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Newsletter for:
Monday, 26 October, 2009

  • Rant 'o The Week: Shield Laws
  • School News
  • Featured Courses
  • Essay: Agents' response times
  • Web Links
  • Your News
  • Feedback

Shield Laws: by Director Stephen Morrill

Slow week at WritersCollege HQ. I apologize for mis-linking last week's newsletter here at the web site. If you were totally frustrated, I have repaired the bad link. Here's last week's newsletter.

One news item this past week got my attention more than most. There crops up, every few years, the debate over shield laws. Shield laws protect reporters from having to divulge their sources, interviews, notes, etc., to the police or prosecutors. There is a federal shield law in Congress now, and probably likely to croak at least for this session, maybe for this administration. President Obama was all in favor of it when he was a senator. As chief executive, he completely changed his mind because someone trotted out the old "terroism" boogyman and Obama, in the blink of an eye, sold reporters down the river rather than offend Fox news.

Why, you may ask, would a reporter not want to cooperate with law enforcement and happily hand over everything the cops ask for? Isn't that what a good citizen is supposed to do? A citizen, yes, a reporter, no. It's a rather arcane concept, I admit, but one enshrined in 400 years of English law. There are two dynamics at work here:

1. It is the job of the press/media to protect the Republic from the excesses of any of the three branches of government and to function as a combination watchdog and ombudsman for the people. The original term The Fourth Estate was coined in France and referred to the Nobility, the Church and the Commoners as the Three Estates. The press was designated as the Fourth Estate. In today's democracy it's usually thought of as the legislature, the executive branch and the courts, at various local, state and national levels, and the press as the Fourth Estate to those three.

2. If people knew the reporter would 'rat them out' to the cops, nobody would talk to reporters. If no one talks to reporters we, the citizens, remain uninformed, which would be just fine with most lawmakers. But it's generally conceded that a well-informed electorate is essential to a democracy. Everyone from the President down to the local rape victim assumes, if they ask this, that some details they give to the reporter will be held confidential. Details like their identities.

Reporters go to jail yearly over this issue, when they refuse to reveal sources or information they had promised to keep confidential. More than 30 states now have shield laws to protect reporters in taking this stand. The federal law was intended to set an even standard across the United States.

The latest battle in this war that caught my eye was a demand by the Cook County (Chicago) prosecutor's office that the journalism school at Northwestern University turn over the grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students themselves. Why this absurd-on-its-face demand? Obviously this is a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participleation). SLAPP suits are commonly used by big companies to tie up in endless litigation small environmental organizations, but they work equally well when a government agency seeks to shut up a citizen. In this case, the students, practicing to be investigative journalists, examine court cases. In the past ten years this second look (remember the function of Fourth Estate as ombudsman?) has uncovered eleven cases of wrongfully-convicted people, people free once more because the students found information the prosecutors either didn't know about or which they knew of but suppressed. If there is anything that ticks off a prosecutor more than having a bunch of college kids doing his job, it's having them do it better.

Here's the story, in the New York Times.

In this case the annoyed prosecutor may have bitten off more than he can swallow. The department head at Northwestern says that he will go to jail rather than comply. And he knows how to spread the word, too. The prosecutors, far from silencing an annoying student project, are about to come face to face with Mark Twain's old admonition of: Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

SCHOOL NEWS: No new courses this week. Maybe next week. Stay tuned. I'll list all our latest additions below. Check them out in more detail at the Catalogs page:

Article Writing with Usha Sliva: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see your article and name appear in Cosmopolitan or Flair; Entrepreneur or Newsweek? The pride and joy is indescribable. And the pay, not bad! Learn how to become an accomplished article writer and pitch your work to magazines of your choice. It’s all in the writing, selling and presentation and this course will teach you step by step, how handle each one of them.

These are new courses too, having been added in the past month:
Experimental Fiction Joining the Dialogue with Tantra Bensko: If you enjoy the idea of pushing beyond the boundaries of ordinary fiction, this course will allow you to play, and to forge new directions in literature which remain compelling for the reader. You will also consider how you fit into the history and ongoing presentation of experimental fiction, delve into new parts of your psyche, and start making connections with magazines.

Publish Your Writing Creative Writing that Creates Income!with Ned McIntosh: This course offers a series of progressive one-page Teaching Guides of the crafts of writing and submitting, leading up to the specific goals of submitting works for publication. The course should help determine whether the student has both the talent and drive necessary to become a published author.

FEATURED COURSES: (Also see our homepage for daily featured courses)

Essays and Personal Stories: This is a class for any writer who is motivated to write short pieces based on his or her personal experiences, explorations, dreams, longings, emotions, thoughts, and/or ideas. These pieces can be targeted to magazines or complied into a book.

Flash Fiction: Flash fiction, when crafted with care, works within the boundaries of the genre and on the periphery of traditional storytelling. In the world of flash, a compelling story can be told in fewer than a hundred words!

Nonfiction Book Proposals: The best kept secret to marketing nonfiction books is that you don’t have to write the entire book. In this course, you will learn about all of the elements that need to be included in a book proposal and how to put them together for maximum effect on the agent and/or editor, setting you on the path to signing a contract with a publisher.

Shadow Writing: Are you curious about writer’s block (a myth), the dreams, longings, cravings, obsessions, and needs that distract you from your writing because of the strength of their grip? Do you suspect that there are depths that you can’t quite reach in your writing for fear of turning up something unpleasant? In this class, we will turn toward these things. Step on the accelerator and move into one of the darkest places you’ve ever been as a writer—your own unconscious.

Web Presence for Writers: Develop a basic knowledge of the internet, how it functions, how web sites are made, and the steps necessary to build your own web site. Learn how easy it is to have your web presence!

ESSAY: No news is—well—no news. Agents and response times
by Director Steve Morrill

A word about agents. These go-betweens who represent writers to book publishers are sometimes essential, often helpful, and all-too-often a little self-centered. Given that we worship the ground upon which they walk, it would be hard to be an agent to not feel superior. That most don't is a tribute to their dedication to the industry and their common sense. And writers can be awfully naive and demanding in their own right, something agents put up with to varying degree.

Agents, too, need to make a living and just as magazine writers like to have ongoing relationships with editors because it leaves more time for income-producing work, agents would obviously like to work with long-term clients too. (Leaving the question of: How do you get a long-term client if you won’t take them on to begin with?)

But. The writer has to make a living too, or at least see some forward progress on gettng published before the writer dies of old age and frustration. And I have seen agents take four months to respond with a rejection, in some cases that long just to bother to open my envelope, snatch out the SASE inside, toss the manuscript into a trash can unread, stuff the SASE with a standard form, and drop it into the mail. Most businesses, treating their would-be clients with such contempt, would go broke. But the writing sea is large and full of starving fish and it takes only a small net to catch enough for dinner.

If every agent took four months to respond with a turn-down (or never responded at all) and you had to go through a dozen agents to get a nibble, and you do all this serially, you are potentially looking at four years to sell an idea. That’s silly. I became ensnared in this many years ago and learned a lesson:

Don’t play this game by their rules.

Of course the agents wants exclusivity and for a long period of time. Of course the publisher wants this too. Who wouldn’t? And of course they tell you that this is "the standard practice" and that you should be patient. But that doesn’t mean that you have to play by their rules. This is a business transaction. Would you walk into an automobile dealership and tell the sales person, "I really like your Belchfire Special over there. Now park it out back for four months while I think about buying it. Don’t let anyone else see it; I want exclusivity." I suppose you could do that, let me know how it works for you.

Now we get to some rather—um—scaly philosophy. Feel free to spit on me, or at least on the screen if you please, you will not be the first. But, to me, part of not playing their game is not even engaging the question of whether or not I’m giving the agent an exclusive. Oh, sure, I have no problem with two weeks. I would do that. But more than that and I am inclined to not only not give them an exclusive but, if they ask, to tell them whatever they want to hear.

Quite frankly, this question, “Are you giving me an exclusive” is none of their business. Do I ask editors if they have received similar queries from other writers and, if so, would they, the editors, please tell those writers to hold off while my idea is under consideration? Of course not; it’s not my business and the editors would be correct in telling me to go to hell.

I suppose a compromise between, "Of course I’m giving you an exclusive" when you are not doing that at all, and "that question is inappropriate and none of your damn business" is the two-week window. That’s doable for the writer. Whether it’s doable for the agent is another issue but, ask yourself, if an agent takes four months to respond at all, is that not an indication of how the working relationship is going to go, or not go, as well?


The Guardian did an excellent interactive story last week on the origin of the World Wide Web. Check it out, it's fascinationg.

On the anniversary (more or less) of the financial meltdown, here a revisit to Save an Executive.

The New Yorker's take on book marketing plans. Funny but painfully accurate too. (Maybe too accurate; I have it in confidence from one book editor that her company did, in fact, go to the Frantfurt Book Fair, then on retreat and then everyone off on vacation, exactly as parodied in the column.)

And finally, just for chuckles: Here is a Car Talk cartoon.

WHO's DOING WHAT: Please send us some News We Can Use about your writing efforts.

Nothing. De Nada, zip. Zilch. Rein. TELL ME WHAT YOU'RE UP TO WITH YOUR WRITING! I can use your comments on the essays, above, too. Thanks and good writing!

Got a response? Write to me with:

  • Your news about your writing
  • Suggestions for the school
  • An essay to be featured in the newsletter
  • A good writing web site I need to know about
  • Whatever else I need to know

The above might be printed. I usually use names. If you wish something different, or want a web site mentioned, tell me.

Stephen Morrill, Director