Vol 1, Issue 10 Oct. 5, 2008
Editor in Chief: Michael P. Geffner
Layout & Design: Bailey-Shropshire Professional Writing Services
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Staff Writers: Jeanne Lyet Gassman, Bev Walton-Porter, Kim McDougall, Marilyn L. Taylor, Barbara Crooker, Patricia Fry, Whitney Lakin, Forman Lauren, Mark Terence Chapman, Angela Wilson, Joshua James, Lea Schizas, Dee Power, Hugh Rosen, Julie Ann Shapiro, Sheila Bender, Sandy Z. Poneleit, Krysten Lindsay Hager, Ruth Folit, Rachel V. Olivier
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A Word from Mike
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THE LAST WHALE - Narrative Nonfiction
THE LAST WHALE
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INSIDE THIS ISSUE
1 The Spotlight Interview: Marilyn L. Taylor
2 Jeanne’s Writing Desk
3 Affirmations to Write By
4 Remembering…David Foster Wallace
5 Slice of the Writing Life
6 Looking for a Writing Job?
7 Publishing to the Power of Dee
8 The Publishing Business
9 The Language
10 Writer Beware
11 On the Writing Business
12 Writing Quotes of the Month
13 A Bevy of Writing Knowledge
14 Writing Promptly
16 Tip of the Month
18 The Writing Life
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The Spotlight Interview
Marilyn L. Taylor, Poet/Poet Laureate/Teacher
Marilyn L. Taylor, Ph. D., who teaches for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Honors College and leads poetry workshops at many distinguished venues, is the former Poet Laureate of Milwaukee.
Her work has been published in a number of notable anthologies and journals, such as POETRY, The American Scholar, Iris, The Formalist, The Cream City Review, and Poet Lore, and nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize. She’s a contributing editor for The Writer (with a regular column called “Poet to Poet”) and has published five collections of poetry: “Subject to Change,” “Exit Only,” “Marilyn L. Taylor: Greatest Hits, 1986-2000,” “Shadows Like These,” and “Troika I: The Accident of Light.”
Taylor’s poems often tackle weighty themes, such as aging and death, love and betrayal, the secrets lurking beneath the surface of family life—yet always with a degree of buoyancy. “Ranging from hilarity to heartbreak,” noted poet Ronald Wallace once wrote of Taylor, “(she) finds wisdom in the wisecrack, profundity in the pratfall, eloquence in the everyday. She is an effortless formalist, as deft with the sonnet, the pantoum, and the rondeau, as she is with the idiom of (seemingly) casual speech.” Added widely published poet and critic Rachel Hadas: “Taylor’s poems are witty without brittleness and warmhearted without sentimentality. They are, in addition, poised, confident, and shapely.”
For more information, please visit Ms. Taylor’s Web site at:
Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Taylor:
Mike: How did it feel being named the poet laureate of your city?
Taylor: Well, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. It’s a great honor and it came totally out of the blue. I never aspired to it, but poetry has always been out there for me, like a carrot on a stick.
Mike: What drew you to poetry?
Taylor: I was drawn not so much to poetry as much as simply the English language itself. I had always been fascinated and delighted with words, with philology, with regionalisms and etymologies, and with slang and dialect. (I even took dictionaries to the beach with me!) But I wasn't “in love” with poetry until I took my early courses in English Stylistics, and came to appreciate the interweaving of diction, syntax, sound and rhythm that eventually results in a poem-- and then to get up the nerve to try creating a couple of them myself. That did it; I was in love forever.
Mike: Have you been writing poetry since you were very young?
Taylor: No, no, not at all. That’s another weird thing about me.
I always knew I was a good rhymester as a kid, and I’d use that talent for special occasions. But I didn’t take poetry seriously until after I had my first child. I was already in my early 30’s, and had gone back to school. It was there in graduate school that I found myself taking a course in linguistics. I was always so interested in the language and the way it was put together. The history and things like that. The class was called Literary Stylistics. And that somehow led me to poetry. And I discovered how poetry works, the sound devices of it, the rhythm. It was eye opening. I said to myself, “Wow, now I know what these poets have been doing and are still doing. How interesting that is. I think I could do that too.”
So after that, I took a creative writing course with a professor who has since retired. He was a wonderful professor and he encouraged me to no end. And when you’re encouraged, you’re crowned with many crowns. He made me feel as if I was I Emily Dickinson reincarnated, that I could really be a poet if I wanted to.
I ended up taking more courses with this same professor, started getting published, and, well, the rest is history.
When I got my doctorate in 1991, I started teaching elementary fiction and poetry as an adjunct professor.
Mike: What were you doing before you went back to school?
Taylor: I worked in the advertising business for years, where I’ve always been an engaging writer and always had a handle on it.
Mike: What aside from poetry do you write?
Taylor: Essays on poetry and poetics, such as the column I do for The Writer.
Mike: What do prose writers need to understand before they take a crack at poetry? What’s the critical difference between the two art forms?
Taylor: Primarily, writers of prose who want to write poetry need to learn the fine and elusive art of compression. They certainly do NOT have to stop writing in complete sentences, and they do NOT have to pick “fancier” words; they simply have to write very much the way they always have, but more economically, and with more attention paid to the smallest expressive details. This means eliminating a lot of empty grammatical words—words that might create narrative flow in a paragraph, but also that merely clutter up a stanza with an overload of conjunctions and prepositions. It also means choosing words on the basis of their sounds and rhythms, as well as their meanings. Finally, they must rid themselves entirely of the idea that they can be more obscure in a poem than they can in prose. It's a point of view that virtually guarantees ghastly, humiliating failure.
Mike: What’s easier for you, prose or poetry?
Taylor: Prose. Without a shadow of a doubt. You have so much more room with prose writing, especially to make your little asides. The compression factor in poetry requires so much more discipline and economy of words.
One interesting note: When I read good prose, it’ll often become the epigraph for a poem, the fulcrum of an idea, because the writer had such remarkable insight. I seem to get more of my ideas from reading prose than from reading poetry.
Mike: How would you describe your style?
Taylor: Rachel Hadas, a wonderful contemporary poet whom I admire very much, said that my poems were “shapely.” That’s a very big part of what I do. A lot of poets don’t pay any attention to the shape of a poem, to the regularity of rhythms. I’m not saying you should write on a grid or make it sound like old-fashioned doggerel. I think you have to have an ear for rhythms and sounds of a language before it’s ever going to come out right. You can have the best ideas in the world, but unless you have that ear it won’t work. That’s the difference between writing prose and writing poetry. You can just express wonderful ideas in prose, as long as it’s done fairly gracefully, and it’ll be appreciated. In poetry, it has to go so much farther than the idea. It has to have a certain sound and rhythm to the ear.
I almost always write my poetry in form—with meter and slant rhyme—although I am not a strict formalist. Otherwise, I’d be some sort of a throwback. I’m categorized as a formalist. Which are people who write with a consciousness of meter and rhyme and use the traditional forms. But though I’m traditionalist, I try to keep my content edgy. And I have a talent for not taking myself too seriously.
Mike: What do you tend to write about?
Taylor: There are no real running themes. I’m not an autobiographical poet, although there’s a little autobiography in all my poetry. I’m also not a confessional poet, in the sense that I don’t let it all hang out. And I rarely write about nature.
I guess I tend to write about the passage of time and sort of about psychological states. If I had to say one thing, I’d say I’m poet of the human condition. There’s an old expression that says it best about what I try to do in my poetry: “To express the universal in the specific.”
Mike: Do you have a set writing schedule?
Taylor: No, not really, although I usually write in the middle of the night, when there are fewer interruptions.
Mike: Do you write fast or slow or somewhere in between?
Taylor: A lot of the time, I’m snail slow.
Mike: What’s in your “poetry toolbox”?
Taylor: I have a variety of rhyming dictionaries, especially this little Random House one that lists words according to the number of syllables. If you’re filling out an iambic pentameter line, it comes in very handy.
I also have two thesauruses, some linguistics books, a few poetry anthologies, the current edition of “Poet’s Market,” and a book called “The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics,” by Lewis Turco.
And, of course, my laptop. I almost always write my poetry on a computer. For me, it’s better than longhand, because I can tinker with it easier. But I’ll print out a hard copy every now and then, so I don’t lose any ideas as I make all the changes.
Mike: Anything else?
Taylor: Well, I do have a little notebook that I keep in my purse all the time. I use it to scribble down little reminders if I see something that strikes me or if I hear something interesting. They’ll likely be kernels of an idea for a poem.
Mike: What do you emphasize in your classes?
Taylor: I teach the craft. Not all teachers do. They place more emphasis on imagery. I’m not sure imagery can be taught, that you can teach someone a new way to look at a butterfly. That’s left up to the individual, for the most part. I teach listening for sounds and rhythms and compressions. In fact, I made up my own definition of poetry: Poetry is language arranged in lines, in which ideas are compressed in a way that emphasizes sound and rhythm as well as image and meaning.
In my classes, I teach my students by going section by section, starting with: Poetry is language, which means they should be very careful with their word choices. Don’t be satisfied with just writing “wild wind,” or “whispering wind.” Try to figure out another adjective. Go for the unique. Go for the unpredictable. Go for the memorable. Try, for instance, “walloping wind.”
Then: Arranged in lines. There’s a real skill in knowing where to break the line. That’s where poetry is so different than prose. Line breaks are not arbitrary. You have to know what you’re doing if you’re writing free verse. The last word on the line has to bring you into the next line, or enjoy a little bit more importance there at the end of the line.
Ninety-nine times out of a 100, you should NOT end a line after the word “the” or “of.”
Next: Ideas are compressed, which means you need to take out all those clause-y kinds of grammatical words. You don’t want to write poetry like you’re composing old telegrams.
And finally: In a way that emphasizes sound and rhythm as well as image and meaning. There’s more than image and meaning in your poetry. A poem can have wonderful images but sound clunky. That when you read it out loud your tongue twists awkwardly around the words.
I’ve been told I have an exceptional ear, so I’m in position to be a good critic when it comes to this subject. And I believe that having this inborn talent, or learning this as a skill, can often make the difference between writing that is merely knowledgeable and writing that is engaging.
For me, as I play the words over and over in my head and listening carefully, the poem will almost always tell me what to do. They get a weird little life of their own. I’ll start writing a poem, in fact, and it’ll fall into iambic pentameter and start rhyming, without my even really trying.
Mike: Is it possible to have talent and still write bad poetry?
Taylor: Yes. I can sometimes see that the person has ability but just needs training—maybe some good poetry workshops and a good critic and a little more experience.
Mike: At what age did you think you were a poet?
Taylor: One practices the art of writing poetry by writing poetry. One also practices the art of poetry by carefully and painstakingly revising what one has written. If you simply pile up a bunch of first drafts and call yourself a poet, you are not a poet.
Mike: Okay, then, at what age did you know you were a poet?
Taylor: I became a poet in my 40’s. Which goes to show you that it’s never, never, never too late—UNLESS you are so overcome with nostalgia that you can only write about how great everything was “back in the day.”
Mike: What do you think of haiku?
Taylor: I’ve done them and they’re fun, but I don’t them seriously. It’s too easy to write inferior ones.
Mike: How can you tell the difference between good and bad poetry?
Taylor: I think there are two different kinds of bad poetry: 1) So sophomoric and sentimental that it reads like the Hallmark-ing of verse. 2) Words that pay no attention whatsoever to the reader. The accessibility factor is completely ignored. I think it’s self-indulgent. I tell my students that if you write a poem filled with interesting images, but one that totally doesn’t hang together, that makes me work too hard to figure out, it’s disrespectful to the reader. I say, “Okay, you must’ve been a lot of fun to write this thing, but it sure as heck wasn’t fun to read.”
That, mind you, doesn’t mean that every poem has to be right “out there.” A good poem might require two or even three close, careful readings—assuming, of course, that it’s intriguing enough on the literal level to make you want to go back to see what else is there. But beyond the third time you go over it, if you still say, “What the hell is this?” then something is wrong with the poem, not the reader. That’s my theory. And not everybody feels that way.
Have you ever heard of “language poetry”? It is diametrically opposite of what I do, but it’s very experimental, very edgy, and very popular. It is images that may or may not hang together, and reflects the poet jumping around from subject to subject. It has some very articulate proponents that think it’s legitimate and satisfying.
Legitimate? I guess, sure, there’s a place for all kinds. But satisfying? Forget it. I can’t read it. It’s unreadable to me.
Mike: Are there books that greatly influenced you during the critical time in your growth as a writer?
Taylor: Yes, certainly. There were many, in fact: Stephen Dunn’s collection of essays called “Walking Light,” George Saintsbury’s very cranky and opinionated late 19th century “History of English Prosody,” Alicia Ostriker’s “Stealing the Language,” Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter,” David Perkins’ two-volume “History of American Poetry,” Derek Attridge’s “The Rhythms of English Poetry;” and Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s “Poetic Closure.”
Mike: What do you think of Maya Angelou?
Taylor: In all honesty, while I admire her greatly as a person and acknowledge her incredible presence as a speaker, I think her poetry is pretty weak. I realize it’s politically incorrect for me to say that, but that’s truly the way I feel. I don’t think she’s much of a poet at all. I think that maybe she’s where she belongs, by working for Hallmark now.
I have a tape of Angelou on PBS talking with Bill Moyers, and she’s a wildly impressive personality and a symbol of so much, but her poems on the page don’t do much for me.
But that’s just me. Obviously, many people enjoy reading her. And I believe there’s a place for all different kinds of poetry.
I’m actually more of a fan of her prose. Her prose book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is a really wonderful piece of work.
Mike: Why did poetry drop so much in popularity through the ages here in America?
Taylor: Around the turn of the 19th century, poetry in this country was just boring, sentimental crap. All about lost loves and stuff like that. Then, all of a sudden, poets such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot decided to go in the totally opposite direction. Getting rid of all emotions. Their poems were dry and lean and bare, which was a great relief after all that sentimental slop. Still, it wasn’t appealing to those who wanted more out of poetry than merely an academic exercise. Their work was too distant and difficult.
Finally, the Beats and the Confessionals came around in Post-War America and they revived the art form for awhile. People were excited about poetry again, with people like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.
Then, it died down again.
But I believe poetry is coming back. It’s hot in the colleges right now, and the poetry community is getting bigger and bigger. I think you may see a big upswing in the next decade or so.
Mike: Who are your poet idols?
Taylor: Dickinson, for sure; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Richard Wilbur, the father of New Formalists; and Albert Goldbarth—he’s so funny and, oh, the vocabulary. The books of those two male poets—both of whom are still very much alive—I keep on my desk along with my thesaurus and rhyming dictionary. They are so rich with new approaches and new language. Simply wonderful.
Mike: And which contemporary poets do you admire?
Taylor: As I said before, Rachel Hadas. Also, Mary Jo Salter, A.E. Stallings, and, coincidentally, two other Marilyns—Marilyn Nelson and Marilyn Hacker. Dick Allen has inspired me too.
Mike: Could you recommend some exceptional instructional books on poetry?
Taylor: Here are three I like very much:
“The Practice of Poetry,” by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, which has some great exercises; “The Poet’s Companion,” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux; “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop,” by Steve Kowit.
They are all cheerful, very user-friendly, and most helpful in explaining the reason behind doing certain things.
For more advanced poets, I recommend Michael Bugeja’s “Poet’s Guide: How to Publish and Perform Your Work.” It contains some great practical advice for poets.
Another interesting—and fascinatingly different—book is “The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing,” by Richard Hugo.
Mike: Other than reading poetry and how-to poetry books, how can one become a better poet?
Taylor: By being more generally perceptive—not only toward the physical world, which goes without saying (look at that pretty leaf!)—but toward the psychological and emotional world as well. Stop to consider why people behave the way they do. Think about possible motivations. Then jot them down, any old way. You may want to turn those jottings into a poem later, by stepping into that persona.
Second—and this is terribly important!—do NOT write in a vacuum.
Keep in mind that there is an enormous difference between a poem and a mere diary of your impressions. Join or form a critique group made up of poets that you respect, and whom you think will be honest with you, i.e. not your mom or significant other. Meet regularly, as often as possible. This will do wonders for your work.
Mike: Are there good poetry exercises to practice the art and craft?
Taylor: There are some wonderful handbooks out there that are filled with them. Other than that, you may want to set up some challenges for yourself, i.e. to write or revise a few lines every single day. Try to write a free-verse poem if you always write in forms. Try to write a sonnet if you always write in free verse. Write a collaborative poem with somebody else.
Mike: How do you make a living as a poet?
Taylor: You don’t. It’s got to be a sideline. Unless you are among the dozen or, at the most, two dozen poets who are so well known and so sought after that they can make decent money, you need a day job—or to move to Ireland. (She laughs.) A lot of us simply go into academia.
The magazines, aside from the big ones such as POETRY, The Hudson Review, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and some university journals, don’t pay much for poetry, if anything at all. The best opportunities are probably with the reputable poetry contests out there. The most trusted ones are listed in the classified ads in Poets & Writers magazine, which is the Bible for us poets. There might be a certain amount of cronyism involved with some, I don’t know, but I’ve won three or four of them. And first prize often pays between $500-$1,000. That’s a pretty good payday for a poet.
Mike: Do you see your poetry moving in a different direction?
Taylor: Well, yes, I guess you could say so. I’ve been writing more or less exclusively in forms lately because I’m starting to realize that’s what I do best, so that’s kind of new. Also, it appears that my subject matter is getting a little less “polite,” a little more “down-and-dirty” stuff. So I guess you could call this “moving in a new direction,” even if it’s not a dramatic change.
Mike: What’s the best advice you can give poets on the art, craft, and business of poetry?
Taylor: My answer is threefold: 1) Only write poetry if you absolutely love it, if it’s something you can’t NOT do it. The discipline needs more discerning readers, and perhaps fewer aspiring practitioners. 2) Always be willing to work toward becoming a better poet than you are at this moment. 3) Market your poems, but avoid making publication your primary goal.
5 Poems by Marilyn L. Taylor (with closing comments about her internal process)
The Blue Water Buffalo
One in 250 Cambodians, or 40,000 people,
have lost a limb to a landmine.
—Newsfront, U.N. Development Programme Communications Office
On both sides of the screaming highway, the world
is made of emerald silk—sumptuous bolts of it,
stitched by threads of water into cushions
that shimmer and float on the Mekong's munificent glut.
In between them plods the ancient buffalo—dark blue
in the steamy distance, and legless
where the surface of the ditch dissects
the body from its waterlogged supports below
or it might be a woman, up to her thighs
in the lukewarm ooze, bending at the waist
with the plain grace of habit, delving for weeds
in water that receives her wrist and forearm
as she feels for the alien stalk, the foreign blade
beneath that greenest of green coverlets
where brittle pods in their corroding skins
now shift, waiting to salt the fields with horror.
(Taylor: “This poem was inspired by a visit to Cambodia in '01, where I was struck by the view from the bus window (the bus was taking us to Angkar Wat). The landscape looked so lush & green, so rich with life, that it was jarring to think of death, of what may have been lurking just inches below the surface of those rice fields. I really did see what I thought was a woman in the distance, which, as we approached, turned out to be a water buffalo.”)
Maybe things are better than we imagine
if a rubber inner-tube still can send us
drifting down a sinuous, tree-draped river
like the Wisconsin—
far removed from spores of touristococcus.
As we bob half-in and half-out of water
with our legs like tentacles, dangling limply
under the surface
we are like invertebrate creatures, floating
on a cosmic droplet—a caravan of
giant-sized amoebas, without a clear-cut
sense of direction.
It’s as if we’ve started evolving backwards:
mammal, reptile, polliwog, protozoon—
toward that dark primordial soup we seem so
eager to get to.
Funny, how warm water will whisper secrets
in its native language to every cell— yet
we, the aggregation, have just begun to
fathom the gestures.
(Taylor: “The metrical form—the ‘saphhic stanza’—is notoriously difficult; lots of major poets get it wrong. I used a meditative subject, and got it right! The meter of each stanza goes like this:
1st 3 lines: trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee, trochee
4th line: dactyl, trochee.
It's a damn tour de force, if I do say so myself [she suggested modestly].”)
On Learning, Late in Life, that Your Mother Was a Jew
Methuselah something. Somethingsomething Ezekiel.
So that explains it, you say to yourself.
And for one split second, you confront
the mirror like a Gestapo operative—
narrow-eyed, looking for the telltale hint,
the giveaway (jawline, profile, eyebrow)—
something visible that could account
for this, the veritable key
to your life story and its denouement.
It seems the script that you were handed
long ago, with all its blue-eyed implications,
can now be seen as something less than candid—
a laundry list of whoppers and omissions.
It’s time for something else to float
back in from theology’s deep end: the strains,
perhaps, of A-don o-lam, drowning out
the peals of Jesus the Conqueror Reigns,
inundating the lily and the rose,
stifling the saints (whose dogged piety
never did come close, God knows,
to causing many ripples of anxiety)
and you’re waiting for the revelation
on its way this minute, probably—
the grand prelude to your divine conversion,
backlit with ritual and pageantry.
But nothing happens. Not a thing. No song,
no shofar, no compelling Shabbat call
to prayer— no signal that your heart belongs
to David rather than your old familiar, Paul.
Where does a faithless virgin go from here,
after being compromised by two
competing testimonies to thin air—
when both of them are absolutely true?
(Taylor: “This poem is pretty autobiographical. My gentile father married my mother, who had been divorced, in a time when divorce was a terrible sin. But he did so on the condition that she give up her Jewishness, her Jewish family, and her Jewish identity—and to ‘hide it from the kids,’ as the old song goes. The rest is history. [Although the facts didn't occur to me all at once, as the poem suggests. It dawned on me gradually.].”)
Should’ve Been a Cowgirl
If I can promise you a frosty draft
of Bud Lite when we get there, can we go
to Nashville? Kansas City? Branson, Mo?
I’m craving country music—a whole raft
of anthems from the boys who do it best,
star-twangled-banners from the girls who strayed
and lied, and loved, and finally got laid
by some hot cowpoke in a leather vest.
Been thinking, off and on, of Toby Keith,
the way his fingers pluck that blue guitar;
I dream up porno movies (he’s the star)
on how those fingers feel from underneath—
but never mind; it’s high time we departed.
Get in the car. Shut up. Don’t get me started.
(Taylor: “Made this poem up out of thin air. I'm starting to like country music, and this was just fun to do, especially as a sonnet.”)
Reading the Obituaries
Now the Barbaras have begun to die,
trailing their older sisters to the grave,
the Helens, Margies, Nans—who said goodbye
just days ago, it seems, taking their leave
a step or two behind the hooded girls
who bloomed and withered with the century—
the Dorotheas, Eleanors and Pearls
now swaying on the edge of memory.
Soon, soon, the scythe will sweep for Jeanne
and Angela, Patricia and Diane—
pause, and return for Karen and Christine
while Susan spends a sleepless night again.
Ah, Debra, how can you be growing old?
Jennifer, Michelle, your hands are cold.
(Taylor: “Just as the poem states overtly, readers of the obituaries can often tell pretty much when a person was born by the name he or she bears. Elmer and Bertha did not die young. Courtney and Dylan probably did.”)
The Joys of Reading
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HOW EDITORS THINK
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Jeanne’s Writing Desk
Writing With Authority
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Recently, a colleague told me that I write “with authority,” a statement I found to be a high compliment. But what does “writing with authority” mean and why should it be important to you, the writer?
When a writer creates a work intended for publication, there is an unspoken contract formed between the reader and the writer. The reader has certain expectations about the written work, and if the writer fails to meet those expectations, then the reader feels betrayed. In other words, the writer has not met the terms of the contract.
The Basics. The writer assumes a voice of authority on several levels. The first level begins with a mastery of the writer’s tools. If the writer is sloppy or careless with spelling, syntax, or grammar, he immediately loses the reader’s confidence. In fact, the reader may be so disappointed that he never finishes reading the work. Learn the basic rules, and do not break them until you fully understand the logic behind them.
Authority is more than understanding rules, of course. Both nonfiction and fiction have subtle requirements that instill reader confidence and trust. Let’s begin by looking first at what those expectations are for nonfiction.
Nonfiction is grounded in the effective communication of ideas and information. This is true for all forms of nonfiction, including essays, interviews, how-to pieces, reporting, and general information articles. If the ideas and information are not presented in a manner that is easily understood, then the writer has violated the writer/reader contract. The following are the most important factors the nonfiction writer needs to consider:
Research/Facts. In nonfiction, the first level of authority begins with being accurate. When the reader finds even small mistakes in the prose, he immediately loses confidence in the truth of the story as a whole. Nonfiction writers must do their homework. They should confirm every statement of fact, check the spelling of names, and verify times and dates.
Organization. In any work of nonfiction, there is a natural hierarchy that guides the reader through the information in the story. If the prose is rambling or disjointed, if the writing lacks focus, then the reader begins to question the validity of the writer’s opinions and information. Nonfiction tends to move from the general to the specific or from the specific to the general. When the piece is organized and flows smoothly from one point to the next, the reader trusts the writer’s voice.
Presentation. Writing is primarily a visual medium. Depending on editorial guidelines, the clever use of paragraphing, italics, bullet points, boldface, pull-out quotes, and/or sidebars serves to highlight the most important information in the piece. By directing the reader to the main points of the story, the writer establishes his authority.
Language. The writer’s diction and language should always be appropriate for the intended audience. A nonfiction article written for a PTA magazine will use different vocabulary than a piece for Scientific American. When a writer tries to sound superior to his reader or patronizes his reader, he loses his credibility.
In his book, The Art of Fiction, the late John Gardner refers to the “waking dream,” the idea that the fiction writer takes the reader into an alternate reality. If the writer breaks the rules of that other universe, the illusion (dream) is destroyed, and she has violated her contract with the reader. Just as it is true in nonfiction, there are certain components of fiction that serve to preserve the “waking dream” and uphold the writer/reader contract:
Facts/Setting. All fiction takes place somewhere, and every setting—whether it is realistic or a part of a fantasy world---has a set of natural laws. Stories that occur in real places must maintain the accuracy of those locations. Readers who find glaring mistakes about places they know will feel cheated. Whenever the writer breaks the rules of the fictional universe, the reader no longer believes in that fictional world or in the writer.
Character Development. Characters need to grow and should respond to change in believable, if not predictable, ways. And every action the characters take must be properly motivated. Sudden coincidences, acts of God, or unexplained magical solutions undermine the believability of the fictional characters and violate the reader’s trust.
Dialogue. The effective use of dialogue is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. However, poorly written dialogue will destroy a writer’s voice of authority more quickly than anything else in the fictional work. Expository dialogue, unnecessary chit-chat, head-hopping, and abrupt POV shifts all breach the “waking dream,” thus undermining the truth of the story.
Language. As in nonfiction, the word choices should be appropriate to the genre. When the writer loads her prose with ten-dollar words, archaic diction, or too many manufactured meanings, the reader is reminded that he’s reading fiction, the illusion is shattered, and the fictional contract is broken.
The contract between the writer and reader is a sacred agreement; if you, the writer, uphold the terms, your readers will thank you and ask for more. And isn’t that what every writer wants?
Newsletter contributing columnist Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning author whose fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry has been published in magazines, newspapers (including The Arizona Republic and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and anthologies. In 2002, Ms. Gassman was the recipient of an Encouragement Award in Creative Writing from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and in the 2005 Preditors & Editors Reader’s poll her story, '”Healing Arts,'” was ranked among the Top 10 in the nonfiction category. She also teaches writing classes and conducts workshops in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Please visit her Web site at:
Affirmations to Write By
I make sure to allow time for my writing every day.
I am not afraid to try something new and fail. Experimentation is the key to creating something special and different.
I am a creative person who writes with confidence, excitement, enthusiasm, and a wild mind.
I understand my needs as a writer and I feed them as much as I can.
I cherish each and every moment of my writing life.
Remembering….David Foster Wallace
The writer David Foster Wallace, who authored the brilliant epic novel "Infinite Jest," committed suicide in mid-September at the age of 46. Here's a transcription of Wallace's inspiring 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address on May 21, 2005:
(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education -- least in my own case -- is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.
By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
You get the idea.
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it.
Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
"This is water."
"This is water."
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to d be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.
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Slice of the Writing Life
Award-winning poet/author Nikki Giovanni offers this advice for would-be poets: “A poem is a way of capturing a moment. I don’t do a lot of revisions because I think if you have to do that then you've got problems with the poem. Rather than polish the words, I take the time to polish the poem. If that means I start at the top a dozen times, that's what I do. A poem's got to be a single stroke, and I make it the best I can because it's going to live.”
And quoted on the Web site Writers on Writing, Books and Publishing, Giovanni said: “Writing is a conversation with reading; a dialogue with thinking. All conversations with older people contain repetition. Some of the ideas mean a lot to me, just interesting, so I both embrace and attack the ideas because I found them, well, delightful.”
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Publishing to the Power of Dee
What Do Bestselling Authors Have In Common?
Nine Characteristics That May Surprise You
By Dee Power and Brian Hill
In writing The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors and the Editors, Agents and Behind Them, Brian Hill and Dee Power wanted to find out what separates the publishing industry elite, the bestselling authors, from all the thousands and thousands of writers who aspire to someday make the bestseller lists. They interviewed 24 of today’s most popular authors, some of whom have endured on the bestseller lists for decades. As a group, these authors have sold more than half a billion books. It turns out that writing talent is not the only separating factor; in fact it may not even be the most important factor.
Find out what you as a writer may have in common with bestselling authors and what you can learn from them.
1. Perseverance Is Key
Nearly all bestselling authors faced the same struggles early in their careers that less successful, even unpublished authors, face. Immediate success is rare. One distinction of bestselling authors is that they do not get as discouraged by lack of early success. They persevere. Their desire to succeed is enormous. Bestselling authors often have to demonstrate the patience and stamina to write a number of books before achieving notable success.
2. They Write, And Write And Write.
The productivity, the writing output, of bestselling authors is much greater than the average writer’s is. They have the discipline to get up each day and produce high quality work. They don’t wait for the muse to tap them on the shoulder. Some authors‚ literary production is phenomenal, such as Catherine Coulter who wrote Point Blank; she has produced over fifty bestsellers so far in her career.
3. They Like To Write And Write And Write.
They would rather write than do anything else. It’s not just that successful authors are more disciplined, though that is part of it; they simply enjoy writing more than other writers do. Many aspiring authors enjoy the idea of writing, not the hard work itself. Bestselling authors seem to thrive on the hard work, and they work much harder than we might suppose. Iris Johansen, author of Countdown, writes two books a year, not because she has to but because she couldn’t not do it. Writing is her passion.
4. Promotion Is Constant
Bestselling authors never stop promoting their books, no matter how successful they get. Many still market at the grass roots level, not just through national TV or radio interviews. They take the time to visit and meet individual bookstore managers at both chain stores and independents. They never relax and believe they have “made it.” After nine bestsellers, including The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks still tours with every new book.
5. Marketing Is Critical
Even if they have never taken a business course in college, they have an innate sense of marketing concepts such as brand building and product differentiation. They closely watch trends in the literary marketplace. They understand what it is about their books that readers respond favorably to. They take a strategic approach to their careers and they realize that much more goes into being a successful author than the writing itself. Carly Phillips’ big break came when Kelly Ripa recommended The Bachelor on The Today Show. It wasn’t just luck that landed her the recommendation, but a concerted effort on her part and her publicist’s part.
6. Fans Are An Important Asset
Bestselling authors listen closely to what their readers say, and try very hard to meet or exceed their fans’ expectations, but they do not necessarily pay close attention to what reviewers or book critics say. They don’t even necessarily expect good reviews. Word of mouth support from readers and booksellers is more important to them than reviews. Linda Fairstein, the author of Entombed and the Alexandra Cooper series, loves book signings. At her level of success she doesn’t have to do them but she loves talking to her readers.
7. The More Success The More Pressure
Bestselling authors face more pressure as they get more successful. As they rise to the top, there are increasing demands on their time. Top authors lead three very different lives. First, the quiet, solitary scholarly life of being a writer. Then participating in the team effort within the publishing house to make the book the best book it can be. This involves learning how to take advice from and collaborate with the professionals within the publishing house. Finally, the author must participate in the very public life of trying to sell books to the mass audience. They have to master all three lives if they intend to continue to achieve bestseller status. Susan Elizabeth Phillips worked for a month without a day off when Ain’t She Sweet was released.
8. They’re Grateful.
Bestselling authors are keenly aware how fortunate they are to have arrived at the top of their profession. They sincerely appreciate their loyal readers. They recognize that they have been chosen to receive a strikingly rare, special distinction by a bustling, competitive marketplace. The success, fame and financial rewards that have come to them are often beyond the most extravagant dreams they had when they first sat down to write a book. Christopher Paolini credits the support of the teachers, librarians, booksellers and fans, for the success of his first book, Eragon.
9. There Is No Single Profile For A Bestselling Author.
Bestselling authors are seldom the top graduates from prestigious university writing programs. Writing may have been a second or third career for them, and the publishing industry values authors who bring life experience to their work, in fiction or nonfiction. Bestselling authors span all age groups, many different professions and varied educational backgrounds. There is no single profile for what a bestselling author looks like.
Newsletter contributing columnist Dee Power is the co-author with Brian Hill of The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them and the novel Over Time.
Find Out What’s Going On Inside The Publishing Business
Industry News and More!
Don’t let these commonly misused/misspelled words and phrases trip you up (Part 9)
By Mark Terence Chapman
Continuing my series of articles, here are some more words, phrases and forms of punctuation that are commonly misused or misspelled. A conscientious writer should use these correctly. More importantly, using these words/phrases correctly will reduce the odds of your writing being rejected by an editor due to excessive errors. (Editors don’t want to waste time on pieces that require an inordinate amount of their time to clean up.) Even if you write only business reports and emails, you still wouldn’t want people chuckling over your misuse of the English language, would you?
Complex vs. Complicated
Wrong: Don’t make it sound more complex than it is.
Right: Don’t make it sound more complicated than it is.
Both complex and complicated refer to things that are composed of many parts or are difficult to understand. To a large extent they’re synonyms. But there’s often a subtle difference in how the two words are used. Something that is complex is innately intricate or perplexing. On the other hand, a relatively simple process can be made complicated by poor directions. A nuclear reactor is complex, but trying to herd cats is perhaps more complicated than it is complex. Remember, artful writing is all about nuance.
Intrical vs. Integral
Wrong: Clean water is an intrical part of the ecosystem.
Right: Clean water is an integral part of the ecosystem.
Intrical is simply a common misspelling (and mispronunciation) of integral.
Childish vs. Childlike
Wrong: She displayed a childish innocence.
Right: She displayed a childlike innocence.
Childlike refers to the guileless, trusting, innocent nature of young children. On the other hand, adding the –ish suffix attaches unfavorable connotations of immaturity: silliness, poutiness, selfishness, and the like.
Nucular vs. Nuclear
Wrong: Nucular weapons are a bane on mankind’s existence.
Right: Nuclear weapons are a bane on mankind’s existence.
There is no such word as nucular (and it’s pronounced NEW-clee-er, not NOOK-yoo-ler or NYOOK-yoo-ler).
God vs. god
Wrong: Mars was the Roman God of war.
Right: Mars was the Roman god of war.
God (capitalized) should refer only to the one Supreme Being worshipped by a monotheistic religion. When a religion worships multiple gods (love, fire, storms, etc.), write the word god in lower case. Similarly, when used in a humorous manner (such as referring to the golfing gods), use lower case.
Oogle vs. Ogle
Wrong: Do you have to oogle every pretty girl that walks by?
Right: Do you have to ogle every pretty girl that walks by?
Oogle is simply a misspelling (and mispronunciation) of ogle (OH-gul), which means to look or stare at flirtatiously, amorously, or impertinently.
Present company accepted vs. Present company excepted
Wrong: Everyone has lost someone—present company accepted.
Right: Everyone has lost someone—present company excepted.
The phrase present company excepted means all but those in the presence of the speaker.
Phase vs. Faze
Wrong: That’s just a faze they’re going through.
Right: That’s just a phase they’re going through.
Wrong: His words didn’t phase her at all.
Right: His words didn’t faze her at all.
Faze is a verb that means to disturb, fluster, or disconcert. A phase (noun), on the other hand, is a temporary state of being, a stage in a process of change. It’s a rare parent who isn’t fazed by the phases his or her teenager manifests.
Anyway vs. Any way
Wrong: You can have the eggs cooked anyway you want them.
Right: You can have the eggs cooked any way you want them.
Wrong: It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to Paris, any way.
Right: It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to Paris, anyway.
Anyway is an adverb that means regardless, or nonetheless. The phrase any way means “in any manner” or “by any method.”
Co-locate vs. Collocate
Wrong: We need to co-locate all our servers in one data center.
Right: We need to collocate all our servers in one data center.
If you’re involved in the computer industry, you’ve probably come across the word co-locate from time to time. Unfortunately it’s a phonetic misspelling of collocate, which means to place together (especially side-by-side) or to arrange in the proper order.
If you’ve ever been confused about any of these words or phrases, tack this article to the wall by your desk. It’ll help you avoid similar errors in the future.
Mark Terence Chapman writes in various genres: He’s a poet, short story writer, novelist, humorist, and even a nonfiction writer tackling computer topics and nanotechnology. To find out more about Mr. Chapman, please visit his Web site at: http://tesserene.com or his blog at: http://tesserene.blogspot.com
Warnings About Literary Fraud and Other Schemes, Scams,
and Pitfalls That Target Writers
Do yourself a favor and check out these great sites
to keep you safe in the publishing world:
On the Writing Business
Where Oh Where Are All the Good Article Ideas?
By Patricia L. Fry
Having contributed hundreds of articles to numerous magazines, I’m often asked, “Where do you get your article ideas?” I say, “Look everywhere.”
Here’s a guide to get you started:
Write About What You Know
What skills do you have? What are your interests and hobbies? What insights have you gained over the years? Create article ideas from your own personal knowledge and talents.
When I started my writing career, we were involved in horses as a family and, in fact, we subscribed to several horse-related magazines. I studied those magazines from cover to cover and fairly quickly came up with some article ideas. Consequently, I sold dozens of articles to a variety of these magazines. As an example, my first article featured various ways to use your horse show ribbons. I sold another one on creative and practical hairdos for horse shows. And I placed a humorous piece about being a horse show mother.
Write About Things You Want to Know
A good way to learn about something is to write about it. I once wrote a piece on chain letters because I wanted to know more about the concept and whether or not it could work. In order to write an in depth article, you have to do the research, right?
I’ve also written about growing African violets, the dangers in a hot summer day, the dynamics of a habit and cat personalities—all because I wanted to learn more about these topics.
Share Your Experiences
Each of us has unique experiences. Use yours to develop good articles. I’ve sold articles based on my experiences with caring for an aging horse, rescuing feral kittens, helping to build a safer neighborhood, grandparenting and working at home, for example.
Relate the Experiences of Others
Make money by tapping into the life adventures of family, friends and acquaintances. Get their permission, of course. Most people love to see their names in print and are willing to be interviewed. I’ve sold stories about the perilous experience of a rider whose horse went over a cliff and lived, two diabetic brothers who are dedicating their lives to helping children who have diabetes, a woman who started an adopt-a-grave program to save a neglected cemetery and many articles profiling people in interesting or successful businesses.
Look Everywhere For Article Ideas
I once met a handy-woman while waiting in line at the post office. This chance meeting resulted in a couple of published articles. My long distance grandparenting book came about while waiting in line at the grocery store. I overheard two women talking about how difficult it is to bond with grandchildren who live miles away. So while most people complain about standing in line, I consider this an opportunity.
I’ve also found article ideas at my grandsons’ Little League games, at a Neighborhood Watch meeting, while traveling and during a family reunion.
Stop, Look and Listen
Pay attention to the world around you. Notice what people are doing and listen to what they’re saying. Other people are excellent resources for a writer whether you write nonfiction or fiction.
I heard a young mother complain recently that her family rarely sits down and shares a meal together. This prompted me to write a piece on how to bring the family back to the supper table. A friend told me, one day, that she had met a man online. So I wrote an article about computer dating. After sitting through a poorly executed presentation once, I wrote an article on effective public speaking.
Keep Up With the News
Your newspaper is brimming with article ideas. Read it everyday from cover to cover. This is how I came up with the idea for an article on healing and therapeutic gardens and gardening. I also got the idea for a piece featuring workplace cats from the newspaper. And my 3500-word piece on innovative PE programs came about after reading a short article on the growing trend toward obesity in children.
Use the Internet
Open up to new topics that you come across while web surfing. I do a lot of Internet research and often discover potential article ideas while on my way to do something else. My piece on Internet recruiting developed from an unrelated Internet research project. My article on raising a better student came about after a chance website visit.
Write From the Heart
What are you passionate about? How would you like to make a difference? I’ve written articles on teaching kids responsibility through horse ownership, youth mentoring, how America is helping our children and, of course, articles on being a more effective grandparent.
As you can see, coming up with article ideas is as easy as paying attention to the world around you. Oh, that gives me an idea for an article on how to sharpen your observation skills.
Contributing newsletter columnist Patricia Fry is the author of 25 published books, including, The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book. She is also the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network, www.spawn.org).
Visit her publishing blog at:
Ms. Fry’s free guide to writing a Post-Publication Book Proposal can be requested by emailing her at:
Writing Quotes of the Month
“Writing is not primarily escape, but use.”—Henry James
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged...I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.”—Erica Jong
“Most people don't realize that writing is a craft. You have to take your apprenticeship in it like everything else.”—Cole Porter
“Poetry ennobles the heart and the eyes, and unveils the meaning of all things upon which the heart and eyes dwell.”—Edith Sitwell
“Poetry should be like fireworks, packed carefully and artfully, ready to explode with unpredictable effects.”—Lilian Moore
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”—Anais Nin
“If you're not trying to communicate, you sure don't belong in the writing game.”—Ursula K. LeGuin
“The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any.”—Russell Baker
“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”—Joan Didion
A Bevy of Writing Knowledge
Build confidence as a writer NOW!
Confidence—do you have it?
By Bev Walton-Porter
If you're a new writer, you may lack this essential element needed to jump-start your career—and if you don't learn how to silence that nasty ogre sitting on your shoulder whispering bitter nothings into your ear, then you'll be at a severe disadvantage and you'll hurt your burgeoning writing career.
What is the difference between writers who publish and those who don't? There are many, but one of the essential requirements is that you first get your name and your work out there into the marketplace. You can sit at home from now until kingdom come and type and write all you want, but no fairy godmother is going to come along and magically sweep your work into the lap of an editor who's ready to buy your work; that's *your* job. In order to do your job, you must find a way to discredit that ogre and press forward, fully aware that you're capable of finding markets, querying article ideas, writing proposals and publishing articles and/or books.
How do you silence the ogre and put him or her in the corner and away from your sacred, creative space—the space where you produce wonderful, publishable articles and stories? How can you build your confidence as a writer now? Here are five tips for doing just that:
REALIZE IT’S A LIE
Your personal ogre is a liar. Realize that fact now. The sooner you understand this, the sooner you can ignore the rubbish your ogre is feeding to you. If you listen to the drivel your ogre is whispering in your ear, you'll believe that you're (1) Not a "real" writer,
(2) Never going to get published, (3) Not qualified to write about any subject, or (4) Living in a fantasy world about becoming a writer.
The list could go on. What's worse, if you're in a non-supportive critique group, it can reaffirm the lies you're hearing from your personal ogre. If your critique group doesn’t offer constructive criticism and encouragement, get out of it to save your creative sanity! Beginning writers are just those—beginning writers. You are expected to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. No one is born with knowledge of how to be a writer. You must allow yourself time to learn and to grow. Listening to your personal ogre only digs that hole of insecurity much deeper. Worse, listening to people who offer only criticism, and not constructive suggestions, feeds your ogre and diminishes your confidence.
TAKE SMALL STEPS DAILY:
Rome wasn't built in a day—or so the story goes. The same rule applies to becoming a writer of any sort—including a published writer. Just because you can't land a huge assignment with a publisher your first time out of the gate, that doesn't mean you're a failure. It just means that this time you weren't able to land that particular assignment. Put your progress into perspective and realize that becoming a writer involves small steps toward that goal. You won't get from Point A to Point Z in one fell swoop.
To shore up your confidence, take manageable daily steps to boost your productivity: That means sending out one query a week and increasing the frequency by one each successive week until you’re sending out at least five queries per week. That means you must learn to search out markets and research how your style of writing fits with those markets. Get to know yourself as a writer by becoming more familiar with what kind of work you produce on a day-to-day basis.
MARK YOUR PROGRESS:
Sometimes you might forget just how much progress you're making—even if it seems to be small, steady progress—unless you actually have it down on paper. Open a file in your computer and begin tracking what you have done each day to further your progress as a writer. If you can afford to do so, search out computer applications that are designed to track queries and proposals.
Did you send a query today? Mark it down. Did you receive a go-ahead for an article three days ago? Mark that down. Did you attend a writer's conference last week? Mark it down. These are all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that, months or years down the road, you can track as your proactive steps toward becoming an oft-published writer.
Each week, view last week's progress chart and consider what more you can do this week to bring yourself that much closer to your short- and long-term goals.
SEEK ENCOURAGEMENT FROM OTHERS:
When you're a beginning writer, it's essential that you have a support system. This doesn't mean family members or friends who aren't writers. Instead, this means seeking out other writers who will understand your travails and who can help you get past rough times.
Your support system should include writers of all experience levels, from beginner to professional. It's important that you cull as much information as you can from other people working in the publishing industry. Find out what similar situations and concerns they have, and ask them how they deal with disappointing events and bumps in the writing road. This interpersonal give and take will prove to be an invaluable resource now and for years to come.
IGNORE ARMCHAIR QUARTERBACKS:
Author Julia Cameron, in her groundbreaking book, The Artist’s Way, refers to “poisonous playmates” and advises writers to avoid them. I call them armchair quarterbacks. These are people who always offer negative or demeaning comments (sometimes delivered in subtle, clever ways) about you as a writer or about your writing in general. More often than not, they take more pleasure in tearing others down than they do in building them up. The external power and control they attempt to exhibit over others is often based in deep-seated insecurities in their personal and/or professional lives.
Instead of offering encouragement, they'd rather spend their time telling you what you're doing wrong (without offering suggestions, mind you) and expounding on why you'll never make it as a writer. Forget them. Tell them "thanks for sharing," and move on. Don’t make their issues your issues—you have more important tasks to accomplish. You are the architect in charge of building your writing future. They are not.
There's a ton of advice out there, but that doesn’t mean you should listen to all of it. When it comes to advice, you must learn to be discerning in what you accept and incorporate into your writing life. Do what works for you. Take in all advice and determine what makes sense, and what doesn't. Go with your gut, because it's usually never wrong.
Had I not gone with my internal instincts and, instead, listened to nearly everyone back in 1997, I never would have taken the step to full-time writer. Instead, I mapped out the route I would take, allowed for Plan B in case the original didn't work, and ignored advice from those who had no clue what they were talking about. Most of the people who offered unwanted advice had never written a single word and they had no knowledge of my field I was entering. Now, ten years later, with hundreds of articles and columns—plus three books—to my credit, I’m glad I listened to my own instincts.
Those people from my past were armchair quarterbacks. They were so comfortable in their predictable lives that anyone who had the gall to play outside the box was seen as "impulsive" or "unrealistic." Today I enjoy my work and I wonder how miserable I'd be right now if I'd listened to those uninformed armchair quarterbacks who lacked vision and initiative! The old adage, “Misery loves company,” immediately springs to mind.
A FINAL THOUGHT:
It all boils down to this: are you going to allow yourself to be derailed by unsubstantiated, internal lies or by comments from those who have no business determining your success? You have two choices: either listen to the lies and buy into them (resulting in inaction and disgust), or make a pledge that you will put all your energy and talent behind learning your craft and drawing others to you who are supportive. Make the decision *today* to take the daily steps needed to reach your ultimate goals as a writer.
In the end, you hold the key to your future as a writer—no one else does. Talent is nice, but talent will only take you so far. As Stephen King has said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” If all it took were talent to become a published writer, then it would be a much simpler task than it actually is. You can sit on a street corner, your soul overflowing with talent, but it is hard work that is the essential stimulus in the equation. You must infuse yourself with confidence, learn your craft, work hard, and ignore naysayers.
In the long run, writers who succeed (and are published!) are the ones who know they are capable of learning what they need in order to press forward. They discern who to take advice from, and from whom not to take advice. Once they’ve culled the practical and constructive advice they need, they *act* on that advice. Confidence and determination are essential elements you need to fuel the fire of your writing productivity. Like creative alchemy, all of these ingredients must come together in the right combination. What's more, the ability to harness those elements is within your reach—all you have to do is grab them with all the gusto you can muster.
Newsletter contributing columnist Bev Walton-Porter is a professional writer/author who has published hundreds of stories on a wide variety of subjects and written three books: “Sun Signs for Writers,” the contemporary romance “Mending Fences,” and “The Complete Writer: A Guide to Tapping Your Full Potential,” co-authored with three other writers.
She has also worked as a contract editor for NBC Internet and Inkspot.com, among others, published in the award-winning e-zine for writers, Scribe & Quill, for the past nine years, and is a member of The Authors Guild as well as the co-founder of the International Order of Horror Professionals.
Please visit her Web site at:
a day that changed your life.
your favorite childhood toy.
when you first realized that you were an adult.
the nicest thing someone ever did for you.
three wishes that you could snap your fingers and make happen.
the worst lie you ever told.
how you’d like to be remembered.
a trait or traits you admire most in others.
what makes you laugh.
your potential as a writer.
A cool autumn day—a perfect time to write.
Publicists: Buyer Beware
By Angela Wilson
Your novel is due out next month. This month and the two months following, you have to hit the virtual road running, guest blogging every day, updating your MySpace, Face, Twitter, Ning accounts, Bebo, Squiddo, YouTube...
Whew! With a list like that, it's no wonder authors don't want to market. It takes away from valuable writing time. Some opt to not market at all, while others ask friends and family to help out. Some who decide to spend some serious cash to be a success hire publicists.
Publicists come in many forms. There are now companies that specialize in virtual tours only, while others handle a full media package. These options look attractive to authors—especially when publishers refuse to put marketing dollars behind anyone but Nora Roberts or Dean Koontz. But is this the best marketing solution?
Before you hire someone on the fly, check your budget. Are you willing to spend a lot of cash--or go into more debt--to hire this person or company? Are you dedicated enough to marketing that you can be a key player in the process? Do you know enough about marketing to get the best bang for your buck?
If you answered yes to any of these, then you are likely ready to hire someone.
The best way to find a publicist is word of mouth. Ask around, see who other authors in your genre and budget bracket work with, and get an idea of their track record. Google them and other companies to see what's out there. Check with your local Public Relations Society of America chapter to get recommendations and guidance about the best in your area. Ask someone at a local newspaper which publicists and PR executives they deal with. Put a shout out in forums, on your blog or Twitter, which is fast becoming the hottest micro-networking site around. It is best to hire someone you can meet with face-to-face. That will not always be possible with virtual companies, so check these even more closely before you sign on the dotted line.
How do you know you are hiring the right person? Here are some questions to ask before plunking down your dough:
• Have you read my book(s)?
• What did you think of them?
• Who is my publisher?
• What is your favorite genre?
• How many other authors do you represent?
• How many hours do you plan to work on my account alone?
• What marketing strategies specific to authors have been successful?
• How will you use the Internet to create a viral message about my novel(s)?
• How will you brand me?
• What types of graphics will you use to promote my work?
• Are you willing to work with the publisher if necessary?
• Show me what you have planned so far for marketing my novels.
• What do you think of book trailers? How do you incorporate that into my customized marketing plan?
• How do you plan to drive more traffic to my Web site, MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, etc.?
• What are your online site visit goals for each of these sites?
• Tell me about your most successful outside-the-box ideas for clients.
• What were some failed ideas?
• What items are included in a standard contract, and what are additional expenses?
• Are you truly passionate about working with me?
• Why do you want my account?
• Who writes your news releases? Is it you or someone else?
• Give me some examples of your client marketing pieces (news releases, freebies, brochures, posters, CDs, DVDs, etc.)
• Give me three references.
Don't automatically turn away someone who has not yet represented an author. If the person has great ideas, is passionate about your genre and your work, think about cutting them a deal. They get experience while you get a very reduced rate, plus some extras to showcase to others exactly what this publicist can execute. A great extra would be a book trailer, which can cost some heavy cash.
Once you hire, ask your publicist to send an itemized list of accomplishments at the end of each month. Compare their efforts to your sales. Note the spikes and the marketing strategies that led to them. Cut what didn't work, and next time try new strategies along with the successes.
Remember that big firms might have great reputations with big companies, but you are small potatoes. You will not get the red carpet treatment. One author who spent thousands on a public relations firm told me he was not even sure they'd read his book. He saw no special returns on sales, but his bank account was definitely depleted. Your best bet is to hire an individual who can give you the time and attention you deserve. A savvy, dedicated part-time publicist is better than a full-time half-hearted account manager's effort.
Before you hire a publicist, carefully consider your budget, and ask friends and family for assistance first. Teen children or grandchildren can always help with social networking, and other friends and family can help make calls and send news releases. Mine your own resources first. When you get to the point of hiring, don't hesitate to ask tough questions. This is your career. You don't want to hand it over to someone who just doesn't get it.
Contributing newsletter columnist Angela Wilson is an author, former journalist, freelance marketing consultant and Web producer. She is the Book Blog Editor for Pop Syndicate, a pop culture Web site where authors on virtual tour drop in to say "Hello." She pens stories under the name Kitty Malloy. Have marketing questions? E-mail it to email@example.com and it could be featured in a future column. Look for Angela's virtual marketing tour stops at Twitter.com/angelawilson. Find out more about Angela at http://angelawilson.net.
Tip of the Month
Winning Formula by Cheryl Wright
One of the hardest tasks we face as writers is to get our start in the publishing world.
Publishing is a business, therefore editors will only consider publishing work that is saleable and will make money for the publisher. Understanding this concept is the first step toward getting published.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, consider the following before sending anything to a publisher:
* Will this piece be of interest to anyone else?
* Will the title draw the reader in?
* Does the first sentence/paragraph grab the reader's attention?
* Can it sustain the reader's attention for the duration?
* Have you researched sufficiently?
* Is your content plausible?
* Do you get to the point or ramble?
* Are you repeating yourself?
* Are all words spelled correctly?
* Is your punctuation perfect?
With each written piece, ensure you review your work thoroughly. There's nothing worse than sending something to an editor or even a writing competition, and finding errors later.
To combat this problem, I endeavor to finish ahead of the deadline by at least a week, then go back over the piece with a fine-tooth comb.
Cheryl Wright is an award-winning Australian author and freelance journalist. She’s the owner of the Writer2Writer.com and author of “Think Outside the Square: Writing Publishable (Short) Stories,” “I Wanna Win! – Tips for Becoming an Award Winning Writer,” and the novel “Saving Emma.”
Please visit Ms. Wright’s Web site at:
Unusual but cool sounding, interesting words to occasionally sprinkle into your writing.
Caution: Go very gently and wisely, lest you risk over-spicing your prose to point of the reader’s irritation.
Bumptious—Overbearing or self-assertive to the point of being obnoxious; conceited bordering on arrogant. Salespeople in trendy, expensive shops can be bumptious.
Lubricious—Slippery, smooth, oily, lewd.
Spluttered—To make a rapid series of spitting sounds, to speak rapidly or indistinctly, as in a rage.
Lambent—Soft radiance, lightly brilliant.
Aquiline—Hooked like an eagle’s beak.
Permeable—Able to be passed or flowed or spread through.
Abstruse—Complicated; difficult to comprehend. Like the theory of relativity, atonal music or the philosophers you pretend to understand in college. The next best thing to understanding Hegel would be to describe him as abstruse and move on.
Jangled—A harsh metallic sound, to cause irritation to the nerves, etc. by discord. Think of the sound of keys bouncing around in someone’s pocket.
Prig—One who is arrogantly pedantic or moral, and whose attitude bores others.
Final Suggestion: Before you unveil these words in public, look them up in your dictionary, learn all the different shades of meaning and uses, and roll them around on your tongue—and inside your head—until they feel comfortable to you.
The Writing Life
To Plunge or Not to Plunge?
Becoming a Fulltime Freelancer
By Moira Allen
Wouldn't it be great to quit the rat race? To leave bosses and time clocks behind, skip the commute, ditch the heels or tie, and work in the same clothes you wear to weed the garden?
It's called "taking the plunge," and if you're at all serious about writing, you've probably dreamed about it. But you may also have regarded that dream as, at best, nothing more than an improbable fantasy. Writing may be the career you love, but chances are it's not the career that's keeping food on the table and a roof over your head.
I can't tell you whether you can make that dream a reality. But I can offer a few tips on making the decision: To plunge or not to plunge!
When to Plunge—and When to Stay Safely Ashore
The first question to ask when considering "the plunge" is: Where is your writing career today?
If the answer is "just getting started," stop right there. If you have only a few clips to your resume, or no clips at all, you're unlikely to be able to support yourself at your craft.
I hear from many writers who say they would like to quit their jobs and "start writing." To such writers, I say: "Start writing now. Quit later." If you haven't started yet -- or if you're just starting -- you simply won't know enough about this complex business to earn a living. So start writing. Get your feet wet. Find out what you can and can't do, what you enjoy, what you don't enjoy. Discover your strengths, and the areas that could use improvement. Find out whether you really wish to pursue writing as a business, or whether you'd rather pursue it as an avocation.
Writing can be a career or hobby or anything you care to make it. Writing for a living is a business, pure and simple. If you wouldn't dream of quitting your day job to run, say, an auto repair shop without any training as a mechanic, then don't dream of quitting your day job to become a writer without a comparable level of experience.
But how much experience IS enough? Should one have been writing for a year, or three, or five? Can writing experience even be measured in terms of "years"?
I suspect it can't. The real question is "where you are," not how long it has taken you to get there. The following checklist may help you determine whether you may be ready to consider "plunging".
A Writer's Checklist
1) I write more than 5 hours per week, every week.
You have discipline. It's tough to find five hours a week for writing when working a day job. You've already passed one of the biggest hurdles that writers face.
2) I submit at least one new query or article per week.
You have a high output. Clearly you don't spend those five hours a week (or whatever) re-polishing old material, or stuffing your work in a drawer. You're already "in the marketplace."
3) More than 50% of my queries and/or articles are accepted.
You know how to target markets effectively, and you obviously write well enough to impress the majority of the editors to whom you submit. (With that kind of acceptance rate, there's a good chance that your rejections aren't due to poor quality.)
4) More than 50% of my markets pay more than $100 per article.
You've found the guts to break out of the low paying "ghetto". You have confidence that your work is worth more. You won't be held back by self-esteem issues.
5) I have at least one "regular" market that has accepted several of my articles.
You have a steady source of income.
6) I have at least one "regular" market that contacts me with assignments (i.e., ideas generated by the editor rather than in response to a query from me).
You must be reliable and dependable. You meet deadlines and produce quality work. Otherwise, editors wouldn't come to YOU with ideas.
7) I am familiar with the practices and terminology of the publishing marketplace (e.g., I know what "FNASR" and "SASE" mean and I know how to format a manuscript).
You know the basics, and won't have to waste precious time "gearing up."
8) I own at least one current market guide.
You know the importance of obtaining the tools of the trade.
9) I subscribe to two or more writing publications.
You keep current with your field.
10) I know how to cope with rejection.
You won't be daunted by the inevitable disappointments of this type of career.
11) I earned more than $5000 from writing activities last year.
It won't keep a roof over your head, but it's more than many freelancers ever make in a year. It's one of those invisible lines: If you know how to earn this much, you know how to earn more. Probably the only thing holding you back is lack of time.
12) I currently report writing income for tax purposes, and know how to maintain proper business/tax records of income and expenses.
You know that "writing" isn't just putting words on a page. It's also a matter of records, accounting and good business practices.
13) I keep a household budget.
You already have an idea of what it will take to support your household -- which means you know how close you are to being able to go full-time.
While scoring 100% on this checklist is no guarantee that you're ready to quit your day job, a low score is a pretty good indication that you need to build up more of a foundation for your writing career before attempting to rely on it for a paycheck.
Making a Plan
So you've scored a perfect 13, you're totally fed up with your day job, and you're sure this is what you want to do. What next?
For most writers, the answer is NOT "quit your day job today." The answer is "make a plan." Typically, if you hope to become a full-time writer, you'll need to plan at least six months to a year ahead before actually "taking the plunge."
What will you do during that year? Lots! Here are some of the steps you'll need to take before saying farewell to a regular paycheck and "hello" to the joys and uncertainties of the freelance life.
1) Discuss your desire to become a fulltime freelancer with everyone in your personal life who will be affected by that decision (e.g., spouse, significant other, children). Presumably, your desire to write won't be a total surprise. However, family members who supported your "hobby" may not be as enthusiastic about losing a significant chunk of family income. They may not be happy about making adjustments, such as providing extra income themselves or accepting cutbacks and lifestyle changes. Don't be surprised if you encounter resistance or even sabotage. (I've heard of some wacky "conditions" imposed by spouses.) Don't dismiss those concerns as unfeeling; if your decision will affect others, the needs of those others should be a part of the decision-making process.
2) Evaluate your household income requirements. If you don't track your monthly expenses, this is a good time to start. Before you can make an effective plan, you need to know exactly where every penny of your income goes. Try tracking expenses on a simple spreadsheet, with categories such as:
* Auto (gas and repairs)
* Household expenses (e.g., maintenance)
* Children's expenses
* Meals and Entertainment (e.g., restaurants and movies)
It's also wise to break "miscellaneous" into more detailed categories, such as "books, CDs, videos, pets, crafts, subscriptions," etc. A good rule of thumb is to establish a separate listing for every category that exceeds $50 (or even $20) per month.
If you're never tracked your expenses in such detail before, you could be in for a shock. You didn't know you spent $100 a month on books? Or that those twelve magazine subscriptions (that you never have time to read) cost more than $500 per year? Your budget may be a rude awakening, but it can also be a welcome one, as certain categories emerge as ripe for cost-cutting.
3) Create a projected budget. It's "trim the fat" time. Go over your current expense list, and determine what you can cut and what you can't. Be realistic: Don't imagine that you can go a year without buying a new CD or book, or without eating out even once. (By resolving to buy those CDs or books used instead of new, however, you can immediately cut those categories in half!) Be sure to budget for unexpected expenses; you can bet that sometime in the next year, the car will need repairs, the dog will get sick, or the roof will leak.
4) Determine the difference between your projected budget and your current take-home income. If, for example, you can trim $10,000 in expenses, and you take home $30,000, you'll need to earn $20,000—one way or another.
5) SAVE. Most writers suggest having a full year of income saved (or at least enough to cover a full year of expenses). You need a cushion to pay those regular bills while waiting for irregular checks. Savings will be easier once you trim the budget, however. For example, if you've determined that you can cut $10,000 in expenses, you can save that over the next year. You can also ramp up your writing (by producing more articles or seeking higher-paying markets), and bank every penny of that income as well. If your shortfall is $20,000, and you save $10,000 in expenses and earn another $10,000 in writing over the next year, you'll have covered the difference.
6) Create a business plan. Determine your existing income sources, and explore ways to increase that income. Should you pitch more articles to your regular customers? Should you seek new, higher paying markets? Should you focus on a specialty or expand your range?
7) Be realistic. Nothing will sabotage your dream faster than setting impossible or unsatisfying goals. One writer I know attempted to increase her regular workload AND double or triple her writing output. Needless to say, this didn't work, and her "plunge" has been postponed indefinitely. Another common cause of failure is "plunging without a net"—with no savings backup. It only takes one missed rent check to get you back behind that hated office desk.
Your goal is to improve your life, not ruin it. Many writers take the plunge so that they can spend more time with loved ones -- so don't create a schedule that shuts those loved ones out of your life! Many also want to find more time to do what they love -- so don't create a plan that forces you to give up the types of writing you love in favor of higher-paying projects that bore you to tears. In short, don't sabotage your plan—or your life—in your attempt to make that life better.
Moira Allen is the author of more than 300 articles and columns. Her books include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer; The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals; and Writing.com: Creative Internet Strategies to Advance Your Writing Career.
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Michael P. Geffner, the founder/editor-in-chief of this newsletter, has been a writer/journalist for nearly 30 years. He's appeared in hundreds of publications, including the New York Times, USA Today, Details, The Sporting News, Men's Health, Cigar Aficionado, The Village Voice, FHM, Texas Monthly, and Los Angeles Magazine. He has won two Associated Press Sports Editors awards, been awarded first place for magazine profile writing in 2000 by the Society of Professional Journalists (NJ), voted Best Sportswriter in New York City in 1990 by New York Press, and acknowledged for excellence six times by the annual anthology, The Best American Sports Writing.
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