February 10, 2005
The Rights to Write: This week, seasoned pro slash author slash Stephen King hero Jack Ketchum dispels some publishing myths and offers priceless advice to aspiring writers everywhere in the conclusion of his interview with Josh Jabcuga.
Hey everyone, before we get started with the second half of the interview, I just want to address a few things. I've been getting a ton of e-mails from readers who have actually never even heard of Jack Ketchum, which is nothing to be ashamed of, and I'm happy to see that they're eager to learn more about him and his work. Many of the emails are asking me to point them in the direction as far as which book would make a good starting-off point. That's a great question, and I applaud anyone willing to take a shot at trying something new and outside of what the mainstream stores are trying to cram down your throats. Personally, I'd recommend starting with THE GIRL NEXT DOOR or OFF SEASON, which will give you just a small taste, heh heh, of the author's prolific work.
I also received an email from Dave at The Overlook Connection Press. They're the cats who put out a large chunk of Mr. Ketchum's work, and they too, should be commended (or institutionalized?) for getting the word out to the masses. Dave's the big cheese over there, and he's got a special offer for 'Poopshoot readers who are interested in taking a stab at Black Jack Ketchum's work. You'll find his e-mail, and the special offer, at the conclusion of my interview with Mr. Jack Ketchum.
You used to work for a very highly regarded literary agency, even selling Henry Miller’s final book to Capra Press. Aside from the occasional highs like being involved with a Henry Miller project, you’ve described working that gig as hell on Earth. However, the personal contacts you had made and the experience you gained were invaluable, probably for one thing, because it led indirectly to your first book being published.
You manipulated and worked the system to your advantage. You hyped up the work of a fresh, new author, namely you, but under a pseudonym, put it in the hands of the right person at Ballantine, which in turn got you out of the slush pile, and then within a few weeks, based on your talent, they bought and published the book.
The job at the agency also taught you how to read a contract inside and out, and not get raked over the coals. Granted, most young writers would settle for a cup of coffee and a pat on the back just to get published, more now than ever maybe, but you personally encourage them to hold out for more. In one sense, you’ve almost become an advocate for the young writer, probably because of all the hurdles you’ve had to jump over during your own career and all the times you’ve had the balls to say, “Hey, this ain’t gonna go down like this.” One of the suggestions you’ve made was for first-time authors to never sign away their subsidiary rights. Can you give any other advice regarding what to look for in contracts before someone signs their life away to see their work in print?
Sub rights are the main thing. When a U.S. publisher buys you, all they're entitled to are first English-language rights including Canada (and excluding the U.K.) book club, first serial rights...and that's that. Usually a 50/50 split on book club and serial. All electronic, movie, TV, and foreign should be wholly retained by you. Somebody buying hardcover should not have a piece of the softcover (paperback) unless they're the ones publishing it and that would be part of the contract. Keep softcover for yourself. It should be obvious, but never invest in your own product -- in other words, if some house asks you to contribute feed-money to a book's publication you should tell them to kiss your ass. Don't worry about the clause that gives them "first rights" over your next product. All that means is that they have first refusal of your next product. It's only fair to submit to them first. But if their offer sucks, you can go elsewhere without contractual obligation. I advise that if you have a firm offer from a publisher, you seek out an agent, who, if the deal's any good, will be happy as hell just to do the paperwork and negotiate the terms in your favor, since they're already guaranteed a cut. (Should be 15% domestic, 20% foreign -- no more.) If you have any doubts about any given contract, try to contact somebody who's already dealt with that particular publisher and ask how he was treated -- is he happy or not? Sometimes a low advance gets made up on the back-end, in royalties, if the publisher keeps the book in print. Sometimes it just dies on the vine. DON'T go to a lawyer unless their expertise is in publishing. You'll spend too much money and end up looking like a damn fool.
One more thing…short stories: In anthologies, beware of "payment upon publication" -- particularly if their contract ties your piece up for a given period of time, a year, say. To hell with that. You should be paid on signature. The entire amount. Insist. Have some self-respect for god's sake. That way if this idiot goes bankrupt before your piece hits print you're paid and can sell it elsewhere. And any contract which ties your piece up for MORE than a year is excessive. Remember you are selling one-time, non-exclusive rights in the English language and that all other rights are retained by you.
We’ve all seen or heard about those rip-offs at the malls where some stranger walks up to you and says, “Hey, you’re attractive, you should be a model,” and then they scam someone, usually some insecure teenager into thinking she’ll be the next Cindy Crawford, but first, Surprise!, she needs have photos done for a portfolio, and, Shock!, it’ll cost $500 bucks, but “Hey, no modeling agency will touch you without one.”
The other example off the top of my head, and this one is a little more relevant given the context, are those stupid goddamn poetry contests that ask you to submit something for a chance to win a million dollar contract or a brand-new life, or toaster or whatever, but then you have to buy a copy of the book you’ve contributed to and buy a ticket to some seminar in Disney World where you’ll be awarded your prize. This one really irks me because I actually know someone that fell for this. She was a single mom with two kids and at the time, I worked with her as a bill collector. Talk about horror stories. Anyway this coworker showed me the letter that she received claiming she had won the contest, even though her “grand prize winning poem” actually had typos in it, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her, “Hey, don’t get your hopes up, this is just a scam.”
So let’s dispel some other publishing myths, not necessarily when it comes to signing a contract, but in other ways that agencies prey on hopeful, aspiring writers: You’ve said the whole deal with paying an agency to read your manuscript and give you an opinion on it is a load of crap. What other cold and heartless tactics are you aware of that agencies still keep in practice to feed on their young?
Again, the warning sign is the fee. Never pay anything to a publisher or an agent to have them handle your stuff. That's pretty much the scam -- money up front. A publisher? Shit, they're supposed to be paying YOU. An agent? He's supposed to be your partisan, unpaid unless he performs. Period.
You seem to, if not enjoy the process of writing, at least respect it to the point where you get good and comfy, dig your heels in and say, “I’m gonna be here for awhile.” I know you do extensive research when crafting your characters, and you probably exhaust every possibility, every choice that the characters might make, in order to reach the point of truth in your work. When do you feel satisfied or feel as if you’ve put enough time into the creation of your characters, the gestation period, if you will.
That varies greatly from book to book, story to story, even character to character within the same story. Some characters are harder than others to "get right" emotionally. The ones that spring most vividly to mind as difficult are Ruth in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and my Vietnam vet, Lee Moravian, in COVER. Ruth was hard because she could so easily to have become a caricature, Lee was harder still because I didn't want to minimize or sentimentalize his particular form of hurt -- I felt that if I did I'd be ripping off all Vietnam vets, everywhere, even if they never read the thing. On the other side of the difficulty spectrum, the boy in GIRL NEXT DOOR was like being dealt four aces right off the bat in a game of five-card stud. He was easy to write, because his anxieties and conflicts about viewing what he sees were very similar to mine about writing it. All I had to do was check in on my own morality and say you shouldn't be doing this. It's crazy. To hell with it -- you're doing it.
On the same note, is there a time when you say, “OK, this character I just dreamt up has a lengthy story to share. He deserves more than a short story; I’m going to give him a year’s worth of research followed by a year of writing, because he deserves a novel to run around in and convey his message and story”? I’m just trying to get a pulse on creating the characters first, as opposed to plotting first, and how this style affects your approach.
I pretty much know from the get-go whether my character's in a short story- or a novel-length project. I don't think any have surprised me. What has surprised me on numerous occasions is the extent to which a character will insist I give him more time, attention and emphasis within any given piece. When I began COVER I expected that my "famous writer" and the Vietnam vet would basically share the spotlight. As it turned out Moravian, the vet, simply refused to be dealt with that handily. He up and ate the book. In THE LOST I originally felt that Ray's friends Jennifer and Tim were going to be way less important to the story's overall impact than they turned out to be.
In the best of my stuff, I basically set my characters in motion, pay attention to what they tell me about themselves and then that's what I write. So clearly I'm going to get some surprises along the way. But that's part of the fun of it.
How would you define your writing? Are you a minimalist?
I wouldn't say I'm a minimalist -- or any kind of -IST at all. I write in various styles according to what I consider the demands of the piece. The language in my story TO SUIT THE CRIME, for instance, is practically baroque, whereas the language in the Stroup stories is pure Bukowski. I generally do try to write tight, though. Elmore Leonard said it better than I -- when asked how he got his work so tight he said something to the effect of, "I just leave out the boring parts." One trick I've learned from screenwriting is to try to come in as close to the end of any given scene as possible and still make the scene work. It kicks away a lot of useless exposition. Also I try to remember the advice Billy Altman at CREEM Magazine gave me many years ago. Assigned by him to my first record review ever I asked him what kind of stuff he was after. Billy smiled and shrugged and said, "Write lively."
On a really positive note, filming has just wrapped on your book THE LOST. Congrats! I know you’ve had your share of interest from Hollywood over the years, but this time things fell into all the right places. What can you tell me of the film? Will it see a theatrical release, a cable release, or a home rental release, and when?
Thanks! I've had options on almost all my books but this is the first one to actually get itself in the can. Lucky McKee, the producer, and Chris Severtson, the director, both really seem to like and respect my stuff and I know they're both talented, so I have high hopes for this one -- plus they enlisted some really good actors. (Myself excepted. I play a bartender in one scene, a walk-on. I can only hope I won't end up entirely on the cutting-room floor.) But as to how it'll be released, haven't a clue. My understanding is that first you bring in the movie, shoot high in terms of distribution, and then work your way down if you must. Fingers crossed.
Do you think THE LOST is your most accessible book and Hollywood wanted to test the waters first before diving straight in to some of your more risqué material?
First, I don't think there is a Hollywood at this point. Looks to me like it's just a bunch of guys from various backgrounds with various degrees of talent trying to get their stuff made. The few majors excepted. And the majors thus far don't seem to know I exist. I don't think THE LOST is any more accessible than, say, ROAD KILL aka JOYRIDE or COVER, and for the mainstream, it's probably less mass-market promotable than RED. I think it was just the vagaries of financing that got this one on the boards first.
As a writer, in what aspects have you seen your skills improve? Have you seen growth in your ability to tell stories? Are there any methods that you use to hone your skills, or that you have found useful in your overall development as a writer?
Damn. I tell stories. I'm not a high stylist. I'm not Proust or Faulkner. I read a lot, at least a book a week if not more -- and I steal licks whenever I see one that I can maybe use. I'll be reading something and the AHA! button starts flashing. Willie Nelson says somewhere, "let's settle down and steal another song." I like that. Learn from the good guys. So my inventory of potential maneuvers, my approaches to how a story can possibly be told, has increased over the years. And I've learned that there are some things I'm better at than others. By trial and error. I just read Russell Banks' THE DARLING. A guy -- an enormously talented guy -- writing an entire novel from the first-person point of view of a woman -- and you believe the voice completely. I read it for the book, for the sheer gripping story he was telling just like any reader would, and read it for the way he wrote it as well. And I fully intend to steal some of Russell's song somewhere along the line.
You want to hone your skills? Read the good ones. Read them always. They'll seep right into your skin and make you richer.
In closing, what’s your next project? What can fans expect?
That's the one I don't answer. Thanks!
Visit Jack Ketchum's official website:
Special offer on Jack Ketchum books for MoviePoopShoot.com readers from The Overlook Connection Press!
“Hey Everyone! This is Dave, publisher of The Overlook Connection Press. Stephen King says "Who’s the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum." Being the major publisher of Jack Ketchum's work, we have his next book, OFFSPRING, coming in April of this year. This is the sequel to OFF SEASON, in a Signed Limited edition. We also have THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, with a 3,000 word introduction by Stephen King.
We have a special offer to MoviePoopShoot.com readers - order any Jack Ketchum title published by us and we'll include a FREE SIGNED BOOKPLATE with your copy! AND we'll give you FREE SHIPPING. Just mention you saw us here on MoviePoopShoot.com. You can visit our website at www.overlookconnection.com for more information on Jack Ketchum and his work.”
Another superb source to find a Ketchum fix, Gauntlet Press:
Praise for the writing of Josh Jabcuga, who pens Squib Central, published every Thursday, exclusively at www.moviepoopshoot.com:
“Josh Jabcuga can take the 26 measly letters of our crude alphabet and capture the bi-polar soul of all that is classically yet disturbingly American. Then, when his typewriter is left to cool, he can turn right around…completely ready to trounce any drunk punk that’s got me backed into a corner.” –The Colonel J.D. Wilkes of The Legendary Shack*Shakers.
Press kits, promos, items for consideration to be reviewed in Squib Central should be sent to:
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