Archive for June, 2005

Some Writer’s Choices

June 6, 2005

When we write anything, we make an infinite number of small choices—which topic to address in the first place, which audience to address, how to start, how to write the middle and how to end it. These choices are clear whether we write a single page or a magazine article or a full-length novel or book.

Today, I’m thinking about the choices after you conduct an interview. You talk with someone on the phone or in person for 15 minutes or longer.  Then you have a wealth of material from this person.  As the writer, you select which quotations you will use and which you will ignore.

This weekend, I saw the issue from Writer’s Digest on Personal Writing (currently on the newsstands).  From an email, a reader told me this blog had been included in the issue. I dashed out to the bookstore and picked up a copy of it. The author interviewed me months ago and I had practically forgotten it and wondered if he would include anything from our conversation (some times they do and some times they do not).

At the time, I only had a few days of writing these entries under my experience. He selected a quotation from this entry titled Urban Writing Myth Is Real. The writer was amused with some of my comments in the fifth paragraph about the handwritten manuscript. His choice did showcase what I’m doing in the various entries and was a wise one.

After an interview (if possible), I will write my quotations into a computer file—or I will star them on my notes. I’ve discovered it makes it easier to return to them and use them in the particular magazine article at a later time. Some writers transcribe their tapes. I’ve never found that particularly valuable. I do return to my tape and spot check the quotations but I do not transcribe the tape. The transcription process seems to cement the information and stop the fluid nature of it. Years ago, long-time Guideposts Contributing Editor Elizabeth Sherrill described writing after an interview as like the sculptor who takes a block of stone and sees a beautiful statue inside.

It’s the same process for the writer after an interview. You see a well-crafted article that comes from your research and interview—even before it is written. Be aware of your various minor and major choices in this process. I believe it will help your craft.

Beating The Distractions

June 5, 2005

I’m fascinated with many different subjects. During my college years, one of my majors was political science. It set a lifetime habit that continues to this day and I follow many aspects in the political realm.

I love to read a good fiction book—and read a number of them in different genres of fiction. Yet, I read in the nonfiction world as well—many different types of books.

And magazines? I take something like 40 of them and flip through most of them fairly thoroughly.

If you love to learn and discovering new information, the Internet can be a treasure trove of new ideas and new concepts. You can read and research until the hours have disappeared. And the work? What happened to the writing and editorial work? Did it get accomplished? Not if you get distracted from it.

How do you focus and keep on track? Some great advice and wisdom is built into this article from my friend Kristi Holl on Dealing with Distractions. It’s a new addition at Right-Writing.com and just might be the perfect insight for your writing life. I hope so.

The Writer’s Gold Mine

June 4, 2005

Pssst. It’s a secret—not that I want it to be. This week I made a rough calculation of the number of pages in Right Writing News which is loaded with how-to write material.  I’ve produced 19 issues and most of them average around 20 pages for a total of at least 380 pages

The newsletter is free but only to subscribers. Except for only a few exceptions, these newsletters contain articles that do not appear anywhere else on the website. You have to subscribe to have access to these articles.

This week I looked into the circulation of a couple of print magazines targeted to writers. The Writer is one of the oldest publications and it’s circulation is about 40,000 copies. Then I looked into Writer’s Digest and saw its circulation is about 150,000.  Admittedly these print magazines are a different type of publication than my newsletter—but in other ways they are similar in containing quality how-to write information. My circulation for the Right Writing News is less than 3,000 but I’d love for it to grow. 

Here’s my idea: if each of you reading this entry about the Writing Life could encourage others to subscribe, then the list would grow. Maybe you participate in an online forum or write for a printed publication or just have a bunch of writer friends. Please tell them about this writer’s gold mine. Encourage them to go to this little link: http://snipurl.com/rwnews  My advance appreciation for anything you do in this area.

I’m going to take a moment in this entry and tell you about two free Internet tools and why I use them on a regular basis. The first is called TinyURL. In an instant, you can take a long Internet address and change it into a short one. For example, I took this URL: http://www.right-writing.com/newsletter.html and changed it into http://tinyurl.com/d5h5g (if you check, each URL goes to exactly the same place). Why make this change? You have no idea what will happen to an address as it is sent in an email or newsletter. The shorter the URL, the greater the chance that it will be preserved (and not broken in the process). TinyURL took a name which was 44 characters and reduced it to 24 characters. It’s not a huge saving but it’s something. I recommend TinyURL as a great tool.

Another URL tool which I use more often is called SnipURL.com. If you register at this site (free), then when you return to Mysnipurl.com (the personalized section of the site), you can personalize the shorter URLs. As an example again using the same link (http://www.right-writing.com/newsletter.html), SnipURL.com changed it into two forms. First, they give a generic name to it: http://snipurl.com/fcpa with only four letters to remember (or at times, it’s a letters and number combination). SnipURL.com allows you to designate your own name (at least five letters and no more than 20 characters). Usually this personalized format is easier to remember (at least for me). For this example, I made this link: http://snipurl.com/rwnews 

Behind the scenes at Mysnipurl.com, I’ve learned to use the “Title” field in addition to the “nickname.” After I make a URL, I return to Mysnipurl.com and edit the newly created URL. I add a Title or an explanation about the specific URL (for example the book title and that it’s an Amazon.com link—which is normally a very long URL).

Why make this additional effort? I have hundreds of shortened URLs stored on this site.  At the bottom of the page, Snipurl.com has a search feature. If I need to return to a previously snipped URL, I can quickly find it with this search feature—usually through the “Title.”

OK. Now back to my writer’s gold mine or the Right Writing News.  I need help to let others know about the value of this free resource.  Paste this link somewhere you can remember it: http://snipurl.com/rwnews I’d love for as many people as possible to know about this gold mine for writers. 

Take Stock

June 3, 2005

At the start of the summer and about the mid-point in the year, it’s always good to take stock. Where are you with your writing life? If you are frustrated, getting no answer from editors or getting rejected, then I have a few ideas for you.

I’ve seen a lot of submissions—with books and also with magazines. Because I’ve worked in both areas of publishing, I’ve learned a great deal from what writers pitch for ideas. Many writers dream of writing a book. It’s something solid to hold in your hand and maybe see in the bookstore. It’s a good long-range goal but is it realistic for the short-term. In most cases, the answer is no.

Book editors want authors who have a publishing history in magazines or newspapers. These writers have learned a lot as they practice their craft in the shorter format and are more attractive to editors. What can a writer learn from writing a shorter magazine article? A great deal is the answer.

First, for the higher-circulation (and higher-paying) publications, they learn how to write a one-page query letter.  You have to grab the editor’s (and the reader’s) attention in the first paragraph of a query letter and you show your writing style is attractive. I find that most writers don’t understand this technique in the early days of their work. I certainly didn’t understand it. I had to learn to pitch ideas to the magazine editors which were targeted to their audience and attractive to them.

Your job as the writer is to understand the needs and desires of the editor—then be a problem-solver for the editor. You pitch the editor the perfect idea for their publication. You can learn this skill in magazine writing.

Also through magazine articles, you gain a variety of other skills. Often you have to interview someone else for the contents of the article so you learn how to conduct interviews and ask the right questions. Magazine writing teaches how to craft an article with a beginning, a middle and an ending (with a key point called a take-away for the reader). You also learn to write on deadline (something important for magazine and book publishing).  The magazine editor will tell you how many words to write for the magazine. As the writer, you deliver that amount of words—not lots more or lots less—right on target. If you write too much initially, then you learn to cut. If you don’t write enough, you learn how and where to expand your article. It’s a skill that translates into book publishing to make sure your chapters are suitable lengths for example.

Many times with new magazine writers (even the professionals), their first submission isn’t exactly what the editor was thinking. Admittedly it’s hard to get into the editor’s head. As a writer, you learn how to follow the editor’s instructions for rewriting and again meeting a new deadline from the editor.

My experience says that many writers hold unrealistic expectations about what can happen in their writing life. Few people leap into the marketplace with their first book and become a best-selling author. The majority of writers instead apprentice. They learn their craft with a smaller goal, then eventually they are able to accomplish the higher goal. For many years, I wrote magazine articles before I wrote my first book. Jerry B. Jenkins author of Left Behind wrote more than 100 books before the ground-breaking series.

It’s valuable to have writing goals and aspirations. Each of us hold them. It is also valuable to take stock. Can you make a smaller goal or an incremental step in the direction of your goal in another part of the writing world? 

My Warning Bells Sounded

June 2, 2005

The package looked pretty innocent when it arrived. A USPS priority mail package addressed to me because of my Fiction Editor position. I opened it and my internal warning bells sounded.

First, it was a bound manuscript. Again it wasn’t too unusual. Some times a fiction author will produce a Print On Demand version or self-publish their novel and be interested in a traditional publisher acquiring the book for a broader distribution.

Then I noticed the cover letter came from a literary agent (someone I didn’t recognize). Again it’s not too unusual because anyone can hang out an agent shingle. Many people are getting into the agent business. Some editors are becoming agents, etc.

With this agent’s cover letter, the warning bells sounded. I think it was the phrase about a “compilation of prayer and insightful prose” to “to guide readers along a path to spiritual enlightenment.” Then the next sentence claimed the book “appeals to readers of any faith.”

OK, I thought. Let’s check it out.

Loud warning bells sounded. Large typeface (helps you produce a larger book than would normally happen). Every page was a one page chapter of a thought or prayer and the bound book was published from an outfit that I’ve seen numerous authors complaining about their results on some online groups. I’d never seen an actual book from this outfit—until now.

Over the last few years, I’ve opened thousands of these submissions—but I’ve never seen a package like this one. I looked a bit closer about the author. Her first book and she’s working on a second book (admirable).

Then I thought I’d check for some more information about the agent. (Writers should listen up here—I’m going to teach you how to fish—for information). First, I went to Everyone Who’s Anyone In Trade Publishing.  This page has a search engine and I entered the first and last name, then searched. Nothing was found. Then I just entered the last name and searched. Again nothing. Then I entered the first name and searched. Nothing.

Next I turned to the Association of Author’s Representatives home page. They have a search engine feature for their database. Again I looked for this agent’s name. Nothing. It’s again not too unusual—because not every agent is a member of the AAR. Most of the Christian literary agents that I work with on a regular basis are not members.

Finally I tried a Google search on the person’s name. I found nothing. Now not everyone in publishing is on the Internet. I searched on my own name “Terry Whalin” and in 0.25 seconds, Google found 3,700 results with the first few entries accurate and you could learn my background. It sounded more warning bells.

I sent this “literary agent” my standard form rejection letter, then logged some details into my fiction manuscript log. The experience bothered me for the author who is obviously putting some effort and energy into getting her project into the marketplace.

Each of us as writers want someone to want our material. It’s admirable as we pursue our dreams of publication (and sales) that someone comes along who wants to be our literary agent. It’s our responsibility as the author to check out the agent—and make wise decisions.

Only Thick Skinned Need Apply

June 1, 2005

Almost every day I see someone with this quality and I’ve got to admire their persistence. It’s like the boxer that gets smashed yet continues to stand for another round. Or when the boxer gets knocked down, they shake it off and climb back into the ring the next day.

If we are involved in publishing, the odds are against us. Reading continues to decline. Publishers are cutting back on the amount of books they will publish in a season. The number of books continue to increase (mostly because of self-publishing and print on demand). There is a massive amount of material in circulation for editors to read. Some people estimate that at any given time there are over six million manuscripts and proposals in circulation. There are many more reasons but those are a few where the odds are long on success. Yet, writers find their motivation deep inside and persist in attempting to get their message to the public.

My opportunity to see such persistence is my role as the Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Howard Publishing. I regularly tell people about the high volume of submissions and the few books which are contracted. Yet even armed with this information, writers continue to send their material. Agents continue to submit material from their clients. I admire the internal fortitude and commitment to continue trying. Many people can easily tout Babe Ruth’s home run record.  Few people seem to recall in 1918, 1919, 1923, 1924, 1927 and 1928, Babe Ruth also led his league in strikeouts. You can’t get published in magazines or books unless you are submitting and in the marketplace.

Many years ago I encouraged a friend to send his work to publishers. He picked up on my encouragement and mailed his material. A few weeks later, I checked to see how it was going. “It came back rejected a few times and I decided that no one wanted it. I put that material away,” he said.

In some cases, it’s a good idea to put away your manuscript and not send it out. Like many writers, I’ve got a number of things in my files (which I worked hard on at the time) and they were soundly rejected. This material may get reworked and out into the market but I suspect, most of these ideas will stay in my files.

Often I find new writers grow discouraged from the rejection—and simply quit. There are many reasons for rejection—and not all of them relate to your specific manuscript. Maybe it’s the wrong timing or the wrong place. You need to have thick skin and persist in getting it out there. You are looking for a connection and it might only take one more attempt.