Don’t Buy Your Dream

July 27, 2018 § 10 Comments

Like this, but the cheeseburgers are your trust in the literary community

You may have seen Melissa Chadburn and Carolyn Kellogg’s excellent investigation of Anna March in the L.A. Times. March, as she was most recently known, ripped off writers by selling phony coaching/editing packages, offers to read their work and connect them with agents, and expensive writing retreats that didn’t happen.

March branded herself an intersectional feminist, sensitive to issues of race, class and LGBTQ concerns as well as gender, and also supportive of victims of trauma. She positioned herself as a connection between worlds: the published and unpublished, the successful and the hopeful.

Anna March crossed my path in a Facebook group for women memoirists. As a moderator, I messaged Anna a few times asking her to stop posting frequent, pushy ads for her services. I told her once privately, “Honestly, you might sell more coaching if you sounded a little less urgent/needy.” Finally, myself and the other moderator made a new ad policy: no more than once every two weeks. I ended up counting days for Anna. But I still tagged her in discussions about writing coaches.

Anna conned writers who took her at face value. But the literary world is all about face value. You are who you know; you are where you’ve published. Waving the “published in Modern Love” flag creates instant cred. Speak at enough conferences and you’re an expert. We’re told to overcome imposter syndrome, trumpet our own accomplishments, sell ourselves for the best price we can get.

We’re also told to invest in our careers. Spend our precious time reading widely and keeping up with literary news. Be good literary citizens. Pay for conferences and workshops where we make connections and find mentors. Get an MFA. Read for others so one day they’ll read for us; or hire an editor to tell us how to fix our work.

After the revelations of Anna March’s literary grifting, Roxane Gay tweeted:

and talked about learning to write (read the whole thread, it’s great):

Guys, look… there are good and great writing coaches out there, but… you do not need a writing coach. You don’t need an MFA. You do need to write and read a lot. Feedback CAN help you improve as a writer. There are virtual and real writing groups out there

Even when I was a young writer who did not know shit about shit, who did not know that you could get a degree in writing, I did not pay someone to read my writing. I just wrote, constantly. And I am not special. This is how most writers develop.

She’s right. You don’t ever have to pay anyone to read your work. I say this as a professional editor, as a writing coach who has helped people write better and get published, and charged them money for those services. But that’s not ever required.

You’re not on the outside of some magic literary community because you’re broke, or a parent, or can’t get time off. Writing’s just plain lonely. You do it by yourself. No matter how many conferences or mentors or writing buddies you have to sit down with, in the end it is you and the page. You and the story. You and the words.

It feels lonely because it is.

It feels hard because it is.

It feels like it takes forever because it does.

There is no way to get better at writing besides sitting down and doing it.

Can it help to hire someone or go to a workshop or take a class? Absolutely. It helps to have accountability and assignments and exercises. It helps to have an outside eye, whether you pay them or trade manuscripts. It helps to feel like someone is listening. It helps to bounce ideas around with someone whose creative instincts you trust.

You can protect yourself:

  • Get a sample edit and references. If you’re in a Facebooks writers’ group, ask who’s worked with this person. Usually people who feel good post publicly and people who know something shady will message you.
  • ONLY pay through PayPal’s “goods and services” option (not “friends and family”) or with a credit card. Don’t pay a lump sum; start with a couple of sessions, or a deposit or percentage.
  • Insist on accountability from people you pay. Missed deadlines should have a definite reschedule and a reason. Missed meetings should be promptly rescheduled. If you sign up for a writing workshop, email the hotel and ask about the rooms before you purchase travel.

Does it help to spend money on your writing career? Sure. But it helps like a personal trainer helps you get fit. If you’re focused and ready to work, money can help you over some speedbumps. But if you’re focused and ready to work, you can get over them alone, too.

No amount of money replaces your own hard work. Don’t try to buy your dream. You don’t have to. You can’t. But you can make it happen for free, one word at a time.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

The Seventy-Five Dollar Sticker

April 17, 2018 § 10 Comments

Third Runner-Up for Best Show-Biz Memoir With a Dog Supporting Character, Set in California

In fifth grade, I won a county-wide writing contest. I think that’s how they got my name. I had been “selected” for Best Young American Authors. Or Who’s Who in Young Authors. Or 100 Young Poets. Something like that. Of course I was thrilled–I’d gotten a real letter in the mail telling me my special status and requesting a copy of my story, my bio…and an order form for the number of copies of the anthology I would buy at $45 each.

My mother figured out it was a racket, but I was only a little disappointed. I’d already gotten a medal and a certificate from the school superintendent, what greater prize could there be?

The anthology racket is still alive, barely. Self-publishing has made massive inroads on paying for the excitement of your name in print. Independent authors invest more up front, but make some money back in sales. Independents control the quality of the work and physical presentation, rather than being positioned with everyone else who wrote a check, regardless of their ability to write a coherent sentence.

But as one head of the publishing-scam Hydra hisses beneath a stone, another pops up, ready to do even less for authors, for even more money.

Maybe you’ve gotten an email: there’s a contest your book is eligible for! If you win, your book will be presented to movie producers and in an ad on Goodreads! Press releases will feature you! You can put shiny gold stickers on your book cover! And it’s only $75! Per entry! In as many categories as you want!

Um, Mom?

Sadly, these “contests” are simply money-making machines for the organizers. “Winning” adds no credibility to your book, doesn’t help with sales, and seldom results in any publicity beyond free internet announcements. In fact, there are often so many subcategories that everyone who enters, wins. Their $75 didn’t buy fair consideration and worthy competition–it bought a sticker. (Additional stickers may be purchased at just $25/pack!)

There are plenty of legitimate contests and awards. But contests that mean something are usually contests you’ve already heard of, or affiliated with reputable magazines or organizations. Entities that do more than hold contests. You might be part of their mailing list, but they rarely solicit your entry personally. You may need your publisher to submit the book on your behalf, or to be nominated by librarians or booksellers. The judges are published writers or noted agents and editors. Past winners include writers you’ve heard of, or whose biographies mention MFAs and literary or mass media publications. There may be an entry fee, but it rarely tops $50 for a book or $25-30 for a story or essay. Books can only be entered in the year they are released, and only in one category. Legit contests offer specific, measurable prizes, like “$1000 and a guest lecture at X College,” rather than un-checkable weasel-language like “promoted to industry insiders.” You don’t have to purchase your own prize stickers if you win.

Over at Writer Beware, Victoria Strauss points out ways to spot a for-profit contest…

There are any number of moneymaking contests that focus on published books. Their M.O.: a huge entry fee, dozens or scores or even hundreds of entry categories, and the sale of additional merchandise to winners and honorees. Prizes are typically things that cost the sponsors little or nothing (website features, electronic press releases, vague promises of publicity campaigns). Judges are never named–and may not exist–and, although commercially published books are sometimes declared winners, the contests are marketed mainly to small press and self-published authors.

…and why “winning” may not matter:

Profiteer awards and contests don’t typically command a lot of name recognition, but if you win or place, you’ll be able to tag your book as an “award-winning book” and yourself as an “award-winning author.” How much readers care about such designations, though, is an open question. With all the fake review scandals, as well as readers’ increasing disillusion with authorial self-promotion, I think book buyers have become more cynical in general about what authors say about themselves.

Pay-to-play contests are aimed squarely at authors eager for recognition, and for that extra something to help their book stand out. Cynical, shady organizations recognize and exploit that hunger.

Genuine book awards do launch careers. They’re also highly competitive, and a lot less “rah-rah” about the prizes, because their name alone is the prize (i.e. Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel). One day, you’ll be in the running. For now, skip the contest entry and use that time to write another essay, something that will draw real attention to your book. Something beautiful. Something more powerful than a $75 sticker.

Wondering if a contest is legit? The Alliance of Independent Authors has a handy chart.

Writer Beware is a valuable resource for all writers. Their blog and searchable archives explain scams and name and shame predator agents and unscrupulous publishers.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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