Check Your Story’s Nervous System

May 31, 2013
Take a moment and think of your writing as a living thing. That’s probably not that big a stretch since, as living things do, your writing  changes, adapts, reacts to feedback and other stimuli.  Our nervous system sends, receives, and interprets information from internal and external sources.
Your writing’s nervous system does the same thing. When you write, you create a story from the realm of nothingness. Your first draft enters the territory of the potential. Then the backbone of the story, the nervous system, begins to develop.
Whether you’re writing a novel or short fiction, the story must be strong and clear. You do that with a combination of what happens (plot) and how it’s told (style).
Your writing sends, receives, and interprets information from your own creativity and well as from stimuli outside yourself. It moves your reader from seeing words to seeing images. Writing holds readers when it challenges them with questions they want to read on and find the answers to.
Create an experience readers can relate to and interpret through their own lives and points of reference, through their own nervous system.
So, how does your story’s nervous system check out? Use these tips to help you.
  • Is the story strong enough to hold the reader?
  • Is the story clear to others (not just you)?
  • Does the story offer questions to compel the reader to read on?
  • Does the story contain action-powered images?
  • Can readers relate to the story (relationships, experiences, feelings, etc.)?
  • Does the story show the characters’ motivations?
  • Do the characters act and react appropriately or realistically?

Health professionals encourage us to lose weight and exercise for better lives. The same goes for your writing. The leaner your writing, the better it is. Give your story’s nervous system a check-up once in awhile.

Happy writing!

Eight Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

May 29, 2013

It’s been said that more people talk about writing than actually write. Writing involves more than putting finger to keyboard or pen to paper. Consider these eight steps to becoming a better writer.

  1. Set aside 30 minutes a day that’s dedicated to writing. When I taught my “Writing for Fun and Profit” series courses at the local colleges, in one of the courses I challenged students to find 30 minutes a day to write. With all the suggestions made, the best one that works consistently is to schedule the time and honor your commitment to yourself to do something to become a better writer in those 30 minutes.
  2. Develop your writing voice by listening to yourself talk. You may even try talking aloud to yourself as you sit at your computer or with your spiral notebook.
  3. Write to a formula or plan. Periodicals like numbers (did the number in the title of this blog post catch your attention?). Nonfiction books use structure (preface, introduction, a number of chapters, about the author, etc.). Genre fiction also uses structure (romance–including all the sub-genres, mystery–including all the sub=genres, etc.).
  4. Write questions you think your reader wants answers to. Too often authors know their topics so well that they forget their readers don’t. Your job is to answer all the questions your reader may have because your reader can’t ask you directly while reading.
  5. Find an editor. You cannot edit your own stuff because you already know what you mean and you’ll see that meaning in your writing–even if it isn’t there.
  6. Join a writers group. I belonged to one for years that met every Friday afternoon at 1:oo pm. We were a group of four and to keep us on task, we required everyone bring something to read to the group. If a person didn’t bring something to read, he/she had to bring treats (food) for everyone. It’s amazing that no one ever brought food, but they didn’t. Why a writers group? You”ll learn from feedback on the others’ writing as well as from the feedback you get on your own.
  7. Get the right kind of feedback. By that I mean feedback that encourages you to rethink, to celebrate, to correct, etc. Your family loves you. Your friends love you. They want to encourage you with positive praise. But that’s not helpful if your writing needs work (and whose doesn’t?). What you need is feedback from people who will tell you whether they are likely/unlikely/eager to read on or to read more.
  8. Read widely and find things you might not otherwise find. Of course you want to read in the area you write in, but you also want to read beyond that. Read fiction, non-fiction, classics, articles. One caution, however, is to read things that are well-written and well-edited so you don’t pick up any bad habits.

You might want to copy just the eight steps (not the explanations) down and post them somewhere to keep you on track.

Happy writing!

Which Editor in the Masthead Gets the Query?

May 21, 2013

If you want a magazine to buy your article, you need to make sure your query letter gets to the right person. You begin by looking over the masthead. There is no standard masthead so you have some decisions to make. Here are some tips to help you.

  • Since job titles are cheap, look at both title and where the name is positioned in the masthead lineup.
  • Larger magazines put the Editor or Editor-in-Chief at the top–that’s too high to bother with your query letter.
  • Read on down the masthead and find the editor who handles what you’re selling–Articles Editor, Features Editor, Beauty Editor, Fashion Editor, etc.
  • If there’s no specific title such as Articles or Features, look for the Managing Editor.
  • If there’s no Managing Editor, the third name down the masthead is a good bet as the person who makes the buying decisions.
  • You’ve gone too far down the masthead if you run into Senior Editor, Contributing Editor, Associate Editor, or Assistant Editor. These are hard-working folks, but chances are they don’t have the purchasing authority you seek.
  • Smaller magazines may have only a handful of names on the masthead. If that’s what you discover, go ahead and address your query to the name at the top since that’s probably the person with purchasing authority.

With all that said, don’t overlook the value of connecting with editorial staff even if they don’t have purchasing authority. Sometimes the only way to get your foot in the door is by connecting with someone a bit lower on the masthead.

Finally, if you absolutely cannot determine which name should get your query, go ahead and call the main number of the publication and ask. This is a last resort, but it’s better than sending your query without a person’s name on it.

If you make the sale, it’s your job to listen to whatever the editor tells you–point of view, deadlines, word count, etc. are all things the editor could cover. Professional writers deliver quality writing on time. That means the article requires little editing. Once your reputation for professionalism is noted, you’re on your way to developing a good working relationship with your editor. And, as in any industry, editors move on to other publications and take their contacts with them, which could be great for you.

Writers who stay within word count, meet deadlines, and require little editing are harder to find than you realize. That’s why so many magazines are staff written. Prove you’re one of the elite who delivers and you’ll be freelancing as much as you want.

Happy writing!

It’s May, so Think Winter!

May 16, 2013

Magazine writers have a unique way of viewing the yearly calendar. It’s May and most people are thinking of Memorial Day, graduation, and summer. But magazine writers are thinking  Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s Day. Why is that? Because the lead time for magazines can be anywhere from seven to nine months prior to the month on the magazine cover.

If you’ve been thinking about writing for magazines, but haven’t figured out a system to get your timing down for querying your article ideas, consider these tips.

  • Create a square graphic and divide the square into quarters (one quarter for each of the four seasons). In the quadrant labeled “Spring,” list the four spring months–March, April, May. In the quadrant labeled “Summer,” list the four summer months–June, July, August. Repeat the process for the two remaining quadrants. Fall months are September, October, November, and winter months are December, January, February.
  • Look at each month and think seven to nine months ahead. For example, when you look at May, think December and under “May” write down article idea ticklers for December such as Christmas traditions, last-minute gifts, etc. When you look at June, think January and under “June” write down January article ideas such as resolutions, coping with credit card bills, winter blues, etc. Repeat for each month and you’ll know when to query your ideas so they arrive at the right time for the editors to accept or reject your query.
  • Set up a system of file folders labeled January through December. It doesn’t matter whether your system is in your computer or in old-fashioned file folders, just as long as you use it. Using your square graphic as a guide, drop your article ideas, or even your written articles, in the appropriate monthly folder. For example, in your “May” folder, you’ll have Christmas stuff. In your “June” folder, you’ll have stuff related to whatever you listed in the square quadrant under June (for publication in January issues of magazines). And so it goes.
  • Use your system year round to collect ideas and information for the coming year as well. Magazine writers know certain months carry certain articles. Your job is to provide the editor a new angle on those ideas and to offer your new angle in a timely manner to get it into the editorial calendar.

If you want to do well as a  magazine writer, you should have at least twelve query letters out at all times. Your job is to match your article idea to the right magazine, so keep a list of every magazine you think might buy each idea, then send the query to the top magazine on your list. If you get a rejection, send it to the next one on the list, etc. Don’t despair, just keep working. You’ll get there.

Happy writing!

Need Supporting Characters? Look Around!

May 13, 2013

Authors spend a lot of time developing their main characters, but sometimes forget that supporting characters are important too. Where would Sherlock be without Watson?

Here are some tips to help you find supporting characters.

  • Create a system (whether it be a form, index cards, or a notebook) to record descriptions of real-life strangers.
  • In your system, note physical characteristics you see at first sight. Then let your creativity help you create the details about their backgrounds, activities, reactions, etc. For example, why does the woman look both ways twice (instead of once each way) before crossing the street? Why don’t the man and woman at the next table look at each other during lunch?

Once you’ve got your system figured out, you’ll need to actually observe people to put into your system. Here are some ideas for doing that.

  • Sit in your car outside the supermarket as if you were waiting for someone. Observe those who walk by and make notes on what you see. Which ones caught your eye right away? Why? Did you see the person go in and come out? How long were they shopping? What do you suppose they bought? Who are they shopping for? Self? Family? Aging neighbor? Sick friend? Church supper?
  • Take a walk through your neighborhood. Observe how people keep their property. Which yards are groomed? Which ones are untidy? Which ones have flowers? For those that don’t, why not? Owner is allergic to bees, maybe? Are the shades drawn in the daytime? Why is that, do you suppose?
  • Enjoy a meal in a restaurant. Observe the other diners and how they interact with each other. How animated are their conversations? Are they even having a conversation? Does one discreetly observe the other without the other’s knowledge? Why is that, do you suppose?
  • Look around at other commuters during rush hour. Describe the car and how well the driver matches. For example, is a teenager driving a new convertible? What shape is the car in? What’s the driver doing? Texting? Phoning? Singing? Frowning? Laughing? How many people to a car? How are people driving? Aggressively? Patiently?
  • Watch sporting events, but don’t forget the fans. How do strangers participate? Cheer? Slap hands with friends? Cup hands around mouth and yell? Stand up? Sit quietly and just watch?
  • Tune into others in public places such as airports, medical or dental offices, laundromats, or just about any other place you find yourself waiting. How do people spend their time when held captive? Reading periodicals? Reading old fashioned books or e-readers? Studying their phones? Working on laptops? Eating? Watching you watch them?

Once you’ve got your notes on your observations, make sure you transfer the information into your system so you can keep it forever. You may not use every supporting character you discover, but you’ll have a plethora of them waiting for you when you need them. Every story needs supporting characters. You may as well make yours as memorable as you can.

Happy writing!

Do You Need a Development Editor?

May 10, 2013

Authors know what they want to say, but sometimes they’re so close to their writing that they don’t fill in the blanks as well as they think they do. If you’ve noticed that in your writing, you may want to consider working with a development editor. Here’s a primer for you.

  • A development editor figures out what works in your book and what doesn’t. Then he or she offers specific suggestions on how to correct the issue or fix the problem.
  • A development editor asks you about your agenda in writing the book, then questions you to discover whether or not that’s what’s getting in the way of the book’s purpose/flow.
  • A development editor offers a comprehensive critique of your book. This isn’t the same as content or copy editing, however. It’s an analytical critique of the book over all.
  • A development editor may do content or copy editing, but those are additional services and paid for separately.
  • A development editor provides a cost/price proposal and keeps you abreast of progress in terms of deadline and costs.

Why would you invest in a development editor? Once an agent or acquisitions editor rejects a book, there’s little hope of having an improved version considered. Thus, you’ll want your manuscript in the best shape possible before shopping it around.

How do you find a development editor? As with anything, word-of-mouth and referrals typically offer best results. You may get referrals from agents or other editors, and if you do, you’ll want to be sure they aren’t  in “associate” programs where one pays a fee or commission to the other for business sent.

How do you make your decision? Find out how the development editor works, how he or she proposes to go about the project, and what references he or she can provide. My experience with references is they’re always positive or they wouldn’t be offered to you.

Bottom line is not all authors write the same way ,and not all development editors work the same way. Do some homework, and find the one who works best with you.

Happy writing!

Used Bookstores–Author Friend or Foe?

May 6, 2013

Since authors make their money on initial sales of books (royalties), what should they think of used bookstores that sell books without authors receiving any of the money?

I understand the frustration authors feel about not getting paid anything when their books are sold second-hand, but I also  see value in having used bookstores and here’s why.

  • When a book goes out of print, a used bookstore may be the only place to find it. If your fans don’t discover you until your third or fourth book, they can only get your earlier works in second-hand outlets.
  • Used bookstores offer great research material. Yes, we have the Internet, but sometimes looking at old non-fiction books offers an excellent research option.
  • The investment is reasonable when buying books in a used bookstore. By that I mean you can take a chance on an author new to you for less money.
  • Used bookstores recycle books rather than dump them in the landfill.

As with any issue, however, there are two sides. Here’s why used bookstores are often frowned upon by authors.

  • No royalties are paid to the author on used books when they’re sold.
  • Not all books sold in used bookstores are old books. One used bookstore owner I know took her staff to the regional book show every year (where new releases are given out by publishers), and she and her staff loaded up on as many free books as possible to stock her store.
  • Used bookstores provide no accountability on books sold (except for their own accounting purposes).
  • To save money, bookstores often rip the covers off paperback books and send just the cover back instead of the entire book. Paperback books without front covers are reported destroyed, thus the publisher and distributor and author receive no payment. Some paperback books even carry the message of the missing cover in the front part of the book. At any rate, I’ve seen used bookstores sell cover-less paperbacks, which means they’re selling property that’s never been paid for.

The next time you visit a used bookstore, see it with new eyes and decide for yourself whether it’s an author’s friend or foe.

Happy writing!

Article Ideas are Found Everywhere

May 3, 2013

One of the best ways to get published is by writing articles. But sometimes finding ideas is the hardest part of the writing process. See how many of these ways for finding article ideas work for you.

  • Ask, “What if?” I’ve said many times that writers are observers of life. So, why not look at life with new eyes and ask the what-if question? Example: What if you couldn’t use your cell phone for a week?
  • Tune into the news. What stories interest you? Why? What questions pop up about those stories? What is the larger implication of the story? Write your reactions to these questions so you can research and write articles about them.
  • Consider what you talk about. If you’ve talked to a handful of people about a specific topic, that topic may work as an article idea.
  • Go against the flow. Take a commonly held view and write the opposite. For example, I learned to dislike gardening as a child. I vowed I’d never pull another weed once I became an adult–and I haven’t! Instead, I get fresh produce at the farmer’s market. I buy fruit by the lug and can it in one day. I freeze vegetables all at once instead of picking a few this week and putting them by (or up, depending on where you live), then repeating the process several times during the gardening season.
  • Observe a thing or a person or a process. Watch people do what they do, write down what you see, and figure out why they do things in a specific order or manner.
  • Discover a different angle. When I taught my college class series, “Writing for Fun and Profit,” I told my magazine-writing students that if they didn’t get at least three angles from an article’s research, they weren’t using their time well. Example: I interviewed an antiquarian bookstore owner and sold three articles (each to a different market). They were (1) the profile of the woman herself; (2) the uniqueness of the bookstore, including ts typical customers and events held; (3) what to look for in buying antiquarian books. All of those articles came from one interview.
  • Recycle old ideas. Go back through your journals, notebooks, writings, etc. and see what old ideas are new again. You might even find article ideas in old magazines from garage sales or your own basement. See if you can find an old idea that needs updating.
  • Talk with people about their experiences. One of my writing group buddies had been on Wheel of Fortune. He couldn’t talk specifically about his show experience, but he could talk about how he decided to apply, what he felt when he won, what he felt when he lost, and how his life changed since the experience.

Look over the list and try some of these tips. The important thing is you get yourself writing because the days fly by quicker than you realize and your readers are waiting.

Happy writing!

Some Things to Consider When Self-publishing

May 1, 2013

Publishing is business, not dream fulfillment. Look around and you’ll see more publishing options than ever. Why? Authors think about being published, but they don’t think about the business end of the process. They willingly pay some “self-publishing company” to publish their book and never think about what they’re really doing.

Here are some things to consider when  self-publishing.

  • Cost. Many of the self-publishing companies charge an initial fee. You need to analyze what you get for that initial amount of money. Do you get editing? Proofreading? Custom cover design (or just a template)? Custom interior design/layout that complements your cover? ISBN? Library of Congress number?  Freight? Printing?  OR, worse yet, does the company charge a la carte for services? Anyone who’s eaten a la carte in a restaurant knows that’s the most expensive way to go.
  • Print run. Consider doing as small a print run (assuming you’re not doing your book as print on demand) as possible, but is still economically reasonable. There are two reasons for this: (1) You’ll catch errors you can correct in next print run. (2) You’ll avoid boxes of books stacked in your bedroom reminding you that no one is buying your book.
  • Price. You’ll want to set a price for your book that covers your costs and allows you a little profit. Browse bookstores (online and brick and mortar) to find out which books are your competition and what their price range is. People tend to have the same perception of books priced in the same range ($16.95 – $19.95, for example). But when you get to the next level (say, $20.95 – $23.95), people expect more.
  • Break-even point. You’ll need to figure out your cost to publish the book (include only publishing costs, not time spent writing). You’ll also want to figure out how many books you’ll need to sell to break even. Be sure you remember to use the net price of book paid (cover price minus discounts) when you do this.
  • Distribution. Book stores and libraries get their books by ordering from Baker & Taylor. Some bookstores order through Ingram. Any time you get a book order from either one, you can kiss 55 percent of the cover price good-bye (along with shipping costs). And, since bookstore orders are consignment, any time the bookstore wants to return your book for full credit, they do. Of course, since the distributor doesn’t pay you for books until the stores pay the distributor, you get the books back too. The really sad part about selling in bookstores is the books typically come back damaged so you can’t sell them, but you are expected to give full credit for their return anyway.
  • Marketing. Once you’ve birthed your book, you may notice that no one knows it exists. People can’t buy what they don’t know about. That means you have to market your book if you intend to sell it. Think outside the bookstores. Think speaking to groups, bundling with other books, selling in craft shows, etc. You need to build relationships to get sales. If you don’t have a market for your book, consider not publishing it until you do.

I encourage you to take off your author hat and put on your business hat when deciding whether or not to self-publish. What you have to say is important and only you can say it. Just make a good business decision so you don’t get discouraged.

Happy writing!