How Would You Rewrite Your Existing Character or Published Story?

All the dismay expressed about the flawed, racist Atticus Finch character in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, versus the saintly Civil Rights attorney and crusader Atticus was in To Kill a Mockingbird, has me thinking about Zadie Smith’s popular quote about redlining her published novel to rid it of “every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor” just before reading from it at an event. As writers, we know the work is never really “finished”, but if we had the chance to publish a new version of a story we’ve already released into the world, would we do it?

If you could, how would you rewrite your characters or story?

Would you revisit an earlier edit, more true to the version you originally wanted to publish, as Lee did? We know that Lee wrote Watchman before Mockingbird, but the editor she submitted it to in 1957 advised her to shift the focus. Lee has admitted of the resulting edit that went on to sell 30 million copies, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” Watchman was published unedited, released on July 14, 2015.

Would you change the work to reflect your personal evolution or new information about the topic acquired over time? Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t rewrite her post-divorce memoir Eat, Pray, Love, but after remarrying, her book Committed reflects a new perspective on the institution of marriage.

Would you, like E.L. James recently did with her Fifty Shades spinoff Grey, give a supporting character the protagonist treatment?

Would you rerelease your work exactly as is because the times call for rethinking the themes you explored? To Kill a Mockingbird was released July 11, 1960, just three weeks shy of the day Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad called for a black state; five years after white assailants Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were acquitted in a nationally publicized trial for the murder of 14 year old black teen Emmett Till whom they later admitted to beating, mutilating, shooting dead, and dumping in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Go Set a Watchman hit bookstores one day after Sandra Bland, a black woman and vocal advocate of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was found dead in a Texas jail cell due to a disputed suicide, after being pulled over by an aggressive white police officer and subsequently detained.

Or would you just tighten the language, cutting those redundant / show-off / pointless phrases you were too close to the text to notice before?

If I could, I think I would do most, if not all, of the above.

Repost: What to Look Out for in a Book Contract

What to look out for in a book contract - peoplewhowriteCheck out attorney Daniel Steven’s article on what to look for in a book contract on I’ve reposted it below:

1.  Rights.  Unless you are “work for hire,” (giving up all copyright) the standard publishing agreement will provide that the author licenses or assigns all “print” rights to the publisher, plus “subsidiary” rights: foreign, book club, electronic, film, audio, drama.   Except for print rights, however, all of these are negotiable, depending on your bargaining power.  Unless there is a specific reason not to do so, always try to retain as many subsidiary rights as you can.  Even first novelists should be able to retain film and foreign rights.  Don’t skim over this clause–examine it closely, and, if necessary consult a lawyer or knowledgeable agent if you have questions.

2.  Royalties.  Obviously always negotiable, this rate will depend on whether the book is paperback, trade paperback, or hardcover, and is generally a sliding rate.  For example, a hardcover book might have royalties of 11 percent on the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5 percent on the next 5,000, 15 percent thereafter (paperback is generally in the six to nine percent range).  The key to royalties is not only the percentage but what price the percentage is based upon.  Different types of books–nonfiction, fiction, professional textbooks–often use different prices. The alternatives are retail price (list);  invoice price (list minus freight); or net receipts (the amount actually collected by the publisher).   You must understand the implications of each formula before you can  understand your proposed royalty rate.    For subsidiary rights (like foreign rights) retained by the publisher, all net receipts should be split equally with the author.  Again, consult an expert if you’re confused–don’t rely on the generosity of the publisher.

3.  Warranty and Indemnification.  These are purely “legal” clause often skimmed over by authors and not fully understood either by agents or editors.  These paragraphs set forth the respective responsibilities of the parties in the event of claims by third parties against the book, such as for defamation, copyright infringement, or invasion of privacy.  Drafted by the publisher’s lawyers, they often can be overbroad to a ludicrous degree.  You should carefully examine what is covered, who is covered, and whether the author’s indemnities take effect merely upon a claim being made (bad!) or upon a final court decision.

4.  Front and back matter.  In nonfiction books, publishers often require authors, at their cost, to provide “front matter” and “back matter” such as tables of contents and illustrations, indices, and the like, even though the publisher is much better equipped to generate these.  This can be negotiated.  Be sure you understand your responsibilities and the cost to you (such as paying an indexer) before you sign on the dotted line.

5. Option Clauses.  These clauses give the publisher the right to either buy or make an offer for the author’s next book.  Best advice:  don’t accept any option clause.  Most publishers are willing to give on this issue.  If you can’t eliminate an option clause entirely, then make sure it imposes no real burden.  This can be done by setting up a very limited period during which the publisher may bid on your next book, and permitting you to sell the book to other publishers if a higher offer can be obtained.

6. Revisions and Updated Editions.  This clause only applies to nonfiction books, but then it can become paramount.  Make sure the clause has a mechanism to determine when the revisions have become so extensive it is essentially a new book subject to a new contract (and more money!), and that the clause puts a cap on the number of revisions in any one time period.

7.  Out of Print clauses.  I know, you don’t want to think about it, but it eventually will happen.  The publisher may lose interest in your book, and you will want to get the rights to the book so you can have it republished.  It is critical that “out of print” be defined reasonably, especially now that digital and on-demand publishing can make the literal meaning of the clause obsolete.  Ideally, the definition should be pegged to the publisher’s marketing efforts–when the book no longer is in the publisher’s catalog and/or available through major chains, it should be considered “out of print.”

It bears repeating–if you are unsure about these clauses, ask a knowledgable expert for help.   It may save you from a great deal of grief.

With Inkshares, Authors Can Float Ideas for Feedback & Publication

Inkshares Royalty Structure_peoplewhowrite

Inkshares Royalty Structure

Inkshares, a platform that bills itself as a crowdfunded publisher, is seeking authors to create and promote new works for community feedback. Unlike similar social platforms for writers like Wattpad, Inkshares also offers publishing services. The platform is also inviting independent bookstores to get behind titles they believe in in a new way.

Writers must submit an idea, then follow through on it by uploading a draft of the work onto the site for feedback from the community. If 750 people pre-order it, Inkshares will publish it as an e-book; if 1000 pre-orders come through, the work will be published in print and distributed in stores. “We’ll edit, design, print, distribute, and market your book. You’ll make 50% of gross revenue for each printed book we sell, and 70% for each ebook,” copy on the website explains.

According to author Alan Jacobson, “Typically, an author can expect to receive the following royalties: Hardback edition: 10% of the retail price on the first 5,000 copies; 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, then 15% for all further copies sold. Paperback: 8% of retail price on the first 150,000 copies sold, then 10% thereafter. Exceptions…include sales to warehouse clubs (like Costco or Sam’s Club), book clubs, and special orders; the royalty percentages for these can be half the figures listed above. …eBook royalties through traditional New York publishers are 25%.” Self-publisher Mill City Press claims authors receive 10-30% of royalties from most self-publishing services.

Through Inkshares’ “Collections” program, independent bookstores can function as imprints. First, they have to seek an author’s permission to publish and promote his/her title, and can “choose to take a share of author royalties”, presumably, on top of revenue from books sold, according to terms explained on

Publishers Weekly reports, “Inkshares has published nine books to date, and has another 46 that have reached their funding goals. …It recently joined the American Booksellers Association and will be including its first book in an ABA white box this summer, Gary Whitta’s debut novel Abomination (July), which received a starred review in PW.”

If you have personal experience with Inkshares, please share.

Center for Fiction Announces 2015 First Novel Prize Longlist

Naomi Jackson's The Star Side of Bird Hill, longlisted for 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize - peoplewhowrite

Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill, longlisted for 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

The 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize longlist announcement reflects a smart synergy between publishers and the prestigious literary organization. With 11 of the 29 books on the list yet to hit shelves, and six released this month, the extra publicity push the Prize nod gives will surely boost anticipation and sales. Perhaps most perfectly timed is the release of Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill which will be available for purchase in stores and on e-readers tomorrow. Here is the list of titles contending for the $10,000 award: After the Parade by Lori Ostlund Against the Country by Ben Metcalf The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips Black River by S.M. Hulse Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg The First Bad Man by Miranda July The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma Girl at War by Sara Nović The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins The Heart of the Order by Theo Schell-Lambert The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them by Jesse Goolsby Landfalls by Naomi J. Williams The Language of Paradise by Barbara Klein Moss Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen The Turner House by Angela Flournoy Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique earned the 2014 First Novel Prize.

Rejection Letter: You Used *Tribal Language* So . . .

rejection letter_tribal language_peoplewhowrite
“[O]ther than this, it was actually pretty supportive,” the writer who submitted this recent rejection says.

If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to All identifying info will be redacted.

Rest in Peace, Cynthia G. Hurd

Cynthia G. Hurd, librarian, among nine killed in terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. - peoplewhowrite

On Wednesday June 17th, Cynthia G. Hurd, manager of St. Andrews Regional Library branch in Charleston, SC, was among nine Bible Study Attendees murdered in a terrorist attack on Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. All 16 of the Charleston County Public Library’s branches were closed Thursday in her honor. She would have turned 55 this Sunday June 21st.

Rejection Letter: My Author *Might* Write a Book Like This, So . . .

rejection letter_my author might write a book like that so..._peoplewhowrite
Beginning today, I will be posting rejection letters past and present, some personal and some from writers who care/dare to share because they are as much a part of the experience of people who write as the hours we put in to sharpen our craft, develop a story or character, and promote our work. If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to All identifying info will be redacted.

Every writer gets rejected at one point or another, and though we accept rejection letters as part of the process, on our worst days they trigger not-so-latent insecurities, plunge us to the depths of a well of despair, and inspire petty and valid evaluations of the writers who do have agents, those who are published, and the fewer still who are hailed. On our best days, they sting like a colony of hornets.

This said, and personally experienced, what I’ve come to learn about rejections, is they are not only necessary to sharpening your work–if multiple agents/editors share the same opinion about a narrative choice, you might want to reexamine and decide whether it is as vital to your story as you originally believed–but they also reveal a lot about the rejector. Sometimes, the agent is saying ‘no’ because s/he doesn’t have the relationships or know-how to sell your work. Sometimes, the editor passes because s/he knows, for a host of professional and personal reasons, s/he won’t be able to gain the necessary consensus from her/his colleagues and superiors. Sometimes, the agent/editor is unable to “connect” with the story because it is alien from his/her own.

Regarding the connection issue, Lauren A. Rivera’s recent New York Times op-ed unpacks why people may not relate to each other using the lens of “cultural fit” in hiring scenarios. Rivera explains, “To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. …Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” As a result, of course, “Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.” I believe, to a large extent, the same thing is going on, in addition to a litany of factors, when a cultural gatekeeper makes the call to acquire or pass on a manuscript.

Here’s a rejection I received several years ago, when I was first pitching my first novel Powder Necklace to agents.

If you have a rejection letter you want to share, email it to All identifying info will be redacted.

How to Write What You Don't Know

YA author Kayla Ancrum founded the blog Kaylapocalypse - peoplewhowrite

Kayla Ancrum

I recently came across author Kayla Ancrum‘s tumblr KAYLAPOCALYPSE via a piece entitled “How to Write Women of Color and Men of Color if You Are White“. The blog post is one of a host that advises writers on how to write “‘the other’ (and the self)”, as Buzzfeed’s Daniel José Older put it. With the publishing industry’s gatekeepers and writers overwhelmingly white, male, and Eurocentric, it’s important to keep discussing and debating this topic as people who are not white, male, and European/American still find themselves either absent from texts that are celebrated as seminal and distributed accordingly, or imagined as a number of two-dimensional stereotypes from “magical” to pathological, noble (but savage) to best friend/sidekick. In other words, a supporting character who only exists to advance the white hero’s agenda.

Because so much of the publishing business rests on agents’ and editors’ highly subjective connection to the material, writers of color find it difficult to break through with more authentic accounts. Meanwhile, agents, editors, and publishers struggle to achieve balance for fear of alienating the market which has become accustomed to certain kinds of narratives. It’s a vicious, punishing cycle that ultimately disservices the reader. If book lovers in Europe or America want multi-layered stories that reflect our incredibly diverse world–according to 2014 population numbers, 4.4 billion of the 7 billion that populate the globe hail from Asia, with Africans coming in second at 1 billion–it will cost them in either travel to the countries in question or exorbitant shipping costs. That is if they can find the books. Few are available online for consumption on Kindle, iPad, Kobo, or other tablets that more and more readers prefer as e-books offer a lower cost alternative to hardcover and paperback editions.

But the question of how to write a character whose race you don’t share is equally valid across all experiences. The most common writing cliche is “write what you know”, but because our world is full of all kinds of people with multivalent backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, writers who seek to reflect the world authentically will have to confront what they don’t personally know and write about it.

Kaylapocalypse’s advice, though focused on race, is also valid for straight writers attempting to craft LGBTQIA characters, an atheist/agnostic whose hero or anti-hero is a devout disciple, a man writing about a woman, or a childless person writing about childbirth/parenting:

1. Research.
Even if you have sisters/brothers or friends who are black/gay/straight/pregnant/born-again/in foster care/etc, Kayla writes, “It is important to start by trying your hardest to forget anything you think you know… In order to start from scratch, I would first spend some time reading literature written by [the group your character identifies with] for [the group your character identifies with]. Learning the way [members of the group] have discourse among each other is the first step to understanding their perspective AND emulating their voice.” Then, she adds, “I would delve into ‘complaints'” members of the group have about their portrayal in dominant culture.

2. Persist.
Kayla acknowledges, “While doing your research you may come across perspectives and narratives that hurt your feelings, overwhelm you with ‘white guilt’, or which offend you to the point of anger and frustration.” Push through these feelings, examining and interrogating them along the way, as you continue to research.

3. Make some decisions–and own them.
Kayla advises, “After you have read all the stuff you can possibly force in your gorgeous noggin, you now have a decision to make: Should you write the character as ‘white acting’ or should you make a whole lot of effort to showcase racial stuff? This is a really sticky choice and really has to do a lot with your character’s personal identity and their position within your story.” She notes that, whatever your character’s personal feelings and decisions about race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. may be, as the writer we must be aware that they will still be perceived as other by members of the dominant group and this must be dealt with subliminally or overtly depending on your story. In other words, carefully and personally consider the experiences and perspectives of the identity group member(s) you are trying to authentically represent in your work. Then decide how they would react to the situations you write them into, based on who they are.

If you are in the minority/marginalized group, you are more likely to understand the experience of the dominant group simply because you are constantly being exposed to multiple, varied expressions of that experience. But even still, it’s easy for any writer to lose the humanity of a character if you are focused only on the character’s identity affiliation(s). At the end of the day, it’s about arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible, then treating your characters as human beings entitled to the same respect and empathy you desire.

Who Will Win the Inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Award?

Scholastique Mukasoma, one of 10 writers longlisted for the first ever FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Award for Fiction - peoplewhowrite

Scholastique Mukasoma, one of 10 writers longlisted for the first ever FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Award for Fiction

Last year, the Financial Times and Oppenheimer Funds announced a joint venture to award three emerging voices–one in literature, one in film, and one in fine art–$40,000 each. The award has unusual stipulations. Writers qualified to submit had to hold a passport from an African or Middle Eastern nation, while filmmakers had to be from Asia-Pacific, and fine artists from Latin America or the Caribbean. Most awards of this kind rally behind one region or identity group, so It’s not clear why they chose to recognize different regions in the different categories, though the announcement intimated it was inspired by “a remarkable structural shift in the world, propelled by economic progress in the developing markets and the advanced reach of the Internet”. Whatever the case, the longlists have been announced and the 10 fiction contenders mostly represent Africa, with only one finalist from Lebanon. Five are debut novelists. 140 writers submitted their works for consideration. Also unusual, the awards site posted a full list of the entrants. The winner will be announced on October 5th at a ceremony in New York.

The longlisted authors are:

Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett, Chatto & Windus, Nigeria
Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Granta Books, Kenya
It Might Get Loud by Ingrid Winterbach, Human & Rousseau, South Africa
Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, Archipelago Books, Rwanda
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah, Faber & Faber, Zimbabwe
The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol by Elias Khoury, Maclehose Press, Lebanon
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, Pushkin Press, Nigeria
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, Oneworld Publications, Algeria
The Texture of Shadows by Mandla Langa, Picador Africa, South Africa
Women of Karantina by Nael Eltoukhy, The American University in Cairo Press, Egypt