Shining a bright light into the dark corners of the shadow-world of literary scams, schemes, and pitfalls. Also providing advice for writers, industry news, and commentary. Writer Beware® is sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.

November 29, 2005

A.C. Crispin -18 Ghosts, Scammers and Harry Potter

Well, my two cents worth about the new Harry Potter film is that, while I understood why they did what they in concentrating on the MAIN HP plot (Harry vs. He Who Shall Not Be Named), I really missed the subplots and other characters that we've grown used to seeing. I missed Hermione and Ron a LOT. I also missed Snape. And Sirius.

I think the dropped subplot I missed most was the fleshed-out Rita Skeeter plot. I loved it in the book when Hermione triumphed over the journalist.

(Sorry if that's a spoiler, but I think most people know by now that most of that stuff got cut from this film.)

In retrospect, I'd have liked it if they had broken the film into two movies, as they apparently discussed doing.

I can't imagine how they will do The Order of the Phoenix as one movie. It doesn't have a TriWizard Tournament that they can just "lift" out of the book and present. It's a much more "intermeshed" book.

To: Harry Connolly, I hope I didn't sound as though I was making fun of people who believe in ghosts. I try to keep an open mind about these things. Personally, I've never encountered anything out of the ordinary. But the subject fascinates me. Can you tell us about your encounters? I'd love to hear some firsthand accounts of paranormal encounters!

On the scam front, I have to report that Martha Ivery's "change of plea" date in court has been pushed back to December 5th. This is getting monotonous!

I also have to report that both Agent B and Agent F, after being advised to contact Writer Beware's legal counsel, have done a disappearing act. It's been two weeks now, and not a peep out of either of them. I mean, they totally "disapparated" (to borrow a HP term). I guess they figured they could attempt to browbeat and threaten Victoria and me, but when faced with the prospect of taking on our attorney (whose internet nickname is "Jaws"), they suddenly found their courage evaporating.

We'll see if at some point they manage to grow some cojones.

Oh, one more thing. If anyone who reads this is a member of Aol, and is also an aspiring fiction writer, I host a "writing workshop chat" on Aol twice a month on Monday nights. If you're interested in joining up, write to and ask her how to join. We meet in a private room at 8:00 P.M. on the second and last Mondays of each month. The chat is free.

Okay, here's today's WRITING TIP:

Never, ever send anything to a prospective agent or editor other than paper...query letter, synopsis, sample chapters -- whatever they ask to see as given in your marketing guide. Do NOT send any of the following: nude pictures of yourself, pictures of yourself dressed as your character, large blocks of chocolate (particularly in summer), perfume, hand carved and jeweled manuscript boxes, cover mockups for your book, or posters adverting your book.

(To everyone who is rolling his or her eyes: ALL of the things I just mentioned have actually been sent to editors Victoria and I know.)

Have a great day!

-Ann C. Crispin

November 27, 2005

Victoria Strauss--All in a Day's Sleuthing

A couple of weeks ago I got a question about the reputation of a publisher I’d never heard of before. I checked out its website, which was pretty amateurish-looking, and provided no information at all about who was running the company and where the company was located. This is information you always want to see on a publisher’s website, because it’s awfully hard to evaluate a publisher if you don’t know who’s behind it--especially when, as in this case, it hasn’t actually published any books.

Also red-flaggish was the publisher’s promise to provide a report with every rejection, which would not only “help the author pinpoint problems that need attention, but will also improve your chances to obtain that publication contract all authors seek.” The publisher then “goes that extra step...if we make an initial ‘pass’, many times we give the author the opportunity to resubmit their manuscript for consideration after they address the problems our editors denoted on the ‘pass’ report.”

Nothing is said about money. Nevertheless, this reminded me an awful lot of the kind of wording one sees from publishers and agents who charge an evaluation fee or routinely recommend paid editing services. I made a note of the publisher’s name, and resolved to keep an eye out for more information.

If someone’s doing something shady, it doesn’t usually take long for Writer Beware to get wind of it. Yesterday, I got an email from a writer whose novel had just been rejected by this publisher. The promised report was included with the rejection letter. According to the report, the ms. needed “some work”; the author was free to choose “any editing firm you feel comfortable with,” but the publisher had an “arrangement” with an editing service that had agreed “to provide our potential authors a discount on their editing services.” Once the manuscript’s problems were corrected, the publisher would be willing to reconsider it.

This, by the way, is exactly the bait-and-switch technique used by Edit Ink, a crooked editing firm that was put out of business by the New York State Attorney General in 1999.

I had a pretty strong hunch, therefore, that the publisher either owned the editing firm or was getting some kind of kickback for referrals. But I didn’t have any proof. So I decided to do a little digging. Domain name searches often turn up very interesting information. I discovered that the domain names for both the publisher and the editing firm are registered through a proxy service (which means that the name and contact info of the domain name owner is hidden), but the geographical location and the ISP for the two websites is the same--and the IP addresses are identical.

It’s still not conclusive proof that the publisher and the editing service are run by the same person, but it’s pretty suggestive. I’ve broken my own rule and written to the publisher to ask for an explanation. I’ll keep you posted.

November 25, 2005

A.C. Crispin - 17 Thanksgiving and General Stuff

Hope everyone had a good holiday! Ours was fine, just quiet with family, which was nice. Sometimes we have a lot of visitors with us, but not this year. And what was REALLY nice was that the MEN pitched in and helped my sis and me clean up. Now you know who still did the lion's share, but it was nice that they didn't just sit on their butts watching football the whole day!

I remember Thanksgivings at either of my grandmothers' houses. Ah, those were the days. I was too young to have to work much, and not trusted to set the table with the good china or crystal. Instead my sister and I would go outside if the weather was good (this was in New England) and go for walks, or watch while the men threw a football around, or play with the dog, etc.

Then we'd come inside and a feast would have appeared as if by magic, filling the table with delectable smells! A huge turkey, with stuffing peeking out of it, and mashed potatoes and mashed rutabagas, little salad plates to fill with cranberry gel or cranberry-orange relish (made from local cranberries), giblet gravy, homemade rolls, salads...

It was like something out of Harry Potter, this magical feast appearing, conjured seemingly out of nowhere. Somehow I never thought to look at either of my grandmothers, or mother and aunt, when they finally slid into their chairs, grateful for the first chance to sit down after hours and hours of racing around, cooking.

You betcha that these days I know EXACTLY where the feast comes from.

Anyone seen the new Harry Potter? I went to a midnight show the day it opened, and saw it. Any thoughts? (No spoilers, please, it's still early days and lot of folks probably haven't gotten to see it yet.)

Speaking of cruddy agents, not only to they LIE, they also come up with the most ridiculous excuses for not being able to sell books, if they have the nerve to challenge Writer Beware publicly, and we point out their lousy track records. I remember Agent R, who bleated publicly that he couldn't sell any books, despite having been in business over a year (and steadily collecting fees from authors) because he was too tired to work days. And why, you may ask? BECAUSE HE LIVED IN A HAUNTED HOUSE AND WAS KEPT AWAKE ALL NIGHT BY THE GHOSTS. Or so he claimed.

I swear, I am not making this up.

That guy was publicly laughed off He's pretty well gone underground and we haven't heard a thing from him since then.

Okay, here's today's WRITING TIP:

When you find yourself writing a description of ANYTHING (person or location) and you realize you've written over three or four hundred words about it, it's time to stop describing, move the story forward, then, later, go back and edit down that description. Stopping all forward action for more than a printed page is almost always a no-no.

-Ann C. Crispin

November 23, 2005

Victoria Strauss 3--Because They Lie

More thoughts on the subject of being pursued by angry agents and publishers...

One of the things that the people who’ve been the focus of writer complaints sometimes get worked up about is that Writer Beware doesn’t usually contact them to get their side of the story. As far as they’re concerned, this invalidates anything we have to say, because we haven’t “gone to the source.”

In fact, we do go to the source. Wherever possible, we ask writers to document what they tell us. Nearly all of our files contain not just complaints, but contracts, correspondence, brochures, emails, etc. When an agent’s representation agreement includes a sentence like this, it’s pretty unambiguous that the agent does indeed charge fees: “Additionally, I understand that I will be charged $3,250 for in-house services...All monies paid to agency are non-refundable.” All in all, I’d say that’s pretty reliable source material.

The agent whose agreement I’ve just quoted is one of those who have slammed us for not getting in touch with her directly. She’s right: we haven’t. What’s she going to add to the voluminous documentation we already have on file (we’re talking hundreds of pages, gathered between 1998 and the present)? Is she going to tell us that the contract we just saw had a clerical error? (Sorry, but there’s 20 more exactly like it in the file.) That she only offers fee-based contracts to some of her clients? (“Some” is no more legitimate than “all”.) That she’s phasing out the fee-charging? (We don’t believe it--and even if that’s true, writers have a right to know about her past history.) That there’s a really really good reason why she has to charge fees? (We don’t care; it’s not legitimate practice.) That we’re too ignorant to know that most agents charge fees, and some charge even more than she does? (Bzzt. Wrong. Don’t confuse us with your potential clients.)

(She could just say, "Yeah, I charge a fee. I know it's wrong and I do it anyway. Get over it." That would be refreshing. But we're not holding our breath.)

All of the above, by the way, are excuses and explanations we’ve actually been given when we do contact the people we get complaints about, or are contacted by them. Which should make it pretty clear why we’d rather rely on documents. Either these people bullshit us, or they lie.

And why shouldn’t they? Even the most clueless fee-charger is usually at least dimly aware that things don’t work that way in the real world of publishing--though unfortunately, many of them really believe that “new” agencies can’t afford to represent writers for free, or that charging for publication isn't taking advantage of gullible newbies, but opening doors for aspiring writers.

As for the con artists, lying is their business philosophy.

Here’s another example. A vanity publisher that charges five figures for a “marketing” campaign (many vanity publishers try to bamboozle their victims by switching their fees to something other than the printing and binding of books) recently became a subject of discussion on a popular blog. The publisher got wind of the discussion, and posted a long screed solemnly swearing that the fees were part of a start-up strategy (never mind that the last documented instance of fee-charging occurred more than three years after the publisher put out its first books), and had been discontinued. He was literate and persuasive, and most of the participants in the discussion were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t convinced--but you never know, so I decided to wait and see. Within a few months, I’d gotten two more documented reports of fees.

That’s right. He lied.

I'll stick to documents, thank you.

November 20, 2005

A.C. Crispin - 16 Cease and Desist Plus Holiday Wishes

Well, Agent "B" hit me with a Cease and Desist too. Life with Writer Beware wouldn't seem normal without a few "we're going to sue you!" threats floating around.

These scammers never do go beyond threats, however. They can't afford to, literally. If they were to go beyond threats to an actual court case, there's a little thing called "discovery" where our attorney would be able to examine all their business records, financial records, etc., and the thought of having their chicanery so revealed makes them all confine themselves to mere threats and bluster.

At the moment, two agents, Agent "B" and Agent "F" are threatening and blustering. Guess Writer Beware has been doing something right, and hitting them right where it the POCKETBOOK.

Good for us!

I should have some good news this coming week on the Kelly O'Donnell case to report. In the meantime, anything I can do for y'all in the way of information about writing, submitting work, researching agents, etc? I teach writing workshops you know, and have for nearly 25 years. I teach for Anne Arundel Community College in Annapolis, MD. I teach a two day "Writing And Marketing Commercial Fiction" workshop and a one day "Locating and Landing a Literary Agent" workshop.

I'm at your disposal.

Or, if you're not in the mood for writing chat, how about some recipes? Victoria and I are expert cooks. Victoria is a gourmet vegetarian cook.

I'll be cooking this Thanksgiving, anyone else? I'll be making my rapidly becoming famous wild rice, pecan and cranberry stuffing, scalloped potatoes, gravy (I am THE gravy maker in the family) and my husband will make his traditional maple-pecan sweet potatoes...

Oh, and a New England tradition, I'll also be doing the rutabaga. Five points for anyone reading this who knows what a rutabaga is. When I first asked for rutabagas down here in Maryland about 20 years ago, the clerks would just look at me like I had two heads. Fortunately, the term is better known least here in Maryland.

Anyway, here's wishing all of you a very safe, Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving this week!



November 17, 2005

Ann Crispin - 15 - A Change of Pace

Attagirl, Victoria! She's accurate, she's thorough, and she's fearless! She wields the world's most complete database of scuzzy agents, publishers, book doctors, etc., in the world with the judgment of Solomon and the precision of a surgeon.

Writer Beware could not function without her.

Well, I don't have time to make a lengthy post tonight, as I have a ticket to go see the new Harry Potter film at the midnight showing. so I thought I'd that the weather has turned nippy, would anyone like my recipe for New England Clam Chowder? My grandmother grew up on Cape Cod, and she taught me to make clam chowder when I was a girl.

If there's any interest, I'll post the recipe.

(Nobody can say the topics here aren't varied! Remind me to tell y'all the Tale of the Haunted Agent sometime.)

-Ann C. Crispin

November 16, 2005

Victoria Strauss 2--Fun With Writer Beware

I was out most of yesterday, driving my husband to get tests and assessments for surgery he’s having this coming Monday (nothing serious, just mechanical problems with a knee injury). When I got home, an e-mail from SFWA’s legal counsel was waiting for me. A literary agent--let’s call her Agent B--had contacted him with a “cease and desist” demand for the “post created and maintained by sfwa [sic] as claimed by Victoria Strauss. It is disparaging and inappropriate. Delete it promptly.”

Understandably, he wanted to know what Agent B was talking about. Was Agent B mentioned on the Writer Beware website? If so, what did we say about her?

Now, there are two problems here (for Agent B, not for us). First, we don’t mention agents’ names on Writer Beware, unless the agents have been indicted or convicted, are the focus of a lawsuit, or are the target of an official investigation. I suspect that Agent B is referring to a post I made about her business practices on a particular writers’ message board--in which case, she should have approached the owner of the board, not SFWA’s counsel.

Second, she knows as well as we do that what I’ve said is true. Not flattering--not flattering at all--but true, and thus kind of hard to pass off as “disparaging” or “inappropriate.” Maybe she thinks we’re relaying hearsay, or peddling rumor. Maybe she thinks we can’t muster up anything to support our statements.

Bwa-ha-ha. She’s wrong.

Writer Beware has been tracking Agent B since 1997. We’ve gathered numerous reports and complaints about her upfront fees (a “processing” fee, a nonrefundable representation fee, and, for some writers, a consulting fee). We’ve heard from writers who received angry, profane responses when they questioned the fees or other aspects of her business, and from clients and former clients who say that the only time they heard from her was when it was time to send another check. One writer, who was with Agent B for eight years, paid over $3,000 in annual fees during that time, plus additional fees for office and phone expense (apparently if you wanted an “in-depth” phone call, you had to pay for it in advance). This writer had several manuscripts with Agent B--I’m sure it will surprise no one that none of them were ever sold. Agent B does seem to have made commercial sales in the past, but Writer Beware hasn’t been able to discover anything she’s sold with a publication date more recent than the late-1990’s.

Everything I’ve said above is supported not just by writers’ reports and complaints, but by actual physical documentation in my possession: email, snail mail, and copies of Agent B’s contract and brochure. And a nice, fat file it is, too.

This is why we don't panic when we get a nastygram from someone on our questionable list.

I spent most of this morning collating and summarizing everything for SFWA’s counsel. I expect that a brief but severe letter from him will be forthcoming, after which all of this will dry up and blow away. I’ll keep you posted!

November 10, 2005

AC Crispin - 14 A Spiffed Up Site!

Hey, Victoria, welcome! You really spiffed up the site, it looks very nice.

Okay, we've discussed writing the synopsis. Anything else in the writing area we can help y'all with?

Anyone need to check out any agents or publishers before sending a manuscript off?

You all DO know to check out an agent or a publisher's reputation BEFORE sending your manuscript or your query off, right?

One of the most frustrating things about running Writer Beware is getting inquires from writers who don't know enough to look before they leap. It's downright discouraging to get inquires that read something like this: "Dear Victoria and Ann: I just sent off $550.00 to an agent for a contract administration fee. Since it wasn't a reading fee I thought it would be okay. But then I began to wonder. Is Watchusscamu Literary Agency okay?"

(big sigh)

When we get inquiries like that at Writer Beware, there's just not much we can do to help the writer in question.

The time to check out an agent or a publisher, if you have any doubts, is BEFORE you send anything to them!


-Ann C. Crispin

November 9, 2005

Victoria Strauss 1--Introducing Myself

Hi, all! I'm Victoria Strauss, the other half of Writer Beware. I maintain the Writer Beware website, and am the Keeper of the Database.

I'm feeling very virtuous at the moment because I spent the afternoon doing Writer Beware's filing (a task I tend to avoid, because it gives me flashbacks to the horrid clerical jobs I had just out of college)--a six-inch-high stack of complaints and documentation that added four agents and three publishers to our warning list. And that's just for the past three weeks.

Right now, we have files on around 400 agents, 200 publishers, and a few dozen book doctors, publicists, and providers of dubious services. Most of the questions and complaints we receive focus on the same 30 or 40 outfits. The composition of this hit parade of bad guys changes over time, but there are a few who never drop off the charts. Our largest file contains well over 500 complaints.

(The con artist behind those complaints is currently threatening to sue us. We say, Bring it on! We'd love to have the chance to present our documentation in court. Tee hee.)

Ann asked me to comment on synopses. I don't have anything to add to her excellent advice; the procedure she advises is pretty much the same as the one I follow. My main problem with synopses written for submission (as opposed to those I write for myself as part of the world building process, as a way of exploring theme, character, and plot) is keeping them brief enough. My novels are strongly theme-driven, and for some reason it's very, very difficult for me to summarize the plot in such a way that the themes are also conveyed. I'm never sure I've done an adequate job.

Earlier this year my agent asked me to write a synopsis of my forthcoming novel, The Awakened City (sorry--book plug--I had to do it), so she'd have something to give interested overseas publishers. "Keep it brief," she said--for me, some of the scariest words in the English language. Panicking, I did some research to see how other people handled this, and found some interesting resources:

Writing a Synopsis From the Ground Up
How to Write a Synopsis
Evolution of a Synopsis (with examples)

Hope they're helpful!

A.C. Crispin - 13 It Has Happened Again...

Last night I typed in a very long post that was an example of a synopsis from a book of mine, as I had promised Bonnie I would do. It hasn't appeared. Gone into the ether?

I'll give it till tomorrow to appear, then do it all over again, I guess. I find this MOST annoying.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for Victoria to turn up and post her thoughts on synopsis writing. I'm hoping she'll drop by today.

Writer Beware is waiting for updates in the Kelly O'Donnell case, by the way. I'll bring you up to date as soon as we have more information.

Sorry for not posting for a week, but I caught a change of seasons cold.

Hope you are all staying well. (If there are any folks out there reading this, besides Goody. )

-Ann C. Crispin

November 8, 2005

A.C. Crispin - 12 Example of a Synopsis for Bonnie

Hi, Bonnie. Sorry this post took so long, but I was down and out with a cold last week. No pep at all.

Okay, here's how I did the short synopsis (not the one I worked from, that was a chapter by chapter one that was very detailed, this was the one I had to prepare for Mr. Lucas to read) for The Paradise Snare.

I separated out the Background from the Story because I was dealing with an established universe, and in order to get approval for the novel, the Powers That Be had to be very clear about when it took place in their universe, who was involved, etc.

Okay, here goes:

Background: (to be covered in brief flashbacks):

Young Han Solo is desperate to escape the cruel traders that have been the only "caretakers" he has ever known. Transported through the galaxy aboard their huge, ramshackle space barge, the child Han was forced to beg in the streets of many planets. As he grew older, he learned other skills: picking pockets, burglary, and conning people.

Han never knew his real name until he was about ten, when he befriended an elderly Wookiee widow of one of the smugglers, Dewlannamapia (Dewlanna). The next time they were on Corellia, Han ran away and tried contacting his Solo relatives. He was rewarded with an encounter with Thracken Solo, who hid him, tormented and beat him up, then, when the older boy tired of hiding Han, turned him back over to the traders.

Han tried repeatedly to run away, but was caught and viciously punished each time. Finally, having learned the bare rudiments of piloting, he decides to stage one more break.

Time: About a decade after the Clone Wars. Emperor Palpatine is still attempting to consolidate his grip on the former Old Republic, but there are so many star systems, and the spirit of freedom has not yet died.

Story: It is "night" aboard the huge space barge that is the nomadic trader colony. Han sneaks down to the kitchen to bid goodbye to Dewlanna, promising to contact her when he reaches (he thinks) safely on Ylesia, a religious colony that offers pilgrims sanctuary from their pasts.

Han and Dewlanna are interrupted by the cruel, drunken trader leader and his henchmen. During the melee that follows, Dewlanna is blasted when she leaps in front of Han to shield him. Outraged, Han shoots the leader.

He flees, and, donning a spacesuit, slips aboard the robot cargo ship bound for Ylesia. It is a dangerous trip; Han's oxygen nearly runs out, and he manages to crash the ship when he tries to land it in Ylesia's treacherous windstorms.

Ylesia is run by a religious hierarchy in alliance with the Hutts, who use the colony as a front to supply them with glitterstim and docile slaves. The Ylesian "priests" are a race from Nal Hutta who have honed their ability to project "feel-good" emotions in order to keep their pilgrims-turned-slaves happy and productive.

(Note: This projection ability is a by-product of an ability these males use to attact mates -- it is NOT the Force.)

Han discovers that he's jumped from the frying pan into the fire, and realizes that, in order to escape he's got to steal a ship and be able to pilot it effectively. The Ylesian priesthood is in desperate need of pilots, so they are eager to hire the young Corellian and provide him with pilot training.

(and so forth, continuing through the entire book. DO tell the ending!)

Okay...get the idea?

I hope this has been helpful!

-Ann C. Crispin

November 1, 2005

A.C. Crispin - 11: Writing a Synopsis

Hi Bonnie! Glad to help out.

A synopsis for a novel (some people refer to it as an outline) is written in present tense. I usually type mine single-spaced, so when it's submitted by my agent, it is readily distinguishable from the chapters that she submits.

Synopses that are written for submission should be as short as they can and still tell the ENTIRE story. Don't be coy and say "And to find out what happens at the the manuscript!" (People have indeed done this and it really annoys editors or agents.)

Give about the amount of detail in a synopsis for submission (as opposed to one that you, the writer, might write for your own use in writing your novel) as you'd use in describing a good movie to a good friend. You don't want to tell every single detail, but you want the plot to flow along in a concise, yet understandable fashion. You shouldn't include minor details of characterization or subplots. You really want to confine yourself pretty much to the main plot and what feeds into it.

When I'm writing a synopsis, I imagine my audience as a group of wriggly cub scouts around a campfire. They have short attention spans, and your narrative has to be dynamic and intrinsically exciting to keep them "hooked" on the story that is unfolding.

I usually figure on writing approximately a paragraph per chapter, unless the chapters contain a lot of crucial action, like the climactic action at the end of a novel.

When I write a synopsis to use for my own purposes in writing a story, to make sure I have everything firmly in mind and won't write myself into a corner, I write a MUCH longer, more detailed one than the one I'd write to submit to an editor.

Well, that's about all I can think of to say on the subject at the moment. Tomorrow I'll dig up a submission synopsis from an old book and post a paragraph or two here, if you think that would be helpful...?

Since today's post was all about writing, no Writing Tip tonight!

Till then...

-Ann C. Crispin

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