Jennifer Astle

April 3, 2009

Enough with this Eat, Pray, Love Crap

eatpraylove2Does anyone else cringe when they hear the term “chick lit”?  I always thought it was a term that was thrown around in book reviews to define material written by and for women, but behold, “chick lit” is an entire genre, like horror, that agents and publishers recognize. And, it just won’t go away.  Take Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert for example. Despite the book being published in 2006, it seems to still be lurking in the media, and setting the standard by which all women writers are being compared.

Now, I can’t say I have read the book anymore than I can say I read Confessions of a Shopaholic, beyond of course what Amazon was kind enough to provide me as a preview, and the few minutes I spent leafing through the pages in a book store before moving on to The God Delusion.  Needless to say, a woman’s memoirs about finding herself that starts with the line “I wish Giovanni would kiss me” is unlikely to captivate me the same way that Orwell captured me with his construction of a futuristic society in which the bourgeoisie worship an organization called The Party.

This brings me to another point.  When reading an article about gendered choices in literature, I was shocked to learn that men are actually impressed by women who read Orwell and the like. You know, because wrapping our vaginas brains around a complex political movement marked by submission and rebellion, is like, totally out of our reach…unless someone is going to bring up chocolate.  Which Orwell does, so I guess that’s why I read it.  Not because it is an iconic piece of literature and remarkably timeless in its representation of political fundamentalism (oh, shit I forgot, I am supposed to be talking about shoes).

So this brings me back to chick lit and Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest to get over her failed marriage, and her sense of being lost in life.  Here is my official position; if your life and your travels were that interesting, they wouldn’t be marketed as the bible of chick lit, they would be marketed as a memoir of an interesting life.  Show of hands, how many men have read Eat, Pray, Love?

*insert sound of crickets chirping*

So why is it that the industry finds this type of writing so appealing?  Obviously there is a market for it, or else agents and editors would be tearing the Gilberts of the world down to their heels and hashing it all out on #queryfail.  I can see it now “OMG, another query about her divorce and how she got over it, shut up already! #queryfail”.  Or maybe that is just wishful thinking on my part.

Of course it is no secret that many a woman have written under a nom de plume, or pseudonym (ahem, J.K. Rowling) to draw attention away from the fact that they are women and gain respect in the literary world before anyone looks up their skirts and realizes that they have an inkwell instead of a pen hidden up there.  Unless, of course, they are writing about “women stuff” like pining over 20 something Italian guys as a means to finding oneself.  Then girly names like Elizabeth can be plastered all over the cover like a rogue noodle that broke free from the covers font.

Now, before anyone jumps on me and says women publish literature other than chick lit, just look at Stephanie Meyer and Twilight, I ask you to pause for a moment.  ‘Cause there’s nothing darker than vegetarian vampires that blow sparkles out of their asses.  Stephen King look out, you have some competition (*snorts*).

Words are words, and the last time I checked the area between my belly button and my knees had very little to do with my choices of reading material or writing topics (excluding feminist literature of course, which is much different than wanting Giovanni to kiss you).  Women frequently write from the perspectives of men, and vice versa, with astonishing insight.  This begs the question; do we really need an entire genre of “Oh my god, I found myself in Jimmy Choo?” or are we creating it by filing it under the vagina niche and calling it a day.  You know, so men won’t have to make the mistake of picking up a book written by a woman for a woman while perusing the aisles of their local book store…because there is an entire section segregated off where women can confide in each other about yoga, having babies, being married, getting divorced, and shopping; all of the important life lessons a girl must learn.

This is my call to women writers; stop publishing this Eat, Pray, Love crap, and find a voice based on your writing talents, not on the chance that you got an X instead of a Y in your chromosome make up.

Update: Apparently my writing is worth plagiarizing without credit.  Check it out here, and feel free to let them know how us bloggers love link backs.

March 20, 2009

Confessions of a Writer: The Art of Patience

patienceIt is August, and I hand my mother a list.  She looks at it, and then looks back at me; it’s my Christmas wish list (including a section for Birthday, which falls 13 days before Christmas).  She puts it on the fridge, and there it sits until December, when normal people start thinking about Christmas.  But, in my head, I have been unwrapping gifts since before Labour Day.

I’m in university.  I complete a paper on some complicated Sociological issue.  I, of course, expect the professor to hand them back during the next class.  Of course, she doesn’t because she’s a professor.  It takes weeks.  For weeks, I fret about my grade, desperately wanting to hold the paper in my hands with those tell tale red marks scrawled all over it.  I lose interest (somewhat) in the grade, and become more focused on just knowing.

I meet my future husband.  We fall in love.  We move in together after less than a month and in less than three we move to Toronto. I know you want to correct me now, and tell me that means I am impulsive and not impatient.  I would argue that implusive people act without knowing what they want, while impatient people know exactly what they want and simply can’t wait.  I am the latter, trust me.

Now I decide to write a book.  I use my fantastic research skills (I did pay nearly $70,000 for them after all) to learn about how people get published and follow that path.  Write your book first (“But that could take a year!”), research agents, query them, and wait for a response (without hitting the refresh key on my email seven hundred times a day), likely having to do the same thing over and over until someone bites, if anyone bites.

So, I devise a plan to satisfy my urge to be published NOW; short stories.  They take less time to write, and I can begin querying (and being rejected by) literary magazines almost immediately.  But, instead of finding the immediate gratification that my personality wants like a junkie wants crack, I learn an important lesson; patience.

I don’t want to screw up my chances, so I hit send, shift uncomfortably in my seat, and stare at the computer screen.  Nothing.  Then I watch some news, listen to the Rachel Maddow show, and write a little.  Refresh.  Nothing.

(hold on, I need to check my email)

Still nothing.

Slowly, I am learning that the literary world requires something more of me than great writing; extensive patience.  I don’t imagine there would be any faster way to get rejected by both agents and literary magazines, than by harassing the editors for a decision.  So I remain silent (another challenge for me, I might add).

So, my Grand Master Plan has backfired on me.  I set out for immediate gratification, and instead I am getting an important lesson in the fine art of patience.  Instead of getting what I want, I am getting what I need.  I am learning to wait, without holding my breath too long.  I have submitted one short to three magazines.  I’ve only recieved one response since I began this journey to get published in February.  It was a rejection.  Nevertheless, when I opened my email that morning and saw a response from an editor, my heart jumped.  Someone, somewhere, had read my story.  Even learning that the story “was not right for the publication at this time” I was still elated.

Now I wait again.  One down, two to go.  It’s hard to say if I will still be elated and grateful for being read after three, four, or five rejections.  I am not that much of an optimist, but damn it, I am going to try.

March 12, 2009

The Great #QueryFail Debate

fail281

I sold my soul signed up for a Twitter account this morning.  I have resisted the beast until now.  I wanted to have a look at the phenomenon that is #queryfail.  A handful of literary agents, editors, and other industry “insiders” have been sharing reasons why query letters get rejected.  The query mistakes range from bizarre to simply ignorant (both equally unacceptable). #QueryFail Day on Twitter is the creation of Colleen Lindsay.  This is what she has to say about #queryfail;

Today is #Queryfail Day on Twitter, the first of what will probably become a monthly or semi-monthly experience. What is #Queryfail Day, you ask? * rubs hands together gleefully * A group of online agents, book editors and periodicals acquisition editors are posting about their queries in real time. The idea is to educate people about what exactly it is in a query that made us stop reading and say “Not for me.” We’re being very careful not to include personal identifiers of any kind. The idea isn’t to mock or be intentionally cruel, but to educate.

Here is a sampling for your reading pain/pleasure;

ChristianPubTip: It’s a handwritten manuscript with a note that says this is the only copy they have.#queryfail

danielliterary: Asks me how to go about submitting? Uh. If u have my email address, then u obviously
have my web site address with my guidelines #queryfail

danielliterary: Say you don’t know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email?
Please get your 3-year-old to teach you. #queryfail

angelajames: ONE sentence about the book. I don’t need to know your life history. I need to know about
the book. #queryfail

angelajames: “passion raging between two characters will burn right off the page” makes me think your
book is going to be overwritten #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: A headshot embedded into body of query email. #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: @bookavore I just delete all queries that come in addressed to Dear Sir, To Whom It
May Concern or Dear Agent. #queryfail

danielliterary: Call yourself a “published author” when what you really mean is “self-published”?
#queryfail

bostonbookgirl: Including a creepy photo of you clearly taken about 20 years ago? You have just taken
your first step on the road to #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of “me, me, me, look how wonderful I
am!” – #queryfail.

mattwagner: “My proposal is a work in progress.” Sorry, please finish your proposal before querying,
#queryfail

danielliterary: Addresses me “Dear Sir/Madam…”? #queryfail

I deliberately excluded the #queryfails for the BDSM photo included with the letter, the mothers who want to educate their daughters about pimps, and the con-men who are finally ready to tell their stories.  Self-explanatory.

I, like others, am incredibly interested in this debate.  Netta at WordWebbing.com had this to say;

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what is done in public, what the hell goes on in private? But then, it’s private and I don’t have to know. I also wondered if these agents, who took time out of a busy day to skewer the hapless writer, ever took the time to contact the writer and tell them, in private and in a professional way, just what it was that made the query fail. Feel me?

I feel you.  Rejection is important.  It’s more important than succeeding, because succeeding doesn’t really teach you anything.  You already knew how to do it in the first place.  I can see where there would be concern over the feelings of some poor hapless writer venturing into the mysterious world of Getting Published. That said, not every writer (ahem) follows Twitter, so the personal contact offering constructive criticisms (to the honest mistakes, not the con-men and crazies) would be useful.  I would venture to guess though, that not every literary agent has the time to write a personalized assessment of my crappy query letter.  They have more bad query letters to read you know.

As a whole I think we have become too sensitive to rejection and failure.  No, I don’t like failure.  I’m not a complete idiot.  But, I learn from my mistakes and hopefully refrain from making them again.  No, I don’t want to be another hilarious #queryfail tweet, but I do want to know how NOT to write a query letter, so I learn from the mistakes of others. It seems that this would be common sense to most, but common sense seems to be about as common as horse-drawn buggies these days (see: Pimps for Dummies #queryfail).

Still, some are up in arms about the snarkiness that can come along with some of the fails, but honestly, they seem to deserve it.  Besides, telling an agent or an editor that they’re doing it wrong would be like telling God she built the universe wrong, and that, I suspect, would land you in the #queryfail pile.

March 6, 2009

The Celebrity Book Deal and the Struggling Writer

The book business as we know it will not be living happily ever after. With sales stagnating, CEO heads rolling, big-name authors playing musical chairs, and Amazon looming as the new boogeyman, publishing might have to look for its future outside the corporate world.

hilton_bookOminous words coming from respected magazine, New York.  With the publishing industry flailing, a writer has got to question her future.  Let’s just forget for a moment, the challenges of finding let alone the right agent, but any agent at all.  Then there is the query letter, and the waiting.  All of that, considering you have your book written first.  The challenges facing a struggling writer in the beginning of their career are steep, and that is under the best of conditions.

So, what does this mean for struggling writers and the publishing industry? It seems that there is a spike in celebrity book deals.  I have no statistical data to support this, only my observations from my daily morning online meandering.  James Franco has just signed with Simon & Schuster to release a collection of short stories.  That’s just the beginning.  In 2008, as the economic crisis that has challenged the publishing industry loomed, Miley Cyrus signed a seven figure book deal with Disney.  At least James Franco is an MFA candidate studying creative writing at NYU and Columbia.  Miley Cyrus is 15 and famous because her daddy had an achy-breaky-heart back in the 1980’s (although it must have got fixed sometime in the 1990’s).  Is it possible to still take the craft seriously when there are thousands of talented writers out there who are sending short after short to literary magazines, searching for an agent, and hoping for any advance at all, while Miss Cyrus gets a million dollars for her memoirs?

Let’s not forget Britney Spears’ $20 Million book deal to spill all of the sordid details of her recent crazy years.  Excuse me, but that is not literature, it’s voyeurism…and not very well cloaked.  What about Kanye West? Or Paris Hilton? Or Kathy Griffin? Or even Sarah Palin?  Musicians, actors, politicians…it seems anyone but a writer can get a book deal these days.

Is this really the way to save the publishing industry; by offering celebrities who already blog, Twitter, star in YouTube videos, films and television, appear on news and talk shows, and are the topic of paparazzi and media everywhere seven or eight figure book deals to write their memoirs?

Of course, I am biased considering that I am a “struggling writer” and not a celebrity.  I understand why the publishing industry is increasing its affinity with celebrities.  They come with a built in audience, just waiting to spend their allowances on the next unauthorized Lindsay Lohan tell-all.

But what of the struggling writer then?  Where will the future of publishing take us? To the Internet? Vanity publishing and self-promotion?  Is this just the right moment for writers to take reins away from powerhouse publishers by getting wise to the opportunities offered by services like Amazon (e.g. Kindle, CreateSpace), blogs, online lit mags, and a new generation of news media like the Huffington Post? No one knows for sure, not even the publishing industry.  One thing is for certain; enough with the celebrity book deals.

February 24, 2009

The Truth and Lies of Freelancing

It’s a tough economy out there, but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?  The last figures show that approximately 5 million Americans are now unemployed, mostly due to the weakened job market.  But while some are sitting around answering polls about their current employment status, others are doing something about it; freelancing.

When I began freelancing, I did what any good former professional student would; research.  I wanted to know exactly what I was getting into besides being able to perch myself up in my office with my coffee and write in between spells of my CNN, Jezebel, and HuffPo addictions.

The average site dedicated to helping the freelance writer will usually contain a list that goes something like this; Set up a blog or web page,  get a Skype account, set up an Elance portfolio,  monetize your content, and so on.  The big thing that seems to be inexplicably missing from all of these sites is a description of what it is really like to be a freelancer.

Here are my thoughts.

  • Lie:  You become your own boss. Yes, it is true that you decide what time your alarm clock goes off in the morning, no one is going to yell at you for taking a nap at your desk, and you can wear your pajamas to work.  But truth be told, your new boss is your client.  So instead of being completely independent, you may go from having one boss to several.  Each client will have their own set of criteria, style, quirks, and budget.  The only control you have is choosing which clients you service.
  • Truth:  You have to be organized. Repeat after me, I have to be organized.  I know we just went over the “no boss” thing, but set yourself a schedule complete with daily goals the same way a manager would monitor your productivity.  Otherwise, you may end up reading about the Octo-mom instead of completing projects…
  • Lie:  Write, and they will come. Sure, setting up a website and purchasing some ads might gain you some exposure, but although writing (or whatever service you offer) is the most important aspect of your business, so is finding work that pays.  Clients generally don’t go looking for freelancers via their individual websites (unless they are well known or have been previously used by said client).  They post their gig to a freelancing job board and then wait for the responses to pour in.  And they pour.  Remember, the writing is the easy part, it’s how you market yourself that will determine how much money you make.
  • Truth:  You don’t need to have a huge portfolio. Most clients don’t want to see your life’s work.  They want to see between 1-3 samples of your work that is most closely related to the gig they are seeking to fill.  If you see a job you are “write” for (oh, I’m so punny…), draft a sample that suits the project.  I did this for one project and landed one of my highest paying regular clients this way.  Customize it.  That really grabs the client’s attention, as opposed to sending a political journalism piece to a celebrity gossip blog which will promptly get your inquiry tossed.
  • Lie: You’ll make as much as you did before you freelanced. Unless you write for a particularly well paying niche market, or you are a well-respected writer, chances are you will start off at a pittance of what you made before.  You might be lucky (or talented) enough to land a large, well-paying contract, but the truth is you will probably start somewhere near 0.02/word whilst writing a page here and a page there for a number of different clients.  Repeat after me; I am not Carrie Bradshaw and I won’t be making $4/word at Vogue…at least not yet.   Speaking of money; Google Adsense – two thumbs down and the same goes for most PPC advertisers.  I’ve come to learn that it’s best to avoid alienating your clients and readers with an ad-free blog or by running a site worthy of hosting ads independently and that can be tailored to the tastes of your readers.
  • Truth: Writing for free can pay off. A lawyer knows that pro bono work can benefit them in a number of ways, and so should freelancers.  Doing this not only builds your portfolio and keeps the wheels greased in between jobs, but you could earn valuable referrals and future paying clients.  Be wary of scams, but at the same time consider doing some work for free or in exchange for other services like web design.  Other gigs may offer similar services in exchange for content.  A lot of “new sites that are launching soon” will offer the promise of pay “when the site become profitable” in exchange for your services now.  Yes, you could potentially get in on something lucrative, but for the most part you’ll be working for free.  Proceed with discretion.
  • Lie:  You’re a writer. Okay, so this is a partial truth, but you are also much more than that.  You are your own accountant, PR and marketing person, secretary, web designer, etc.  Buy the hats and wear them accordingly.   Close Word and open Excel.  Start a database.  I keep three; Contacts, Freelancing Gigs (complete with income history), and Publishing (where I track submissions to literary journals and agents).  Don’t know how to use Excel?  The “Help” button is a wonderful thing.  If you’re still stuck, buy a calculator.  If you’re really serious about freelancing, draw up a business plan and determine how much you want to make and how much work you’ll need to do to make it.

One last thought…

The media is all over the freelancing industry, noting a rising trend in the number of people either choosing to freelance or being forced to for lack of traditional employment opportunities.   Yes, it can seem scary to lose a regular pay check given the current state of things, but you’re also doing the economy a favor by creating your own job, and if you’re successful enough, possibly others down the road.

“More companies are using freelancers because their businesses are becoming more project-based, one expert said.

“As business models change, you get a lot of organizational upset and that adds to the economic uncertainty,” said Joe Pastore, professor emeritus of management science at Pace University. A business “really can’t see out much more than a year perhaps. And you’re operating from business cycle to business cycle.”

There are also big economic incentives to hire freelancers, he said. Businesses cut the costs of benefits and payroll taxes and often don’t have to buy new equipment or find work space for a freelancer.

And Pastore said because of the bureaucracy of many companies, it’s much easier to get a freelancer approved for a project with a specific short-term time period than it is to get a new full-time position approved.” Via CNN.

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