Meeting Agent Right by Linda Joffe Hull

Over the years, I, like most authors, have collected enough rejections to wallpaper my office (and the adjoining hallway). However, as I continued to hone my craft, sent out more queries, and tried not to go completely insane, I began to wonder if there was more that I could be doing to get published.

As the rejections continued to filter in, it occurred to me that if I could meet every agent I queried, I’d realize that we (and thus my writing) weren’t a match, saving me some of the ego beat down of all that rejection. After all, like an online dating profile that states, I’m looking for a short, perky, blond, 40-50, I may fit the qualifications and still not be Ms. Right. And we all know Agent Right could look nothing like his photo. Similarly, an agent can say he is looking for exactly what you’ve written, read it and tell you it isn’t at all what he was looking for.

Seeing as I was unlikely to meet any agents at my home office to determine such things, I decided to do what I could to make my luck.

Here’s what worked for me:

  1. RMFW

Go to the various events. Not only will it improve your writing, you’ll meet and connect with other writers. I’ll never forget the first time an author offered me the contact info for her agent after a friendly conversation.

  1. Get Involved:

I offered to write a monthly agent spotlight in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s monthly newsletter. As a result, I was able to contact agents and interview them about what they were really looking to acquire. Not only did the membership benefit, so did I. In fact, I landed my first agent as a result.

  1. Conferences:

Attend, but also volunteer. At Colorado Gold, we have a kick-off party specifically for volunteers and guests of honor. What better way to have casual, VIP access to the attending agents and editors before they are inundated by the masses? I started out by volunteering to coordinate the agent/editor critique groups. Not only did I get dibs on getting my WIP in front of an agent, I also had a job that led to contact with all of our guest agents and editors.

  1. Enter Contests:

Enter as many writing contests as you can. Finalists are typically judged by agents and editors. Many first deals have come as a result.

  1. Make Small talk:

After being inundated with pitches, that editor at the end of the conference bar might enjoy talking about almost anything but what you’re working on. Many of them write as well. A conversation where you don’t mention your book might even result in a connection that leaves him or her interested in who you are and, thus, what you write. I met my agent at a conference. My debut novel, THE BIG BANG, was published as the result of a conference lounge discussion with my now editor about his favorite writers. The Mrs. Frugalicious mystery series came about when another editor, whom I’d met over an RMFW conference weekend, suggested I try my hand at mystery. Even my first novel was recently published by Susan Brooks, a small press publisher and member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Five published books later, I can honestly say, putting myself out there and getting involved in my local writing world was not only the key to getting published, but a whole lot more valuable than an entire inbox full of rejections.

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cropped-linda-hullLinda Joffe Hull is the author of two standalone novels, The Big Bang (Tyrus Books) and Frog Kisses (Literary Wanderlust). She has also written three books in the Mrs. Frugalicious Mystery series featuring bargain hunter and sleuth, Maddie Michaels: Eternally 21 (2013, Midnight Ink), Black Thursday (2014, Midnight Ink), and Sweetheart Deal (2015, Midnight Ink). A long time member and former president of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Linda was named the 2013 RMFW Writer of the Year.  She currently serves on the national board of Mystery Writers of America.

Are we having fun yet? … by Chris Goff

Chris-GoffI have always considered myself a "glass half-full"-kind of gal. You know, the one who always looks on the bright side, who sees the funny in things, and enjoys her work. But lately, I'm finding it harder and harder to write.

Take RED SKY, my book-in-progress. I should be thrilled. I have a contract, an agent who loves me and an editor who loves my writing. I love the thriller genre. What could possibly be better?

Except, I have a deadline that's killing me! I've already been granted two extensions and I'm late again. I have a plot that seems to be getting larger and larger, that I can't seem to wrangle, and self-doubt is mumbling in my ear. It's becoming harder and harder to write.

Take DARK WATERS, my first book in the new thriller series. It's on some kind of roll. We sold the audio rights, international rights and book club rights. It's a Finalist for both a Colorado Authors' League Award and a Colorado Book Award. It garnered some great blurbs, some great press and it's got 43 Amazon reviews. All good, right?

Except, I can't seem to shake-off the notion that if I could just hit 50 reviews (hint) Amazon's next algorithm will trip launching me into the stratosphere (am I overreaching?) OR that the last review posted (while not bad and which I should never have read) dissed a premise in my book that carries over to the next book (FYI, a premise that I adore) and now I'm finding it harder and harder to write.

2016_Goff_Owls CoverTake A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS. It was March of 2007 when my last Birdwatcher's Mystery was published. Nine years ago! Now I've found a home for my backlist and Book #6 is scheduled for release in May. The launch is scheduled for May 25th at the Tattered Cover Book Store at 7 p.m. (hint), and I should be doing the "happy dance," right?

Except every signing conjures memories of the launch of DEATH OF A SONGBIRD, Book #2, at my hometown book store, where only two people came—two!—the head boy from my high school graduating class and my aunt. I was devastated, not to mention embarrassed (the book store owner had ordered in 100 copies of my book). Fortunately, the next week, friends returning from their summer vacations descended on the book store and saved my bacon. Yet, 15 years later, I still angst about every book signing—making it harder and harder to write.

Need I go on? There are the writer gigs. Sooo much fun! And I've been fortunate to have been asked to do quite a few in the next several months. But, while I love sharing with other writers and with readers, preparation takes time. Plus it's only fair to the event planners, my publisher, and me to spend time on Social Media and promotion.

And then there's my personal life....

Okay, you see the theme (and, if you're like me, you've got the tune to the Maroon 5 song "Harder to Breathe" stuck in your head) and you're probably thinking: "What the heck is she whining about ?" because your professional and personal life is no doubt way more busy and congested than mine.

So, my question for you is: Are we having fun? If it's always fun, I want to know your secret. Please post!

But for those of you who can feel my pain, I've come up a simple strategy for putting the FUN back in writing.

1. Free up some time. I used to write every chance I could—in the evening after the kids were in bed or in the morning after everyone went out the door. I craved time to write, and every minute I carved out was a gift. My vow: to once more cherish my writing time.

2. Unfetter the muse. When I first started writing, I never worried about deadlines or page counts or plot lines or genre constraints. I used to follow the tangents to see where they'd lead, never worried about the pages I might have to throw away. It was a joy to see where my writing took me. My vow: to write with abandon again.

3. Nurture yourself. Everybody needs time to breathe. There are only so many hours in a day, and there are so many things to get done and so many things that need doing. I used to be much better at compartmentalizing my time. My vow: to find a better balance.

So, to answer my own question, of course we're having fun! Or we will be. Right now I have to get back to my writing. You see, I have this deadline that's killing me!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris Goff is the award-winning author of six environmental novels and a new international thriller series. Her sixth book in the Birdwatcher’s Mystery series, A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS, comes out in May. Previous titles were nominated for two WILLA Literary Awards, a Colorado Author's League Award, and published in Japan. DARK WATERS, her first international thriller, was published September 2015 by Crooked Lane Books. Manhattan Book Review calls it “Absolutely masterful...” and it’s a Finalist for both the 2016 Colorado Authors’ League Award-Genre and the 2016 Colorado Book Award-Thriller, and a Nominee for a 2016 Anthony Award for Best Crime Fiction Audiobook. For more information, visit her on the web www.christinegoff.com; on facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/authorchristinegoff; or twitter https://twitter.com/christinegoff.

The Truest Voice of All … by William Kent Krueger

2016_William Kent Krueger (2)Isn’t it amazing how everyone seems to know, even better than we do ourselves, what’s best for us as writers? We get advice from everybody on how we ought to be using our time and energy. From our agent (if we have one). From our publisher. From our readers. From other writers. From the pundits in the publishing world. Write what’s hot, they say. Leap on that passing bandwagon. Create the next Gone Girl. Emulate Stephen King. Put vampires in your work. It’s hard not to listen, especially if you’re still struggling to figure out who you are as a writer.

My own belief is that there’s only one voice you should be listening to: the one that speaks to you from your heart. And here’s why I believe this.

For most of my career, I’ve been known as the author of the Cork O’Connor mystery series. My books have been on a number of bestseller lists, including The New York Times. Several years ago, I sat down with my editor and was told essentially that my publisher was only interested in seeing Cork O’Connor novels from me. This was because the book I’d just published, my first stand-alone thriller, had sold poorly. Not because it wasn’t a good book—it got great reviews—but Cork O’Connor wasn’t in it, and readers were incredibly reluctant to follow me to a place that didn’t include Cork.

A few years later, a very different kind of story idea came to me. I knew it wasn’t a good vehicle for Cork O’Connor, and because of that, spending the time and energy writing it would be a risky proposition. Clearly my publisher wasn’t interested, and I had no idea if anyone else would be. But it was a story that spoke to me so deeply and in such a compelling way that I knew I had to write it. I cleared the decks, and over the course of the next three years, I composed the manuscript for a novel called Ordinary Grace, the story of a Methodist minister’s family in a small town in southern Minnesota in the summer of 1961.

2016_Krueger_ordinary graceI had a new editor at that point, and although I knew that Ordinary Grace wasn’t at all what my publisher wanted from me, I went ahead and sent the manuscript anyway. My editor fell in love with it. Against all the prevalent thinking in the publishing industry about what was hot, she chose to accept it and threw herself behind the championing of it one hundred percent.

Ordinary Grace went on to sweep the major awards in the mystery field. It took the Edgar, the Anthony, the Barry, the Macavity, the Silver Falchion. It found a place on many Best Books of the Year lists. It continues to sell incredibly well, and daily I receive notes from readers who tell how much the story has meant to them.

The writing of that novel remains one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I absolutely loved every moment I bent to the work. Because I had no expectation of success and because the story spoke so deeply to me personally, it didn’t matter to me whether anyone, in the end, wanted to read it. One of the things I’ve come to believe about writing, after all these years, is that it’s a little bit like sex: If you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re probably not doing it right. With Ordinary Grace, I had the time of my life.

For those of us who are writers, there will always be the loud clamor of others who believe they know what’s best for us and our careers. They’re not always easy to ignore, especially when we’re doubting ourselves. My advice, based on my own experience, is to do your best to shut out all that noise so that you can hear your heart speaking to you. It’s the truest voice of all.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

William Kent Krueger is the author of the New York Times bestselling Cork O’Connor mystery series, set in the great Northwoods of Minnesota. His work has received a number of awards, including the Edgar. He lives in St. Paul, a city he dearly loves. He does all his creative writing in local, funky coffee shops, and attributes his success as a writer to all those wonderful stories he read as a child.

You can learn more about Kent and his books at his website. He can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.

 

Stifling Self-Doubt by Aimie Runyan

Self-doubt is the hallmark of most writers, unless maybe you’re Stephen King. I have always thought it a good thing in measured doses. False confidence leads to bad books, and so long as I can quiet the nagging voice of in my ear, I welcome Doubt as the frumpy, sarcastic cousin of the more charming Muse. But sometimes Muse is fickle and Doubt gets far too much time at the mic. The picture below encapsulates a poignant moment of self-doubt I had a few years back:

306087_10200870420059810_769244613_n

This picture was taken about 6 weeks after I started seriously working on my first novel. My two-year-old son is perched on my printed chapters and notebook, absorbed in Monsters, Inc. I snapped the photo on my phone because, in my very biased opinion, he’s adorable. And miraculously, he was actually sitting still. But when I sat next to him on the couch and posted the photo on Facebook, Doubt took her long, clammy fingers and gripped around my neck. What if my book is better off as a booster seat?

The thought was cruel, and while it’s amusing to personify Doubt, it was of my own creation. I reasoned with myself that even if the novel was crap, I would have the satisfaction of knowing I finished what I started, and would only be out about 130 naptimes for my trouble. I pushed on and got my 2,000 naptime words that afternoon. And every naptime for the next six months until I had a draft that I could shape into a readable novel.

But what if I had given in to Doubt and set aside my book? We all leave behind unfinished work, but how would I have felt leaving behind a half-written story that I longed so much to tell? Book contract or no, I have to believe I’d have felt disappointed for the rest of my days for not having told this tale.

Last month, on March 28, the picture of my son “hatching” my book came up in my timeline through the “See Your Memories” feature on Facebook. I instantly remembered that icy feeling in the pit of my stomach I felt that day, and was filled with relief that I pushed Doubt aside and kept on. Wondering what else happened on that day in my seven years on Facebook, I opened up the app and scrolled through my posts. The picture of my sweet boy was posted in 2013. Then I noticed the post from 2014:

“EEEEEEEPPPPP. That is all.”

For those of you not in my inner circles, that’s how I announced both my pregnancies… and news of almost-equal magnitude. Exactly one year after that donkey-kick to the gut from my old friend Doubt, I had gotten The Email from an agent that led to The Call three days later. That following Monday, I signed with Melissa Jeglinski of The Knight Agency. With her expert guidance, six months later I had a book I was proud of and a contract with a fantastic publisher. So on March 28 of this year, less than a month before that book was to see the light of day, I started off my morning knowing unequivocally I’d made the right decision to tell Doubt to hit the bricks. Sometimes reminders of things you know to be true come in odd places. Thanks for the memories, Facebook.

Doubt has its place. It has it’s uses… but never, ever let it talk you out of pursuing a story that needs to be told.

aimieAimie K. Runyan is an author of Historical fiction whose purpose is to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. Her debut novel, PROMISED TO THE CROWN, the story of three women sent by Louis XIV to help colonize his Quebec colony, releases in April, 2016 from Kensington Books. She has also published a short work of science fiction in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS anthology (all proceeds go to the Women in Engineering Scholarship Fund). She lives outside Denver with her loving husband, adorable children, and cowardly sheepdog.

Do I have to be sad? … by Nicole Disney

2016_Nicole Disney_Author PhotoI used to think that the best writing sprouted from suffering. Whether being depressed makes you a good writer or being a writer eventually makes you depressed, I did not know, but I knew there seemed to be a link. We've all been told that if we don't have to be writers, don't, right?

The words I heard alongside “writer” were words like struggling, complicated, haunted, damaged, and poor. I didn't think that was all bad, necessarily. I thought it suggested a more authentic connection to life, required more soul searching, and that it yielded deeper truths, friendships, and experiences.

For a long time, my writing seemed to be proving this idea true. All my best work was the stuff of heartache. It was stronger, more vivid, insightful, and emotional, while the things I wrote during smoother parts of life felt flat and routine. Creating stories that shared pain, betrayal, and rage with the reader felt more intimate. Everyone is willing to share a happy moment with the world. It's much more meaningful to share the failures.

I thought I had it all figured out. The theory was put to the test when my life started to change. I came out, rather uneventfully, as a lesbian to my family. I married the love of my life. I got a job that paid more than enough. The only thing that wasn't going right was that I was having a hard time producing writing I liked. Again, I thought the theory of the tortured writer was proving true. I was too happy, surely that was it! I simply didn't have so much to say anymore. When I tried, it sounded watered down.

I attempted to pull myself out of it. I tried to read all the great authors, journaled, outlined, started new stories, abandoned them, read my older work, listened to music, discussed religion and philosophy, roamed the streets of downtown, anything and everything I thought might inspire me. It still felt flat. But surely you don't have to be the alcoholic writer stereotype to have something meaningful to say, right?

I tried to pinpoint a time that I was both happy and writing well. It brought me instantly to falling in love. Sure, during that time I mostly produced mushy poems, lyrics, and love letters, not novels, but they did have that quality I felt I had lost. They had strength.

Misery and falling in love. What about the two put me in a better state to produce quality writing? They do have something in common. They are consuming. When you feel them, you feel them with everything. The sensations are so powerful that the details are etched into our bones and a writer need only whisper of them to share the experience.

Maybe good writing has nothing to do with being happy or sad, but is more about being fully engaged in the moment, being engulfed by the beauty of whatever is happening now. It's about noticing the things that slip by when we forget the value of every second. It's about the intensity life can hold when the mind isn't shuffling through the past or organizing the future.

Often when I am reading and have to pause to admire the craftsmanship of a particularly beautiful passage, it is about something ordinary or even mundane. Many times it is that fact alone that stops me. I find it magical when a writer captures something so perfectly that he or she reveals to me something about it I would never have thought to note, but instantly recognize.

This is what happens when a writer is present. Engaged. Mindful. It is more than considering each of the five senses and jotting something down just because that is a habit we've developed. It's about breaking the illusion that anything is routine, normal, or dull. It is about not going into autopilot. Everything about experience, positive or negative, is a wonder.

Sometimes struggle and depression keep you in the moment. Sometimes love and joy do. But so can everything in between with a little, or maybe a lot of effort. A writer's life doesn't have to be great or terrible, it just has to be lived.

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Nicole Disney is a literary and contemporary fiction writer with a love for exploring the dark and controversial corners of life. Her debut novel, Dissonance in A Minor, was published in 2013. Nicole lives in Denver, Colorado and is also a 911 call taker and police dispatcher, a career which provides her with many quirky characters and situations.

The Craft Corner with Guest Jason Evans

If you’re reading this, congratulations. You’ve overcome that raspy, small voice in your head telling you not to write your story. Telling you that your dream of writing and publishing is a fool’s quest. You have also overcome those well-meaning people who tried to talk you out of it.

You: “I’m going to write a book!”

Friend with blank stare on their face: “um . . . Really?”

You: “Yup! I’ve had this idea in my head for a long time and I am going to turn it into a book!”

Friend rolls eyes: “Oh please. Do you know what the statistical chances of actually making money are?”

That person may be sincere in their desire to save you from pain and suffering. Or, they could be a jerk. Either way, you’ve ignored them and decided to press on. Good for you!

But writing a book is hard work. You have all these scene’s floating in your head. You’ve got side characters to flesh out and fight scenes or love scenes to describe. It’s an exciting time!

I want to encourage you. Keep writing your story. But right now you need to stop and listen to me.

Your memorable characters, the unique plot twist, the heart pounding car chase through the Vatican. None of it matters if your prose get in the way.

I am talking about simple sentence construction. Subject, verb & prepositional phrase.

Look, if you go to your favorite search engine and ask “How many words are in the English language?” You will find a website called languagemonitor.com, which states there are 1,025,109 words in English.

Holy crap. That is a lot of words!

A large part of your writer’s journey will be figuring out what words to use and what order to put them in. That is sentence craft.

Here’s some basic tips I have learned as I have improved as a writer.

1.) Less is more.

When writing, be as impactful as you can with the least amount of words. An example:

John was running through the field, trying to avoid the police who were running after him.

Now compare that sentence to this:

John ran through the field with the police close behind.

I don’t know about you, but the 2nd sentence is clearer, more concise. It conveys the same information as the first one, but is easier to read.

2.) Avoid conjunctions when you can.

I grew up believing conjunctions were awesome. Big, cumbersome compound sentences sounded awesome to my teen-aged mind. Now they sound convoluted. Take a gander at this.

Mary got back into her car and drove to work at the job she hated and dealt with her cranky boss who would be angry with her because she was late.

I know it’s a run-on. But look at this this one.

Mary got back into her car. She drove to the job she hated knowing her cranky boss would be angry with her. She was late.

Three perfectly good sentences out of that compound sentence mess.

3.) Avoid the word was whenever possible.

Now I’m not saying was should be banned from the language. There are times when it is appropriate to use. However, it can be a crutch.

She was going to go out with Robert, but she cancelled due to illness.

This isn’t a bad sentence, but I think the next sentence is better.

She wanted to go out with Robert, but she cancelled due to illness.

By changing the tense and replacing was with wanted, I gave you a little clue into the woman’s thinking. She did want to go! Before, you had no idea on her thoughts about Robert. However, in the second sentence, you at least get a little clue.

4.) Make your special words special . . . by not using them.

When I was an undergraduate, I used however, in all of my English and History essays. After about four or five papers, Dr. Mueller sat me down and told me to stop. It was getting annoying. I took a perfectly good word and over used it. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. The word however, was now my crutch. For the rest of that year I allowed myself only one use of however per paper.

You should do the same with your favorite words, too.

I love the word verdant. While working on my manuscript, which is set in Tudor Ireland, I only used the word verdant twice. This was hard because if verdant ever fit a place, it was Ireland. But limiting myself to two uses did two things. Chiefly, it forced me to use other words to describe Ireland’s green hills and valleys. More importantly, when I did use verdant it had the emotional impact that I wanted.

Sentence craft is important to fiction. It can take an interesting story and elevate it to something memorable. I encourage you to find out as much as you can about writing better sentences every day. Start out by buying a little book on grammar. If you have the time, take a class at your local community college on writing. Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Remember, writing is a craft. You can and will get better at it.

 

Jason Evans PhotoJason Henry Evans

Like my author page on Facebook at Jason Henry Evans.

Or, follow me on Twitter @evans_writer.

Read my blog at www.jason-evans.net

 

 

Finding Time to Write … by Danica Favorite

2016_Danica FavoriteWhen people outside the writing world find out that I’m a writer, they’re always shocked because they have no idea how I find time to write. I work what amounts to a full-time job, and though I work from home and have a semi-flexible schedule, I still have to put those hours in. With two children at home who are involved in multiple activities, I spend most of my evenings and weekends driving them back and forth. Some days, I feel like I live in my car. I am on the go from the time I get out of bed until I fall back into bed, exhausted.

Right now, I’m in the middle of a crazy deadline crunch. I just turned in my line edits for a book I have coming out in September, my January book is due May 1st, and I have a book releasing April 1st. Which means I don’t have the luxury of writing when I feel like it or hoping my life is going to slow down so I can catch up.

So, how, then, do I get the writing done?

The key is in finding ways to make the schedule work for you. When my kids are at their activities, I have my laptop with me. An hour of dance practice becomes an hour of writing time. The kids have to be at the riding arena all day? Have laptop, will travel. And, for those unexpected wait times, I have my book files saved on Dropbox, which I can access from my phone or tablet. Writing on my phone is not fun, but I can do it. I was just at my daughter’s robotics competition, and all of my electronics had dead batteries, so I pulled out a notebook and wrote by hand. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.

2016_Favorite_ShotgunOne of the most important things I do, though, is communicate with my family. They know when I’m coming up on a deadline, and what kind of time I need. Part of that is knowing how much time it takes me to write a book, then looking at our schedule to see where I can find that time. And when those times don’t add up, it means figuring out what I need to do to make it work. Sometimes, when I’m in a crunch, I’ll spend the weekend at a hotel, locked in a room, writing.

The other crucial piece to balancing my busy life with my writing time is making time for self care. If I don’t have enough fuel in the tank, I’m not going anywhere, especially when it comes to the energy I put into both my family and my writing. I have a standing massage appointment every other week.. I have a regular journaling habit, and I also do a lot of art journaling. That all seems to add up, time-wise, but what I’ve found is that when I am doing all the things that support me emotionally and creatively, I’m a better wife, better mother, better writer, and I don’t feel as pressed for time, even though I still have exactly the same hours in the day.

How do you get that balance?

Take a look your writing habits and needs. Track how long it takes you to write. If you can write an average of 1K in 1 hour, how many hours do you need to write your book? Then look at your schedule. Where in your schedule can you fit those hours? Does that mean cutting something out? I’m amazed at all the ways we all waste time when we take the time to analyze how we’re spending it. Also be aware of hidden times you can use to write. I can usually get about 6 hours of writing time just sitting and waiting for my kids at their various practices. When you’re making your schedule, be intentional about also scheduling down time and self-care time. It’s tempting to pack every minute full of stuff, especially when you’re feeling pressed for time, but in those circumstances, the best thing you can do is to give yourself a break.

How do you balance your writing life with everything else you need to get done?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A self-professed crazy chicken lady, Danica Favorite loves the adventure of living a creative life. She and her family recently moved in to their dream home in the mountains above Denver, Colorado. Danica loves to explore the depths of human nature and follow people on the journey to happily ever after. Though the journey is often bumpy, those bumps are what refine imperfect characters as they live the life God created them for. Oops, that just spoiled the ending of all of Danica’s stories. Then again, getting there is all the fun.

Learn more about Danica and her writing at her website. She can also be found on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

A Study in Scarlett (Or: Can I Be Sued For Writing That?) Part 2 of 2 … By: Chuck Greaves

2016_Chuck GreavesYesterday we discussed defamation. Today we'll cover two related concepts that can also expose a writer to liability, as well as some defensive strategies that writers may wish to adopt.

"Right to Privacy" simply refers to the right of an individual to be left alone in her personal affairs. As with defamation, privacy laws vary from state to state, but with common elements in most states. Generally speaking, an aggrieved plaintiff must prove (a) that publicity was given to matters concerning her private life, (b) that the matters made public would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities, and (c) that the matters publicized were neither newsworthy nor concern any legitimate public interest.

This last element of the tort – newsworthiness or public interest – effectively precludes invasion-of-privacy suits by celebrities or other public figures. But authors of biography, true-crime, and other forms of nonfiction often write about real people who are not celebrities, and even novelists will sometimes base their characters on people they know. Care must be taken in these cases to avoid invading the privacy rights of your subjects, whose identities are either explicitly stated or can be gleaned from the context of the writing.

Memoirists who publicize private and embarrassing information about their (non-celebrity) friends or family run an especially high risk of being sued for invasion of privacy, and this is doubly true of self-published authors who cannot cite a traditional publisher’s support for her work as evidence of its inherent “public interest.”

As is the case with defamation, only a living person can sue for invasion of privacy. Unlike defamation, however, the truth of the statement in question is no defense against potential liability.

"Right of Publicity" refers to the commercial value of an individual’s name, likeness, or identity. If you’re planning to sell t-shirts with Justin Bieber’s unlicensed image, for example, or to use his name to advertise your other products or services, you can expect to be sued.

Unlike defamation or the right to privacy, which are considered “personal” rights, an individual’s right of publicity is a property right that exists during her lifetime and that, in many jurisdictions, survives her death and may be enforced by her estate. (So much for your fallback plan to sell Elvis Presley t-shirts.)

But can you put Justin or Elvis on the cover of your latest book? The answer is . . . it depends.

Unfortunately for authors whose works are, of necessity, published in all fifty states, the laws governing right-of-publicity actions are a veritable hodgepodge of inconsistent state laws. Roughly half the states, for example, have statutes that expressly govern right-of-publicity claims, while half still rely on common law principles that prohibit unfair competition or preclude the misappropriation of a person’s name or likeness on privacy grounds. Moreover, in those states that have enacted legislation, the laws vary widely, with some affording post-mortem protection to all citizens and others protecting only those persons whose name or likeness had demonstrable commercial value during their lifetimes. Also, in those states with right-of-publicity statutes that include post-mortem protection, the length of that protection varies, from a low of 20 years after death (Virginia) to a high of 100 years (Indiana.)

Fortunately for authors, some states expressly exempt books, as well as advertisements for books, from right-of-publicity claims. Many, however, do not. And while the First Amendment has been held to protect so-called “creative or expressive works,” both factual and fictional, some courts limit First Amendment protection only to those works whose creative or expressive character is found to “predominate.”

The upshot is that authors, unlike commercial advertisers, should be safe from suit on right-of-publicity grounds where their work is predominately creative or expressive in nature. That means (subject to the photographer’s copyright) using Elvis’s image on the cover of your Elvis Presley biography is probably safe, whereas using it on your Elvis coloring book is inviting a trip to the Heartbreak Hotel.

Remember also that First Amendment protection may not extend to works that are published or to suits that are filed abroad, as the Scarlett Johansson verdict – a five-thousand Euro defamation award in France – clearly illustrates.

There are a few commonsense steps that you as an author can take to avoid being sued. In choosing your book's subject matter, for example, you can avoid reference to living persons. For authors of true crime and historical literature, that may mean choosing events that occurred more than a century ago. If that is neither possible nor desirable, then take care in your research to avoid factual errors or embellishments. In memoir, consider changing the names, physical descriptions, or other identifying characteristics of the real people – particularly the non-celebrities – about whom you write. In fiction, be sure your characters do not closely resemble real people you know or have met. When in doubt, consider obtaining written permission from those you wish to portray.

Lastly, please bear in mind that the foregoing is merely an overview, as was yesterday’s discussion of defamation, and that a full explication of the law in this area could and does fill entire textbooks. At the end of the day, buying an hour or two with a lawyer experienced in the publishing field may be the best investment an author can make.

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A retired trial lawyer, Chuck Greaves is the author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky and George & Cokey Flo (Bloomsbury) a Wall Street Journal "Best Books of 2015" selection. You can visit him at his website.

A Study in Scarlett (Or: Can I Be Sued For Writing That?) Part 1 of 2 . . . By Chuck Greaves

2016_Chuck GreavesYou’ve heard the horror stories. Scarlett Johansson sues acclaimed French author Grégoire Delacourt for invoking her name in describing a fictional character. A jury awards Jesse Ventura $1.8 million against the estate of American Sniper author Chris Kyle over Kyle’s account of an alleged barroom brawl. Novelist Haywood Smith suffers a $100,000 jury verdict for her pseudonymous description of a friend in her bestselling The Red Hat Club. Augusten Burroughs settles with the family depicted in his bestselling Running With Scissors and agrees to rewrite the book’s Acknowledgments and Author’s Note.

As these and other cases illustrate, there are risks inherent in writing about real people. And since most publishing contracts require the author to indemnify the publisher in the event suits like these are filed, those risks fall squarely on the writer’s shoulders. Fortunately, lawsuits over literary depictions are rare, and adverse outcomes rarer still. Authors should nonetheless familiarize themselves with three legal pitfalls that, if ignored, could expose them to substantial attorneys’ fees and costs and, in some cases, to liability for monetary damages.

Today we’ll discuss defamation, the first and most common, and therefore the most dangerous, of these pitfalls:

Defamation refers to false statements of fact that result in reputational injury to another. Spoken defamation is called “slander,” while written defamation – the kind we’re concerned about – is called “libel.” While the laws governing libel vary from state to state, all have certain elements in common. In order to win a judgment for libel, an aggrieved plaintiff – that's the person bringing suit – must usually prove that a statement of fact (a) was published, (b) was false, (c) was not privileged, and (d) caused injury to the plaintiff’s reputation.

Note that libel laws pertain only to statements of fact, and not to opinions. Thus, the statement “I think Jones is a jerk” should not be actionable, whereas the statement “Jones is a child pornographer” would likely be actionable, depending on Jones’s ability to prove the other elements of a libel claim. Note also that simply couching a statement as opinion – i.e., “I think Jones is a child pornographer” – will not necessarily insulate its author from liability where, as in this example, the statement implies the existence of supporting facts.

“Publication” in the context of libel does not mean that the false statement was actually printed and sold; it simply means that the statement was communicated to a third person who understood it. Thus, a libelous falsehood that appears in the first draft of a manuscript that the author shares only with her agent, or with a few beta readers, has been “published” for purposes of the libel laws.

Because “falsity” is an essential element of defamation, it follows – and this cannot be overemphasized – that truth is an absolute defense to a claim of libel. But if suit is filed, who has the burden of proving the statement’s truth or falsity? Ordinarily it is the plaintiff in a civil action who must prove all elements of her claim. In libel law, however, a “media defendant” – which includes an author, journalist, or publisher – bears the burden of proving the statement’s truth unless the plaintiff is herself a public figure or official, in which case the burden remains with the plaintiff to prove falsity.

“Privilege” will often, on public policy grounds, insulate an otherwise libelous statement from liability. The First Amendment, for example, protects authors and journalists who fairly comment on matters of public interest, or who accurately republish official statements or proceedings. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the false reporting of facts about a public figure or official by a media defendant enjoys First Amendment protection unless the defendant acted with “actual malice,” meaning with knowledge of the statement’s falsity or reckless disregard for its truth.

“Injury” to one’s reputation requires more than just hurt feelings, and a libel plaintiff must ordinarily prove actual monetary loss. Where, however, the libelous statement accuses the plaintiff of a crime, or of sexual misconduct, or of conduct (such as dishonesty) that’s incompatible with her trade, business, or office, then monetary damage will sometimes be presumed.

A final, important attribute of defamation law is that you cannot defame a dead person. This means that neither a deceased person’s estate nor her heirs or descendants can sue an author for libel unless the false statement in question also independently defames the suing plaintiff.

That’s a brief overview of the law of defamation. Tomorrow we’ll discuss the related concepts of invasion of privacy and the right of publicity, as well as some defensive strategies that writers may wish to consider.

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A retired trial lawyer, Chuck Greaves is the author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky and George & Cokey Flo (Bloomsbury) a Wall Street Journal "Best Books of 2015" selection. You can visit him at his website.

Should We Write About What We Know?: Experience versus Research … by Mariko Tatsumoto Layton

How often have you heard that you should write about what you know? At the same time, you might hear that we can write about anything we want, we just need to research the subject matter. This debate of personal experience versus research is like nature versus nurture.

I write middle-grade multicultural novels with Japanese protagonists. I was born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old. Even after our move, our home was very Japanese. I know a lot about being Japanese, what it feels like, how others treat us, the misconceptions, etc. So, I’m qualified to write about a Japanese protagonist. Even then, my character might be training to become a sumo wrestler, or is a violin prodigy, or is a samurai boy, something or someone I’ve never been or experienced. In those cases, I read books on sumo training or history books on samurais. I imagine what a boy might feel or think and write about it. But am I portraying those characters correctly? Am I doing them justice?

Have you read books with a subject you know well and seen errors? Does that aggravate you? An acquaintance of mine read Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral. Early in the book, the funeral group travels to Santa Fe. My acquaintance used to live in Santa Fe and noted that the description of the area was not accurate. This infuriated her. Despite my argument that it was fiction, she disliked the novel intensely because of that error.

2016_Mariko Layton_Ayumi's Violin cover KindleEven though I am Japanese and I research every point in my books as thoroughly as possible, my Japanese sister-in-law, who moved to the U.S. at the age of thirty, nitpicks everything in my books. She might say that at a certain kind of a party, this kind of food would be served, not the food mentioned in my book. She might point out that the card game a child is playing is too old for her. She might be right, even though I recall playing that game at that age.

So, I often wonder if having had certain experiences is enough to precisely portray a character, a subject, or a place. Sometimes I want to shout, “It’s Fiction!” I know that even in fiction, we should be truthful and correct as to certain things. I sometimes envy authors who write science fiction or fantasy. They can create any kind of a world or character.

When you’re writing your first or second novel, the maxim of writing what you know might be good to follow because there’s so much to know about novel writing. The subject matter is one less thing about which to learn. What if the protagonist is a quadriplegic? What if you’re male and want to make your protagonist female? What if you’re Caucasian and you want to write about someone who lives in Fiji? How much research is enough? We can’t change the color of our skin. We can’t recreate our childhood. Is researching and doing your best enough?

I believe accuracy is a matter of degrees. I can’t know everything about which I write. I make a diligent effort to learn as much as possible about what I write. If I can’t learn enough to be fair to the subject matter, I won’t write about it. I don’t want to insult anyone who knows more than me. But humans all have emotion. We may not all feel the same emotion about something, but I can imagine how someone might feel.

Emotion is one thing I’m confident about. I might be criticized for the way a certain character feels, but there is no right or wrong with emotion. Therefore, I let my characters feel the highest of joys and the lowest of sadness.

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When Mariko Tatsumoto Layton arrived from Japan at the age of eight, she could only count to ten and say thank you in English. But as soon as she learned to read English, she fell in love with books and wanted to become a writer. She first became the first Asian woman attorney in Colorado before finding her way to become a children’s book author.

Learn more about Mariko at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.