Saturday, June 24, 2017

You’ve Finally Been Published--Now What?

Writers are an odd lot. Some write prolifically while others write one or two successful pieces and then nothing. Getting published for the first time is a tremendous goal. It takes a lot of time and energy. But afterwards, many writers feel let down. Why is that?

Most likely it’s because they focused so much on that one piece, whether article or short story, and not on all the information they gathered for it. But a professional writer knows that information is his or her biggest asset.

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.

For some writers, perhaps you, that first published piece is a fluke. It may not have been totally an accident—most likely you sent out numerous queries or finished manuscripts—the piece succeeded. But more than likely the piece succeeded in the wrong market. Sure, you were ecstatic about getting anything published, but it happened for the wrong reasons.

To get your career started, you need to build on that first publishing success, even if it happened in the wrong market. Editors want to know about your track record—they want to see clips of published pieces. But if you don’t have any, you’re as bad off as if you apply for a loan without any credit history.

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. While this publication may not be your ideal, it’s better that you get more pieces published in an established market instead of trying to forge new ones.

Perhaps the editor liked your writing style or perhaps your subject. What probably happened was that the editor liked the timeliness of your subject. Your subject was right on target, even if your writing skills may not have been up to par. Take a serious look at that market and send the editor some other ideas.

It’s important to build a rapport with your editors. Normally, they don’t remain in their positions very long. 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.

Success as a writer is all about climbing the proverbial ladder. You’ve got to do it one rung at a time.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Where Do You Start to Publish Online

There are plenty of markets online. Many of them focus on small niches, which makes your chances of getting published even greater if you have a specialty. You won’t find a richer resource of publications anywhere that’s easier to access than online. However, you do need to approach submitting to online publications a little differently than you would submitting to print publications.

The Internet is growing. More people are spending more time reading online, which increases the chances of your work being read. But those who do read articles online, read about specific things. While the number of specialized print magazines has grown dramatically in the last two decades, Web sites have always been tightly focused, thus attracting specific readers—readers who are interested in the information they have to offer about their particular subject.

Good Web sites and e-zines are constantly growing their readership. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and a small ezine that only 100 people read a month accepts your work. A few months later that publication might be read by 1,000 people a month. It’s not unusual for readership to increase by over 1,000 readers in one month. Remember that the Internet is also known as the World Wide Web for a reason. If your work appears online, people from other countries who might never have read your work may do so online.

Writing for Web sites is a little different than writing for print. Generally, you’ll want to write your articles in the second person. While thousands may eventually read your work, you’re dealing with one reader at a time, so addressing them using the pronoun “you” in the second person instantly makes a connection.

However, selling to Web sites and e-zines is essentially the same as selling to print markets. Start by studying the markets. While there are a few databases that list online markets, you’ll actually be better off searching for them yourself. First you need to find them. Begin by searching for the subject you’re interested in writing about as if you were a reader interested in reading about that same subject. Google is the best search engine out there. While others may target specific subject areas, Google literally covers the world in its searches.

Another source you can try is the Directory of E-zines.

Create a special folder entitled, “Online Writing Markets,” then as you discover potential sites and e-zines, bookmark them and save them into this folder. Don’t be too particular at first. If you search for a specific subject, you’ll find what you need. Once you have found a number of sites which may be possibilities, go back and study them one by one.

How good your results will be depends on your search. To search for a specific word or phrase, enclose it in parentheses. Go back to the ones that look like they may be good markets and notice how often they’re updated. If a site sits idle for a couple of months, it’s a good bet the owner isn’t paying much attention to it. On the other hand, if a site is updated frequently or on a specific schedule much like a print magazine, then it’s a sure bet they’ll need plenty of content to keep going. Also, notice if articles on the site have been written by different people. If they’re all written by the same person, move on, because that site won’t be accepting other writers—at least for now. In print this is known as “in house” while online if could be referred to as “on site.” You may want to check back later because the owner may begin using other writers.

Once you know which markets may be good for your work, find out if they pay anything and how much. Also, determine if they have any writer’s guidelines, and if so, download a copy.

Remember, all your transactions should be electronic. If a site or e-zine owner says your should send your work by regular mail, cross them off your list immediately. You’re working in the 21st century when smartphones and computers connect many Americans.

Submitting queries for your article is the same as for print. The form is the same and so is the content. The only difference is that you’ll be sending your queries by Email included within the message itself. The same goes for the text of your articles. Make sure you send them in as a Microsoft Word document. You can use any wordprocessing program you wish to prepare them, but you must use a universal program like MS Word to send them. To be on the safe side, send your text as an attachment in MS Word 2003 or higher.

And just as with print, keep tract of your submissions. While your Email program’s “Sent” folder will do that, it’s a good idea to keep a record of your submissions in your computer, then you can easily go back to check on the status of each article submission.

NEXT WEEK: Promoting Your Online Work

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Publishing Online—Where Are We Now

The Internet continues to grow as a publishing medium for both articles and books. It took a while, but readers as well as writers seem to be accepting it as a bonafide publishing venue.

This added confidence seems to be encouraged partly because of the volume of writing in the form of blogs, Web content, and e-books now available online. In addition, the number and types of electronic devices on which to read it has increases exponentially. While many readers avail themselves of this writing on laptops and tablets, an equal number or more access articles and blogs on their smartphones.

And although it had taken quite a while for writers and periodical publishers to accept the Internet as a viable publishing medium—even though it’s not a majority as yet—more and more are turning to it every day.

The number of blogs has exploded since 2010. Platforms such as Google’s free Blogger have made it easy for writers to get the word out. Many have turned to Wordpress, thinking it to be more professional. But when it comes right down to it, it’s not the platform that draws readers, it’s the writing. It’s the difference between writing polished work on a high-tech computer or writing it by hand on a paper towel. In the end, it’s the quality of the writing that counts.

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.

However, today both amateur and professional writers seem to have found a place somewhere online. The difference in how they present themselves is two-fold.

First, the professional edits and polishes their work before posting it online, whether it’s a blog or an article submitted to an e-zine. Also, blog subjects tend to be slanted to the reader and not personal in nature. Amateurs, on the other hand, either don’t know how to edit their work properly or ignore this process and essentially post their first drafts.

Second, amateur and non-writers seem to be confine their posts to personal blogs, product reviews, and comments after articles. Some set up personal writing Web sites where they post short stories, personal blogs, or poetry.

The day of professional blogging is upon us. Investigative journalism has found its way online and these writers—as professional as any newspaper or magazine writers, some of whom formerly wrote for print markets—are getting paid for their work.

Pay for online work is increasing, also. While e-zine publishers generally work with very low or non-existent budgets, some have come to realize that paying professional writers attracts visitors to their sites. Many major newspapers, such as the Washington Post, have online editions that feature some of the same writers they feature in their print editions.

Next Week: Where Do You Start to Publish Online

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Key to Unlocking the Door to Success

Communication is the key to unlocking the door to success. Believe it or not, you already have it in you. But you’d be surprised how many writers—in fact, how many people—cannot communicate effectively.

Writing is one of many forms of communication. Like listening, it requires a reader to digest the ideas provided by the words. Remember that old saying: "If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?" That could be changed to read: "If a writer writes down his or her ideas, do they exist if no one reads and interprets them?"

There are three parts to the communication process—the sender, who sends the message, the message, itself, and the receiver or the reader. If the receiver cannot understand part of the message, even one word, than there’s mis-communication.

This concept should be the basis for your writing. Using it is the difference between being a writer and a person who writes. Everyone learns to write in school. But most people don’t communicate well. Instead, they rely on the reader to interpret what they have to say.

This happens everyday on Facebook. Most Facebook users assume that they’re writing only to their close friends. Actually, most of them are really sending their posts out to all their Facebook “friends,’ many of whom they don’t personally know. Normally, they shorthand their posts, assuming their personal friends know what they mean. But those Facebook “friends” who don’t know don’t understand what they’re trying to say, thus mis-communication occurs.

As a professional, published writer, you must make sure that everyone who read’s your work understands it.

If you write articles for magazines, for instance, you already have a target audience—a defined group of readers based on the subject matter of the magazine. Most magazines today specialize in a particular subject, so you must slant your article to meet their needs.

However, if you write books, your readership is often undefined. Sure, some may argue that if you write a romance novel that only women of a certain age will read it. But in reality, what’s to prevent any reader from purchasing the book at a bookstore, a book sale, or even on Amazon. Chances are men won’t read it, but you never know.

So knowing who your reader will be is an important part of the communication equation. To be successful and get your work published, you need to write for a specific group of readers who will understand not only what you’re writing about but the words you use to do so.

Too many beginning writers write for themselves without considering who will read their work. Because of this, they fail to get published. Naturally, there are other reasons why they may have trouble getting their work published, but lack of communication is Number One.

Have you written pieces that have yet to be published? Get them out and read them again. Did you write them for a specific group of readers or just yourself? Changing the angle or focusing these piece better may still help you get them published.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pinning a Value on Your Time

Writers, like other artists, often have a hard time when it comes to pricing their work. With visual artists, it’s a difficult prospect because a project may take hours and hours of grueling work before its completed. If they charged an hourly rate, their work would be overpriced in the market place. Instead, many just take a wild guess and figure that if someone wants one of their pieces bad enough, they’ll pay whatever it takes to get it.

As a writer, on the other hand, if you produced one copy of a book, for example, and charged what it took in time to produce it, no one would buy it. But as a writer, you have an advantage. You have to ability to produce multiple copies of a work or get paid by a publishing company for them to do so. Artists who have adopted this same business model are doing significantly better than those that don’t.

Still, how do you figure out what your time is worth? The first thing you have to remember is that you’re in business. And as such you have overhead—the cost of utilities, including phone and the Internet, office supplies, postage, food, transportation, insurance, equipment, clothing, etc. All that adds up! And before you can make any profit, you have to be able to pay for it all.

There’s no guess work involved when figuring out what your hourly rate should be. It’s simple mathematics. First, you add up all your regular monthly expenses, then you factor in the cost of extras, such as buying replacement equipment. If you can’t wait to get the latest smartphone, then you’ll have to add in that cost to the mix. You can’t leave anything out.

Next, you need to divide your total monthly expenditures by four in order to get the amount you spend per week. By dividing this by seven, you’ll find out what you spend per day—even on days when you’re not actually working.

If you work the standard 40 hours—not necessarily 8 hours per day—then you should divide your weekly total by 40. Let’s say your monthly expenses come to approximately $1,600, then your weekly expenses would be about $400. Dividing that by 40 hours gives you an hourly rate of $10. But that doesn’t allow for any profit, so you must add on an equal amount or higher to make sure you’re getting enough to cover your expenses and make a profit.

However, you won’t necessarily be working steadily as you would in a salaried position. Instead, you may work more one week than in another. Generally, money won’t be flowing in regularly. So it’s a good idea to make your hourly rate slightly higher to cover the times when you may not have any work. In the beginning, you can possibly shoot for a lower rate, increasing it as you gain more experience and more complex assignments.

While you probably won’t ever get your hourly rate, at least you’ll be able to judge if what you’re getting paid is enough for the time you put into your work. You may also want to consider establishing a minimum rate for writing projects. But don’t make that rate too high or you’ll be cutting yourself out of some easy jobs that overall will net a higher profit.

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 freelance writers make the mistake of putting in the same amount of work on each article they write and then get paid a different amount for each piece. 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. Also, some editors may only pay a pittance but ask for a lot more work. It’s only by knowing your hourly rate that will enable you to decide it what they’re offering is enough for you.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

So You’ve Decided to Retire, Now What?

For whatever reason, you’ve decided to retire from the daily grind of stress of freelance writing. Perhaps through no fault of your own. You’ve lost all your paying markets. Maybe, freelance writing has become too demanding. Maybe you just need a change. Whatever your reason, you’ve got to think ahead before making the leap, just like y oui did—or at least should have done—when you firest started freelancing.

Before doing anything else, you should take a look at your inventory, both your published work and the research you did to write it.

If you specialized in a particular subject, you may have enough information, or at least a good bit, to write a book on one aspect of your specialty. You may have been thinking about this for a while but never had the time to pursue it.

Opportunities for publishing go far beyond commercial publishers. While you could pursue the more traditional route, you can also look into self-publishing, either as a print-on-demand book or an ebook. Either of these will work well, if you already have a target audience.

You might also consider writing a blog. This shouldn’t be one in which you pour out your personal opinions, but a more professional one that appears online regularly and explores a particular subject.

Your blog could be based on your previous speciality or you could explore a subject is that is near and dear to your heart. The possibilities are endless.

And if you’re really ambitious you might try publishing a magazine—not one that will drain your financial resources but an online e-zine that mostly requires just time and energy. More and more people are reading about things online, whether through tablets like Kindles or Nooks or on their smartphones. An online magazine is just another extension of a blog.

You can pursue any of the above while still keeping your hand in commercial publishing, just not as much.

One thing you must do in order to enjoy your retirement years is to keep a flexible schedule, one that allows you to write at whatever level you wish but also allows you to pursue recreation and travel.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Do Writers Retire?

If you’ve been working for years as a freelance writer, will you be considering retiring as other working people do? When you work for a salary, your job has an end point. For most people that’s around age 65 or a bit later. But for a writer, is there an end point?

Some writers, especially those who write books, have one or two successes, then nothing. While they may be in the limelight for a little while, it’s not a steady income. But a freelance writer, even a moderately successful one, has the ability to publish in different market for as long as those market exist.

But after you’ve been writing for 20 or 30 years, you may be ready to switch gears. As a freelance writer, you’ve been writing mostly non-fiction. Now that you’re approaching retirement age and a regular Social Security income, even though it may or may not be as much as you earned previously,

Do you know many former writers? Does that category even exist? Do you, as a writer, have an obligation to write or is that something you have for yourself? It’s one thing to stop feeling the obligation to write and another thing to never write anything again. After all, it’s as odd for a writer to be retired from words as it is for a man or woman to be retired from love.

Perhaps it’s not so much retirement from writing as it’s retirement from commercial publishing that you seek. After all, you have been putting up with the vagaries of editors for your entire career. Don’t you wish that you didn’t have to struggle so hard?

The Retirement Book of Genesis might read like this: “ In the beginning, there was no retirement. There were no old people. In the Stone Age, everyone was fully employed until age 20, by which time nearly everyone was dead, usually of unnatural causes.” That’s not true today, as people live longer and are more active for a longer period of their lives. So, too, are writers.

Retirement resulted from the pension system enacted in Germany in the late 19th century, but it didn’t come to America until the 1930s, when the country needed to find a way to make room for younger workers by encouraging older ones to stop. Older people like retirement because they get to stop working and still enjoy some financial protection, whether from the U.S. Government or from their own pension or 401K contributions. Young people like retirement because it gets the old people out of jobs, making room for them. Maybe there are too many writers—or not enough readers to go around. Unfortunately, compulsory retirement won’t help all the young writers out there.

Unlike sports celebrities, writers have fewer fans. They earn less money and their value to the public isn’t necessarily diminished by age—Charles Dickens did much of his best writing in his older years. In many cases, it is enhanced, not simply because there’s a real possibility that their talents will improve with years of practice, but also because readers want to interact with them at 90 as much as they do with writers at 20.

All writers are different, so it’s impossible to tell when each will produce his or her best work. Some never match their earlier work while others reach their peak mid career. Still others don’t begin writing until later in life and reach their peak almost near the end of their lives.

For a freelance writer, retirement actually means the end of struggling. Officially, you’ll gain a steadier income after 65—or now 66. And you won’t necessarily have to struggle to pay bills, so you can take a much needed sigh before continuing on.

Next Week: So You’re Retired, Now What?

Saturday, April 29, 2017

It’s All in How You Say It, Not What You Say

Clarity is all important to a writer. You must make sure that what you say is clear to your readers because, even in this age of technology, they can’t always contact you easily and ask a question about what you wrote.

All writers come out of the educational system which emphasized that more complex words showed a higher level of intelligence. After all, as a professional writer, shouldn’t your vocabulary be better than that of your readers? The answer is an emphatic no.

It’s not about how many words you know but how many common words you can use to express yourself.  Complex or $25 words—they used to be $20 but inflation has caught up to them—are words beyond the average reader’s vocabulary for which they can’t get the meaning from the context. So the first rule of clarity is to stay away from #25 words. But there’s another side to clarity.

Readers are constantly bombarded with  deceiving wording in the weekly supermarket brochures where they purchase their groceries. Sometimes, it’s the fine print—they 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. Often shoppers don’t know what to expect until they get to checkout and end up paying a higher price because they didn’t understand the ad in the first place.

Dunkin Donuts recently offered their customers on their rewards program, “Dunkin Perks,” 50 bonus points if they spent $4 using their Dunkin Donuts debit card. What they failed to mention was that customers had to spend $4 before taxes. Now that seems like a simple omission, but many customers probably got caught spending only $3.99, plus tax which brought them over $4. While they thought they would get the extra points, the company denied them their bonus points for one penny. Here, clarity was the key. And unhappy customers equals bad press more so today than previously.

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 a 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, April 8, 2017

How Good of a Salesperson Are You?

No, you aren’t applying for a job in a retail store. But to be a successful freelance writer, you do have to be a good salesperson—as good as anyone who sells in a high pressure environment. You need to develop selling skills on a par with the best traveling salesmen.

Many beginning freelance writers are so consumed with the act of writing that they forget about selling their work after they’ve finished writing it. But writing and selling should go hand-in-hand. You need to do both jobs equally to be a success. So before you even begin to work on a project, have an idea of where you’ll potentially sell it.

The best salespeople begin their sales campaigns by developing a list of prospects. They glean names from whatever source they can, building a list of people to contact. Though over time you’ll amass a list of people you can count on to help with research, you also need to begin a list of potential markets—and not just markets but personal contacts in those markets. You can achieve this by sending out queries for projects or sending material out on speculation that some editors will begin to buy. Once you have your foot in the door, insert a doorstop and keep that door open.

After a top salesperson has a short list of contacts, they’ll sort through it to find the best-sounding prospects so they'll save time and money by avoiding blind alleys. They make their initial contacts, then review what happened, noting all reactions. Then they use these notes for follow-ups. They’re constantly looking to expand their markets. And you should, too.

While you may tackle the first step—creating a partial list—you probably don’t follow up on the remaining ones because, let’s face it, most freelance writers are lousy salespeople. While creative burnout and procrastination often plaque their writing, the same thing happens when they're trying to sell their work. In order to expand your freelance writing business, you have to avoid this. Remind yourself that at times freelancing may be 50 percent writing and 50 percent selling. And while large businesses have sales departments to handle selling their products, you don’t.

Be realistic about your markets. Remember, there’s loads of competition—a recent statistic puts the number of freelance writers in the U.S. at nearly 70,000. To get anywhere, you have to stand out from the crowd. Your material and your presentation of it have to offer editors the best and more of it than others can provide.

The first step is developing your prospect list. You’ll need to study the market and learn the possibilities so well that the market seems to evolve by itself. And don’t start at the top. You’re sure to fail. Begin at the bottom and work your way up. Start with the easiest markets, which most likely will also not be the highest paying. But the easier ones have less strict requirements and demand less work overall than the highest paying ones. Plus, you’ll have a much better opportunity to get published in them. But remember that you’ll only be working with them for a while to build up your credibility as a writer.

If you’ve already begin to publish your work, review your original markets. If you're working well with them, negotiate with the editors for higher pay or perhaps ask if can become a contributing editor. As such, you won’t get any more pay, and you won’t be doing any editing. But you will have your name on the magazine’s masthead, which will impress other editors higher up the pay chain.

When the same bland renewal notice for a magazine subscription arrives in the mail, you usually toss it in the trash. If you intend to renew, you most likely don’t do so on the first notice, but two or three later. The same goes for the reaction by an editor to the same presentation. If you want to renew an editor's interest in your material or build up assignments on a higher level than in the past, think about upgrading your presentation. How well does it sell your ideas? Is your timing and the sequence of your ideas logical? Is the market holding you back or are you holding yourself back through lack of expertise, timidity, or just plain fear?

Today, freelance writers have all sorts of sales tools at their disposal—Email marketing, Web sites, social networking, etc. But just like regular advertising, you also have mass mailing. Have you ever thought about designing a brochure showcasing your work and sending it along with your queries? Can you do the same digitally and send it along with Email queries? Have you given any thought to developing your own Web site. Not a personal one, but a professional business site that’s aimed at editors?

Remember, some of the nation’s top freelancers spend as much as three or four hours a day on the phone and the Internet keeping in touch with publishers and editors. Start making the time to do the same if you want to become a success in this business.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

What is a Story?

Writers tell stories. And it’s not just those who write fiction. No matter whether you’re writing an article, a short story, or book, you are, in fact, telling a story. But you’d be surprised just how many writers, both novice and professional, really don’t know what a story is.

The classic rule is that a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end. Everything you write pretty much follows that format. But do these three things make whatever you’re writing a story?

Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an end, the beginning isn’t simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event. In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.

Your story needs a vulnerable character, a setting that’s interwoven with the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and, most importantly, reader empathy. Basically, a story is a transformation—either the transformation of a character or sometimes of a situation. But above all, you must have some sort of conflict.

At its heart, a story is about a person or persons dealing with tension. Without obstacles and without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them there isn’t to make more things happen to a character but to create more tension as your story unfolds.

The beginning of a story must grab your readers’ attention, orient them to the setting, mood and tone of the story, and introduce them to your main character, whom they will grow to care about. If readers don’t care about your main character, they won’t care about your story.

So how do you introduce your main character to your readers? Begin by having your character perform some sort of action as your first scene opens. Remember, your story is part of a larger whole—a life that has been ongoing way before the story that your telling has even begun. So you must jump into the storyline as it passes you by. You want your readers to grab your main character and hold on tight. Your readers will be propelled through the story until they get to the point where they will let go—the point at which the story ends. But even though the story ends, life goes on.

The crisis that tips your character’s world upside down must be one that your protagonist cannot immediately solve. It’s an unavoidable, irrevocable challenge that sets the movement of the story into motion.

You can introduce this crisis into your story in one of two ways. Either you can begin your story by letting your character have what he or she desires most and then ripping it away, or by denying what he or she desires most, then taunting them with it. So, your character will either lose something vital and spend the rest of the story trying to regain it or see something desirable and spend the rest of the story trying to obtain it.

Two types of characters inhabit every story—a rigid one and a flexible one. The rigid one remains stubbornly unchanged while the flexible one will change as the story progresses. Your main character should always be the flexible one. The crisis in the story will forever your main character who will take whatever steps to try and solve the struggle.

Unfortunately, your protagonist will fail because he or she will always be a different person at the end of the story. If this doesn’t happen, your readers won’t be satisfied. By the time of your story’s climax, your main character will have made a discovery that changes his or her life forever.

Your character will make this discovery by being clever enough to piece together clues or will show extraordinary perseverance or tenacity to overcome the crisis.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Beyond Words

Words are the building blocks of writing. They’re what pulls readers in and keeps them there. But having a great vocabulary isn’t all there is to writing. In fact, it’s only half the story. Besides being able to choose the right words, a writer must also know how to assemble them to communicate a clear message. And part of that is mastering the language in which the writer is writing—in this case English.

The use of sentence structure, punctuation, and capitalization is called English usage. Grammar is part of it. As a writer, you cannot ignore grammar. Too many beginning writers today think that it’s the editor’s job to correct their sentence structure and grammatical mistakes. And while an editor may correct the occasional grammatical error, his or her main job is to make sure sentences read correctly and that the content is clear. This is the job of the copy editor.

If you don’t make sure that your final draft is free of grammatical mistakes, then you’re not much of a writer. And while good editors will make sure to point out all of your grammatical errors, it will take away from the job they were meant to do. Plus it will cost you since the more time an editor spends on your work, the more an independent editor has to charge.

If you send your work to a publisher, he or she will assign an editor to work with you. But before an editor even begins to edit a book manuscript, for example, a reader will be assigned to read it. If there are lots of English usage and grammatical mistakes, your manuscript will be rejected.

If you have a problem with sentence structure, punctuation, and the like, you’ll need to do something about it before you go on. A professional writer is a not only a wordsmith but has honed writing skills. They’re the tools of this profession.

Perhaps you felt that grammar and such were unimportant as you sat in English class bored to tears as the teach went on about participles and gerunds, for example. After all, you want to write—to create interesting stories. Why do you need to concern yourself with such mundane things. What you didn’t realize at the time was that those mundane things would become your everyday tools to help you create those interesting stories.

So where can you get help? You could sign up for a basic writing class at a local adult evening school. Or you could buy yourself a book on English usage. You can easily find a used one at a local library book sale or get it online at You can also improve your English usage and grammar online.

Begin with the article “14 Must-Visit Websites to Learn English Grammar Online.” Then check each one of them out and see which offers the best resources for you. Another great site is English Grammar 101. There are whole lot more to choose from, so take your pick.  Use the exercises provided to improve your writing skills. And before you know it, you’ll be writing like a pro because isn’t that what you want to be—a professional writer. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mastering the Possibilities

For years, Mastercard brought in customers with the now-famous slogan, “Master the possibilities.” You can also apply it to your freelancing career. But with freelancing it’s less about using your credit card than figuring out how to find outlets for your work.

Today’s publishing environment offers a wealth of possibilities. It used to be that freelancers had only the print world of magazines and newspapers to choose from when searching for markets. Now that rather closed market has been expanded to include all sorts of publications, both print and digital.

Readers resisted the digital publications for quite a while, but the appearance of e-readers and tablets like the Kindle and Nook gave readers an infinite number of choices.

Writers, too, were a bit hesitant to write for digital markets because most of them didn’t pay. Unfortunately, many still don’t. But breaking in is a lot easier digitally. You can easily study past issues of an online magazine or Web site just be searching for it. Searching offers another advantage—you can see easily see what subject matter is trending. You’re shots in the dark will be fewer. 

Before you go searching, however, you have to figure out exactly what type of writing you want to do. Are you planning to write articles for publication, either in print or online or both? Or are you planning on writing mostly books, using shorter pieces to promote them? And while both require the same writing skills, each requires a different mind set and marketing know how.

As little as 20 years ago, all you had to do was send your pieces to publications that might print them and you’d get paid—maybe not very much, but you would get something. Since there weren’t very many publications or writers, competition wasn’t as keen. But with the advance of technology and the creation of the Internet, all that changed. The publishing world has exploded with what seems an endless list of possibilities.

Unfortunately, just as there are many more opportunities to get published, so are there many more, especially online, that don’t pay anything. For at least the first 10 years, readers and writers looked at the Internet as a chaotic medium for amateurs. Publishers who did have online publications had very low budgets, so they didn’t pay for articles. And while they were a good way to build up your publishing clips, you can’t live on non-paying markets.

With the ease of online publishing and self-publishing through e-books, many more would-be writers are finding it easier to get published, even if they have to do it themselves, thus by-passing the hurdles of the traditional route.

A good way to start out and get your work out there is to write a weekly blog. When blogs first began, the recommendation was to publish a blog daily. But a weekly blog becomes more like a column and readers will follow it if you offer them information that they can use.

While you’re blog starts to build a following, you can study one of the annual market guides—Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace.

The first on the list, Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books, has been around since 1921 and is the least expensive with a list price of $50, although you can purchase it online directly from Writer’s Digest for $30. You can also get it by monthly subscription. It features over 8,000 listings of newspaper and magazine markets, book publishers, including small presses, playwriting and screenwriting markets, and even those for greeting cards. Each listing gives you the information you need to see if your work will fit. And while there are many markets in which your work will be a good match, there are 10 times as many that it will not. And while the book has it’s good points, it offers a lot of markets that just don’t pay well or not at all. Plus, it’s so widely used that many of the publications listed get overwhelmed with submissions.

Literary Marketplace claims it’s the “ultimate insider’s guide” to the publishing industry. For a whopping $360 for first-time buyers, it ought to be. It offers 54 sections in which it organizes publishers, agents, advertising agencies, associations, distributors, and events. It features twice the number of listings as Writer’s Market, but concentrates mostly on book publishing. Since its cost is prohibitive, you’ll have to use it at your local library.

Whether you use one or the other or both of these annuals will depend on how often you’re repeatedly writing for certain markets, how good you are at selling spin-off material, and where you wish to focus your publishing efforts each year.
As you progress in your freelancing career, you’ll find more markets that aren’t listed in the above annuals. Publishers of all kinds choose whether they want to be published in them. Many refuse because doing so opens them up to receiving tons of correspondence from too many wannabee writers who have neither the skill or talent to write well. They prefer to be more selective. Also, new technologies create new markets. In the last five years many opportunities have opened up for educational and recreational material for home and school computers.

Because editors play musical chairs and their requirements change regularly, it’s a good idea to use the latest edition of each of the annuals. It’s important to know the exact name, spelling, title, etc., of a publication’s editor. If you’re going to impress editors, you must get their names right.

In the case of Writer’s Market, you can check out last year’s edition from the stacks at your library, find what publications look good, and make a list of them, then go back to the library and find those on your list in the latest edition in the reference section and note the changes. Because of the high cost of Literary Marketplace, you’ll have to do all your work using the reference edition at the library.

Once you've decided on a specialty, you should subscribe to the best publications in your chosen field, or track them down regularly wherever you can. If you’re serious about book publishing, then you’ll want to read Publishers Weekly regularly at your local library or online.

Whether markets appear to be a broadening or a row of locked doors is entirely up to you, your energies, ambitions, and skills as a writer, promoter, and, most importantly, a salesperson.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Writers’ Block—Is It All in Your Head?

All writers face the inevitable—writers’ block—at some point in their careers. For some it’s a passing state of affairs, a sort of down time after working furiously on a big project. But for others, writers’ block can be as deadly as a fear of heights. In fact, it often results from a fear of success.

But writers’ block doesn’t just happen. Usually something triggers it, much like any other psychological condition. And, yes, it is psychological. To keep from falling prey to this condition, you have to keep your mind active.

The most common cause of writer’s block is trying to make your writing perfect the first time. Many beginning writers plod through whatever they’re working on agonizing over every word. You want to make whatever you’re writing your best, so you go back and revise every sentence as you go. Instead of trying to write the final draft, work faster and steadily to complete your first draft. Get everything down on paper and don’t worry about grammar or the words you’re using. You’ll be able to fix both in the revising process. Leave sparkling writing until your second or third draft.

Another thing that seriously affects novice writers, and many veteran ones, is hearing the opinion of others. Don’t allow yourself to be stymied by what your friends, family, or spouse may think of what you’ve written. And worst of all, don’t show your writing to strangers until you have finished the final draft.

If you write fiction, you should be doubly careful about showing your work to others before its time. As a fiction writer, you have only your own experiences to draw from for your stories. If your story centers around characters who are uncomfortably similar to people you know, you could find yourself in trouble.

Whatever people say, it will affect you. Beginning writers have thin skins and aren’t used to criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. Particularly harsh criticism can cripple you mentally, causing you not to be able to write.

To combat writer’s block, there are a few things you can do.  Keep several projects going at the same time. The more involved you are in different types of writing, the less likely you’ll be to be stymied by writer’s block.

Another trick is to re-read what you’ve written most recently. You’ll be amazed at how you’ll react to your own words, especially if you haven’t seen them in a while. Besides reading your own work, try reading books, stories, and articles written by others.         
Create an idea file. A stockpile of ideas will give you plenty to write about, should you get stuck on your current project.

You might also try to set a word quota—writing so many words a day. This will force you to move forward and not get mired in your current work. And reward yourself for achieving your daily word goal. This could be a walk around the block or a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop.

Finally, be positive. Negativity about your writing will definitely lead to a block.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Keeping Your Writing Style Up to Date

Have you kept up to date with your writing skills? 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.

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 for others these changes may manifest themselves in certain forms of sentence structure.

Probably the way writers use punctuation has changed the most. 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?

Another form of punctuation that has seen more frequent use is the dash or more specifically the “em dash,” the longer of the two forms of dashes. This form of punctuation creates a visual separation that readers can easily see at a glance. Also, today’s writers are using commas less frequently.

Lots of things influence changes in writing style, 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 today use a more concise approach. Writing is tighter and less flowery with fewer longer, more sophisticated words that many readers may not know.

There are lots of ways to keep your writing style up to date. The easiest method is to read more contemporary writing—writing done yesterday not even 10 years ago. And if you really want to improve your writing style, avoid most literature, except the modern variety written after 1930 or so.

You can also enroll in writing classes. Professional dancers constantly take classes to improve their technique and writers should, too. You don't have to enroll in college-level writing courses.  These can be expensive and more time consuming than you need. However, many colleges offer continuing education courses that are just right. Most of these target a particular kind of writing—novels, short stories, articles, etc.  They usually last only a few weeks and don’t have the added pressure of grades that you’ll find with credit courses.

Another alternative is to attend a writing conference. Here, classes are short and intense, usually  lasting only one to three days. These conferences also offer you a chance to learn from other professionals who are experts in their fields.  Do a search for "writing conferences and your area" to find one near you.
Whatever you choose to do, improving your skills will give your writing a boost. 


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Recycling Isn't Just for the Trashman

Recycling isn’t limited to plastics and tin cans. It can play a big part in your writing, too.  Over the years, you’ll gather a lot of information. Too many writers use that information once because many of their teachers drummed the concept of not repeating into their heads. So they use an idea once and forget about it. In the writing biz, that’s not the way to make money.

Information should be a valuable commodity to you as a writer. Whether you write non-fiction or fiction, you can use ideas and the information you gathered to flush them out over and over again. Your files are a gold mine. So if you’re one of those people who can’t stand clutter and throws everything out as soon as you’re done with it, you better think again.

So what are some of the ways you can mine all those ideas and valuable information you have on hand? First, let’s look at the facts—just the facts. If you write non-fiction, you gather a truckload of facts for every article and if you write books, a boatload. That’s a lot of facts to let go to waste. So how do you know where they are when you need them? The answer is a good filing system.

Every article or story you write should have its own folder, both paper and digital. You should put all the notes and clippings and such into the paper folder. Reserve the digital folder for information you find online and for drafts of your piece. The idea of going all digital may be nice, but it isn’t practical. If you don’t have a way of retrieving the information you’ve stored, then you might as well have thrown it out.

For some topics, you may want to create several folders of information, subdividing a more complex topic into categories for easier retrieval. Information you gather for one subject or project may often be used for another on a similar one or a different one altogether. For example, let’s say you’re writing an article about pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail. First, you’ll gather information about the Trail, itself, then you’ll begin to find information on the people who traveled it.

The information on the former can be used to not only tell the tale of the Oregon Trail when it was at its peak, but also about the remnants of the Trail in the present day. Information gathered about the latter can be used for stories about courage along the trail or articles about particular people or the lifestyle of the early settlers of the West. Right there, you have the material to write any number of stories and articles all based on the same research.

So much for the information you have on hand. But what about all those pieces you’ve already wrote and published? Taking pieces from different articles, for instance, can give you a whole new piece. With some rewriting and revising, you can craft another interesting piece without doing any more research.

And don’t forget about sidebars. Sidebars to one article can become short articles in themselves, especially if you do some quick rewriting to help them stand on their own.

Storing all that information can become a problem. Over your writing career, you’ll gather reference books, clippings, brochures, maps—you name it—and that’s not even considering all the notes you’ve taken on various subjects. But if you organize the material for easy access, you’ll be able to produce a variety of pieces for many different markets during your career.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Keeping Track of Your Ideas

Ideas are the fuel that keep writers going. These might be for future articles, short stories, plays, non-fiction books, and, yes, even blogs. They can be little bits of information, observations, profiles, or full-blown concepts. Unfortunately, the human brain can’t possibly remember them all. In fact, You can’t remember most of your ideas since they seem to disappear into thin air as fast as they appear. In order to keep ideas ready for when you need them, you’ll have to find a way to record and track them.

Keeping track of your ideas could be as simple as creating a folder in your computer in which you save any little tidbit of information that comes along. You probably can see where this is going. Soon you’ll have a folder full of tidbits but not way to tell one from another. So you create more specific folders and file specific information related to one idea category or another in them. Now you have a bunch of folders with tidbits but still no way to know what’s in each.

A rather simple solution to the folder chaos that is to keep an Idea Book–well, actually, a series of Idea Books. This notebook will become your most valuable possession—it will be what keeps you writing.

To start an idea book you’ll have to go low-tech—a standard 6x9½-inch, spiral-bound notebook will do nicely. You can either opt for a thicker one or several thinner ones. If you can find one with built-in tab dividers, all the better. If not, pick up a packet of divider tabs that you can stick some of the pages to create your own sections.

This large idea book will become your main depository for your ideas, but you may also want to keep a small, 3x5-inch, spiral-bound notebook that you carry with you. Then you can periodically skim over the ideas in it and transfer them to your larger Idea Book.

So exactly what should put into your Idea Book? First and foremost are lists of ideas on  particular topics. This is where the dividers come in handy. Perhaps you write a regular blog. You can’t come up with topics off the top of your head without some research. Your Idea Book will allow you to keep an ongoing list of ideas for future blogs. As soon as you finish writing your latest blog, you should take a look at the list and decide which topic you’re going to tackle next. This is also a good place to keep a log of all the blogs you’ve written so far in the order you’ve written them, so that you don’t repeat yourself.

Your Idea Book is also a good place to focus your ideas. Sometimes an idea is way too broad, so you may have to focus it down to its essence. It’s in this process that you can play around with variations on the topic—different slants, possible fiction adaptations, even Web page ideas. Most writers never write about a topic just once, and neither should you.

Another part of any good Idea Book is the resource section. Here, you should jot down information about library books you’ve borrowed in case you need to borrow them again and the addresses of Web sites that contain pertinent information about subjects I write about.

Lastly, you can use your Idea Book to brainstorm possible markets for your work.  This might be just a list of places where you can post your blog. If you write for magazines and such, you may also want to produce diagrams that help you figure out who will be reading your pieces and which markets cater to them.

The techies out there may argue why not use a tablet or phone to do the same thing.
While you can handle some of your items in your idea book—lists of ideas, Web sites, library books, and such—brainstorming, focusing, and figuring out who will read your work is best done on paper. Perhaps you can figure a way to combine the two.

For the digital side of things, you’ll most likely have to use an app, otherwise you’ll be using several programs to do all that an Idea Book entails. One that really works well is Evernote. This little program allows you to create messages to yourself, as well as to-do lists, but it also goes beyond what you can do with just a standard paper Idea Book.

With Evernote or some app like it, you can also clip parts or entire articles from the Internet and save them to it. Then you can go back later and read them. It also allows you to create categories in which to save information. With the free version, you can only save to two digital devices—a desktop and laptop, laptop and phone, laptop and tablet. But you can go for the deluxe paid version which allows much more flexibility.

You can certainly use your smartphone to record ideas on the go, as well as saving Web sites for review later.

Choose whatever works for your situation and digital expertise level. Whatever you do, get your ideas organized. And you’ll keep writing forever.


Friday, January 27, 2017

The Almightly Comma

Commas are an essential form of punctuation in any type of writing. But their use has fluctuated over the years. Because of this, writers and non-writers alike have become confused as to when to use them.

Everyone learns to write in school. Unfortunately, academic writing has its own set of rules, most of which lean towards formality. But today, writing outside of school is decidedly informal. In fact, even lawyers now attend seminars to help them write briefs in plain language.

The trend today is to use fewer commas and only in the essential places in a piece of writing. Some people use them like spices in cooking, peppering their work with as many as possible just in case they might forget to use one somewhere where it’s needed. Others don’t use enough commas, making their writing hard to understand.

All punctuation is meant to help the reader know when to breathe when they’re reading aloud. The same holds true for reading silently. Think about it.

Before the invention of the printing press, the only punctuation was a dot at the end of a thought. This made most manuscripts very difficult to read. But then, most people didn’t even know how to read back then. When the printing press came along, it allowed printers to insert other forms of punctuation to make it possible to not only know when to pause—using commas—but also when to raise the voice—exclamation points—when to stop—periods—etc.

To begin with, the typical comma is used to separate two independent clauses. That means that both clauses must have a subject and a verb. The comma comes before the conjunction—and, but, for, so, or yet—that links the two clauses. A comma isn’t used when there is an independent clause followed by another verb that continues the same thought. This is technically a compound verb.

There seems to be lots of controversy as to whether a comma should be used between the last two items in a series. Currently, it seems that a writer can place it there or not. And that, unfortunately, is how the English language evolves—by trial and error. Eventually, the majority of users will use it one way or the other making that the rule.

Another place that beginning writers and lots of other people get confused about commas is at the end of a quote, before the tag line. The quote and the tag line are usually all part of the same sentence. So at the end of a quote or piece of dialogue, place a comma, followed by quotation marks, followed yet again by the tag line—“he said” or “she said.”

Commas are also used to offset nouns of direct address. An example might be “Steven, please pick up some milk on your way home.” Or to set off phrases such as “of course” or following or surrounding words like “unfortunately.”

Finally, the use of the semi-colon is on its way out. Instead, many writers now place a comma. But a little caution is in order. Instead of using the semicolon in the first place, make the two clauses it’s joining into separate sentences. The resulting sentences will be shorter and easier to read.

Remember, commas are the signal to pause. So when not sure, read the sentence aloud to see if a pause is needed. Then insert a comma where the pause should go.

To learn the correct use of all types of punctuation, read "Punctuation in a Nutshell" in the Writer's Corner section of my Web site.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What to Do When?

In today’s hectic world, it seems there’s never enough time. But maybe that’s because you’re doing some things at the wrong times.  What if you could pack more into each day by doing everything at the optimal time?

Multi-tasking has caused old-fashioned time management to become obsolete. Research suggests that paying attention to your body clock—and its effects on energy and alertness—can help pinpoint the different times of day when you perform your best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.

Most people organize their time around everything but their body's natural rhythms. Do the demands of freelance writing, kids’ schedules, and social events frequently dominate your day? Inevitably there will be a clash with your body's circadian rhythms of waking and sleeping.

As difficult as it may be to align your schedule with your body clock, it may be worth it to try, because of possible health benefits. Disruption of circadian rhythms has been linked to such problems as diabetes, depression, dementia and obesity. When your body's master clock can synchronize functioning of all its metabolic, cardiovascular and behavioral rhythms in response to light and other natural stimuli, it gives you an edge.

When it comes to doing projects that require intense thought, most adults perform best in the late morning. As your body temperature starts to rise just before you awake and continues to increase through midday, your working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve. Taking a warm morning shower can jump-start this process.

But your ability to focus and concentrate typically starts to slide soon after Noon. Most people are more easily distracted from Noon to 4 P.M. Also, your alertness tends to slump after eating a meal—the more food you eat, the deeper the slump. Do you find yourself getting sleepy around 2 P.M.? You might want to consider taking a short nap.

Studies have shown that fatigue may actually boost your creative abilities. You may find that tackling problems that require open-ended thinking works best in the evening when you’re tired. Perhaps that’s why many writers get flashes of insight before going to bed.

Of course, everyone's body clock isn't the same, making it even harder to synchronize natural rhythms with daily plans. Research shows that some people operate on either of two distinctive timetables. Morning people tend to wake up and go to sleep earlier and to be most productive early in the day. Evening people tend to wake up later, start more slowly and peak in the evening.

When choosing a time of day to exercise, paying attention to your body clock can help you improve results. Physical performance is usually best, and the risk of injury least, from about 3 P.M. to 6 P.M. Muscle strength tends to peak between 2 P.M. and 6 P.M. at levels as much as 6 percent above the day's lows, improving your physical ability. And joints and muscles are as much as 20 percent more flexible in the evening, lowering the risk of injury. These body rhythms hold true regardless of how much you've slept or how recently you've eaten.

Communicating with friends and colleagues online has its own optimal cycles. Sending emails early in the day helps beat the inbox rush. Messages posted early in the day are most likely to be read. For many people, checking their Email is has replaced reading the newspaper at the beginning of the day.

To start your day out on a positive note, check Twitter between 8 and 9 A.M.. That's when users are most likely to tweet upbeat, enthusiastic messages, and least likely to send downbeat tweets steeped in fear, distress, anger or guilt. Sleep will refresh you and will leave you alert and enthusiastic.

You should do other social networking later in the day. If you want your tweets to be re-tweeted, post them between 3 and 6 P.M., when many people lack energy to share their own tweets and turn to relaying others' instead. Posts to Facebook at about 8 P.M. tend to get the most "likes," after people get home from work or finish dinner.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Communicating Directly

Back in the 1950s and 1960s and forever before that, people looked at writing as something special. But in the realm of communication, it’s one of three parts— speaking, listening, and writing. If you look at writing from that perspective, you’ll see that whatever you write should be like whatever you speak. Readers are also listeners, except they listen to the printed page or screen.

Back then,  most people viewed writing as a formal activity not related to talking. That’s because that’s what they learned in school. Academics and a lot of business people like to throw their intellectual weight around, so they use big words and long, complicated sentences when they communicate. It says, “Look at me. I’m smarter than you.” Again, that’s because that’s what they learned in college. Intellectualism breeds more intellectualism.

If you listened to President Obama’s farewell speech the other night, you had no trouble understanding what he was trying to say. Write those words down on a piece of paper and they’re just as clear. You can say what you want about the out-going president, but one thing is crystal clear—the man knows how to communicate clearly with everyone. And as a writer, you should, too.

In today’s hurry up, chat and text world, many people have dropped their guards when writing, much to the chagrin of many working and retired English teachers. They say people are butchering the English language. But really, all everyone wants is to understand clearly what’s being said. And to do that as a writer, you have to write as you talk.

There’s nothing different between writing something like a blog and discussing the same subject in person. In the latter case, there’s probably a conversation going—a give and take. And that’s what you want to have with your reader. Online blogs and articles, as well as Facebook posts, all have a space at the bottom for readers to leave their comments. Sometime, you’ll see a lot of them. At other times, you don’t see any. Usually that’s because readers won’t leave a comment if they’re satisfied with what the piece said, but they will if they disagree with it.

Today, good writing is conversational writing—writing that reads and sounds like good conversation. The big difference is that the writer makes it go where he or she wants it to. The next time you sit down to write, pretend that readers are sitting across the table from you and then just tell them their story—only on paper.

A beginning writer is writing a memoir about a special time in his life. The word “memoir” may leave you with the impression that this will be a boring piece of writing. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Not only is it clear, it also includes such detail that it draws the reader into the story.

So a good resolution for this year might be to forget big words and write as you talk. Communicate directly with your readers. You’ll see an immediate change in how they react to your writing.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Bringing Nonfiction Characters to Life

Writing good nonfiction characters requires discipline and honesty. You can’t just make them do what you want them to do. You have to use the facts to structure your character. You have to report life, not imitate it. To do this well, you have to be observant. For readers, characters consist of four things—what they look like, where they are, what they say, and what they do.

Essentially, creating a realistic portrait of a nonfiction character is all about costume, setting, dialogue, and movement or action. It’s also about “business,” as actors like to call it. Business is the little things a character does while speaking or between dialogue, like putting on a coat, drumming a finger, sipping a cup of coffee, turning on a light, or texting with a cell phone. Each detail adds to the reality of the character you’re trying to portray, and at the same time provides hints about their inner being. Of course, every person has an inner life that is vibrant and active and changeable, but as a nonfiction writer, you can only guess at that.

When portraying a real person, you must use an actor’s tools. Can you, by showing a character doing this or that, make your readers see him or her as you did? It’s a movie or video—light on the screen, shadows on a wall, your marks on the page. Out of all of this a human being emerges.

You have to make the reader watch your character’s eyes as he laughs and jokes. You might even write out some of what the character is saying. You might show him tapping his foot impatiently. Whatever you choose to show influences how the reader perceives that character.

The most important thing in portraying a nonfiction character is honesty and then transparency. You try to show what you saw but with the lens open on the complete experience of the person, with all his subtleties and nuances.

The problem and fun of it is that while being honest, the meaning of your portrait must also be transparent to the reader. So you have to sharpen and shape your observation, much as a painter does. It’s up to you to make choices about detail and angle from all the information that another person in his full humanity offer to you. You strive for clarity and brilliance, position and attitude.

Even a painter of realism is always making decisions about framing and point of view, about light and color, about reflection and detail. He or she chooses which moment to capture on the canvas. It’s much like point and shoot photography. In writing about real people, you want your subject to live on the page, and you want to capture him or her for the reader. To do this well, you have to get inside your character’s mind.

This is the way of method acting. An actor studies the exact person he or she is playing or someone similar. The actor wants a deep and detailed experience of the exterior of their character, as well as how the character thinks, in order to present the character realistically on stage or screen. The actor must feel the character. He or she must steal their character’s soul—if just for a short time. In some way you, the writer, must possess the people you’re writing about, and they must possess you back.

But what happens when you’re writing about another time period?. How do you get into your character’s mind if you can’t meet him or her in person? The answer is research. You must learn all you can about a person through your research. What you don’t know, you must fill in by studying someone similar. To know exactly how a ship’s captain might react just before a storm wrecks his ship, you must study the actions and reactions of other ship’s captains in similar situations. Chances are the actions and reactions will be somewhat the same. Remember, it’s what you choose to show the reader that will bring your character alive. 

When you’ve observed closely and written well about a person, you can feel them looking out at you from the portrait you’ve drawn while at the same time you and your readers are looking back in.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

It's Time to Start Over

Happy New Year! It’s once again time to start again. Funny how this one day can make such a difference. Personally, I try to use this day to get myself reorganized for the coming year. And you should, too.  As the year rolls on, things may seem to unravel. Does your recordkeeping fall short? Do your about writing seem to get more vague? Does your mind begin to wander as emergencies and small crises pop up?

As another year dawns, it’s time to reflect on your writing career. If you just started out in 2016, then you’ve got your whole career ahead of you. If you’ve been writing a while, then maybe it’s time to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and make some plans for the future. Make 2017 the year you go somewhere with your work.

Let’s say you’ve just begun to work as a freelance writer. Did you find it hard to place your work in the marketplace? Did the process seem frustrating? Do you think you’ve exhausted every avenue?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, then you have most likely haven’t followed the path of least resistance. Most beginners start out by sending their work to top publications. That’s your first mistake. Remember, you’re a beginner. You haven’t been in the marketplace long enough to establish credentials. So maybe you ought to plan ahead for 2017 so that you can get at least one piece—and hopefully many more—published.

Here are a few tips to getting on track in the coming year:

Write about what you know. The first mistake many beginning writers make is writing about subjects they know nothing about. Stick close to home. Write about subjects having to do with work or with a special interest of yours. Doing so will help build your confidence and give what’s called a “voice of authority” to your work. (More on voice of authority will appear in a later blog).

Keep your pieces relatively short. Another mistake beginners make is writing everything there is to know on a subject. It’s not really their fault, however, since the only type of writing they learned to do in school that had anything to do with research was term papers and reports.

Write to communicate.
You’re not writing for a grade as you did in school. You’re writing to communicate information to your readers. Unlike your teachers, your readers want to learn about your subject and be somewhat entertained at the same time.

Start with small publications. Search for publications that work with beginning writers. The editors of top publications are too busy to fuss with the musings of beginners. They need writing that’s concise, accurate, and professional, leaving little for them to do but lay it out and print it.

Set reasonable goals. Create reasonable goals for yourself for the coming year and see to it that you achieve them. Check on them occasionally to make sure you’re on track. And if you get off track, get back on as soon as possible. Lots of things can knock you off your game—illness, even a cold, family emergencies, a death in the family, etc. Remind yourself to review your goals in six months to see if they’re still possible or if you have to adjust them to your present situation.

Good luck and make this weekly blog part of your regular reading for 2017.