Friday, April 18, 2008

My Ten Commandments to Writing Success: A No-Fail Approach

My Ten Commandments to Writing Success: A No-Fail Approach

These principles represent the best advice I can give anyone interested in making a career out of writing. Study them, learn them, use them, and you'll be amazed by the results.

1. Be a letter writer, not a resume sender. Resumes get shoved into the bottomless pit of file cabinets or dumped into the black holes of wastebaskets. Learn instead to be an aggressive composer of letters, though not sending these so often to the same editor that you become increasingly annoying. There's a fine line between persistence and being a nuisance. Don't cross that line, lest you risk turning off people who control your fate in the industry. In your letters, sell yourself like a salesperson, with you, of course, being the valuable commodity: who you are, what makes you different and better, what passions you have, how eager you are to work hard, and why you-- and not someone else-- should be working for the publication. The stationery and envelope should be of the highest quality (first impressions count!) and smaller than standard letter size (the small size virtually guarantees you'll be put on the top of the pile by the secretary). The letter itself should be flawless and tightly constructed, and the envelope should always be marked "personal and confidential" (to pass the gatekeeper). Your singular theme should be this: I know I can make a difference at your publication. You need people like me. You must use me.

2. Build a portfolio before you start hitting the major newspapers/magazines/publishers. Mind you, I'm not even remotely suggesting that you work for free. I'm really not. In fact, I insist on writers always getting paid at least something for their hard work. What I am saying is this: You can't expect to be published in The New York Times or sell a book for a $400,000 advance or get a major assignment from Sports Illustrated or People Magazine with little or no experience. You must pay your dues, like any other profession. You won't go from singing in the shower to headlining in Vegas. That's not realistic and you'll be hitting your head against a brick wall if you try. Instead, moving up the publishing ladder a step at a time, for more and more money, you should get at least five to eight clips together, sizeable ones that show off your writing ability, before considering the "big boys." Begin with local papers or small magazines or trade publications. Make your "bones" there, where the competition isn't too stiff and where you'll have the freedom-- and opportunities-- to develop your own voice. And consider each story you write an audition for something better and higher paying. In other words, write the heck out of it. Make it brilliant!

3. Force yourself to work under deadline pressure. Deadlines are what separate the professional from the hobbyist. Pros can't wait for inspiration, or an act of God, to propel their creativity. They write because they have to, because someone on the other end is waiting for their work. I've tortured myself to hit deadlines over the years, from five-minute ones to monthlies. That's the nature of the beast. It's where the tough get tougher. So, either get assigned to something with a due date or create an artificial one. If nothing else, it's good practice to see how well you function in such a situation. You may actually find that you're not cut out to write professionally, that in reality you're merely a dabbler. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just good to know where you stand.

4. Make sure your grammar and spelling are correct in your dealings with editors. I can't tell you how many letters/notes/e-mails I get from "writers" with grossly ungrammatical sentences and a slew of misspellings. I cringe. It turns me off immediately-- as I'm sure it will with editors. These are the tools of your craft. Learn how to use them-- or else. Buy a grammar/spelling book, for God's sake. Get a good spell/grammar check program. There's no excuse for sloppy English. One misstep will likely sink you with an editor you're trying to sell a story to.

5. Study and immerse yourself in the marketplace. You need to get in the game to win it. Read media columns and industry magazines, join writing clubs, scan the Internet for resource sites, buy market books, get insider newsletters. Know the business inside out. Talk the talk and walk the walk. Editors and peers will know a professional when they see one.

Know as much as you can about the editor and the publication/publishing house before firing off a proposal. The more you know, the more you can "target" your approach. It'll likely also give you a step up on the competition, since most writers don't do this extra homework (at least, they didn't until they read it here).

A great example of someone going that extra yard for success is the great golfer Jack Nicklaus. Before playing in tournaments, the Golden Bear would arrive in town a few days early just to scout out the course. Taking a golf cart, he'd ride around jotting down in a small notebook observations and ideas on how to play certain holes. No wonder he won more major tournaments than anyone else did. One time, playing in the Masters, another golfer noticed that Nicklaus look decidedly perplexed. "What's wrong, Jack?" To which Nicklaus responded, "There's supposed to be a telephone pole there." The pole had been removed a day earlier. Jack knew it had been there!

6. Timing is everything. Spot trends and hit publications quickly with story ideas based on these, before someone else beats you to the punch. The hot item of the day approached uniquely is always a great way to get into print. Believe me, a well-timed pitch is gold!

7. Establish as personal a contact as possible with editors. Try to establish a phone connection at the very least, but face time is infinitely better and should without question be your goal. It's harder to reject a real live breathing person than a faceless name at the top of another letter. In fact, in your letters to editors, write a sentence about how you'll be calling on a specific day to discuss your "wonderful" ideas. This opens the door for your phone call. It won't be easy. It's like telemarketing at this point. But remember: Every rejection puts you closer to a sale. Though you'll have to pass some gatekeepers to get to the top editors, always be professional-- polite but pleasantly forceful. And if anyone asks what your business is with this editor, say it's personal. I mean, let's face it, your career is personal. Also, as a way around secretaries and assistants, you can call before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m.-- when they aren't there. And prepare what you'll say if the editor actually gets on the line. Don't ramble. Get to the point and get off. Less is better. Make contact and leave on a high note. You want editors liking you enough to take your phone calls, not dreading the next one.

8. Read something every day. Magazines, newspapers, books. But try to be choosy. Read things written by great writers. And don't be a passive reader, be an active one: analyze what the writer is doing, what the writer does to achieve a certain effect, what the writer does with plot, characters, dialogue, action, exposition, etc. Read, read, and read. The theory: Whatever goes into your brain is likely, in time, to find its way out. It's called "filling your cup." By mere osmosis, you'll absorb the craft without even knowing it. Great writing will be in you, dying to get back out.

Read what the best writers in your particular genre are doing. If you're a magazine writer, get yourself a copy of The Best American Magazine Writing. If you're a short story writer, pick up The Best American Short Stories. See how it's done at its best. It'll be a great guide for what you should be doing. Study the writer's art and craft, and even try to imitate it. In pop speak, this is called modeling.

9. Write every single day, no matter what. Your mind is like a muscle. It needs a regular workout to stay strong and sharp. It's like the man who asks someone on the street, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" And the other man says, "Simple. Practice, practice, practice."

Forget that you're tired or don't feel like it. You're supposedly a writer. So write. Don't be a pretender. And don't even think about that dreaded of all things creative: writer's block. If you're convinced you have writer's block, just write about it. Write about why you think you're blocked. Trust me, this'll snap you out of it in a hurry. Remember, all writers, from Tolstoy to Hemingway to Stephen King, have written badly before they have written well.

10. Networking is nearly as important as talent. This took me a long time to understand-- and believe. I always felt that the talent alone would get me to where I wanted to go. Not true. Found that out the hard way. You need to know people. A lot of them. My advice: Write "networking letters" to major editors (at the top of the masthead), not asking for work (never do that in a networking letter!) but simply for advice on how to succeed as a writer. I mean, these are the industry leaders you'll be contacting. They know a ton of inside info you don't, as well as a ton of other influential people in the business. Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting, between 15 minutes to a half-hour long at their convenience in their office. You'll not only likely get some wonderful advice but will also establish yourself with a power broker. If he or she likes you enough and believes in you, he or she will likely consider you for future or current work (without you ever asking), or might refer you to another power broker. In other words, it multiplies naturally. One contact could lead to six. And after every visit, write a thank you note to him or her for graciously giving you precious time and imparting some great information. Networking can also include your friends and family, who may have contacts in the field. Don't be afraid to reach out for help. You'll be amazed how many people will reach right back.

Find a mentor. Someone who's a successful writer who can teach you the ropes and keep you from making the same mistakes he or she did. A tour guide, in a way, who can lead you down this dark, mysterious tunnel called the writing business. It'll not only save you a ton of time reaching your goals as a writer but will also keep you from climbing the wall with frustration. A mentor can be your answer man (or woman) on all problems.

Don't give up. If a newspaper/magazine editor/publishing house/agent doesn't accept you at first glance, try them again six months later. Editors and philosophies change frequently. If you're not the cup of tea for one, you might be for another. The trick to succeeding as a writer, I feel, is having the strength and conviction to jump hurdles. Never take "no" for a final answer. Simply consider it the start for coming up with a more effective approach.

Be relentless in your writing and your search for work. Do everything to improve yourself as a writer and never stop sending letters and making phone calls to editors. Aggressiveness, without being annoyingly so, is the key. That is, don't stalk your editors. You'll force them to run for the hills and never look back! Just show editors that you want it. They'll likely be swept up in your passion, and may ultimately even admire you.

Bottom line is, if you write well, have great ideas, and are well connected, success is definitely yours!

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