Pitfalls in the Writing Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Writer Beware is the following, all volunteer endeavor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The book will be released May 17, 2011.

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


Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you all!

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

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

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

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

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