Friday, November 19, 2010

A little education would go a long way

Now playing on the iPod - "O Children" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Making news recently is the abysmal write-for-hire contract being promoted by James "A Million Little Pieces" Frey (see the story in New York Magazine, also comments by John Scalzi and a follow-up by Scalzi).

I confess that it took reading these articles and comments before I realized that my Bachelor of Arts in English, emphasis on Creative Writing, had not a single class about publishing: what it entails and how it works. Nothing about the nuts-and-bolts basics such as the difference between a query and a synopsis. And certainly nothing about recognizing the warning signs of bad contracts. Nor, it seems, do many MFA programs offer such information.

Creative writing classes can be very valuable to honing writing skills. But trying to make inroads in publishing without a basic education of how the industry works makes an already difficult task even more onerous.

There is good information out there, but for the most part it's up to writers to find it through research, and through trial-and-error. This takes time (time that I'm sure most of us would rather spend doing the actual writing). A week's worth of lectures on publishing would do young writers a world of good (and this shouldn't just be limited to MFA level courses - not all of us have the money or desire to get a Master's degree).

What I'd like to see discussed in a publishing lecture series:

  • the markets for fiction and how they are changing
  • traditional publishing vs. e-publishing vs. self-publishing - an overview of the pros and cons of each
  • the things you need: a finished manuscript, a query, a synopsis
  • the importance of revisions and reader feedback before you start looking for an agent or publisher
  • how to avoid obvious scams and flim-flam artists
  • the basics of copyright law, or, why you don't need to mail yourself a copy of your manuscript

If for whatever reason you're not interested in publishing and just want to write for your own pleasure, maybe run off a few copies at and hand them out to your friends and folks, that's awesome, and more power to you. But if you want to be published one day (and face it, most of us would like that, if not for the mostly mythical big bucks as for the chance to reach an audience beyond friends and folks), it behooves you to learn the ropes of the industry. Because that's what it is. It's business, and tying yourself to an awful contract or banging your head against the doors of literary agents because you don't know the basics of querying will do you no favors, and may put you off writing altogether.

Take a look to the right - those Books and Writing links are a good place to start (I highly recommend Miss Snark - the site is no longer active but the archives are a treasure trove of valuable information).

As for me, I need to get back to work on my query letter - maybe the next revision will get it into fighting shape!

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