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Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

The Worst of Times; the Best of Times for Writers

Some random thoughts on a Saturday morning, lest you think these blogs are meticulously planned:

We live in Dickensian times: the collapse of economies throughout the world (especially Europe) has brought new suffering to millions of people. Here in the states we still have massive unemployment, to the point where many people have given up looking for work. As sad as the situation is for these people, it’s a boon for writers, for we love to write about conflict and suffering. Run out of story ideas? Just listen to the news. It’s a bad time to be a member of the working class, but it’s a great time to be a writer.

Dickens was so well known for writing about the world in which he lived, his name is now used to conjure those times and places. This is how I know I’ll never become a famous writer—who would want to live in Ponepintian times?

When is a writing contest not a writing contest? When it’s a marketing scam. The Hay House Visions Fiction Writing Contest offers the grand prize winner “a publishing contract with Hay House Visions and a $5,000 advance.” Sounds decent. Scroll down, though, to this: “Thirty Round-Two finalists will receive a 20 percent discount off any Balboa Press publishing package.” A click through to Balboa shows packages run from $999 to $7,999. Or to put it another way, “Thirty Round-Two finalists will have the opportunity to pay us $800 to $6,400.” Whee! Where do I sign up?

The thing about the writing business is that anyone can jump right in. A computer and a copy of Word and lo, you’re a writer. (Or a pencil and a grocery bag if you’re one of the new poor.) Unlike other callings like doctor, lawyer, accountant, you don’t need years of schooling and proof you’ve passed some test to order your business cards. That’s as it should be, since creativity cannot be legislated or quantified, but one of the things they teach you in those other disciplines is the business of the profession—how to make money, not lose money, at what you’re doing.

Seriously, when was the last time you saw a doctorin’ contest—who can carve up the most patients in a two-hour block of time? Or one for lawyers—a $2,000 prize for the most convoluted language in a contract.

Writing, as an industry, is largely unregulated. That means it’s a target for scammers of every persuasion, from sleazeball vanity presses to sophisticated contests/con jobs like Hay House’s. And because so many writers don’t understand the business into which they’ve entered, and are desperate for some kind of writing success, scammers like Hay House make big money off hopeful scribes.

How many of those “Thirty Round-Two finalists” will get not only a 20 percent discount, but also a pushy salesman on the phone assuring them “a step up to the $7,999 package could mean the difference between writing success and failure?”

And how many of those finalists will forego car repairs or school clothes for the kids to take that chance with Balboa?

Conflict. Suffering. Corporate bull versus the hopes and dreams of the naïve. Who says there’s nothing left to write about?

It is the best of times; the worst of times.

(This didn’t turn out to be as random as I planned.)


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


21 thoughts on “The Worst of Times; the Best of Times for Writers

  1. Sadly, yes. That is the problem with the humanities (as well as teaching humanities — imagine, the audacity of teaching creative writing! lol) — Just because one has a laptop, some budget for printing, or even just internet access, does not make said person a writer. Just a drunkard with a laptop (like me!) :)

    Posted by deelaytful | May 5, 2012, 1:11 PM
    • Corporate America teaches us to believe that if we can’t hold it in our hands, or see it on TV, it has no value. What does that say about writing, or about ideas in general? But the drunkard part can only help. :)

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2012, 1:17 PM
  2. My sister is an artist and she has said on many occasions that basic business classes should be a requirement to get an art degree because most artists end up either owning their own companies or working free lance. I feel that it extends beyond that-instead of requiring my child, who is looking at music as a career, to take pre-calc, she should have to take basic accounting, business, and entrepreneur classes. Kids who are going to be engineers or scientists need pre-calc and calc. Kids who are not need basic financial and business classes. All kids need to be taught logic so that they have enough sense to question things that look too good to be true, research it and make their decision. The writing industry is just one tiny portion of the rip offs out there. Even doctors and lawyers try to rip people off and my email box is full of spam. So, as a writer, without training or degree, I rely on my wits, as well as information from other writers, to figure out what is good and bad. Thanks for the heads up on Hay House!

    Posted by jetepper | May 5, 2012, 1:33 PM
    • My MFA program had a strong business component, and one of my instructors, Bruce Holland Rogers, has written extensively about contests. Many writing pros also have advice about contests (the current issue of Poets & Writers features several articles, but they talk mostly about strategy, not about scams). Problem is, however, when writers get to the point of an MFA, they’re probably well aware of the scams out there. The articles and advice are basically preaching to the choir.

      You are right, Jeanne, the failure of education and society in general to recognize that a life dedicated to the arts still needs a “real world” component produces easy marks for corporate predators. A little business training is not going to make a budding artist or writer less creative, just less likely to be a victim of scams. But try to get such a philosophy incorporated into curricula and you may see corporate lobbyists arguing against such classes as an infringement on “creative freedom.”

      Posted by jpon | May 5, 2012, 2:42 PM
      • My MFA program had no business component. The only real life advice I recall, and I’m not kidding here, was: “Marry well.” This to the entire class.

        Posted by Teri | May 8, 2012, 9:08 PM
      • Funny. Mine had quite a bit of information on the state of the publishing industry, and most of it was on how ridiculously difficult it has become to be published. In a sense, I guess, the advice was the same–if you want to pursue a career in writing, you’d better have some other means of support.

        Posted by jpon | May 9, 2012, 8:47 AM
  3. I love this post so much I’m interrupting Shabbat to comment. Witty, wry, and warmly
    Sympathetic. A reminder too that dickens always had his eye on social programs. He uses his fiction to manipulate the heck out of his bourgeois readers- guilting them towards the greater good. May we follow in his footsteps. Thanks again!

    Posted by complit222 | May 5, 2012, 2:52 PM
  4. I love the doctorin’ and lawyer contests. I’d like a PhD-in’ contest to see who can spend the most years of their lives on a research project that no one will care about. I think I’d be in contention. Sigh.

    And, considering I often write sci-fi subgenres, I hope we never live in Purcellian times. :)

    Posted by Christine Purcell | May 5, 2012, 3:28 PM
  5. Very, very fine post.
    Someday, I expect people will speak of this era as the Zech Administration.

    Posted by Jon Zech | May 5, 2012, 6:51 PM
    • On the other hand, the Zech Administration sounds downright scary! I might even say Orwellian.

      Posted by jpon | May 6, 2012, 2:48 AM
  6. It’s an odd time to be a writer, because there’s no sure thing anymore. If you get an agent, you may not get a book deal. If you get a deal, you may get dumped if the book doesn’t sell. Write a stand-alone book, they want a series, write a self-published book and expect to give most of your copies away.

    Like everything else, writing has become a speed-sport. We lack the patience to edit and revise and submit and revise again and go through all the steps it takes–even after you’ve spent years learning the craft–to write something of quality. Scammers know this. They prey on our need for SOME payoff in what is essentially a solitary and thankless venture.

    All we can do is reach beyond them, do our finest work, and hope for the best.

    Terrific post, Joe.

    Posted by Averil Dean | May 5, 2012, 9:03 PM
    • Thanks, Averil.

      I have difficulty thinking of any endeavor that hasn’t been co-opted by corporate greed and turned into some kind of high school popularity contest. Your advice is really the only way to avoid getting caught up in the mania.

      Posted by jpon | May 6, 2012, 2:58 AM
      • I read Writers & Poets long lists of contests with fees and I feel a strange mixture of guilt, longing, and outrage. Thanks for this reminder to keep my eyes on the page in front of me.

        Posted by girl in the hat | May 9, 2012, 6:50 PM
      • Yes, so many contests out there. Who knows which are legit? Who has time to check them out? Who has the money to enter more than a few?

        Posted by jpon | May 10, 2012, 2:25 AM
  7. Even the new poor would have limited access to the writing biz in this day and age. A pencil and a grocery bag? In most areas of God’s green America even the time-honored question of “paper or plastic?” has been replaced with “did you bring your reusable Chinese manufactured polyethylene bag today? Would you like to purchase one or several for $1.99 each?” Pencil would be loathe to pass thought to word on such a non-porous surface, and even a Sharpie for another $1.49 would strap the new poor writer beyond ones meager budget.

    Posted by socalsoxman | May 5, 2012, 10:37 PM
    • It’s a moot point, Rog. Any corporate mogul or Tea Partier will tell you the poor have nothing to say anyway.

      Posted by jpon | May 6, 2012, 3:09 AM
  8. I’ve had a couple weeks to chew on this, and I’m still struggling with the “worst of times” characterization. We humans like to think in terms of extremes. Most people want to claim that the components of their life are the best or the worst — and that can apply to where they live, their career, their spouse, etc. Face it, mediocrity sounds like a let down. But most of our lives are pretty mediocre. Doom-saying makes life feel more exciting.

    MIT professor Steven Pinker has a counterintuitive take on the “everything’s getting worse” scenario. Like the Beatles’ song, he takes a long view of history and “has to admit it’s getting better all the time.” The very things we trot out as evidence of how bad things are prove that we are more empathetic than our forbears. What has changed is that we expect better. The rights of women and minorities should not be trampled on. Animals should be treated humanely. Wars should not be fought for idiotic reasons (or at all, depending who you ask). Even criminals should not be mistreated.

    Next time you feel glum about the state of the world, ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw an ad for a bear-baiting? Been invited to a lynch mob? Gone to a hanging for entertainment?

    Another difference is that we are more connected to people around the globe than ever before. If you were a peasant in the middle ages, you wouldn’t have heard about the genocide in Rwanda or the earthquake/tsunami that wiped out Japanese towns. You wouldn’t know that the Syrian government is killing its own people. Then again, you could be watching 50% of your village be wiped out by the plague. I’ll take the present, TYVM! (This probably applies to other complaints as well — how few people read, etc. What if we’re just more exposed to the stupid/illiterate people than before the Internet?)

    My last point would be that seeing the world get worse is a function of age. As we get closer to our own mortality and grow in the aforementioned awareness of the world around us, it’s harder to be optimistic about how wonderful everything will be. Many cultures have some sort of myth of a golden age. But think back. When were things great? The fifties? I could line up a bunch of women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities who would disagree. The Victorian era? Think of the sweatshops. (And now, the world seems bad to those of us who care about abusive labor conditions in China! [Not that we shouldn’t, but would our grandparents have cared?])

    When you come down to it, the golden age for most people was their own childhood. While everything was exciting and new to them, an old generation was complaining about how awful the world was getting. And I’ve just convinced myself that we need to get a lot more young people to vote….

    Posted by arichaley | May 21, 2012, 5:51 PM
    • No doubt you’re right about the tendency to hyperbolize, Aric. I chose the title of the piece mostly because of the Dickensian allusion and the recognizable phrase. But I think you might agree that with the world’s financial crises, things aren’t quite as good as they were just a few years ago. I agree with the historians who correctly point out how much better situations like health care and relations among nations have become over the centuries, but I also recognize that they could be light years better, if not for people like the folks at Balboa Press, who obviously believe the only way to ensure their financial future is to fool people, cheat them with advertising bullshit and false promises.

      And who would be interested in a blog titled “Things Are About the Same as They Were a While Ago?” It’s relative, you see. It doesn’t really matter how bad the problems are–as long as injustices exist, they deserve to be called out, and their perpetrators exposed.

      Posted by jpon | May 21, 2012, 9:32 PM

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