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.

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