Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Peace which the world cannot give, I give to you

I give you a new commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you. By this the world shall know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.

Yeah, brace yourself. It's church talk.

Tonight was the beginning of the three-night observance leading up to Easter. Not everyone knows (or chooses to know) that Easter is not a day, it is a season. There are three nights of preparation leading up to Easter Sunday, and then forty days of celebration thereafter. Hey, that's a lot of chocolate.

Tonight was my favorite service of the entire year: Maundy Thursday. And for the first time in many years, I missed it. Alas, work. I tried to wiggle out of it, tried to switch places with my fellow reporters, but that isn't always possible. I missed the foot-washing for the first time, I think, since I was in college.

Maundy Thursday is the service that remembers the Last Supper. Everyone knows how the night ended, with betrayal and terror and people running into the night in fear for their lives. But what I think about is its beginning: a group of people gathering to honor their faith, and their leader startling them by washing their feet.

I leave it to the true Biblical scholars to go into the details of why this was absolutely staggering in the cultural mores of the time, as shocking as when a woman used precious perfume and her hair to wash Jesus' feet. I think one of the true reflections of faith is not necessarily what an action or a story meant to people at the time or even what it meant through the centuries, but the lesson we take from it today.

For me, the story and the way my church chooses to symbolize it is the central tenet of my own faith: servants to one another. In the Maundy Thursday service, people may choose to have their feet washed by the priest before the altar. This is done in a ritualistic manner, with bare feet and a basin placed in the center of the church.

Some people don't like it. They don't always choose to participate. And that's one of the great things about being Episcopalian; that's okay. Do or do not, as thou wilt. But I've always wondered if the people who recoil at placing their feet in the basin would have recoiled from Jesus' offering as well.  Sure, it is awkward and weird; it's not what one naturally does. But then there are so many things in faith that ask us to set aside How It's Always Done and do something different.

Being a lifelong Episcopalian means I've seen the foot-washing performed in many different ways. What's the old joke - ask five Episcopalians for their theological opinion and you'll get six different answers. At my church for the last thirteen years, the priest and her assistant wash everyone's feet, while the choir chants in the background.

At another church I attended in the past, each of us washes the next person's feet. This is logistically more difficult, but I like it better: servants to one another. As the person in front of me washes my feet, so I will wash the feet of the person after me.

At yet another church I attended, the entire service was removed from the church into the parish hall. It was an extremely small church, and the service was remarkably similar to a Passover feast. We sat at a table instead of in pews, ate small symbolic pieces of food at particular points in the service, and washed each others' feet when the time came.

This would not work in a church larger than that one, which had at most 25 to 30 communicants at a non-Sunday service. But I found it among the most moving and spiritual experiences of my life as a woman of faith. I felt closer to my fellow parishioners, and indeed, closer to our heritage and the experience of those people in the upper room. We tend to forget that they were gathered together for the Passover on the night that Jesus bent over their feet.

To me, the most direct and beautiful expression of our faith is not in words but in actions. When we choose to treat one another with love and respect, we are offering witness to the world. It's easy to sit in judgment and lecture someone about what they should believe in terms of Scripture and doctrine. It's not so easy to offer kindness in return for anger, to turn aside our own darker impulses in favor of forgiveness.

We are all beholden to one another. It was the final lesson our teacher attempted to give, and the one at which we have failed most miserably. 

I feel the lack of this ritual most keenly this year, as though the Easter celebration will be missing part of its preamble. I know more than most how people can come together and help each other when they choose. I have experienced the love of my friends, family and community far more than was my share. I strive to give back what I have received, to pay it forward in whatever way I can, but I know that my balance will always be in the red.

Peace which the world cannot give, I give to you. Or so the Book says, at the beginning of this Easter season. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Allow me to wash your feet, and wash the feet of the one who comes after you. What I do for you, you do for another. And thus the five thousand are fed.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Elizabeth Faces Life as a Competent Adult, Part 38

Apparently, in my bleary stumble to get to my morning exercise class this morning, I forgot something.
No, not my swimsuit. Not the towel or even the comb.

I realized as I was combing my hair after class that there weren't enough clothes in my gym bag. 

My water aerobics class means getting out of bed two hours earlier than standard. You'd think I would be able to remember this and go to bed before 1 a.m. the night before, but that would require practical application of intelligence. I get up, go to class, then shower and change for work at the YMCA before my shift starts.

Apparently, while blearily stumbling about the house this morning, I neglected to put a shirt in the gym bag. This poses something of a problem, as the Edwardsville Police Department and staff of the YMCA do not appreciate women wandering about in public without a shirt on.

There were helpful suggestions. I could wrap the towel around my shoulders like a cape, but that only solves half the problem. I could change back into my wet, cold swimsuit and go home that way, but I was unenthusiastic about that prospect in a 35-degree March morning. I could call my fiance and have him bring me a shirt, but that guaranteed a certain amount of snark.

This is the day I discovered that my leather jacket can still zip up, despite a broken zipper. Hey, this class must be making me a little smaller, at least.

I might add that Jimmy showed an ungentlemanly lack of sympathy in this crisis.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Adventures in Family Texting, Episode 101

BOY: Home from Scouts and YOU NEED TO STICH THAT PATCH ON!!!
ME: Wash your uniform and leave it on my chair, Your Majesty. And learn to spell "stitch."
BOY: Ok but you need to do it tonight. I need it by next week.
ME: Need by next week /= tonight.
BOY: Yep.
ME: You might have missed that I am at a police standoff and on my fourth hour of overtime. Also that I haven't beaten you with sticks yet. Mind your manners and say PLEASE.
BOY: Please.
ME: Taken under advisement. Use shampoo when you shower.
BOY: Ok but pleeeeeaaaasssee do it tonight.
ME: Not happening. Tomorrow possible if you leave it on the chair. And if you are nice to me.
BOY: Ok.
MAN: We need milk. Or a cow.
ME: I love that you both are texting me simultaneously with stuff you need me to do. It's not like I'm busy or anything.
MAN: Sorry love.
ME: S'ok. I'll get a blog out of it.
MAN: Of course you will. I am a lowly wigglily worm
ME: Oh shut up. And learn to spell "wiggly."

Sunday, March 17, 2013


ME: Heh. I was just emailing SPJ about the regional conference and they were emailing me about my photo and a summary of my speech.
ME: I told them I needed to get specifics to line up my volunteers for the book fair.
ME: And by volunteers I mean...
JIMMY: ... oh.
ME: I love you?
JIMMY: Sure you do.
ME: Hey! I do too!
JIMMY: Suuure, you're real fond of my arms, for carrying books.
ME: Well, it is one of your finer characteristics. But you know what else you do real well?
JIMMY: What.
ME: Standing at the booth all day convincing people to buy books for charity.
JIMMY: Uh huh.
ME: I love you.

Yet he's still marrying me.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

My secret other life

I dreamed that I was set up by an unnamed informant as a drug dealer.

No kidding. I dreamed that there was this big investigation at work, and then I was interrogated by corporate executives (because that's totally how drug investigations work). Apparently some woman had called up the police, confessed to multiple felony drug offenses and named me as her supplier/enforcer/kingpin.

My lavish lifestyle must have tipped them off, eh?

I told them the most sinister thing I do is sell books. Suuure, it's books you sell out of your trunk at coffee houses, they said. Uh, yeah, I replied, feeling the noose tighten.

But it was the next part that was really hilarious. The entire staff of the newsroom filed into a conference room for an intervention. I kid you not. They were all very kind about my "problem." It was weird - I felt defensive and embarrassed as hell even though I knew I was set up. The more strongly I protested, the more guilty it made me sound.

If I really were a drug dealer, there is no way I'd be driving this car, man. I'd totally be able to afford a decent minivan like Mark Kaiser's. I could fit all three kids in at once!

Strangely, toward the end some of them were on my side and promising to help me figure out why I was being set up. Though one of the editors totally didn't believe me. My fellow reporters have my back, man. Big sniffle.

Also, I didn't know Wuerz could sing show tunes.

This weird-ass display of WTF brought to you by Big Mac indigestion and two days of intense investigative training this week, with a side order of book signing on Sunday. (Come see me at the ToyMan Show in Bridgeton! No drugs, I swear! Really!)

Friday, March 08, 2013

Special Delivery

I am donating a signed copy of Nocturne to a fundraiser for a local family whose home caught fire. Their dog was killed, and the family is living in a hotel for three months while repairs are made.

The fundraiser is being organized by my friend, Pam Moss. Pam and I tried all week to meet up so I could give her the book. Life happened. We failed. The fundraiser is this weekend, so time was running short.

I told Pam I would be at the Sacred Grounds coffeehouse on Main Street all Friday evening, as is my general habit. She said she would come by the coffeehouse and get the book.

I even remembered to dig out a copy of Nocturne from the warehouse section of the Tower before leaving. That's how organized I am this week, folks. Why, I might eventually be able to finish the profit-loss statements for Literary Underworld before the first quarter is over, but let's not get crazy.

I didn't sign the book right away, figuring I'd ask Pam what she wanted me to put when she came by. Instead, I worked on blog entries and judging this journalism contest on which I am way, way past my deadline. *whistles*

Meanwhile, down the street there is a dueling pianos extravaganza going on at the Wildey. I love the Wildey, and I love the shows I've seen there. I was kicking a can down the street (metaphorically) that I did not get tickets to the dueling pianos thing, because it looked like fun. But it also filled every parking spot on the street and most of the parking lots from Main Street to the county jail.

Just a few minutes ago, Pam called me on her cell. She was circling the block, totally unable to find a parking space. I laughed and said I could just run it out to her. Then I remembered I hadn't signed it.

So while Pam circled the block again, I scribbled something in the book, signed and dated it, then ran out between the cars along Main Street.

Pam's SUV slowed to a crawl. I tossed the book through her open window, and she laughed and thanked me as she sped away.

That was possibly the weirdest delivery of a book I've done since my first novel was published ten years ago. Good luck, Pam!

And good luck to the Elliott family. If you are interested in helping or donating, find out more here.

Advancing the discussion

My little post the other day about Random House and SFWA is the second most-read post ever on this blog.* Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of folks took the wrong message from it.

There's a lot of "screw SFWA" coming out of the Random House discussion here and on Facebook. I need to be clear: I think SFWA and HWA are fine institutions, and probably the only major organizations attempting to stand up for the rights of writers.

John Scalzi et al are making a lot of noise about these egregious contract terms, and we need to cheer them on. If we quietly ignore it when one press screws the authors, suddenly it will show up as boilerplate in all contracts. Just take a look at how it's going with cons.

My criticisms of SFWA were solely in the realm of practicality: by refusing membership to those who don't receive advances, they are hurting themselves, not the publishers. Scalzi addressed this issue head-on today, in which he detailed his reasons for insisting that publishers should always offer advances.

Scalzi makes some fair points, and I agree strongly with most of them. God knows I'd love a check for $5,000 just for signing the contract. I disagree, however, that the publisher is less invested in the project if he hasn't paid an advance. Maybe that's what New York thinks, but small presses operate on the thin edge of a dime. One bad book can sink the best small press. If a press puts out five books a year, you better believe they put heart, soul and gonads on the line for every single one of them. Small presses devote every possible drop of blood to making that book sell, because therein lies their future. I don't see New York putting that much focus on any given book, frankly. (The rest of it, about "changing models" and such: total BS, and Scalzi is absolutely right to call it such.)

My point was solely for the practicality of SFWA membership, which is refused to anyone who hasn't received one of those coveted advances. The theory, as borne out by SFWA's ballsy response to Random House today, is that by refusing to certify the Hydra imprint for membership criteria and threatening to decertify Random House itself, they can influence Random House's contract.

I don't believe that's true. Other than posturing on the internet, I don't think Random House or any of the Big Six give a mousefart about being a SFWA-eligible publishing house. It might matter more, honestly, to the small press; it could raise the quality of their slush pile. But really, does Random House care if it's a SFWA-certified publisher or not? How does that affect their bottom line, which is clearly all they care about?

What the policy does do is lock out thousands of authors in the small press, working for small publishers that really do honestly pay their people, who make up for the lack of advance with much more generous terms than you're likely to get from the Big Six.

If SFWA wanted to harness a vast new membership ready and willing to fight for better contract terms, to participate in a Random House boycott and vocally blog across the 'net in protest of authors getting bent over the barrel, it need only look at the advance clause to double its membership. And that, friends, would give SFWA a much bigger megaphone to affect real change (and HWA et al, I'm not letting them off the hook).

I'm not saying "screw SFWA" at all. On the contrary, if I thought it was a useless or hidebound organization, I wouldn't care about me and my fellow small-press authors being able to join. From the outside at least, it appears to be an excellent organization, and I'm glad that it is fighting this fight. Someone needs to do it.

* In case you're wondering, the most-read piece is the one about my attempt to be a lawyer. At which I epically failed, to borrow my teenage son's terminology.


HIM: Hey, somebody updated your Wikipedia page.
ME: Oh good Christ. *runs to Wikipedia*
HIM: Yeah. Now it includes that you're engaged to author Jimmy Gillentine.
ME: Huh.
HIM: And that you're on the vestry for an Episcopal church.
ME: My spies are everywhere. *reads* 
HIM: Too bad it doesn't link to my website.
ME: Can't do that. Wikipedia is not supposed to be advertising. You can only put up a link to your page on your own Wikipedia page.
HIM: I don't have a Wikipedia page.
ME: Hey, I didn't create my own. Somebody put me on there.
HIM: I am too lowly to have a Wikipedia page.
ME: Oh whatever.
HIM: I am so honored to be on your Wikipedia page! You are the famous author Elizabeth Donald! I am so lucky that you can love a lowly worm like me!
ME: Oh for the love of God, shut up.
HIM: *smooch*
ME: Lowly worm?
HIM: Worm!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

In which I piss off SFWA and Random House at the same time

It's a strange new world for us in the publishing biz, and apparently there is no depth to which Certain People will not sink to screw us.

Call me naive, but I was clinging to the hope that New York was this bastion of professionalism in which publishers act according to the rules they themselves set. Those who have wrangled with New York just fell out of their chairs, rolling on the floor in hysterical laughter before they click on to someone who isn't so goddamn stupid.

Or, y'know, they can go read this piece by John Scalzi, brilliant author/blogger and outgoing president of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, as he tears apart an allegedly professional contract offered by Random House imprint Hydra to new ebook authors. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Oh sweet fluffy Jesus - I am no lawyer and other than a handful of contracts in my filing cabinet, I have no real expertise in contract law. But that is by far the most disgusting example of screw the author I've ever seen.

To summarize, in case you don't want to go read Scalzi: Random House proposes to take all rights forever and to require the author to pay for standard publisher expenses like layout, design and marketing, after which they will split the costs. I find this quite similar to the person who comes up to me at a convention and says, "I have an idea for a story. Why don't you write it and we'll split the money?" Only this is more annoying, because Random House damn well knows better. They are not some well-meaning start-up on someone's kitchen table. This is a cynical opportunistic grab to huckster new writers, and I've always felt there is no one lower than the people trying to scam writers. If you're going to scam someone, try someone who actually has money.

Here's the thing that bugs me: the folks at SFWA, Horror Writers Association and other writers' groups have fought the good fight for many years, insisting that only book contracts that offer advances plus royalties will count for membership. At a convention once, SFWA reps had a panel trying to convince all us authors to join. I told them it sounded great, but I would not qualify for membership, because my publishers are all small-press houses that don't pay advances. Even the mid-size publisher that put my first series in bookstores nationwide and publishes more than two dozen books a month doesn't offer advances.

Is there any chance that SFWA et al will bend on that issue? I asked. They were sympathetic, but said no: they maintain that standard because they want publishers to keep paying advances. Sometimes that's all the money the author gets, and they deserve to get it up front.

Yes, we do. But it isn't going to happen. I'm ten years in this business now, with my seventh book on the way. My books have been in every Borders in America (RIP) and I've done the book tour over and over. I've never paid to publish a book and I (mostly) get my royalty checks on time. I work my ass off, my books get good reviews, and I've never gotten an advance, with the exception of a work-for-hire contract writing a game novelization.

Frankly, I wasn't all that interested in getting advances: I like getting royalties from day one, and it takes some pressure off me, knowing that if the book flops through some boneheaded publisher decision, it won't end my career as a writer because I failed to earn through my advance.

Note the famous case of poor Seanan McGuire, whose book Discount Armageddon was supposed to be released on March 6 last year. Amazon disregarded such niceties and started shipping the book in late February. Not to be outdone in dickishness, Barnes & Noble immediately followed suit. This is a problem because the only number that counts in New York publishing is the number of copies sold the week of release. If the book doesn't sell a bunch that first week, it's a failure. No matter that it takes time for word-of-mouth to gain traction, even on the internet. No matter that people are rarely waiting in lines outside closed bookstores at midnight for books that don't involve a bespectacled boy wizard. It's the first week or nothing.

This left McGuire in the bizarre position of begging her readers not to buy her book. Wait for the release date, she said, because if they all ran out to buy the book the last week of February, the numbers would stink for release week of March 6, and she could lose her entire career. When I read that, I thought, "Oh, to hell with New York's advances. Who needs that kind of stress?" Sending a book out in the universe is hard enough, with your soul laid bare in words for people to tread upon. As much as I'd like to get a big fat check up front, I'm also happy to know that as soon as people start buying my book, the money starts rolling toward me, and not toward paying off some giant debt I accrued when I signed the contract two years ago. Because that's what it is, really - a paycheck loan.

In the depths of my roiling career, I have sometimes lamented that all I wanted was a publisher who could sell more books than I can sell myself, because I'm frigging tired. I have tried selling direct online as my own bookstore, and I've done the constant con-and-bookstore tours where I lived out of hotel rooms 31 days a year. I would like a publisher to put my books on the shelf and send me a check. But that's pretty much ignoring the reality that if your name isn't King, Patterson or Rowling, you probably are your own marketing department. No one can sell a book like an author can.

But what SFWA et al don't get is that publishers don't give a flying fuck at a rolling bicycle wheel whether or not their contract terms qualify their authors for membership. SFWA can insist that qualified contracts require authors to be carried about on a silken pillow or that publishers caught using Poser to create cover art should be whipped with a cat-o-nine-tails, and it'll have the same effect on publishing contracts as the advance requirement does.

That does not get Random House off the hook for the rest of that benighted piece of flotsam they call a contract, mind you. Their response was basically a celebration of vanity press, where they provide "best-in-class services" at a fee charged to the author, while calling it "profit sharing." This means Random House has no real incentive to keep costs low, since their primary income will come from authors instead of, y'know, selling books. Scalzi's contract analysis is spot-on, though I'd replace the exploding agent's head with my own, since I (like most authors I know) have no agent and no plans to acquire one.

And that's the key: the vast majority of authors are floating in the turbulent seas of the new publishing world without agent lifeboats. So many new authors leap at the first contract they're offered, because hey - someone wants to publish them! It's exciting and fills your head with butterflies. An author who shall remain nameless signed his first contract without reading it, not realizing he had given away any right to the book for the life of the copyright, which is his lifespan plus 70 years. It's easy to miss things like the definition of "out of print," requirements for regular sales reports, quarterly or biannual royalty payments, reserves against returns, rights of first refusal on your next work, and other creepy things publishers wiggle into contracts because they know you can't read clearly through the tears of joy.

That's what really scares me about this: that new authors will fall for it. They'll think this is just the cost of doing business, because hey - it's Random House! And SFWA and HWA, with all due respect, aren't much help beyond posts like this. While they quite rightly call Random House out for this, they can't do anything to help the rest of us, because their rules keep us out of the clubhouse too. The real impact of the advance requirement is keeping vast numbers of authors out of the organizations that are trying their hardest to leverage better terms for authors... and they're losing membership by the fistful, or so I was told.

Is that because the organizations are no use - which I do not believe - or because most of us new (read: 10 years or less published) authors can't possibly qualify without those New York contracts that will screw us with our pants on? What does it say when an author can be nominated for HWA's highest honor, the Stoker, and still not qualify for membership because his small-press novel didn't have an advance? Sometimes small press makes up for the lack of advance with a royalty as high as 10 percent on gross receipts with no hold against returns. Compare that to Leisure's famous contract, back when it was the top horror mass-market publisher... paid its authors 4 percent royalties, a rate I consider roughly analogous to indentured servitude. 

Here's the other danger of a kerfuffle like this: aspiring writers will look at this and say, "Screw all the publishers. I can bop onto Amazon right now and put my novella up for the Kindle. If I've got to pay for the thing to get published at Random House, then I'll just pay CreateSpace or Lulu to do it, then I get to keep all the money!"

First: don't. Just don't. I'm begging you. There is more that a good publisher can do for you than just set up cover art and get your book listed on Amazon. Anyone can do that, it's true. But a good publisher helps you build the book from the inside out. A good publisher hooks you up with a strong editor who helps you find all the little problems in your book - and your book has problems. You are not a special snowflake who created the Great American Novel the first time out, and it's a brilliant stroke of lightning sure to outsell Fifty Shades of Gray, because that was a piece of shit.

Yes, it was, and no, you're not. There are a thousand things you learn from a publisher, from design to marketing to editing. They aren't just ISBN factories popping out identical books like a Cadbury Egg assembly line - and the real shame on Random House is that they know this, and they just don't care. A real publisher can look at a book and see things like snake trails, breaking words, gutter depths and other things we don't really register on a conscious level, but have a strong impact on the reader. I learned about descriptive passages and sentence structure and the little bits of Fail that we don't register until nasty letters come from readers.

A good publisher makes you a better writer. It's that simple. You learn by doing, and you learn best by working with good people who are motivated to make your book better and sell it, because that's how they earn money. Not working with people who are solely motivated by taking your money.

I strongly believe every writer should at least start with a good small-press publisher, and deserves to paid for his or her work. I believe contracts like Random House are the beginning of the death knell for New York... but not for traditional publishing, since the vast majority of publishers would be embarrassed to see that contract under their masthead, and not one of the publishers I've worked with (or even that I know personally) would have proposed that authors should cover their costs out of their pockets.

But I also believe SFWA, HWA and other such organizations will finally need to concede the issue of advances, if only to create a small-press category to allow those of us without advances to participate in the discussion, to join up and help fight to keep the rest of this crap out of our contracts. Otherwise, the dwindling crowd of New York-published authors will be the only ones fighting the good fight, and the rest of us are still bobbing in the sea, treading water.

Now that I've pissed off SFWA, HWA, Random House and the self-published, I think I'll quit. After all, I've got a book to write. It's coming out later this year from my publisher, and no, I didn't get an advance. But I didn't pay anyone a goddamn dime, and I think y'all are gonna love it.