Friday, December 3, 2010

The Toofer Controversy

The English language changes slightly about every five years. Sometimes, it’s a change in words and at others a change in punctuation or usage. Today, writing in general has been heavily influenced by chatting, texting, and messages on social network sites like Twitter.

Over the last five years, a controversy has arisen about punctuation and the word “too.” Throughout my schooling and my writing career, I always placed a comma before the word “too” when I used it at the end of a sentence.

A few months back I was revising a book of mine–How to Start a Home-Based Antiques Business–when I discovered that all the commas preceding the word “too” had disappeared in the current edition. I asked my editor about them, and she was as baffled as I. So in the revised edition, I replaced all those commas. I have yet to see the published new edition, so I don’t know if the commas mysteriously disappeared again.

Several months later, I noticed those same commas missing in the stories written by some of my creative writing students. This seemed to be more than a chance coincidence, so I did some checking.

It seems that at the moment I, as a writer, have the choice of whether to place a comma before the word “too.” Unlike other English usage practices, this is the only incidence in which I have a choice. So what’s the difference? If I place a comma before the word “too,” it implies that the sentence provides additional information. In this instance, I could substitute the word “also.” But if I delete the comma before the word “too,” the sentence lacks the emphasis I want. And writing is all about emphasis.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Proof is in the Book

During my writing career, I have written quite a few books. Like most writers, I labored over the content and the words and phrases to bring it to light. When I finished writing my books, I sent them off to an editor at my publisher.

Recently, I took on the job of editing a cookbook for a Quaker Meeting of which I’m a member. While this seemed like an easy task at first, I soon realized that editing was much more than correcting spelling and punctuation and the occasional mistake in grammar. How difficult would it be to edit recipes? Boy, was I way off base.

Yes, there were spelling and punctuation errors to correct, but editing a book involves so much more as I soon found out.

One of the main jobs of a book editor is to make sure the content and style remains consistent throughout the book. A book is a large volume of work. When writing one, I try to keep the main idea in mind, but as I get deeper into it, I sometimes change how I express certain things which results in inconsistencies.

And so it was with this cookbook. The person who compiled the recipes is a cook, herself, so the recipes, themselves were okay, for the most part. However, different recipe donors had different ways of expressing the same procedure in similar recipes. For example, some donors used fractions while others used decimals to indicate parts of measurements. A few recipes weren’t at all clear. And while folksy and interesting to read, they left the cook wondering what to do next. So in this case, clarity became a major concern.

Another facet of editing this cookbook was focusing it to the reader. At first, it targeted only to people at our Meeting, but to make this a successful fundraising project, it had to be clear to those outside our Meeting who might purchase the book. The problem that surfaced while editing was how the descriptive anecdotes that accompanied the recipes related to the reader. Originally, the compiler had only the people at our Meeting in mind as readers. But to sell the book to a broader audience, that had to be changed so that other readers would understand the family relationships mentioned in the book.

Upon finishing this project after six or seven weeks of intensive editing, I now have a very healthy respect for my book editors. And as a writer, I plan to insure that I make their job a little easier by paying stricter attention to details when writing my books. I also learned a lot about the other side of publishing–getting the book ready for market–which I can now use to self-publish books.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Look Before You Leap

When writing a book, most writers begin by doing just that. They bury themselves in researching their topic or story and spend months, if not years, writing about it. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? But how many of them actually get their book published?

In general, most people feel they have something so important to say that every publisher will want to publish their book and every reader will run out to buy it. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

This attitude of self-importance originates way back in school—as far back as first grade. Most teachers don’t mean to instill this in their students, it sort of happens through a process of educational osmosis. The teachers had it instilled in them by their teachers in a never-ending educational process. So what is a book writer to do? Market research.

Whether you plan to write a non-fiction or fiction book, it pays to take a look at the market for your idea—not your book. Take a trip to a good bookstore and browse through the books on your topic. This will tell you what’s being sold. Remember, most of the books on the shop’s shelves originated at least two years prior to you seeing them. Now stroll over to the sale tables. The books on these tables are remainders—leftovers that didn’t sell during the book’s most recent run. Many may be terrific, but for some reason didn’t hit the mark. Take notes, being sure to nor publishers names.

Next surf on over to, the world’s greatest book depository. Search for books on your topic. Amazon has practically everything in print. Do the same at their competitor, Barnes and Noble’s Web site. Take more notes, again being careful to note the names of publishers.

After all this research, review your notes and draw some conclusions about how viable your topic really is. Generally, too many books on your topic means the market is overloaded. Too few often means not enough readers are interested or the topic hasn’t been explored to any great degree by writers.

Armed with your conclusions, you’re ready to proceed with your book, modifying the topic to reflect market trends. It’s important to note that you shouldn’t cater to your topic’s market but be driven by it. Doing so will greatly enhance your chance of publication.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Total Immersion

I began my writing career over 25 years ago writing short articles for local newspapers. At the time, I thought spending a week working on a 1,000-word-or-so article was a long time.

Over the years, I continued to write articles, eventually graduating to longer more complicated magazine pieces. Churning these out one after another became the norm. Each required some research and writing skill, but not as much as goes into writing a book.

Though I began writing shorter books early on—my first was one on solar energy that was 20 years ahead of its time—none of these projects demanded as much of me as the book projects I’m working on now.

My total immersion into book writing began in 2005. For about a year before that I knew deep down inside that it was time for me to move on to longer works, and as the Honda commercials so aptly put it, “Mr. Opportunity came a knockin’.” Then, instead of working on a project for a few days, I began working on ones that took 10-12 weeks or more.

This level of intense concentration on one subject was at first daunting. But after finishing my first 100,000-word+ manuscript–it actually was 130,000 words—my mind became used to the routine of 16-hour work days.

Working on a book necessitates that my mind be constantly working. While I’m writing one chapter, I’m researching the next, thinking about another, and editing the last. It’s not until about a fourth of the way into the writing of a book that the book’s concept begins to gel. It’s then that I begin to visualize the entire book as a unit.

So many beginning writers want to write books—I suppose for all the “glamour” and credibility that they perceive comes with them. But what they don’t realize is that no only are their writing skills not fully developed but neither are their thinking skills. And it’s because of the latter that 99 percent of the books started never get finished.

So before you set out to tackle those big projects, start out slowly with smaller ones. Sharpen your writing and your thinking skills and soon you’ll be on your way to writing success.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Promote Thyself

“Promote thyself” should be every writer’s motto. But getting out there and telling other people about your work is directly opposite to the writing lifestyle. Writing is a solitary profession, and except for interaction with your editors and perhaps people you interview, you write in more or less total isolation.

However, in today’s world of networking, it’s important to make you and your work known.

Sure, book writers—you’ll notice I didn’t use the term “author”—can present book signings here and there. While this may sell a few more books regionally, it doesn’t do much to get a book known for the average writer. Perhaps your book becomes a bestseller and Oprah invites you on her show. It becomes an instant success. But what about all the rest of us who don’t get that golden opportunity.

Whether you write books, articles, or short stories, you need to create a plan for promoting them. You’ll discover that it’s inherently easier to promote non-fiction than fiction. First, you can easily produce articles on the same topics as your books or articles in which you can promote yourself as a writer in other topic areas. Publishing these in print or online will definitely help get you noticed.

And what about creating your own Web site? People in businesses of all kinds have Web sites today. It shouldn’t be any different for a writer. You have two ways to go there—developing a professional Web site through which you can engage editors or a more personal site to engage readers.(I’ll discuss creating your own site more in a future blog.)

Even if you don’t have a Web site, you can offer your work to Webmasters of other sites—either ones that deal with your chosen topic or ones that focus on writing, itself. Don’t do this haphazardly, however. Instead, target good sites with higher visitor counts or rankings in search engines like Google.

And finally don’t discount social networking sites like Facebook. While all the”friends” you emass on Facebook may visit your fan page regularly, are they doing much else to further your career, like buying your books or reading the magazines in which your articles and short stories appear. Only you can decide if the time and energy you’ll need to put into a social networking page will be worth it in the long run.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Keeping Up With the Times

How many times have you taken a writing refresher course? If you’re like most people, probably never. If you’re more serious about writing, maybe once or twice.

Unfortunately, after most people leave school–high school, college, or graduate school–they rarely brush up on their writing skills. And while their skills have stayed the same, writing has continued to evolve.

Everyone learns to write for one reason and one reason only–to do classwork and homework in school. Seldom does anyone learn to communicate in a conversational manner, except to talk. Generally, most teachers don’t care much how their students talk. But on the outside, both talking and writing are important forms of communication. And the world of sheltered and structured academia is unlike anything on the outside.

Writing changes about every five years. While most people don’t notice these subtle changes, they’re there, nonetheless. Sometimes, it’s a change in the way people use punctuation while at others these changes may manifest themselves in certain forms of sentence structure.

Take semicolons, for instance. Back when teachers taught that writing was a more formal affair, people used semicolons extensively. Today, many writers use them rarely, as they tend to slow the reading down. Instead, they substitute a period for the semicolon and begin a separate but related sentence immediately following it. Are you one of those who’s still using semicolons?

Lots of things influence changes in writing, but none more so than the creation and appearance of electronic text, both on the Internet and in E-mail. Instead of writing in a longer, more formal style, writers are using a more concise approach. Writing is tighter and less flowery with fewer longer, more sophisticated words that many readers may not know.

Have you checked your writing style lately? Perhaps it needs a bit of updating.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Turn Awards Into Cash

Awards to a writer are like gold. And while some may even be made of gold which you can cash in at any one of those “Cash-for-Gold” shops, most are far more valuable.

While writing awards come in all varieties, the ones that hold the most value are those given with minimal input from you, the writer, and usually from a group of other writers. After winning such an award, especially one given by a group of writers or editors, your credibility soars–at least for a while.

Soon after you’re presented with an award, everyone rushes to congratulate you. But not unlike when a loved one dies and the sympathies fade away after a few weeks, so it is with an award. How soon they forget!

So it’s up to you to make sure they don’t. Whatever type of award you win, you need to milk it for all the promotion it’s worth. Prominently display it on the Home Page of your Web site. Post it on your Facebook Page, tweet all those Web birdies out there. But most of all, let your editors and publishers know about it.
First and foremost, use your award to get more work. Make sure you update your resume, especially on your Web site. Don’t be shy. And mention it in your query letters. The more prestigious the award, the longer its residual effects will last.

And be sure to display your award(s) where you can see them every day, so that they’ll inspire you to write more. Remember, the fact that you received an award in the first place means someone thought you were better than the rest. The award just proves what you knew all along.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Turning One Published Piece into Many

I’m absolutely amazed at how many beginning writers get published for the first time, then turn to a completely different subject, marketing that to a different editor or publisher instead of building a relationship with the first.

Writing is not just about words, it’s about relationships. No matter what sort of writing you do, you need to build on past successes. If you begin at the top, you have no where to go but down, so it’s important to begin slowly and build relationships with your editors. This can be either by getting to know what a particular editor wants or building on new contacts, using an award you’ve recently received.

I believe the first time I had an article published in a national magazine was a fluke. While it wasn’t totally an accident–-I had sent the piece into the magazine, Popular Mechanics, after all–-it was by happenstance that it appeared between the covers of this national publication exactly one year later. The article showed readers how to build turn an ordinary compact station wagon into a “chuck wagon” for use on a cross-country camping trip. It wasn’t particularly in my field of interest, but it was something I actually did construct. I didn’t publish anything again for six years.

Oh, I tried. I sent pieces all over the place, but I failed to send another idea to the editor of Popular Mechanics. That was my mistake.

As soon as you achieve publishing success, immediately send several similar ideas to that same editor. In fact, while you’re waiting to hear back from that publication, assemble a list of salable ideas that you can send along later.

Perhaps the editor liked your writing style or perhaps your subject. What probably happened–as in my case–was that the editor liked the timeliness of my subject. At the time, gasoline prices had begun to rise dramatically, and this offered families an affordable way to go on an extended vacation and eat well at the same time. But even though you may have just gotten lucky doesn’t mean that you couldn’t sell something to that same editor.

It’s important to build a rapport with your editors. The longest I worked for the same one was 14 years. That’s because she remained in her position, and I gave her consistently good material she could use. The second longest was seven years.

Editors flit from publication to publication about as fast as hairdressers do from salon to salon. If you have a good relationship with an editor, he or she will often take you with them to their new publication. It’s usually an upgrade to a better position for them, resulting in a marketing upgrade for you, which can mean higher pay and more prestige.

The same holds true for getting awards, but I’ll tell you more about that next week.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Getting Organized

When computers first came on the scene, manufacturers said they would lead to a paperless society. Obviously, they didn’t mean writers. Even though I’ve been using a computer for my work since 1989, to look at my files, you’d never know it. That’s because writing of any sort–except perhaps poetry–requires some degree of research. So to keep from going insane, I had to get organized.

At first, I used manila envelopes that I rescued from mailings. Into these I placed brochures, notes, etc. on various topics, then stacked them on their longer sides on shelves with the topic lettered on the at the bottom. After these filled several shelves, I switched to a filing cabinet. Now six filing cabinets later, I ran out of room. Sure, I periodically go through the material, but it still piles up.

Ordinary manila folders became the basis for my filing system. Every article I write–to date about 4,000–has a corresponding file folder containing an brief outline, research notes, and any other pertinent information about that topic. When writing a book, I use a separate file folder for each chapter, plus extra ones for appendices and the general concept and outline.

Each article and book chapter also has corresponding computer files–several for research, one for the rough draft, and successive additional ones for revisions and rewrites, each numbered in succeeding order.

In addition to all the writing files, I also have a well-organized library of several hundred books. Most of these I use for reference in researching my work. When I’m working on a book, I place all the books I’m using to research it on one nearby small table, making it easy to go back and find a specific reference.

My office also contains several stackable trays that I had planned to use for sorting current material. Unfortunately, other folders and such tend to clog them up, so I periodically have to clean them out.

It’s also a good idea to keep everything you use most often closest to your desk. This can be article folders, notes, a scheduling book, etc. And, yes, I also keep a calendar with automatic reminder alerts on my computer.

To organize my current writing project folders, I use two plastic former record album racks. The folders stack nicely into them, allowing me to finger through them to find what I want. To keep different types of writing projects separated, I use sheets of cardboard, cut higher than a file folder, then paste a large label with type of writing project across the top. These allow me to place folders between them, keeping everything organized. I have folders divisions for Assignments, Columns, Courses and Lectures, Web Site Updates, and Writing Out. As I finish a project, its folder gets filed in that last category. Every six months or so, I take all those folders and file them in the appropriate box or filing cabinet.

NOTE: I’ll discuss specifics about some of the organizational methods above in future blogs. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Having a Baby Elephant

What is it about our society that people put so much stock in authors but not so much in writers. Aren’t writers and authors the same? Don’t they both communicate with words?

Beginning writers seem to think if they write a book that they’ll be recognized as a writer. Many of my Creative Writing students come to class after they start to write a book and realize they don’t know what they’re doing. What drives so many beginning writers to write a book when they haven’t written much else? Perhaps it goes back to school.

We learn to read by reading books. Sure, they’re short with just a few sentences, but they’re still books. How many first graders are out there reading articles and short stories? None. As they progress through the grades, they read more and more books until, before they know it, they’re sitting in English classes studying literature.

I see myself as a writer, even though I’ve written 14 books. When I meet someone for the first time, and they ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer. “Would I have read something you’ve written?” they ask. When I tell them some of the magazines I’ve written for or some of the non-fiction books I’ve written, they’re eyes glaze over and that’s pretty much the end of the conversation.

I’ve learned over the years that a lot goes into writing a book. It’s not just the writing, it’s the research, the organization, the energy. I tell my students that writing a book is like having a baby elephant—it takes 22 months for the little guy to grow inside it’s mother. That’s just about how long it takes to create a book—getting the idea, marketing the idea, researching the idea, organize the idea, writing the idea, and rewriting the idea. Oh, and let’s not forget promoting the idea.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Don’t Forget the Basics

With the advent of computers, the Internet, E-mail, and especially texting, many students have glossed over basic writing skills in favor of abbreviated forms of communication. While most will sadly be able to get by communicating in writing, those interested in becoming writers have to heed to the call.

If you have any dreams of becoming a published writer, you need to pay close attention to your writing skills and, for some, English usage. The writing business has standards of quality—strict ones—that all writers follow, from best-selling book authors all the way down to beginning freelancers writing for their local newspaper.

While most people think that writing skills mean punctuation and capitalization—what writers call mechanics—the truth is they also include things like phrasing and idioms, and at the top of the list, sentence structure and paragraphing. Way down on the list is vocabulary. It doesn’t take big words to make your readers understand what you’re trying to say.

So if you’re writing skills aren’t up to par, it doesn’t matter how great your ideas are because you won’t be able to express them properly.

If you find your writing skills below par or perhaps lacking altogether, enroll in a basic composition class or a basic writing class at a local school night or community college. The former are less expensive and usually run for six to eight weeks. That’s plenty of time to get your skills in shape, especially if you have assignments to write each week.

Of course, you can improve your writing skills on your own, but you won’t get any feedback and that’s very important—not only from the instructor but from other students. If you have any plans to publish anything, get started now improving a writer’s second greatest asset—your writing skills. The first is your ideas.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Deadlines Take Over

Sorry I’ve been rather quiet for the past two weeks. Between trying to make a book revision deadline and problems accessing the Internet, I’ve been going slightly crazy.

Books tend to take over a writer’s life. In the beginning, they require intense thought, then the job is to get those thoughts into some order so that they make sense to the reader. In some ways, revising a book for the second time involves even more thought.

When I write a book or an article for the first time, the writing seems right. Everything reads well. It doesn’t occur to me that I may have to revise it in the future. Revising can do several things for a book. First, it allows me to update pertinent information. And second, it gives me the opportunity to revamp my writing. Not having seen it for five years, I forget what it sounds like. In fact, when reading over the book, I didn’t even recognize it as something I wrote. That’s a good thing.

The more I write books, the more I conceive a concept that the book needs to follow. When I first revised this book on starting your own antiques business, I concentrated on getting all the antiques information right. This time, I see that the concept needed to be more business-like. Remember, some readers will be using this book as their step-by-step guide to running a successful business. While it may not be as intriguing as a novel, someone’s financial future depends on it.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Publishing Online–The Beginning or the End

Ever since the Internet appeared on the scene, publishing on it has been given a bad rap. Some publishers refuse to publish any writing that’s previously appeared on a Web site. Hogwash!

The truth of the matter is that many of them fear the Internet, seeing it as prime competition. And rightly so. Big city newspapers, for example, are falling like a stack of dominos. They say they just can’t compete with sites that offer their content for free. Philadelphia’s leading newspaper, The Inquirer, and its sister publication, The Daily News, recently went on the auction block, and even though a group of investors won the bidding, their future is still uncertain.

Many periodical publishers cling to the notion that people need to hold some sort of paper in their hands to read it. In fact, recent surveys have shown that nearly 50 percent of readers get their news and other information online or through T.V. As the older generation gradually dies off, the younger one will increasingly turn to electronic media to satisfy their informational needs.

The fact is no one–editors, public relations people, and, yes, even writers–recognize the Internet as a legitimate publishing medium. One reason is that essentially non-writers communicate on it. And even if a professional writer publishes pieces on Web sites, there’s no way to tell the difference. Sure, the writing is most likely better quality, but there’s no definite line as there is in print publishing.

Secondly, few Web sites pay little or nothing for contributed work. Most site owners, beyond the corporate sites, are people with a special interest and are not professional editors or writers. And that’s the rub. Sites that do offer writers opportunities for publication don’t have any approval process, so they accept everything. Someone has got to decide which pieces are good or not before posting them.

What’s needed, both for the publishing industry and professional writers, is a professional publishing division of the Internet–a section with e-zines (electronic magazines) controlled by editors that pay writers rates comparable to print publications.

Unfortunately, Web site owners are a greedy lot. Even if they do have advertising on their sites, they don’t want to share the revenue from it with writers. Let’s face it, an e-zine wouldn’t have the high printing costs associated with print, so they could divert that income to paying good writers. Plus, the publications can easily be subscription controlled. And the subscriptions wouldn’t have to cost as much as print because of no printing costs.

The process of submission to these e-zines would be the same for writers. They would still send queries or manuscripts. They’d get paid on acceptance or on publication–or like some cheap publishers, a long time after publication.

It’s important that everyone–editors and writers, alike–recognize the Internet as a bonafide medium of communication. It may not happen immediately. But it will happen.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Put a Spin on It

People now associate the word “spin” with the public relations hype that surrounds the President or other public figures. In that context it means to spin the information in the opposite direction to distract the public from the actual problem at hand. In writing, it has a very different–and positive–meaning.

I’m sure you’re familiar with spin-offs of popular T.V. series. These are new shows in which a character from the popular one plays a leading role. The NCIS series is a good example. Some of the characters from the original show occasionally appear in the new show to provide continuity. But in lots of spin-offs, the new show takes on a life of its own. And so it is with writing, especially for freelance writers.

Spin-offs of new articles, short stories, lectures, and whatever else your creative mind can think of are what make freelance writing interesting and economically possible. Too many beginning writers work on one project at a time and after it’s finished, they don’t do anything with all the research that went into it. That research is a gold mine of information. It can provide the facts for a series of articles, the background for a short story or a play, or the material for a lecture.

As I worked through the last 25 years, I learned to gather as much information as possible so that I could write for different markets and in different media. On one trip along 1,000 miles of the Oregon Trail, I gathered enough information for 16 articles. But I didn’t stop there. I’ve also put together two lectures on the pioneers, and wrote a children’s story, all based on that same research.

Spin-offs are easy. They can take the shape of sidebars, which later you can turn into stand-alone articles. Sometimes, the big picture is just too big–too broad, which forces you to divide it into parts. There’s always a market for short pieces. They right in front of most writers, but they don’t see them.

Writing a book is a BIG project. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, especially in the research department. I’ve written a book on restoring and refinishing antiques. From that I’ve spun off articles, blog posts, short pieces for my antiques Web site, a seminar, and finally a continuing education course.

While you won’t get rich doing this, it certainly helps pay the bills. So start spinning and see what develops.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Money Migraine

Collecting the money owed to you can be frustrating and time consuming. In this business, we call it a “money migraine.” Some markets pay on time all the time, other are just the opposite. I got paid for my first article exactly one year after I sent it to a magazine. At the time, I was so excited about being published in a national magazine that it didn’t dawn on me that if I wrote full time that I would starve if I had to wait that long to be paid.

The better markets out there do pay on time and do respect writers. But some of the middle markets and, especially those at the bottom of the ladder, drag their feet. One magazine even offered me free advertising for the $1,500 they owed me for several articles. Now why would I advertise in their magazine?

The first step in timely payment is to find out when you’re supposed to be paid. Don’t hesitate to ask a publishers when they pay writers. Some pay on acceptance, some on publication, and some after publication. Knowing when you should expect payment will help you know if you should take further steps.

If payment time passes, send a second invoice, accompanied by a friendly reminder. Hopefully, the publisher may have just forgotten. Editors are busy and sometimes overworked. Or perhaps your invoice got misplaced. If you receive no answer or money after 10 days, it’s most likely that you’re being ignored.

Send another letter, reminding the editor that you met your obligations and insist that the publisher meet his or hers. If not answer again, it’s time for you to call. But often this has no effect.

What should you do now? If all else fails, you can take a publisher to court-–small claims court, that is. The only problem with this is that you have to do that in the county or town in which they’re located. For a small fee, you can file a claim or have someone locally file one for you. There’s a good chance you’ll get the money owed you, but you’ll have lost that market.

In my experience, nearly all publishers eventually do send payment–albeit very late. Continuing to work with a slow-paying publisher is a decision you’ll have to make. Sometimes, it’s a one-time event, but there are publishers who operate by the seat of their pants. You’ll have to decide if it’s worth continuing to work with that publisher or should you put your energies into finding a new one.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Can You Change a Contract?

Your chance of making a profit from a book or article hedges on the contract you sign for it. Contracts can be as short as a page or as long as 30 pages. Some publishers call them agreements, but they’re contracts, nonetheless. It pays to read them carefully because whatever is included in them is binding for both parties.

Publishers have revised their contracts since the Internet came into prominent use to garner every business advantage. In today’s market, that means electronic sales, among other things. Publishing to their Web sites or publishing your work as an ebook are options they never had before. And with the success of Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s ebook reader, those options have stepped right out front. This applies both to books and article, but not as much to short stories.

Signing a contract put you into a legal binding agreement . However, it also binds the publisher into the same agreement. Once, a magazine I wrote for sent me contracts for every article. In it was a line about electronic rights. I changed the wording to say I wouldn’t sell them or sometimes, I said I’d sell them for 10-15 percent of the article fee. His editor agreed. The publisher ignored the changes and published them on his Web site anyway. After two years and many articles later, I called him on it, and his lawyer said he basically didn’t have a leg to stand on because he had ignored the original contract changes. The publisher ended up paying me over $400 in back fees.

Another time, a client, who had hired me to write an extensive four-page advertorial for a big-city paper, ignored the phrase in it which said he had only one full edit of the manuscript. This was to prevent him from changing his mind lots of times before publication–a habit of business executives. In the end, he had to pay me 100 percent more because each additional edit cost him $1.00 per word. Again, his lawyer said he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

You can change any of the wording in a contract before you sign it–as long as the publisher agrees. A publisher usually begins with a standard legal contract, then adds whatever details he or she needs for the individual project. A standard contract gives all the monetary and legal advantages to the party who draws it up. In the above examples, these were the magazine publisher and myself. You, as the writer, have the right to change anything in the contract, should you not find it in your best interest.

If this is your first contract with a particular publisher, you don’t have the bargaining power to change much. But as you continue working on projects for that same publisher, your bargaining power increases.

And it isn’t just about your advance, should you be writing a book. Other items that you can change include deadline dates, reversion of rights back to you after publication (used mostly for articles), electronic rights (Web site and ebooks), royalty percentages, subsidiary rights (T.V., film, worldwide rights), and more.

So the next time you receive a contract from a publisher, read it very carefully. In fact, make a copy and underline or highlight sections on the copy that you find questionable. Don’t hesitate to ask for changes. Remember, it’s in your best interest. The publisher already has theirs covered.

Can You Change a Contract?

Your chance of making a profit from a book or article hedges on the contract you sign for it. Contracts can be as short as a page or as long as 30 pages. Some publishers call them agreements, but they’re contracts, nonetheless. It pays to read them carefully because whatever is included in them is binding for both parties.

Publishers have revised their contracts since the Internet came into prominent use to garner every business advantage. In today’s market, that means electronic sales, among other things. Publishing to their Web sites or publishing your work as an ebook are options they never had before. And with the success of Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s ebook reader, those options have stepped right out front. This applies both to books and article, but not as much to short stories.

Signing a contract put you into a legal binding agreement . However, it also binds the publisher into the same agreement. Once, a magazine I wrote for sent me contracts for every article. In it was a line about electronic rights. I changed the wording to say I wouldn’t sell them or sometimes, I said I’d sell them for 10-15 percent of the article fee. His editor agreed. The publisher ignored the changes and published them on his Web site anyway. After two years and many articles later, I called him on it, and his lawyer said he basically didn’t have a leg to stand on because he had ignored the original contract changes. The publisher ended up paying me over $400 in back fees.

Another time, a client, who had hired me to write an extensive four-page advertorial for a big-city paper, ignored the phrase in it which said he had only one full edit of the manuscript. This was to prevent him from changing his mind lots of times before publication–a habit of business executives. In the end, he had to pay me 100 percent more because each additional edit cost him $1.00 per word. Again, his lawyer said he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

You can change any of the wording in a contract before you sign it–as long as the publisher agrees. A publisher usually begins with a standard legal contract, then adds whatever details he or she needs for the individual project. A standard contract gives all the monetary and legal advantages to the party who draws it up. In the above examples, these were the magazine publisher and myself. You, as the writer, have the right to change anything in the contract, should you not find it in your best interest.

If this is your first contract with a particular publisher, you don’t have the bargaining power to change much. But as you continue working on projects for that same publisher, your bargaining power increases.

And it isn’t just about your advance, should you be writing a book. Other items that you can change include deadline dates, reversion of rights back to you after publication (used mostly for articles), electronic rights (Web site and ebooks), royalty percentages, subsidiary rights (T.V., film, worldwide rights), and more.

So the next time you receive a contract from a publisher, read it very carefully. In fact, make a copy and underline or highlight sections on the copy that you find questionable. Don’t hesitate to ask for changes. Remember, it’s in your best interest. The publisher already has theirs covered.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Importance of Revising

Writing isn’t only about putting words on paper. It’s really about arranging and rearranging words until they say what you mean. Many beginning writers fail to revise their work. They write a first draft and stop there. While you don’t have to completely rewrite what you write, it’s important to make sure what you’ve written communicates clearly to your readers.

To begin, check your work for misplaced content. This might be as simple as an event that’s out of chronological sync or a misplaced modifier. You may have a dull opening that won’t hold on to your reader’s attention or an ending that doesn’t end with a bang. Whatever you’re problem, a little revising can go a long way.

The most common reason for revising is for length. If you plan to sell to newspapers or magazines, you need to adhere to their length requirements, not write long diatribes in which you ramble all over the place. Today, the length of most published articles and short stories lies somewhere between 800-1000 words. As the Internet has threatened to take over the publishing world, magazines in particular have changed their layouts to reflect a “Web” look which means shorter pieces.

Start by deleting any unwanted content. Remove words like “very,” for instance. How nice is nice? Very nice. This word does little to advance the information in your work. You get the idea. Also, check to make sure you’re not using the same words and phrases continually. Create a little variety, and by using words that produce a more exact image to your reader, you’ll write clearer as well.

After you’ve deleted parts of your writing, you’ll be left with holes that you’ll need to mend. To do this, you’ll need to write new sentences, combine others. Be careful that you’re not asking your reader to make a leap in information. Never assume your reader knows what you’re talking about.

Another form of revising is a type of refreshing. When a book has been in print for a while, often publishers will ask the author to revise it for a new addition. This can mean new language and perhaps new information. In today’s fast moving world, a lot can happen in five years–an average length of time a publisher waits to revise a book. Travel guidebooks, on the other hand, are usually revised annually or biannually.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Payment on Acceptance or Publication

Writing for publication can have its drawbacks. For beginning writers, just getting published is enough. But for professional writers–those of us you need to get paid for our writing–when and if we get paid becomes a continual concern.

Professional writers’ associations like the prestigious American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) continually say writers should get paid on acceptance. That means getting paid the moment an editor accepts an article or short story. Well, that’s easy for them to say.

In today’s madcap word of publishing, fewer and fewer publishers of periodicals are paying their writers on acceptance. They want to keep their money as long as they can, and so do their advertisers, who are paying their bills later and later. So what is a writer to do?

First, find out beforehand when the publication pays its writers. You can easily find this in such directories as Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books. If you don’t see the publication you’re interested in within its pages, then call the editor and ask. Too many magazines, for instance, want your story months ahead of time, but don’t pay for perhaps a year later. You can’t wait a whole year to shop at the supermarket!

Many publications pay on publication–or more to the point, perhaps 30-60 days after publication. If you’re expecting immediate payment as soon as your piece is published, don’t bet on it. This has become more the norm than not.

The argument ASJA makes is that payment on publication may mean never. What they mean by this is that the publication may close up shop before you get your money. Unfortunately, in today’s economy, that’s the risk you have to take. Otherwise, go get a job at McDonald’s.

In order to write and publish and still get by, you need to work on a number of projects. Always have something in the works. Sending an article or story off every so often will make sure that the payments also come in every so often. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Write as You Talk

Not so long ago, most people viewed writing as a formal activity not related to talking. In the last 20 years, that idea has pretty much gone the way of the trolley car–while there are still some around, most remaining ones can only be found in museums.

In today’s hurry up, chat and text world, many people have dropped their guards when writing, much to the chagrin of many retired English teachers. Besides writing for a living, I also teach others how to write as part of my business. One thing I’m constantly telling my students is to write as they talk.

Today, good writing is conversational writing–writing that reads and sounds like good conversation, only the writer makes it go where he or she wants it to. To get my students started on this road to good communication, I tell them to pretend their reader is sitting across the table from them and then just tell the reader their story–only on paper.

Recently, I’ve gotten to know a local newspaper reporter. During the week, he reports on the humdrum details of our county court system. But on Saturdays, he gets to write a column where he can express himself on whatever he pleases. I got to read one of his columns for the first time last week. He writes in a witty style but seems to want to let everyone know that he is a WRITER by including lots of more sophisticated words than he would ever use in conversation on the same subject.

A few days later, he sent me an E-mail in which he told another story. It had that same wry sense of humor his column had but without all the big words. In other words, he was speaking right to me, the reader, not past me the way a lot of writers think they have to do. And why should writing an E-mail message be any different than say writing an article or a story?

My point is that if more people just wrote as they talked, we’d have much better communication all around.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Does Good Writing Have to be Literary?

It’s unfortunate that a writer’s first experience with reading professional writing happens in English class with the study of literature. I say unfortunate because without knowing it, writers often get led down the wrong path to good writing. Sure, the books and stories read in literature class are supposed to be a sampling of the best. But just who decides what is the best and who are the best writers?

Because of this, writers get the mistaken impression that all good writing has to be literary. Hogwash! There are loads of great writers that never made it into the literary stratosphere.

The arts–and writing is an art–have always been a haven for those who want to be separate from the masses. In Victorian times, the wealthy, the patrons of the arts, took great pains to make sure they didn’t hobnob with the lower classes. They ate in separate dining rooms, shopped in separate stores, and read literary works. This is essentially where the division between “literature” and “writing” began. And it’s held on to this day, albeit in a lighter form.

For instance, there are some who think that if The New York Times isn’t on their coffee table on Sunday mornings that they aren’t getting the best in news. Many of these same people also swear by The New Yorker as their source of the best in writing. Again, HOGWASH!

The literary crowd probably doesn’t classify most of the best books, articles, and stories published daily as good writing. The reason for this is that the writers of these works got paid. Beginning back in the Victorian Era, the literary crowd frowned upon anyone who got paid for their writing. They claimed this was selling out. Perhaps this is one reason why many good writers died penniless.

Today, with the proliferation of technology, most people have access to good writing on a daily basis–without the approval or recommendation of the literary crowd. Good magazine articles, short stories published in magazines that people buy at the supermarket checkout, books of all kinds, and now even electronic books (e-books) that they can read on devices like Amazon’s Kindle, make it easy for nearly everyone to have access to good writing.

So if you’re a beginning writer, only look to literature for inspiration, not technique. Study all the writing around you and imitate it. That’s the only way you’ll succeed and have money to eat in the process.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do You Know What Your Time is Worth?

Have you been considering freelance writing? If so, you need to figure out how much your time is worth. While you won’t have much control when it comes to be paid by editors of magazines and newspapers–essentially, they generally tell you what they’ll pay you–you still need to know if what they’re paying is enough for the time you put in on a project.

Many writers make the mistake of putting in the same amount of work on each article or short story they write and then get paid a different amount for each piece. When I first started writing, another writer told me that he put in the same amount of work for whatever he wrote. But unlike products produced by other businesses, no one piece of writing brings in the same amount from different publications. You may get paid $300 from one publication and $50 from another for exactly the same piece.

To judge whether you’re getting enough for the time you need to add up all of your monthly expenses–mortgage or rent, car payment, credit cards, etc.–and don’t forget to add in groceries, gasoline, heating fuel. Figure out how many hours you work a week on your writing, then divide the total by the number of hours. The result will be the hourly amount you’ll need to get for your writing.

While you probably won’t ever get that amount, at least you’ll be able to judge if what you’re getting paid is enough for the time you put into your work.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Invoices–The Key to Getting Paid

Many writers, especially beginners, live in an idealized ivory-tower world where the only thing that’s important is their writing. That’s fine if they’re independently wealthy. Unfortunately, few are.  Most work at 9-5 jobs and write either in their off hours or when the muse strikes them. They don’t particularly have to worry about whether their writing brings in any money.

If you want to make money at writing, you need to start using a staple of the business world–the invoice.

To get paid in business–and yes, writing is a business, especially if you do it full-time–you need to bill for your time. With every piece of writing you send to an editor, you need to include an invoice. This can be as simple as a sheet of paper with your name and address at the top, followed by the name of publication and, below that, the title of your piece and the amount due for it, or it can be an elaborate affair with a category code, invoice number, date, social security number, etc.

If you don’t want to design and print up your own invoice, then you can go to any office supply store and buy a pad of them, filling them in yourself. It’s infinitely more business-like to create your own. You can do this as a separate file to be sent with your writing file by E-mail, or of a simpler design that you can tack on at the end of the composition file. The former works better because the editor can print it out and send it on to the accounts receivable department of the publication. Remember, editors don’t pay you; someone in the accounting department does.

You should also always include an invoice, even if you aren’t being paid money for your work. While you should try not to write for free, you need to make the person on the other end know what your time is worth if they had paid for it. In this case, include a reasonable amount, and then mark the invoice “PAID.” Also, don’t forget to print a copy of every invoice you send out for yourself, so that you’ll have a record of all your sales for the year.

If you work on different types of writing–articles, public relations, fiction, etc.–you should consider including a category code on your invoice. This makes it easier for you to tally up the totals for each category at the end of the year. While you don’t need these totals for taxes, they help you see which categories are making more or less money, so you can plan for the next year.

While an invoice may seem an insignificant thing in your writing life, it’s more important than you  may realize.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Timeliness is Everything

Many beginning writers get frustrated when they get rejections from publishers for their work. While the writing skills of some may be lacking, the reason for the rejection could be one of timing. Many think they can send any article, short story, or book idea in at any time and the publisher will just love it. But it all comes down to timeliness.

To market your writing successfully, you have to think like a retailer. Department and discount stores would never think of putting out winter clothes in January. Winter is already here. Instead, they put out their winter collections in October or November, several months ahead of when the clothing might actually be worn. Ads for back-to-school clothing and other items now begin to appear in July, barely a month after most kids have just gotten out of school for summer vacation.

So to get your writing to an editor at the right time, you have to think ahead. Whatever you’re sending out now–except articles to newspapers if you can find any to take them–should  be on topics that will appeal to editors three to six months from now. This works especially well with seasonal subject matter.

However, you may write about subjects that are what I call “evergreens.” These are ones that could appeal to an editor any time of year. Even so, you still have to get things out ahead–at least 2-3 months for short stories and magazine articles, and perhaps a year ahead for a book idea. It’s not what readers are reading now, but what they will read in the future that counts.

Friday, January 29, 2010

There’s Something to be Said About Working for Hire?

If you’ve been writing for very long and have tried to get published, you may have come across a phrase that has been tossed around for quite a while–“working for hire.” Some in the writing biz see this as the Big Bad Wolf of publishing, warning newbies off of it’s temptations from the beginning. The nay sayers say that when you work for hire, you forfeit all your rights to your work. That’s true. But what they don’t tell you is that you also get paid a chunk of money for what you do, sometimes far more than you could ever earn when writing for royalities. This is how it works.

If you’re writing articles, you need to study the situation before deciding if working for hire is for you. It all depends on what type of article you’re writing. If it’s one with a limited market–say, about a particular business in one city–then the possibilities of you selling that article again are slim. So in this case you should take the money and run.

On the other hand, if your article is about a topic that’s hot and applies to several writing markets–the places where you sell your writing–then you shouldn’t work for hire because you have a potential for making a lot more money in the future from that article.

If you’re writing short fiction, then the market is wide open–what paying markets there are for these–so, again, you shouldn’t work for hire because you should be able to sell that story again and again.

The same applies to books although on a much larger scale. For non-fiction books, it all depends on the subject matter of the book and the demand there is for it by readers. If you’ve written a book that has limited sales appeal and someone offers you $5,000 to write it, chances are that you’ll make more by accepting the $5,000 as a work for hire agreement than you ever would with royalties. A book has to sell a LOT of copies for you to make anything from it beyond the advance because you first have to pay off the advance with the percentage you get for each copy sold. This can take a long time.

Novels are another story. In most cases, publishers only pay an advance with royalties for them, so working for hire doesn’t enter into the picture.

Whatever you decide to do, weigh your options first. Will that book you’re writing really sell and pay you beyond your advance, or would it be better to take the $5,000-10,000 you’re offered to write it and live comfortably. Regardless of what the ivory tower literary types think, writing isn’t about starving.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Writing as Routine

Do you sit around waiting for the writing muse to strike? Do you have to go to some exotic place to get inspired to write? Do you think writing is all about imagination–well, fiction writing at least? Do you have trouble getting started writing? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then perhaps what you’re lacking is a routine for your writing.

Good writing relies on writing as much as you can–regularly. While this applies to just about anything you do, most people don’t consider writing in that way. It stands to reason that the more you cook, the better at it you become. So why wouldn’t that apply to your writing?

I always tell my writing students that learning to write is like taking a shower or a bath. Someone had to teach you when you were very young. First, they washed you daily. Then, as time went on, you learned by repetition to wash yourself. But you didn’t stop there. As you grew older, you began to establish a washing routine. Only you know where you begin to wash your body and where you end. Some people even have routines for “quick” showers when they’re in a hurry and “soaking” showers or baths when they want to relax. And let’s not forget the “body beautiful” shower or bath when you take care of other things such as trimming hair and nails.

Now let’s apply this to writing. To get your mind in the write mode, you need to write regularly often–daily if you can. And you need to write at the same time every day, even if it’s for a short time. By doing so, you’ll require less time to warm up, so that you’ll be able to continue where you left off the last time you wrote. If you wait too long between sessions, you’ll lose your train of thought which means you’ll have to digress. So each time you sit down to write, you’ll have to go back a step before you move forward.

It also helps to work on the same piece of writing for a stretch. This way your mind is only working in one direction for a while. If you flit from piece to piece, your mind won’t be able to pick up all the pieces, and it will take you more time to get started each time.

I’ll be discussing this more in the coming weeks. But for now, figure out when you can spare an hour from your busy schedule. This can be daily or two or three times weekly. Then stick to it. Writing is like exercise. If you don’t do it regularly, it takes a while to get back in the swing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

It’s Not What You Say But How You Say It

Clarity is very important to a writer. I have to make sure that what I say is clear to my readers because, even in this age of technology, they can’t contact me easily and ask a question about what I wrote. In a previous post I spoke about $20 words–those words that are beyond the average reader’s vocabulary and which they can’t get the meaning from the context. But there’s another side to clarity.

Since the economic downturn and last year’s fluctuating gasoline prices, I’ve noticed a marked increase in deceiving wording in the weekly brochures of the supermarket where I buy my groceries. Sometimes, it’s the fine print–I must buy four of something selling for 4 for $10 to get the discounted price. Another ploy is that an item is only for sale at that price on a particular day of the week. But the latest has been the lack of clarity in the ads in the weekly circular. Many times I’m not sure what to expect until I get to checkout.  And often I end up paying a higher price because I didn’t understand the ad in the first place.

Sure, what you say is important, but how you say it to your readers is just as important, if not more so. Don’t expect your readers to make a leap. What you perceive as clear to you may not be to them. This could be leap in time, a leap in place, or a leap in understanding. How many times have you said something to someone, who is obviously hurt by your comment, only to quickly add, “I didn’t mean that.” If you didn’t mean what you said, then you should have said it another way. The same applies to writing. But it’s even more critical here because you can’t say, “I didn’t mean that” to a reader you don’t know and can’t see.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Read the Kind of Writing You’re Going to Write

Besides writing articles and books, I also teach writing. Over the last 25 years, I’ve had a lot of students take my classes. I’d venture to say that only about one percent of them had read the type of writing they intended to write. To be a good writer–to be a published writer at all–you need to read the kind of writing you intend to publish.

Unfortunately, the majority of beginning writers still hold the attitude that what they write is important. After all, didn’t they learn in school that every word is a nugget of gold. While that may be true in rare cases, in most a word is just a word, unless it’s strung together with other words that have meaning for the reader, for the reader is the most important part of the process.

When asked why they took one of my courses, many students say that they’ve been trying to get published but have had no luck. They think it’s their writing–and sometimes it is. But usually it’s because they have no idea of what’s being published out there. They have no idea of what editors want. And to find that out, short of asking an editor, is to read what that editor is publishing.

To learn to write a good article, short story, non-fiction book or novel, you first have to read ones that have been recently published. Notice I said recently. Reading short stories published in 1910 won’t get you anywhere. They’re just not written in a contemporary style. And style and structure, even more than content, is what you’re looking for.

So to learn how to write to get published, seek out good examples of the kind of writing you plan to do. By doing that, you’ll be well on your way to your first pay check.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Time Marches On

Happy New Year! Yes, folks, it’s time to start over again. Funny how this one day can make such a difference. Personally, I try to use this day to get myself and my business reorganized for the coming year.  As the year rolls on, things seem to unravel. My recordkeeping seems to go awry. My thoughts about writing seem to get more vague, the direction for my business seems to wander.  And I suppose I can thank the Romans, specifically Julius Caesar, for making New Year’s Day such an auspicious occasion. This year, like the year 2000, is even more special because it's the start of a new decade--or is it?

Originally, the Romans numbered years ab urbe condita (a.u.c.), that is, "from the founding of the city" of Rome. Had this early Roman calendar remained in use, January 14, 2010 would have been New Year's Day in the year 2763 a.u.c.

Following his conquest of Egypt in 48 B.C.–now known as B.C.E. (Before the Common Era)–Julius Caesar consulted the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes about calendar reform since the a.u.c. calendar didn’t meet the needs of the emerging empire. The calendar which Caesar adopted in the year 709 a.u.c.–now 46 B.C.E (Common Era)– was identical to the Alexandrian Aristarchus' calendar of 239 B.C., which consisted of a 12-month year of 365 days with an extra day every fourth year.

But Caesar wanted to start the year on the Spring Equinox or the Winter Solstice. However, the Roman Senate, which traditionally took office on January 1st, the start of the Roman civil calendar year, wanted to keep January 1st as the start of the year. So Caesar yielded.

The Roman date-keepers initially misunderstood Caesar's instructions and erroneously held every third year, rather than every fourth year, to be a leap year.  After some dispute, Augustus Caesar (Julius Caesar's successor) suspended leap years, reinstating them with the leap year of 4 C.E.

Another source of uncertainty regarding exact dating of days at this time derives from changes made by Augustus to the lengths of the months. According to some accounts, originally the month of February had 29 days and in leap years 30 days. February lost a day because at some point the fifth and six months of the old Roman calendar were renamed as Julius and Augustus respectively, in honor of them, and the number of days in August, previously 30, now became 31–the same as July–so that Augustus Caesar wouldn’t be regarded as inferior to Julius Caesar. The extra day needed for August was taken from the end of February.

However, there’s still no certainty regarding this, so all dates prior to C.E. 4, when the Julian Calendar finally stabilized, are uncertain.

The Roman abbot Dionysius Exiguus instituted the system of numbering years A.D.–short for "Anni Domini Nostri Jesu Christi"–in 527 A.D. He figured that the Incarnation had occurred on March 25, 754 a.u.c., with the birth of Jesus occurring nine months later. Thus, he designated the year 754 a.u.c. as the year 1 C.E.

There’s a question whether the first Christian millennium should be counted from 1 C.E. or from the year preceding it. According to Dionysius, the Incarnation occurred on March 25th of the year preceding 1 C.E.., with the birth of Jesus occurring nine months later on December 25th.  Therefore, it’s reasonable to regard that year, rather than 1 C.E. as the first year of the Christian Era. In that case, 1 C.E. is the second year, 999 A.D. is the 1000th year, and 1999 C.E. is the final year of the second Common millennium, making 2000 C.E. the first year of the third millenium. So, by this theory, all those who celebrated the new millennium on December 31, 1999, had the right year. Therefore, 2010 is, indeed, the beginning of a new decade.