12th PEN Festival Has Mexico Focus

Álvaro Enrigue, Valeria Luiselli

Alvaro Enrigue and Valeria Luiselli will share original testimonies crafted under their guidance at “The Voices of the Student ‘DREAM’ers.”

On April 25th, PEN America will kick off its 12th annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature with a focus on Mexico. The aim, according to the statement on the festival website is to invite attendees to “rethink the stories of migration, the border and national identity.” The program features a range of lectures and panels related to Mexico and Mexican narratives including the seminal role of translators, an exploration of Africa in Latin America, pre-Christopher Columbus, and an opening night panel on the multibillion-dollar drug industry with 1991 MacArthur Fellow Guillermo Gómez-Peña, journalist Lydia Cacho, and Man Booker Prize 2015 Winner Marlon James.


Absent from the Mexico-centered slate is a program exploring the business of writing in Mexico/for Mexican writers. If you’re interested in learning more about the publishing market in Mexico, PublishingPerspectives.com has an interview with indie publisher Eduardo Rabasa who founded Editorial Sexto Piso in 2002.

Though elusive pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante will likely not be unmasking her(or  him)self at the festival this year, her English-language translator is also on deck to discuss Ferrante’s work with a panel of authors. Author and cultural critic Roxane Gay will give the keynote Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture followed by a sit-down with multi-award-winning poet and Buzzfeed’s Executive Editor of Culture Saeed Jones.

Check out the full schedule here.

The New Publishers: Telecommunications & Technology Companies


Dominique Delport is head of  Vivendi Content which just announced the creation of a content studio that will create scripted, made-for-mobile series.

Digital platforms and devices have become the place where stories that are usually ignored by mainstream distributors find welcome viewers. Among others past, present and (being) adapted for television, there’s viral hit An African City, Snapchat series Literally Can’t Even, and Roots drummer Questlove’s original animated series STORYVILLE. But, increasingly, telcos and tech companies are taking more of an ownership stake in the content viewers flock to their sites or services to watch.


NetFlix’s stable of streaming programs and Amazon.com’s Emmy-, SAG-, and Golden Globe-winning series Transparent are probably the best tech companies creating original shows that have found cult audiences, but new players are entering the fray. Back in February, Apple announced it was working on an original TV show with legendary hip-hop producer and Beats Music Co-founder Dr. Dre tentatively entitled Vital Signs–the first step in creating a bundle of shows for AppleTV.  Earlier this month, traditional mass media powerhouse Vivendi announced plans to put €25 million behind a new venture called Studio Plus which aims to create original series for mobile phones and tablets.

At MipTV, an annual event that brings global media and content players together in Cannes, France, the head of Vivendi Content Dominique Delport said of the move, “We’re aiming to tap into the booming consumption of short formats by the mobile generation and address the scarcity of quality mobile-ready scripted content for the millennials.” Delport told Variety Studio Plus will launch in France with 25 scripted, short-format, 10-episode series.

Also announced this month, telecommunications giant Verizon has teamed up with media conglomerate Hearst Corp. to purchase Complex Media.  According to Ad Age, “Some Complex Media content will be distributed across Verizon’s platforms, such as the telco’s Go90 video service.”

Complex chief executive Rich Antoniello said, “When you get an opportunity to create unfair and competitive advantage disproportionately in the marketplace, you take it.”

Abiola Oke, CEO of okayafrica, the largest digital platform for new African content, says he’s been in several meetings with telcos focused on funding or creating new content for their subscribers. He noted they are not just looking for streaming content, but literature too.

What does this mean for us writers tapping at our keys, scrawling ideas in journals and on napkins, or simply staring at a blank screen?

There’s something to be optimistic about as we toil in the refiner’s furnace of creation: Even as traditional publishing opportunities constrict and mutate in the digital age, new digital platforms may be the way to get our work to our audience. Successful traditional authors are already exploring and experimenting with digital distribution formats.

At the end of 2015, a New York Times story announced multi-million copy selling author Wally Lamb’s plans to release his sixth novel I’ll Take You There as an app, via e-book publishing company Metabook. Fellow bestseller Margaret Atwood has been ahead of the digital wave for years. As I noted in a 2012 post:

In 2012 specifically, she launched an app called Fanado which allows authors and fans to connect and sign books virtually. She has been actively promoting online writing community Wattpad.com. Now, USA Today reports, Atwood is planning to write her next book, Positron, as a serial that will be released on Byliner.com. (Byliner was just in the news for partnering with the New York Times to publish original long form articles by Times writers.) Atwood told NPR the internet has ironically made it possible to revive the serial fiction culture of the past.

Aspiring and emerging writers are taking advantage of the free distribution digital media provides too. In 2015, Aziah King practically broke the internet with her tweeted tale about a stripper’s wild weekend in Florida, and Penguin Random House joined the Association of American Publishers to host the Twitter Fiction Festival. Earlier this month, literary agent Beth Phelan hosted a pitch session for writers to share ideas with agents and editors on Twitter called #DVPit.

Whether it’s participating in social media pitch sessions, sharing new work on platforms like Wattpad, leveraging social media to share stories with our following, there are obviously lots of different ways to get the word out, but how do we make money?

This is where writers and agents need to get creative. Perhaps it’s setting up pitch meetings with the appropriate Content/Programming lead at a telco, or getting a group of writers together to create a collective and pitching a social or digital platform on a content channel/series that’s exclusive and lives behind a pay wall. Similar to JayZ’s Tidal, which creatives from every genre should follow closely (mistakes and successes) to learn how an artist-owned platform can eventually work.

Because we, as a culture, are still understanding the ocean of possibilities digital platforms can power–even as tech and telecommunications companies innovate at breakneck speed–the only thing really standing in our way is imagination and knowledge. If writing is something we want to do professionally and sustainably, we need to educate ourselves about the changing market and how and where we might fit in; and we must be willing to think creatively and pursue fresh options when traditional doors remain closed or only open a crack.

Eat, Drink, and Be Literary with Marlon James, Zadie Smith, and Bill Clegg

BAM_Eat Drink Be Literary with Marlon James, Zadie Smith, Eileen Myles, Darryl Pinckey_peoplewhowrite

For the third year in a row, Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting the ultimate literary supper series. “Eat, Drink, and Be Literary” 2016 will feature a monthly lineup that includes Man Booker Prize 2015 winner Marlon James, 2015 Sunday Times short story prizewinner Yiyun Lee, amongst other seminal talents. See the full 2016 schedule on BAM.org.

Isabel Allende Starts All Her Books on January 8th

Isabel Allende on her writing process via Lenny newsletter_peoplewhowrite

If there’s a balance between being bullish about writerly goals/self-imposed deadlines and patient pacing, Isabel Allende seems to have mastered it. Check out the author’s interview on Lenny about her new book and her writing process.

Bowie Bonds for Writers?


David Bowie in 1996, a year before Bowie Bonds were introduced

Here’s another kind of speculative fiction, or non-fiction for writers to consider: packaging your current and future earning potential into a security bond investors can buy and sell–or at least thinking of your work (past, present, and future) as valued commodities.* In 1997, David Pullman, an investment banker working with David Bowie, created financial instruments known as “Bowie Bonds” to “securitize [Bowie’s] back catalog”. An article on Phillymag.com explains how the bonds, which acted as a loan against future payments, worked: “Artists would get a lump sum of money now without having to wait for future royalties.”


The bond sounds like the advance traditionally published writers negotiate as part of their book contract–except writers would presumably have to pay the money back if their future royalties/earning potential could not cover the initially projected value. Since most contracts don’t require return of the advance if a book doesn’t earn its advance, a bond like this would not make sense for most writers, but it’s an interesting model to explore as digital tools make the publishing and book selling industries more financially transparent and empower writers to take more ownership of the business of writing. Moreover, the bond taps into the way some artists already value their art.

Upon cursory rumination, the Bowie Bond seems like an instrument or model only really famous or financially successful writers can begin to entertain, but young creatives have been making calculated risks based on their art as long as art has been appreciated. One of the things that struck me as I watched the film Straight Outta Compton was how both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre walked away from millions at at least two points in their careers to either maintain their safety or avoid becoming further entangled in strangulating contracts.

There was a power in their exit because it spoke to their faith that they could reinvent themselves. They were essentially betting on their talent and work ethic, and their future ability to monetize them. Their belief in their capacity to recreate and improve upon their past success was a bond of sorts.

How can new and emerging writers quantify the current and future value of our work and intellectual property without allowing financial value to motivate or compromise the art? How can we figure out how not to let the tensions between commercial realities and artistic integrity hamstring us while others profit from our intellectual property? How would believing in the worth of our work change the way we approach the financials of writing?


On Becoming a Full-Time Writer

Sloane Crosley_Beginnings_via_NYMag_peoplewhowrite

Last month, New York Magazine published a series of posts around the theme “Beginnings”. I’m still making my way through them. Perhaps because I’m still figuring out how to do this writing thing while maintaining a roof over my head, a social life, and balance, this one, by Sloane Crosley, was one of my favorites. The clip above is just a snippet.

Happy New Flow

peoplewhowrite_new words-new pages-new flow-new work.pngLast year, I challenged myself to turn in 10,000 words a month toward a novel I had pitched and was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Scholarship that I ultimately didn’t get.

I started off decently well. By the end of January I was able to produce about 5,000 words I was proud of. In February, I think I got to 8,000. In March, April, and May, I averaged somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000. In June, I had a creative pause.

I got into the Rhode Island Writers Colony where I spent two weeks in Warren, Rhode Island eating my face off, drinking like a fish, and connecting with six other writers. For the two week I was there, I got more thinking than writing done. In July, I wrote about 80 pages. I stopped counting the words.

In August, I started cutting. A lot of the words I had been proud of weren’t so amazing after all, and I trimmed down to about 35 pages that I felt were teflon. I continued writing steadily in September, then, in October, I got a freelance gig that threw my whole flow out of whack.

I had been freelancing mostly from home from March through the first week of October and had gotten into a flow of balancing paycheck assignments followed by stretches of creative writing, and long prayer and praise walks. In between, I prepared and gave a TEDx Talk in Accra, traveled through Italy, stopped in Geneva, celebrated with family in London, and did multiple day trips to Connecticut and other Stateside parts.

It was amazing and I made sure to thank God for it, but it was expensive. I had to take on a new additional work assignment and I eventually found one that wouldn’t let me work remotely.

When I took the job, I lost my creative bearings for the rest of 2015’s last quarter. It was as if I had never worked in an office before! I had no muscle memory of waking up, commuting, connecting with co-workers, or navigating the emotional, psychological, and political hierarchies of the workplace.

Just when I had established a dream creative flow, I had to figure out a new way to fulfill my personal writing goals, and I was miserable and ornery and pretentiously philosophical about it.

I tried to resume my old flow of waking up a little early to write on the bus to work, but my muse wanted to be naked on my couch, the TV on mute, my empty cereal bowl on the table beside me as I tapped at my keyboard and thanked God for my dream life coming true. She was spoiled, and like the brat she can be, she folded her arms.

I didn’t meet my goal of completing a rough draft of my novel by December 31st. Part of me wants to wallow in the self pity that I had to take on a demanding gig. It’s the same part that accuses me of failing to redeem the time more wisely when I had it. But the sane part of me knows my “creative struggle” was a tantrum.

First of all, I got a gig! After several weeks of zero response from recruiters and people I’d interviewed with, I was reminded that America is still recovering from one of the worst financial crises in the nation’s history and that for a large percentage of people chronic unemployment has become reality. I needed a gratitude adjustment!

Secondly, the truth is, from the second week of October through December, I did not have a problem getting new words out. And I had many stretches of unabated time that I could have used to write–stretches I used to seize before I had that dream flow situation.

My issue was accepting that I would have to find a new, less sexy way. Again.

All the parts of me that didn’t make my 2015 goal are laughing and shaking their heads at me. We’e never had a problem mutating before. Why now?

New never used to scare me, but as I get older, as each year ticks by, the panic of the pressures I’ve placed on myself mounts, and I feel as if everything I’ve ever wanted for myself is passing me by. It’s paranoid and delusional and gives me no credit for the 30,000 words I did get down, amidst all the other stuff I did. Also, according to this article about Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire’s book Wired to Create, I’m no less creative for not hitting my personal deadline. Whew.

2015 was a good year. A great year. A dream-come-true year. Every part of it. I wish I had embraced that more in the last few months of it with respect to my writing.

In 2016, I’m challenging myself not to get stuck on one particular flow–or give one way too much power. I’m getting older, but I don’t have to be an old dog about my creative process, or an asshole. The whole point of artistry is to contribute something fresh to the conversation. How else to do that, than to be open to the new?