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  Issue #33

Free Writers' Newsletter

   Nov 26, 2005  

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The value of sharing the writing experience
By Naomi Booth
Senior Editor, Sweet & Maxwell Ltd; Managing Director, Firefly Jewellery

Many people who begin writing do so with a strong concept of what a writer should be like. Perhaps itís a serious novelist typing through the night, driven to insomnia by the urgency of their story. Or maybe itís a dedicated poet, practising their verse forms to perfection. Personally, mine was of a woman living alone somewhere by the sea, utterly devoted to her artistic pursuit to the exclusion of almost everything except a walk on the beach to refresh her inspiration. And possibly the occasional nap, if her muse would leave her alone for a few hours. After completing a degree in English literature many of my peers took themselves off to attempt to become "writers" in the way they imagined writers should be. One went to live in a house in the middle of rural France to write a novel, barely seeing another soul – other than the boulanger at the nearest village – for almost a year. Another spent six months in a beach hut in Zanzibar. What many peopleís imagined writers seem to have in common is that they undertake writing alone. The act of writing is so often imagined by aspiring writers as an intensely solitary, almost punishing, pursuit. 

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However, the communal aspect of writing is an important and often over-looked one. The strong relationship between many famous authors, their editors and other writers is well documented: T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; D.H. Lawrence and Edward Garnett; F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, to name just three of the most important collaborations. But working collaboratively on writing can begin long before publication and can be highly rewarding for the professional writer as well as those who write purely for pleasure. Back as a 16 year-old aspiring writer I found myself constantly procrastinating and finding a hundred different ways to avoid actually writing anything. I never seemed to have the discipline to lock myself away, alone in a room, to actually put pen to paper. It wasnít until I joined a poetry workshop at college that I discovered that one of the best ways to beat writerís block is to write as part of a group. In the first workshop I went to there were quite a few people who had never written before. The leader of the workshop would often give us themes and structures to write around, and we would each read out our work at the end of the workshop for constructive criticism. I realised for the first time that writing didnít always have to be about finding the discipline to take yourself away from all distraction and write alone. It could be initiated as part of an enjoyable social event, where the distraction of other peopleís work could become part of the creative process. Being a member of the workshop also meant that the time and space to write were built into my calendar. I couldnít pretend anymore that I had more important things to do that ate into my writing time. I had a social obligation to be there and to commit to writing there. Of course at first (writers often being shy creatures) the reading out of your own work can feel excruciating. But everyone is in a similarly vulnerable position and the benefits of the positive criticism you can gain from the group far out weigh any initial embarrassment. 

Over the years I have been writing and editing Iíve been involved in many different types of workshops and writerís groups, which have worked in different ways. At university I joined a writersí group where pieces had to be submitted each week anonymously. We met once a week and different people would read out pieces at random. The writerís anonymity was therefore preserved and the group would feedback on the pieces. This was a brilliant way to overcome any shyness about reading your work out and to get feedback on writing that was in progress. My favourite kinds of workshops have generally been the ones lead by other writers who have shared particularly interesting ways of working and ways of starting up when the dreaded writerís block strikes. These have ranged from warming up exercises of free-writing (being made to write non-stop for a short burst of time, freely associating around a starting term like "birth", "shopping", "home" etc.), to writing short pieces with pictures or photos as their starting point, to pieces built around word games, where people have had to pass on their five favourite words to the person sitting next to them. At first different ways of working can feel contrived. It sometimes feels a long way from the romantic notion many of us have of a solitary writer, acting as some kind of unmediated conduit for "inspiration", which will flow direct from the ether through the writerís pen to the page. And thereís always an element of surprise if the workshop is lead by someone you donít know. I have been to workshops where the leader has decided we should turn our poems into a "sound performance". Letís just say that warbling and howling are not particular skills of mine and I didnít particularly enjoy attempting to hone them in front of a room full of strangers – but the experience of writing as part of a group has been overwhelmingly positive for me, as it has been for many writers I know. 

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If youíre just starting out, attending workshops can be a great way to build up the discipline to write and to meet people who will inspire you to write more. If youíre a seasoned writer it can be a great way to find different approaches to starting a piece and can inspire interesting new work. It can also make you comfortable with giving and receiving feedback, which can be essential in moving your work forward, particularly if you are working towards publication. Getting the feedback of someone objective whose opinion you trust can be an important precursor to the relationship you might then build up with an editor and other writers throughout your writing career. My two university friends who took themselves off to remote places to write both came back empty handed. One had written a detective novel over the course of a year, which, without feedback and input from other people along the way, had gone so far in the wrong direction that he decided to scrap the whole endeavour. The other wrote very little while away in the quiet of his beach hut. But when he returned to London and was surrounded by the busy clamour of city life and people constantly reading and criticising his work, he found that his desire to write returned and he has now amassed a sizeable collection of very good short stories. I rethought my image of a lone writer by the sea a long time ago. I now think that all writers can learn from the experience of sharing their work and from the processes of writing with others. If youíre interested in benefiting from this kind of experience look out for writerís workshops near you, set up your own local writerís group or submit your piece for constructive criticism by the team of editors at firstwriter.com.

Naomi is Managing Director of Firefly Jewellery, an exciting new fashion jewellery concept. She read English at Cambridge, before completing an MA in publishing. She has worked in the publishing industry for several years and has edited books for a number of publishers, including MacMillan and Sweet & Maxwell, as a Senior Editor. She also offers editing and critiquing services to aspiring writers through firstwriter.com.

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Warning about AOL
By J. Paul Dyson
Managing Editor, firstwriter.com

If you've been on the internet for any length of time you probably already know that AOL are generally regarded as one of the worst ISPs out there. You'll notice that all their advertising tends to be geared towards people who aren't yet on the internet – and there's a good reason: anyone already enjoying the internet through a proper service provider wouldn't touch AOL with a stick. I once tried out one of their 90-day free offers – I lasted less than half an hour before I demanded it off my machine. 

The list of complaints about AOL are legion: traditionally they've lacked the capacity to serve their network, leading to users being repeatedly "booted" off – sometimes in the middle of downloads; their browser has traditionally been poor, having a fraction of the colours of proper browsers like Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator (leading to pages that should be brown displaying bright pink, etc.), and lacking the functionality of other browsers as well (so often websites have to offer compromised versions for AOL users, or just don't work as they should). If you've only seen the internet through AOL, you're getting a very distorted picture.

Their email delivery has also been extremely substandard. We all hate SPAM (those annoying emails that pop up in your inbox trying to sell you things), but AOL's response has been crude, to put it mildly. In England there is a place called "Scunthorpe". For a good long time, anyone trying to discuss this place by email through AOL had their message blocked because without the "S" at the start and the "horpe" at the end, "Scunthorpe" spells a rude word. The fact that it wasn't a rude word seemed beyond the sophistication of AOL's software to recognise.

This week, firstwriter.com users with an AOL email address have also become victims of AOL's clumsy anti-spam measures. Despite the fact that our users not only request to receive our InstantAlert updates on literary agents, publishers, competitions, and magazines, but actually pay a subscription fee to do so, AOL still seem to think it is acceptable to arbitrarily condemn these as spam, and destroy them without the recipient's consent. That's right: they don't even ask the recipient if it's okay.

Now hang on – spam emails are ones you didn't ask for which are trying to sell you something. Our InstantAlert emails are ones you DO ask for, which AREN'T trying to sell you anything, but which you have PAID for. Not only do users pay to receive our InstantAlerts, they also pay AOL to deliver them, so that's like buying something online, paying the courier charge, and then watching the courier set fire to it at the bottom of your drive. It's not something anyone should stand for.

And why have AOL taken this action? The likelihood is that an AOL user of firstwriter.com – who had specifically asked to receive InstantAlerts, and was paying to do so – decided they didn't want to receive them any more. Clearly they couldn't be bothered to click any of the links in the email to turn the alerts off, and so just reported it as spam instead. The idleness of that one person now means that thousands of AOL users are denied the service they requested.

But while it may be the actions of an individual which have sparked this problem, AOL must shoulder the responsibility for the system which allows this kind of abuse. It isn't fair that you shouldn't receive mail you have requested just because someone on your street makes a wrongful complaint.

You do have to worry that this is just the thin end of the wedge. What AOL are doing smacks horribly of "big brother": they are choosing what you receive and what you don't. They are selecting what you are allowed to see, and what you aren't. They are censoring your mail and your communication, and you don't have any say in it. You can't even access the mail they've destroyed to see if you actually did want it or not – every trace of it is destroyed and you never even get to know that somebody tried to send you mail that was never delivered. It could be something important: family news, or the first photos of your grandchild – AOL will happily destroy it and you'll never know anything about it.

What's more, they won't even listen when their mistake is pointed out. We've informed them that they are destroying emails that their customers have paid for: they don't care. They don't even respond. What kind of customer service is that?

You have to wonder where this will all end: perhaps with the ultimate spam-proof email account: one which deletes all emails ever sent to it, regardless of their origin or content. Such a concept sounds ridiculous, of course, but is AOL really that far away from this? I have already seen AOL users who have special messages on the bottom of their emails warning people not to be offended if they don't reply to them. Because they use AOL, they tell them, they cannot guarantee they will actually receive their emails. They then give alternative contact details – but how much use is an email address you can't have confidence in? What if all service providers behaved like this? Email would become useless, as we could never have any faith in our message getting through. We would be back to the postal service of the 18th century, with even odds on your letter actually being delivered, and every email would require a follow-up phone call to confirm receipt.

Personally, I like to be able to judge for myself if I want a piece of mail or not. If I don't, I press a button to delete it. Big deal. It's a small price to pay for the power to control for myself what I see and receive, rather than having a computer or corporation deciding for me. The freedom of speech is useless without a correlating freedom to listen. To that end, I will never use anti-spam software – and I will certainly never use AOL. I'd advise you all to join me!

Further reading
The internet is littered with people's rants and tirades against AOL – just try searching for "AOL sucks" or "hate AOL" in Google to see the hundreds of thousands of pages returned – but here are a few of particular interest:

  • UK national paper The Guardian discusses the reasons so many people dislike AOL – click here
  • For more on AOL's censorship, click here
  • For the problems people face trying to cancel their AOL accounts, click here – and for the secret on how to escape, click here
  • For details on AOL's technical deficiencies, click here

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How I got a literary agent
An interview with author Mary Kilgore

Mary Kilgore recently acquired an agent using firstwriter.com's database of literary agencies. We asked her about her writing, and how she found success.

fw: Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us, Mary, and congratulations on placing your book with an agent. What's your book called, and what is it about?

M: Forty Percent Gray is a mystery thriller about repressed memory. Jamie Moore returns to her hometown twenty years after the stabbing death of her mother. Terrifying flashbacks about the murder send her to a therapist who establishes that four-year-old Jamie locked the memory away in her unconscius mind where it remained dormant until now, when conditions forced its reawakening.

fw: Where did you get your idea / inspiration from?

M: Several years ago I took a new job in Rochester, New York, heading up a mental health program for young children. It was the first time I had worked with children that young so I was particularly moved by the murder of a neighbor woman. Her four-year-old child was locked in the house with her until the father returned home from work that evening. I often wondered about that child...what she saw, what she heard, what she felt... Years later I met the first Officer on the scene that morning and my interest in writing the story solidified.

fw: Once you'd found your inspiration, how did you go about turning it into a story?

M: I went to the local library and read all newspaper articles pertaining to the murder, visited the neighborhood where the murder took place, and talked with the police officer who was first on the scene.

fw: Did you have any prior experience of writing to fall back on?

M: This was my first writing attempt. After finishing it, I stuck it away for several years. After moving to Florida in August 2004, I re-edited it and began searching for an agent. I also re-edited another thriller I wrote after Forty Percent Gray and began searching for an agent for that one. Neither book has yet been published.

fw: Was looking for an agent the first path you tried towards publication?

M: I am not interested in self publishing so finding an agent seemed the right way to go for me.

fw: Do you think that fact that you hadn't been previously published made it harder to secure a literary agent?

M: Being previously published is very important when trying to secure a literary agent. Having a track record is always a factor, especially with the tight market in today's world.

fw: So without that track record, how did you go about securing your agent?

M: I bought all the latest market publishing books and queried dozens of agents and publishing houses, sent off various chapters, etc. It became very expensive.

fw: I can imagine! How did signing up to firstwriter.com change the way you worked?

M: I began using email for my queries and firstwriter.com provided the addresses, plus info about an agent's willingness to consider first time authors.

fw: Did you always send the same query, or did you tailor your query to each agent?

M: I sent off the same general query emails with a description of my manuscript once I knew the agent's interest in my genre.

fw: Did you get a lot of rejections? Were they always courteous and polite?

M: Dozens. Rejections were usually polite, often just a few words. I got a few off the wall comments, some rather humorous. After receiving the first batch of rejections, my expectations became more realistic.

fw: What do you think was the reason you succeeded in securing the agent you did?

M: My agent lives in Florida and is new to the agent business. I have recently moved to Florida. I think that was a factor for both of us.

fw: So what are you doing now? Are you working on something new, or are you taking a break from your writing?

M: I have the first three pages finished on a new novel!

fw: Good luck with it! Thanks for your time.

To search over 600 literary agencies, click here

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Resources for writers at firstwriter.com

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In this issue:

Spelling conventions

fwn uses English spelling conventions. Spellings such as "realise" "colour", "theatre", "cancelled", etc. differ from other spelling conventions but are nonetheless correct. 

News:

The perfect gift for a writer this Christmas
If you're struggling to think of a suitable present for a writer this Christmas then the answer is finally here – instead of another pen (which doesn't really help when you write on a computer) or a bookmark (which is great for reading, but not so great for writing), you can now give a writer a gift they will truly appreciate – a gift that will help them get their work published.

firstwriter.com now offers subscription gift vouchers. You can purchase these instantly online and then give them to the writer in your life whenever you want – Christmas Day, their birthday, or as soon as you've purchased. The recipient can then use the voucher to go towards the cost of a long-term subscription, or take out a shorter subscription for free! Once they've subscribed, they get access to databases of over 600 literary agencies, over 400 publishers, over 500 magazines, and over 150 competitions – all of which are updated daily!

To purchase a gift voucher now, click here

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Great American Poetry Show
The Great American Poetry Show is a hardcover serial poetry anthology open year-round to submissions of poems on any subject and in any style, length and number with a SASE. Email poems only from outside USA/Canada. Simultaneous submissions and previously published poems are welcome. Response time is usually 1–3 months. Each contributor receives one free copy of the volume in which his/her work appears. Volume 2 is scheduled to appear January 2007.

For more details email info@tgaps.net or visit the website at www.tgaps.net, where you will also find a chatroom for discussions about poetry and other literary topics, and a messsage board where anyone can post poetry news, reviews, essays, articles, recommended poetry books, etc. 

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Launch of Total Fiction
Total Fiction is an online publishing company specifically aimed at unpublished authors giving them the chance to gain international recognition via their online store. Total Fiction claims to have a greater acceptance for new authors due to the fact that by publishing online their overheads are kept to a minimum.

Royalties are earned with each individual copy sold and at a higher than average rate. The service is free of charge and includes international marketing for all writers wishing to submit their copy.

Total Fiction is currently open to take receipt of manuscripts from writers worldwide. The official launch date of the website at www.totalfiction.co.uk is November 28, 2005. 

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Book on publishing at discount price
Patricia Fry's new guide to successful authorship, The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book, is being offered at a 20 per cent pre-publication discount for the remainder of 2005.

The book aims to walk hopeful and experienced authors through the writing, publishing, and book promotion process from start to finish and beyond. It includes numerous anecdotes to illustrate the processes involved in successful authorship, and it highlights the rewards and the ramifications of your publishing decisions.

For more information go to www.matilijapress.com
/rightway.html
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Partner sites:

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© firstwriter.com 2005
While every effort is made to ensure that all information contained within this newsletter is accurate, readers are reminded that this information is provided only as a collection of potential leads that the reader should follow up with his or her own investigations. Unless otherwise stated, firstwriter.com is not associated with and does not endorse, recommend, or guarantee any of the organisations, events, persons or promotions contained within this newsletter, and cannot be held responsible for any loss incurred as a result of actions taken in relation to information provided. Inclusion does not constitute recommendation.