Monday, February 18, 2008

Can't write, won't write

I can't write today. Nothing. Not a word. I don't think it has anything to do with the unpleasant episode of last week, because thankfully and with exquisite timing it was followed swiftly by the acceptances of four of my flash stories by two different magazines. And when, due to previously mentioned unpleasant episode, I wrote back to make sure I would be able to see the final versions of the stories before being printed or put up on the web, both editors were so understanding (one, the delightful Colin of the Ranfurly Review, making my week by saying that "no, I won't be altering your work. It's too fine to tamper with. :-)") that I immediately realized that what had happened to me was, thankfully, an aberration. That most literary magazines have an ethical code that dictates that a writer will always be asked for approval of edits.

I want to be clear here: I am not saying that my work is untouchable, perfect. I am not saying that it does not need editing, would not benefit from editing. I have had some amazing editors who have suggested edits that most definitely improved the stories. And I have welcomed - and do welcome - this wholeheartedly. But it is, as someone mentioned in a comment below, a partnership, writer and editor together.

Ok, enough. I am trying to put this behind me. But, nevertheless, I can't write right now. I don't get writer's block. Never have. It's just laziness, really. Laziness and Scrabulous. Or the weather - a storm is whipping up outside my window. Or the lack of chocolate. Or many many reasons. Not all beyond my control. So I should pull myself together. I should. OK. I am going to. Yes I am. Here I go. Bye. I'm going now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Follow-up: Writers' rights?

Following up on my previous post, the first thing is that I discovered that another writer had a similar experience with this publication, so it does seem to be their policy to "copy edit" without sending a writer any proofs or galleys before publication.

I received a private message in response to my blog post from an experienced writer and editor who told me that in fact I am in the wrong, that the journal once I have agreed to publication and despite the fact that I signed no contract, can do what it wants to my story. She suggested I take down my blog post, and apologize to the editors in question.

I decided that I had to look into this further. Can this be the case? And, if so, how many writers know this? If this is the case, why do so many decent and reputable literary magazines send writers proofs to approve if they don't have to? Purely out of respect, not of duty?

I posted queries on all my online writing groups... and of these hundreds of writers, the majority of whom have had many stories published, no-one knew the legal situation, our legal situation. I received another, very lovely, email from another highly experienced writer, artist and editor, who unfortunately said that she too believes that the magazine can do whatever they want to a story once accepted for publication.

Where are the lawyers? I thought to myself. I don't often say this, but we need to hear from a lawyer.

And, as if by magic, here is a lawyer, posting in response to my query, to say:
They absolutely do not have the right to change your work without your permission. When I was a first-year law student we read an appellate decision about a case brought by Monty Python against a tv network. The tv network had acquired the rights to broadcast some Monty Python footage, then "edited" the footage in significant ways without even telling Monty Python in advance. The network was liable for damages, because they had altered the work without the author's consent. Don't remember if it was a copyright violation, tort, breach of contract, or what, but the bottom line is they can't do that.

The actual case is here. And it says:
Although American copyright law did not recognize a cause of action for violation of artists' moral rights, the Lanham Act protected against mutilation of artistic works as a false designation of origin of goods.

My questions now are: does this apply across the Arts? And outside the US? And how is "mutilation" defined?

If anyone can clarify this situation, please post a comment here. If I know that a magazine has the right to "mutilate" my work, I will stop submitting anywhere. And I would really rather that wasn't the case!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A cautionary tale for all writers

The following is a cautionary tale for all writers, a true story that I hope, without naming names, will serve as a warning to all of us who trust editors with our words and expect them to handle our writing with the same care and attention that we do.

A new print magazine accepted two of my (250 word) flash stories for its second issue, due out in late Feb. There was no contract that I signed, only an invoice for payment. The only correspondence from them said:

I am pleased to inform you that your story xxx, has been short listed for the second issue of @&*T. Could you please send us your story with final edits in our house style (details attached) as soon as possible but no later than Friday 21st December. We also need a biography of no longer than 100 words.

What should a (perhaps naive) writer assume in all good faith? That when they have put in the paragraph breaks that the house style demands (which, in my mind, already alters the piece slightly), that this is EXACTLY how the story will appear - given the words "final edits".

I was then invited to the launch party and when they heard I was planning to come from Israel, they asked me to read both flashes at the launch. I was delighted.

Then, yesterday, having heard nothing from them since I did as they asked, in late December, I receive this email:

Hi Tania,

This is just to let you have the copy-edited version
of xxx for the launch reading.

Can't copy and paste from the PDF, so here is the
whole second issue!

See you soon,

So, thinking that perhaps they added a few commas, I open the PDF.... and discover to my total HORROR that they have:

a) Changed the TENSE of the story from Past and Present to all Past tense
b) Removed a word from the second sentence, replacing it with another with a different meaning
c) Broken one sentence up into two sentences, thus changing the rhythm entirely.
c) Deleted a whole phrase.


I was so stunned I couldn't speak. I felt sick. I thought, Wait a while, maybe you will discover that they improved it. Then I decided, since I was supposed to be reading this at the launch event, to read both versions out to J.

I read MY version.


Then I started to read THEIR version. And I stopped. I couldn't. I got to the part where they chopped one sentence in two, and it was completely different. I nearly cried.

OK, so, without getting angry, I enquire politely if it is too late to undo certain changes because I feel they significantly changed the story. This is the (cheery) reply:

Sorry Tania it is too late!
You might like to add the missing line in performance
but 'xxx yyy makes it sound sentimental and detracts from it, I think.

Note the "!" as if this is FUNNY!

And a follow up email from her, as if this wasn't enough:

Hi Tania,
Just to add that it was either copy-edit or no
publication. The copy editor was very ambivalent
about xxx and I had to fight for it!
I do believe though that the edit sharpened it.
All the Best

So, after accepting my story, I am supposed to thank the Editor for fighting for it with the copy editor (who seems to wield disproportionate power here) and be extremely grateful that it is published at all, despite the fact that it is now a completely different story, with my name attached?

I call this arrogance of the highest degree.

After asking for advice from my writing forums, checking that I wasn't overreacting, I wrote a short email asking that the stories be withdrawn and stating that I did not want to be associated with a publication that behaves in such as "despicable" manner.

It is then I am informed that the magazine has been printed. And the editor (apparently an "award-winning writer" herself) is "amazed" at my "outburst". Has no idea what "despicable" behaviour I am referring to.

Unfortunately, when I post this in my writing forums, I find I am far from unique here. This has happened to so many people - with flash fiction, with poetry, short stories, even with novels! It seems as though we have been extraordinarily naive in assuming that someone who wishes to publish our work is doing it because they love our writing, our voice and our style.

What upsets me is that, firstly, this is a new magazine, setting out to create a reputation for itself, and this is how it is proceeding to do that? A literary journal, I had assumed, is founded not with any notion of profit but for sheer love of good writing and to provide a new platform for writers of fiction. Surely, then, the editor must have some feeling for what a piece of writing means to the writer? That it is not something dashed off in a quick free moment, posted in to a lit mag without much thought of what may occur. Everything I write - everything - is a piece of me. It has something of me in it. As I write this, I am getting quite emotional because that is what this is, an emotional issue.

I used to be a journalist and having articles altered by editors was a common occurrence and one that I learned not to take personally. Because it wasn't personal. I was reporting about something someone else had done. But my short stories? They are about words, sentences, paragraphs, beats, rhythms, flow. You want to change a comma? You ask me first.

The second reason this upset me is this: what if I was a beginning writer, what if this was my first publication? I might feel that I had to accept what this magazine has done. I might feel that maybe they're right, maybe the story is better. I might lose confidence in my ability to write. This kind of thing might have seriously damaged my sense of my own voice. That may sound precious, but I think it's true. Fortunately, I am experienced and confident enough to be able to protest, to demand my stories be withdrawn, to object to being made to feel grateful they are being published at all.

In the end, I went over the head of the editor to the managing editor, to see whether this was in line with the magazine's policy, to ask if this was really the way the magazine treated its writers. I received an apology, but undermined somewhat by the claim that the edits had been sent to me for approval but must have got lost in transit, so the editor "assumed" I was "okay" with them. Of course. Assume all is well, and it follows naturally that the said editor would then send me the edited version when it is too late to do anything about it, but before the launch - because the editor knows that I am totally happy with the edits, is not concerned at all that, should I see the final printed version at the launch I will notice that it isn't my story, I will react, I will make a scene. Ah yes, that makes total sense.

The managing editor agreed to my request to print an apology in the following issue. Fine. Too little too late. The damage has been done.

This is a wake-up call: do not assume any editor treasures your work. Demand to see the final edits before it is too late. Treat everyone with suspicion. I hate to write this but from my experience and those of my fellow writers everywhere, we can't be naive about this. I apologise to the publications that in the past have treated me decently, sent me proofs, asked for my approval. I didn't realize how much I should have appreciated that and not taken it for granted.

I've certainly lost my innocence. I will think twice before submitting any story to any publication. I am afraid to say that I think we all should.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Author interviews, fascinating and inspiring

(Cross posted with The Short Review blog)

I have just added a new section to The Short Review: Author Interviews. This is turning into a very popular feature on the site, and for me personally, as a writer, these interviews with authors about how they write, how they put their collections together, what they are working on now, are fascinating and illuminating. A few excerpts:

Rusty Barnes, author of the flash fiction collection Breaking it Down, says:
"I write to be read, yes — I love to be read above all things now — but I write only to please myself. I mean, I have my obsessions, my concerns, and a good sense of what's out there in the world being written, and I think what I write has a place in that world, and it's up to me to figure out ways to get it out there, to get it to readers."

Nona Caspers, author of Heavier than Air, introduced me to the concept of MA: "I love how stories use MA space, MA being a Japanese word for the space between things that seems empty but is actually full and creates harmony. The space between the individual stories also allows for that feeling of MA."

For Sarah Salway, author of Leading the Dance, knowing that people were reading her book made her feel sick "in case they didn’t like it, or thought I was ‘odd’. But now I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will always be some people who won’t like my stuff and also that I am definitely ‘odd’ ! There’s not much I can do about it, so am just happy when people tell me they’ve enjoyed and/or got something out of reading my stories."

"I used to try to write for agents, or certain readers I imagined impressing," says Claudia Smith, author of the flash collection The Sky is A Well, "and I think that got in the way. I write for the story, for what feels true to me as I am writing it. I think my work improved once I learned to do that, and it took me years to find my voice. I do workshop many of my short-shorts with an online writing group, and I know that has influenced them immensely. I have written with these writers for years, so I trust them."

There are more interviews up on the site, and more coming soon: Carys Davies, Kim Newman, Roy Kesey.... Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

New issue of The Short Review

(Cross posted with The Short Review Blog)

Issue 4 Feb 08 of The Short Review is now available with reviews of debut collections:

Rebecca Barry's Later At the Bar - interconnected stories set in a small American town;

Comedian and writer Alexei Sayle's Barcelona Plates;

Courttia Newland's Music for the Off-Key: 12 Macabre Short Stories;

Sarah Salway's Leading the Dance from small, vibrant UK press Bluechrome;

Highly-acclaimed Irish writer Roddy Doyle's first short fiction collection, The Deportees

as well as reviews of the Norton Book of Science Fiction, the Best American Mystery Stories of 2007, David Gaffney's second collection, Aromabingo, Ali Smith's classic collection, Other Stories and Other Stories, and our Valentine's special: My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides.

The author interviews section of the site is blossoming too, with writers talking about their collections, how they came about, how it feels to know that people are reading your book, and how they approach the writing process.

"I’m drawn to writing about life’s essential forces" says Alison MacLeod, author of Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction.

"I write for the story, for what feels true to me", says Claudia Smith, whose flash collection, The Sky is a Well, won the Rose Metal Press chapbook contest.

"I tend to write in clusters.. so there will be groups of themes" says David Gaffney, whose second collection, Aromabingo, has just been published by UK small press Salt Publishing.

"My best writing comes out of love or grief," says Nona Caspers, author of Heavier Than Air.

"For a while I was just writing for people I drank with" says Rebecca Barry, whose debut collection, Later At the Bar, our review described as "a clear-eyed look at a boozy world".

"I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will always be some people who won’t like my stuff and also that I am definitely ‘odd’ ! " says Sarah Salway, author of Leading the Dance.

Come and browse the newly added reviews and interviews, check out our list of collections forthcoming this year, and follow the links to more review sites, blogs and articles about short stories.

Happy reading!


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The New Year of Writing Starts Today

I've decided to take myself in hand, because I have been drifting. I've been drifting away from my own writing, letting so many other things take over. And I don't mean editing The Short Review, because that is something I love, which involves reading short stories, reading reviews of short story collections, interviewing authors of short story collections - heaven, in other words.

No, what has been causing (or I should say, what I have been doing to cause) the drift is a building obsession with submissions. I have been spending more and more time looking for places to send stories, looking at details of competitions, sending stories off and then waiting, clicking, re-loading, emailing, to see if the results are in, to see if my story has been accepted. I keep a spreadsheet-like document to track all my submissions and also to remind myself of upcoming deadlines. But now I have been thinking of what I can write to submit to themed issues of magazines, which of my stories might be good to send to competitions...and I realised that I was trying to write FOR someone, FOR something. And I had completely lost that joyous feeling of writing just for me.

This actually has been put in perspective by the responses I have been getting by authors to my interview questions for The Short Review. Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing, I asked. And almost everyone said, No. And that's when I realised that I had lost this path.... Ever since my book deal (maybe even before) I had begun to write with specific ends in mind: publication, success. And now I can barely write at all. I write flashes for the weekly challenges in my online writing groups, but this is not supposed (for me) to be all the writing I am doing. That's mainly supposed to be something enormously fun, something that binds me to a community, and something that keeps my fingers moving.

But where are my new stories? Nowhere. I haven't written any. What have I been sending off to magazines and competitions? Old stories, older stories - Yes, the ones that will be published in my collection in June, that are guaranteed publication. Why am I still sending them out? Because I don't have anything else. And that has got to change.

So today I took myself in hand - I cancelled all subscriptions to email lists with calls for submissions, contest guidelines. I deleted my RSS feeds with more of the same. I don't want to know. Not now. I don't want anything tugging at me now except my desire to write, to get to know new characters and find out what happens to them. I have a huge headache today, don't know what it is... but I can only hope it is because my head is so full of voices that I am not listening to, whose stories want to be told, that finally they started knocking and insisting I let them out.

The New Year of writing starts now!