Submitting Stories to LitMags, Part II: Getting them back

Just over six months ago, I wrote a brief post about how I’d shaken some of the Covidious dust from my writer self and sent five short stories out to magazines. They had been sitting here in my computer doing nothing to benefit me, after I had gone through all the agonies and joys of bringing them to life.

I said I would report back.

Here’s the report:

  • One story came back in November, a rejection with some positive feedback and some useful comments that I will use in the revision.
  • Another story also came back in November, a rejection along with an invitation to submit to the journal (Crazyhorse) again. I sent the story out to another journal in January and it was turned down in May.
  • One came back in March with a nice note basically saying that they’d love to tell me why they rejected the piece, but they “receive so many submissions…” blah blah blah.
  • One was accepted in March. “A Change in the Climate” is forthcoming from Prairie Fire. Not sure when, but this delights me as I respect Prairie Fire a lot. The last story of mine that they published ended up in a Journey Prize Anthology.
  • One story is still being considered. Sigh.

I am currently working on a new novel, The Green House, and I have decided to release it in instalments here on The Militant Writer. Watch for the first chapter soon.

In the meantime, you might be interested in my forthcoming adventure with psilocybin, which you can read about here.

Submitting Stories to LitMags

I have had five completed short stories languishing in my computer (yes, that’s what they do there. I checked) for several years, and this weekend I have determined to get them out again to seek their homes in appropriate journals. It is a very demoralizing experience to mail out stories. I used to find it exciting, but that was because I used to be certain everything I wrote would be accepted immediately. I have been humbled. But here we go….

Wish me luck because clearly it requires some of that, as well as work and talent. I have no control over the luck or the talent, but I have put in the work!

I’ll keep you posted.

How do you beat writer’s block?

How do you beat writer’s block?

WritersBlock.jpgI suppose that some of you have never had writer’s block. I’ve heard about people like you. I’ve read about people like you. I guess I even know some people like you (I am thinking here of a long-time writer friend who seems to be writing morning noon and night, in pubs and coffee shops, on scraps of paper and in notebooks: his fingers fairly fly across his keyboard when he’s on a computer; and I’m thinking of another, more meticulous writer friend who sits herself down at a certain time each morning and writes for a specified number of hours every single day, then stops).

Life with a block is bad

I have been through several periods of writer’s block, some brief  (about one of which I have written previously on this blog) and some extended, and I detest them. They make me feel depressed and lazy. Most of them arise from a lack of confidence, and of course they also contribute to a lack of confidence. They are almost impossible to “will” away.

Sometimes the lack of confidence is in the particular piece I’m working on, and this has led me to abandon quite a few stories, articles and even books, half-written. Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in my ability to write anything of value. In those periods I can write if I force myself to do it, but when I read what I have written I am overly critical and I start cutting everything out. There is no point to continuing, and I stop.

And sometimes I have no confidence in the entire enterprise of writing: particularly the closely crafted writing of long pieces that I particularly enjoy. I decide that no one is reading anything longer than a caption or more complex than a set of instructions any more, and that what I am doing is an absolute waste of time. In those periods I consider my decades-long writing career to have been pointless, and think about all the things I could have done instead that would have paid me better. However, I am unable to do anything but write, nor can I even begin to contemplate the act of giving it up. Despite my wonderful family and many friends, my life would be barren if writing wasn’t in it. So I am stuck.

Life without a block is good

Happily, at the moment I am not blocked. If anything, the opposite is true. All I want to do is write. I have recently completed three short stories that had been simmering for months or years, and I am pleased with them. I have dozens of ideas for blog posts that I want to write – not only here, but also on my I’m All Write blog site, and on my Success After Sixty blog site. Everything suddenly seems like a topic that needs to be explored with words. My confidence has returned.

What got me out of my writer’s block this time was a period during which I forced myself to write, despite how hard it was, no matter how pointless it felt – mainly because I couldn’t stand living in my brain if I wasn’t creating something. I started by leaving  my usual surroundings and writing in Second Cups and Starbucks, on airplanes, even on the subway. I used a writing competition deadline as my impetus, and tried to convince myself that the deadline was as inflexible as one for an editing client would be.  I got one story finished and submitted, and then I did another. Getting around to the third was easier – I was able to do even the preliminary work on that one at home. And now I’m eager to start the fourth. It’s fun again.

I’m not the only writer to have experienced writer’s block. A whole article about the condition appeared recently in the New Yorker. The author, Maria Konnakova, tells us that Graham Greene kept a dream journal to avoid it. She goes on to discuss opinions on the subject of writer’s block from psychotherapists and psychologists – two of whom concluded that we are not all created equal: there are four different kinds of blocked writers, they decided. (It is interesting to read their list and to figure out where on the spectrum you might fit.) These two – psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios – even developed a therapeutic intervention that seemed to help blocked writers.

When you have a writer’s block, no one cares but you, but you care about it so much that it affects everything else you do.  I hope I never have it again – maybe if I never stop writing again, I’ll never have to start again? – but if I do I’m going to re-read this post and Konnakova’s article.

So, how about you? Have you had writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

In confidence

“You will be glad to know that there comes a time when you no longer care as much as you once did about what other people think of what you write. Now you write primarily to please yourself. After many years of practice and of being your own worst critic, you see that when you are ready to let a piece of writing go, it is because it really does have merit. Nothing has changed except your perspective, and your knowledge that you’ve earned the right to feel the way you do.”

Wattpad: Engaging Readers as You Write

Note: This article previously appeared in a slightly different form in Write, The Magazine of The Writers Union of Canada

Confession: Sometimes I have trouble writing the next page of my new novel. WPNot because I am short of ideas, but because I have a lot of other urgent matters that demand my attention. I have often envied the writers whose editors or literary agents I imagine standing at their sides like midwives, encouraging them throughout their labour, reminding them of the rewards of manuscript delivery, telling them how much the world wants to see their next baby, and finally urging them to “push.”

When I heard about Wattpad, an Internet platform for readers and writers that attracts 27 million unique visitors per month, and 200,000 uploads of writing per day, I thought it might be part of the answer to my problem. And it has been. But it is also other things.

What It Is

Wattpad is a social storytelling platform where writers can register to post all kinds of work – poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction – and where readers can read that work: all at no charge.

Most writers post short segments of their works in progress (1,000 to 2,000 words at a time, sometimes much less, sometimes much more), adding to it at regular (or irregular) intervals. Some writers are posting whole manuscripts in serial format that they have previously completed. Others (like me) are posting early drafts of longer works one section at a time. Still others slap up writing fragments like ill-mixed paint with hairs in it, and leave it there to dry — perhaps intending to come back and edit later, perhaps not.

Once the piece is up there, the effort to attract readers begins. You can contribute to this process (but probably only once) by emailing all of your friends and inviting them to check your story out, and by posting your Wattpad link to other social media sites (here’s mine). Of course, you also want to encourage visitors to your page whom you don’t already know, and you can do this indirectly by reading and commenting on the writing of others on the site, getting involved in the discussion forums, and entering the informal competitions Wattpad puts on from time to time. The goal is to get people to “follow” you so that they will be notified whenever you post a new installment or an update.

Every time someone takes a look at a segment you have posted, your “read” counter goes up. Readers can also vote for or post a comment on your work. The more reads and votes you get, the greater are your chances of being noticed by even more readers.

Some people use Wattpad as an end in itself – they are not interested in publishing elsewhere. Others are creating works ultimately intended for self- or traditional publication. Many writers have several projects on the go. Some ask for input and guidance from their readers; others just write.

Who’s on Wattpad?

The two Canadians who developed Wattpad (Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen) intended it for readers as much as writers, and Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content: Publishing, says that “Ninety percent of Wattpad visitors are there to read and comment, not to post stories.”

She also says that regular visitors include publishers and agents who are looking for new talent.

“Some writers use Wattpad to promote their books to publishers,” she says. “Perhaps their novel was rejected when they submitted it directly, but now they can demonstrate that there is significant interest in their work.”

Gardner also tells me that the Wattpad app for smartphones and tablets is downloaded about 400,000 times a day. “Eighty-five percent of our visitors now reach us from mobile devices,” she says.

The advantage of Wattpad’s mobility component is clear: your work is accessible to readers no matter where they are, and your followers will receive “push” notifications whenever you post something new.

Copyright and Other Concerns

Gardner says that the site features a very sophisticated data-checking system that not only protects what is posted, but also works to prevent piracy. “All work on Wattpad of course remains copyright to the author,” she says. “Further, it cannot be copied and pasted, and readers can’t download it.”

A few people have told me they’re reluctant to sign on to Wattpad because they fear it will lead to spam, but so far Wattpad has attracted no more spam to me than have Twitter, Linked In, Goodreads or Facebook (which is, in my case, none).

Wattpad has had a reputation for being a place where teens post stories for one another, but if that were true at one point (and wouldn’t it be great to know that there are millions of teens who are interested in writing and reading?), the demographics are changing. “The majority of visitors are now between the ages of 18 and 30,” Gardner says, “and the subject matter of the content is changing as the average age goes up.”

Making Wattpad Work

The important part of making Wattpad work for you is to remember that it is a social media platform. If you don’t engage with it (read others’ works, respond to comments, participate in forum discussions), you will miss out on the very important reciprocation factor, and your work will languish. Further, thanks to algorithms, the more readers you attract, the more readers who will find you on their own.

Networking is not as painful as you might think. While it’s true that the Wattpad platform sports lots of dabblers and thousands of very bad writers, it doesn’t take long to sort the wheat from the chaff. And there are also some very good writers there, clearly intending to do as I am — get the work written and noticed by intelligent and discerning readers.

I’ve found a few manuscripts on Wattpad whose next installments I am genuinely eager to read and I’ve also found a few very careful and helpful readers who will probably help me get through Seeds and Secrets far more quickly than I would ever have done on my own. There is a definite motivation to keep going when readers start asking when you’re going to post the next installment. (As of Jan 1, 2015, Seeds and Secrets had received 1,500 “reads” and 121 votes. It stands about 450 from the top in the General Fiction category.)

In addition to pieces of my novel, I’ve put up a couple of works of short nonfiction on Wattpad – one previously published, one not yet – and received encouraging – and immediate – responses on them as well. I am also posting blog posts from my 2011 solo trip to India – Watch. Listen. Learn – which seems to be very popular. In fact, the response is making me seriously consider publishing it as a book, which I had not considered doing before.)

For me, Wattpad is like a humungous writing group where no one has to make coffee or serve beer, get dressed before offering feedback on other writers’ works, or pay any attention to comments from readers who don’t get what they’re doing.

Wattpad is not for everyone, of course, but if it sounds like a tool you could use to stimulate your writing and find new readers for your existing work, check it out. I’ll be happy to read the writing that you post – as long as you read mine. :)


Update: You can check out Wattpad’s 2014 Year in Review here. According to Nazia Khan, Wattpad’s Director of Communications, the company has noted some interesting trends this year:

  • People are writing novels on their phones
  • Episodic/serial reading is back (Dickens would be so pleased)
  • Everyone is a fan of something as evidenced by the growing number of fanfiction stories
  • Teens are reading. Yes, really.

Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”


blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.


photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Is “dictating” a story the same as “writing” a story?

Businessman dictating notesIf you record a short story and then transcribe it, did you write a short story?

In my editing life and in my online reading, more and more frequently I am coming across passages of creative writing — both fiction and non-fiction — that “sound” to me as though they have been dictated into digital voice recorders, transcribed (which the apps do for you, in part), and then edited (often minimally) before being released into the world.

Why do I get the sense that some creative prose I’m reading started in an oral format? In part it is the phrasing and vernacular, but particularly it is the way the material unfolds. When we speak, most of us tend to go in circles: repeating ourselves and coming at the same topic from different directions until we get the approach that suits us (and our content) best. Our thoughts are frequently unfinished because we forget what we’ve just said. With writing, we edit out half-formed attempts to say it properly, and only leave the most effective statements. Then we might fiddle with the wording a little or a lot before we move on to the next sentence. Or at least that’s how I do it. I think that when we are working on the page, we take more time to think about what we are saying before we put it down, much less before we put it out there.

Update: My new WattPad friend Maximilian Frick tells me:

“Here’s a great quote from James Joyce that you may or may not know: when informed by an interviewer that some of his contemporaries considered two books a year an average output, Joyce replied: ‘Yes, but how do they do it? They talk them into a typewriter. I feel quite capable of doing that if I wanted to do it. But what’s the use? It isn’t worth doing’.”

Half-finished thoughts, repetitions and other markers have made me suspicious that (for example), at least some of the hundreds of thousands of people (many in their teens) who are posting novels and short fiction on WattPad (and even releasing them as books on Amazon) are not actually “writing” them, as I think of writing. “Writing” to me means creating on a page. It is a different process than speaking thoughts into a recording device.

Please note that I have a friend who is blind who is writing a book by dictating it. (Go, George!) That is a different issue: he is writing in the only way he can, and I believe he approaches his recorded writing as I do the page — i.e. not in haste. But maybe he (and the guy who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) are some exceptions that prove the rule.

Also, I know that some people write “free fall” — as the thoughts occur to them — not erasing but continuing to write, as Natalie Goldberg suggests doing in Writing Down the Bones, but I would argue that stream-of-consciousness writing is different from stream-of-consciousness speaking, and furthermore that most of it isn’t publishable. Some people might say that they take a long time to consider before they put a sentence into a recorder, and that what I am really arguing against is stream-of-consciousness prosemaking, period. Maybe so.

The question is, does writing on a page and then editing the result lead to a different outcome than talking into a recorder and then transcribing and editing the result? I believe it does.

Does one approach lead to greater literary quality than another? I don’t know. But I think creative writing should be written. Unless you are physically incapable of it.

I remember reading that Barbara Cartland dictated all of her novels, but I don’t call what she did “creative writing.”

Maybe I’m just a snob. And old-fashioned. Maybe the new electronic era means that I should just get with the program. Maybe when young people today say they want to grow up to be writers, they are not necessarily thinking of confronting a blank page (in any form) ever.

I may change my thinking, as I often do, but for now at least, I don’t think that dictating and writing are the same thing. Do you?

Let me know your thoughts — in the poll, the comments section below, or both.

I might write an article about this. (Maybe I just have. Maybe I should attempt to dictate the next one. Maybe articles CAN be dictated. Oh, life is so confusing.)


Jeffrey Getzin: Finding Special Fans and Unexpected Readers

Today I am very pleased to introduce another young(er) writer, Jeffrey Getzin, whom I also met on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition forum a few years so. He has since self-published his first novel, Prince of Bryanae, a fantasy, so he is another of the significant contingent of writers who have chosen to launch their careers themselves, rather than waiting around for the traditional industry to recognize their talents. I have noticed that a really huge segment of this new crop of independent writer / publishers is working in fantasy: I wonder if it has anything to do with the popularity of fantasy games like World of Warcraft among this generation. There is certainly a crossover readership.

Jeffrey is the person who developed a series of challenging questions for Alison deLuca to respond to, two weeks ago, and now Alison is interviewing him. She encouraged him to talk about his first novel, Prince of Bryanae, and what other writing projects are coming down the chute in the near future. He also offers the wisdom of experience to would-be self-publishers. Thank you both!

If you want to know more about Jeffrey, his writing, or his martial arts achievements, check out his website.

AdL:  Jeff, thanks so much for giving us your thoughts on self-publishing and writing Prince of Bryanae, your fantasy novel. You’ve stressed in other interviews that your main character, Willow, is a strong character. Could you describe her for us?

Jeffrey Getzin

Jeffrey: Thanks, Alison. I’d be delighted to!

In the Kingdom of Bryanae, there is none more feared than Willow, the elven Captain of the King’s Guard. She is one of the deadliest creatures who has ever walked on two legs, having obsessed about weapons and combat for 150 years!

When we first meet her, she’s a bit of a cypher; she’s abrasive, emotionless, and obsessed with discipline, but through the course of the story, we find out why she is this way, and a large part of the book is about Willow coming to terms with her past and becoming a whole person.

As for being strong, oh yes. Yes indeed, she’s strong. She’s dedicated her entire life to self-discipline, and is driven like no protagonist you’ve ever met. She’s like a Terminator with a rapier and pointed ears. Through the course of the book, she suffers countless injuries and runs up against what look to be insurmountable obstacles and unbeatable foes, but Willow never gives up.

AdL: As you went through the writing process, how were you able to access edits and beta reads? What feedback surprised you the most?

Jeffrey: The first reader of Prince of Bryanae was my girlfriend Kate, to whom the book is dedicated. She was my focus group for characters and plot, and I depended heavily on her reactions. If she liked a hero or hated a villain, I knew I was on the right track. If she didn’t react the way I had hoped, I’d tweak the book to bring them more in line with my intentions.

After the first draft was done, successive drafts were read and critiqued by writer friends, writers groups, and even co-workers. Prince of Bryanae went through literally dozens of revision cycles. Even so, I still catch the odd typo to this day!

AdL: Tell us about the language in POB. What words did you create or use to reflect the action in the book?

Jeffrey:  There are several languages spoken in this book.

First, there is Szun Universal, which is the language spoken by most humans in my world. I wrote that language using English, a language which which I have a passing familiarity. ;)

Second, there is the language of the invading humans. Initially, they are simply referred to as “barbarians” but later we learn that they are called Kards. I invented their language.

Third, there is the language spoken by the elves of Willow’s homeland. Initially, I used an invented language, but later in the book, it became the new “default” language and was represented by English. (An interesting side effect of this is that when an elf encountered someone who spoke Szun Universal, previously represented by English, he heard it in a made-up language that sounded English-like.)

Of course, when I say I invented these languages, I don’t mean I went to Tolkien lengths and wrote entire vocabularies. Instead, I got a good feeling of what each language should sound like, and a very rough idea of its grammar. I invented words only as I needed them, though I made sure to reuse them when appropriate for consistency.

[Begin Spoiler]

Finally, the protagonists actually meet an honest-to-god Szun, and not just any Szun but the one who invented Szun Universal! It turns out that over the centuries since its invention, humans have been mangling the language, so when we meet the Szun, he essentially speaks English in its “original form.” I structured this original form borrowing heavily from the Latin grammar, where verbs appear at the end of sentence, but I took it to an even greater extreme, where words are listed in increasing order of “importance” (modified by precedence). The result unusual the least is to say.

[End Spoiler]

AdL: Please share a passage from your book that you really enjoyed writing.

Jeffrey: Here is a passage of which I’m particularly fond. In it, Willow has run into her mother after being estranged for over a hundred years. It was a lot of fun to write because it has snappy dialog, and also, it’s the first time we get a clue about the nature of Willow’s childhood.

“You’re looking well, Waeh-Loh,” said [Willow’s mother]. “Other than the dark circles under your eyes, that is.” Her eyes surveyed Willow, had already glanced at the shabby cowl she wore.

“Thank you, mother,” Willow said, ignoring the barb. “You’re looking well, too.”

And she was. Tee-Ri looked extreme, barbaric, vulgar, yes. But she also looked beautiful, voluptuous. The two appeared about the same age, which was just another of the many lies of time as measured by elves.

The two women regarded each other. Around them, more spectators were arriving on the scene, gawking and chattering among themselves. Two elves in Bryanae: that ought to keep them steeped in gossip for years. Not that they didn’t already have a lot to talk about after Willow’s failures and subsequent demotion.

“Your father sends his regards,” Tee-Ri said.

Willow arched an eyebrow.

“Really? Who is my father these days?”

The corner of Tee-Ri’s mouth twitched. She had always been well adept at lying to herself. No doubt, she had convinced herself that this man really was Willow’s father.

“Jabar,” Tee-Ri said. “The great-grandson.”

“Ah, keeping it in the family, are you?”

Tee-Ri’s nostrils flared, and she sprung towards Willow with a hand raised and the backhand slap already headed towards Willow’s face. She stopped, though, when Willow’s rapier whisked from its sheath and pointed at her throat.

Tee-Ri’s porcelain face turned even whiter as she looked down at the rapier. Her face reddened.

“You would draw steel against your own mother?” she said.

“You would strike your own daughter?”

Tee-Ri took a step back, and Willow lowered her rapier but did not return it to its sheath.

“You’ve changed,” Tee-Ri said.

“You haven’t.”

Tee-Ri’s face registered the wound. For just a moment, she showed her age, and she was a sad, tired woman.

“I’m a practical woman, Waeh-Loh. The world changes, trees sprout, trees die. One either flows with time or is swept aside by it. Surely, you must know this. Or has your life among the humans turned you into one as well?”

“You tell me, Mother. You’ve spent more time in their beds than I have.” Tee-Ri’s cheeks were now a bright red. Willow pressed her attack. “And while you’re at it, Mother, when’s the last time you gave any thought to my real father?”

Tee-Ri raised her hands in half-surrender. She smiled ruefully.

“Like I said, I’m a practical woman.”

“You’re a cold, heartless bitch.”

“Ah,” Tee-Ri said, her eyes sparkling with malice, “and I see you’ve grown up to be just like me. Just look at yourself. Your hair is like straw, your body is a cylindrical lump, and your face looks like it hasn’t smiled in a thousand years. At what point did you decide to stop being a woman, Waeh-Loh? At what point did you decide to stop being an elf? My lovely, smiling, darling daughter has grown up to be a calcified statue of an old man. You can’t even get within a hundred leagues of Bryanae without hearing of the famous stoic elf Willow, that humorless, single-minded shadow of a woman.” Tee-Ri snorted. “Why, I’ll bet you’re still a virgin.”

Willow pressed the point of her rapier against Tee-Ri’s throat again. Willow’s hand shook with the effort to restrain herself.

“You know that’s not true,” Willow said with a small quaver in her voice.

Tee-Ri retreated a step, but Willow advanced, keeping the rapier pressed against her mother’s throat.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.”

“Because I’m your mother!”

A grim smile played at the corner of Willow’s lips. She pressed the point of her rapier an infinitesimal distance further into Tee-Ri’s throat.

“Not good enough.”

Tee-Ri started to shake. Her eyes cast about, seeking help. All around them, the fair citizens had gathered to watch the spectacle. The mood was of curiosity, though, and not of outrage. The people of Bryanae were excited, yes, but no doubt looked at this confrontation as delightful entertainment.

“There are people around. They’ll see!”

Willow shook her head.

“Not good enough,” she said. She pressed the rapier in a little more. A thin stream of blood trailed down Tee-Ri’s slender white neck.

“Stop it, Waeh-Loh!”

“It’s Willow.”


“Call me Willow. That’s my name now.”

Tee-Ri began to cry and hyperventilate. She inserted sporadic sobs as punctuation.

“You can’t kill me!” she said.

“Oh? Why not?”

Suddenly, Tee-Ri’s eyes focused.

“Because I’m here to deliver Warlord Jabar’s terms.” Buoyed by this revelation, a small smile played upon Tee-Ri’s beautiful, savage face.

A cold lump formed in Willow’s belly.


Tee-Ri’s smile broadened. She took a step away from the rapier. This time Willow didn’t compensate.

“Yes, terms. You didn’t think that it was just a coincidence that I came to see you when I did, did you? Don’t be ridiculous. Terms for the return of your prince, of course.”

AdL: Tell us about self-publishing. What challenges have you encountered?

Jeffrey: At first, I thought that self-publishing was admitting that I couldn’t hack it as a “real” writer. Until only recently, self-publishing was also known as “vanity” publishing, and was considered a form of literary masturbation.

Recently, that’s changed. As the price of print-on-demand publishing has decreased, and with the arrival of portable digital readers such as the Kindle and the Nook, the barriers for admission have lowered for self-publishing, and the value-add of traditional publishers has diminished.

I mean, what do traditional publishers actually do for you?

They critique and edit your book, but this is something you can do yourself if you have enough gumption, elbow grease, and some talented friends.

They engage an artist for the cover photo, but again, you can do this yourself. I was fortunate enough to find Carol Phillips to do my covers and I’d stack her work against the majority of the artists doing “professional” books. There are a lot more talented artists out there, too, so again, it just takes hard work (and money) to locate one and to commission a good cover.

They typeset your book for print. Once more, this is something you can do for yourself with a little research, a little moxie, and a lot of hard work.

Finally, they handle the book promotion. Here is where it gets difficult for the self-publisher, as you have to be your own publicist. It’s difficult, especially if like me, you have a full-time job that doesn’t leave you a lot of spare time.

Nevertheless, self-publishing has many perks. Chief among these is that you have chief and total control of your product. The book that’s published is the book you wanted to publish, not the book some editor felt was more sale-able.

This is, of course, a double-edged sword. A professional agent or editor knows what’s likely to sell. “All” you know is what story you wanted to write. Maybe you’ll luck out and they’ll be the same thing, but maybe you won’t…

AdL: What are some of the unexpected joys that you’ve found in your self-publishing journey?

The least expected and most rewarding experience has been the strong positive reaction I’ve received from such a diverse group of readers. I’ve managed to reach people I never expected to reach, and touch them in ways I’ve never expected to touch them.

For example, while I don’t come right out and say it in my novel, Willow is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It turns out that one of my readers has a soldier for a husband who suffers from PTSD, and they both loved the book! They told me that my portrayal of PTSD was accurate, and they both enjoyed a story where the heroine was a fellow sufferer.

Another surprise came when I learned that the teenaged daughter of an old friend had come across the book, and loved it. Now, Prince of Bryanae is pretty dark in places, and it’s very violent as well, so I never even considered teenaged girls as a target demographic; it just seemed like something that wouldn’t appeal to them. I was delighted to be wrong on this. It absolutely made my day when I heard from her.

However, the most poignant experience has to be regarding my friend Dan Copeland. He and I trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu together, and then he was diagnosed with brain cancer. But Dan was one hell of a fighter, and even showed up to his some of his chemotherapy appointments in his gi (uniform). Well, I gave Dan a copy of the book and he became an enthusiastic supporter of it, even reading it multiple times!

Dan recently lost his fight to cancer, but it touches me that first, I was unexpectedly able to bring some pleasure into his life with this book, and that second, someone as brave and strong as he would could find it worth reading. When you’re diagnosed with brain cancer, you pretty much know the clock is ticking and yet he found it worthwhile to read my book multiple times. I can’t begin to describe how honored I feel by this.

AdL: Are you working on a new book now?

Jeffrey: I have a novella called “Shara and the Haunted Village” that will be coming out soon. It’s about a starving seamstress who leaps at an unexpected chance at riches and adventure when a shadowy pair of adventurers asks her to lead them to a haunted village.

Next in the pipeline is another novella called “A Lesson for the Cyclops,” in which a circus freak falls in love with a rogue who’s on the run (and when is a rogue not on the run?), and how her life changes from the encounter.

After that, I actually have the first book I ever wrote, a prequel to Prince of Bryanae called King of Bryanae. I wrote it many years ago, and while there’s a lot of good stuff in it, there are also many problems with it. I plan to edit and revise this novel and make it something worth selling.

Next, I just started a new story, as yet untitled. I’ve written a single chapter, and I’m not sure where it will lead, or if indeed, it will lead anywhere.

Finally, I have a story for a third novel in my Bryanae series bouncing around in my head. It’s not quite there yet. I need the story to stew a little longer before it’s ready to commit to the page. :-)

AdL: What advice do you have for those who are considering self-publication?

Jeffrey: Write the best book you can. Spell-check. Have lots of beta readers; listen to them. Spell-check again. Revise. Rinse. Repeat. Only when you’ve made your book as good as you possibly can should you start the publication process.

Then, learn to be patient. There are so many good books out there by so many talented authors, that even if you’re the next Harper Lee, it’ll take a long time for your readership to grow.

Finally, develop a thick skin. Not everybody’s going to like your book; indeed, some will hate your book. If you’re not prepared for that, then you should not publish. While most of my reviews have been very positive, I’ve received a few 1- or 2-star reviews that would strip paint from furniture. You have to be able to withstand that if you expect to have any pleasure from the experience.

AdL:. Take a section from Prince of Bryanae, and rewrite it from the point of view of a minor character in the scene to create a short of about 250 words.


The thunderstorm had so thoroughly doused Don-Lan that he felt there wasn’t a dry spot on him. Every piece of fabric he wore was saturated to capacity: every drop of rain just rolled off his clothes onto the splashy mud through which he trudged. Around him, the other elves and the human soldiers sputtered and stumbled alongside him in the swamp that hours ago had been a field.

The princess had given him one job to do: lead them back to Headquarters. It had seemed so simple at the time, but with the rain assaulting them and the sky as black as night, how could he be sure they were heading in the right direction?

Another explosion of thunder deafened him, and moments later, a flash of lighting lit up the field in stark relief. Don-Lan’s heart pounded in his chest, terrified that any moment he and the rest of them would be electrocuted.

The human officer, the one with the mustache, trudged through the mud up to the princess and shouted something into her ear. She said something in reply, shaking her head, and Don-Lan could see the frustration on the human’s face. Then the black human joined the fray and shouted something else.

The princess shouted something unintelligible to first the one with the mustache and then to the black one.

The black man replied, defiance evident in his demeanor. To Don-Lan’s astonishment, the princess slapped him.

The black man bared his teeth in rage and wrapped his hands around the princess’s throat.

Chaos ensued.

Don-Lan ran forward to try to break up the fight. Pree-Var-Us evidently had the same idea, as he was running alongside him. The princess fought against her assailant: kneeing him, scratching and kicking at him, desperate for air. The human officer drew his sword.

Pree-Var-Us waved his arms, shouting at them to stop killing each other, that they had a common foe.

Then there was another blast of thunder, and suddenly Pree-Var-Us had no head. His arms continued to flail, but blood jetted from his neck, and then he fell to the ground and was still.

The black human released the princess, and she and the two humans gawked in astonishment and horror at Pree-Var-Us’s corpse.

(Fiction passages © Jeffrey Getzin)

Terry McMillan, Randall Robinson, David Carty and The Conclusion of A Remarkable Festival

Anguilla Lit Fest: A Literary Jollification, held May 24-28, 2012 on the beautiful Caribbean Island of Anguilla

There are advantages to those times when  – despite your best intentions – you find yourself unable to complete your posts about an event until more than a month after it is over. First, you get to take a little break in the reality you have since resumed to re-immerse yourself in the pleasures of the experience— reflecting on events that you had almost forgotten about already, and thinking again about the eloquent, talented and friendly people that you met.

Distance and time also distill your memories, allowing you to discover which of them are likely to remain most strongly with you into the future – some of which have, indeed, already provided grist for thought at unexpected moments in the middle of your busy daily life.

In the case of my attendance at Anguilla’s first annual (I hope: see note below) Lit Fest, amid a host of jewel-like memories of warm evenings, Caribbean vistas, elegant wine-and cheese receptions, exotic dinners, intriguing cultural presentations, and stimulating conversations, four sessions in particular give me great pleasure to recall:

  • Terry McMillan, author of How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Waiting to Exhale, and several other books (and honorary patron of the LitFest), spoke at lunch on the second day of the festival on the topic, So You Want to be a Bestselling Author? The Real Deal. The points Terry offered to new writers included these (in no particular order): 1) true stories of things that “really happened” to you are not as interesting to other people as you think they are –

    Terry McMillan luncheon talk

    they must be given a dramatic structure in order to become good fiction (as an extension of this point, Terry pointed out that her own novels are not autobiographical. They may be similar to what really happened to her, but they have been transformed into fiction); 2) don’t write for other people (i.e., to sell, or to win awards) – write for yourself. Similarly, do not let what the critics say bother you or affect your future work – just keep writing for yourself; 3) fiction writers need to know many, many more details about their characters than they will ever tell their readers; 4) don’t edit while you write; 5) write the way your characters would speak, not to impress your audience – nobody cares how smart you are; 6) stop at the end of the writing day mid-sentence or mid-paragraph so that you don’t have to face a blank page the next day, but can resume your story in the middle of an interesting scene; 7) don’t worry about how the story is going to turn out or what is going to happen next – just write (Terry says she doesn’t like writing screenplays because she knows how everything is going to turn out, which is boh-ring); 8) writing is a journey. Enjoy it! (Note: Terry also did a Master Class called “Honing Your Gift” on Saturday morning. I arrived just as it was concluding and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive. I wish I’d heard it all. If any readers here were there, please add a comment and give us a taste of what she said that day. To the rest: don’t ever pass up an opportunity to listen to Terry McMillan talk about writing – or anything. She’s great!);

  • On the last evening of the Festival David Carty, historian, author, and producer of the documentary film Nuttin Bafflin (“a small community of 5000 former slaves on a tiny island in the North Eastern Caribbean mold the accidents of history with their struggle

    Upstairs at Davida’s, the restaurant where the final evening’s session was held

    for survival and develop a unique brand of boat racing practiced nowhere else on earth”) gave a fascinating and often amusing history of Anguilla and its talented boat-builders. Anguillians have for centuries been known around the world for their skills and talents atbuilding boats, and are fanatical boat racers as a consequence. You can get a sample of Carty’s wonderfully sincere, knowledgeable, intelligent and somehow also light-hearted storytelling style in this video on YouTube;

  • The second and final panel in which I participated was entitled Artists on the Page. It was moderated by the gracious and eloquent Allison Samuels, a senior writer for Newsweek/Daily Beast and author of What Would Michelle Do: A Modern-Day Guide to Living with Substance and Style. The panel featured, in addition to myself, the enthusiastic and inspiring performer-authors Hill Harper and Sheryl Lee Ralph. We all agreed that you have to make time in your life to fit the writing in, no matter what else you are doing (Hill says he writes on tv and movie sets while he’s waiting for his scenes), and that writing provides a way of interpreting (and sometimes escaping from) the vicissitudes of life. Both Hill (e.g., The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in its Place) and Sheryl (Redefining Diva: Life Lessons From The Original Dreamgirl) have written books in which they have drawn from their own experiences, challenges and triumphs to inspire and motivate readers;
  • Last but certainly not least, Randall Robinson was an absolute joy to listen to. He spoke of major issues that face African Americans and those living in the Diaspora today in such a knowledgeable and eloquent way that it became for all of us listening a call to action… although I am not sure what I as an overly white Canadian can do to

    Randall Robinson speaks at the Thought Leaders’ Luncheon. Topic, “We Are One: Writing About The Diaspora”

    help, except listen, learn, hope to understand, and remain open to opportunities to help other people to understand. Randall Robinson is so well spoken and gentle in his delivery (you can see a fine example here, at a book launch at Hue-Man Books in NYC, where he delivers a mesmerizing first-hand account of the coup that removed Jean-Bertrand Aristide from Haiti in 2004, and the Haitian history that provides context for that event) but you know and hear that he is outraged and determined in his heart. He loves his people and – despite the gains that were made in the U.S. during the Civil Rights movement – he despairs at the current portrayal in the media of so many African Americans as dysfunctional parents, drug addicts and criminals. Among the points he made that were very interesting to me because I’d never thought of them before was this: he talked about how in the community where he’d grown up, the teachers and lawyers and preachers and store-keepers lived across the street from and next door to the prostitutes, low-wage workers, and the unemployed. When integration began, it was those who were professionals and had money who moved “uptown,” leaving the less educated and the poor behind. This phenomenon, repeated across the U.S., has contributed to the current situation where the “black communities” today tend to be poor areas with major socio-economic problems. That is just one example of the many insights I gained from listening to Randall’s talks, and I am looking forward to reading his novel, Makeda – which he said he wrote in part to address the fact that one of the major losses experienced by African Americans during slavery was their history. (The New York Journal of Books said, “Makeda is beyond ambitious and imaginative . . . well written and powerful, with an ending that is equal parts tragic and romantic in nature . . . a breathtaking revelation, weighted with romance and lovely passionate prose.”) Update Josveek Huligar has posted this clip from Randall Robinson’s Anguilla writing workshop on YouTube.

There are other people I want to talk about more in future who I met at the Lit Fest in Anguilla, and I hope to do profiles of them and their books. In the meantime, I only wish that more of you could have attended. Even though I have been writing fiction for more than thirty years now, it left me feeling fresh and new and eager to get back to my fiction. And it was no passing whim: more than a month later, thinking about that weekend still provides me with real motivation to get back to work on my next novel.

Mary and Terry, final evening


(Note re: the “first-annual-ness” of the Anguilla Lit Fest – while everyone who attended would, I believe, love to see this become an annual event, it takes a lot of work and a lot of money to put on a splendiferous literary festival like this one was, and Anguilla is a small island with a limited number of volunteers. So keep your fingers crossed — or, if you’re in the region, contact the Anguilla Tourist Board and see if there is anything you can do to help.

Thanks to Gerald A. Riskin for files and photos

Anguilla from the air, en route back to St. Maarten and thence to Miami and Toronto.

On the beach, after the festival was over. Anguilla.

The New Publishing Rules: Panel Discussion, Anguilla Lit Fest

“Writing Is Just The Beginning: The New Publishing Rules”

 Anguilla Lit Fest Panel Discussion, Friday, May 25, 2012

Moderator: Stephanie Stokes Oliver (Author/ Editor; USA/Anguilla) Panelists: Malaika Adero (Vice President, Senior Editor, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, USA), Marva Allen (Hue-Man Bookstore/USA), Marie-Elena John, Author (Antigua/USA), Lasana Sekou (Author, Founder of House of Nehesi Publishers, St. Martin), Mary W. Walters (Writer/Editor, Toronto, Canada)

Left to right on panel: Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Lasana Sekou, Malaika Adero, Marva Allen, Mary W. Walters, Marie-Elena John. (Photo: Gerry Riskin)

How do you get three publishers, six writers, five editors, and a bookseller onto a panel when there are only six chairs on the platform?

Well, welcome to the world of writing and publishing ­– as it always has been, and as it always will be. For centuries, many, many writers have turned their attentions away from what they were creating and contributed at least some of their time to the editing, printing, promotion, marketing, and distribution of books – theirs and others: sometimes because they needed work (although the pay has never been that great), sometimes to get themselves and their friends into print (a lot of fine publishing houses were started this way), but mostly because they cared about books and wanted to make sure that the best found their intended audiences.

Stephanie Stokes Oliver, Moderator

Over the past hundred years or so, as the publishing process became more refined and some people began to suffer from the illusion that there could be money in the books business, some publishing houses became larger and larger, and the bigger those companies became, the fewer the number of writers who were involved, especially at the top. This made good business sense. We all know that serious writers are lousy at business. Many would rather read a “good” book than one that sells a million copies overnight. (Do not start in on me again, I am not dissing all the vampire novels or all the romance novels or even all the vampire romance novels: just the poorly written ones. No matter what the genre, there is no excuse for bad writing, and even less excuse for reading bad writing.)

However, as I have maintained all along (even in my very first Militant Writer post, “The Talent Killers,” which really was intended to be partly tongue- in-cheek), those who love great writing have always continued to infiltrate the publishing business. These literature aficionados are especially visible in the smaller presses, but we still find them occasionally at the larger ones as well, particularly in the role of editor.

Finding A Platform

One of the most difficult aspects of the impact of the new technology on the books business, in which the publishing model as we have come to know it is dissolving before our eyes, is how writers and other people who love great writing can continue to talk to one another. There is a tremendous temptation among those of us who have begun to self-publish to be defensive and self-righteous, and a similar impulse among those of us who have not.

There are, however, a number of issues on which we can agree:

1)    the manuscripts of self-published authors have not been vetted and preselected by independent, experienced editors before they become books: there is no quality control. As a result, a majority of the books that are self-published are junk;

2)    most self-published authors cannot afford to (or choose not to) invest in top-notch substantive and copy editors or book designers and layout artists. Therefore the majority of self-published books are not only junk, they are badly edited and poorly laid-out junk with crappy covers;

3)    for many, many years the established publishing system has – despite its inherent flaws – offered the only truly workable system for weeding out the good writing from the crap and getting it to readers;

4)    in recent years the traditional publishing system, because it is profit-based, has become unworkable not only commercially but from a literary perspective as well;

5)    some truly outstanding writers, with strong track records in the established publishing business, are discovering that self-publishing offers them an opportunity to control their destinies for very little cost, and to increase their profits;

6)    the new possibilities offered by technology have created not only self-published authors but also e-books, which have been adopted by readers en masse, and which are taking down independent booksellers one at a heartbreaking time.

So where does that leave a panel of intelligent, dedicated committed writers, readers, publishers, and one of the most well respected independent booksellers in the USA? Well, it is a testimony to the perspective and vision of the participants of the panel discussion that was held at Anguilla’s first LitFest on the morning of May 25, and its moderator, Stephanie Stokes Oliver, that we were able to engage in a lively discussion and find our common ground rather than increasing the size of the fissures that currently threaten to separate us.


Lasana Sekou of House of Nehesi, panelist

The three publishers on the panel were Lasana Sekou, founder of the House of Nehesi,  Malaika Adero, vice president and senior editor at Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and Marva Allen, a director of the new independent publishing house Akashic Books. In answer to the opening question, they explained the traditional publishing model: how a manuscript is selected for publication, edited, designed, laid out, released and then promoted. They described the challenges  – historical and new – that face publishers: not only the big-picture issues (most notably economic ones) but the day-to-day frustrations.

From them we heard that: senior editors at major houses have to deal with marketing divisions that veto excellent manuscripts because they will not sell; publishers face such avalanches of unsolicited manuscripts that they are unable to even look at unagented material; publishing houses must sometimes turn away promising writers because they are so pig-headed and misguidedly arrogant that they will not allow their work to be edited; the new technologies mean that already overburdened senior editors need to get all of their authors’ books into e-book format – and not only the new releases, but the backlists, too. We learned that they are saddened when good books must be turned away, that they feel a responsibility to ensure that fine stories continue to be told, and that they respect and want to sustain the voices that tell the stories they admire, and the ones that move them.


After the panel: Malaika Adero (r) and me

The editors on the panel were (in addition to Lasana, Malaika and Marva, who were also all editors as well as publishers), Stephanie Stokes Oliver, editor of Unity Books and former editor of Essence magazine) and me, freelance Book Charmer and manuscript editor.

All of us (and all of us as writers as well as editors) agreed that even the best-written manuscripts need strong editors. Writers need substantive editors who will tell them where their manuscripts are working and where they are not, what characters need to be developed more and which ones less, what isn’t clear to readers and what needs to be omitted.

These editors need to be people who can help the writer say what the writer wants to say in the way the writer wants to say it: and who are willing to listen to what the writer says in response to editorial suggestions. The editor lets the writer do all of the necessary edits and revisions. A good editor never does the rewrite.

We all also agreed that books need to be well copy-edited before they are published (and winced at what we’ve seen out there in some self-published books, but also in some books from well established presses.)

I expressed the opinion that I have stated before on The Militant Writer, that the era is coming when some editors’ private imprints will have cachet – independent of publishing houses (as translators have done in the past). If you are self-publishing and have attracted a certain well-respected editor to work with you on your book, you will put his or her name on the cover as your editor, and that will alert readers to its quality. Top editors will be able to hang out their own shingles and make some real money for a change. And they’ll be able to pick and choose the manuscripts they work on. (Some will say they cannot afford to hire editors. If you put aside $5/week for the two years or more when you would be waiting for a publisher to make a decision  on your manuscript, put it in the publishing queue, edit it, typeset it, print it, and release it, you will have no trouble saving up enough money to pay an editor – and a book designer.)


Marva Allen, panelist (l), and me – after the panel

To my mind, booksellers, particularly independents, are the innocent victims in the transition to new publishing models. This has less to do with the proliferation of self-publishers than with the growing popularity of e-books. Marva Allen, whose Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem has an international reputation, is recognized for her contributions not only to fine writing in general and the writing of African-Americans in particular (“A SKU for every hue”) but to the building of the reputations of a number of important individual writers.

She told us that the economic reality of bookselling has reached the point where she is not sure if she will renew her lease.


Marie-Elena John, Panelist

All of us who were on the panel are writers. A couple of us – Marie-Elena John most notably (whose novel, Unburnable, I am eagerly looking forward to reading), but also including Lasana Sekou, Stephanie Stokes Oliver and I – are writers first and foremost, in our self-perception and our lives.  Malaika Adero and Marva Allen are writers too, and all of us on the panel shared concerns as writers and lovers of good writing about the traditional publishing industry – its slowness to respond, its inability to change (Malaika compared it to an ocean liner trying to steer its way into a tributary), its poor track record in promoting and distributing the books it does publish, and its increasing tendency to overlook quality fiction in favour of what a friend of mine calls “mental junk food.” (The name of Paris Hilton, “author,” came up in this context several times.)

Publishers used to argue that it was the books by non-writer celebrities that allowed them the financial stability to publish less economically viable literary works. No more: there is no financial stability in the business anywhere. As writers we understand this, and as readers and writers we’re in despair over what we’ve lost – even as new doors open for us.

The New Gatekeepers
As I have also said before, the readers are the new arbiters of what will sell and what will not. In recent months, we have seen a significant example in Fifty Shades of Grey – a book that not only found a kazillion readers for its author, but opened up a whole new genre of writing. Within weeks, imitators were putting out their erotic novels by the hundreds. And it wasn’t only other self-published writers who were proving that when you are trying to make a buck, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: it was the established publishers as well. (Most of the rest of us just stood around turning Fifty Shades of Green.)

To my mind, the ability of a writer to reach directly out to readers – eliminating the middle people – and the ability of readers to respond – by throwing rotten eggs at us or by welcoming what we’ve written and spreading the word to other readers – are some of the most exciting aspects of this evolving, truly democratic world of publishing. But the evolution also has produced so much garbage that it is hard to find the glints of precious metal that are surely in it somewhere.

To find the best books, we are going to continue to need great book reviewers who establish reputations for themselves – often in specific genres. Their stamps of approval will mean as much in future as does a review in the New York Times today. Unfortunately, given what’s happening to newspapers and magazines (which pay almost nothing to reviewers anyway), most of these future king- and queen-makers will consist of unpaid bloggers. (Oh, and Oprah: whose book club, I have heard, is back.)

The publishing panel discussion at the Anguilla LitFest was invigorating, with the love of literature and great writing forming a common bond among panelists and audience members. In addition to our conviction of the importance of continuing to write, find and promote good writing, we were also all in agreement that electronic books and self-publishing are here to stay. We are going to have to learn to live with them – and with one another – in this rapidly changing world.


(Note: Thanks to Gerry Riskin for most of the photos on this page.)