Friday, January 27, 2012

Books, Books, and More Books

A writer cannot operate in a vacuum. Ideas come from everywhere. But after getting ideas, they have to be researched. And for that a writer needs a good reference library.

Over 30 years and hundreds of books later, I can truthfully say I’ve amassed a good reference library. Setting up a basic reference library needn’t be expensive. I found almanacs, dictionaries, directories of various kinds, thesauruses, and atlases in paperback. I had several dictionaries left over from my college days. And while they weren’t the most current, they worked fine when I was just starting out.

The focus of any writer’s reference library is the subject matter he or she writes about. I started out writing about travel, so from the start, I was on the lookout for travel guidebooks from countries and parts of the United States that I was interested in writing about. Back then, online booksellers such as didn’t exist. In fact, compared to today, that was the Stone Age (I kept my club in the closet and only used it to go hunting.). Over time, I gathered several hundred travel guides, mostly from library and used book sales. For my purposes, it didn’t matter if they were a year or two old. The basic information never changed.

Along the way, I began to write about antiques. This subject required its own specialized library of reference books. Again, I kept an eye out for antiques books—traditionally expensive—at local library sales. Some are small reference books on furniture styles, etc. while others are massive coffee-table-sized volumes with lots of photographs. Mixed in are a number of antiques encyclopedias for easy reference. As with my travel books, these soon grew to 100 or so.

Another of my specialties is writing about Mexico. One Mexico guidebook wasn’t enough. As a specialist, I needed detailed information. I acquired many books on trips to Mexico. Often, this was the only place I could find them. While there, I constantly looked for brochures, booklets, and maps that would give me detailed information not available to me once I headed north of the border.

Over the last five or six years, I’ve written a number of books. Each book required its own set of reference books—in fact, each has its own mini library.

Besides writing, I also teach it to adults in evening classes. As the number of courses grew over the years, I needed writing reference books as well. I’ve gathered 50 to 75 books on various types of writing and writing techniques to help myself and my students. Most of these I obtained through Writer’s Digest Book Club and still purchase the occasional volume through the Writer’s Digest Book Store online.

In also created my own photographs to illustrate my articles. My interest in photography developed before my writing, so I began with basic how-to books on photographic techniques. Over the years, I’ve used these many times. Today, I not only take digital photographs but teach others how to. This has necessitated starting a small library of digital photography books, used mostly to develop the courses I teach.

As you can see, my basic writing library has grown considerably. Most of the rooms in my house contain books. And while I can easily find information online on just about any subject, there’s still information I need to look up in my library.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Do You Have a Hat Rack in Your Office?

Do you have a hat rack in your office? That may seem like an odd question, but as a freelance writer, you’ll need one on which to hang the many hats you’ll have to wear in your business. Coincidentally, there’s a new commercial on T.V. which shows a small business owner entering his office. Everyone working there looks like him because they are. The focus of the commercial is to show how small business owners, like yourself, have to wear many hats to make their businesses successful.

If you thought as a freelancer you were only going to write, think again. The jobs you’ll have to do will range from creator to writer, editor, researcher, interviewer, secretary, salesperson, P.R. exec, bookkeeper, bill collector, general manager, and janitor. If you’re producing ebooks, then add publisher, cover designer, and promoter. Whew! I bet you’re bushed just reading that list.

With such a list of business responsibilities, you’ll have little room for an unprofessional attitude. Unfortunately, many writers often say they don’t have a head for business matters. But you better get one because the success of your freelance business depends on it.

The biggest problem facing you will be finding the time to do all those tasks. While you won’t have to do them all every day, you should create a weekly schedule, so that you don’t overlook any of them, for all of them are important.

To begin, lay out a schedule for the entire week, including Saturday and Sunday, on a spreadsheet. Indicate the time you get up in the morning and the time you go to bed at night. Just because you work for yourself doesn’t mean that you have to work constantly. If you worked for someone else, you’d have hours. Decide if you want to work a normal business day. If so, what time will you arrive at your office and what time will you leave? Most people work from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., so start with that. You can always go “in” early or “leave” late, depending on your work load. Oh, and don’t forget to allow time to eat lunch and perhaps have a short afternoon break.

Next, make a list of all the tasks you need to do for your business each week, allowing time to work on projects. Type in these tasks and work time on your schedule. If you run out of time for say getting ideas or paying bills or filing, you can always do these in the evenings or on weekends. You might want to also schedule some reading time because you’re going to have to do lots of that. And don’t forget your janitorial duties. It won’t take long for your office to look like a tornado swept through it—try to keep up with cleaning and sorting as best you can.

The idea is to get all your jobs done in the time you have. Don’t be a slave to your schedule, but let it guide you through the week. After a while, you’ll automatically know when it’s time to do which task. And don’t forget to dust off your virtual hat rack once in a while.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Creative Thinking Comes Before Creative Writing

Many writers don’t think before they write—at least not creatively. Because of this, they get mired in the mess of words that sometimes pours out of their heads without any idea of where they’re going with them.

Part of the reason for this goes back to school. While some teachers encourage creative thinking, most don’t. They’re under pressure to cover all the material in the curriculum for their course in a specified time, and in many cases that doesn’t leave room to get creative.

A young, enthusiastic English teacher, who also was an actor in her off hours, got very creative in teaching Shakespeare. The head of the English department admonished her for doing so and not sticking to the curriculum for her course. Needless to say, the teacher took it until the end of the year, then she quit. Her students really got into Shakespeare, but according to the old biddy who headed up the department, that wasn’t the way to do it.

Many beginning writers believe if they just sit in front of their computer that the right words will pour out. They think this way because in school they often had to write in class with little time to properly think out what they were doing. While this type of spontaneous writing may work part of the time, usually when it does, it’s a “happy accident”—a fine creation that usually can’t be duplicated because the writer doesn’t know how they did it in the first place. The trick is to figure out how to creatively solve a writing problem, so the procedure can be repeated. Stephen King has authored lots of books. Once he figured out how to make his first one a success, all he had to do was creatively think of other plots that he could use. By making them twist and turn, he came up with a mass of work.

When beginning a writing project, it’s important to sit and think about it from several different angles. Look at all the possibilities. Mull it over. One of those possibilities might be out in left field, but it just may turn out to be the best solution. Jot down every alternative that seems like it might work.

As a freelance writer, you need to also think creatively at every opportunity, not just to write creatively but to operate your business that way. Once you start thinking creatively, you’ll find that it eventually becomes second nature. Life, itself, is a puzzle, but freelance writing is an even bigger one.

With brighter, more creative ideas than your competition, you can move forward quickly in freelancing. Never accept what looks like a closed door. Move in closer and give it a shove. You may discover it was simply an optical illusion.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Which League Are You Playing In?

As in baseball’s major and minor leagues, so freelance writing has major and minor markets. Many beginning writers think they need to start at the top in the major leagues when seeking markets for their work. But just as in baseball, most need to begin in the minor leagues and work their way up.

As a beginning writer, you may have a high opinion of your writing and your writing skills. The truth is that although you may have a great idea, your writing skills may not be up to effectively bringing it to completion. National magazines often pay thousands of dollars for a feature article, and while there’s a chance you’ll succeed in getting an article published in one of them, the possibilities are slim at best.

To get off on the right foot, take a look at both the minor and major markets. Don’t think just because a publication is a minor market that you won’t have any competition. Some of the same writers selling to the big magazines will be selling to their hometown newspaper or regional magazine. Minor markets may pay less but are just as professional. They may be ideal for a reprint of an article that you’ve already published elsewhere or a spin off from the research for that piece.

In order to plan your marketing efficiently, you need to compile three lists. Note as many minor markets as you can that fit your interests. Using a directory like Writer’s Market, compile a target list of approximately 25 of the best-paying publications in which you know you have a good chance of getting published and label it "A." Then compile a B list of publications that pay in the middle range, and a C list of publications to which you can send spin-off or reprint articles. Put your lists in a loose-leaf binder in which you can keep your marketing notes. For each of the publications in your lists, note its name, its page in the market directory, how much it pays, plus a brief note about what sort of articles it accepts.

Once you compile these lists, you’ll be able to refer to them for quite a while. Because markets change constantly, you’ll have to delete publications that go out of business or change direction.
Editors also move around, so while you may be in the good graces of one editor, the next may not like your writing style at all. Your lists will also prepare you when an editor you had worked with starts working for one of the publications on your lists. These corrections to your lists will save you time since you won't have to approach a magazine with a story idea only to have your query returned marked undeliverable.

With your list of article ideas in front of you (see my blog “Make a List and Check It Twice”), see how many ways you can use your research material. Then match the varied uses to publications on your lists. Using your lists in this way will greatly expand your marketability. When marketing your material, think outside the box and find other ways of using your researched material to make the most of your time.

And don’t think that you’ll find publishable markets only in directories like Writer’s Market. Many publications refuse to be listed in it because too many unqualified and inexperienced writers send in queries for ideas that are way off the mark and waste editors’ valuable time.

Ask your friends and family members if they can think of any publications where you might sell your work. Check out all leads, then add those publications that seem like possible markets for you to one of your lists. And don’t go into any doctor’s or dentist’s office without looking through the magazines put out for patients. You never know what you’ll find.