kobo First Book Contest is for you! Did you publish your first book in 2014? Do you have a Canadian passport? You could win $10,000! Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non-Fiction categories. Winners will be announced in June. Deadline March 31.

Chronicle Books Great Tumblr Book Search Do you have a Tumblr blog you think would make a good book? Here's the contest for you! Categories are ART, FOOD & DRINK and HUMOR. Deadline March 2nd. 

Looking for a cover designer? A fantastic new designer has just opened up shop. His name is  Daniel Steiminger  His designs are fabulous and really original. Reasonable prices. Grab him before he's booked solid.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The 10 REAL Reasons Your Book Was Rejected: A Big 5 Editor Tells All

by Ruth Harris

I'm an Amazon #1 and million-copy NYT bestselling author published by Random House, Simon & Schuster and St. Martin’s. I was also an editor for over 20 years. I worked at Macmillan, Dell and Bantam and for a small but thriving independent paperback house, now defunct—not because of me. :-) I was also the Publisher of Kensington.

I’ve been the rejector and the rejectee which means rejection is a subject I know a bit about.

So let me cut rejection down to size.

Manuscripts get rejected; not writers.

It's business and (most of the time) it's not personal.

The reasons for rejection start with the basics, i.e. the ms. sucks. Author can't format/spell/doesn’t know grammar or punctuation. S/he is clueless about narrative, characterization, plotting, pacing, and can’t write dialogue. S/he has apparently never heard of paragraphing and writes endlessly long, meandering, incoherent sentences that ramble on like poison ivy. You cannot believe the grotesqueries I encountered during my days in the slush pile.

Sometimes, though, the ms. is not that bad and with competent editing, might well be acceptable. Unfortunately, the days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone. 

Staff editors, these days, are greatly overworked and overwhelmed. They don't have the time (or, if they are just starting out in the business, even the knowledge or experience) to edit the ms. into publishable shape. These days quality editing is the author’s (or the agent’s) responsibility.

Occasionally, other hazards present themselves...

Rejections come for unexpected reasons: True Story #1

Way back when I was a child working at Bantam, a would-be author showed up at the office, his ms. in hand. As the least important, most expendable (what if this guy turns out to be a nut and has a gun?) warm body on the staff, I was sent out to Reception to find out what he was offering. Shook hands, introduced myself, he yackety-yacked, blabbity-blabbed about his masterpiece. Then he opened the ms. box to show me his jewel and a cockroach jumped out. True story. Ms. rejected. Politely, I’m proud to say.

On the other hand, the ms. might be really good: timely subject, credible characters, dandy plot, lively dialogue, well-executed pacing. Lots of us really like it. Some of us love it.

BUT it could still be rejected for any number of other reasons, like...

1) Inventory Glut. 

We already have too many (insert your genre) and need to publish down the inventory so we’re not buying any of that particular genre. Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs. Nothing personal.

2) P & L Blues 

The P&L is the Profit And Loss projection publishers make for every book under consideration. The costs of publishing—printing, distributing, overhead, royalties, ad, publicity and promo, cover art and so on—are deducted from the projected income—that would be book sales, sub rights including audio, ebook, foreign, first and second serial, etc. 

If the bottom line flashes red, you can guess what will happen next. Has nothing to do with how “good” or “bad” your book is. We tried but we just couldn’t make the numbers work.

3) The Sales Whisperer. 

The Sales Department/Distributor just informed us that chick lit/gothic romance/space opera “doesn’t sell” any more. Books about transgender pygmy shape shifters in the suburbs of Northeastern Ulan Bator aren't selling the way they used to, either, so we’re not going to make an offer for your (well-written, scary, hilarious, fabulous) novel about transgender pygmy shape shifters in the suburbs of Northeastern Ulan Bator. Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.

4) Mood Swings And Irrational Bias. 

The boss, editor-in-chief, head of Promo, hateshateshates the title/setting/subject for no logical reason.

Or maybe the title/setting/subject reminds him/her of his/her despised ex, the business partner who screwed him/her, the roommate who turned the apartment into a Department of Health hot zone.

Possibly the editor-in-question had a soul-sucking fight with his/her wife/girl friend/boy friend and is in such a lousy mood s/he’d turn down War And Peace.

Doesn’t happen often because we’re pros, know enough to watch out for our own quirks and biases, and will usually ask another editor for a second (or third) opinion, but, when the illogical runs rampant on a field of the irrational, fugetaboutit. You’re Tolstoy? Tough. Your masterpiece is toast.

5) Genre clash. 

We as a house excel with romance but are duds when it comes to science fiction. Maybe the buyer at a big distributor—or our Sales Manager, Editor-In-Chief, Marketing Director, CEO—doesn’t “get” (insert your book/genre). 

If so, pop the champagne when your ms. is turned down!

That's right: because, even if some of us love it, win the battle, and buy it, your book will be published badly. You’ll get a lame cover, miniscule print run, zero advertising, promotion or publicity, spine-out positioning on a top shelf in the poorly-lit back of the unventilated, un-airconditioned third floor next to the men's room.

You won’t be able to find your own book. Not even with a state-of-the-art GPS. Your book won’t sell. You’ll be miserable and you’ll blame us and you’d be right. You should also blame yourself for submitting to a publisher who’s the wrong fit for you and your book.

Whatever the case, frame that rejection letter and hoist that glass of Dom Perignon.

6) Secret Agents / Agent Secrets. 

You love your agent but we don’t. 

Maybe there was a battle over contract terms that went off the rails. Perhaps we think the agent in question was double dealing, used us to bid up a price, or shafted us in some other way. Whatever the specifics, and no matter who was right and who was wrong, we’re currently on non-speaking terms with your agent and peace negotiations have not yet been initiated.

Perhaps your agent is borderline, sociopathic, or into drugs and/or booze. Trust me, it happens. We’ve had it with the tantrums and tirades and boozed-up, coked-up phone calls. The agent has been blacklisted not just by us but by just about every publisher in town. You don’t know any of this but your book will suffer the consequences. Yet another instance in which rejection has nothing to do with you—or your book.

7) $$$$  

The company's in a cash crunch. Of course we’re never going to admit that (and our bosses might not even tell us) but we’ve been instructed to hold off on buying anything. Nada. Not right now and maybe not for the foreseeable future. Not until said crunch passes and the money’s flowing again.

You don’t know it—and you never will—but your timing sucks. Not your fault.

8) Corporate Convulsion. 

A major “reorganization” has taken place. Maybe the whole company has been bought/sold/merged. Maybe the decision has come from somewhere Up There in Corporate. Anyway, half the staff (at least) has been fired. 

A new regime is hired and they, the New Guys, are going to turn the company around by doing the opposite of what the Old Guys did. Not your fault, has absolutely nothing to do with you or your ms, but if you, your book or genre remind the New Guys of the Old Guys, you’re going to get rejected.

9) We blew it. 

Sometimes editors and publishers are just plain wrong. Examples of that all over the place from J.K. Rowling to Stephen King. We turned down your ms.? Maybe we made a mistake. We screwed up in the past, we’ll screw up again in the future and we know it. Turning down the ms. that becomes a hot bestseller is a risk that comes with the territory. We don’t like it any more than you do but it’s a fact.

10) You’re a PITA.

Once in a while, rejection is actually personal. We’ve published you before or a friend at another publisher has and we know from experience (or the grapevine) that you’re a whiny, nasty, demanding, narcissistic, high-maintenance PITA. No one wants to take your phone calls and everyone who’s had the misfortune of working with you hates you. 

We’ve had it with you and your diva-like tantrums and we’re never, never, never going to publish another book of yours again. Except, of course, if you’re making us a boatload of money. Even then, we still hate you and we’ll tell everyone (off the record, of course) that your books "aren’t as good/aren’t selling as well as they used to." Payback is a bitch.

Bottom Line: Rejection Isn’t Always What it Seems

Rejection can be an opportunity.

Now that writers have the option of self-publishing, rejection by traditional publishers has lost its sting and can actually be the stepping stone to a dazzling digital career. 

Romance superstar Marie Force shares her experience with rejection and says: "Every romance publisher in the business rejected Maid for Love, book 1 in the McCarthy Series, which will soon reach 2 million books sold. Similar story when I was first trying to sell the Fatal Series—everyone loved Fatal Affair, except they didn’t love the plan for a series about the same couple in every book….One of my favorite quotes, "It’s just NOT DONE in romance." Um okay then! Book 8 just became the second book in a row to hit the NYT in the top 10."

"The Fatal Series was eventually published by Carina Press when they came on the scene in late 2009 looking for outside-the-box stories. The Fatal Series was a great fit for their model. Fatal Affair was one of their debut books in June 2010, and the eighth book was released in January. The series has become very successful, and it is coming in print with the first seven being released in wide distribution this year."

Rejection can be a friend.

Marie goes on to say: "I need two hands to hold all the rejections I’ve received (and yes, I kept them all as a reminder of the journey). I am thankful for every one of them now, because if even one of those NO votes had been a YES, I’d still be working for someone else and wishing for the career I have now. Rejection was my friend."

Rejection can be a stepping stone.

Rejected by literary agents, Sheila Rodgers' self-published mysteries went on to sell one million copies.

Rejection is usually not about you: True Story #2

When I was a child slogging through the slush pile at Bantam, one of the editors was having an affair with a hotshot publishing executive, older guy, quite glam. He was married, natch, but that didn't stop him from being possessive and very jealous.

She lived in the Village near a bar that served really good hamburgers. There was also a poet, a fixture in the nabe. The reigning Crown Prince of Rejection, he couldn't get his poetry published no matter how hard he tried. He was a real sad sack, but a nice guy who became a community project: people gave him money, brought him food, treated him to meals, oozed sympathy at his tales of woe at the hands of clueless publishers.

Anyway, my friend is walking home from work one evening, runs into the poet and invites him for a hamburger. They're sitting in a booth along a wall of windows having their burgers when along comes Mr. Hotshot Exec. He takes one look, gets the (erroneous) picture. He waits until my friend and the poet leave the bar, he goes up to the poet and, without a word, takes a swing at him, sending him sprawling to the sidewalk. Exec, crazed with jealousy, hurls a curse and barrels off.

My friend helps the poet up. Poet brushes himself off, looks at her and shakes his head. "I don't know why people don't like me," he says.

As I said earlier, most of the time it's nothing personal.

Even NYT bestsellers get rejected: True Story #3

I once got a form rejection letter for a book (Husbands And Lovers) while it was on the NYT bestseller list. No kidding.Who knows why? I don’t and never will. My agent and I laughed our asses off and I went back to my computer and continued working on my next book.

You should do the same.

PS: No, it’s not just us. 

From "unsaleable and unpublishable" and "this author is beyond psychiatric help" to "boring" and "this will set publishing back 25 years" here are the brutal rejection letters of some of the bestselling books of all time.

How about you, Scriveners? Do you keep copies of your rejections? What was the most head-scratching rejection you ever got? Do you feel that a rejection has ever had positive results for you? We'd love to hear your stories in the comments!


Million Copy New York Times bestseller! 
"Fiction at its Best!" 
#1 on Amazon’s prestigious Movers and Shakers List.

And it's FREE!

MODERN WOMEN, (Park Avenue Series Book #4) The lives and times of three young women—Lincky, the smart one, Elly, the idealistic one, Jane, the outrageous one. Meet them—and the men in their lives. The right men. The wrong men. The maybe men. 

“Author Ruth Harris's rapier wit spices up a coming-of-age story. Superb! You'll love MODERN WOMEN.”--West Coast Review of Books

Available at Amazon US | Amazon UK | NOOK |Kobo | iBooks | GooglePlay


The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

CANADIANS! The Kobo First Book Contest is for you! Did you publish your first book in 2014? Do you have a Canadian passport? You could win $10,000! Literary Fiction, Genre Fiction and Non-Fiction categories. Winners will be announced in June. Deadline March 31.

Chronicle Books Great Tumblr Book Search Do you have a Tumblr blog you think would make a good book? Here's the contest for you! Categories are ART, FOOD & DRINK and HUMOR. Deadline March 2nd. 

Looking for a cover designer? A fantastic new designer has just opened up shop. His name is  Daniel Steiminger  His designs are fabulous and really original. Reasonable prices. Grab him before he's booked solid.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Should You "Send Out" that First Novel? 9 Things to Consider First

by Anne R. Allen

We are always hearing about authors who have phenomenal success with a "first novel." I'm sure most writers fantasize about being that author sometime in our early careers. I sure did.

But here's what I didn't know back then: the novels that are published first are rarely the first novel an author actually wrote.

Most successful authors have several "practice" manuscripts in their files. They also may be successful journalists, screenwriters, editors, feature writers, or ghostwriters who have been writing for a living for a long time.

In November, we had a guest post from NYT bestseller Eileen Goudge, who revealed that her bestselling "first novel," Garden of Lies was written after she cut her teeth writing dozens of YA novels in the Sweet Valley High series.

There's much buzz right now around the "debut" book by Katherine Heiny, Single, Carefree, Mellow, but it turns out she's been writing teen romance for years and had a story published in The New Yorker twenty years ago.

And last week we heard that even To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't Harper Lee's first (or only) novel.

A lot of people reacted to the Harper Lee story with shock and anger. It's hard to let go of the lovely myth of the genius who created that one perfect novel on the first try and lived on its proceeds for life.

Other people—mostly born in the post-typewriter era—could not believe a novel could be lost for 50 years. Speaking as somebody who once lost a novel for 15 years, I can say that back in the days when we only had one or two copies of a manuscript, it was scary-easy to lose them. My second novel, which eventually became The Lady of the Lakewood Diner (many revisions later) only exists because a friend remodeled his house and found an early copy I'd given him for safekeeping. It had had fallen behind some drywall.

Why did I lose track of it? Because early rejections convinced me the book was unpublishable. I hadn't built up the soul callouses or objectivity to see what worked and what didn't.

What I found most fascinating about the Harper Lee story was the revelation that her original manuscript contained the storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird in flashback. Her editor at Harper and Row rejected her first novel and asked her to write the flashbacks as a separate book, then compose a second book, and publish the rest of the original novel, Go Set a Watchman as the third in a trilogy.

Obviously, Miss Lee never wrote book #2, so book #3 languished and was presumed lost until a copy was unearthed a few months ago in her lawyer's safe deposit box.

My first thought on hearing this story was to wonder if I would have been humble enough to let an editor make me rewrite my first novel so completely at that stage in my writing life.

A first—and even second—book can feel like our "baby" and many of us turn into mother bears trying to protect them. We often forget that publishing is a business and feel devastated when we discover the entire world has not been waiting in breathless anticipation for our baby's brilliant debut.

1) Throwing your "firstborn" into the unforgiving marketplace can have devastating psychological consequences

Recently I saw a Facebook post by a writer who said, "I've finished my book! Everybody says I should start sending it out there so I can find out if it's any good. But I'm scared."

She was right to be scared.

If "sending it out there" means querying agents and publishers, she was hearing some bad advice.

And if "sending it out there" means self-publishing, she was getting even worse advice.

Querying or self-publishing your first fledgling effort can make a writer give up on a perfectly good book…or end a career before it starts. It can also be a huge waste of money and time.

Publishing a book because you crave validation is likely to backfire.

Agents and publishers will not tell you if a book is any good.

Agents will only tell you if your manuscript is what they're looking for today.

Getting those rejection emails—or worse, silence—is not going to tell you a darn thing. And it can keep you from going any further with your writing dreams. Getting rejection early on can be traumatizing.

We're usually sure it has to do with the quality of the work… or worse, our lack of "talent".

But there are 100's of reasons for rejections, most of which don't have anything to do with your book. Rejections often come from the author's inexperience—a clunky query, an overly detailed synopsis, or amateurish formatting.

And even more often, rejections spring from business reasons that have nothing to do with you or your work: the agency has just sold a similar book, some marketer thinks your genre is waning, or somebody's just having a bad day.

It is not an agent's job to critique your work, and very, very few will do so.

I know that doesn't stop fledgling writers from expecting it. I admit I did.

That's one of the reasons that you're lucky to get a rejection letter at all these days (most agents only reply to queries that interest them.) If they do send something, it will be a carefully worded generic message about how they're sure your project will find a good home, but it is not right for them at this time.

I see lots of new writers trying to pick these apart to find some sort of critique in it. I guarantee it isn't there.

Even a book that's perfectly polished and ready to go will probably get tons of rejections. Catherine Ryan Hyde has some great examples in our book How to be a Writer in the E-Age. She talks about how her agent said her mega-hit Pay it Forward, "needs lots of work." Six months later another agent sold the book to Simon and Schuster and the film rights to Warner Brothers. Same book. Catherine didn't do a word of rewriting.

But if a book isn't ready—and if it's your first, it probably isn't—you're only wasting an agent's time by sending out unpolished work. They may remember you when you submit again, but not in a good way.

What you should be doing instead of sending out 25 queries a week is…write the next book!

Reviews will not tell you if a book is any good.

Yeah, yeah, I know—you just skimmed that stuff about rejections saying "I don't need no stinkin' agents. I'm going indie all the way!"

But if you've just finished your first novel, publishing immediately is even worse than "sending it out" to agents.

The advice you hear from a lot of self-publishing advocates to publish and "learn from reviews" is even worse than expecting to get an education from agents and publishers.

I have read posts by first-time indies who feel personally wounded when they get honest, unfavorable reviews. They say "these people should cut me some slack—it's my first book!"

No, they should not cut you any slack. They have taken the time to read a book for their own entertainment, not to be your private writing tutor.

And online customer reviews are notoriously unreliable. They often only tell you if the reviewer hates your genre, had trouble downloading, or is trying to built up his review numbers to get free stuff from Amazon merchants.

What a first-time novelist should do is collect beta readers or join a critique group to polish that book till it shines, plus work on building platform, network on social media…and write the next book.

Sales will not tell you if a book is any good

Sales tell you if you're good at business and marketing. See #6 below.

Yes, you should start learning about the business and this is a great time to work on building your platform...while you're writing the next book.  (Are you catching a theme here…?)

2) You need inventory to start a business. Self-Publishing a first novel "to see what happens" is usually a waste of time and money.

"What happens" if you're a new indie writer with only one title generally is: you don't get many sales. No matter how good your book is. That's because the tried and true ways of marketing indie books involve discounting or giving away one book in order to sell your others .

If you don't have others, you're not going to get any benefit from the discounts and freebies.

Bargain ebook newsletters are the hot sales tool these days. You temporarily discount your book (or make it free) and pay BookBub $1000 or so to advertise it for a day. (There are lots of good, cheaper alternatives, but BookBub is the gold standard.) And it works: but only if you have other books to sell.

If you pay $1000, and sell the book at $1.99, maybe you break even, and if it's in a series, now people will be hungry for more. In fact, that hunger will make the BookBub ad worthwhile even if you make the book free. As the founder of BookBub said on GigaOm, "One publisher who worked with BookBub gave away the first book in a series free; it was downloaded more than 100,000 times — and in that same month, more than 15,000 people bought the second book in the series at full price."

But you see how it's not going to work if you have only one book? All you'll have is 100,000 people who won't buy it because they got it free. And you're out $1000.

3) Authors often find their first book's genre isn't where they want to stay.

Last week comic-mystery author Melodie Campbell talked about how she genre-hops in short fiction, which is a great way to try out new genres and publish in several.

But if you publish a full-length novel in one genre, especially if you land a trad. contract, it's hard to jump to another.

I've known writers who started writing YA and jumped to erotica (luckily erotica writers usually use a pen name.) And I've also known several literary fiction writers who found their groove in YA mystery or fantasy.

If they'd published those first efforts in book form, they'd have a lot of backtracking to do. So give yourself some time to explore your own interests before you brand yourself as one type of writer.

Write more short stories and experiment with genres before you publish that first full-length book

Re-branding can take a lot more time than establishing a brand in the first place.

4) The book may work as a series or a trilogy.

If so, you'll want to pitch it as a package to agents, or if you self-publish, you'll want to "brand" the series with matching cover designs. Good covers are expensive. You don't want to have to pay for a second one for the same book a year later. 

Also, you may want to keep that character alive who dies in the battle at the end of that first novel, and you may want to leave room for the heroine to run off with Mr. Wrong at the last minute so she can continue to pursue Mr. Right in book #2.

5) Or the opposite may happen.

You may have envisioned a series, but when you get to book two, you realize you're done with those characters and you've said all you have to say. (I wonder if that's what happened to Harper Lee?)

6) Publishing is a business. If you don't know how it works, you're likely to be ripped off.

If you're like most new writers, you've been in your right-brain writing cave turning out deathless prose, not brushing up on your business skills.

You need to give yourself time to learn about the business before you dive in, book first.

There are sharks in those waters. Overpriced vanity publishers and outright scammers are lying in wait.

There are a lot more people are making money off writers these days than there are writers making money off books. You have to educate yourself, or you'll simply be offering yourself up as prey.

7) Professional writers have to know how to write fast these days. This takes practice.

Whether you self-pub or go trad, readers want you to turn those books out quickly. The only way to learn to do that is write more. Once you develop those writing muscles, your speed will pick up. Not so many dead ends, endless edits, etc.

So give yourself time to practice before you have readers and/or editors holding you to brain-frazzling deadlines and ordering you to write faster while you're also blog-touring and marketing 24/7.

8) Marketing takes a LOT of time.

No matter whether you're indie or trad, you're going to spend a lot of time marketing once you have a book out. Way more than you think.

Blogging and social media eat into every day. Giving interviews, going on blog tours, and getting guest blog gigs takes time and a lot of schmoozing. Personal appearances and conferences can take weeks to prepare for. Sometimes it feels as if the writing itself becomes an afterthought. 

9) Pre-publication is an essential time for creative growth.

Pre-publication is the time when you can experience your most rapid growth as an artist. It is the only time when you can devote yourself entirely to your muse.

Don't rob yourself of that freewheeling, exhilarating time!


We will never know why Harper Lee never wrote that second book. (And the NYT reports she's deeply hurt by the speculation she's too incapacitated to approve of the publication of her newly unearthed manuscript.) But I can't help wondering what might have happened if she'd had another book written and ready to go when she landed her publishing contract, or had been more prepared for the business of writing before her phenomenal "first novel" success.

Writing that first book is a gargantuan task that can take years of our lives. They say only 3% of people who start to write a novel actually finish it. It's a huge accomplishment. Any author who finishes a novel deserves to celebrate, big time.

But that doesn't mean you should publish it. Not right away. The fact that it's special means you should protect it, write more books, and take the time to put together a business plan.

Don't just throw your baby out there expecting everybody to love it. Launch your career carefully so that your book (and all its little brothers and sisters) have a chance in the marketplace.

Celebrate your triumph privately and go write another book!  (Plus lots of short stories and creative essays: build that inventory! For opportunities for placing those short works, see our "opportunity alerts" below.)

What about you, scriveners? Do you have a first "practice" novel lurking in your files? Did you publish a phenomenally successful first novel without having another in the hopper and can prove me wrong? Did you have painful experiences querying or self-publishing a first novel?


Here's my second novel that was lost for 15 years and was only rediscovered when my friend remodeled his garage. 

99c for This Month Only for Kindle and Nook!

The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is available at all the AmazonsiTunesKobo, and Nook

Cover by Keri Knutson

Who shot rock diva Morgan Le Fay? Only her childhood friend Dodie, owner of a seedy small-town diner, can find the culprit before the would-be assassin comes back to finish the job.

Boomers, this one's for you. And for younger people if you want to know what your parents and grandparents were really up to in the days of Woodstock and that old fashioned rock and roll. Plus there's a little Grail mythology for the literary fiction fans.

"A page turning, easily readable, arrestingly honest novel which will keep you laughing at yourself."...
Kathleen Keena

"I borrowed this book free with my Amazon Prime membership, but I enjoyed it so much that I don't want to give it up. I'm buying a copy to keep."...Linda A. Lange

"In The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane. And yet, in the end, love does conquer all. If you're of an age to remember Woodstock and the Moonwalk, don't miss it. If you're not, well, you won't find a better introduction." ...Deborah Eve of the Later Bloomer

And THE GATSBY GAME is finally available again in paper! 

It's on sale for only $9.38  on Amazon. And $8.14 at Barnes and Noble. (No I don't know how B & N is underselling the Zon. Just discovered it this morning. Grab it while you can!)

This is the book that covers the same mysterious Hollywood scandal as Walter Reuben's award-winning film, The David Whiting Story. (The reviews haven't migrated yet. Still trying to straighten things out with the Amazon elves.)


The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

Chronicle Books Great Tumblr Book Search Do you have a Tumblr blog you think would make a good book? Here's the contest for you! Categories are ART, FOOD & DRINK and HUMOR. Deadline March 2nd. 

VIGNETTE WRITERShere's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Building Atmosphere! The "Queen of Comedy" Dishes the Dirt on Creating Mood for your Masterpiece

by Melodie Campbell

was tickled when the big city (Toronto) library sought me out to do a workshop for aspiring writers on "Building Atmosphere".

“Sure!” I said. “Are you paying me?” I said. (Although not necessarily in that order.)

They were, thankfully. And then the anxiety set in. (Cue the strident violins.)

Was I the best person to talk about this topic? My novels are primarily comedies. I usually aim for the funny bone, not the jugular. But then I recalled: most of my published short fiction is dark noir. And in short fiction, regardless of genres, you have to set the mood quickly.

Like many writers, I go from Comedy to Romance to Thriller to darkest Noir, happily skipping from genre to genre.

Genre-hopping authors like me (and there are many – you may be one yourself) set the mood cues quickly and dig in for the writing. Let’s look at how we do it.

Let’s start at the Beginning: What is Fiction?

The type of mood you wish to create begins with the type (or subgenre) of story you want to tell. So bear with me as we revisit the basics here:

In FICTION, we are telling a STORY.

A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Short stories, novellas and novels all have this in common:

  • A Protagonist
  • A problem or goal
  • Obstacles (this forms your conflict)

A resolution to the problem or goal (meaning an ending that will satisfy the reader)

Put another way:

  • First comes character…
  • Your character WANTS something. Real bad.
  • There are OBSTACLES to her getting what she wants.


Just as PLOT determines genre, genre will point you to the atmosphere you want to create in your stories.

But just what is that pesky thing called atmosphere, and why do we want it?

Atmosphere is about Emotion

In all the fiction we write, we are trying to create an emotion in the reader. Over and over, writers mess with the emotions of readers! That’s what we do.

Creating atmosphere is about setting the stage for your reader to feel something.

In fact, we want…

…your reader to imagine they can SEE the story happening

…maybe even that they are IN the story.

We want readers to feel they are right there, alongside your protagonist, experiencing the action themselves.

And wallowing in the emotion that you, as the writer, have planted.

Okay, get on with the details…

We create atmosphere through:

  • The Opening
  • Setting
  • Weather
  • Time of day
  • Description (using all five senses)

In each of these mini-sections, I’ll pick on a genre to illustrate the point.

1. Your Opening sets the Mood

Never fool the reader! The way your book opens tells them the sort of book they will expect to read.

  • If your book is a comedy, your opening should have some fun in it.
  • If your book is a mystery, show us that right from the start. 

Let’s look at some examples from the Masters:

Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier (psychological suspense)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate.

From the opening paragraph, we feel the mood. Locked out! No Entry! You are not welcome here…

Now let’s look at Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (comedy: my fave)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

No question here that we’re looking at something light and irreverent, maybe even satirical and silly. And, I personally think, brilliant (I agree!...Anne.) In any case, the mood is clear from the opening.

2. Setting

For this example, let’s go to the opposite end of Douglas Adams: Horror

In a horror story, I would want the atmosphere to be spine-tingling. I want you, the reader to feel apprehension, as you wait, wait, wait for something terrifying to happen.

Probably, I wouldn’t set this in a crowded cocktail party. Instead, I would look for a setting that makes one feel ‘alone’.

  • An abandoned building
  • A house at the end of a road, isolated
  • A dark forest
  • A ghost town

Couple this with weather, and you’ve created a mood without your characters even saying a word.

So let’s look at that other part of setting: weather.

3. Weather

In real life, weather affects my emotion, as it does for several people. Make that sun bright, and it’s easy for me to be cheerful. Cloud me over in grey, and the world changes.

Sun or no sun?

A bright sunny day…this signals hope.

Maybe your story starts out that way. And then maybe the weather changes…thunderclouds start to build.

Does rain falls lightly or does Thor show his wrath by increasing the wind and releasing torrents of rain?

This effectively changes the mood of your story.

It increases the tension.

In my time-travel fantasy, Rowena and the Viking Warlord, I used thunderclouds to signal the impending battle.

Time of Day

We can see well in daylight.

At night, our vision is compromised.

This is an excellent way to create an atmosphere of unease…of fear or threat. Just the sort of emotion you want in a suspense story.

Humans are naturally daylight creatures. We hide in caves or houses when it is dark because predators roam at night.

One easy trick: when you move to the scary part of your story, move it to night. Make it moonless. Bring in the fog.

Mix it up

Sometimes, you might want to be an evil writer person, and fool the reader. Make something absolutely horrendous happen in bright daylight. Sucker the reader’s natural inclination to think they and their beloved protagonist are safe, and then pull the rug out from under both.

Make them feel shock. Because remember, that’s what we fiction writers do. We mess with the emotions of readers.

4. Description

Using ALL your senses is important for creating atmosphere. We do pretty well with sight. Don’t forget the others.

Smell – ever walk into a seedy motel room? Give me that smell (musty, mildew, stuffy, smelling of sweat and stale liquor) and I’ll be there again in my mind.

Touch – A sticky menu tells us so much about the establishment. Ditto a spot on the floor that acts like glue to the sole of your heroine’s shoe. She continues to walk, and with every step, the shoe sticks to the floor…

Who hasn’t had that happen. What did you feel? Annoyance? Anger? Helplessness? Embarrassment? Maybe even the feeling of being trapped?

Yes, we can use ALL the senses to create atmosphere:

Sound –I am always surprised by how often writers forget to use sound to their advantage. Humans are predators, so it is natural for us to describe a setting with photographic detail, in that we are hard-wired to notice movement against it. But we are also instinctively alert to sounds.

Don’t forget this valuable tool.

  • The irritating sound of an unbalanced fan. 
  • Unrelenting traffic or a commuter train roaring by an apartment window. 

These are stressful. They also signal class strata. Think of the brilliant movie Twelve Angry Men, and how they use the thundering sound of the El-Train (or is it L-Train?) to quickly place the murder in a tenement.

  • The ticking of a clock.
  • Absolute quiet. Then the sound of footsteps.
  • Classical music playing innocuously in the background. Or is it country music? Pounding heavy metal?

Grab these cues to build mood.

Taste –The bitter taste of cheap, over-brewed coffee. The sweet aroma of freshly brewed Kenyan AA. Sweet, sour…

Example: you could signal a wonderful date going sour by your protagonist’s reaction to the food she tastes.

  • The place looks wonderful. The food tastes unappetizing.
  • The man looks perfect…you get the picture.

One final example: Writing Noir and thrillers

Many of my short stories are noir.

Emotions wanted: uneasiness, fear, heart-in-throat

How to set atmosphere quickly, in Noir and thrillers:

  • I’d stage the opening at night.
  • It won’t be a clear night, unless it is very, very cold.
  • Probably, there will be some fog. 
  • Or sweltering humidity.
  • Something to make your characters uncomfortable, and your reader feeling it along with them.

Example: The opening from my flash fiction story, "July is Hell" (from Thirteen, An Anthology of Crime Stories)

I came back to the squad car with two coffees, both black.

Bill was fanning himself with yesterday’s newspaper. “It’s frigging middle of the night, for Crissake. How can it still be so hot?”

I shrugged. “July is hell. Always will be.” I passed him the cup of java.

“This job is hell,” Bill muttered, leaning back in the seat.

Everything in these opening sentences leads the reader to an atmosphere that is uncomfortable. The characters don’t just tell you that. The author SHOWS you. Bill is fanning himself. It’s night. Even the coffee is black. July is hell, and so is the job. This is not going to be a happy story, and you know it, after just a few lines.

Okay, not the final example. I also write comedy. Can’t help but end on a light note:

Example: The opening from my short story, "Cover Girl" (from World Enough and Crime Anthology)

The door opened, and a big man who was all chest and no hair strode in, barking orders.

“I’m looking for Mel Ramone.”

“You found her,” I said. I find missing persons for a living. But I didn’t think he’d pay me for this one.

Totally different atmosphere created this time. Hopefully, by the end of this very short opening, the reader is smiling.

And hopefully, this scrivener has left you smiling, too.


Dubbed Canada’s “Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun (Jan. 5, 2014), Melodie Campbell achieved a personal best when Library Digest compared her to Janet Evanovich.

Winner of 9 awards, including the 2014 Derringer and the 2014 Arthur Ellis (Canada) for
The Goddaughter’s Revenge (Orca Books), Melodie has over 200 publications, including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and seven novels. 

She teaches "Crafting a Novel" at Sheridan College, and is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

What about you, Scriveners? What's your favorite way to build atmosphere in your work? How do you feel when you read a book that has an atmosphere that seems to signal one genre and turns out to be another? Are you now trying to plot a horror story that starts at a crowded cocktail party? 


Mob Goddaughter Gina Gallo stands to inherit two million bucks from Uncle Seb, a master forger. But there’s a catch: Seb wants Gina to make things right and return a valuable painting to the city art gallery. Reluctantly, Gina comes up with a plan for a reverse heist, but things never go as planned when her family is involved.

THE ARTFUL GODDAUGHTER is the third novel in the hilarious Derringer and Arthur Ellis award-winning series featuring Gina Gallo, who is having a hard time leaving the family business.

It's available at All the Amazons, KOBO and NOOK


The Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, Managed by Australian Book Review. Entry fee $20 (AUS). First prize of $5000 and supplementary prizes of $2000 and $1000. Stories must be 2000-5000 words. Deadline May 1st.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

Chronicle Books Great Tumblr Book Search Do you have a Tumblr blog you think would make a good book? Here's the contest for you! Categories are ART, FOOD & DRINK and HUMOR. Deadline March 2nd. 

VIGNETTE WRITERShere's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

Ruminate VanderMey Creative Nonfiction Prize Entry Fee: $20. A prize of $1,500 and publication in Ruminate is given annually for a work of creative nonfiction. Using the online submission system, submit an essay or short memoir of up to 5,500 words with an $20 entry fee, which includes a copy of the prize issue. Deadline: February 20, 2015 

The Playboy College Fiction Contest Prize is $3000 plus publication in Playboy Magazine. You must be enrolled in college to be eligible. Stories up to 5000 words. Deadline February13th. $5 entry fee for non-subscribers.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Must-Read Story for Writers with an "Impossible" Dream: Walter Reuben and "The David Whiting Story"

by Anne R. Allen

"Be fearless… The world is filled with people who will be more than willing to give you self-defeating, negative advice. If you have a dream, the single most important question you must ask yourself is—how can you fulfill that dream? If your resources are very limited, that is not an excuse."

…Walter Reuben, writer-director of the award-winning film, The David Whiting Story

We don't usually talk much about screenwriting here, because, well, Ruth and I aren't screenwriters. But I'm pretty sure most writers (me included) have a lurking fantasy of seeing our work on the silver screen one day. 

However, most of us figure screenwriting is even harder to break into than book publishing because of the financial investment involved. Besides, everybody and their grandmother is writing a screenplay. So the chances of fulfilling that dream are slim to none...right?

Not if you know the story of Walter Reuben, winner of the prestigious L.A. Film Critic Association's Douglas Edwards award for his indie film The David Whiting Story.

When he received his award on January 10th, 2015, Walter shared a stage with people like Angelina Jolie, Wes Anderson, and Patricia Arquette. The Douglas Edwards award has previously gone to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Gus Van Sant.

Walter Reuben, writer-director of The David Whiting Story

Walter is right about the negative advice. Go to any writing blog and you'll be presented with tons of scary rules.

  • Follow the conventions of your genre. Don't color outside the lines.
  • Limit the number of characters and subplots. Don't make anything too complicated.
  • Tell the story in linear time. Don't confuse your reader with lots of jumping around in time and place.  
  • Kill your darlings. Whatever you think is clever and innovative, most people will hate. 
  • Forget the literary stuff. Anybody who drops references to Henry James is NOT going to have a career as a writer. Get yourself a job teaching literature in a nice stuffy prep school.

I admit I've given some of that advice myself. I know from experience that it's tough to get anything literary, quirky, or rule-breaking in front of the public, and it's even harder to get recognition for it. 

I've learned the hard way that unless you're a regular contributor to The New Yorker, you'll have a lot better chance of making a living if you stick to writing thrillers, romances and mysteries and forget about the cerebral stuff.

So let me introduce you to the man who proves us all wrong.

Walter Reuben has had his shorter screenplays produced in the past, but last year marked the debut of his first feature film: The David Whiting Story,

Oh, and did I mention that Walter is sixty-nine years old?

Yes, you read that right. Walter is nearly seventy. Until last year, he had never made a feature film, although filmmaking has always been one of his passions.

His story is one of persistence, grit, and the triumph of quirky artistic vision. It's a story to inspire writers everywhere, no matter what their age.

I don't actually know Walter, except online, although we think we probably met in person a very long time ago. We went to college together. That is, he was an upperclassman at Haverford when I was a freshman at Bryn Mawr. They're sibling schools. (And yes, I'm outing myself as a geezerette.)

Like me, Walter once befriended a strange, compelling, tragicomic young man named David Whiting, who later died under mysterious circumstances on the set of the Burt Reynolds film The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, in 1973.

Walter and I met again online this year because we both recently created works of art that addressed David Whiting and his mysterious story.

A prep school classmate of David's who had read my book about David, The Gatsby Game, phoned me to ask what I knew about the real David. He dropped a remark about an upcoming film called The David Whiting Story written by somebody named Walter Reuben.

That was the first I'd heard of the film, so I Googled Walter and friended him on Facebook (see, social media is good for something!) We started an email exchange. He sent me a link so I could watch the film online.

A few months later, I saw the news that he'd won the Los Angeles Film Critics Award. He was over the moon. He says he's still reeling from the "surreal" experience, but I talked him into doing an interview for this blog. (Although he's hard at work on his next feature film.)

The David Whiting Story continues to get kudos. It was recently listed as one of "The Best Films Not Yet Showing at a Theater Near You"


Thanks, for visiting, Walter!

I know that I've wanted to write about David Whiting pretty much ever since I heard about his death. Maybe even before. He was such a quirky, over-the-top character. (Last week Ruth Harris told us how characters like that can fuel the best fiction.

The news accounts of David's death never made sense to me. I felt I knew a lot more about him than anybody who was writing about him.

What about you? Have you had this story at the back of your mind for a long time? 


Not at all. After I knew David in college, I lost touch with him. Although the news of his death was a scandal, which got reported in the media, I did not read about it at the time, and was not even aware of his death.

(Walter probably avoided supermarket tabloids, which was where much the story played out. It has been called one of "The 10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History."...Anne )

However, in 2007, I went on vacation, and one of the books which I chose to take with me was a collection of essays by Ron Rosenbaum. I read a number of essays, one of which was about David and the curious circumstances of his demise in Sarah Miles’ hotel room, during a film shoot. 

(Ron Rosenbaum's book is called The Secret Parts of Fortune and the David Whiting essay is titled "A Corpse as Big as the Ritz: in Which we Encounter Sarah Miles, Burt Reynolds and the Ghost of the Great Gatsby"...Anne.) 

When I read the essay, it did not even occur to me that the fellow being described was the same David Whiting with whom I had gone to college. Apparently, David at some point claimed to be (or to have been) an undergraduate at Harvard, not Haverford College (which he actually attended with me, however briefly on his part).

 David, clearly, was very “flexible” with the facts of his life, and he may have thought that Harvard would be a more impressive alma mater.

(He told me he was a Princeton student on an exchange program. He was obviously obsessed with the Ivy League...Anne.) 

But that is one reason why I did not immediately realize that the subject of this essay was my old college acquaintance. But, somehow, the essay nagged at me, and, a few years later, I revisited it, and found an ancient 1966 diary of mine. It contained a couple of brief references to David Whitingwhich confirmed my suspicion that the college David of 1966 was the fellow written about in the essay.


When did you decide to make David Whiting's story into a film? And how long did it take from concept to wrap?


Three years ago, I was visiting Austin. I had spent almost twenty years of my life there and had made my earliest experimental short films there, in the 1980’s. I had not been there in 20 years, and I was having dinner with one of my oldest friends, a person who shares my passion for film.

Somehow, I got to bringing up the story of David Whiting, his mysterious death, and Sarah Miles. My friend was very familiar with the entire business.

 Somehow, I blurted out that I was going to make a movie about Sarah Miles and Ayn Rand. I, honestly, have no idea how this idea arose. It was spontaneous, and came from something very intuitive inside me. He smiled and said some encouraging words, because, earlier in the dinner, he had remembered fondly my early short movies.

That dinner was in April, 2012. The film wrapped in July, 2013.


I love stories of people who get ideas when speaking them out loud to somebody else like that. It has happened to me and it always feels sort of magical.   I go..."did I really say that? I guess I'll have to do it, then." But I'm not always brave enough to follow through.

So what gave you the courage—at an age when most people are happily settling into retirement—to make a feature film?


Why not? There are various examples, especially in late 20th Century British literature, of writers who only started to write, or at least to publish, at what some consider to be an advanced age.

As for "happily settling into retirement," for whom is that really true? If you utterly love what you do, why would you want to retire? Of course, if you hate what you do, then you cannot wait for an unhappy career to be over.

As for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that "there are no second acts in American lives," well, I simply beg to disagree. I have started what is for me a third act, and I am loving it.

I read earlier today about a film director who made his first feature at the age of 20. I do not know this man’s movies, but, truly, I saymore power to anyone of any age who wants to make movies, and who finds a way to fulfill his or her dream!


I love your positive attitude, Walter!

You met David Whiting when he was a freshman, and I didn't get to know him until he was an upperclassman. I met him as a wannabe-ladies' man who had recently worked as a still photographer on the sets of several high-profile films where he had hobnobbed with the likes of Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda (or so he claimed.)

But in spite of his obvious phoniness, I liked the guy. I found him compelling. Maybe it was his intelligence, or maybe it was that desperate emotional neediness just under his veneer.

You met him when he was a pudgy kid right out of an upper-crust prep school, so we met quite different versions of the man.

Do you want to talk about what qualities drew you to David when you met him, and how you got to know him?


I did not know him terribly well. As depicted in my film, the 18-year old David Whiting was a con artist, a thief, and a pretentious poseur. The movie portrays the fact that he offered to help me sell tickets for a college film society screening which I had organizedand then, after, tried to get me to steal some of the money.


That is a memorable scene in the film. My fictional version of David, Alistair Milborne, is a thief, too, although I had no evidence the real David  actually stole. But everything he did seemed dishonest in some way.

But all in all, David Whiting is something of a tragic figure. And it's always sad when a person dies at the age of twenty-four. 

Your film is essentially a comedy—although certainly a pitch-black one. My novel is a dark comedy as well.

Why do you think his story sparks a comic reaction rather than a sentimental one? 


David’s is the story of someone who wears multiple masks, who doesn’t really know who he is, and goes out of his way to tell a different falsehood to everyone he meets. Black comedy, not tragedy, is my forte. 

But there is no reason that his story could not be told in more purely dramatic terms. However, I think that it would be very difficult to prevent a purely dramatic rendering from falling into melodrama.


I agree that falling into sentimentality the way they do on those true-crime TV shows would ruin the story. Phony people do seem to be intrinsically funny. Without liars, comic writers would run out of material pretty fast. 

What else do you want to tell us about David Whiting in your film? I realize the film isn't only about him. It's also about the bigotry of your own parents and how it may be impossible to know anybody completely.


Actually, my film interweaves a variety of threads: the story of David Whiting; the search for the origins of a famous, but now forgotten, joke; the story of my parents' violent homophobia; staged interviews with Ayn Rand at two different points of her life; the reenactment of the single most famous scene from Henry James' The Wings of the Dove, with eight different casts. All interwoven as in an elaborate abstract collage.

The film attempts to ask two interconnected questions: How can we process our memories once we realize how fundamentally unreliable they are? And how is it possible to make sense out of our lives?

As we investigate people's college memories of David and also of that once famous joke, it seems that the very same people who remember that they do not remember David are the people who remember how funny the joke wasexcept that they can’t remember the actual joke at all….


Tell us a little more about how you made the film and how you got funding and were able to assemble your cast. 


I shot the entire film in four days, each day on a twelve hour shooting schedule, in three different locations (each of which was used to represent several different locations). There was a crew of about six people for each day, which, for me, was a great luxury.

I funded the film entirely myself. My cast started with a few gifted actors whom I already knew. They in turn referred me to a few other actors. The cast was uniformly superb, enormously talented and gifted men and women.


That is so impressive: you didn't use a Kickstarter campaign or find a rich patronyou made your film with what you had. 

What advice would you give young (and not so-young) writers out there who dream of seeing their work in film some day?


Be fearless. The world is filled with people who will be more than willing to give you self-defeating, negative advice.

If you have a dream, the single most important question you must ask yourself ishow can you fulfill that dream? If your resources are very limited, that is not an excuse.

If you imagine an elaborate science-fiction utopian film, which, in principal, would cost a studio a minimum of 100 million dollars, but all you have is an extra $2000, then you must really look inside yourself and find a way to realize your vision anyway.


That's such great advice, Walter! That's why I'm opening this blogpost with that quote. 

Are there any other things you'd like to tell us about your film and this amazing honor it has brought you?


I am already hard at work on my second film. It too is a collage, though of a very different kind. Being a movie director is like simultaneously being a mommy and a daddy. Every movie is one of my children, and every child is different, unique, and precious.

What about you, Scriveners? Do you have a dream you've been afraid you might be too old or poor to fulfill? Have you felt defeated by negative advice? Do you think there are second acts in American lives? Third acts? Have you ever known an unforgettable character you felt compelled to write about? 

Walter Reuben is one of the world's prominent dealers in vintage movie posters of all periods and from all countries.

He lived in Austin from 1971 through 1988 and directed his early experimental shorts there, including How Others Remember Us (1986), From Bad to Worse (1986) and How to Lose Weight (1987).

He wrote the screenplay for the festival award-winning film
3 Stories About Evil (2008). He produced and co-wrote the short film The Harvey Girl from Shanghai (2010).

The David Whiting Story (2014) is his first feature film.

Blog news: We got a kinda cool award this week, too. Marketing guru Penny Sansevieri, of Author Marketing Services named this blog one of the Top 30 Websites for Indies!

Next week we'll have a visit from Canada's Queen of Comedy, Melodie Campbell. She's going to give us tips for building atmosphere and setting tone in your fiction.


The Gatsby Game, my fictionalized version of David Whiting's story is only $2.99 in ebook. 

The paper version should be available later this month.

The ebook is available at all the AmazonsBarnes and Noble for NOOK, and Kobo. It's also available at Scribd and Inktera

When Fitzgerald-quoting con man Alistair Milborne is found dead a movie star’s motel room—igniting a worldwide scandal—the small-town police can’t decide if it’s an accident, suicide, or foul play.

As evidence of murder emerges, Nicky Conway, the smart-mouth nanny, becomes the prime suspect. She’s the only one who knows what happened. But she also knows nobody will ever believe her.

The story is based on the real mystery surrounding the death of David Whiting, actress Sarah Miles’ business manager, during the filming of the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.


VIGNETTE WRITERShere's a contest for you! The Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Contest. The prize is for a collection of vignettes and poetry up to 20,000 words. Fee $25.  Prize is $500, publication by Vine Leaves Press (paperback and eBook), 20 copies of the paperback, worldwide distribution, and promotion through the Vine Leaves and staff websites. It will be judged by an editor from Simon and Schuster. Deadline February 28, 2015.

Ruminate VanderMey Creative Nonfiction Prize Entry Fee: $20. A prize of $1,500 and publication in Ruminate is given annually for a work of creative nonfiction. Using the online submission system, submit an essay or short memoir of up to 5,500 words with an $20 entry fee, which includes a copy of the prize issue. Deadline: February 20, 2015 

The Playboy College Fiction Contest Prize is $3000 plus publication in Playboy Magazine. You must be enrolled in college to be eligible. Stories up to 5000 words. Deadline February13th. $5 entry fee for non-subscribers.

Saraband Books prize for a book of poetry or literary fiction. Prize is $2000 and publication. The entry fee is $27. For fiction, submit a manuscript of 150 to 250 pages of stories, novellas, or a short novel For poetry, submit a manuscript of at least 48 pages.  Deadline February 13th, 2015

Unpublished Literary Fiction Authors looking for a Traditional Career! Tinder Press, a division of Hachette, is going to be open to UNAGENTED SUBMISSIONS for two weeks in March. More information at Tinder Press.