SiWC – The Best of Times (Plus more cool links!)

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ever have one of those days that just goes right?

I don’t often get them.

I usually get the type of day where you have to get a boy to an early morning hockey practice and set your alarm for 5pm instead of 5am practice, then, already late, you hit every red light on the way, then forgot some vital piece of hockey gear like the jock, then you have to race back, but find you didn’t fill up the car and HAVE to get gas or you’re not making it home, then you find your credit card is maxed and you only have nickels and dimes to pay for gas, but you put in $1.35 anyway and race off only to return to a completely empty room because the team has been relocated to another dressing room and you have to go room to room carrying a jock and asking, has anyone seen ma boi?


Well, try it sometime.

But it wasn’t one of those days at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Everything went my way. I managed to get an additional agent appointment early in the day and still had one tucked away for the afternoon. So, after my success with the first agent, the incredibly nice Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, President and senior agent at McIntosh & Otis, I saw another opening.

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

Not with an agent, but with a writer who has always given me great advice. The great storyteller Michael Slade.

So I booked a moment with him, a ten-minute session called a blue pencil (where an author looks at your work, gives you criticism, then you go home and cry a lot). But I wanted his opinion on the opening of my book, especially since I had plans to submit it for a public reading on Saturday and didn’t want to be that guy who gets his stuff read and has agents rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and wondering why they make the effort to come out.

However, Mr. Slade loved the writing and went through the first chapter step-by-step remarking on all the things I’d done right. He only had one suggestion, but that one was bang on (and as soon as I left, I made that change right away.) But as much fun as that was, (and it was FUN), he didn’t have any appointments afterward so we talked about war and fathers and writing and all sorts of things.

For about over an hour!

Like we were long, lost friends.

They had to kick us out for lunch, but it was so incredible to have that time with someone who’s farther down the road than me as a writer and such a great storyteller.

Then it was back to work. I needed to find another agent at lunch, the best writing coach I’ve seen and perennial favorite at SiWC, Don Maass, but by the time I arrived, the whole ballroom was filled to capacity and I couldn’t spot him. So I ate my lunch, chatted with my writer’s group, chatted with people in line, chatted with a few of the people seated at our table, then when lunch ended, I began my search again.

Luckily, someone had nabbed him before he could leave!

Again, I felt so nervous as I approached him. I trembled like an 11-year-old girl about to meet Scott Helman (look him up, I had to!).

It’s that fight or flight thing. I really wanted to run and hide in my basement, snuggle under a blanket and read my books in the pool of lamplight, but I had put on my big boy pants and needed to do big boys things.

I marched over and sat beside him. Like an awkward orangutan fidgeting with everything he could get his hands on, I waited until he had finished talking to others, then with only minutes left before he had to rush off to a workshop or scheduled interviews, I threw my pitch at him with all the skill of someone just clubbed in the head with a baseball bat.

But he liked it. He wanted to see the entire manuscript. Entire. Manuscript!


The editor I saw after that, while challenging me on if my story was a mystery or thriller, wanted to see 50 pages after I was done sweating and mumbling.


Not a pretty one, but a win never-the-less.

Anne Frank - Who cannot be moved by her story?

Same thing happened when I pitched at the end of the day to Irene Goodman, who was so very kind and understanding at my complete inability to form complete sentences at that point.

She loved my story’s connection to the holocaust and we shared our moving experiences from when we visited Anne Frank’s house or the holocaust memorial museums.

Another win!

I went home exhausted and so excited.

But an even bigger win was to come. Not a sale, cuz those things don’t happen at conferences, but something I’ll remember forever. In a good way.


More links!

Writer – Michael Slade (check out his books here!)

Agent – Don Maass (His new book on writing, The Emotional Craft of Fiction is coming out in January, Here. But he has some amazing writing books already out.)

Agent – Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein

Agent – Irene Goodman (a great article hereIf You Want to Be a Writer, Be a Writer)






To go or not to go

Joe’s Post #153 —

headerThat is the question.

I’m talking about the Surrey Writer’s Conference. Oct 23rd -24th.

It’s a toss-up this year. Pros and cons.

So I did what I do when I can’t decide.

I make a list. And drink. Here’s the list.

the authors

My best writing buddies, The Five

Top 6 Reasons to Go

  1. I could pitch 2 books to an editor who’s interested in my genre.
  2. There are 3 agents there I could take to about my books.
  3. 9/10 times I get inspired.
  4. The food’s pretty good.
  5. I love to learn and there’s always something to learn.
  6. My best writing buddies are there.


Top 5 Reasons Not To Go

  1. don maassDon Maass is NOT there. See #3. He is my biggest inspirer.
  2. No Chuck Wendig, so that means I won’t spend 2 hours laughing my ass off and I do love to laugh my ass off.
  3. It costs a lot of money at a time that I don’t have that money.
  4. Most of the agents showing up don’t want to look at the books I write, or I’ve pitched to them and they’ve rejected my brilliant stories.
  5. I can’t find a full day of things I want to do. There’s a bit Friday and Saturday, but that’s a huge cost for basically 2 half days.
  6. My best writing buddies will not be there. Joe sad.

I tell ya, it’s a tough call. Not that there aren’t some great people there, not that there aren’t a few good workshops, and it’s always amazingly well organized, but this year, I may choose not to go. The weight of the list is clearly on the No side, but then there’s #1 on the Go side.

Is it worth it?



The age of the hybrid


Silk’s Post #91 — Quick, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “hybrid”?

Cars that run on gas and electric power? You’re probably ecologically-minded.

More productive strains of corn and tomatoes? You’re probably a farmer or a gardener.

Alien lifeforms arising from cosmic cross-breeding? You’re probably a sci-fi fan.

Your next book? Wait a minute. What do hybrids have to do with books and authors?

Possibly everything.

As part of my preparation for our next crazy 5writers challenge (launching September 5, 2014 … watch for it!), I’ve been doing yet more research on the publishing industry. This may seem redundant, since the five of us – as wannabe-published authors – have tried to  proactively inform ourselves about what it takes to get in print. Many books, many articles, many blogs, many discussions with published authors, many scans of online writers’ groups, many workshops, and many writers’ conferences later, we thought we were on top of it.

Think again.

What my latest web scan revealed is that publishing opportunities yesterday are already very different from publishing opportunities today, and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Whatever received wisdom you believed about publishing, say, six months ago, it’s probably wrong now.

Because we’ve now entered a new age: the age of the hybrid author.

Here’s how Chuck Wendig, in his February 2014 Writer’s Digest Magazine article “Case Study: Becoming a Hybrid Author”, describes this new creature we are all probably going to morph into:

“A hybrid author is one who refuses to accept that there exists One True Way up the Publishing Mountain and who embraces all the methods available. The hybrid author prefers a diverse approach to getting her work out there, which means utilizing both the traditional system of publishing and also acting as an author-publisher in order to retain control and self-publish her own work.”

This may not sound new to you. Self-publishing has been going on forever. But here’s what’s different in the new hybrid world:

#1 – There ain’t no taint to self-publishing

The headwinds buffeting the traditional book publishing industry are blowing away some old musty ideas. Historically, self-published authors who resorted to “vanity presses” to see their own words in print were presumed to be – forgive the expression – permanent rejects. Tainted. Writers whose work was never going to be good enough to get out of the slush pile. Budding authors were warned that self-publishing was the kiss of death with agents and “real” publishers.

Now, let’s be realistic. Is there some real sh*t out there among self-published works? Yep. Lots of it. (Of course, it’s self-evident to the discerning reader that traditional publishing is not exactly sh*t free, either). But self-publishing a book is no longer considered a literary felony, sentencing the author to automatic disqualification from working within the traditional publishing system on other projects.

Writers who evolve to this new hybrid author state may be the survivors in this new publishing environment.

#2 – In today’s marketplace, all writers need to be entrepreneurial

I don’t think I’ll stir up a lot of disagreement when I suggest that the publishing industry is undergoing massive change. I’m no economist, but it’s easy to see industry after industry becoming revolutionized in our newly networked, globalized world.

These factors have accelerated the free-market cycle, where businesses spring up, compete and grow in the lush times, then consolidate when things get leaner and meaner. The strong swallow the weak, gaining control of the marketplace (for instance, only a handful of publishing empires now control most imprints you’ve ever heard of). Ouch. There are so many reasons to worry about powerful monopolies that are bottom-line by nature, serving shareholders first, customers second, and suppliers/producers (often) last. This is especially sensitive in industries that sell creative products.

Monopolies that calcify can become vulnerable – more fragile than they seem. Enter the independent challengers: the Amazons and Apples of the world who move fast, break the rules, and build new business models (and monopolies of their own) on a large scale. But this upheaval also leaves space for many new players: the smaller-scale indies. They’re like economic phytoplankton, the profusion of life at the bottom of the food chain that keeps the whole ecosystem alive.

This pattern is already well underway in the music industry, in the movie industry, in magazines and newspapers, in radio and television. Virtually everything that has to do with news and entertainment is in flux.

The book industry is following suit. Where once there were clear rules, standards and pathways to success, now virtually anything goes. Anything that works. There will, of course, be winners and losers (and I truly mourn the decline of the comforting, beautiful, traditional bookstore). There will be good and bad outcomes. The deserving will not always be rewarded. And the roadmaps that will help authors find their way to the goal of publication and success are still being drawn.

Hybrid authors will need to become creative opportunists.

#3 – There are more reasons to self-publish than rejection

Increasingly, writers with their ears to the ground will hear strange tales of bestselling authors choosing to self-publish a project. Of new authors turning down traditional publishing contracts in favour of going the indie route. Of agents working with hybrid authors in new ways, and seeking new talent among the latest crop of successful self-published writers.


Where will you find these weird anomalies in the books of advice for writers on your groaning bookshelf? You probably won’t, unless the book was published very recently. You may begin to hear hints and rumours at a writers’ conference workshop. But if you look in the right places online – where trends now show up first – you’ll discover that the hybrid author is already alive and well. And comes in every shape and size.

So why would any author actually choose self-publication over the traditional route – except rejection? Isn’t traditional publishing the holy grail we’re all seeking? Here are just a few possible reasons:

Creative freedom — An established writer may want to do a project her traditional publisher is not interested in. Maybe it’s outside the writer’s usual genre, or it’s experimental, or for some other reason the publisher doesn’t think it will fit their list or profit expectations. What choice does the writer have but to follow the creative dictates of her publisher? Yep. Become her own publisher.

Money — A writer, whether previously published or not, may put on his business hat and take a close look at the numbers. Shockingly, he discovers that he can make more money – sometimes a lot more – if he self-publishes than if he signs a contract with a traditional publisher, based on realistic estimates of sales and author revenue likely to be generated by the two different routes. Careful, though. Risk-reward ratio is not an easy calculation to do, even for the experienced. Better rattle some chicken bones and throw in some eye of newt for good luck. Welcome to entrepreneurship.

Choice and control — A writer may want to keep certain publishing rights – such as e-book rights – and sell other rights to a traditional publisher. The author may have already self-published electronically, but now has an opportunity to take her book to market with an interested publisher. Or she may have been traditionally published and now wants more control of a new project and an opportunity to share more of the profits. This is where the new hybrid agent and the new hybrid author may need to have a meeting of the minds. Tricky new territory, but early pioneers could be creating the pathways and precedents for many hybrid authors to follow.

Career direction — A published mid-list writer may be dropped by his traditional publishing house, and now must either self-publish, or find another publisher (and not many traditional publishers are dying to sign up lots of new mid-list authors who have been dropped elsewhere). Of course, she could always take up another career such as brain surgery, which might be less daunting. Getting back on the horse may require becoming a hybrid author.

So that’s what I’ve learned from my research to date. I know just enough to know that I need to learn a lot more about hybrid authorship. It’s a brave new world out there.

What do you think about it? Was any of this news to you?

Does it fill you with excitement and hope … or does it seem fearfully overwhelming?

We’d love to hear your comments.




Don Maass on Publishing

I’m not counting this as one of my posts but I couldn’t figure out how to repost for the life of me, so here it is. He’s worth reading. He always is.

The New Class System

Donald Maass on Feb 05 2014 | Filed under: Business, REAL WORLD


Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Kos-Read

Flickr Creative Commons: Jonathan Kos-Read

This month in keeping with our look inside publishing, I’m departing from my usual craft advice to give you my view of the new state of the industry.

I don’t see the new shape of things as many do: the twilight of the dinosaurs, the old-thinking Big Five print publishers staggering, falling to their knees and heading for extinction as they’re overwhelmed by a nimble army of small, warm-blooded mammals whose claws are the sharp, smart, flexible tools of electronic publishing.

It’s true that I’m a gatekeeper, a longtime member (to my surprise) of the industry establishment. But I am no worshiper of the old ways. Traditional publishing always was cost-heavy and inefficient. It’s a wonder that it worked. But the new electronic “paradigm” is not the glorious revolution that true believers would like it to be.

What’s happened instead is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities. It’s a system that, if not recognized for what it is, will trap frustrated writers in a pit far more hopeless than the one they yearned to escape. Let’s start with a couple of cold-eyed realities.

First, e-books have not hurt the print publishers but rather have helped them. Especially in the recent recession, low-cost/high-margin e-books have been a bright spot. They’ve kept publishers profitable even as brick-and-mortar book retailing has shrunk and consumers have grown cautious. With the mass-market paperback pricing itself nearly out of existence, low-priced e-books have arrived (with help from the Department of Justice) to keep value-conscious readers reading. Of course, the difficult and expensive business of selling print books must still be faced but at least there’s some gravy to make the task tasty.

Second, the self-publishing movement has been a boon to the print industry. Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games,Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.

Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.

Third, the self-publishing movement has produced gold-rush hysteria in the writing community. While not exactly a mass delusion, questionable beliefs have been widely accepted. True believers sneer at doubters. So what is the real truth? High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few who have mastered the demanding business of online marketing. A larger, but still small, number of authors have achieved a modest replacement income from self-publishing. Growth from there will be hard for them, however, because wide print distribution still is needed. (Seventy percent of trade book sales are of print books, remember?)

As for the rest…well, the position of the vast majority of self-publishing authors is no better than it ever was, though probably there are fewer cartons of books in their garages. Consultancy to self-publishers is a new job category, however, and that has to be good for the nation’s employment stats.

Fourth, as I said, a new class system has arisen. Here’s how it breaks down:

Freight Class

Self-published authors and electronic micro-presses must haul themselves. While the means of production are easy and low-cost, the methods of marketing are costly either in terms of cash or time. Success is rare. The pleasure of being in control is offset by the frustration of “discoverability”. Online retailers are whimsical and ludicrously over-stocked, both barrier and open door. Lists, blogs, social sites and the like are plentiful but of only spotty help. Trusted filtering of self-published books may arise (watch the recent sale of Bookish to Zola, two recommendation sites started by—gasp!—publishers and agents) but don’t hold your breath. The real problem is that fiction at this level has trouble appealing widely to readers. It can sell when priced at $2.99, sometimes a bit more, often less.

Why? Let’s look at what characterizes Freight Class fiction. While the Kindle bookstore can be an incubator of innovative fiction, for the most part it is an ocean of genre imitations if not amateurish writing. Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.

Coach Class

Here we find decently-written literary fiction and nicely-crafted commercial fiction that achieves print publication but sells best at trade-paperback level ($14.99 or so), or discounted in e-book form. Coach Class novelists support each other yet find it difficult to gain a foothold with the public. So-called “marketing” by their publishers is disappointing and, truthfully, can only do so much. Traditional tours (when they happen) accomplish little, front of store incentives are costly, and online marketing sometimes seems to consist of the hope that Amazon will do a price promotion. Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.

What characterizes Coach Class fiction? Readable pages, appealing characters, clever premises, attention-grabbing plot hooks, a display of craft and art, emotional engagement, and themes that “resonate”…which is to say, that stir readers without greatly challenging them. Coach class fiction is less easy to skim. While characters can be motivated from within, their inner journeys can feel somewhat painless. Readers are “engaged” but don’t always feel deeply moved. Coach Class fiction sometimes borrows secondary characters from history or classics, retells other stories, or stretches into series that can become thin. Genre conventions may be borrowed or blended but essentially they are not violated. Coach Class is a moderately comfortable place to be, though one can feel stuck in one’s seat. Economy shocks can hurt.

First Class

The cream class gets a double shot of extended life in bookstores, both in hardcover and later in paper. Their books can sell well at $25 and live long in trade paper. For First Class authors, success looks effortless. Goodies accrue easily. Recognition is instant and wide. Sub-rights sell. Awards happen. Insulated from economy shocks, authors of this class never seem to worry about the industry. In interviews they talk only about their art and process. They mentor. Lines are long at BEA booth signings and readers are fiercely loyal.

Why all that seemingly-effortless success? First Class fiction is characterized by memorable characters, unique premises, story worlds instantly real, plots that grip even when slow, gorgeous writing, and themes that surprise, challenge and change us. Not only do we read every word, First Class writing makes us whistle in admiration. Characters are not only likeable and self-aware, but also follow a singular destiny. First class novels shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways. They confidently break rules, may transport us to unlikely cultures and times, teach us things we knew little about, and always feel utterly unique. Each novel creates its own genre. First Class fiction is imitated but never matched. Its authors are revered and for good reasons.

So, in which class are you? To which class do you aspire? Here’s the thing: In the real world, one’s class can be a prison. Politics plays in. The upper class can use its money to buy itself tax advantages, legal wizardry and gated communities that keep the rest out. Other classes stick together and stick with what they know. Revolution is rare, costs blood and doesn’t happen where minimal comforts are available.

In the world of publishing, though, it’s not like that. Authorship is a true meritocracy. (Sorry, it is.) In publishing there is social mobility. As an author you can change your class, though of course it’s not always easy to do so. It takes education, time and effort. It means seeing yourself differently, having courage and violating the norms and expectations of your community. (One of the most common laments I hear is, “I got published…and lost a lot of my friends.”)

Do things look different inside publishing today? Yes and no. There’s innovation all over the place but also for authors a picture more challenging than ever. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Inequality is vast. But change doesn’t require billionaire money buying elections. You don’t need a phony revolution. You can change your class by yourself, right at home, one keystroke at a time.

I’ve exaggerated the above for effect, obviously, but in a lot of ways that’s how the industry looks to me now. How does it look to you?

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

War stories


Silk’s Post #59 – I’m always conflicted by conflict.

doveIn my head, I’m a confirmed dove. I’m against violence. Of all kinds. Period. I’d be happier if the entire world dis-armed. Bombs, guns, everything. I can’t grasp any intellectual justification for war. It’s always destructive and never constructive.

There. I’m out of the dove closet. I freely admit that this is not necessarily a good characteristic for a writer. Conflict is our stock in trade. Like all human beings, however, I have another side.

hawkIn my heart, I’m often a hawk. Push me and I’m more likely to push back than turn the other cheek. I’m inclined to fight for the underdog. I hate bullies, liars and hypocrites. Sometimes an eye for an eye is the only conceivable response.

Sorry, any of you out there who used to think I was such a nice lady. Now you know I can be as bloodthirsty as the next person. And now you know why conflict is such a conflict for me.

But maybe this internal contradiction isn’t so unusual. In fact, maybe it’s common – even virtually universal. How else can you explain the enduring popularity of dramatic war stories – the kind of stories that mirror the external conflict of battle with the gut-wrenching internal conflict that tortures their characters? There’s a reason that the sphere in which fighting takes place is called the theatre of war.

I was mulling this over yesterday as I watched the classic 1942 movie Casablanca for probably the dozenth time. I never get through it with dry eyes. Has there ever been a more enduringly popular cinematic war story? Not according to legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who noted it was “probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title,” and gave it the edge for first place, simply because it is so loved.

In November 1942, just as the Allied forces were invading North Africa in real-life World War II, Casablanca, starring the incomparable Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as star-crossed lovers, opened in the Hollywood Theatre in New York City. Critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it, “a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.”

While it was a box-office success story from the beginning, it wasn’t the biggest hit of 1943 (that was For Whom the Bell Tolls, another dramatic story about an entirely different war). Casablanca, however, won Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing/Screenplay (Julius and Phillip Epstein, Howard Koch) at the 1943 Academy Awards.

What makes Casablanca unique, however, is that it has not only maintained its stature over the past 71 years (yes, 71 – count ’em), it has actually become more popular. It is the most frequently broadcast film on American television. It continues to be screened in movie theatres, notably around college campuses. It has been at or near the top of virtually every list of great movies over the decades, from Time magazine, to the Writers Guild of America, the American Film Institute and the IMDb website. And it is still a favourite home movie pick, the latest release being a 70th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD collector’s edition in 2012.

So, what can we writers learn from Casablanca?

Does it endure because it’s an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as the LA Times suggested on the film’s 50th anniversary? Is it the romantic chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that keeps people watching it again and again? Is it the direction? The cinematography? The script?

As good as all those things are (even the elements that, to our modern eyes and ears, seem dated, even hokey), I think the secret to Casablanca’s success is story, pure and simple.

Film critic Murray Burnett called it “true yesterday, true today, true tomorrow.”

Bestselling writer and critic Umberto Eco wrote that, as a movie, “by any strict critical standards … Casablanca  is a very mediocre film … a comic strip … a hotch potch.” But listen to what he thought about it as a story:

” … as we enter Rick’s Place  … at once a tangle of Eternal Archetypes comes into play. These are situations that have presided over stories throughout the ages. But usually to make a good story a single archetypal situation is enough. More than enough. Unhappy Love, for example, or Flight. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that: It uses them all. The city is the setting for a Passage, the passage to the Promised Land … But to make the passage, one must submit to a test, the Wait.

The passage from the waiting room to the Promised land requires a Magic Key, the visa. It is around the winning of this Key that passions are unleashed. Money (which appears at various points, usually in the form of the Fatal Game, roulette) would seem to be the means for obtaining the Key. But eventually we discover that the Key can be obtained only through a Gift – the gift of the visa, but also the gift Rick makes of his Desire by sacrificing himself. For this is also the story of a round of Desires, only two of which are satisfied: that of Victor Laszlo, the purest of heroes, and that of the Bulgarian couple. All those whose passions are impure fail.

Thus, we have another archetype: The Triumph of Purity. The impure do not reach the Promised Land … but they do achieve purity through sacrifice – and this means Redemption. Rick is redeemed and so is the French police captain. We come to realize that underneath it all there are two Promised Lands: One is America … and the other is the Resistance – the Holy War. That is where Victor has come from, and that is where Rick and the captain are going … 

Into this orgy of sacrificial archetypes … is inserted the theme of Unhappy Love: unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilsa and cannot have her; unhappy for Ilsa, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him; unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilsa. 

Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology … in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it … When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion … the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime … If nothing else, it is a phenomenon of awe.”

No wonder Casablanca has proved to be difficult to classify in terms of genre. Is it a romance? A melodramatic war story? A morality tale about sacrifice?

It’s all of these, of course. But in my mind, it is the balance between internal and external conflicts which resonates so strongly with audiences that they fall in love with the story – perhaps in spite of themselves. It’s the eternal struggle of humans of free will trying to make their way in a dangerous and chaotic world beyond their control.

Or as Rick cornily says to Ilsa in the famous parting scene at the airport, as the night fog shrouds their embrace, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

So could this story be told as dramatically without the wartime background? Maybe. But you’d have to build another story world that delivers danger, chaos and moral dilemma as well as a war does.

Epilogue: Writers Take Note

In 1982, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross decided to perpetrate a hoax with a mission. Would literary agents recognize a great story like Casablanca if they saw it? Maybe he was sick of rejections and wanted to cheer himself up.

He submitted the Casablanca script under his own name to 217 agencies, reverting to the title of the original play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison from which the movie screenplay derived: Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

Of the 38 movie agencies that actually read it, but did not recognize it as Casablanca, 35 rejected it outright, with comments such as the following:

“I gave you five pages to grab me – didn’t do it.”

“I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.”

“Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script.”

The lesson here? Never give up in the face of rejections. Here’s looking at you, kid.


Remembrance Day 2013. Lest we forget.

Fear of trying?


Silk’s Post #57 – Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.

That’s for a magnificent performance by fellow 5writer Joe Cummings, our solo star this year at the Surrey International Writers Conference. Joe did two amazing things this past weekend.

First, he whipped off a monster number of highly entertaining blog posts documenting his experiences and learnings at the conference. Nine of them in four days. NINE! Go read ’em. This is a record that is unlikely to be broken. Ever.

Second, he overcame all the terrors every writer harbours, and put himself – his ego, his work, his ideas, his heart and a number of other unnamed body parts – out there to stand or fall at the whim of the marketplace. He pitched a ton of agents. He submitted his query letter for open critique. He tossed his manuscript in to be publicly lauded or savaged at the SIWC Idol. And then he told all in his blog posts. This is a considerable feat, even for an extrovert, which Joe certainly is not.


And now I’m convinced that Joe is truly serious about getting published. At all costs. Because sometimes that’s what it takes. In fact, maybe it’s the rule.

Forget all the Cinderella stories you’ve ever heard (or dreamed of) about some hermit of a writer getting discovered almost by chance and becoming an international bestseller. Oh, yeah, sure, the writer’s nephew stole a few pages of manuscript and sneaked it off to a publisher who fell under the spell of the story and sought out the shy author, advance cheque in hand. Now there’s a lovely piece of fiction.

Nope. The whole marketing ball-of-wax is hard, sometimes discouraging work. For introverted writers with tender hearts it can be excruciating. You think your job is done when you’ve actually completed your first draft? Done your rewrite? And your second, third and fourth rewrites? Written your query letter and your synopsis and your elevator pitch? Well, sorry to be harsh, but you’d be wrong.

The next step in the process is like stepping off a cliff into thin air. It’s putting it all out there. Your book, your self, your dreams. And that’s not even the hardest part.

The hardest part is what happens next … when NOTHING happens. Maybe you get a few echoes back along with the rejections. Some words of encouragement, if you’re lucky. After months, maybe years of work. It’s the possibility of that NOTHING that keeps writers, even great writers, from putting themselves out there.

The risk of losing your belief in yourself as a writer is terrifying. We’ve all felt it. And the more it matters to you, the scarier it is. Talk about a barrier to action! This is our Mount Everest. Our dragon-infested, unexplored ocean.

Those who overcome their doubts and plunge ahead with open eyes are not fearless. They’re brave in spite of their fears. They’re heroes.

Fear of failure can become fear of trying.

For those who can’t abide risk, who are too sensitive to bear disappointment, who aren’t compelled by some inexplicable obsession to express themselves creatively and publicly, discretion is the better part of valour. But for writers with a calling, nothing will do but to take that plunge.

It takes courage. Often it takes a kind of blind self confidence, even in the face of rejection. Some might even call that ‘faith’.

Here are just a few authors you would never have heard of if they hadn’t kept the faith:

John Grisham – whose first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and a dozen publishers.

Robert M. Pirsig – who apparently holds a Guinness record for most rejections of an eventual bestseller, with Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance garnering 121 rejections before it was finally published.

ee cummings – who had to self-publish his first book, The Enormous Room, now considered a masterpiece, after rejection by 15 publishers.

Louis L’Amour — who’s reported to have received 200 rejections before getting his first book published.

L. Frank Baum – who collected all his many, many rejections in a journal he titled Record of Failure, before publishing his first book Mother Goose in Prose, followed by a collection of poetry and then The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (after yet more rejections).

Irving Stone – whose biography of Vincent van Gogh, Lust for Life, was rejected 16 times before going on to sell 25 million copies.

Frank Herbert – whose beloved sci fi blockbuster, Dune, suffered 20 rejections.

Margaret Mitchell – who received 38 rejections before getting Gone With the Wind published.

J. K. Rowling – who famously suffered a dozen rejections of her spectacularly successful Harry Potter series, resulting in 12 publishers who are now very, very sorry they were so dumb.

No wonder few topics have been addressed by writers more often or more eloquently than rejection. Some of my favourites …

“First remember George Seither’s rule: ‘We don’t reject writers; we reject pieces of paper with typing on them.’ Then scream a little …”  — Isaac Asimov

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” — Barbara Kingsolver

“There is nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself.” — James Lee Burke

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.'” — Saul Bellow

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 2 – The query gets put up)

Joe’s Post #63

“This is a learning experience.”  “This is a learning experience.” “This is a learning experience.”

I kept telling myself that as I walked into the workshop run by Penguin Senior Editor, Adrienne Kerr entitled, “Queries that Work”. Hey, let’s face it, I needed to know how to do that, I really, really did. But I also kinda wanted someone, somewhere to say that this query worked.

Damn you, ego. Damn you to hell!

So I sat down, pulled out my query and gave it one last read through. I mean, why not? I’d done it up about 1 am last night and even though I checked it again at 8 am this morning, I’m all about getting it right if I can. No mistakes. No missing words. No hanger instead of hangar errors.

Note to self. Do not trust my ability to see anything at 2 am or 8 the next day. Much to my horror, I found not one but two errors.

Yikes! I knew THE ONE THING every book, every website, every agent ever said was NO ERRORS!

Panicking, I raced downstairs to the office nook and figured out how the computer works (which you’d think wouldn’t be that hard, but when it’s five minutes to a workshop, the world seems to put all sorts of stupid barriers in your way, like password not accepted, administrator not recognized or keyboard not detected.

But I found a computer I could log on to, logged on, loaded up skydrive for word (awesome, btw, for stupid people like me who didn’t even bring a flashdrive) and fixed my problem. I quickly printed out a new copy, tore back upstairs and sat back down. At the front.

No being shy-Joe. The workshop description said there would be a critique and dammit, I was going to look someone in the eye when they said I might want to consider choosing a different career, like being a male model or something.

The workshop turned out to be fantastic. I learned so much about the art of the query and even more importantly, some of the key things agents and editors will actually look for. But the key thing for me was to make sure I did my research. I mean, I do, I really do, but it validated my approach. It’s sort of like not having a computer work. First you check if it’s turned on. Then you shout at it. Then you see if it’s just the screen off … but little by little, you figure out what’s not working (then call someone in to fix it.)

So, researching the agent/editor is a GOOD thing. So, something else is failing.

Time to look at the pitch.

She asked if I wanted to read it out. I think I said “urg” and shook my head.

When Ms. Kerr went through it, it sounded awesome in my ears, sort of like how I look in the mirror sometimes and see George Clooney looking back at me (or, on a bad day, I see John Candy).

Anyway, the query sounded awesome and I held my breath, waiting for the hammer to fall.

But instead, she said it was a great query. She loved that I was able to mention Daniel Kella in my professional history, that I knew what she did and who she worked with, that I had a great comparison to best-selling novels without me saying I will be the next JK Rowling. She loved I had an emotional hook and that I hit some key conflicts in the story.

She asked the audience and the feedback was all pretty positive. No, really positive. The only thing the room agreed needed to be changed was one paragraph moved to the first one read.

Oh how my little Joe-heart soared.

I’d nailed it.

The rollercoaster roared upwards.

Surrey Writer’s Con (Act 2 – Day 2: Operation Inspiration)

Joe’s Post #62

Last night, I went home and retooled the query and pitch. It’s not like yesterday was a complete failure, I managed to get 4 of 5 cards from someone saying send out something, but I didn’t want to fool myself either (for a change). The biggest reason I got permission to send stuff was my ability to claw my way out of the very deep hole I’d dug myself into with my pitch.

So, if it ain’t working, fix it. I called my friend Sean and, being the great guy that he is, he didn’t say no, he was just about to go to bed … or no, he was still in his gimp outfit and kinda tied up at the moment. No, he said send out what you got, what you want to change and let’s see what we can do. After a few emails back and forth, an hour later, we had a working draft. It took another hour to fine tune it, but the query is far, far better for it and my pitch, totally redirected. While I loved the idea of the theme of the book, that power corrupts, a pitch based on that didn’t excite anyone. Even when I wasn’t looking like I was about to throw up or twitching uncontrollably.

Armed with a new query, a new outlook, I’m ready for the day. But I’m also going to try and actually have some fun. Oh, I know I said I should do that but doing five pitches yesterday was about as far from fun as it gets for me.

simon cowellHence, Operation Inspiration. There’s one agent I still want to talk to, but the rest of the time I’ll be in workshops. True, they are hard-core ones, (a query workshop where they will read my query and critique it, and the dreaded Writer’s Idol, where the bard Jack Whyte will read out pages from my story for a panel to, well, go all Simon Cowell on it).

The trick will be how I go into those workshops. I want to go in and leave my ego at the door and use it as a learning experience. If they say it sucks, I hope they can say why so I can fix it. The risk I run, especially after yesterday, is that the house of cards that is my belief in me as a writer, will come tumbling down.

But who can go through life without taking a few risks?

Surrey Writer’s Con (the last hours)

Joe’s Post #61

The last pitch is done. Susan Chang. Editor with TOR. She was fantastic and really drilled down on my story whereupon a theme emerged. I have not sold my world as well as I may need to. Everyone, including Ms. Chang wanted to know more about my world, why it was different, what would make it special?

I counter punched those answers pretty well, though not really well. I never thought my world-building would be an issue. I’m kind of arrogant that way. Ok, in a lot of ways. But I need to find a way to talk about how everything is not as it seems, that it’s not a vanilla creation, that it has depth and soul.

However, Ms. Chang was kind enough to give the first few pages a look. So, more pages off next week.

And that was it. I felt like I’d been put through the ringer but I swear to God that Paula would have been proud of my selling. Pitch failing, shift, regroup,refocus. Come at them, again.

But doing the interviews was not all that I accomplished here. I was all Mr. Chatty and spoke to dozens of writers. Everyone has a story, let me tell you. I also thanked all the volunteers at the agent/editor desk, shaking their hands and saying how awesome they’d been. Without them, I would never have had a chance to see more than one agent. They did such a good job of herding the cats. Lastly, I didn’t throw up on anyone. I don’t think too many people realized how lucky they’d been but … you’re welcome.

So, off to supper. No more pitching for me today. The query tomorrow needs work in a big way, at least based on what everyone told me today, but I’m not sure I’ve have time (or the idea) to fix it. It may have to go as is and I may have to take my lumps.

Then there’s the ‘idol’ workshop. A chance for Jack Whyte to read my story aloud, (which I did last night, minus his beautiful baritone voice). However, it’s also a chance to take a real ass-kicking, ego-wise. If that fails to impress anyone, I think I may become a plumber. At least I have a contact number for one.

Wish me luck.

Surrey Writer’s Con (rejection and panic)

Joe’s Post #60

Ok, two more pitches down.

saraFirst up, Sara Sargent, an editor and another super nice person. I mean SUPER nice.

I don’t honestly know how they deal with all the writers and their bad pitches and a complete inability to tell a story about their story. Like me.

We had a great talk. At this point, my nerves are down to a nasty eye-twitch, but my voice, arg, my voice, it decided to die. I sounded like Mickey talking to Rocky. Not a bad thing but clearly my plan or talking non-stop for 3 hours has a flaw in it.

The good news about the chat, she had some great advice on my characters, especially Cyndy. Simply put, she cannot be 10. She has to either age up or go bye-bye. Yikes! I love Cyndy. But so be it. After leaving, I went back and rewrote Cyndy as a 15-year-old. It’s not just changing her voice, but her attitude as well. Luckily, I only had one scene to rewrite. More will have to be done, but the idea, the whole story concept, hmmm, it’s not winning people over.

And that’s a problem. A huge problem. It could be that this idea is not an immediate winner, even if I pitch it well (or if not well, then ‘better’).

She did not want me to send her anything. Could just be an editor thing (they do have a no unsolicited manuscript policy, but I think if she loved it, she would have solicited it).

Confidence after I left that meeting dropped like stone in water.

Should I even be here?

Panic set in. Should I even continue pitching this book?

agent_34But off I went to the next interview. An agent. Patricia Ocampo. Another amazingly nice person, still keen and energetic even after hours of sitting there and hoping to find a great story.

My pitch still wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t bad. It told the story that I’d written. Only problem, once again, she told me she wasn’t sure it had a market.


At this point, I channelled Paula. I fought and I fought and I fought to find something truly magical in the story and, when that looked like it was failing, I sold myself. No, not in the dirty way, but in the way that I WAS the right person to write an idea that had been done before, that I knew enough, that I researched the market and my audience enough to make it work, that I was THE geekie guy who could getter done.

I dunno if she just felt sorry for me, especially after I started crying and begging, but she gave me her card and told me to send it to her sample pages. I could be overthinking this, but I was pretty sure she was glad to get rid of me mostly because her card said, Glenn’s Plumbing and listed a number in Alaska (just kidding).

But a good experience. No really. If the story fails or the writing fails, oddly, I’m ok with that. I’ll write another book. What I hated was the fact my pitch would fail so spectacularly that they would never even think of talking to me again, let alone asking me for some sample pages. (However, it could also be that my pitch approach has failed, that I am not hitting what agents need to see.)

Oh well, on to the last one. Panic has subsided. Rejection accepted.

Where’s the bar?