Friday, December 20, 2013

Share Your Gift

Christmas is a time for sharing and gift giving.  As a writer, you have a gift—a gift to share. And this is the time of year to do it.

Some people write letters to along with their holiday greeting cards. While these may be interesting to family and friends, they’re usually of little interest to acquaintances or business associates. As a freelance writer, you can use this opportunity to do something special.

If you write non-fiction, you can write a short article on a subject that interests you or that you specialize in. Remember it needs to be short—no more than one page single spaced. You’re probably used to writing much more, so writing something this short will be a challenge. But as a professional, you should be able to make this short piece as interesting and focused as a regular article for a magazine. The secret to be extremely focused. Take one small topic and elaborate on it. For instance, why not something on gingerbread. This could be as a piece focusing on a Christmas tradition, or a food decoration piece about making gingerbread houses, or something on the origins of gingerbread.

If you write fiction, you could write a very short story. Perhaps you’re used to writing short stories that are 10-20 pages long. You won’t have that luxury, so you’ll need to write a story that’s extremely short, but still has conflict and a climax. This will force you to have perhaps just one or two characters and action that takes place in a short span of time and at a single location. Let’s take the topic of gingerbread and see what sort of story you can write—perhaps a story about a gingerbread house that comes to life or a special gingerbread cookies or the story of a little girl who made special gingerbread cookies for a homeless person.

Whatever you write, your friends, family, and colleagues will appreciate it. But writing the story is only the beginning. Today, you have a number of ways of sharing your work with others.

With fewer people sending Christmas cards by regular, you may choose to send your story out by Email. Or perhaps you’ll choose to post it to your Web site. And with so many social media outlets available, you may want to post it as a note on your Facebook Page or perhaps post it on other social networking sites.

Whatever you decide to do, you’ll find it’s a great way to send greetings to those you love and also a great way to promote your work to those you’ve worked with throughout the year or those you hope to work with in the coming year.

Happy Holidays.

Friday, December 13, 2013

It's Hard to Let Go

Just as in any serious relationship when one of the partners becomes disinterested or turns their attention to someone else, it can be hard for the other one to let go. The same applies to writers who become seriously attached to their work. As a professional, you can’t let this happen.

You must learn to step back and look objectively at anything you write. Beginning writers get caught in the trap of thinking that everything they write is good when actually it’s all probably pretty bad. That’s a hard pill to swallow for any writer.

Repeated rejection will often try to point you in the right direction, but most beginning writers ignore that signal. Instead, they blame the editor or whoever gave them the last rejection. Some, perhaps you, repeatedly show their work to others hoping that someone will finally say what they want to hear.

It’s doubly hard to let go of writing if it’s good. Perhaps you put long hours into it. If that’s the case, you may be reluctant to delete it for content or continuity. It doesn’t matter how long you labored over a section. In the end, you have to ask yourself if it’s contributing to the overall storyline, or in the case of an article, to the slant. If it isn’t, then it needs to go.

So where does this idea of hanging on to some of your writing come from? Most likely from school. In fact, most of your bad writing habits developed there. This isn’t anyone’s fault. In fact, you probably absorbed this idea from your teachers. It’s a common thing in academic circles to be possessive of your work.

It’s especially hard to cut sections from books. When working on a longer manuscript, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. You need to keep the whole project in mind and be relentless in our deletions. Whatever doesn’t contribute to the whole concept must go.

To put a positive spin on this problem, you might consider saving what you’ve cut to use in
separate stories or articles. These could be spin-offs or completely different pieces.

When you begin revising, be sure to save your work with a different file name each step of the way. All you have to do is add a number—2,3,4, etc.—to the project’s file name. That way you can always go back and review or possibly use what you originally passed over.

A good way to get some distance from your writing when you’re having a particularly difficult time cutting sections from it is to put it aside for a time to get some perspective on it. Not consciously being aware of your story, article, or book, will let your mind forget it. When you finally do go back to it, you’ll see it with fresh eyes. And your eyes are the one that should see it, not someone else who can only give you their subjective opinion.

As a professional writer, you need to develop good editing skills, so you can decide what form your writing should take. It’s not the reader’s job. It’s yours.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Brand It!

Cattle ranchers burn a symbol in the hides of their cattle so everyone will know that they belong to their respective ranches. Corporations have logos for the same reason. And today, people buy products based on their recognized identity. So what does branding have to do with freelance writing? A lot.

Do you think brand management is just for BIG companies like McDonalds, NBC, or Target? Think again. Branding is important to ALL companies for the simple reason that people buy from other people. People have personalities. Branding establishes and communicates a company's personality—your personality, otherwise known as your image.

In business, branding is the process by which you try to become the first business a person thinks of when they consider buying goods or services in your category. It’s the process by which you attempt to differentiate your business from your competitors. Although your name and logo are important features of your brand, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Think about YOUR company. Yes, even if you’re a company of one. What personality or image do you want to present to customers and prospects? Should it be warm, friendly, and down-to-earth? Polished, knowledgeable, and sophisticated? Well-traveled, cultured, and educated? When someone hears your name, do they think of a certain type of writing?

Do your current promotional materials—brochure, Web site, Facebook Page, etc.—reflect the image you want to present? Is your personality presented consistently in all forms of communication? If not, here are some ways you can make this happen.

To begin, you need to consider four key steps in managing your brand once you’ve created it. The first is to position your brand among others by identifying your unique benefits and image. Next, you need to develop a plan for making your brand identifiable. Then you need to guard  the integrity of your brand so only you use it. And finally, you need to build awareness of and preference for your brand.

Managing a brand is an ongoing process, not a destination. The work is never done. From time to time, you’ll want to tweak your brand to make it easier to identify or to make it stand out from those of other writers.

The secret to good branding is you shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. If you’re trying to grow your business, it might seem logical to expand your offerings, but that’s unlikely to be successful in the long run. It’s often better to narrow your focus until you’ve created a new category you can be first in. Many writers work as generalists, so no one knows them for a specific type of writing or for a specific subject.

You also need to control how people perceive you and your brand. It’s important that people are able to describe you and your business accurately. They need to know exactly what you’re able to offer them.

So rather than having the "right" name, the best brands are those built from the ground up on customer service and community. There's only one problem. You can't force a brand into existence overnight. It takes time to develop a successful brand—months, even years. But once it’s established, a good brand will stay in the spotlight, perhaps even longer than the business, itself.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Dealing With Rejection

Most beginning writers think that rejection is a part of the writing process. They get rejected so often that they become dejected and some lose all hope of getting published. It doesn’t have to be that way.

One writer got rejected for six years before he suddenly had an article published. He didn’t really know how it happened. It just happened. That was his first mistake. It was another six years before he got published again.

So let’s take a look at why your work may be rejected.

You could use the wrong format (more on formatting in a later blog)—how the writing looks on the page. You could have written about a topic the publication doesn’t like or use. You could have sent your piece in at the wrong time if it’s something more appropriate for a particular season. You could have made lots of mechanical errors—spelling, punctuation, etc. The list can go on and on.

So you see that most of the fault in rejection begins with you. But most beginning writers put the blame on editors or others involved in the publishing process. So what are some ways of dealing with rejection?

Don't take it personally. If you’re a beginning writer, editors won’t know you. You haven’t proven yourself, so why should they take a chance on you. If you don’t cross all your “t’s” and dot all the “i’s,” then you're surely asking to be rejected. Your work has to be perfect and look professional, even if it doesn’t sound professional. A good piece of writing can be edited into a very good piece, but a bad piece usually isn’t salvageable.

Get a second opinion. If you think that your work should have been accepted, or if it’s been rejected by a few editors, perhaps you should seek a second opinion. Get someone you trust that’s also a writer to take a look at it and offer their opinion. You may find that your writing wasn’t that good after all.

Discover what you can do to regain your confidence after a series of "no's." For a new writer, rejection really hits hard. Perhaps you’ve received enough rejection slips to paper the walls of your bathroom. Then maybe you should do just that. A little whimsy never hurt anyone. But seriously, write something that’s short and good and send it to an easy market—one that publishes a lot of material. One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is sending their work to top markets when their skills are not yet up to speed. And many of those markets buy only a few pieces per month, so competition is fierce.

 Find a way to turn your rejection into acceptances or positive experiences. What you need is feedback, and that’s something most editors just don’t have time to give. Read rejection notices carefully to see if there’s even a hint of feedback in them. There are editors out there who want you to succeed. You need to know what they want and then you need to give it to them.

Be creative while waiting. Too many beginning writers send off a piece of their work and then sit back and wait for an answer. Begin work on another piece while you're waiting. As far as you're concerned, the fate of your first piece is out of your hands anyway. Also, don’t wait for months for a reply. If you haven’t received a reply in say two or three weeks—a month at most—drop the editor a note asking if he or she has had time to consider your piece. Don’t be afraid of editors. Remember, they’re busy people, but people just the same.

Above all, keep slugging away. Don’t give up. Eventually, something you’ve written will get published. But you have to guide it along the right path to get there.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Seeing the World and Writing About It

When you say you’re a travel writer, everyone thinks you live a glamorous life, jetting to exotic locations, working on your tan, staying in posh digs. Let’s face it, that may be okay for Ruddy Maxa, but for the rest of us, travel writing is hard work and probably the worst paying of all the writing genres.

Sure, you’re dying to get an article published about your last vacation. But travel writing isn’t about writing about the fun you had on your first cruise or the grand shopping experience you had in a foreign market. It’s writing about the life and culture in other countries—educating your readers so they can make the most of a trip there if they choose.

Let’s look at the wrong way to do it. A woman took her younger children with her to London. She had a rotten time with them. When she returned , she wrote about all the bad experiences she had with her kids. Instead, she should have planned her trip better and even if things went badly, she should have put a positive spin on her article by writing about what a visitor can do with children in London. She wrote this article for a Sunday newspaper travel section. Unfortunately, most newspaper travel editors rather publish pieces that find fault with a destination than show how to really enjoy it.

But writing travel articles for newspapers is different than those written for magazines. The latter’s purpose is to entertain. Take inflight magazines for instance. You won’t find a negative article in them, nor will you find an article about flying unless it’s about how to make the experience a good one—effective ways to deal with jet lag, for example.

To be a good travel writer, you have to be a good traveler, not a tourist. Going on vacation is one thing, but traveling to a place to write about it is quite another. As a tourist, though you may plan your trip in detail, you go, enjoy yourself, and come home to tell your friends about it. After that, your memories may linger, but eventually you move on to another place. Not so for a travel writer.

You’ll need to learn to travel for research.  You’ll need to research the place before your trip, do on-the-ground research while there, and more research after returning home. Only then will you be able to write well about it.

Also, a professional travel writer doesn’t do just one article from a trip. Instead, the true professional does lots of research so that he or she may write many articles for different publications, all about different facets of traveling to that destination. How many articles can you think of to write about London. If you said lots, you’re correct. The list is almost endless.

But travel writing doesn’t have to be about exotic places. You can write great pieces about destinations closer to home, within driving distance, for instance. You can also take less expensive forms of transportation like trains.

So if you’re serious about travel writing, start writing about places you know well already. Whether they’re destinations close to home or on the other side of the globe, make it your business to learn everything you can about them, then write articles that will make anyone want to go there.

Monday, November 11, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book

Is your goal as a writer to write a book and get it published? Do you think that doing so will instantly propel you to success? Does writing a book say “Look at me. I’m a writer?” If you answered yes to all three questions, then you better consider doing something else besides writing.

Writing isn’t a game. It isn’t a way to gain popularity. What is it is a form of communication. If you can write well, you can communicate well. And communicating well is the secret to success as an author—a person who writes books.

Writing wannabees see those celebrity writers who make the news or the New York Times Bestseller List and want to be just like them. They dream of writing a hit best seller and having instant success. That happens very rarely and when it does it’s a combination of lots of luck and perhaps a good book.

For all the good books published each year, there are over 10 times as many bad ones. Just because a book gets published doesn’t mean that it’s going to be bought, and more importantly, read.

And to get readers to read your book, you need to have a solid marketable idea. Just having something to say isn’t enough. You have to make sure there are people out there that want to read what you write. So before you do anything else, you have to do some market research to find out if there are other books on the shelves like the one you plan to write. If there are, how many are there? If not, why aren’t there any? If the market is already flooded with similar books, the chances of your book even getting published are slim. If there’s no interest in your subject, that may also ring the death knell to your book idea.

But getting a good marketable idea is only the beginning. Do you have the advanced writing skills to write a book? Also, do you have the organizational skills to put one together. If you plan one of those “write-a-book-in-a-month” marathons, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Sure you can write it and publish is as an ebook, but will it be good enough to bring in more than a few dollars?

Writing a book is a major project. Perhaps that’s why so many writers start one and never finish it. It takes a chunk out of your life. It’s all consuming. You’ll be thinking about when you’re bathing, when you’re driving, when you’re sleeping. It will overwhelm you at times.

Instead of starting out by writing a book, try something more manageable, like an article or a short story. Publish a few of them and then, and only then, should you consider writing a book. You’ll make more money writing shorter pieces anyway. For the amount of time it takes to write a book, it’s a poor investment unless Oprah Winfrey features your book on her show or you just happen to get on the New York Times Bestseller List. You most likely have a better chance at riches by winning the lottery.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Breaking the Bubble

Have you dreamed of quitting your 9-5 job and becoming a freelance writer? Sure, you have—and so have a lot of others, but only a few ever act on it. Have you ever wondered why?

Linda Formichelli, author of Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race, recently posted a blog for Writer’s Digest in which she extolls the virtues of quitting your day job to take up writing as a career. And while she touches briefly on a few of the negative points, she mostly presents a rosy picture of this transition. And why shouldn’t she? After all, she’s promoting her book, published by Writer’s Digest Books, on this very subject.

But there are a lot of pins, needles, and knives out there that will try to break your dream bubble before you even get started.

To break into freelance writing, you have two choices—literally jump right in by quitting your day job one day and beginning your writing career the next (definitely NOT recommended), or you can plan ahead for a smoother transition.

There’s more to making dreams come true than just wishing them so. Formichelli mentions feeding your family several times in her blog. But she doesn’t clarify what that means. First, how many people are in your family? Feeding them is only the tip of the iceberg. What about clothing, and medical and dental care?

Let’s face it, you have a better chance of succeeding in freelancing if you’re single. No, you shouldn’t divorce your spouse. But buying for one, you’ll eat less food, use less fuel in both your car and home, and need fewer clothes. Unfortunately, you’ll have to pay for your own healthcare now that you’re not working for someone else.

You may counter this by saying that if you’re married, you can add in your spouse’s income. That’s fine if you’re both working 9-5 jobs with a definite income, but as a freelancer, you income will be spotty, especially for the first few years. Will your spouse be willing to provide all the income for your family?

Few people are truly passionate about their jobs. Those who are find real satisfaction in working every day. If you’re planning to write full-time, you better well be passionate about writing. Otherwise, it will end up as just another job—albeit a job with LOTS of headaches.

Can you visualize your life in 25 years? Will you still be as passionate about writing then as you are now? There will be ups and downs. Writers experience burnout just like everyone else. Are you going to be able to deal with it? While your current boss may be demanding some or all of the time, he or she is the one ultimately responsible for keeping their business afloat. When you work for yourself, you shoulder all the responsibility.

But shouldering all the responsibility isn’t all bad. As a freelancer, you’ll have to power to control what you do. You’ll be able to choose your markets. However, there may be times when all your markets collapse at the same time. You lose all your income overnight. While you may think of giving up, what about feeding your family? If you have others that are dependent on you, you may have to think twice about giving it all up and returning to the rat race.

And while your income as a freelancer can be unlimited, the reality is that a writer can only work so many hours in a day or week. You can’t work 24 hours a day, no matter how much money you think you can make. Only a few freelancers ever see the big bucks. Luck has a lot to do with it. Most earn less than they ever could working for someone else, expect possibly working for a fast food chain on minimum wage. There will be times when you’ll be earning less than minimum wage. And don't forget the benefits like paid healthcare and contribution to a retirement account.

So while freelance writing may seem glamorous from the outside, once you’re on the inside, it’s a whole different story. Think carefully before you take the leap.

Friday, October 4, 2013

It All Begins With a Title

Do you have trouble coming up with good titles for your articles, short stories, and books? Don’t worry, it’s a common problem. For many writers, professional and otherwise, creating a good title is often a challenge. Perhaps it’s the thought that the title is the first thing a reader sees and in many cases determines if he or she decides to read on.

Some writers feel that a title has to be gimmicky to catch the reader’s attention. In fact, it’s just the opposite. A simple straight-forward title is your best bet.

To begin, it helps to remember the functions of a title.  A good title accomplishes several things.
First, it predicts content. The title of your piece should give the reader a clue to what it’s about—look at some of the titles of previous posts of this blog. Second, it catches the reader's interest. If a title is interesting in its own right, it will catch the reader’s eye. Third, it reflects the tone or slant of the piece of writing. While this may not be as important in fiction, it definitely applies to non-fiction. Fourth, it contains keywords that will make it easy to access by a computer search. You probably haven’t given much thought to this last item, but it’s increasingly important to make it easier to find your work online.

Creating a good title is process all its own. Don’t wait until you’ve finished your piece to title it. Start by thinking up a good working title. This could be taken from a simple sentence, often called a topic statement, describing what your article or story is about. You may also phrase it as a question beginning with what, who, when, where, how or why—“How Often Should You Get Your Oil Changed?” And keep it as short as possible.

Pick out of your article or story a concrete image, something the reader can hear, see, taste, smell, or feel. Or try to come up with a one-word title.

Another way to come up with a good title is to think of a familiar saying, or the title of a book, song, or movie and adjust it to fit your needs—“Gone With the Weight.”

Newspapers like the New York Post constantly use puns as titles----“Astrology—Hit or Myth?” You can even use an alliteration, such as “Beautiful Bermuda.”

Use arresting superlatives to establish that your subject is unique. Both editors and readers find them hard to resist—“Meet the Person With the Highest IQ” or “The World’s Most Successful Business.” Another possibility is to use numbers—“Ten Best Foods to Eat.” Supermarket tabloids depend on titles like these to sell their magazines.

Try using captions and the active voice, such as “Listen! Mark Twain Speaking.”

All of the above suggestions work. Brainstorm some titles just for practice. Once you get in the habit of creating good titles—and the more you write—the faster you’ll be able to come up with them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

CAUTION! Hazards Ahead

As you proceed in your freelance writing career, you’ll come upon many hazards. Some of these are writing related, some market related, and others personal. Some of the main ones include the predators looking to use published writers for their own gains, the lure of cheap commercialism, the perils of success, and loneliness and fatigue, both mental and physical.

Other hazards come and go, such as market fluctuations, natural disasters, and legislation. As a working writer, you’ll have to get used to living with them all and continue to write.

One of the most frequent hazards concern pay. A market to which you frequently contribute falls on hard times and before you know it, the publication falls behind in payments to you. They still want material and promise to pay you as soon as things get better. While this may sound good, it’s really the death rattle of a publication trying to stay afloat.

And then you’ll run across someone who loves your work but can’t pay you. You’re not in business to give your products away, but, on the other hand, will this freebie possibly lead to some paying work? It’s a chance you may have to take. To turn this around, you may want to search out some Web sites that need content that you can provide. While they most likely won’t pay anything, they could lead to other work because of the promotion you’ll get from them. In this case, you’re in control.

Another hazard you’ll face from time to time is a lack of ideas. Try to stay ahead of this one by stockpiling ideas as you get them. Write them down or use an app for your smartphone to record them. You never know when they may come in handy. Chances are you won’t use many of them, but it never hurts to have an inventory of good ideas.

Markets come and go. You can never tell if a particular market for which you’re writing will be in business in a year or two. Editors change. That’s a biggie. An editor with whom you have had a good working relationship decides to move on. On the plus side, he or she may take you with them to the new and perhaps better publication. But on the downside, the new editor probably will want to work with his or her own stable of writers. There’s no “forever” in this business.

Another thing that can work against you is the economy itself. Upturns and downturns are commonplace today. The most recent recession is an example. While it may not have affected all the writing markets, it will have hit some—and hard. One of the hazards that occurred here was the massive layoffs of newspaper reporters and editors. Since the newspaper business is in the throes of change, they couldn’t find jobs there, so where did they turn? You guessed it—freelance writing.  Those who you may have worked for have now become your competition.

What happened in New York City in 2001 shows what can happen to a particular market. After 911, travel markets went into a state of turmoil. People were afraid to travel. Advertisers couldn’t pay for their ads so they stopped advertising. Many publications went under. That happened a dozen years ago, yet the travel publication market hasn’t fully recovered.

Writing is hard work. And after a while, it can get to you. Too many deadlines can be extremely stressful. And stress can then cause problems with your overall health. It’s important to eat right and exercise. Sure, I know you’ve heard that before, but this time it’s imperative that you live a healthy lifestyle. Remember, if you get sick or perhaps seriously ill, you don’t have workman’s compensation to help you. You most likely don’t have any backup at all. And that the biggest hazard of all.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Plotting Along

In a video interview on YouTube, Stephen King recently told a group of students, “Forget plotting. That takes all the fun out of writing.” That may be easy for him to say. As a famous writer of over 35 books and numerous short stories, plotting is second nature. But to most beginning writers, plotting fiction and blocking non-fiction is a fact of life. A necessary evil that they need to master.

The more you write, the easier it becomes. Just as any other professional, writers develop skills that become part of the routine. While Stephen King may think he’s just winging it, he’s actually plotting out his stories in his mind. He doesn’t need to plan them on paper, but you do.

Whether you’re writing articles or short stories, non-fiction books or novels, you need to know where you’re going—you need to know how it will generally will end—so that you can finally get there. Too many beginning writers start a book and only get a third to half way through before they call it quits. The article, short story, book, or novel won’t guide you. Only you can do that.

The reason most beginning writers shy away from blocking or plotting is that they associate these with outlining—that dreaded chore they had to do in school for their term papers and such. Neither is outlining.

Let’s take blocking, for instance. Blocking out an article is easy. You start by putting the word “beginning” at the top of the page and the word “ending” at the bottom of the page. In between you list what comes in the middle in whatever order you choose. This is simplifying this a bit, but, nevertheless, it’s as simple as that. You don’t have to write each step out in sentences, just make notes to yourself as to what it will contain. You may also may want to make a note as to how you plan to start your piece and how you’ll end it since endings usually wrap up where you began. You can do all of this on a napkin if you want. This isn’t a formal outline, but a flexible plan that may change as you write. But it’s a plan all the same.

Plotting a short story is similar. There are some basic plots for all short stories. So after you choose which basic plot you’ll be following, you need to write a synopsis of your story. Pretend a friend asked you what your story is going to be about, then just tell him or her, but do it on paper and limit it to one page. This will help you plot out your story. Again it’s a flexible plan. It can change as you go, but by doing this, you’ll have an idea how the story will end. So you write forwards towards that ending.

Writing isn’t easy. Anyone who tells you that or gives you that impression is only telling you what you want to hear. Writing is work—hard work. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Once you start blocking or plotting, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. Yes, writing can be fun, but if you’re stressed out trying to write something, there’s no way it can be.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

So You Want to Write a Column

A regular option open to you as a freelance writer is to write a column. Though it sounds simple enough a column requires discipline, creativity, and most of all ideas—lots of them.

For many, writing one article is hard enough , but imagine having to come up with 52 of them—one each week—or at least 12 if you’re doing one monthly.

As you read this blog, you may ask yourself, “Isn’t this like a column?” Sort of, but not exactly.  A column is generally a short article on a theme that gets published regularly—weekly or monthly as a regular feature of a newspaper or magazine. A blog, on the other hand, may be posted regularly, but usually that’s up to the blogger. And while a blog may follow a general theme, it may stick to it loosely for a short time. A column, on the other hand, may go on for years.  The most important distinction is that a writer does the former for free and the latter for pay.

Over the years, the market for columns has changed dramatically. But one thing hasn’t: Publishers are still looking for new columnists. Generally, a column offers an insider’s view of a subject, of which the writer is an expert. It’s also a regular feature of a publication, either in print or online, and is personality-driven by the writer. It also contains an opinion or a point of view

A blog, on the other hand, provides for an interactive discussion with its readers. The blog writer  posts the blog, which the site displays in reverse chronological order—the most recent post appears first). Blogs can be the work of a single person or several persons, and often cover a single subject. And while a blog can be written by anyone, columnists are usually professional writers.

To be a successful columnist, you need to find a specific niche, but not so specific as to narrow your potential audience and topics of your column. You’ll have to find out whether other columnists are writing on the same subject and study their work to see how it differs from yours.

After you’ve done that , you’ll need to outline some topic ideas and write several sample columns to show to editors. It’s important to stay ahead of the game. You should continually update and add to your topic list so that you’re never at a want for ideas.

Because columns are short and published regularly, they don’t usually pay as much as even shorter regular articles. An advantage to writing a column is that you can publish it in several noncompeting market at the same time, thus increasing the amount you earn per column. 

In order to have a successful column, you need to come up with a unique angle or approach. You may wish to take the outspoken approach. Perhaps you’ll deal with controversial topics within you column’s subject area. If you feel knowledgeable about a subject, then a column may be just for you. You’ll need a substantial amount of knowledge and understanding about a subject to come up with topics week after week or month after month.

Next Week:  More on writing columns.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Smart To-Do Lists Get Things Done

To-do lists are great if they work. But just making a to-do list isn’t enough. You eventually have to act on it. Usually, these lists become a black hole into which everything you need to get done for your business, home, and life disappears. The result is that you end up doing nothing. But you do have that list. Isn’t that enough?

Creating a big long list starts to feel productive. It’s almost as if you’re actually getting started on a few of these items simply by acknowledging your need to do them. And finally, the act of writing a list can be so satisfying you don’t feel an immediate need to get started on the first item.

You’ve got a smart phone and a smart computer. Now it’s time to create a smart to-do list.

Keep it short. Can you accomplish two important tasks each day? A long to-do list of more than two pages can be intimidating. It’s actually better to have make several shorter lists. At first, you may think that all the items on your list have equal value, but that’s usually not the case. Limit your list to 10 items each week.

Prioritize the things you have to do. Put the important ones on your main list and the others on a secondary list. Often the items on this second list have no immediate deadline, so you can check them off as you have time to do them. If one or more of them becomes important, you can always add it to your main list.

Focus on what’s important first. Differentiate between productive tasks and satisfying time wasters.

When creating your list, use action words. Also, create a short command sentence for each item, not just a word or a phrase. For instance, “Research and write my writing blog for this week.”

Just as in your writing, you need to be as specific as possible when creating your to-do list. The more specific you can be, the better. Instead of “marketing,” write: “Identify five new markets for my articles and send queries to their editors.” The more specific you are, the more actionable your list will become. Once you know what you want to accomplish, it’s easy to make a to-do list of steps to get it done.

Use technology to create your list. You may prefer writing your list on a piece of paper. But with all the devices and special software programs at your disposal, you may want to consider trying something different. Take Evernote, for example. This neat application allows you to create notes, and, yes, a to-do list on any of several devices—desktop computer, laptop computer, cell phone, tablet—and then access them on all of the devices at any time.

Another great feature of Evernote is Evernote Web Clipper. With this application, you can save articles, links, and even full Web pages to read later. It’s better than a bookmark because you can only bookmark sites in a particular browser on an individual device. But with Evernote, your bookmarks or articles travel with you so that you can access them at any time.

The same applies to your to-do list. If you write your list on a piece of paper, you have to go into your office to read it and act on what’s listed. But with your list traveling with you, you can access it at any time and complete tasks using different devices, thus increasing productivity.

Of course, you can do much of what Evernote does on Google Calendar or on Yahoo. But saving notes, to-do lists, photos, Web pages, music, and more allows you to become more productive by making the best use of the time you have.

As you head into a freelance career, remember a large part of your success will depend on your ability to work through an ever-growing list of things to do. Creating a smart to-do list will help you prioritize what you have to do, so you get things done.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Tapping Into a World of Ideas

Ideas are around you all the time. As a busy freelancer, you’ll discover that as you get on a regular schedule of researching and querying markets, you’ll uncover an abundance of ideas and places to offer them. Your problem, however, is to keep your workable ideas in perspective and to discard or file for later use those that aren't ripe yet.

So where do you get your ideas? There’s a whole world out there just filled with ideas. All you have to do is tap into them. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many writers find it hard to come up with good ideas. Would-be freelancers often find it difficult to recognize the right idea or angle.

Look first at what constitutes a good idea—a subject and a specific angle on that subject. The same applies to fiction as well as non-fiction. Fiction writers come up with a premise on which to build a story while non-fiction writers come up with an angle, based on who will be reading an article. Knowing who the reader will be in an important part of non-fiction writing. And while it’s also important when writing fiction, a fiction writer doesn’t have to be as targeted.

Take the subject of retirement, for instance. A non-fiction writer might think of a number of possible article ideas that will be of interest to retirees. However, knowing which group of retirees will be reading the article will further help to focus or slant it to them. Will the article be aimed at those who want to travel or will it be aimed at starting a new business? A fiction writer, on the other hand, might write a story about how a particular person dealt with being "put out to pasture" or the idea of not being useful to anyone anymore.

Also, an article idea will sell more quickly if it’s important and timely. A good idea should take into consideration basic human drives—sexual gratification, maternal love, self-preservation, greed, acquisitiveness, ambition, etc. These selling ideas, which are of vital interest to readers, should also offer something extra—new details on an old story or added insight into an age-old problem.

Since ideas are everywhere, you should be looking for them wherever you go—at the supermarket, at professional meetings, at the bank, at the doctor’s or dentist’s office. There’s an idea hidden in everything you do—cashing your checks, doing laundromat, cooking dinner, or traveling to a relative's.

But observing isn't enough. Once an idea has clicked in your mind, jot a note to yourself so that you're clearly reminded of it when you need it (See the previous blog on creating an idea book from Dec. 11, 2009).  Otherwise the clever notion will disappear with yesterday's online news or in the heat of today's frantic schedule. And as soon as possible, draft a query about your idea and the angle you'd follow—a couple of brief but very specific paragraphs will suffice at this point—and list at least six possible markets for the story. If you’re writing a short story, create a synopsis of several paragraphs telling yourself what the story will be about. Then list 10 possible markets.

With this plan, you have already conquered the vagueness that surrounds most beginners' writing wishes, and have committed yourself to a professionally conceived follow-through.

Remember, there are two kinds of writers—the first writes whatever comes out of their head without much thought or planning (the “I-have-a-book-in-me crowd”) while the second comes up with lots of ideas that will keep them writing for a long time to come.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ready, Set, Go...

No, you’re not in a race. But it may seem like one if you’re a travel writer. What you’re actually doing is racing to find the most information in the least amount of time to use in as many articles as you can. Sounds like a tall order.  It doesn’t have to be if you’re organized.

Before you can get a go-ahead from one or more editors, you first have to research your subject, not your destination. Travel writing may seem like it’s about writing about places, but it’s really about writing about what’s at those places, and what the reader can do there. It’s really not about writing about your travel experience, but what the reader needs to know to enjoy a similar experience.

So before you begin, you have to know who your reader will be—young, old, married with a family, adventurer, or budget-conscious. Knowing who your reader will be will go a long way to helping you figure out what sort of information to collect. If you have multiple readers from different demographics, that means that the information you collect must be multifaceted. And to make the most profit from your work, you need to produce as much as you can from your research on a subject.

Before you approach editors, you’ll need to know what’s been done before on your subject. So instead of researching the subject, itself, you’ll need to research periodicals to find out how much has been done and when. If little or nothing has been done, then you might as well forget it. That often means readers aren’t interested. If a lot has been done, then, again, you might as well forget it, unless you have a very unique angle. Once you know what sort of market you have to work with, you’ll be able to query editors with your ideas.

In preparation for querying editors, brainstorm your subject. Try to think of as many different articles for the readers you’ve targeted as you can. Ask yourself questions. And based on what you discovered in your market research, come up with a dozen or more article ideas based on a general subject or destination.

It’s now time to do some preliminary subject research. For this, you’ll need to check a variety of sources–books, previous articles, the Internet. Get to know a bit about your subject so you can compose some intelligent queries. Then send them off to the publications you’ve chosen.

Once you hear back from editors, the fun begins. Now that you know what you’re going to be writing about, it’s time to start researching in earnest. Researching for the articles themselves requires that you go beyond books and the Internet. For travel writing, research requires that you travel to a place and talk to people and do things that your traveling readers would want to do—traveling there, staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, seeing the sights, enjoying entertainment. While you may not include all the information you obtain from your trip in your articles, you, nevertheless, have to make a note of it. You never know when you might want to use it in the future.

Before you go, you need to know as much about your destination as possible. And while you can read travel books on your destination, you may find other books, including novels set in the place, will give you a feel for it. The more you know before you go, the better you’ll be able to find unique information while there. You can even access your destination on Google Maps Street View and actually see the place where you’re going. Though you can only view it from the street or road, you’ll get an idea of what to expect when you get there.

You’ll also need to set up appointments with tourism people, curators of museums, and interesting persons related to your subject. Contact the local tourism department and ask for recommendations and possible help setting up appointments and interviews. They may be able to set up special tours or get you in to places that may be closed to the public temporarily. Remember, while it may be interesting to readers to write about special places or things to do, if they can’t do it when they travel there, it’s really no use to them.  Part of the downfall of many PBS travel shows—Globetrekker is a good example—is that they show too many things that readers just cannot do or places they can’t get into. Rick Steves’ series, on the other hand, is an excellent example of keeping viewers (or readers) in mind.

Now that you’ve done all your preliminary research, made your reservations, and purchased your tickets, it’s time to go. Once you arrive, you’ve got to be “on” every waking minute. You never know when the information you need will pop up unexpectedly.

Still think you want to dabble in travel writing?

P.S. And after you get home, you’ll want to collapse, but you can’t because you have to compile all your notes and such and get writing those articles. Soon it will be time to do it all over again. Not quite like a vacation, is it?

Friday, August 9, 2013

On the Road Again

Have you dreamed of traveling around the world then writing about your travels and getting paid for it? A lot of beginning writers and lots of other people have done just that. There’s something glamorous about travel writing. You’ll definitely impress your friends when you tell them you’re off to another far-off land. For them, travel comes maybe once or twice a year during vacation time. But to travel whenever it beckons you is to them a dream come true. But is it that easy?

True there’s a touch of glamor surrounding world-journeys-for-pay. Getting started in it isn't all that difficult if you hustle enough, but since 9/11 things have changed, not only because of what happened on that fateful day, but also because the publishing markets have changed.

Fifteen to twenty years ago, most readers got their information about other places from reading articles in magazines and travel guides. Since then the market has drastically shifted to include videos, podcasts, and hundreds if not thousands of Web sites with information on where to go and what to do. So the market for travel articles isn’t what it used to be.

Secondly, for the most part, you’ll make more if you work for minimum wage at McDonald’s than if you traveled the world and wrote travel articles. Have you seen what it costs to travel today? Compare those travel costs with what editors normally pay for travel pieces. No, I don’t mean the ones in Travel and Leisure and National Geographic Traveler. I’m talking about the majority of travel markets. The pay is pitiful for the amount of time and energy involved.

But still many writers try to break into this field. That’s because it seems to easy to everyone. Retired doctors who have the bucks to travel think they can dabble in travel writing. Retired teachers, who have the time and some bucks want to do the same. But how would they feel if you, the writer, wanted to dabble in medicine or teaching. You might be able to do the latter, but certainly not the former. To say the field is overcrowded is an understatement.

If you want to succeed in travel writing—and not just dabble in it—you have to work hard and be extremely organized. Remember, every moment you spend traveling is time spent, time for which you need to get paid.

Today, you pretty much have to have the means to travel to do travel writing full-time—or a spouse who will pay the bills while you travel and write about it. It used to be that airlines, hotels, and the like gave writers discounts or free transportation or accommodation. That isn’t so true anymore. Many hotels still give discounts and free rooms, but you have to get there, and the cost of doing that could hit you out of the ballpark. It doesn’t make sense to spend a $1,000 on a trip, only to make $200 on the article that results from it. So that means you’ll need to write and publish five $200 articles from that same trip to make up for the cost. And in reality, you probably won’t get paid $200 for each article, but less, which means you’ll have to publish a whole bunch of articles to make that trip pay for itself—and that doesn’t include any profit.

If you’re serious about travel writing, there are some things to do before you start packing. Discuss your travel plans with several editors—in person, by phone, or by email—regarding  places you'll be visiting, people you'd consider interviewing, and so forth. Often one or more of them will give you a noncommittal letter of introduction from them. This letter doesn't actually commit them to publishing any of your writing, but it helps open some doors, especially in foreign countries. At the least it should help establish that you are a working writer looking for good material. If you cannot get such a letter—and as a beginner that’s nearly impossible—then  take with you some backup material such as copies of your articles to present when strangers ask who you are and why you're asking all those questions.

Once you get established as a travel writer, you may, with luck, get a letter of assignment from an editor. This is the only way you’ll get any help with costs from hotels and such. Editors won’t hesitate to give one of their regular writers one of these, but they usually don’t give them to writers they don’t know.  Letters of assignment can get you out of tight situations when traveling, but more so they can get you into many museums and private libraries for your research and perhaps get you private tours with curators.

NEXT WEEK: More on travel writing.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Keeping the Wolf at Bay

Don’t kid yourself. Freelance writing is a tough business. If it’s not one thing going wrong, then it’s another. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep ahead. And keeping the wolf—no, your creditors, but depression—at bay can be daunting.

Writing is a solitary business. You can’t write with other people, but it’s those other people who can help you when times are hard or things start going downhill. So the first thing you need to do besides get your writing skills in order is find some friends. Actually, you really only need one good one, but a few occasional friends will do just as well. These may be people you used to work with, neighbors, people you’ve met online, perhaps even family members. But all of them should have one thing in common—their general interest in your writing and your welfare.

An interest in your writing doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to read everything you write. Perhaps when they call you or meet you from time to time, they might ask how things are going or what projects you’re currently working on. Discussing what you’re writing with them may even give you some new ideas.

Among your friends, you should be on the lookout for someone who is especially creative. They don’t have to be a writer, but a person who thinks creatively. Not only will this give the two of you something in common, they may be able to help you out with a difficult creative problem once in a while. And having someone creative around will keep your mind sharp.

One of the things that can drag you down is difficulty in finding work. Let’s face it, this can get anybody down. Just ask anyone who lost their job during the recent recession. But you have an advantage. As a freelance writer, you have many avenues open to you. Don’t be so narrow-minded as to think that you should only write books because that’s where the notoriety is. Become a well-rounded writer. Remember, if you can write, you can just about write anything—if you know the format.

Another depression-prone problem, related to that above, is being able to pay your bills. Make it a point to cut your costs and keep them in line so you don’t spend more than you make. And if tough times do happen, ask for help. You may at least have to find a part-time job to get you out of your financial mess.

A good depression-fighting tool is exercise. Sitting at your computer all day not only keeps your body from being in good shape, but also your mind. You don’t have to join a gym—another cost added to your already strained budget. You can go for a walk or a jog. You can life weights. You can do things around your home—cleaning, repairing, etc.

Related to exercise is good health. Get in the habit of taking a daily vitamin and perhaps Vitamin C. Eat healthy foods whenever possible—not the trendy kind, the real kind. You don’t have to shop at a health-food store to eat healthy. And you don’t have to follow any of the trendy diets out there. Just eat a balanced diet. And watch your sugar intake. For some people, the amount of sugar they ingest is directly related to their mood. While they feel good after they eat it, their mood tumbles soon afterwards.

Reward yourself for good behavior. Take a day off, or at least an afternoon, once in a while. Go somewhere and have a cup of coffee. Bring a book along to read. Relax.

Keeping all of the above in mind will not only help your mood but will aid in your writing. And isn’t that really your goal—to write the best you can and make the most of every situation.

Friday, July 26, 2013

All Neatly Wrapped Up

I’m sure you’ve seen the piles of books on the discount tables in bookshops. Perhaps you’ve bought a few dozen copies over the last few years.

Some of these, while they have an author or several listed, just don’t seem like the kind of books a writer might come up with. You know the kind—diet books, coffee table books, health books, travel guides. Well, you’re right. They aren’t.

These types of books most likely resulted from a book package assembled by what’s known as a “book packager.” All are non-fiction and many are part of a series.

So what is a book packager? Instead of a writer coming up with an idea, a third party either creates the idea for a book or gets it from a publisher looking to produce a book on a particular subject to compete with other houses publishing books on the same subject. For instance, ever publisher of travel books wants to have at least one on Mexico, even if duplicates what the competition has on the shelves.

The book packager acts much like a film producer, thinking up the idea, hiring a writer or writers, finding a publisher, and often hiring illustrators, photographers, indexers, cover designers, and the like. In other words, the packager produces the whole package.

Publishers like to work with packagers because the latter does most of the work of producing a book. The publisher also gets exactly what he or she wants and doesn’t have to waste time shopping around.

Sometimes, publishers act as their own packagers, then shop the book package around to agents who find a writer or writers.

So what’s the advantage of working with a book packager? For one thing, you don’t have to go through the agonizing frustration of trying to sell a book idea to a publisher. The idea has already been sold and approved. All you need to do is agree to write it.

But there is a catch. In order to work with book packagers, you have to have been published already—usually a book or two, plus lots of articles—and on in a particular subject area.

Book packagers are business people who look for writers who specialize in a particular subject area. They want a writer who knows a subject well enough and has enough contacts to get right into the project and not have to learn all the basics. They also want a writer who knows how to write a book—someone who has been through the process before. Deadlines for book package projects are notoriously tight—sometimes as little as 10 weeks. There’s no diddling here. Newbies need not apply.

Payment is often work for hire. In other words, you get paid a specified amount for the entire project, paid in three or four installments. This often works out better than if you sent in a book idea, got it approved, and got paid royalties. Most writers never see any additional money beyond their advance. All you have to do is write the book and do a final edit on the galleys. It’s up to the publisher and/or packager to promote the book. Often the publisher doesn’t care how many copies sell as long as he or she maintains a presence on the book store shelf alongside the competition.

If you think you might be interested in giving this a try, you’ll have to make yourself known. That means promoting yourself and your work through whatever means possible. The more well know you are in a particular subject field, the more likely book packagers will come to you.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

10 Points For Achieving Professional Status

It takes more than good writing to be successful at freelancing. While writing is important to produce your product, you’ll have to be professional in conducting your business. And neither does getting paid for your work make you a professional. That status comes by following these 10 important points:

        1. Be polite. Relax with some small talk first. Get to know your editors and other clients. Doing so will help you to develop solid professional relationships.

        2. Be confident. Learn the fine line between cockiness and confidence and observe it at all times. Have confidence in your work. Know that it’s the best you can do.

        3. Be competent. Show samples of your best work. Deliver on time or earlier.

        4. Be realistic. Don't overbook assignments when you find you're starting to get them regularly. Plan ahead what you can and cannot take on. Know how much work you can accomplish in a specified time. And if you run into problems, let your editor know as soon as possible.

        5. Be truthful. If it's not your type of work, admit it. If you already have too much to do, tell the client. Don’t pretend you can do a certain type of work if you have no experience.

        6. Be available. Help the client out of a crisis if you can. Be flexible. Helping an editor or a client out of a jam may help you later on.

        7. Be cheerful and optimistic. Life is traumatic and publishing is a business fraught with problems. Your attitude can be a helpful tool everyone will appreciate. Maintain a positive attitude.

        8. Be aggressive. There are many competitors out there. You'll be forgotten if you don't remind clients now and then that you're still in business. Know where you stand with your competition.

        9. Be a hard worker. All the above attributes won't help you if you aren't willing to work incredibly hard without constant reminders.

    10. Be patient. No one starts at the top. Slow and persistent wins the race.

Friday, July 12, 2013

What Makes a Self-publisher Run?

As traditional book publishing routes become more complex and harder to crack, more and more writers are turning to self-publishing—and not just those who can’t seem to get their work accepted by established publishing houses. But before you take the plunge into the world of self-publishing, you’ve got to strongly believe in your own work. Of course, patience, perseverance, organizational and writing skills will also contribute to your success. If you’re not a good writer, you won’t have any more chance of success in self-publishing than in sending your work to traditional publishers.

Not so long ago, "self-publishing" meant "vanity publishing." There were companies out there who prayed on novice writers, gladly taking thousands of their dollars to print their books with no guarantee of success.

A great example was the person who had been misaligned in some way. The following scenario was all too typical: A widow, whose husband had died at the hand of surgeons, is out to tell the world about the incompetencies of the medical profession. She decides to write a book and spends as much as $8,000 to have it “published.” In this case, published means printed. She’s a terrible writer and seeks revenge for her husband’s death more than anything else. In the end, she ends up with 5,000 copies of a book no one wants to read.

On the other hand, there’s the story of a young food writer who desires to write a book on Moroccan cooking. She does so, has it printed in Morocco—it was cheaper there—then ends up with 3.000 copies stacked in her bedroom. Instead of sitting on those books, she began to peddle them to gourmet food stores in high-end retailers like Nieman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s. Her book is a success and five additional books later, she’s a success. But only because she was not only a good writer but a savvy businesswoman.

Vanity publishers ran ads in magazines for writers—the ones only beginning writers read. The chances of your book, so printed, reaching much of an audience at all are slim. In most cases it will end up collecting dust in your attic—if you still have one after putting up the cash to have it published.

Today, the advent of ebooks and POD (Publishing on Demand) books makes it possible for you to self-publish your work without shelling out thousands of dollars. And the market is constantly growing. These days more books than ever are being self-published—fiction, nonfiction. poetry, art, design, crafts, guides, etc. While some are amateurish in their production, others look professional—as good as any commercially published book. They, like any book brought out by a large publishing concern with a list of hundreds, can bomb, or they can break the bank. As a self-publisher, you’re the publisher, as well as the designer, salesman, distributor, and publicity agent of your book. Fortunately, you’ll also collect all the proceeds from its sales.

How do you start out if you're going to make a profit? First, plunging into self-publishing without ever having published anything is as bad as writing a book and sending the manuscript around to endless publishers. Many beginning writers have the mistaken belief that they should start out by writing a book—the hardest type of project they could tackle. They have no idea what they’re doing and thus, end up with a poor product. But self-publishing after you’ve had quite a bit of work published, especially books, makes sense.

A mystery writer, who already has four published books under her belt, decided to convert some short stories of hers into shorter books and publish them on Kindle. While she’s not making tons of money, her book sales have been steady. And that’s because she already had a following. Her readers wanted more and she gave it to them. Now she’s experimenting with a POD book—a republishing in paperback form of one of her ebooks—for readers who don’t use Kindle. In the end, she’ll be successful because she’s plotted out her book market as well as she plotted out her mysteries.

What you need to start in self-publishing is a sound, well-researched idea for a book that appeals to a wide audience. After you write it, you need to get it professionally edited. You’ll also want critics, experts, etc., to endorse your book so your promotions will have credibility. And you get those by previously following the traditional published route.

Self-publishing is an affirmation of your belief in your own best efforts, because no publisher will care quite as much about your work as you do.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

To celebrate Independence Day weekend, it’s appropriate to look back at one of what seemed to be one of the thriftiest persons in American history—Ben Franklin. Well, he really wasn’t thrifty at all. He just advised everyone else to be so. Good ole Ben lived a luxurious life, with fine clothes, gourmet foods and wine, and the best entertainment.  So now is when you say, “How can I do that and still write for a living?” You can and without sacrificing anything.

The trick here is to change your priorities. You need to be, as old Ben said, “healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

To keep health bills under control, you need to be healthy, and that requires eating right. Learn to cook good food. If you have to, take a cooking course to get you jump started. Don’t rely solely on prepared or frozen foods and eat a balanced diet. This means staying away from fast and junk foods. And staying healthy will help with health insurance. Shop around for that, too.

While you might think growing your own vegetables will save you money, think again. It takes time and energy—time you could better use writing—to grow a good garden. Then when everything comes to harvest at the same time, you’ll most likely have too much to use and will end up giving most of it away. The short time homegrown veggies are available—usually for a month or two—doesn’t make them a money-saving option. Better to find a market with good produce or a farmers’ market in your local area. And speaking of groceries, shop at one regular market, supplemented by goods from dollar stores and perhaps limited, and lower-priced markets like Aldi.

And for clothes, shop at thrift stores whenever possible and take advantage of end-of-season or clearance sales at other stores. Generally, stay away from more expensive department stores.

Limit your entertainment. Today, you have lots of possibilities, so you don’t really have to go to the theater—an extremely expensive night out. The same goes for movies. Instead, subscribe to Netflix, either for monthly streaming or DVDs for $4.95 per month.

Shop around for the best phone and Internet package. Forget cable or satellite T.V. unless you have really lousy reception. That’s the most expensive part of any communications bundle. If you want a cell phone, consider purchasing a prepaid one. And forget texting and data streaming. That costs extra, and you really don’t need it. Remember the days not very long ago when if someone called and you weren’t home, they just left a message on your answering machine?

Do your own repairs whenever possible. And to keep repair costs down, do regular maintenance around your home. Consider low-cost extended warranties for appliances that may continually give you problems.

If you have a mortgage on your home, consider refinancing. While this will extend your loan, it can save you a bundle each month. In the end, it’s like renting your house from yourself. You’ll pay much less each month for a mortgage payment, including escrow for taxes, than you would if you just rented a house or apartment, plus you gain equity.

Consider keeping your present car, if you own one, and doing regular maintenance to keep it in good working condition. If you need a new car, think about leasing. There are some terrific leasing deals out there for about $150 per month with 12,000 miles a year. Get the most economical car you can afford in your comfort zone. Since you most likely are working at home, you won’t be driving as much. Diving less not only saves on gas, it also saves on repairs.

Buy all your insurance from one company to take advantage of their multi-policy discounts. And don’t skimp on car insurance. Many plans come with roadside assistance which can come in handy if you have an older car.

If you like to read, and what writer doesn’t, buy used books instead of new ones. Browse library book sales and be sure to check the used editions of any books you plan to buy on Also, go through your library from time to time and sell back some of your books to Amazon.

Everyone needs a vacation from time to time, and writers aren’t any different. But instead of flying off to some exotic location—unless it’s a special trip you’ve been planning for a while—travel closer to home for shorter periods. Take a few days off during the off-season and go to places that interest you or where you can just relax. Many hotels offer weekend packages that include some meals.

Finally, only use credit cards to control cost, not to run a tab. Pay them off every month or at the most every other month.

To enjoy working as a writer, you don’t need to sacrifice anything. You can still have that cup of java at your local coffee bar. You can still have all the devices you need—T.V.s, cameras, cell phones, even a tablet. All in all, you can live a comfortable lifestyle.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Do You Need an Agent?

Do you need an agent? The answer could be both yes, and no. Today, with a lot of writers heading into self-publishing, over half the books published go to market without an agent’s help. Even if you work with a traditional publishing house, you can place your book without an agent.

While it’s true that every writer gains some prestige by having an agent, having one doesn’t make you any better a writer. If you don’t produce quality writing, having an agent won’t help you. Agents save editors time and money. Editors know that agents, if they’re competent, weed out the bad material, so basically an agent vets the material for the editor, so whatever an agent sends in is usually given preference in being read earlier than material that comes in “cold." But in no way does it guarantee that the work will get published.

A good agent knows which publishing houses are in the market for what sort of book or project. He or she knows which publisher will release which rights and what the probable bottom line on other negotiations will be. And agents like to deal with certain editors.

A good agent should also be a good friend who can also be objective. He or she will be part salesman, part lawyer, part literary critic, and part father/mother-confessor.  Agents get calls from writers who can't pay their bills, from writers who are drunk or who have been arrested for one thing or another, and from writers who just want to hear a reassuring voice.

Of course, once you place your book or book proposal in an agent’s hands, you may hear nothing for a long time. Busy agents are in constant touch with those who buy ideas, books, movies, scripts for TV miniseries, book excerpts, and subsidiary rights, as well as with their clients. And remember, you won’t be the agent’s only client.

What agents are good for is negotiating through the maze of book contracts and subsidiary rights, both foreign and domestic. These include sales to book clubs, special sales, film and T.V. options, syndication and reprint rights, and so on. Depending on the arrangement you make, your agent may handle all of your works, only your books, or only certain kinds of books. Some agents will tell you at the beginning what they’ll handle and what they won't. If they don't, ask.

You may want to give an agent only certain kinds of writing and sell the rest yourself. Some writers feel the advantage of a large literary agency lies in the specialists who negotiate film or T.V. rights which can be lucrative. But most good agents who have been in the business any length of time will have some sort of representation in this highly specialized area. It's rare  these days for agents to handle magazine articles or short stories. If they do, it’s usually because you’ve made money for them through your books and have gained some notoriety.

Agents also help negotiate solutions to conflicts between you and your publisher. They push for timely payment of advances and royalties. They keep accurate records of your sales. Some agents are also lawyers, or have lawyers in their company, and can review alleged abuses by a publisher, alert a writer to possible problems stemming from something he is about to publish, and act as a knowledgeable go-between for the writer. Some agents act as middleman by finding the right author to write a book on an idea an editor or publisher has.

Should you attempt to publish your book with a traditional book publisher? Even if you manage to get an editor’s okay, you may want to consider getting an agent to handle the contract. Book contracts can be sticky business. In fact, some publishers have been known to send outrageous contracts to beginning writers, who don’t know any better. Book contracts can be 30 pages or more with lots of fine print—important fine print that if not read correctly and dealt with could end up costing you a lot of money in lost subsidiary rights and even fees. A good example is requiring you to create an index for a non-fiction book—something you’ll end up paying for out of your advance.

And while it’s possible to sell a book on your own, you may end up spending a large part of your time doing so—time you could have spent actually writing. It’s for this reason that an agent’s 10 percent is often worth it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is Writing a Pastime or a Business?

For many writers, perhaps yourself, writing starts off as a pastime. People dabble in it as much as in photography, cooking, painting, and sculpture. It’s funny, but they don’t seem to dabble in medicine or law or engineering. Do you ever wonder why that is?

For the latter subject fields, you need extensive education. But for the former ones, albeit those centered in the arts, you need little or none. In many cases, writing, photography, painting, and sculpture, and even music come naturally. This is where talent enters the picture. But it takes a lot more than talent to earn a living in any of the arts.

Because the arts come easily to so many people, society considers them pastimes. Doctors, who study for years to practice medicine, think nothing of dabbling in writing or photography, for instance, when they retire. They see it as fun. And they’ll be the first to laud over you the many years and tons of money it cost for them to go into practice.

And there’s the other rub. Except for extreme cases, it doesn’t take much money to get started in the arts. Look at writing. All you need is a pen and paper—or in today’s world, a laptop computer or tablet. The rest comes out of your head. If you have any talent for writing at all, you’re on our way.

So then what’s the difference between a writer who dabbles in it on nights and weekends and one who puts his or her heart and soul into it every day? Nothing really—at least on the surface. But underneath, the writer who works at writing every day has a different mindset.

Too many writers view writing as a divine pastime that shouldn’t be tainted by money. Not so long ago, society considered non-fiction writers as hacks because they got paid for their work. It accepted the idea of them working as journalists, but doing it on their own was folly. Fiction writers, on the other hand, rested high on a pedestal, put there by generations of students whose English and literature teachers instilled in them the lofty attainments of the greatest writers of all time—all, by the way, writers of fiction.

Times have changed thanks to writers like Truman Capote and John Updike, to name just two. Both experimented in crossing the border between fiction and non-fiction, thus graying the line.

Writing is hard work, even if you’re just dabbling in it. But if you’re serious, then it’s time to move up to a higher plane. It’s time to make all that hard work pay off.

Because it’s so easy to get started writing, many beginning writers think they can catapult to the top overnight. Some lucky ones have done just that. But of the thousands of writers out there, only a handful have done this. The rest have had to work long hours to get their pieces recognized and published.

If you want to work towards writing full-time, then you have to start slow, in your spare time. But keep that goal of getting paid for what you write in the forefront of your mind. In fact, make a sign and pin it up over your computer reminding yourself that your intent is to get paid. You might even want to do what many small business owners do—they frame their first dollar.

Friday, June 14, 2013

One Plus One Doesn’t Always Equal Two

At some point in your writing career, you may have entertained the thought of collaborating with someone on a book or other writing project. Collaboration can take two forms—working with  another writer or working with someone who’s an expert in a particular subject area.

Writers, agents, and editors all feel strongly one way or the other about collaboration, depending on whether their own experiences with collaborators have been positive or negative.  Rule Number One: Consider what may lie ahead before you get involved.

If you collaborate with a friend, you can ruin your friendship. Or it can be the stimulating experience that keeps both of you working at top form. Looking at collaboration from a strictly business point of view, there are advantages—pooling resources, contacts, and efforts. However, you’ll also need to share the proceeds whether they’re good or bad. 

Before starting work on a collaboration project, draw up a contract specifying who will do what kind of work, how moneys are to be divided, and so on. You’ll both need to think out this agreement thoroughly. After all, it will be a legally binding agreement. If it’s for the long term, you should discuss it with your accountant, lawyer, or agent to help iron out any negative parts prior to signing. Be sure to include a buy-out or phase-out clause in case you or your partner have a change of heart.

A collaborative writing effort means two people agree before-hand what kind of contribution each will make to a given work. The problems aren't the same as those involved in ghostwriting for a non-writer—a scientist, a doctor, or any other professional—who wants to have his or her thoughts or discoveries published. But problems will crop up, even though the neither of you has have no inherent disagreement. Each is bound to react differently, for instance, to what an agent or editor or publisher says about a book, for instance—how it looks, what sort of publicity it gets, and so forth.

In most cases, a writer works individually on a piece, thus deciding what should or shouldn’t be included. In a collaboration, each partner will want his or her own say. And each will have more expertise in one job or another.

One, for example, may be better at research and writing the first draft while the other is better at editing, asking for clarification or amplification where needed, making suggestions, cleaning up the language. With two pairs of eyes looking over the manuscript, it should be in much better shape when you finally send it off to a publisher than if just one of you worked on it.

In this type of working arrangement, the second partner, the one not involved with writing the text first, approaches the manuscript cold, and will see and comprehend it as a reader would. If parts are confusing or there are voids, this partner will find them. Also, working with someone else, especially another writer, will force you and your partner to work to higher standards.

A different set of problems may arise when working with an expert in a given field. While the expert may know his or her subject matter, they may not be able to relay it clearly to the reader. As a writer, you’ll be in the best position to accomplish this. However, the expert partner may think they know how to write, based on the academic writing they learned in school. This can and often does create conflicts in writing style. Let’s face it, the style of writing you work with as a professional writer is often very different than what’s used by academics. You won’t be producing a thesis, but your partner may approach the project as if you are.

Before you make any final decision about collaborating, be certain you've evaluated your own most important needs. If your analysis shows that two heads are better than one, go for it. But if your intuition tells you that you may run into more problems than collaboration is worth, back off.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Going on a Writing Retreat

In today’s busy world, it’s often hard to focus on your writing. Distractions attack you from every angle—T.V.’s blaring, Internet flashing, cell phones ringing, kids screaming, spouse calling, and who knows what else. If you’re having a tough time getting any writing done, perhaps it’s time to take a break, not from writing but to writing. Perhaps it’s time for you to go on a writing retreat.

Retreats have long been used by religions to help their followers focus on their teachings and the spiritual side of their lives. Basically, to go on a retreat means to withdraw to a quiet and secluded place—away from the stress of everyday life, away from work, away from family.

Writing is difficult enough without all the distractions. And getting away from it all may just help you jump start that new novel, that short story you’ve been meaning to write, or that article that’s been nagging you to be written.

A writing retreat doesn’t have to be a big expensive affair. One writer gets together with other writer-friends of hers once a year at a one of their houses for a week of writing, eating, and sharing. They write during the day in separate areas of the house, taking a break only for lunch. In the evenings, they cook dinner together, talk about their writing, and what’s new in their lives. It’s all done in a relaxing atmosphere that results in stress reduction and more writing being done.

But the key in the above retreat is that the writer gathered with other writer-friends of hers. They all know each other and can help each other by sharing ideas and solving problems. However, in official, commercial writing retreats you’ll find by searching the Internet, you’ll be among writers you don’t know. As often as not, some of them will be very opinionated and want to impress the others about how good they are. This, in itself, creates stress, the very thing you’re trying to get away from.

Some commercial retreats offer a bare bones approach, offering a sparsely furnished room with shared bath and kitchen facilities. Others provide meals and a more luxurious atmosphere. Some require a minimum stay of two weeks. It all depends on how much you time and money you can afford to spend. But do you really need all that?

Most working writers—that is writers working 9-5 jobs—getting away for two weeks takes up all their vacation time. And if you have a family, getting away by yourself for two weeks is all but an impossibility. For most, getting away for two or three days, say over a weekend, is just the ticket. The advantage of shorter retreats is that you can do them more often.

To create your own retreat, find a vacation house, either one to rent or one belonging to a friend, that’s vacant for the time you need. The optimum word here is “vacation.” In order to keep costs down, rent it during the off season. A house at the beach is a great place for writing, especially before it gets to cold to take walks along the surf. Perhaps you can share the cost with another writer or two that you know. The same goes for a mountain cabin.

Another solution is to book a cheap hotel room with a mini fridge and perhaps a microwave. All you need is a desk and a power outlet. You can go out for dinner or get take out. Again, book in the off season. Many include breakfast. A bed and breakfast is another option. However, while these have charm and quiet, they’re usually more expensive than a hotel.

Don’t think that you have to work all the time while on your retreat. Sleep in once in a while or take an afternoon nap or a walk. Try not to work for more than two hours at a stretch. Refueling your body and mind will help your writing and make you more productive.

If you live alone and can’t get away, create a stay-at-home retreat. Plan to work at your writing throughout the day, perhaps in one-hour stints. Between each hour do something else—go for a walk, have lunch at a local diner or café, play with your dog. When you sit back down to write, you’ll find you’re refreshed and ready to continue.

If you can, vary your writing locations. If you have a laptop or tablet, you’ll be able to write just about anywhere. If the weather cooperates, take yourself outdoors and write on the patio or balcony. Take your laptop to a fast-food restaurant or doughnut shop and work while sipping some coffee or iced tea. Some places even have outdoor seating for warmer weather.

Above all, plan your home retreat ahead of time so that you won’t be distracted by sudden phone calls or other duties. And don’t forget to turn off your cell phone. If you’re not used to writing full time, then a retreat will show you how your routine needs to change should you ever wish to quit your job and become a freelance writer.