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Hope or Hype
Inside Writing Sessions

 
Image courtesy of Inside Sessions.

Desperately seeking publication? Submit your manuscript directly to a senior New York editor specializing in your genre. Bypass all that time-consuming research into agents and editors. Sail around post-anthrax mail blockades. Short-circuit the wait for a response. Be the first person on your block to earn a Tom Clancy-sized advance.

The kicker -- most of it is true.

Last October, the Universal Music Group, publishing giant Penguin Putnam International and Inside Sessions, LLC, unveiled two interactive, multi-media, distance learning courses covering the music and book publishing industry. Television commercials and America On-Line banner ads promised subscribers direct access and feedback from media movers and shakers.

Each course features the video perspectives of stars like Amy Tan, Robert Parker, Sheryl Crow and Sting, supplemented by the "behind the curtain" expertise of top editors, publishers, agents and media lawyers. Initially, both courses came in two versions: a basic version, which permitted subscribers to submit to Penguin Putnam or Universal, and a deluxe version promising detailed feedback on individual submissions.

Writing Session: Course Notes

Do follow the system specs. You'll never achieve lift-off without all the necessary software.

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"Phyllis Grann [former Penguin Putnam CEO] and Doug Morris of Universal Music Group have been friends for a long time. One day they began brainstorming about teaching what they know -- using their expertise in the publishing business and the music business to create something that talks about the creative and business sides of publishing and music," said Penguin Putnam Vice President, Corporate Director of Business Affairs John Schline.

"We already do that a lot at conferences and in writing seminars," Schline added. But modern distance learning capabilities provide more bang for the buck.

Imagine the logistics of staging a seminar with forty or so of the world's top authors, editors, publicists, agents and lawyers, complete with reference materials. Then imagine the cost. Yet one hyperlinked CD-ROM can deliver everything you'd encounter at that seminar except the after-hours networking in the conference bars.

Add to the mix the fact that Penguin Putnam belongs to the Pearson international media group, which includes The Financial Times and Pearson Education. Pearson looks for areas of synergy between its components and recently announced a new educational, trade paperback book series by distinguished scholars in the fields of social, political, cultural, economic and diplomatic history.

Writing Sessions, the writing/publishing component of Inside Sessions, represents another area of synergy. "Inside Sessions allows us to bring together the publishing expertise of Penguin Putnam and the education expertise of Pearson to create a very strong course," Schline said.

Available either in streaming video or on CD, Writing Sessions incorporates 10 "sessions" or chapters, ranging from "The Realities of the Writing Life" to "How to Approach Publishers" to "What's Next? The Author and the Future of Publishing." Within each session, a browser view displays a window for streaming video, links to references and biographies, and a text window highlighting key elements of the narration. Viewers can also choose a full screen version of the talking heads, but the browser view provides more options, allowing users to view speaker bios and other course materials in context with the videos.

Kurt Vonnegut on Writing Sessions. (Image courtesy of Inside Sessions)

Inside Sessions Senior Vice President Lori DeWolfe noted, "Phyllis Grann was the critical player in attracting the participants for the writing program. Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Clancy, Amy Tan, Nick Hornby and David McCullough are a few of the participants she brought on board. All Writing Sessions participants, including those recruited by Grann, were excited to share their real-world experiences and insights with people who aspire to follow in their footsteps."

Schline, himself a contributor to the course, feels especially proud of its scope, which spans genres and generations. "I might also mention that the course includes some really great advice from literary agents and publishing lawyers -- information which would be really hard to get if you weren't in the business," he said.

Writing Sessions provides tremendous insight into Penguin Putnam operations and how the company works with agents and lawyers to create and nurture its stable of top-selling writers. Grann and PPI colleagues such as Neil Nyren, Susan Peterson Kennedy and Stephen Rubin describe their missions and methods. Attorney Robert Levine's remarks underscore the importance of agents and lawyers to the professional writer. In addition, the straight -- if potentially scary -- skinny on publicity from the publisher's perspective may be worth the price of admission all by itself.

But will it get you published?

Writing Sessions will not teach you how to write. The course delivers insight, not instruction. Students seeking to learn how to write a killer opening line will be shuttled, by default, to links to the Amazon.com display pages of the featured writers' works.

Additional links direct students to the Writer's Resource Center run by John Hewitt, author of Writing for Broadcast News. The Writer's Resource Center offers a number of useful free exercises for beginning writers, but those exercises were not designed to evaluate the marketability of a given writing sample.

Instead, Writing Sessions functions best as "senior seminar" on for professionally minded writers who've already spent some time honing their craft. The course's content presupposes that users possess the maturity and sophistication to objectively assess their work against that of the featured writers.

But fans of participating writers (see inset) will find much to applaud. Writing Sessions presents its literary stars in a continuous video stream taken from lengthy interviews. Famous curmudgeons expand on their reputations. At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Datcher exhorts writers to shoot for greatness, while Jayne Anne Krentz cautions, "The most notable feature of a work is most likely to be the most controversial."

To take a page from Krentz, Writing Sessions' kaleidoscope of perspectives may be its greatest gift to aspiring writers, but it may also serve as the greatest stumbling block for those seeking a single, foolproof recipe for literary success. From the mouths of the writers themselves, almost anything goes. Are you a closet Luddite? A. Scott Berg still puts all his notes on index cards. Do you start with "What if" and go from there? Nora Roberts understands. Obsessed with the dance of words on a page? Meet Chang-Rae Lee, who will rewrite a line as many times as it takes to get it right.

Writing Sessions:Featured Writers

Melissa Bank

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"We tried to feature writers talking about what they felt most passionate about," Schline said. "Surprisingly, a lot of writers talked about writer's block. You could see the pain on their faces."

Commentary and balance arise from the juxtaposition of two or more writers' views, or in context with the opinions expressed by an industry professional. Often, the text screen next to the small video display emphasizes a key point in the narrative. But sometimes viewers get provocative tidbits a la Pop-Up-Videos®:

"Ken Follett is so convinced of the value of editors, he invited six of them to look at his latest manuscript."

"Chang-Rae Lee is a basher."

The format showcases the participants to best advantage. Inside Sessions' partners designed it that way. Penguin Putnam views Writing Sessions as a promotional tool. To quote Schline, "Inside Sessions is an opportunity for our authors to share more of themselves and their knowledge with their readers and reach new audiences."

For the moment Sessions statistics prove somewhat harder to grasp than their goals. "We are thrilled to report that thousands of aspiring writers have signed up for the Writing Sessions course since it launched," DeWolfe said.

She added, "The vast majority have shown more interest in signing up for the deluxe program. However, we are not breaking down the specific numbers."

To be fair, potential subscribers probably don't care about the numbers. They want to know whether Writing Sessions delivers their manuscript into the hands of a qualified Penguin Putnam editor. The answer to that from all sources -- official and unofficial -- is yes.

Schline reports receiving a few hundred manuscripts to date. "We've spread the manuscripts among a dozen-plus editors. We're looking for the most appropriate editor who has the time to do it. We don't want the process to take forever.

"We will take care of everyone who signed up," Schline said. Writers with an understanding of their rights will be reassured to learn that care extends to protecting the authors' copyright on their submissions.

Not everyone will receive detailed feedback on their manuscripts, however. Writing Sessions withdrew its deluxe version in mid-January. (As of this writing, Music Sessions continues to offer this option.)

"Due to the overwhelming response from the writing community, we needed to suspend the written critiques, although Penguin Putnam editors will continue to review all manuscripts received prior to the change," DeWolfe said. "We will continue to honor our commitment to provide written feedback from a Penguin Putnam editor on any submission for which the critique was purchased prior to Jan. 11, 2002. We hope to return those manuscripts to their authors with the critique within the next three months."

Schline echoed DeWolfe's goal of a three-month turnaround on manuscripts -- a three-month turnaround based on a manuscript's arrival date at PPI's New York offices. (Writing Sessions processes and bundles the manuscripts prior to forwarding them.)

Not bad, considering that Penguin Putnam will not specify a turnaround time on an unagented submission. The turnaround on agented submissions varies too, depending on whether a manuscript goes to auction and the strength of the author/editor relationship. Plus, Writing Sessions' packages qualify as known quantities to the Penguin Putnam's mailroom.

DeWolfe reports that most of the submissions fall into the categories of mainstream and romance. "Given that the course is six hours long, it is difficult to gauge at which point writers are submitting. Most students submit the manuscripts for review within six weeks after receiving the course," DeWolfe said.

"It is very difficult to generalize the quality of the manuscript submissions we have received," DeWolfe continued. "Much time is spent providing individualized feedback on each submission, so it's difficult to say what the typical criticisms are."

Maybe.

"There were a lot of people who signed up and sent in their manuscript right away," Schline said. "That wasn't what we wanted. We wanted them to take the course.

"It really is about the course."

Jean Marie Ward