about bulletins books Maureen Johnson dot com blog f.a.q. contact community
suite scarlett
girl at sea
13 little blue envelopes
the bermudez triangle
the key to the golden firebird
vacations from hell
let it snow

Thursday, May 25, 2006

How NOT to Get Published

A few days ago, I read a post on the blog of the wonderful Justine Larbalestier (of Magic or Madness fame—also wifely partner of Scott Westerfeld, of Midnighters, Specials, So Yesterday . . . they are a power couple).

Anyway, Justine’s post was all about the various con artists who try to lure in people who want to get published, and how genuinely confusing it all is. It can even be overwhelming if you live in New York and talk to people in publishing every single day.

I read the post, nodded, and thought, “That’s terrible. I hate these people.”

Then later that night, I got a call from my father. He had been talking to a family friend. She had found one of these sites that ask you to submit a piece of writing (specifically, a poem), and then send you a letter saying you’ve been accepted into an anthology, and all you need to do is send X dollars, and a leather-bound book will be sent to you immediately.

They wanted to ask my advice. Was this real? Was this a big honor?

I said not to do it. I hated letting them down, but the sad truth is, those things are scams.

A lot of the notes I get (when they aren’t about my washing or my appearance in Rent) are about publishing, asking me for advice. So, I’m going to give some, because the last thing I want is for anyone reading this blog to get drawn in by these charlatans. That will not do.

This will be a two-parter—like “What Not to Wear.”

First, how not to get published. This is the part where I tell you all the bad stuff, the pitfalls, the things to avoid. The good stuff comes later.

Here’s the big first point. I understand the desire to get published. The fact that I am is a sign of that. But writing is always more important than getting published. Getting published isn’t a goal unto itself—it’s something that comes out of writing. If you’re only writing because you want to see your name in print, this isn’t really the field for you. If you’re writing because you love to write, have to write . . . then you’re on the right track.

Second, it takes a long time to learn how to write, to really get your stride going, and to find your voice. That means practice. Long before I was published, I wrote six to ten hours every day. I went to school for another two to three years after college to study the craft. I did it for the same reason that pianists sit and play for hours and hours, and athletes go to the gym or the field—you have to work up your skill and endurance. Do you like Harry Potter? J.K. Rowling spent seven years getting her ideas right before she published the first book. So, when it comes to the question of getting published—I’d suggest that many of you wait. Don’t stop writing. (If you’re meant to do it, you won’t stop anyway.) Keep going. Get through high school. Get through college. Think about it then.

I know that advice might be irritating to some. I know there are writers who get published at 15 or 17 or 19. But it’s pretty rare. And when it does happen, you end up getting saddled with everything else that comes with being published, both good and bad. I hate to bring up Kaavya Viswanathan, but her story is a good one to look at. There’s a lot of pressure, and it can really be too much, too soon.

Plus, when you’re a senior in college, or a cool 25 year-old, you may realize—much to your horror—that that story about the ex-boyfriend you never think about now will always be out there in the world. You accidentally kept the beast alive!

Better to write. Just write. Keep working. The time will come. You’ll have a better time just being in school, being with your friends. You may thank yourself later on.

Okay, I’ve given my two cents on that. You’re really ready?

So you’ve got a book, or a story, or some poems. (And I know many of you do.) You start looking online. If you enter anything about writing or publishing, you probably get about two million hits. Where do you start?

First, to sell a book, you need an agent. Authors don’t (with the rare, rare exception) approach editors.

Why not?

The reason is: editors are extremely busy people. Their desks are piled high with books that are going to print soon. They have to get those books in order, deal with the covers and the marketing and the sales and all of the other ten million things that are involved in publishing a book. They also want to get new books.

Editors tend to specialize in one type of book. They might work in the non-fiction, history division, they might work in YA, they might work in romance. There’s a certain kind of book they know and they publish. Writers out in the world won’t know what these editors specialize in.

But say you did. Say you knew that Editor Suzy published YA. She still doesn’t have time to read every single YA manuscript in the world. She would literally be buried in paper. Most editors have assistants, and those assistants make sure that editors aren’t buried in paper. They will set the manuscript aside.

Enter the agents.

Agents are like those people who know everything about sports, or a certain TV show. They know the players, their specialties, their quirks. They know which editors are publishing which books. They will know that Editor Suzy LOVES books with a little romance, but doesn’t want to hear about your vampire. Editor Grace, who works at the same company, is gasping for a vampire. She’s got a long list of vampire books. The agent will know to send the romance to Suzy, the vampire to Grace.

The agent keeps the editor from getting too crazy. The agent also helps the writer deal with the other business that goes along with publishing. The agent is the writer’s business persona, protecting and representing the writer when it comes time for contracts and negotiations.

If the agent sells your book, they generally take 15% of the profit. This is more than worth it. It was the agent who made sure the writer got the money in the first place, and it is the agent who will go on protecting and supporting the writer.

I have a fantastic agent. When I have questions about my contracts, I ask her. She reads my statements and makes sure I am paid and protected. She also loves my books, and keeps an eye out for me. And I can keep writing.

So, you are asking, how do I get an agent?

Since we’re doing the NOT part—here’s how NOT to get one.

A critical piece of information to bear in mind when you look at those sites: any agency that asks for money up front is not an agency.

Anyone that offers a quick-fix, a sure deal, a new method of getting to editors . . . these people are lying to you. Money up front is a 100% sign that an agent is a fake. Real agents only take a percentage from something they sell. So, if you see a site in which an “agent” says that for $200, he or she will send your book around or give you some kind of publishing package—stay away. Stay far, far away.

Okay. What about the anthologies?

If a site says, “You have been selected to be in our special anthology. All you need to do is send $50 . . .” Sure, they’ll send you a book, and your piece of work will be in it. But they’ll have published it on demand. It’s not like bookstores and libraries buy those anthologies. Those companies exist solely to make money off of you, and they don’t carry the slightest bit of weight in the world of publishing. The really sad part is—your work will never really see the light of day. You’ve probably got the only copy with your words in it. There are lots of real magazines and publications that would like to consider your work. Go to the bookstore or library and have a look, write down some names. Submit to those.

The good news is, for as many of these scam artist sites, there are people in publishing writing their own blogs and commentaries. Real agents, editors, and publishers hate these scam artists. Why? Because they love books and writers. They won’t tolerate crooks on their patch. These people want to help and get the word out.

Here are some sites to look at:

In her blog today, Miss Snark talks about 20 fake agencies. Miss Snark is a real agent who disguises her identity. Her blog is popular with many people in publishing.

Predators and Editors offers this page of warning signs to help you spot scams. Have a look.

Writers Beware offers get more tips, stories, and advice.

In part two, I’ll talk about the good stuff. For now, in the words of Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance!”

Monday, May 22, 2006

Spaz and the fort of doom

So, the other night, I was walking home from yoga class. It had been a particularly hard one. You know it’s not going to be a good night when the first words you hear are, “We’re going to be doing lots and lots of split variations.” This implies many, many splits.

An hour and a half later, I was walking out (to the best of my ability, given that my legs were no longer speaking to me). I decided I needed a cookie from the amazing bakery/diner on the corner—the one that makes its own everything and pumps out hot, doughnutty air. Specifically, I needed a lemon M&M cookie—a big, crumbly thing that sheds the chocolate and explodes into a big money crumbly mess the minute you look at it. It’s not that many calories because at least a third of it turns into dust, and either drifts away on a current of air or winds up on you.

So, there I am, contently walking home under cover of darkness, munching my cookie, crumbs going everywhere . . . *munch, munch, munch, crunch, munch* . . . past my neighbors who were walking their terrified-looking cat on a leash, and into the building, past the mirrored table in the hallway . . .

And there I found another creature. And again, I knew him instantly. It was Spaz, Deadline’s best friend.

Spaz accepts a Diet Coke with lime; Deadline runs to greet him

Yes! I should have realized he’d be on his way! Wherever Deadline goes, Spaz is sure to follow. What a pair! Like Deadline, Spaz is instantly recognizable. His wide open mouth, his many arms to grab, claw, and throw everything in sight . . .

They are natural companions. When Deadline looms—generally rendering you sleepless and one-noted in your total and utter panic—Spaz comes in through the back. You know he’s arrived when you hear yourself on the phone with friends saying things like, “look, I can’t talk—I have to finish this thing, and I’m never . . . OH WHAT’S THE USE?”

People react to Spaz in different ways. I seen people scream and cry, go slightly catatonic, and destroy computer equipment. I tend to ramble in a panicked haze. At some point, I wind up at a friend’s apartment, mumbling under my breath about how doomed I am, unable to concentrate. Many baked goods usually appear along with Spaz (like lemon M&M cookies).

One of my absolutely favorite Deadline and Spaz stories was from the same period in college that found me being dropped on my head in the lobby of my dorm on the eve of a midterm.

My friend Marc was a history major. He was in his final semester, and had spent the last eight months working on his thesis—a fifty pound document on German castles. It was due on the last Tuesday of the semester, at precisely twelve noon.

We literally didn’t see Marc for the last three weeks of school. This was astonishing, as we lived with him. I don’t know where he was hiding. All I know is that on Tuesday morning, at 11:15 AM, he came through the door with a heavy air of victory. He held up his bag, which had to have had about two reams of paper in it. He looked extremely sleep deprived. The last time we could confirm that he had slept had been the week before.

“It is finished,” he said. “I don’t know what to do now. I’ve been working on this for so long. I have forty-five minutes. I seriously have no idea what to do. Maureen, what do I do now?”

“Clearly,” I said, looking up from my book, “you need to build a fort.”

He immediately knew that I was right, and dropped his bag where he stood. We proceeded to tear the room apart. We disassembled bunk beds, pulled off the mattresses, got chairs from other people’s rooms. Soon, we had what was easily the best fort constructed on the Eastern Seaboard in the last fifty years.

We were working on improving the tunnel entrances when Marc asked a very important question, and went completely white in the process.

“Wait . . . what time is it?”

In our zeal, we had disconnected or buried the clock. He found his watch in his pocket.

It was 12:05.

I don’t remember exactly what Marc said; it was more of a noise—a noise sometimes only heard by animals under attack. He was gone—he picked up and started running. Marc was maybe the most athletic person I’ve ever known, so he was going pretty quickly when his backpack came open in front of the building he was running to. That’s when the who even knows how many pages on German castles came flying out. It was only because he looked so stricken that the department secretary accepted the reassembled pages an hour or so later and rolled her timestamp back to 11:30.

But that’s a very Spaz and Deadline moment.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Deadline comes to visit

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

-Douglas Adams

In almost every apartment building I’ve lived in in New York, there’s been a mirrored counter in the lobby. People who lived in the building would put things on this counter that they didn’t want anymore, but thought other people in building might like to have. Books are the most common. It’s a nice, friendly way of swapping reading material while uncluttering our apartments.

But when I walked past the other day, there was something different. It was a box of creatures. I had a look inside, and much to my amazement, I saw someone I knew in that box.

I stopped and said, “Wait. I know you. You’re Deadline!”

Yes, my old friend Deadline was in there! So I immediately plucked him up and brought him up to my apartment.

Deadline, engaged in one of his favorite activities: screaming into the phone

This is Deadline. I know him well. Everyone who has ever written a book, turned in a paper, had a presentation to give, or had a test knows Deadline. He is easily recognizable: the grasping hands, the extra set of gut pincers, the pronged tail to spear your heart, the gaping, toothy mouth, the red eyes that bespeak total sleeplessness.

Deadline, because he knows me, was very cordial. We go way back, Deadline and I. We sat down and talked about some of the good times. Like that Psych midterm I had in college. I had stupidly thought the Psychology class would be easy, so I cheerfully signed up for the most notorious professor and the most advanced level permitted for the core requirement class. I liked to do that, because I was . . . well, I’ll allow you to fill in whatever term you think is appropriate for that kind of person.

Once in the class, I discovered that the reason this professor’s classes were so “good” is that people had actual psychological breakdowns in them, so you could study them up close, in real time. The professor had been the president of two major universities until he got bored and went back to his first love—watching students snap. The class so freaked us out that we spent most of the semester sleepless, always trying to stay ahead of the reading (impossible, largely because he never exactly told us what to read, just generally hinted that it should be everything and all the time) and trying to guess what material he would test us on that week (he tested us every week, and never told us on what, because where was the fun in that?). The midterm deadline had us catatonic with fear, and we tried and tried to be ready. But Deadline was there, digging in his claws, climbing through our windows, lingering just behind our shoulders.

The night before the midterm, my trustworthy study partner lost it and began giggling. He picked me up and started running through the building with me, shouting Psych questions all the way. When he got to the lobby of our building, he started spinning me around, slipping and sliding on the hardwood floor. And then, at the height of his madness . . .

He dropped me. On my head.

By accident, of course.

I don’t know if any of you have ever gotten a big cut on your head. I found out that night that they tend to bleed a lot. My blood was all over the lobby floor. There was a banging pain in the back of my head that kind of felt like a tiny construction crew was building a deck back there. But aside from a sudden shock of blackness, I wasn’t knocked out. And even though my head hurt like crazy, we were only four hours away from the midterm. There was no time to go to Health Services. Deadline always insists that he come first.

A guy from my building who was some kind of paramedic or premed or something came down, along with my then-boyfriend, and his roommate, and some other people who were up and wanted to see who was bleeding in the lobby. The premed guy helped get the bleeding under control. He washed off the cut, put pressure on it for a half an hour or more, wrapped it up in gauze, and taped it down. A baseball cap was positioned over this big mess to try to hide it and hold it all in place. I was sent off to the midterm with a stern warning not to move that gauze, because I would start bleeding all over again, and to get to the health center the minute the test was over.

The test was, of course, mostly on the material we were scheduled to review in those last two hours that I spent getting my head wrapped up—just a handful of weird equations that we didn’t think the professor would ask about, and therefore kept on the low-priority list. We also figured that those were the kinds of things we were best served sticking in our heads the moment before we went in the door.

I didn’t even try the “my head is bleeding” excuse. It just seemed pointless.

Deadline loves that story because there is blood in it. We laughed. Then Deadline told me that he had returned. I knew he was coming. Things always get interesting when Deadline is around. He’s not actually due for a few weeks, but a book Deadline is a long period usually, like a multi-week festival.

So now he’s here, and he’s told me that he wants to play a role in my blog. So you will undoubtedly be hearing more about Deadline in the next few weeks. Feel free to write to him at my e-mail address and say hi. He’s a chatty guy if you give him half a chance.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Very Grocery Story, also there are some umbrellas involved

This morning began here, which is a nice, literal way to start the day:

For the last three years, my friends and I have done the Revlon Run for women’s cancers, which starts on Times Square and goes through Central Park. Last year we ran in the rain. We were at the front of the line—so we almost got mowed down and killed by the more eager participants, some of whom were running with umbrellas. (Note to all who want to run a race with an open umbrella: DON’T. IT IS DANGEROUS AND STUPID.)

The umbrella-runners almost wiped out the rest of us, which was very much not in keeping with the spirit of the day. They were plowing us into the potholes and poking our eyes with umbrella-prongs and generally running into everything because they were . . . carrying umbrellas.

There are few things in this world less areodynamic than an umbrella. If you're going to do that, why not just run carrying a small table or a sheepdog or the fender from a Volkswagen Jetta? Or why not just put a bucket over your head and see where you end up? At least that would be kind of mysterious and exciting, you would definitely still be dry, and you wouldn't actually piece the eyes of runners around you.

I offer this just as a suggestion.

But today! Today New York did me proud. It was fabulously, ridiculous beautiful. 40,000 of us ran in style. It was impossible to be serious about today. It demanded two additional walks through the park, and even a milkshake. It’s got to be a seriously nice day for me to get a milkshake.

As much as I like being away, there is nothing quite like coming home. I am a New Yorker, and as soon as I get back, I relax. I came back from Philadelphia the other day and opened my refrigerator to discover that mostly what I had to eat was a half a container of soy milk, a selection of mustards, three beers, and some jam. This didn’t have much appeal, so I immediately went over to Whole Foods.


Many people mock Whole Foods and say it is nothing but an overpriced, pretentious hipster hangout. And in order to understand why they think that, you have to know a little about New York grocery stores. So, in keeping with my tradition of telling you exceedingly exciting stories, like my recent posts about laundry and parking, I will walk you through a few basic realities of the New York grocery store experience.


The average American grocery story is a big place. The average New York grocery store is not. While you can easily drive a car down the aisles of many stores out there, you really can’t even get a cart down the aisles of many New York stores. Some stores offer mini-carts, which are somewhat better. But you will still get stuck. You can experience an actual traffic jam inside of a store. Add to this the fact that most of us don’t have cars, and you will understand why we try to buy small, lightweight foods. Fast shoes, small, quick movements, small foods. That’s the secret to shopping here. If you want to lumber around buying watermelons, hams, and gallon-sized jars of mayonnaise—just don’t.


If you want it, you can find it here. It doesn’t matter what it is. You name your stinky cheese, your exotic Chinese honey, your improbable mushroom—some store in New York has it. It may cost you a thousand dollars and kill you if prepared incorrectly, but we have it. This is even more true in some of the regional neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, where you can buy things like dried seahorse.

In my neighborhood, for some reason, our local store sells entire skinned lambs (head and all). Sometimes it gets even kookier, like the night I went in to find that someone had made pancakes, wrapped them loosely in plastic wrap, and filled an entire display with them—or the night when I went in and found chicken hearts on sale along with the bread.


New Yorkers are so deeply weird about their grocery stores that if a new one opens that is kind of cool, we will do almost anything to get inside. We will step over the weak and punch small children if they get in our way in the process. When Trader Joe’s opened here in March, the line to get in the front door was over 100 people long. Fights broke out in the checkout line. I wriggled my way in about a week later, barely squeezed through the aisles to look around, only to find that the shelves had been picked clean of food. The staff literally could not keep up.


Want to come to New York and see a celebrity? Go to the supermarket. Yes, it’s true. They eat. And they tend to go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. There was a time that there was a celebrity in Whole Foods every single time I went in, sometimes several. I knew this because I always went with a friend who’s really good at spotting them. They frequently linger in the produce section. I have no idea why. Maybe they think that the foliage protects them.


So, I went to Whole Foods. Why? Because I am a vegetarian, and Whole Foods offers a tempting array of veggie products that I enjoy.

I hopped off the subway at Union Square. (Not really—I walked—but I thought the “hopping” part would give the story some excitement.) Coming down the stairs as I was going up was a man with two small plastic pet cages hanging from his neck. Each one contained a live tarantula.

When I got into the store and was picking out my vegetables, a woman was walking along with a small child who was obviously foreign. She was pointing out foods and teaching him the words. As they got next to me, she pointed to a fresh, rosy bundle of radishes and said, “Beets! Beets! Look at these! These are beets! The reddest beets I’ve ever seen.”

Except that they weren’t. They were radishes. I was standing next to the beets, which were huge and purple, and there were about a million of them.

And the little kid pointed to the radishes and said, “Beets.”

This woman, however well-intentioned she might have been, was going around telling this kid all the wrong information. She was pointing at pretty much anything round and calling it beets. Really, really insistently.

So I had one of those quick, soul-searching moments where I debated just fixing this problem here and now, so that if in the future this kid was in some critical salad bar-related exchange, he wouldn’t blow it and embarrass himself. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to correct her. But I saw them all throughout the store, and I was pretty sure she was getting stuff wrong all over the place.

That was basically my story about grocery shopping. The moral is that I am just happy to be back in New York, where people can wear spiders around their necks and misinform children about produce. And that you shouldn't run with an umbrella.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Parking Spectacular!

It's been a busy week, so this post is a bit of a catch-up.

For a start, I left the London Office on an extremely crowded flight back to New York, where I was promptly greeted with about two tons of mail. My trusted right-hand man Cartography Jones (not his real name, his real name is Will) took care of the New York desk in my absence.

Naturally, I had to celebrate Her Majesty's birthday. I was there, of course. And by "there" I mean "in England." But still. HRH Queen Elizabeth turned 80 years old, but still possesses that terrifying indestructibility that can't be natural. I don't know what they feed the Queen, but I suspect it just might be bowls full of batteries.

Easter was spent in the beautiful New Forest, where I was charged by a wild pony (slight exaggeration) and we had an amazing traditional English dinner.

After catching up in New York, I had to come down to the Philadelphia Desk, which is where I am now. I am a Philly girl, born and raised, which means I have an inborn understanding of water ice, cheese steaks (I'm still waiting for a decent vegetarian version), and the Mummers Parade. I am here because my dad had an operation last week (he's okay). So I spent several days last week sitting around in a hospital waiting area, playing Scrabble.

Now, let me explain something that happens EVERY SINGLE TIME I get anywhere near a Scrabble board. Someone pulls it out, and immediately someone says, "Oh, Maureen! You're a writer! You must love Scrabble! Oh, you're going to beat me! You must be so good at it."

I don't like Scrabble.

Don't get wrong--I like a board game now and again. Just not Scrabble. Anything but Scrabble. I think it is incredibly tedious, and I'm terrible at it to boot. It's like I forget how to speak English when I play Scrabble. I think this is boredom sickness. I limp along with words like "ax," "quiz," and "rug." And those take minutes of brow-knitting concentration.

But we played Scrabble because it was the only game in the waiting room with all the pieces. This was a better option than the extremely boring magazines they had. However, in this very house, tonight, I spotted a magazine which may win the Most Boring Magazine in existence Award:

Actual magazine

Why my father was reading "Parking Today" is completely beyond me. I'm almost afraid to ask. He's never expressed much interest in parking before. I didn't know you could have an interest in parking.

Because I simply had to, I looked up "Parking Today." Turns out, you can read it at home. Yes! It's Parking Today.com!

What kinds of things can you find there?

Well, everyone loves PIE. That's the Parking Industry Exhibition, with THREE SOLID DAYS of seminars on . . . parking.

Need to keep up to date on all of the major parking events? Well then, better check out this parking events calendar.

It even has a PARKING BLOG!

If that is your sort of thing, and you obviously want to be miserable, why not enjoy a snack as you read? Or maybe something more spectacular? Just a drink, maybe?

No? Okay. Up to you.

If you want to read a story about me (and I don't know, maybe you do), then go here.

For now, I'm off to bed, as I've been in the middle of a near-constant allergy attack since my arrival home. Today I got some wonderful medication that may actually allow me to sleep. When I next blog, there are many pressing issues that must be addressed! Like the completely awesome environmental movement in England and why David Blaine is spending a week in a bubble of water. So, let's hope this pill does the trick.

If not, there's always "Parking Today."