books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Dark Force Invades the World of Children’s Literature: A Tale of Two James Freys

I sure did upset some people when I expressed my envy of YA/MG writers in last Sunday’s post. I said—in what I intended to be a humorous fashion—that the children’s wing of the book business looked to me like rainbows and unicorns compared to the dark fortress that is most of American publishing.

Well, it seems I was wrong. Somebody has been hunting the unicorns.

His name is James Frey.

This is the James Frey who cashed in on the big market in I-was-lost-but-now-I’m-found recovery tales that were hot stuff when Oprah was the queen of the American publishing universe. He wrote a heavily fictionalized memoir called A Million Little Pieces and passed it off as truth. When he got caught, he had to apologize to Miss Oprah on camera and take a major chewing out—after her endorsement had made him rich and famous, of course.

Well, now that Oprah is phasing out her show and book club, and the new hot stuff in the industry is Young Adult fiction, Mr. Frey is chasing the bux again by starting a sweatshop “factory” for YA writers.

His idea is that if you put a bunch of writers in front of a bunch of keyboards, they’ll come up with another Twilight—sort of like the old speculation that if you set enough chimpanzees tapping away at enough typewriters, they’ll eventually come up with Shakespeare’s plays.

But since chimpanzees are expensive to feed and care for, Frey thought he’d use MFA students from places like Princeton, where protecting yourself from scammers isn’t high on the academic agenda.  He came up with the world’s most draconian contract, offering YA writers $250 per manuscript, for which they retain legal liability and marketing responsibility—but relinquish copyright. That’s right. All their ideas and characters belong to Frey, to assign to other writers or even appropriate for his own work.

And he actually signed up a bunch of newly minted MFAs. It’s so embarrassing how needy this impenetrable industry can make us, isn’t it?

But there’s a footnote to this creepiness I haven’t seen mentioned: there’s another James Frey: James N. Frey—a writer who’s been around since the 1980s, writing nine novels and five how-to guides—helping and coaching young writers—not eating them for lunch.

This is the James Frey who wrote How To Write a Damn Good Novel —still in print since 1987. His latest writing guide, which came out this year is  How to Write A Damn Good Thriller

I had the chance to study with James N. Frey at a writers’ conference at California’s Asilomar in the late 90s. He taught me more about novel structure in one workshop than I’d learned in years of pouring over how-to-write books and endless copies of Writer’s Digest/Market/Poets and Writers, etc.

His Damn Good Novel was one of the first guides for novelists that used Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” theory to structure a novel. Mr. Frey took this concept of story from screenwriters—the one George Lucas used for the Star Wars films—and applied it to novel writing.

During our workshop, Mr. Frey hammered home the fact that certain a storytelling structure is hard-wired to the human brain, and that’s why it’s been around since Homer.

Here are some notes I saved from that workshop:

1) Introduce your hero in his native habitat—before he receives the Call to Adventure. This is why opening in the middle of a battle doesn’t work. You have to meet the traveler before you can understand the journey. (I’m not talking getting-up-in-the-morning, teeth-brushing native habitat—show her/him in a scene that involves conflict—but before the main journey starts.)

2) You need ONE hero. You can have as many gatekeepers, allies, mentors, and shapeshifting sidekicks as you want, but you can only have one protagonist.

3) The hero must return from his quest. This is why so many modern novels leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied. An ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it has to provide resolution. We must know the hero’s journey is done and see how he/she has been changed by the experience.

I don’t know Mr. James N. Frey, and he isn’t aware I’m writing this. Although, OK, he did call me a comic genius at that conference, which has given him a warm place in my heart. But mostly I can’t help feeling compassion for a writer who is only one initial away from confusion with the Darth Vader of publishing.

I thought he deserved to have somebody speak up for him and say he’s not this new Dark Disturbance in the Force you’ve been reading about—but more of a Yoda, full of wisdom and solid advice.

25 comments:

  1. This is why I come to your blog every Sunday. You might think only one post a week is not much, but what you say in one day, some of us need an entire month.

    Thank you, Anne, this is a wonderful post. Tweet it all year and maybe the loop will at least do two things; give our community a new look at a demon and a better look at a true hero of young writers.

    I hope someone goes to Huffington, maybe you, and blasts this across cyber-space. This time the rat won't have Oprah's venue to get him sales or give him a chance to apologize and get more sales. Actually, she might have done better to just ignore the troll.

    Another wonderful Sunday in blog-world-USA. :)

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  2. Writers are born and cannot be taught or created. However, born writers need to read a lot and be mentored.

    Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

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  3. I have both those books on my shelf.

    A Million Little Pieces was an insightful read into the mind of an addict, and did give me some inspirations for my womens fiction novel. The controversy had nothing to do with my purchasing the novel *ahem*

    - Damned Good Novel was one of the first how to writers help books I picked up. Fascinating, instructive, still a book I refer to when I get stuck on structure and processes.

    Thanks for the tip on the second book, and the conference notes you shared. I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing.

    This was an excellent topic Anne. I like the way you presented both authors. James Frye - creative non-fiction writer -has come a long way on his ever changing journey. Maybe not for the better.

    Still - doesn't James Patterson do somewhat the same? Uses a team of ghost writers to produce his James Cross series?

    Exploitation in this business certainly takes some unique forms.

    ........dhole

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  4. Thanks Florence: words like yours help me keep going!

    I'll check it out, David.

    Donna--I'm glad to hear you like James N. Frey's "Damn Good" books too.

    You're right that Patterson uses a stable of writers--but he PAYS them. There are also a number of legitimate book packagers who put together books like Gossip Girl and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But these writers make good money and don't have the hassle of marketing--or the legal liabilities. These are regular write-for-hire jobs. Lots of good reasons to go that way. Paychecks are nice.

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  5. Excellent post, Anne. Thank you for this essay.

    The hero must return from his quest. This is why so many modern novels leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied.

    Which is why I can't read literary fiction. I'm just so frustrated. I hate it when you're just left hanging. I want some kind of an ending.

    I'll have to get that book. It sounds like a great one. I love Jungian archetypes. They were fun in college.

    Thanks again for another great Sunday.

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  6. I read that article about James Frey last week and I was floored. Personally, I think it would be WAY better to self-publish my book than write for someone like Frey. Ugh. Not sure how he convinces those people that his way is going to benefit them. Even the guy who wrote I am Number Four with him, and earned plenty of residuals, feels manipulated and wants out. Sometimes even a big paycheck doesn't make up for being treated wrongly.

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  7. Anne--I still read literary fiction, but so often I feel cheated. All those brilliant sentences and ...thunk. I think it's why a lot of adults are reading YA, which has more of a back-to-basics structure.

    Sherrie--you are so right. Darth Frey is a GREAT argument for self publishing, isn't he? Of course, there are sociopaths everywhere. But he's a particularly shameless one.

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  8. Thank you for shinning light on the “good” James Frey and for leaving the “evil” one in a permanent shadow. What a narcissist; to think that he has the right to absorb the talent and dreams of others and put his name on them. Amazing. And, you’re right, so sad that there are writers out there that are so desperate to get their words seen. We all have that need. Luckily, most people we come across in the industry honor that need. After all, where would agents and publishers be with out it?

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  9. Thank you, Anne, for blasting this Frey creep. I don't watch Oprah often but did see her nail him. (I read where Oprah's still upset she created that monster.) What Frey's doing is despicable. How he can induce others to write for him under those conditions is beyond me. Some things I just don't understand.

    I don't care if Patterson pays others to write because he pays well and nothing's a secret. However, I don't purchase stable books. I prefer my money to go to a writer who's put his/her heart into a book.

    Thank you for shining a spotlight on the GOOD Frey. And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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  10. I wouldn't buy a stable book now, but I sure did like me some Nancy Drew when I was a kid--"Carolyn Keene" was the name for a huge stable of writers. Initially they were only paid $125 a book and had to give up rights, but those were 1934 depths-of- the-Depression dollars. Not great pay, but a fortune compared to Frey's pittance.

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  11. great post!
    I've heard about evil JF and not realised there were two. I would have confused them.
    The good JF's books sound excellent, I will check them out.

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  12. I'm not clear how Bad Frey's idea works. If he pays some MFA type to write a YA ms. and pays them $250 for it, how would they retain "legal liability" and why would they have "marketing responsibility?" Wouldn't that be like paying somebody for a short story for a magazine and that's that; magazine retains reprint rights & etc. In short it BUYS the thing forever?

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  13. I'm glad you're highlight "good Frey" and that commenters are glad to know the difference.

    Thanks also for being sensitive to the MFA students who have signed with Frey's sweatshop. In the Galley Cat article, commenters call them "hacks" as in that Frey pays "hacks" to do the work and he keeps all the rights. Anyone reading your blog who writes novels knows how much heart it takes to tell a story, and assuming these students are hacks is mean. I see them as people looking for an opportunity--only, from the outside we can see it's distasteful all around.

    It's a sad situation, really.

    I do have Good Frey's book and like it very much. I've always been interested in Campbell's hero's journey and I find myself returning to this format often for stories.

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  14. Churadogs--Magazines generally buy one-time rights. They certainly never expect to buy rights to characters and plots. Some intellectual property is bought outright--like poems for greeting cards--but they become the sole property of the buyer. (If somebody's offended by your "happy birthday, you jerk" message, Hallmark has to pay if there's a lawsuit.) But Frey pays the writer as an "independent contractor" so it's not a simple purchase-of-product situation. Click on the links above and they'll take you to a copy of the contract.

    Sierra, you're so right. I was offended when I saw these writers called hacks. They're victims, pure and simple. They're you and me--duped by a guy who seemed to have the blessings of respected universities.

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  15. Great post! Comic genius?
    Maybe James N could sue? Sounds like James has money to spare.

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  16. Thanks for the explanation re "rights" & etc. Jeesh. That's really bad and, yeah, his victims are . . . victims. Well, we should all make little Voodoo dolls of Bad Frey and stick pins in it. Or pick a Bad Frey Day and everyone meditate simultaneously that Bad Frey's karmic wheel rolls over him. Or just write a best selling roman a clef with Bad Frey as a really, really humiliatingly hideous character. Oh, wait, what am I thinking? He'd love the publicity, I'm sure. Especially the humiliation part.

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  17. Ruth Harris bestselling author of HUSBANDS & LOVERSNovember 23, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    Good article, Anne. There seems to be no end to rapaciousness. Personally, I'd call him James Prey -- as in preying on inexperienced writers. (And that's the expurgated version!!!)

    There used to be (maybe still are) something called fee reading services. A long-standing way to take advantage of naive writers dating as far back as I can remember. Like cockroaches, exploiters don't die, they only evolve.

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  18. Ruth--there are still scammy, fee-charging agents out there. Wherever there are naive newbies, there are predators. James Prey. I like it.

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  19. I came over here from Anne Gallagher at Piedmont Writer where you posted a comment.

    After reading this fascinating and informative post, I'm hooked, and have signed up as a follower. I'm a writer; that is, I have written stories and poetry (published some, won some awards) since first grade and I'm now 70, and about to publish a first "novel"--a memoir! Never too late, I say.

    I tried to read A Million Little Pieces and couldn't get through it. But I AM interested in reading James N. Frey's book!!!

    Nice to meet you. Happy Thanksgiving!!!
    Ann

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  20. Anne, first of all, thank you for the introduction to the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. I've never been there! And thanks, too, for this great post. Fascinating about James Frey's new venture. And I have How to Write a Damn Good Novel, but never realized it was written by another James Frey. In fact, I never read it. And now I will.

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  21. I can't believe Princeton grads are falling for that. I've had my own run in with stupidity and a scammer but I didn't graduate with an MFA from Princeton. I would never sell my ideas and 'manuscript' for $250. I feel sorry for the Good Frey. I'm sure people are confusing them all the time now.

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  22. Anne--Welcome!

    Meghan--I have a lot of those how-to-write books I've never opened, too.

    Andrea--the problem was the guy actually came into the classroom, so he seemed to have the blessings of the University. He made it sound great. And who reads the fine print--right?

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  23. That's crazy about the infamous Frey. That doesn't make sense - you'd think those Princetonites wouldn't want there name associated with Frey.

    The 3 points you saved from the 2nd Frey are interesting! Nice thoughts. Reminded by of the Odyssey.

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  24. So what? I want to share this post on Facebook, I am under name John McCain there.

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  25. "So What?" Odd reaction. I'm not sure if "John McCain" above is some sort of spammer. Maybe he's re-running for President?

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