Friday, April 27, 2012


When you decide to quit your day job and write full time, you’ll have to give careful consideration to your priorities. No longer will someone else be deciding what work you have to do and when you have off. Now it will be your responsibility. For some writers, this works great. For others, it doesn’t.

The first thing you’ll need to do is figure out when your peak thinking and writing times occur. Are you a “first-thing-in-the-morning” person, a midday person, or an evening person? Also, do your peak thinking times and peak writing times occur at the same time or at different times during the day? If yours are separate, you’ll want to focus more on the former, giving it top priority in your daily schedule. It’s harder to think out a piece of writing than it is to actually write it.

To help you set your priorities, you must first create a daily work schedule. You don’t have to stick tightly to it, but it should act as a guide. To begin, block out a schedule for the week, indicating when you’ll begin work. You may want to use the same schedule you used in your former job. Working from nine to five is good for a start. Next block out time for lunch, 30-60 minutes should do.

Now that you have your start and end times, plus lunch scheduled, you can lay in blocks of time for your work. If you know when you’re at your peak for thinking, block in time at the appropriate hour. Then lay in some time for writing and research. It helps to mix up your day by working on several projects in different stages. While you’re getting ideas for one, you may be working on the first draft of another, and starting research for a third. Doing this actually helps exercise your brain and prevents getting burned out by writing for hours on end. It pays in the long run to not write for more than two hours at a time.

And don’t forget to allow time to get more work. You’ll need to send out E-mail messages to editors, or perhaps call them on the phone. And when will you study new publications to see if you’re right for them? Many editors schedule staff meetings on Monday and often Fridays are wrap-up times before publication, so you’ll want to limit your editorial contacts to the middle of the week.

What many people who work for themselves forget is allowing time for other obligations. Do you have to take or pick your kids up from school? When do you do grocery shopping? Must you cook meals for your family? What about talking to friends on the phone?

It’s a real temptation to procrastinate when you work at home. You may say to yourself, “I’ll do that later,” but do you? If you have a tendency to procrastinate, you need to attack the problem head-on. Doing so will increase your production and your income immediately.

You should try to schedule time to write every day. Some days you may have more time while on others less, but writing every day will help you keep up the momentum. Be sure to divide your time adequately among important projects. If you know you have deadline coming up, be flexible enough to allow time to finish the project that’s due. This means you must be careful that deadlines don’t pile up on one another. And for some writers, having no deadline takes away the impetus to get things done.

To help you prioritize your work, create three lists—one for Top Priority items, one for Secondary, and one for Do at Leisure Tasks for each week? This will help you stay on track. You might plan on taking care of the items on the first two lists during “working” hours and leave smaller tasks, like filing, correspondence, and organizing notes for evenings or Saturdays.

And while it’s important to get your current work finished, it’s just a important to plan ahead for new work. Do you have days or evenings when you are systematically building your files, increasing your contacts, beginning speculative new ventures, adding to your catalog of possible topics, and promoting yourself?  How about the time it takes to read and answer your E-mail and check on your social media sites?

If you keep your priorities in order as you start out in your writing career, you’ll be in a better position to recognize and take advantage of golden opportunities as they arise. The more you priorities your work, the easier it will be to tackle really complex projects and do them without stress. And as your career progresses, you should have more and more work to do. There are only so many hours in a day, and you can’t squeeze more work out of them than you already are unless you set your priorities.

Plan diversions into your work schedule. Don’t be a workaholic. But do so with care. It's too easy to take time to have that extra cup of coffee.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Dressing Up Old Ideas

Ideas are like fine wine. The longer they sit and age, the better they get. Someone once said there’s nothing new under the sun. Perhaps not, judging by the way most writers work. Because there are only 36 basic plots, there’s a whole lot of adaptation going on.

In non-fiction, topics for articles go in and out of fashion. What’s ignored yesterday might be trendy today. Hot topics today most likely appeared years, if not decades before. Most readers probably think articles about drugs have only been in the media for a relatively short time. But in fact, the Victorians had similar drug problems, one of which was the addition of many women to opium and laudanum, both prescribed originally to deal with cramps and depression. And although society tried to hush the subject, it appeared in many articles and short stories.

Specialty magazines run the same type of articles again and again, albeit in slightly different forms. Statistics show that readers tend to read magazines dealing with photography, bicycling, writing, and other specialty subjects for two to three years, so the editors run the same sort of stories over and over so all the readers can get the basics.

Good concepts never die, but live on and on in new adaptations. Take comedy, for example. One of the most popular plot situations is "mistaken identity." In this, the right information is given to the wrong people, or vice-versa, and actions and complications increase by the minute.

In the movie The Boys from Syracuse—that's ancient Syracuse in the Mediterranean—the "Boys" are a master and his slave. The audience becomes quickly aware that there's another master and slave who are twins to the first set, and they live in the city the "boys" are visiting. Naturally, no one in the cast realizes there's an extra set of twins, so a great deal of misunderstanding builds.

The Boys from Syracuse was originally a Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical—and well before that Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. Actually, this same plot dates to a Roman playwright named Plautus who created the original. English lit teachers praise Shakespeare for being such a great writer. Actually, he was a really creative writer who borrowed from everyone, but gave each of their ideas his own spin.

Disguises are often used in the mistaken identity plot. We've all seen how comic this can get, when, to get a job, Dustin Hoffman becomes "Tootsie," and Julie Andrews becomes "Victor" of Victor/Victoria. And Shakespeare also liked the idea of dressing one of his heroines in male clothing in As You Like It.

Adaptations aren’t just remakes as is often the case in Hollywood. Using a variation on a standard plot, a writer can change characters, settings, time periods, etc. Film critics often call George Lucas’ Star Wars a Space Age western. It’s got everything the old melodramas had—hero, heroine, and villain.

So why do beginning writers tie themselves in knots over using what has come before? The answer lies in the what they learned in school. Many teachers, especially those teaching literature, lead their students to believe that all the great writers created their own ideas. When in many cases what they really did was adapt ideas that came before to their own situations.

Alex Haley started the whole genealogy hobby phenomenon with his novel Roots. Another writer tried to sue him, claiming he stole her idea. If he were alive today and wrote that same book, he’d be one of hundreds with the same idea. He didn’t originate the idea of family genealogy at all, he merely adapted it to the characters and setting of his novel.

Good ideas come from good concepts. One place to find ideas to adapt is by perusing Roget’s Thesaurus. By looking up the word “time”, for example, a writer will find clocks, watches, missed time, schedule, speed, regulation, time periods, age, experience, the fourth dimension, rhythm, and so many more. How many articles, stories, and books can be created from just those concepts? It's amazing how a little effort with Roget can pay off when a writer tries to develop a gripping idea.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Step by Step

For beginning writers, the hardest step towards publication is the first. Once they achieve that first step, the others come easier. However, too many beginning writers mistakenly believe that they should begin at the top. After all, they look to bestselling authors for inspiration. One makes it into a top magazine on the first try while another lands their first book on the New York Times Bestseller List. The odds of a beginning writer making either of those are worse than winning the Mega Millions jackpot.

The first step is the all-important one. Making sure that one is solid takes perseverance and patience, plus lots of hard work. The best advice is to start small—write a short article or a short story, not a book. Writing a book is like having a baby elephant. It takes 22 months to grow in the mother’s womb and a lot of care after it’s born. On the other hand, writing a short piece is like a chicken laying an egg and sitting on it until it hatches.

Once you’ve had a piece published, you need to keep moving farther out on a limb—but without falling off.  If you write non-fiction, you might publish several short articles in your local newspaper. If you prefer fiction, you might publish a short story in a small literary magazine–for a little pay, of course.

The next step should be to contact a regional magazine, suggesting an article on a subject you know well or a short story. A good way to get feedback before jumping into unknown waters is to write an article or short story and let several friends or colleagues read it. Feedback from "readers" at this stage is more important than acceptance from an editor. If "readers" like the piece, then an editor will most likely enjoy reading it, too. But its more than just liking it. Discussing your article or story with your "readers" to obtain detailed feedback is even more important.

But before you send a piece anywhere, it’s equally important to study the periodicals to find out what they publish—a least a year’s worth of issues. Read the content as well as the ads to find out what sort of content to send the editor’s way.  And reading the letters to the editor will give you a clue to what readers are thinking.

Nothing builds confidence like money in the bank and words in print. Until these accumulate in sufficient amounts, writers rely on substitutes—hope and encouragement. Some beginning writers treasure the letters of rejection that come back with manuscripts they submitted on speculation. They pore over them with a fine-toothed comb searching for clues as to how the manuscript might be revised to become a winner. However, too often they read too much into the editor's words. It's better—and more professional—to immediately send the rejected manuscript to another market, or to revise it and begin again.

But if an editor says he or she has too many stories and might be interested later, you should put a note on your calendar to do just that. If an editor says the idea isn’t a good fit with the publication but would consider others, it’s a good idea to immediately send more ideas.

Many struggling writers feel that their work is better than comparable material they see in print. Just because a piece has been published doesn’t mean it’s good. It’s all subjective. Writers learn to depend on the likes and dislikes, and whims, of editors. Having your article or story rejected may have nothing to do with the subject or your writer’s skills.

Therefore, don’t take a rejection personally but look at the situation objectively. Is getting a piece in a particular publication all that important or will trying for another equally good publication suffice? As in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Does One Book a Writer Make?

Several nights ago I watched two very special T.V. shows on my local PBS channel. Both were part of the series “American Masters.” Both dealt with two very—and I emphasize very—famous writers, Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee.  The first I knew about, the second I hadn’t heard of before.

Just about everyone knows that Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind. But I bet there are a lot like me, especially older people, who didn’t know that Harper Lee wrote another famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird. In Mitchell’s case, I assumed she had written a shelf full of books and short stories. And in Lee’s case, I guess since she was a writer, she must have written other things. I was wrong on both counts.

Both writers each wrote one and only one book. Both books became runaway bestsellers. And not only that, Mitchell’s book has made more money than any other in U.S. history. So what happened to each of them? Why didn’t they produce more?

At the time both of them wrote their books, being a literary writer was the epitome of the art. Readers raised fiction authors up on pedestals a mile high for all to see. Non-fiction writers—notice the difference in terminology—they classified as “hacks.” Heaven for bid you made a living as a writer! To be deemed a success, you had to live in a one-room garret and struggle to make your rent.

Today, thanks to writers like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and John Updike, non-fiction writers have finally achieved their rightful place in the writers’ pantheon. But for Mitchell and Lee, the novel was king.

To understand why neither writer went on to write more, it’s important to look at what they wrote and how they wrote it.

Margaret Mitchell wanted to become a writer. In fact, she wanted to work for a living, something a woman of her social stature wasn’t supposed to do. She eventually got herself a job as a reporter with an Atlanta newspaper and was good at it. She enjoyed interviewing celebrities and working on gritty investigative journalism pieces. But in society’s eye, she wasn’t a writer. So she quit the paper and began writing a novel, a very long novel. The publisher of Lippincott Books of Philadelphia went to see her (Imagine that happening today?). But at first she told him she hadn’t written anything because she was embarrassed to show her manuscript to anyone. Eventually, she told him she had written a book but still refused to let him see it. Finally, she gave in because she figured a rejection from a top publisher would look good on her resume. He read part of the manuscript on the train on the way home. Although he loved the story, he said the manuscript was in very bad shape.

The important point about Mitchell was that she had quite a reputation as a person. The publisher came to see her and wanted to know if she had written anything. It’s like publishers today going after celebrities for books about them. What the publisher liked about Mitchell’s work was the story. So he signed her immediately and assigned an editor to work with her. After working for two years with the editor to get the book in shape, Mitchell finally had a book that was publishable.

A similar experience awaited Harper Lee. She had written several short stories but wasn’t getting anywhere. Then she wrote To Kill a Mocking Bird, her first and only book, and actually the last thing she wrote. After completing the manuscript, she sent it around to a dozen publishers, all of whom rejected it because of its edgy topic, civil rights, and relatively poor writing. As with Mitchell, the publisher that finally accepted it assigned an editor to work with Lee for the next several years, rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting again.

It just so happened that Lee lived next door to Truman Capote. They grew up together and became close friends. However, Capote knew he wanted to be a great writer and worked hard at it. He became jealous of Lee when her first and only book received the Pulitzer Prize—an award that Mitchell also received—and gradually left her in the dust.

And while both Mitchell’s and Lee’s books did a lot to change how people perceived slavery and civil rights, they didn’t do much to change writing, itself. Capote’s works, on the other hand, helped to change the world’s perception of non-fiction, raising it to an art form equal to fiction in today’s world.

So why didn’t either Mitchell or Lee write anything else. Mitchell said the only way to go was down, plus her book made her wealthy enough not to worry about writing another.  Lee, on the other hand, worked hard on her book but couldn’t repeat the process. Could both books have been “happy accidents” (A term used in the art world to indicate something done once successfully but not able to be repeated.)?