Guidebooks Are Hot. Not Just Now, But Forever!

July 22nd, 2014

gahnnAs more and more people seek active, do-it-yourself vacations, or new places in their own backyards to hike, paddle, pedal or climb, outdoor guidebooks continue to gain in popularity.

“The market is expanding in various directions,” say Gordon Hardy, editor al Appalachian Mountain Club Books. “There are books for rock-climbers and mountain-bikers, but there is also much more information geared to people who are not hardcore; more books geared toward families–for example, our nature walk series.”

Couch potatoes want the inspiration–and the how-to and where-to essentials–to get off the couch. More seasoned adventurers Want to explore lesser-known places. And both groups need guidebook authors to show them the way by suggesting trip routes, noting campsites and supply points, and foretelling the perils and pleasures of simple day trips or multiday expeditions.

Many first-time authors have broken into print with guidebooks such as Bicycling Mexico, Paddling Hawaii and my own Sea Kayaking in Baja. Even without a long list of publishing credentials, these writers have gotten their foot (or paddle or piton) in the door by proving they know a sport (cycling, canoeing, kayaking, climbing, backpacking or just plain walking) and/ or a defined area (which may be as big as a mountain range or as small as a city park) that hasn’t been covered–or hasn’t been covered adequately–by existing guidebooks.

To parlay your own expertise into publishing success, follow the trail I’ve marked.

Hit the Trail

Hike every mile is the rule at Wilderness Press. If your guidebook is to be the first on a particular area, then the need for firsthand, on-site research is obvious. Even if other guidebooks or background sources do exist, however, your research should still be done primarily on the trail–not in the library–since competing guides and even government maps are often riddled with errors. (If they weren’t, there probably wouldn’t be a market for your book in the first place.

Know that your prospective publisher will do his own research on your topic, so you must be thorough. “Sometimes I know an area well. Other times I, or somebody I trust, will go there and walk several miles with manuscript in hand to see if the words match up. . . . But with all my years of experience, I can usually get a feel for how accurate a person is just by looking at a manuscript,” says Wilderness Press editor in chief Thomas Winnett, who has written or co-written 12 guidebooks of his own.

A publisher may check up on you once, but it’s readers who will be judging your work forever after, and they will be demanding. If you’ve ever stood at the reading end of a guidebook, you’ll understand why–misleading directions or a botched map can ruin an afternoon, a weekend or, worse, put guidebook users in danger.

Simple omissions are the biggest flub (what trail junction is this? why isn’t that island even mentioned?), so aim for comprehensiveness. Take responsibility for your own fact checking, going back to the area in question if necessary.

Be authoritative, but also be honest: If your information is still uncertain, secondhand, or possibly out-of-date, and you can’t substitute another trail or route, alert the reader, so at least he’ll be prepared for a few surprises.

Of course, some inaccuracies will be inevitable. Development can render the most pristine area unrecognizable in the time it takes your book to go to press, and Mother Nature can redesign a beach, bikepath or forest glen overnight. Expect some change and warn your readers to do the same.

Food, Lodging–and Romance

If you only needed to get your reader from point A to point B, a well-marked map might suffice. But today’s guidebook readers expect more. In addition to simply keeping your reader from getting lost, a guidebook may describe access points or directions to and from trails; campsites (whether developed, primitive, or the only flat, tent-size surface for miles); sources of drinking water; availability of firewood; and possibilities (and regulations) for fishing, hunting or foraging.

The same tenets apply for guidebooks as for any nonfiction: Write with an active voice; mind your grammar; and, perhaps most difficult, avoid losing your reader in a tangle of directions, descriptions and technical detail. A tall order, regardless of how many guides you’ve penned.

“Even writers with experience in doing this sort of writing sometimes have trouble making directions simple enough while still being comprehensive,” says Hardy.

To clean up your writing, consult the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as any writers’ guidelines or style manuals provided by guidebook publishers. Once you’re confident your manuscript passes muster, have a friend or fellow outdoors enthusiast give it a “test-read,” walking through a route description either mentally or–better–physically, to check for clarity.

Adequate and accurate can still be dull, so don’t be afraid to add personal anecdotes, observations and comments for color. In my Baja guidebook I used brief recollections of my own paddling trips, misadventures at sea and wildlife sightings to introduce each route. Story-telling can inspire readers to get going and make a trip, and can ensure that your guidebook is read around the campfire, as well as on the trail.

One thing all editors agree not to add is fluffy, nondescript adjectives. “Don’t tell me something is beautiful or gorgeous,” says Randall Green, guidebook editor at Falcon Press Publishing.

To show, not tell, take notes of vivid sensory details while you’re outdoors researching an area, since all those mountains, rivers and vistas will merge in your mind once you’re home writing a final draft.

Finally, a good guidebook will also include notes on the points of interest along the way that make all that hiking, pedaling or climbing worthwhile.

“I use the word romance to refer to that kind of writing–the stuff other than just ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right,’” says Winnett. “I want a manuscript to be simple and direct, but I also want writing that makes a reader think, ‘Gee, I want to go there.’ Usually, that means a description of a view or panorama, a field or flower, an aspect of geology or human history.”

Hardy agrees. “More and more, we’re moving in the direction of including information on the natural world, so people can understand what’s around them as they’re walking a trail or paddling a river.”

There is no need to interrupt a route description with a complete discourse on local fungi dispersion, or a long-winded history of a long-vanished area tribe–just give your reader something to look for or think about. Tempt him to slow down, to use all his senses or to wander from the trail mentally, if not physically.

Technique tips find a place in most guidebooks, too; but avoid redundancies. Guidebooks are primarily “whereto” books, since readers will already own general how-to or reference books on a particular sport. Only tips geared specifically to both the activity and the geographical area being covered–how to handle wind in gusty climbing terrain, or how and where to make camp in a paddling locale with extreme tides, for example–merit inclusion. After all, more is not always better when it comes to guidebooks, since an overly weighty book won’t fit in a backpack or slim back pocket, and will cost more to produce.

It’s Still Good to Go Green

An exception to the advice above is the inclusion of how-to information that helps readers be more environmentally responsible. Publishers are increasingly aware of the need to “camp soft” and “step lightly,” and you can endear yourselves to them by promoting that message.

Says Hardy, “We try to fit a conservation/preservation message into all of our books. So in our book on winter camping, for example, we have information on building fires and gathering wood that’s in keeping with environmental restrictions.”

Randall Green offers another example: “In our new series for rockclimbers, we’re doing a lot with no-trace techniques. If we’re to continue using natural areas, we must pay attention to the effects we’re having on them.”

Of course, even if wilderness users act responsibly, their presence still has an impact. “The guidebook writer is attempting a balancing act,” says Green. “[Writers must decide] how much they want to publicize and bring new people to an area.”

One approach: Aim to spread out the impact of users by highlighting less popular trails or attractions, little-known alternate routes or campsites that are just as worth visiting, and times of the day or seasons of the year when traffic is light. After all, most people head outdoors to get away from crowds.

Sometimes a little natural history goes a long way, too. By telling your readers about the few weeks each year that an island or bluff is used by nesting birds, for example, you can help paddlers or hikers choose less ecologically sensitive areas or times to visit.

Organizing Your Information

No matter how accurate, interesting or environmentally responsible your guidebook is, it won’t get much use if readers can’t find the information they need quickly and easily. Your task: Choose the best format for organizing your information. Format may be decided for you by the publisher, but if not, you’ll have more creative license. However, a few conventions are worth adopting.

Most guidebooks are broken down into a series of individual trip or trail descriptions: 50 favorite hikes from easiest to most difficult, 20 climbing peaks organized in order of height, a long hiking trail broken into ten contiguous sections.

A summary of each trip or an introductory section that includes all the essential trip data, such as distance covered, type of terrain, access points, accommodations en route and possible hazards may precede a more detailed description of the route. Where key directions, warnings or recommendations are integrated into the text, the liberal use of bold lettering and italics can aid harried readers, who may be pondering their next turn from a trail junction, or planning the next day’s travels from the low light of a campfire.

Information that will be consulted regularly, such as average temperatures, wind speeds for an area, or park rules and regulations, is best displayed in charts or tables at the beginning or end of the book for quick reference.

In all these examples, the critical element is that readers should be able to find the information they need as easily as possible. It doesn’t matter whether you do this by using an inverted pyramid format (most important information first, supplementary information following) or a more magazine-like format (graphics or sidebars used to highlight information), What does matter is that you are consistent, enabling readers to intuit how far they should flip, or where their eyes should scan, each time they need information fast.

Making the Sale

Since you may only get one chance to do your research and decide the format of your book, you’ll do well to target potential publishers early on in the process. If you don’t record the kind of details or don’t take the photos a particular publisher wants to see, you’d have to return to the places you’re writing about–easy if you’re doing a hiking guide to parks within a day’s drive of home, not so easy if you’re doing a whitewater guide to the rivers of Peru.

Assemble a list of potential publishers by reading book catalogs, searching for a house that specializes in the activity and/or geographical region about which you’re writing. Some outdoors publishers cover only the West Coast, some only the East; some may specialize in, say, mountaineering, while others cover any self-propelled outdoor activity.

Once you’ve found several publishing houses that might be a good match for you and your book, the process of actually hooking one is the same as for any nonfiction work. A query letter stressing why a guidebook is needed (and why you’re the one to write it) is generally followed by a proposal package, consisting of an outline or table of contents, a few sample chapters or several representative trail or trip descriptions, an analysis of the market for your book, and a brief author biography. Publishers differ on whether they want to see slides or photos, and whether they expect you to make your own maps (either hand-sketched or drawn by computer).

Negotiated your contract? Sold your book? Followed up with the rest of your final, polished manuscript? Good. Now, get those shoes back on, pull out the bike, put the canoe on top of the car. A second edition awaits. Time to hit the trail again.

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Weekly Readers: They Need Your Inspirational Tales!

July 5th, 2014

wrThey’re the Weekly Readers of the Sunday School classrooms–wispy, four-colored pages that barely seem substantial enough to be called “magazines.” In fact, most often they’re referred to as “take-home papers.”

For readers, the papers they receive in church or Sunday School classes are a means to reflecting on Christian values throughout the week. For writers, they represent a large market eager for personalized fiction, nonfiction, essays, poems, self-help and how-to. Several years ago my first personal experience article was accepted by Power for Living. Since then I’ve accumulated a stack of clips and check stubs.

These magazines may be small in page count, but the readerships may be quite large–some have circulations of more than 400,000. (All those Sunday school classes add up. And the variety, as well as each paper’s need for up to 175 manuscripts per year, offers many opportunities for writers.

But this need doesn’t make for easy sales. Editors, just like their secular counterparts, want well-written material. Beyond that requirement, articles and fiction in take-home papers must also touch or challenge readers’ emotions. The stories must be uplifting: A tragedy becomes a blessing, a lesson is learned, hope is renewed. Readers want to feel as if you are talking to them. You want them to understand how you reacted to a particular experience, or how your faith was challenged.

Ideas for Sunday school take-home papers are found everywhere: in a writer’s own life and experiences, and in others’ stories that inspire people to strengthen their faith, love and accept others, or overcome adversity. Both small daily events and major experiences that change our lives can be used for articles or short essays, or become fiction pieces.

Have you learned how to overcome feelings of failure, deal with a problem family member or had a prayer answered in an unexpected way? Have you gone through a health crisis that stretched your faith? Do you know someone who has overcome great challenges to come to the US? Has an experience caused your feelings to change toward others? These are just a few story lines you could turn into inspirational stories and articles. How-to articles on family, marriage, parenting, relationships with God and people around us are also needed. If you experience life, you have something to say to readers in this market.

For example, a parent once asked me, “How will my adopted son react if I become pregnant someday?” I turned that situation into the short story “Homemade or Store-bought” for HiCall (now Teen Life). When my husband forgot to thank me for staying up late typing a college paper for him (but remembered he’d failed. to tell me to triple-space), I wrote “Forgotten Gratitude” for Live.

Don’t think that you can’t write for a publication that’s outside your faith: Membership in a particular denomination isn’t as important as studying the papers, and noting their styles and the types, of articles they prefer. Read the guidelines, which list denominational beliefs as well as do’s and don’ts. One magazine may accept a certain topic, while another may reject the manuscript because it violates the beliefs or ideals of its readers. For instance, Halloween, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are almost always unacceptable in this market because of their nonreligious natures.

The principal guideline in writing fiction for these publications is the characters must reflect real-life problems that are solved in a nonpreachy or nonsimplistic way. As the story ends, readers should notice a change in the character’s attitude or understanding. In teen and juvenile take-home papers, it’s especially important to make the stories and problems realistic and relevant. The problem must be solved through faith, but not without inner or outer struggles.

Preachiness has no place in nonfiction either. Yet show-don’t-tell dialogue and action do. Show emotion whenever possible, especially if it’s a personal experience, inspirational, humor or self-help piece.

How-to articles are also popular. The best how-tos are more than lists of “Five Ways to Interest Children in Sunday School.” Show how you did it. Use anecdotes, or take an event and show how it made a difference.

After studying a few samples, make a list of the different types of stories you encountered: personal experience, how-to, self-help, humor, etc. Then write down under each topic anything you, your family or someone you know has experienced that readers could draw encouragement or ideas from. Does someone you know have an inspiring story? Interview that person and write it as an as-told-to piece.

There are several advantages to writing for take-home papers. Because they are published weekly, they need more freelance material than most magazines. Each issue has two to three short stories or articles, plus a back page often used for short essays or poetry.

Most pay on acceptance. And many purchase only one-time rights, enabling you to resell it to a noncompeting paper of another denomination (most papers are willing to buy second, or reprint, rights). By reselling a piece, you can generate payment for several years. Many of my personal experience and how-to articles have been published in up to six different take-home papers during the past three years. One event can become an article, short story, essay and a poem–four sales that can each be sold again and again as reprints.

And, like everywhere else in the publishing world, editors move, which can open more magazine doors for you. After I had sold several articles to Sunday Digest and developed a relationship with the editor, she left to edit 7he Quiet Hour, a devotional booklet by the same publisher. I continued to sell to Sunday Digest and its new editors. The previous editor soon contacted me to write for The Quiet Hour.

Perhaps the greatest reward, though, is receiving letters from readers who have been touched or challenged by what I’ve written. If you’re able to put your emotions into words, are comfortable with sharing your life in print and want your writing to impact others, consider writing for take-home papers. These magazines need your life-touching stories.

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Using A Brand In Your Stories Can Be Touchy

June 6th, 2014

uabysStephen King does it. Jay McInerney does it. Raymond Carver didn’t do it. Jane Austen did it, but not often. Judith Krantz can’t stop doing it. William Gibson does it, but with a twist. Mary McCarthy did it, but not as much as you’d expect. Jean Auel never does it, but only because it would be impossible. Judy Blume does it a lot.

“It” is the use of brand names from the author’s contemporary world, incorporated into the world of his or her fiction. By “brand name” I mean the mention of a specific product rather than a more generic version of the same thing: Corn Flakes rather than cereal (Stephen King), Maxwell House rather than coffee (Mary McCarthy), a Mary McFadden rather than a designer dress (Judith Krantz). I also mean the mention of specific song titles, books, TV programs or movies drawn from the pop culture of the author’s “real” world: Lawrence Welk (King again), The Mysteries of Udolpho (Jane Austen), “You Are My Lucky Star” and Return of Frankenstein (both used by Judy Blume).

But, you might say, isn’t that natural? If the protagonist is eating breakfast, why not say he’s eating Corn Flakes? Isn’t it always better to be specific and concrete than general and vague? Doesn’t Chivas Regal convey more than scotch?

Or perhaps you’re on the other side. No, you might say, brand names are an intrusion. They’re distracting and lazy and too easily dated. Throughout America, creative writing teachers are saying just that, this very minute, to students who have peppered their prose with Dior or The Brady Bunch.

Granted, this is not the most burning issue you will encounter in writing fiction. But if, as someone once remarked, God is in the details, then the detail of brand names warrants our attention. Let’s examine the arguments on both sides.

Three Objections

* The use of brand names will date your work. You’re writing prose to last, goes this argument, and 50 years from now, will readers recognize Jolt? Or Ferragamo? Or “Like a Virgin”? And even if they can deduce from context which of these is sung, which drunk, and which worn, they’ll still miss the nuances you intend. Future readers won’t automatically know that Ferragamo shoes are expensive and classy, while Madonna is expensive and not. Your work may not only become dated, but partly unintelligible.

However, there’s a persuasive counter to this argument, which is that all fiction becomes dated anyway in far more important essentials than brand names, and that this does not mar its impact. Consider, as an example, Jane Austen.

In one sense, the world of Northanger Abbey is obsolete: Social rules are different, moral judgments have changed. For instance, nobody today would find it shameful that Gen. Tilney does not send a servant to accompany Catherine Morland on her journey home. Even language has altered: “She is all condescension” was a compliment in Austen’s world, in which class superiority was a given; the phrase is an insult now (“She always condescends to me!”).

Yet Northanger Abbey remains not only enjoyable but relevant, for its sharp portraits of those human foibles that may change form but not substance. If an entire social milieu can change without hopelessly dating the novel, then the novel can survive the fact that, unlike Catherine, nobody reads Udolpko anymore. Readers who don’t know exactly what Udolpho signifies won’t find like reference any more dated than the rest of Catherine’s world–or any less interesting. In fact, the unknown specific reference may even heighten the sense of entering a different world.

Also, contemporary brand names may not end up as dated as you think. We still recognize Packard, Edsel, Buster Brown and the Glenn Miller sound, even though none of these things is currently being produced. Similarly, Levi’s, Apple and Doritos may well remain in the language, if not in the marketplace, longer than we assume.

Recognizable brand names can even be used in books dealing with the future instead of the past. Science fiction writer William Gibson makes extensive and wry use of specific brands. By letting us know which names have survived into his imagined future, he comments slyly on the economics of the present. For instance, Braun coffee makers, well made and efficient in our world, are ubiquitous in Gibson’s future. Conversely, most of the advanced computer systems in his future United States are Japanese, such as the “workaday Ono-Sendai VII” in the short story “Burning Chrome.” Brand names add an additional level of implied social history.

* The use of brand names flips your reader out of the would you’ve created, by too strongly reminding her of this world. This argument has merit, especially when you evoke pop culture close to the genre in which you’re writing. An amateur detective who exclaims, “This whole situation reminds me of Agatha Christie!” is only going to invite comparisons. Do you really want your universe compared with Agatha Christie’s? And no romance writer should have her heroine feel “just like Juliet.” Your heroine should feel like herself.

Even a milder use of brand names does indeed evoke our world, not the world of the story. But this is only a drawback if the two are supposed to be very different from each other. If your novel takes place in New York City in 1996, then mentioning the products common to 1996, it seems to me, can only reinforce that illusion. You would mention 5th Avenue and the Battery naturally enough–so why not Betsy Johnson, Steuben, Zabar? Some readers, unfamiliar with the brands, may indeed miss their subtler implications–but such readers would know no less than if you’d simply written dress, vase or bagel.

A word of caution here: To be effective, the use of brand names must be reasonably sparing. Context will not make the following understandable, and the evoking of our world can’t make the paragraph more real:

Jane put on her Adidas, an old Jessie Hart, the Max Lang that Charles had given her, and her mother’s Victorian ring. There! That mix should show everyone! All those people who sneered at her as just a Donna Stillson wannabe … now they’d see! Tonight she was a different Jane. She patted her Leasting Super and left, humming “Once Again, Slowly.”

Huh? Put on her Jessie Hart what? What had Charles given her–a hat a diamond bracelet, a T-shirt or a mannerism? Is Donna Stillson someone ifs good to be an imitator of–or not good? What on Earth is a Leasting Super? And is “Once Again, Slowly” a sweet sad ballad or the most cynical of nihilistic heavy metal? The brand names here are worse than generic nouns would be, both because they’re obscure and because they’re used to supplant, not supplement, generic concepts. To make brand names add to your world, choose and use them with common sense.

Brand names are a lazy way to evoke reality. Fresh descriptions of your own will mean more than prepackaged commercial trademarks. This, to my mind, is the most persuasive argument against using brand names in fiction. If you are relying only on names like Kmart and Budweiser to give your story a working-class feel, your fiction is probably failing. Brand names can contribute to a sense of class. But they cannot replace the hard work of showing us authentic blue-collar people thinking, talking and behaving like blue-collar people, Brand names should be one strand in the tapestry you’re weaving; they cannot be woof and warp.

On the other hand, it’s naive to pretend that only brand names carry this threat of hasty and too-easy symbolism. All words are symbols. Thus, all words have both concrete meaning (denotative) and implied symbolic meaning within a given culture (connotative). Consider the words mother, flag and heroin. You can’t use them without implying a whole raft of unstated cultural beliefs. That does not, however, mean that you shouldn’t use such words. Nor does it mean that merely announcing that someone is a “mother of three” does the whole job of characterizing her. Ideally, when you use a word like mother (or cross or virgin) you’re aware of what resonances you may be setting up in the reader’s mind, and you build on those to create the effect you want.

Brand names are no different. Saying a man wears Armani suits will not, all by itself, create a character of wealth and sophistication. But the brand name may be used as one small detail contributing to that effect. Used that way, the brand name is no lazier or more stale than any other carefully chosen detail.

One Defense

Brand names, as I’ve just spent two paragraphs leading up to, are essentially metaphors. As such, they have the same potential power–and the same limitations–as other metaphors. The potential lies in their power to imply more than the direct visual image offered to us. Consider the following sentences, from widely differing works:

“Sally, the receptionist. .. from one of the outer boroughs, comes in via bridge or tunnel. Generally people here speak as if they were weaned on Twinings English Breakfast Tea.”

Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

“The contents of B.B.’s purse spilled out, a bottle of Opium breaking at Margo’s feet, lipsticks rolling under cars, a hairbrush, a notebook.”

Judy Blume, Smart Women

“And in an upstairs cupboard [the killers] found a Skippy peanut butter jar half filled with dimes, and they took those, too. There was $20.60 in dimes.”

Stephen King, The Stand

Clearly, more is being implied in these excerpts than what the rest of the office workers (except Sally) drink for breakfast, or that B.B. carries perfume or that a Skippy jar is a good place to keep dimes. The Twinings English Breakfast Tea becomes a metaphor for class background and, by extension, the accents of people other than Sally. Opium, an expensive and heavy perfume, is a metaphor for B.B.’s kind of femininity. And it’s a good bet that B.B. doesn’t keep her spare dimes in anything as pedestrian and homey as a Skippy peanut butter jar.

Like other metaphors, brand names can be cliche, inappropriate, intrusive or obscure. But we don’t avoid other kinds of metaphors because of these pitfalls. Rather, we search for figurative language that is fresh, appropriate and in keeping with the tone of the work as a whole. We should do the same with brand names.

For better or worse, we live surrounded by commercial products. They infiltrate our thoughts, absorb our money and time, become the means by which we express ourselves. To ban them from fiction is tantamount to banning a large piece of the contemporary world. And if your object is to re-create the contemporary world so you can illuminate it, then why would you wish to exclude such a major part of what surrounds us? Your characters choose to buy the brands they do, and choices are always illuminating.

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Intellectual Property And Your Work: Protection

May 14th, 2014

ipaypThe Congress shall have power .. to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” -US Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8

To fulfill this charge, Congress has been securing rights to authors for more than two centuries. But our Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined how current technology would threaten this whole scheme.

If you think I mean the photocopier, wake up and smell the toner: The greatest challenge to authors’ copyrights is the rapid growth of networked computers–and publishers’ alarmist responses to this new technology.

In short, beware of PCs, the Internet, and your friendly neighborhood publisher.

But all is not lost … at least not yet. While these new technologies present specific challenges to writers, they also offer up intriguing possibilities. And as a writer in the digital age, you must learn how to protect yourself and your work.

Upsides/Downsides

The digital age–in particular, the increasing ability to communicate between intelligent computer processors anywhere on the planet–offers benefits to everyone. Plugged-in writers have quick access to current information on virtually any topic, which should increase accuracy and reduce research time enormously. And not only can writers pull information in, they can send it out.

Indeed, the Internet is the greatest self-publishing tool in writing history–not just for Ziff-Davis and HotWired, but for small publishers and individual authors.

Unfortunately, the risks are almost as great as the rewards.

One risk, to both writers and publishers, is illustrated by domestic and international attacks on Internet pornography: Laws on obscenity differ greatly, among countries, even among US regions. A work with sexual or violent content that is acceptable on the East or West coasts may shock readers in the rural South and be unquestionably criminal abroad.

Similar problems can arise when it comes to defamation. What our First Amendment considers to be protected speech in the US may be actionable libel elsewhere. And as Salman Rushdie learned, what raises eyebrows in the West may be a capital offense in the Middle East. In an online world, writers and publishers must worry over their potential liability when works meant for one audience find their way to audiences with different moral, religious and legal systems.

The Copyright Challenge

Still, the bigger threat to writers is that once their work is digitized, pixel-perfect copies can be delivered in the blink of an eye to millions of sites around the globe, where the work can be read, printed, edited, adapted and otherwise exploited–all without the permission, or even the awareness, of or payment to the author,

To appreciate how lethal this can be, You must understand that under US copyright law authors have a broad range of legal protections, including:

* the exclusive rights to copy, adapt, publicly perform, publicly display and sell their work

* the right to sue infringers in federal court (after registering the work, which can occur anytime during the term of copyright–in most cases, the author’s life plus 50 years)

* the right to recover their losses and the infringer’s profits, or (for infringements occurring after registration) “statutory damages” up to $100,000 plus attorneys’ fees. (For a more complete discussion of copyrights, see my “Questions and Answers About Copyright” in last month’s WD.)

These copyright benefits, which enable authors to control and profit from their works, are threatened by the reach and immediacy of cyberspace.

Of course, not everyone believes in copyrights. Some have recently argued that copyright should be abolished and all Internet content be made free. Others claim that copyright is useless, though writers should be compensated not by relying on threats and lawsuits, but by relying on embedded codes, metering devices and “cybercash” systems. Still others believe that the copyright regime is fine, though occasional fine-tuning will be needed to keep it effective on the information superhighway: hence, the Administration’s recent Green Paper, White Paper and proposed minor improvements to the Copyright Act.

Regardless, until a new body of law develops, or technology’s ability to protect written works overtakes its ability to transmit and distort them, Writers have little choice but to rely on the existing legal framework, principally copyright and contract law. But before I suggest ways to do so, let me describe a final hurdle.

The Publisher Challenge

The most immediate challenge to writers’ wallets is posed by publishers’ responses to the digital communications revolution.

In the good old days, magazine publishers usually purchased one-time publication rights, or first publication and reprint rights. Although most book publishers wanted more, they generally left the “exotic” subsidiary rights–motion picture and other performance rights, and rights in new technologies–with the author.

These days most book publishers demand everything, though they may settle for time-limited subsidiary rights and will generally leave “ownership” and more exotic rights with the author (especially if the author has an agent). Even magazine publishers have gotten greedy. Some demand all rights, often under “work-made-for-hire” contracts or so-called copyright “releases.” Increasing numbers of magazines demand unlimited electronic rights, and often “new technologies” rights as well, though only a few will pay for these rights. Indeed, last year, The New York Times was trashed by the writing community for demanding that most freelancers assign the Times all rights to their works, including electronic rights, without additional compensation.

To be fair to publishers, they are caught on the horns of an electronic age dilemma: to meet competition and appear online, they need the right to distribute their writers’ works electronically; but because most are uncertain how to profit from these new technologies, they can’t determine what, if anything, this right is worth. (For example, in January The Wall Street Journal reported that hyperhyped HotWired, a World-Wide Web cyberzine reporting 500,000 “hits” a month, was still not making money.)

But to be equally fair to writers–whose struggle is even more severe–it is unfair to be asked to surrender additional rights, lucrative markets and potential income, gratis … whether or not publishers’ make money.

Are there ways to balance publishers’ and writers’ contrasting interests? I believe there are writers who recognize publishers’ needs and concerns, who understand what options exist, and who are willing to advocate for their interests and negotiate with their editors to find “win-win” compromises that respect the interests of both.

Protecting Your Copyrights

Let me suggest four basic measures you should use to protect your copyrights in cyberspace.

* Use copyright notices. There are both legal and practical benefits to including a copyright notice on your works. A proper notice includes the word “Copyright” or the copyright symbol (or both), your name and the date of first publication

Copyright @1996 Howard G. Zaharoff.

All rights reserved.

* Register copyrights in your important works. US law allows writers better remedies if their works are registered before the infringement occurs. Of course, registration takes time and money: You must complete a form, pay a $20 fee, and deposit one copy of your work (if unpublished) or two “best” copies (if published). Therefore, unless you have an unlimited budget, only register copyrights in your works with longterm or substantial value.

* Sign up with licensing societies. Writers’ groups have begun to organize registries to monitor uses, enforce cop rights and collect royalties respecting members’ works. For example, the National Writers Union is rolling out the Publication Rights Clearinghouse, licensing agency similar to ASCAP and BMI in the music industry. The Authors Guild, with the American Society o Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and others, offers the Author’s Registry, which combines a database of rights holders with a compensation agency. Investigate these opportunities.

* Prey on readers’ sympathies. Don’t underestimate the value of veiled threats and appeals to guilt. For example, you could introduce important online transmissions as follows:

The following article was written

by an author who earns his living

writing. Copying, retransmission or

unauthorized reuse of this work

not only violates federal copyright

law, punishable by civil and criminal

sanctions, but is outright theft

and harms this author’s livelihood.

Please don’t do it.

Dealing with Publishers

The more difficult problem for most writers is keeping a slice of the electronic pie when dealing with publishers. Imagine, therefore, that you face what every author both prays for and dreads: A publisher who wants your work “Hooray!” and all rights to it “Boo!”. What can you do?

First, don’t sign “work-made-for-hire” or “all rights” agreements. Unless you are getting paid inordinately well, the work is insignificant, or the publisher and market are of strategic importance, you should not give up all rights to your work. Of course, your refusal need not be a simple “No, thank you.” Instead, consider replying to the editor, as appropriate, with the following approaches:

* Carefully define the electronic rights granted. Ask your editor how the publisher intends to use your work electronically, then write an agreement accordingly. This may enable you to impose the following limits.

* Limit the publisher’s use to electronic formatting. Offer the publisher the right to deliver electronically only your full text, in original sequence, without images or sounds. This allows the publisher to use electronic media as a delivery system for your work, but not to create a multimedia product. (Besides, permitting your publisher to create multimedia works could conflict with performance rights in your work.)

* Limit the use to specified formats and media. Similarly, if its intended uses are well defined, your publisher may agree that its electronic rights are limited to distribution via specified formats (such as CD-ROM), in specified markets (such as inclusion in a medical database) or over designated online services (such as America Online). Rights to all other formats and media remain with you. For example, a writer might include this clause in a letter agreement:

You are granted first North American

print publication rights, for

publication within six months of

today’s date, and nonexclusive onetime

print publication rights thereafter.

You may also distribute all or

a portion of my text electronically

by including it in a database of medical

information available from

your World-Wide Web site and to

subscribers of your STM database

services. These rights expire three

years from this date. You agree not

to adapt, distribute or use my work

in any other manner.

* Offer short-term electronic rights. Try time-limited rights (say, three to five years), or a “use it or lose it” approach: If your publisher fails to exploit electronic rights within one to three years (and pay you minimum royalties), these rights revert to you.

* Grant nonexclusive electronic rights. For magazine pieces (and often even for books) publishers need exclusive rights only for a short time. In the old days, most magazine publishers allowed writers to reuse their work soon after initial publication. Suggest to your publisher that after your article is published, you and the publisher each have nonexclusive rights to reuse it electronically.

* Require approval. If you want to control the use and presentation of your work, ask the publisher for a right to approve electronic uses.

* Seek an indemnity. If you worry that your publisher’s intended online use may deliver your work to locations where it could be deemed indecent, defamatory or otherwise cause you problems, insist that your publisher indemnify you from that risk.

* Get paid! At a minimum, make sure you are compensated for electronic or other subsidiary rights. Some publishers already offer payment for electronic rights. As I write this, Harper’s and Publishers Weekly have announced that they will split past and future new-media and online revenues with authors.

For publishers without established policies, request a reasonable royalty. Although royalties require bookkeeping–often a royal pain for both sides–they enable publishers to pay little when they aren’t making money, while allowing writers to share the bounty if their work does well. Propose a 75/25 or 50/50 split of sales for electronic full-text distribution. (Both the National Writers Union and ASJA suggest 50%). However, if your publisher is licensing your work for use by a third party in creating an electronic product, many would argue that your publisher is simply playing agent and should be paid accordingly: It keeps 10-20% of the license fees attributable to your work, you receive 80-90%.

If all else fails, suggest as a compromise that if the publisher decides to reproduce your work in an electronic format, you and the publisher will agree on appropriate compensation based on then-current industry standards. Try to be as specific as possible in defining the “industry”: scientific journals, computer industry trade press, etc. Also, because there may be no standard, propose a minimum: “but in no case less than 5% of the publisher’s gross revenues from such uses.” This approach lets you demand some payment and negotiate for more.

The online world offers opportunities for everyone: publishers, writers and consumers of content. For writers to benefit from these opportunities, they will need to stay informed and involved and learn how to deal with copyright issues and panicky publishers. If they can do this, their potential for gain is as broad as cyberspace.

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Short Story Writing Can Have Massive Rewards

April 29th, 2014

sswchA famous writer once defined the novel as “prose of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” A short story can afford no such flaws. The story writer whose only aim is to write beautiful prose runs the risk of overlooking the story’s arc–its natural rise and fall. A story is held together not by fascinating characters, witty dialogue and lyrical scenes, but by the shape into which these critical elements are combined.

Let’s assume you’ve written a solid first draft about a character named Teresa, an ornithologist from Cornell University. Teresa hears of an improbable sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker–a bird thought to be extinct. Her colleagues scoff at the report, but Teresa decides to follow her intuition and embark on a wild woodpecker chase. First, she charters a plane and flies to a remote spot in Louisiana, with a pilot who drives her crazy by misidentifying all the birds they see en route. After she arrives, she hitches up with a guide who takes her three miles into the woods where the alleged sighting occurred. After four dreary days in the wilderness, Teresa gives up on her quest, dreading the thought of facing her colleagues. Profoundly disappointed, she again boards the plane, which makes one last pass over the forest. As it does, Teresa captures a fleeting and, alas, unconfirmed glimpse of the amazing bird.

This is your first draft. Your job now is to run it through a story-shaping process to see what you have yet to discover.

Stage One: Three Questions

The first stage of story-shaping requires you to answer three questions. There are two purposes to these questions: to identify the story’s general shape, and to determine whether the draft contains enough material to shape into a story.

* What does the main character want? In our example, Teresa wants to confirm the existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker. That’s a simple answer that gives the story a destination–and a rudimentary shape.

Now, try taking this answer a little further. Why does Teresa want to confirm the bird’s existence? Does her career need a boost? Does she want more respect from her colleagues? Her true desires might be invisible, even to her; she might be chafing from a recent divorce, for example. Perhaps she is desolate and alone, and her desire to find a supposedly extinct bird is an impulse to confirm her fragile hope that not everything on Earth dies away.

To answer this question completely is to add color and dimension to the character, and the best stories evolve from character, not plot. To search out a story’s shape is to search out the story itself. The fulfillment of hope, rather than the confirmation of a bird’s existence, is the story’s new destination–one with considerably higher stakes.

* Does the story have a beginning, a middle and an end? This question helps you see the story’s overall shape.

In our first draft, the beginning shows Teresa hearing about the woodpecker; the middle takes Teresa through the plane ride, the hike, the disappointment; and the end shows Teresa’s frustrating glimpse of the bird. Whether there’s too much beginning and not enough middle, or vice versa, is not your concern yet. You’re simply verifying that the three basic parts exist.

But here’s the problem: Teresa isn’t just an omithologist anymore. She’s a woman with complex desires. In the course of answering the first question, you discovered that Teresa is grieving the loss of her marriage. The story line now seems thin and too plot-centered, for it lacks any treatment of Teresa’s true feelings. The ending, charming as it is, seems a bit contrived, more like a trick ending than a logical culmination of the story’s events.

Already you should be devising ways to infuse the story with a richer and more accurate sense of Teresa. Perhaps she looks out the plane’s window and remembers that the first time she saw a fairy tern was in a sky just like this, in Hawaii on her honeymoon. When she’s sweating in the woods, weighted down with camera equipment and waiting for the bird to show, she tells her guide the story of a camping trip she took with her husband to see the western grebe’s elaborate courtship dance. Do you see how the story is changing? It isn’t her smug colleagues Teresa dreads facing, it’s her empty apartment.

* Does the story have the makings of a central metaphor? If the answer is no, that’s fine. Not all stories contain or require central metaphors. Make sure you take a good look at the draft before answering, though. Metaphors are sneaky devices that often creep out of our unconscious, suggesting what the story wants to be about whether we recognize it or not.

Because Teresa’s life revolves around the study of birds, you can use a bird metaphor without seeming heavy-handed. The image of birds in flight can help you–and the readers–learn something about Teresa: Is she herself in flight? From what? Or, you could work the bird imagery in an opposite way, suggesting birds as a symbol of convention. Birds migrate in set patterns, sing identical songs, nest at predictable times and in predictable places, raise and fledge their young, and then start the same process all over again. Is this predictability (which she had in her marriage) something Teresa might want for herself? Whether you use the bird imagery or not, exploring it can help you flesh out the story.

By now you should have a wealth of new information about the character and situation you invented in the first draft. The next step is to incorporate that information into a new draft, and then move to Stage 2, which involves more specific story shaping.

Stage Two: The Classic Story Shape

The classic story shape consists of setup, complication, rising action, climax and denouement. Almost any story can be plugged into this shape; not all stories make an exact fit, but most will follow this general form. First, a brief explanation of terms, using a fairy tale as an example.

Setup: This is the beginning of the story, in which you set the stage for the reader. A family of bears, who live in a forest cottage, decide to go out for a walk.

Complication: This is an event or person that disrupts the setup and propels the story into motion. Goldilocks breaks into the cottage.

Rising action: Rising action comprises all the events that make up the story’s middle. The action, whether emotional or physical, creates dramatic tension by exposing hidden aspects of character, or by adding further complications to the plot. Goldilocks breaks Baby Bear’s chair, eats Baby Bear’s porridge, and falls asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. The bears return home and survey the damage.

Climax: This is the end of the story, the point at which the events of the story culminate in a reversal, a transformation or a realization. The bears discover Goldilocks, who wakes, screams and flees.

Denouement: This is the story’s last breath–a line, a paragraph, less often a page or two–that allows readers to absorb the climax and leave the fictional world. In some longer works, the denouement takes the form of an epilogue. Goldilocks never came back, and the bears lived happily ever after.

Let’s run through these story elements once again, using our story about Teresa.

Setup: The setup from the first draft is fine: Teresa is an ornithologist who gets a questionable tip about a rare bird and decides to follow her intuition. Because you know Teresa much better now, you can easily enrich this setup. You might suggest that following intuition is out of character for Teresa by describing the sanitized order of her office, or the precise way her earrings are perched on her earlobes. You might even suggest, through other details, that her marriage was a casualty of her reluctance to follow her “feelings.”

Complication: Here’s your first big discovery: The story has no complication. Teresa wants to find the bird, so she sets out after it. Nothing stands in her way. Besides that, not much is at stake. She has something to gain (some professional respect) by succeeding, but very little to lose by failing. A story without complication is a situation, not a story. You must make things more difficult for Teresa. What if she can’t get to Louisiana? No commercial airlines fly to so remote a spot, and the only person she knows with a private plane is her ex-husband, a pilot. Can you feel how you’ve just ratcheted up the tension? Part of her wants to fly her own way, part of her longs for the predictability of marriage. Isn’t this the conflict that the central metaphor hinted at? Suddenly you realize that Teresa’s real story is about reconciling her loss–and you’ve just placed the cause of her grief right in her face. That’s a complication.

Rising action: In the original draft, the rising action included a plane ride, a hike through the woods and a disappointment. Not much action here. Rising action doesn’t have to be physical, of course; emotional action can provide dramatic tension, too. In either case, what you’re after is a sense of escalation, which the first draft lacks. You could raise the stakes a bit–Teresa gets bitten by a snake (physical escalation), or falls in love with the guide (emotional escalation)–but chances are the rising action will still feel static. The problem in our first draft is that the rising action, no matter how good, doesn’t spring from a complication. Now that the ex-husband is in the picture, though, the story has a tantalizing pivot point from which the action can credibly rise.

Because you’ve introduced a complication, the story’s original middle must change. The pilot is now the ex-husband; instead of misidentifying birds, he identifies them correctly, showing Teresa that he learned something from her in their ten years together. This is surprising to Teresa, who always felt he didn’t listen to her. Furthermore, it’s the ex-husband, not a guide, who accompanies her through the woods. This new twist gives the story’s real subject, Teresa’s unresolved grief, a chance to blossom. As they walk through the stillness of the forest, the shadow of their other, similar times together looms large.

A mildly interesting story is now fraught with tension.

Climax: In our first draft, the climax was an anticlimax: Teresa gives up on finding the bird. In this new version, the same climax takes on a quiet resonance. On the last day in the forest, the ex-husband points out what he thinks is an ivory-billed woodpecker. Disappointed, Teresa tells him he’s found not the ivory-billed, but the common pileated woodpecker instead. To her surprise, he is thrilled anyway, because the pileated woodpecker is large and beautiful, and he has never seen one. His enthusiasm reminds Teresa of the sense of wonder she felt in her early days as an ornithologist. Chastened, she spends several moments watching this ordinary bird, trying to recapture that feeling. Whether or not she reconciles with her ex-husband, Teresa has retrieved something of herself on this trip that she plans to keep forever.

Denouement: The denouement, not surprisingly, is nearly the same as in the first draft. Often, a first-draft ending is exactly right–the hard part is finding the story that logically leads to it. In this version, the fact that Teresa can’t confirm her fleeting glimpse of the rare bird is irrelevant–the aching thrill she feels is its own reward. The denouement no longer smacks of trickery, because it is not a last-second twist but a fulfillment of the story’s themes of hope and loss.

As the transformation of this story should make clear, the classic story shape is not a formula. A formula requires you to do nothing more than move characters through a predetermined plot. A shape is much more complex; you must investigate your characters’ motives desires and change the story’s path accordingly.

Stage Three: Weight and Balance

A well-shaped story should look somewhat like a bell curve. The setup and complication occur at the beginning of the bell; the rising action takes up the dome; and the climax and denouement occur as the bell winds down at the other end.

If you give each part of the story the same weight–for example, two pages of setup, two pages of complication, and so on–the story’s tension dissipates because the weight is too evenly distributed. You end up not with a bell curve but a straight line, and readers can’t grasp the rise and fall of dramatic tension. The sighting of the bird becomes no more or less critical than the color of Teresa’s earrings.

Or, the story might suffer from poor balance. If the setup and complication take six pages and the rising action only two, then the story’s weight is bunched at the beginning, making it bottom-heavy. The shape becomes a long straight line that suddenly bulges up. A story’s weight should be concentrated in the rising action (the dome of the bell) because rising action is where you play out the consequences of the complication and prepare for the climax and denouement. Rising action is the meat of the story, and requires the bulk of the weight. The climax should be brief by comparison, and the denouement very brief (or, in some stories, missing altogether).

This balancing act is tricky but critical. Doing the hard work of examining each of a particular story’s elements makes the final shaping much easier. Because you’ve identified the setup and complication in this story about Teresa, you should have no trouble establishing both in an opening scene. After that, the weight of the story lies in the rising action, which you know must take place in the woods and involve an interplay between Teresa and her ex-husband. The climax, where Teresa takes time to admire the wrong woodpecker, is comparatively short. The denouement is even shorter–a paragraph at most to show Teresa’s fleeting glimpse of the right bird.

If you still have trouble envisioning a story’s shape, try spreading out the pages on a table and highlighting the story’s parts in different colors. Setup gets a green marker, complication gets a blue, and so on. This way you can create a graphic representation of the story’s weight and balance, and any deformities will be instantly obvious.

These story-shaping strategies are meant as guidelines, not rules. Not all stories take the same shape, nor should they. Lots of “shapeless” stories are gems of invention, and many well-shaped stories have no heart. Still, it never hurts to put a story through these paces. You can give an abandoned story a second chance, and you might learn something new about a story that already seems to works.

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