Friday, January 21, 2011

Pitfalls in the Writing Road

posted by Nancy
I'm delighted to welcome New York Times bestselling author A. C. Crispin to the Lair today. I fell in love with Ann's first book and have followed her writing ever since. She's not only a bestselling author of science fiction tie-in novels (Star Wars, Star Trek and others) and original science fiction and fantasy but an acclaimed writing teacher (her seminars at DragonCon are always sellouts). As though that weren't enough, she's one of the spearheads of Writer Beware.

Ann has some tips we should heed as we go into January and people dive back into writing and submitting. Welcome, Ann!

In the Lair, we love to hear how people broke into publication. What was your first book, and how did you learn it had been sold? What did you do to celebrate?


My first novel was titled Yesterday's Son, and it was a Star Trek book. I wrote it in 1978, submitted it early in 1979, and it was finally bought early in 1982.

The Star Trek editor at that time Mimi Panitch, called me at my Census Bureau job to tell me they'd like to acquire the novel. I'd been in touch with Pocket Books a few times over the years, so I knew Paramount had approved the novel for publication.

I was very excited. I told my boss I was taking annual leave for the afternoon, and left work at the US Census Bureau, and drove home. Then I called all my best friends and writing buddies. Everyone dropped what they were doing and gathered at my house for an impromptu party. They splashed Andre champagne over me, cheering, out on my deck, then we drank a better variety!

I believe I got the news on a Friday, so the party went on for quite a while...

What is Writer Beware, and what led you to join in founding it?

Back in 1997, my husband, Michael, who was then president of SFWA, and I noticed that there was a proliferation of "agents" and "publishers" on the internet. Because I was a published author who chatted in the Writers Cafe on AOL (now defunct), aspiring writers there often asked me questions relating to these ads, which is one of the reasons I spent time tracking them, and reading them online.

I realized almost immediately that these "agents" and "publishers" were bogus. They charged writers money, and they couldn't cite any published books to their credit. The agents claimed their lists of author clients was "privileged," the publishers claimed that all writers had to pay publishers to get published.

I knew this was all horse hockey, so I began digging into the subject. Michael suggested that I write an article for the SFWA Bulletin about what I'd discovered. I found that a friend of mine, Brenda Clough, was already working on such an article at the request of the Bulletin editor. Brenda and I decided to do a series of articles and team up to do them.

We wrote, I believe, 7 articles about assorted facets of writing scams. Agents charging reading fees, vanity publishers that claimed to be no different from Random House in what they did for authors, editors that had no editorial experience or credentials, contests that were bogus and designed to make authors pay steep entry fees...we checked it all out.

I kept digging on my own, going beyond the scope of the articles, and amassed a wealth of information. I also found that Professor Jim Fisher of Edinboro University, and a website called The Write Connection, were tracking scams.

Both Professor Fisher and The Write Connection stopped their activities when they were threatened with lawsuits. They both offered to give me their databases containing info about scammers.

I also became involved with helping the victims of another big case involving a literary agency. (All of these cases are written up on Writer Beware, btw.) I realized that the scamming of aspiring writers was a multi million dollar enterprise on the part of these con artists posing as agents, editors and publishers.

About that time, I encountered a website written and maintained by SFWA member Victoria Strauss. It was called Writer Beware, and it was part of her own personal website.

I called Victoria to tell her about the databases I had (and I'm not very computer literate!). Victoria and I kept talking. She agreed to incorporate the Fisher data and The Write Connection data into her already existing Writer Beware info.

My husband suggested that Writer Beware be sponsored by SFWA, and that was a great idea, because SFWA had INSURANCE for its officers, directors, and committee chairs who were volunteering for SFWA.

Soon after that SFWA officially sponsored Writer Beware, I believe in 1998. Victoria and I began scam hunting in earnest.

Victoria maintains the website, database, and blog. I do public outreach, including interacting with law enforcement and AG's, etc.

So Writer Beware is the following, all volunteer endeavor.

1. A website. http://www.writerbeware.com/

2. A blog: http://www.accrispin.blogspot.com/

3. A group of volunteers, mainly Victoria and myself, plus assorted adjunct help as needed, that tracks writing scams and warns writers about them. Our info is free, and confidential.

4. A website and blog that gives lots and lots of information and links to aspiring writers to help them not only avoid writing scams, but helps with the business end of writing, as well as tips on writing well.

The best way to understand what Writer Beware is is to visit the website and click on the links. It's an extensive resource nowadays, and is often listed on "best of" lists for writing resources.

I still serve as Chair of Writer Beware, and Victoria is Vice Chair. Our biggest and most challenging case to date is working on getting the most successful writing scammer EVER out of business. But, with the help of the Florida Atty Gen's office, we hope he'll be out of business, possibly this year.

What is the most common mistaken belief you see among writers seeking publication?

The most common mistake we see is writers who are looking for a "shortcut" to having a career as a successful writer. They really believe that publishing with bogus author mills or vanity presses will bring them the same attention and money as publishing with Simon and Schuster or HarperCollins.

These writers sign contracts in the belief that "if I can just get it out there" word of mouth will catapult their novel to bestsellerdom. POD publishers can't get their books on the shelves in bookstores, so it's highly unlikely that enough readers will see or buy the book for it to "go viral" as they say.

These aspiring authors also buy into writing myths such as "you have to know someone to get published by a New York commercial publisher," (or even sleep with someone! Yikes!) Another myth scammers feed them is, "your book MUST be professionally edited before it can be submitted." Horse hockey. Your book must be professionally WRITTEN. Editors don't care how your book "got good" -- they just care whether it IS good.

Aspiring authors also believe they can "shortcut" their way to getting an agent by various chicanery, visiting agents in person, etc. Nope.

Just write a really good book. I know...I know...there's the rub, eh?

What are some of the scams with particular appeal for aspiring writers? Is there a particular one that seems to snare more people than others?

Aspiring writers with no support system, such as a writers group are often so hungry to know they've been read that they fall prey to scams. Scammers know just what to say that is music to these isolated writers ears. Of course the scammer hasn't read the work (maybe a page so they can refer to a character by name), but they are very good at telling writers what they want to hear -- knowing the writers will pay to hear it.

The scam that seems to suck in a lot of people is the one where they have to pay a nominal sum of money, usually under a hundred dollars, for a "critique."

One of the scammers on our "Thumbs Down" agency list has suckered thousands (no exaggeration) of writers with this one. Writers are so desperate to know they've been read, and that the "professional" reviewer liked their work, that they queue right up to hand over their money for this one.

The "critiques" of course, are a bunch of boilerplate phrases that the freelance "reviewer" (often with no professional credentials at all in the writing field) can copy and paste together to form the critique. Two writers I know of, with two entirely different novels, even different genres, got the same critique from this company, word for word.

The "critique" will often suggest that the writer needs a "full edit" of his or her book, and that's where it gets pricey (though no more professional).

As a writing teacher, do you see any particular problems in manuscripts or any particular mistakes people make in the submission process?

The biggest single writing-related cause for rejection is having a poor style. The style doesn't flow, it's awkward, the sentences are monotonous, there is lots of repetition, and the prose is just plain dull.

The best way I know to develop a great style is to read, read, read, and then read some more.

If you aren't reading at least a novel a week, you're not reading enough. (In addition to research books for your project, etc.)

You have an exciting new tie-in book coming out in May, and I’m thrilled that you’re joining us then to talk about it. How did this project come about, and what can you tell us about it now?

When an editor at Disney was given permission to commission a tie-in novel about Jack Sparrow's backstory, from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, her first thought was to read the Star Wars novels dealing with Han Solo, another "loveable rogue."

Luckily for me, the Disney editor thought I'd handled the character the best of all the other authors who'd been hired to write Han Solo adventures. I'd also written Han's "backstory" so she knew I could handle the "reverse dominoes" effect it takes to create a character's backstory.

So the editor phoned my agent and asked whether I was available to write the first Pirates of the Caribbean novel aimed at an adult audience.

Now, three years later, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom, will be an epic (624 pages) hardcover from Disney Editions, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide.

The book will be released May 17, 2011.

Anyone interested in a sneak peak can read excerpts from it on my website:

http://www.accrispin.com/

Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you all!

Ann also recommends www.absolutewrite.com as a good writing reference.

Do you have questions for Ann about the publishing industry or about writing and submitting for publication? Please make any questions very specific so she can keep her answers brief and to the point. Since Ann's first book was a Star Trek tie-in, do you (or someone you know) have a favorite Star Trek character, book or episode?


Ann is traveling today, with irregular internet access, so it make take her a while to answer questions, but she will get to them.

(photos for this post came from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/)

45 comments:

flchen1 said...

Just wanted to say WOW! Hi, AC! I've read your Star Wars and Star Trek titles!! Wow! (Sorry, a little incoherent!)

Thanks for sharing your call story and for the lovely interview today!

flchen1 said...

It's terrific that you've created this resource for aspiring and new writers--it sounds like there are plenty who prey on those new to the industry :(

And your Han Solo trilogy was fabulous--one of the few types of books both my husband and I read :)

jo robertson said...

Hi, A.C.! Welcome to the Lair. It's great to have someone with your extensive knowledge of scammers who prey on newbies in the writing industry. I know so many people who've been taken in by the kinds of tricks you explain. Thanks for all the good work you do to bring such scams to writers' attentions.

I'd like to know more about your writing. I confess to not being much of a sci-fi fantasy reader, but I'd like to develop a taste for it! Any suggestions of where to start with your work?

BJ said...

Wow.......Just stopped in ...great info...I'll take note should I ever venture into the depths of my mind and decide to write a book...LOL (OMG wouldn't that be scary)
Thanks a Bunch!!!!! :0)

Sheree said...

Wow, what a lot of info! And Star Trek and Star Wars, too!

Anna Campbell said...

Hey, Fedora! Speaking of rogues of the bird variety, like Jack Sparrow, you have G. Rooster!

Wow, Ann, what a service you do for writers putting all this information together. It breaks my heart when people fall for these schemes and then realize they've made a huge mistake. I managed to save a friend of mine who was about to sign with one of these bogus agencies. Thank goodness she listened to me - sometimes people are so stubbornly sure that this HAS to be the right way, you can't talk sense to them. Until they come a cropper which is so sad to see.

Congratulations on the Jack Sparrow book! Wow, what an amazing gig that is!

Helen said...

Well done Fedora enjoy your day with him

Nancy thank you for bringing Ann along to meet us today.

Ann
Great information there I am always sorry to see that there are people who want to take advantage of other people trying to do something that they love so sad.


I haven't read any of your books but I gotta say that I must look up the Hans Solo one I do have a crush on him and the Jack Sparrow one sounds great

Have Fun
Helen

Anna Sugden said...

Welcome, Ann. Let me add my plaudits to the others for the wonderful job you do for writers to protect them from these scams!

I think you can't repeat enough how important it is for writers to write the best book they can, and to keep going, rather than trying to find the quick sale.

Wow on the Hans Solo books and on the new Jack Sparrow book - how awesome!

What did you think of the 'new' Star Trek film, with the younger generation? I loved how they handled the story and various plot-lines.

If you'd written the first three chapters to the Star War trilogy, would you have given Darth Vader a different backstory?

EilisFlynn said...

Good to know the story behind the scamhunters! Thanks, Ann!

Nancy said...

Fedora, congrats on the bird! I loved the Han Solo books, too. And I still have my copy of Yesterday's Son.

Nancy said...

Hi, Jo--It's easy to be taken in, isn't it, when people say "for this much money, you can have your dream." It's sad to see people fall prey to that.

Nancy said...

Hi, BJ--If you do decide to write a book, there are great essays on Ann's website.

Nancy said...

Hi, Sheree--thanks for stopping by!

Nancy said...

Anna, I was struck by your comment "you can't talk sense to them." When people get set on something, in writing or in life, they sometimes just don't want to hear that it isn't a good thing.

Nancy said...

Helen, the Han Solo books are fabulous! I've been reading the excerpts of the Jack Sparrow one Ann posted on the web, and I think all of our Sparrow and Depp fans will be very happy.

Nancy said...

Anna, that's an interesting question about Darth Vader. I'm curious, too.

Nancy said...

Hi, Eilis--thanks for stopping by!

A. C. Crispin said...

Response for Jo:

A lot of my work is out of print, but can be gotten from Abe books. There's a complete bibliography on my website, www.accrispin.com

It all depends on what you like to read. My writing has been very varied. Half of my output has been tie-in novels, but that still leaves me with about 10 original novels.

You can read descriptions and reviews of most of my books on amazon.com

Hope that answers your question.

-Ann C. Crispin

A. C. Crispin said...

Response for Anna:

I confess I wasn't all that impressed with the "new" Star Trek. I thought it was well cast and well acted, but the storyline was completely bogus "rubber science" and it was so ridiculous that it kept throwing me out of the film.

Also, I thought (especially) Spock and Uhura, two of my favorite ST characters were way out of character. Not the actors fault -- J.J. Abrams admitted cheerfully he'd never seen the original Star Trek. The idea that Spock would openly sleep with a woman under his command, his own student, was ridiculous. Hmmmmph!

If I'd been writing the first Star Wars trilogy, I'd have made sure I got a little kid who could act to play Anikan. And I would never have had him scream "Yippee!" about 15 times. Such an anachronism!

-Ann C. Crispin

A. C. Crispin said...

Further response to Anna's comment about the "first" Star Wars trilogy.

I have to admit it, the first SW trilogy annoyed the heck out of me. If I'd been writing it, I'd have written it so differently! No midichlorians, no endless pod race, a lot more characterization, less special effects.

I'd have given Ani more motivation to turn to the dark side, such as a betrayal by another Jedi, one he trusted.

And I would have handled Padme's pregnancy and death completely differently. I'd have had her really die by Anikan's hand, rather than just get knocked down.

(Padme didn't look pregnant enough to be carrying one baby, much less two!)

I could go on, but neither of us has all day.

I'll check back for further questions later today.

-Ann C. Crispin
A.C. Crispin
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
Publisher: Disney Editions
Release date: May 17, 2011

Nancy said...

Ann, I wish you HAD written the Star Wars prequels. Those would be much better! I also thought Padme's death was lame. I a society this advanced, she should know she's carrying 2 babies, not one, and the death scene came across to me as her just giving up, which seemed so out of character.

I agree about Spock and Uhura. That was the jarring character note for me in that movie. Yeah, the plot had holes you could pilot the Enterprise through, but they didn't bother me as much as they did you and several other friends.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hi AC and welcome to the lair. Just wanted to say thanks for all the work you do to warn aspiring authors of the dangers and pitfalls in this crazy business. Can't tell you how many newbies I know who proudly tell me they sold their first book ever - only to discover after a little questioning, that they'd been taken for an expensive ride.

I've heard stories of agents disappearing with royalty checks and advances, with no recovery in sight. Believe me, I checked out your website thoroughly before I signed with my agent.

So thank you for your efforts. They are much appreciated.

A. C. Crispin said...

Response to Donna:

Thanks for the kind words about Writer Beware, Donna. I'm sorry to hear you have friends who got burned.

Most scam agents, however, never get to the "contract" or "payment" stage with their victims.

Instead of acting as real agents in any fashion, these people are merely con artists posing as agents...they have no real contacts in the publishing world. These so-called "agents" don't know a single editor...not one. Most of the time they never bother to submit the manuscripts sent to them.

Writer Beware heard of one case where the never-submitted manuscripts a scam publisher had collected filled an entire jail cell after the guilty pair fled before they could be arrested.

What most scam agents are expert at is not the publishing field, but in telling their victims what they want to hear.

What scam agents want is your money.

Writers...protect yourself!

Writer Beware has two "Thumbs Down" lists -- one of scammy agents and another of scammy publishers. Those lists ID the worst con artists by name. It's a good idea for any aspiring writer to print out these lists and keep them handy. Check back -- WB uupdates them periodically.

Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware
www.writerbeware.com

AKA...

A.C. Crispin
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
Publisher: Disney Editions
Release Date: May 17, 2011

Nancy said...

Hi, Donna--I wish more newbies would pay attention to sites like Writer Beware, Preditors & Editors, etc., before they jump.

Slush said...

Hi AC! Loved the article. Thanks for sharing all of the helpful information about Writer Beware.

Also, I wanted to see if you could pass on my thanks to the other volunteers. I know what it's like to want to help others but I know how time consuming the process is. As a budding writer, I want to thank everyone who is working so hard to help us through the sharing of information.

So, thanks again AC and special thanks to the Bandits.

Eldheni said...

Hi Ann! Just popped in to see what you were sharing here today. As always, lovely to hear more from you. Have a safe trip. Talk to you again soon.

Nancy said...

Hi, Slush--Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to say that.

Nancy said...

Eldheni, nice of you to stop by!

jo robertson said...

Thanks, A.C. I'll look for your books. I really want to explore a new (to me) genre.

Tie-in stories to movies. Can you explain a little more about what that means? Sorry for being so dense. It's not a novelization, right, but something new?

Joan said...

Hi AC, Welcome to The Lair.

Very interesting article and such important information to have available for the aspiring writer.

I recently had an article printed in the local newspapers Neighborhood section about my adoption of two kitties from the Humane Society. The reporter must have Googled me because he asked about my writing and ended up incorporating information etc about that.

Well, a week later I got an email from what appears to be a local POD publisher with a brief "Ok, so I'd like to publish one of your manuscripts, maybe all"

This is not the route I choose to take but did visit the very professional, bright, feel good website. The three authors highlighted had genre specific music attached to their pictures i.e. the Western author had the theme to Bonanza LOL

Nancy said...

Joan, the theme from Bonanza _is_ pretty cool! But not enough of a lure for a savvy bandita.

Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy said...

Congrats on grabbing the GR, Fedora!

And BIG WELCOME to the Lair, Ann! So happy to have you join us and BIG THANX to Nancy for inviting you.

Your POTC novel sounds fantastic, can't wait to get my hands on it! And like everyone else, I wish you had written the 3 Star Wars prequels. What we got was pretty lame. :-(

I have used Writer Beware on several occasions when something writing related sounded a bit too good to be true. Each time, my suspicions were confirmed!

a different AC ;-)

Nancy said...

Hey, Aunty Cindy--yeah, I was disappointed in those prequels, too. Didn't have enough heart, imho. The first-released trilogy just sucked me right into the characters. The prequels, not so much!

Beth Andrews said...

Welcome to the lair, Ann! You provide a much needed service to the writing community - thank you!

Congrats on your latest release. I look forward to checking it out :-)

Nancy said...

Hi, Beth--there are excerpts on Ann's website already.

A. C. Crispin said...

Reply to Jo:

Tie-in novels aren't restricted to s.f. and fantasy worlds. I've seen tie-ins based on "Murder She Wrote," for example.

A "tie-in" story is written by a writer who is contracted to a particular media or other established franchise that the writer didn't create. For example, "tie-in" novels have been written in the Star Trek, Star Wars, Highlander, etc., universe.

The writer creates an original story featuring the characters from the tie-in universe. Sometimes the writer will write a sequel or prequel to a popular episode.

My Pirates of the Caribbean novel, for example, is the "backstory" of Jack Sparrow, detailing how he first became a Captain. I created the story myself, it wasn't given to me. I had parameters as to "where" I had to leave the character, in the Disney continuity. But as long as I got to the point specified, HOW I got the character to that point was pretty much up to me.

I hope that clarifies things.

-Ann C. Crispin
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
Publisher: Disney Editions
Release Date: May 17, 2011

Christine Wells said...

Hi A.C., a warm welcome to the lair! Nancy, thank you for bringing A.C. to us.

A.C. You're doing great work identifying frauds in the business. It's so easy to hang out a shingle, isn't it? I feel sorry for writers who are taken in by these schemes. I also get frustrated sometimes that those same writers don't do their homework. They believe things that are too good to be true and then turn around and blame everybody else when they don't get what they want.

Congrats on getting to write Cap'n Jack! How amazing!

A. C. Crispin said...

Reply to Joan:

Joan, no matter how "pretty" and professional a website is, just remember to recognize WHO the website is targeted to reach.

If you compare the website of a scam agent as opposed to a legit agent, you'll notice that the legit agent is promoting his or her WRITERS and their works...what they are NOT doing is advertising for writers to send them manuscripts.

Real agents NEVER advertise for clients. They don't have to.

The same thing goes for scammy publishers. If you look at the website for, say, HarperCollins, or Simon & Schuster, you'll realize that what these websites are basically advertising is their books -- essentially, "Look! See our books! They're great! Readers, check out our books! Buy them! Our authors are great!"

But the pitch on a scammer's site goes like, "Have you written a manuscript? Want to get published? We're looking for authors to publish! We want your work, we'll publish you! We specialize in first time authors! Fear not, we're traditional publishers! Your work will be available from sea to shining sea! We're just the same as Random House!"

See the difference?

Legit publisher is aiming their website at READERS.

Fake scam publisher is aiming their website at AUTHORS.

We give complete info on Writer Beware on how to spot the scammers.

Best,

-Ann C. Crispin
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
Publisher: Disney Editions
Release Date: Mzy 17, 2011

Nancy said...

Hi, Christine--What you say is so true about people not doing their homework. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I hope the flood waters have receded.

A. C. Crispin said...

Reply to Christine:

Christine, you are so right...it's such a shame when writers don't bother to do any checking before handing their work over to an agent or publisher -- and, all too often, if we're talking scam agent or publisher, ALSO handing over a chunk of their hard-earned money!

These same writers would never think of just paying anyone who calls himself a contractor to put a new roof on their home. They'd check references, etc.

A note: Don't bother checking the Better Business Bureau in regards to agents or publishers. The BBB knows zippo about publishing, and they have no way to judge whether an agent or publisher is real, or legit.

As you pointed out, anyone can hang out a shingle overnight and call themselves a "literary agent" or "publisher." It's not regulated at all.

-Ann C. Crispin
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
Publisher: Disney Editions
Release Date: May 17, 2011

jo robertson said...

Great, A.C., thanks for explaining.

Nancy said...

Everyone, don't forget Ann will be back in May to talk in more detail about the Jack Sparrow prequel, The Price of Freedom.

Carol A. Strickland said...

What a great article! Thanks for being interviewed; I learned a lot. Now I've got to run out and find those Han Solo novels. Plus it's so great to hear from someone who also was flabbergasted by the "rubber science" (love that term!), and Spock and Uhura characters in the latest so-called "Star Trek." Uhura did NOT sleep her way to the top of her profession! Sheesh.
Much luck to you. I'm looking forward to your next book.

depreeja said...

Hi Ann,

Thankyou for sharing your experience in publishing and pitfalls to watch out for.

I have one manuscript for a fantasy novel completed and am part-way through the sequel while I wait to publish book one. I have a list of agents that I am slowly working my way down, but recently a friend suggested that I should consider publishing on Amazon kindle. In your opinion would I be better to carry on trying to find a traditional agent or self-publish my novel as an e-book?

If the answer (as so often happens) is 'it depends' then what are the pros and cons?

Thank-you for your time

arbraun said...

Are there any contests where the writer has to pay that aren't scams? I noticed the annual Horror/Ghost contest wants me to pay $7, which doesn't seem too bad, but I can't help questioning ever paying to be in a contest.