How Truthful Should a Writer Be?

A writer’s words are her sword. And, as Spiderman found out in his blockbuster movie, With great power comes great responsibility. Whether you are writing a non-fiction account, a novel in which you base your characters on real people or incidents, or a critical review, sooner or later you might have to make a choice between the truth and a subject’s feelings. But what if the information is critical to your account? What if Uncle Ned’s embarrassing quirk adds the perfect touch to a character you’ve been struggling with? What if you absolutely hated that book and you’d like to forewarn other readers? Do you forge ahead at the expense of people’s feelings? Talk to the subject before publishing to soften the blow?

Double Edged Sword
by G.B. Pool

In this litigious society, it isn’t worth the time, money, or headache to use a real person when writing fiction, unless the character is used as a harmless extra, or the person has given their permission. I won’t write a review of a book or play that I don’t like. Silence speaks volumes. When I worked as a newspaper reporter on the Whitehaven Star in Memphis, I told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Facts backed up what I wrote. I never worried about being sued.

That said, the bottom line is that I wouldn’t go out of my way to run somebody down, no matter how idiotic I think they are. I wouldn’t shame anybody or point out their flaws. It doesn’t do anybody any good. If I don’t like them, I ignore them. If I like them, I would rather protect them and their quirk. Of course, if you are talking politics…all bets are off.

My name (or a close facsimile) is turning up in a book, Tommy Gun Tango, written by a friend, Bruce Cook, who wanted to use my hyphenated name for a character. The girl is wild as they come, not necessarily based on my personality, but hey, maybe Bruce knows something I don’t. And he did ask permission. I told him I’d be happy to be a potted plant in one of his books.

Now, I might start a character based on somebody in a news story, but then I’d flesh out the character and make them my own. My story would take a totally different path, too. After all, after we have been inundated with the wall-to-wall coverage of high profile cases in the news, who would want to rehash it?

Since I wouldn’t be privy to the motives of the people involved in real stories, I would be making it all up anyway. It is the inner feelings and my own interpretation that makes the character memorable.

Real people are a jumping off place, even if their characteristics are totally off the wall. I would rather create my own people with motives I think fits the part they are playing. And anyway, when the character takes over the writing, they can fill in the blanks themselves.

In my Ginger Caulfield novels (Media Justice, Hedge Bet), I definitely use my husband, Richard, as the character Fred, and Gin Caulfield is mostly me. My agent asked if I would deepen Gin’s character. In “agent-ese” that means give her a flaw, something gritty. So, I had to add some backstory to make Ginger a slightly darker character. It does make her more interesting and I will be able to add sub-plots using this flaw, so it works. But the creativity is mine. I’ll take the arrows if it doesn’t work.

Sometimes they like it
by Jacqueline Vick

My dad is the youngest of thirteen kids. Most of my uncles and aunts have spouses, and some of them have grown children. And that’s just one side of the family. Then there are my in-laws. It would be difficult for me to create a character and not hit on some of their quirks and personalities.

My Mother is convinced that the Deanna Wilder character in my mystery manuscript, “Family Matters”, is based on her. Well…she’s right to a certain extent. Fortunately, she’s also pleased. I do have a sister, but she is much nicer than the Vanessa character. As I wrote the manuscript, I hoped that my sister wouldn’t think that I saw her as Vanessa. My only other option was to never write a sister character unless she was a saint.

I find that if I take a trait and exaggerate it (which I can do, since I write comedy), it takes on a new life. I also rely on advice I received from another writer: “No one ever recognizes themselves in your book, especially if they’re the villain.”

Having said that, I agree with Gayle. I would never want to harm someone just for a few laughs. If Uncle Marvin liked to dust with women’s panties, that would be too recognizable and could only cause embarrassment and pain. If I had an Uncle Marvin, he might think I was making fun of him.

As for reviews, I think that it’s more how you word it. Some reviewers take the opportunity to show off their own caustic wit. This is not reviewing. It’s performing. When I’ve done script reviews, I always remember that the person who wrote it has feelings, and that this is currently his best effort. It’s my job to be constructive and helpful.

If I wrote a non-fiction book…. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that one.

To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish…That Is the Question

When I asked the previous question about self-publishing, Gayle generously gave an in-depth response based on her experiences. It deserved a separate post. Read on for the nitty-gritty about self-publishing.

G.B. Pool

Self-publishing isn’t just a vanity press. To publish one book you have to put in a good year’s worth of research, planning, designing, editing, and production before the presses roll. And remember, you have to write the book, too. After it’s published, you have to promote it. That’s called work. I started a real business when I started SPYGAME Press. I paid taxes. I put in 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. It was hard work. Sometimes it was frustrating. But it’s the American Dream to do what you really want to do.

Before I decided to self-publish, I tried getting a literary agent. I paid a couple of them up front before I learned you don’t pay anything until they produce. I also got taken in by one of the top “book doctor” scams in the country. It cost me $1100 to learn that lesson. For a dozen years I saw the literary agent business go from people who just wanted my money, to people who didn’t bother sending back my self-addressed stamped envelope. The most frequent reply I received was that they already had enough clients. Nobody said they didn’t like my work.

Ninety-five percent of these literary agents weren’t interested in reading a few chapters of anything. The other five percent were still after my money. That’s when I decided to go in another direction. I checked out POD (print-on-demand) publications and e-books, but I didn’t think I would have as much control over my material as I wanted.

I saw a self-publishing class listed at the Adult Community Center in Glendale, California. I took the class that was given by a very talented teacher named Belma Johnson. He describes himself as a motivational speaker. He certainly motivated me. I took the class in September of 2003. I bought a few books on self-publishing, searched the Internet, and took notes. By the end of January of 2004, I had gotten most of the technical aspects of the business out of the way. That meant setting up a business account at my bank, getting the proper paperwork from the state, a Post Office Box, and securing ISBNs.

I located an editor, a woman who had worked in publishing in New York for many years. She edited the book. When she was finished, I went back over the manuscript several more times and fine-tuned it. Edit, edit, edit.

I found a printer in New York with a very good price who did the printing. They were affiliated with a wonderful cover designer who took my very simple idea and turned it into something I really liked. I made no changes in his original design. Six weeks later I had the books.

I have been asked: How many people self-publish? Many people do it now, especially with P.O.D.s or e-books available for download on places like iUniverse or even the way I did it by starting a company.

There is a rather long history of self-published books. There were no big publishing houses in early America so many newspapers printed books for local writers.

Here are some early writers who self-published: Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Carl Sandburg, D. H. Lawrence, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Wolff, Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allen Poe, Kipling, Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Paine.

Today, most of the big publishers are gone and smaller imprints are turning out books. The main reason is cost and the other reason is people don’t read as much. There are two fundamental culprits: One is known as television and the other goes by several names: XBOX, GameBoy, Nintendo, not to mention cell phones and I-pods. They devour time, leaving people with no time to read.

Here are names of a few self-published books: The Elements of Style – handbook for writers, What Color Is Your Parachute – handbook for corporate bigwigs, A Time to Kill by John Grisham, The Joy of Cooking, Mary Ellen’s Best of Helpful Hints, Dianetics. And The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poytner. That’s one of the books I used to get my own publishing company started.

Samizdat is Russian for self-publishing. It started in late 50’s. It was unofficial, it circumvented censorship. People turned out fiction, poetry, petitions, and religious material. The movement spread to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. All those countries are free now.

Is there an advantage to self-publishing? Yes. You get published. If not, you would be relinquishing your fate to someone you don’t know who can turn thumbs down on your manuscript for no more reason than they got up on the wrong side of the bed that day. Why should you rest your entire future on someone who doesn’t know you, who might have an agenda, or who might not even bother to read your work?

The large publishing houses get hundreds of manuscripts a month. They don’t have time or staff to read every one that comes through the door. Many hire people outside the business to read for them. Most publishing houses will only take referrals from literary agents. And there are far more writers than there are agents, and most agents have all the clients they can handle. It was that Catch 22 element that left me with no alternative other than to self-publish.

In the course of five years, I have met a lot of people in various stages of writing and getting their book published. I was at the No Crime Unpublished Conference of mystery writers in June 2005, and Lee Child, the author of the “Jack Reacher” novels, was talking about self-published books. He said it’s always better to be handled by a big-time publisher, but being self-published is just another way to circumvent the usual torturous route to the big name publishing houses by being able to show a big name publisher you can complete a book and present it well. Remember, John Grisham is no longer self-published.

Try as hard as you can to get an agent or publisher, even a small publisher, to publish your work. It is your best option. Starting a business and dealing with the government and learning all aspects of the business is the hardest work there is. And remember, after you publish you have to promote yourself. That is tough and time consuming.

But the lessons learned will help you immeasurably if a regular publisher picks you up. It will be your effort to sell those self-published books and your actual sales that will attract a publisher. They are looking at their bottom line and they want someone who will work on their own behalf to market their book. Most publishers expend zero dollars for new writers. It will be all on you.

There are drawbacks of course. The cost of starting a business can be prohibitive. POD might be cheaper, but you don’t have total control of your work that way. And some publishers and agents scorn the self-published author. It might take a while for everyone to come around to accepting the self-pub. And if you don’t put out an exemplary product, meaning no misspelling, the correct format, a terrific story that adheres to correct grammar, you will look like an amateur and it will be hard to overcome that first impression.

But if you have it in your heart to get published…do it.

I’ll give you some free advice: Don’t listen to anybody who tells you to forget your dream. To tell you the truth, they’re probably afraid of the competition. Listen to people who give you encouragement. Never give up. Because…there is a number inside every published book: A Library of Congress Control Number. That means the book is sitting in the Library of Congress along with Gone with the Wind, The Maltese Falcon and The Hunt for Red October. A self-published book is really published.

Self Publishing Your Way to Traditional Publishing

There are several stories whizzing around the web about authors who jump-started their writing carreer by self-publishing. They later used the leverage created by the sales of their book to manuever their way into traditional publishing houses. The examples range from oldies like Beatrice Potter and Mark Twain to currently successful authors like Deepak Chopra and Richard Paul Evans.

Would you ever self-publish as a route to becoming traditionally published? Why or why not? Do you think this is the future of publishing, or just a trend?

Bonnie Schroeder

I would consider self publishing only as a last resort. Sure, I’ve heard the miracle stories, but chances of getting your big break via self publishing are even slimmer than those for getting an agent the hard way. If a person had a huge social network, was very internet savvy, and had an endless reservoir of marketing energy and know-how, it might work, but your average writer just isn’t that kind of animal.

I hold more hope for e-publishing and Print on Demand; they address some of the traditional publishers’ cost concerns without going into direct competition with them. I would definitely go with an e-publisher if I had the chance.

Jackie Houchin

Would I ever self-publish? Good Heavens, yes. I do it all the time when I write and post on my web site. I also self-publish when I submit stories, articles and reviews to non-editing venues such as American Chronicle and my local bi-weekly newspaper. It’s a fast way to get my writing out there and read.

But these articles and reviews are not enduring in the sense that books are. They are “flash” pieces, meant to be received, read, and then – as in the case of a newspaper – thrown away. Sure online sites keep archived records, and there are links on Google that go back years, but these “immediate” stories will never sit on someone’s bookshelf to be read and reread (or at least dusted).

Because of my experience in this type of writing – and frankly the instant gratification that comes with it – I would be more apt to self-publish. I would write the best book I could; pay to have it edited (line and content); use the best POD company and illustrators I could find; and go for it. A distribution deal and marketing plan would also be important.

Several authors I know personally began by self-publishing their books. They did a lot of self-promoting and aggressive marketing, and they were noticed by a traditional publisher. Now they have multi-book contracts. It can be done.

However, one author I know went the “traditional” publishing route with her first two books, and is now actively and happily self-publishing the third and fourth in the series. The construction is top-quality with very professional cover designs. Best of all, she’s “in the black.”

The bottom line is the author’s personal career goals… and how patient and optimistic he/she can be.

Jacqueline Vick

I’ve already self-published a children’s book. It was a project I’d worked on “on the side” and I wanted to see it in print. I really didn’t try to market it to traditional publishers first. Instead, I went to I wrote the story, hired an illustrator, solicited editing feedback, and then published. I will say that I found a few errors in the first copy and had to go back and make changes. (The errors were mine, not the publishers, and they could have been avoided with a more careful review on my part.) So I would recommend special attention be paid to proofing the copy.

I do think that there are a lot of people out there using this method to attract traditional publishers. I can think of three authors off-hand who now have traditional contracts. I think it all comes down to how hard you market the book.

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