Sunday, November 30, 2008

Holiday Newsletters

I'm thinking of writing my annual holiday newsletter. This has nothing to do with money and everything to do with keeping in touch with family and friends. Over the years, I've heard mixed reactions to these newsletters. Some people love to get them. It's a way to learn what's been happening in the lives of people we care about, yet hardly ever hear from. Some people are less than eager to get them and either toss without reading or if they have a festive look, hang them with the holiday cards.

I have to admit I love to hang holiday cards around our double patio door frame. There's something decidedly festive about the greens, reds, and glitter that adorn the cards. I also have to admit I hardly ever send cards myself. They're generally expensive, unless you find some at a Dollar Store. They get tossed after the holidays. They're impersonal. Still I like them. When it comes to my own holiday wishes for friends, however, I go for the newsletter.

Some years, I've printed the letters on festive paper, folded, sealed with an address label, and mailed. Other years, as more and more people get email, I've opted for an emailed letter with a family photo embedded in the post. Oftentimes, it's a combination of snail mail and email, depending upon the age of the recipient. Many of our older generation family members haven't a clue how to turn on a computer.

I'd like to think my newsletters are well received. I know I don't have the ability to weave a tale like one of our good friends does in his annual letter, which never fails to bring a smile to my face. Still, I hope I don't totally bore my readers. Here's a few tricks I've learned over the years:
  1. Keep the letter to one side of the paper.
  2. Include a recent family photo.
  3. Don't brag too much.
  4. Use correct grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.
  5. Keep the tone lively.
  6. Be generic, unless you know all your readers have the same religious beliefs.
  7. Be sure to cover highlights of the year.
December is a great time to connect with your family. Hearing from you once a year is better than never hearing from you at all.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

After the Holidays

Thanksgiving is over, Christmas and other December holidays are yet to come. A lot of us will kick back, enjoy time with our loved ones, and spend a lot of time eating. This is also a time to take notes on items which you might be able to turn into an article or two.

Many magazines love holiday stories that comfort, inspire, or make us laugh. What happened around your holiday table? Did you hear stories about your great uncle or how a particular holiday is celebrated in another county? What about food disasters in the kitchen? Be sure to make notes.

Did you create a new dish to set upon your table? How did your guests respond? If it was a success, be sure to write it down and submit it to one of the many food magazines. Keep in mind most editors purchase articles for publication six to eight months after acceptance.

What about conversations around the kid table? Did you pay attention? Any gems for fillers in parenting magazines or just make notes about how different aged children communicate. This information will be important when you're creating your novel characters.

It's always good to have a break, but make sure you make good use your time afterward.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More about Small Presses

There may come a day when small press editors are swamped with submissions and won't be able to take a personal interest in their writers. They may not pay, pay only in copies, or one/half cent a word, but they do care about writing and often have a personal investment in the magazine they are editing. If a title sounds interesting, send for a sample copy. Many are now available as ezines which you can access for free. While you're building your clip file, don't ignore this resource.

If you're interested in genre fiction, the small press could be the place to start. As with any other magazines, ask for guidelines, study back issues and be professional in your submissions. If you do, you'll most likely find many editors to be prompt, courteous and helpful.

Some places to find small press markets would be http://www.duotrope.com/, http://www.spicygreeniguana.com/, http://gilaqueen.us/, and http://www.specficworld.com/

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Writing for the Small Press

Many years ago, I considered writing an article bemoaning the fact that so many small press magazines want writers to contribute their work for little or no compensation. What, I asked, is the sense in writing just to see your name in print? The fact that a writer is interested in genre writing (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, speculative) doesn't mean payment should be only a contributor's copy. I know I'm not alone in my frustration with this policy; I've seen similar comments written by other writers. While I recognize the value of getting a few clips, clips don't pay for a writer's time, let alone stamps .

While, like any writer, I love to see payment for my work, I also love writing fantasy. I finally decided the professional fantasy markets were few and far between, and my chances of seeing publication with them, probably nil. I then researched the small presses specializing in fantasy and started to submit to those who at least offered a token payment.

Through this process, I have learned a great deal on how to tighten my writing and produce better quality stories. While small press publishers may not offer much in the way of money, the editors (who oftentimes were also the publishers) are often willing to offer constructive criticism.

While writers are professionals and should be paid as such, if you're new or starting in a new genre, there are advantages to working with the small presses. While you may not get a large paycheck for your manuscript, you may get valuable feedback. Consider it a barter system. New writers get critiques of their work, editors get better stories for their magazines. Of course, not all small press editors have the time or inclination to give detailed reasons for their rejections, but chances are higher you may receive a personal note from a small press editor.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Persistence

If you want to succeed as a writer, you must be persistent. Make a list of potential markets for each of your articles. If your manuscript is rejected by choice number one, check for suitability, make any corrections and mail to choice number two. Keep accurate records of where your story goes and learn from your rejections. List the magazine, the date your manuscript was sent, and the date you received a response. In this way, you'll avoid the mistake of resending the same story to the same editor.

Any time an editor takes the time to write a personal note with suggestions for improvement, make those corrections. Several of my own sales have been a direct result of rejections which were returned with ideas for changes. By following the advice, I turned flawed manuscripts into salable ones.

Sometimes, if you can't sell an article in its original format, you may need to adjust the way you are presenting it. One idea I tried to market couldn't find a home, although I knew the information was valuable. The original article was a third place winner in a national contest, yet wasn't marketable as written. After a number of rejections, I hit upon a new way to present the material and sold not one, but two articles to the same magazine on the original subject.

Have faith in your work and never give up. I've found over the years, it is often a case of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right material. What one editor could care less about, another may snap up in an instant.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quality of Writing

Before you send out your finished article or story, check the quality of your work. Is it the best that you can produce? Have you followed special guidelines on formatting? Does your intended market request larger margins, double or single spacing, a specific type font? Most guideline sheets specify type-written or letter-quality print with a font such as Times New Roman, but some editors request single spacing or a font such as Ariel. Be sure that you pay attention to each editor's preferences.

Proofread for run-on sentences, lazy-writing (e.g. beginning all your sentences with "the" and incorrect word usage.) Have you checked for spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors? Your computer's spell checker will not recognize the difference between their and there, its and it's, further and farther, or any one of a number of other common errors. Proofread aloud and from end to beginning if you want your manuscript to get more than a cursory glance from a first reader.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

More P's and Q's

Once you've targeted your market correctly, and your query has received the go-ahead from an editor, proceed writing your article quickly, while the editor still remembers agreeing to read it. And, if you've promised to deliver the article by a certain date, make certain you meet your own deadline.

Don't procrastinate. We writers can think of hundreds of reasons not to sit down and write. The kids need attention; there's a good show on t.v.; there's a meeting to attend; it's too nice to be inside writing. Stop making excuses and make the time to write. The other things need to happen, too, but while you're doing them look for stories and articles. Keep your senses open and your notebook handy. Jot down ideas. Then, make time to write, even if it means getting up an hour earlier or staying up an hour later.

Check the guidelines for quantity. How many words does your prospective market need? Tailor your article to fit those requirements. You may think you're special and can get away from following the guidelines, but editors don't. No special rules for you. Follow the guidelines and keep your word count within those established by the editor.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More P's and Q's

Query letters help you target appropriate markets at a minimal cost. There are numerous articles and books devoted to query writing. Occasionally you can find a workshop devoted to to this important aspect of writing. Writers Digest, http://www.writersdigest.com/GeneralMenu/, and Writing World, http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/index.shtml, are two excellent sources of query articles.

In a query, you are asking the editor if she would like to see your finished piece. You can send out several queries at the same time, thus you don't waste time writing an article for which there is no market. Practice writing your query letter until it will do what you want it to do - get the attention of the editor and get you an assignment. Query letters do not work for fiction - unless you are marketing a novel.

Remember a query letter is oftentimes the first time an editor will meet you. Consider it a job interview and present yourself in a competent, professional manner. Avoid unusual fonts, make sure your grammar is perfect, and convince the editor you are the right person for the job.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

P's and Q's of Writing

An old expression, "mind your P's and Q's," was often used to remind children to behave. What exactly are "P's and Q's?" David Feldman in his book of trivia, Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?, suggests several possible origins for the phrase. The most likely theory comes from an expression common in 17th and 18th century alehouses. Tavern owners kept tallies of the ale sold on slate boards. If a customer paid for a pint, but drank a quart or an account became overdrawn, the barkeep would warn, "Mind your P's and Q's." It's a little harder to determine how that related to children's behavior, but it was used, and often, by parents as I grew up.

As writers, we have a lot of "p's and q's" to mind. The first to consider is peliminary background work. Look at guidelines and sample issues of magazines to which you may be interested in submitting. Only by doing this market research thoroughly will you know how best to market your work. Too many times editors receive stories too long or the wrong subject matter for their publications. Perhaps the most common mistake is for fiction writers to submit stories to publications which do not publish fiction. Another mistake is made by children's writers submitting to adult markets or vice versa. Do your preliminary work before submitting and you increase your chances of finding a home for your manuscript. This will save you both postage and paper costs. You won't be wasting time, money and supplies on inappropriate submissions.

Years ago, I wrote an article about submitting to the small presses. One of my readers sent a story to one of the editors I mentioned. He wrote to thank me for the exposure but pointed out the reader had sent him a story of 13,000 words - way too long for his publication. He, of course, rejected the story. If she had done her preliminary research, she would have read his guidelines and known his story requirements. Don't be hasty; take your time and do your homework first.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Being Versatile

The ability to be versatile in your writing is bound to result in a sale. Oftentimes we get locked into a certain genre or refuse to try non-fiction. When I first returned to writing, I was focused on fiction and didn't want to even consider non-fiction. After doing a little market research, I learned there are job opportunities for writers that range from advertising copywriter to video scriptwriter and everything in between. Further research shows a very small percentage of magazines and books, out of hundreds published, accept fiction. Editors accept, on the average, three to four times as much non-fiction as fiction. Yet, they report receiving three to four times as much fiction as non-fiction. Editors are very clear they are looking for manuscripts to buy, but they can only choose from what's submitted. If you want a sale, you have to write what editors need. If they need more non-fiction, then write non-fiction. This doesn't mean you should give up your dreams of writing the next great novel, but what it does mean is you should plan to be more versatile in your submissions.

Work on that novel, but send out non-fiction articles too. Books abound about how to actually earn money as a writer. I suspect most, if not all, will tell you the same thing. You have to be willing to write whatever is needed if you want to get a check be that newsletters, ad copy, parenting tips, children's articles, or poems. Versatility is the key to repeated sales.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Perseverance

Without perseverance, many writers give up before reaching their goal of publication. Take it from me, if you don't persevere, you'll never receive that first letter of acceptance.

As a small child, I spent all my free time writing stories, illustrating them and binding them into small books. In high school, I convinced my English teacher to allow me to write a novel in my senior year rather than do class assignments. After graduation, I enrolled in a correspondence course and sent off my first manuscript. With a fragile ego, when I received my first rejection letter, I decided it was my last. I put away my goals and fulfilled my aspirations by writing lengthy letters to friends and being creative with my business letters.

Finally in mid-life, I began writing grants for local non-profits. When I realized that I was being "paid" to write, I decided to try another correspondence course. This time, through perseverance, I landed my first contract for publication of a children's story.

The one thing no one told me as a beginning writer was that even great writers experience rejection. I hear it repeated all the time now. Writers talk to other writers. The internet is a fabulous networking tool. No longer do we operate in a vacuum. Many published writers tell of sending off a story, ten, twenty, fifty times before acceptance. Not all manuscripts are published, but rejection shouldn't squash your creativity or your desire to submit.

If you don't keep trying, you'll never get that first by-line.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Patience

After submitting your manuscript, waiting is the hardest thing for any writer. Patience is truly a virtue to be nurtured. Although writer's guidelines indicate response times, often editors do take longer. When editors are interested in a piece, they may hold the article for further consideration. Some editors may send a note advising that they are interested and holding the manuscript. Other editors, however, may hold a piece without notifying the author, leaving the writer frustrated.

Many writers are unacquainted with behind-the-scene activities at publishing companies. Writers remain blissfully ignorant of the mounds of manuscripts through which editors must plow searching for the perfect one. Writers often remain unaware of editors other responsibilities such as teaching, lecturing at conferences, critique services, and writing their own pieces.

I recall an instance early in my writing career when I wrote to an editor asking for an update. It was about a month past the indicated response time in the guidelines. The editor wrote back advising me of her many other duties and stressing patience. She pointed out that editors often do not have the time to respond to individual inquiries. If writers are anxious about their manuscripts, some editors may return them rather than deal with an inpatient author.

If you are a writer with little patience, then try simultaneous submissions or queries. Keep several pieces circulating and don't sit around waiting to hear from one editor before sending out a new piece.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ideas From Your Journal

A lot of writers keep journals. Rather than a diary of day-to-day activities, journals can be observations, reflections on happenings, snatches of dialogue, or unusual names that come up in conversations. If someone tells you an anecdote that makes you laugh out loud, make a note of it. A bit of that tale might fit nicely into an article or story.

How about creating a special type of journal not based on daily activities? Instead, have sections for answering questions such as: "Who do I know?" "Where have I been?" "What have I done?" You could include sections for milestones and goals, as well as sections on what's gone wrong or what you want out of life.

If you prefer the day-to-day daily life journal, many writers use this as a springboard for their writing. Anecdotes about what their children said may end up as fillers in parenting magazines. How they overcame obstacles, such as over-eating, abuse, or a disability can be turned into not only articles, but book-length memoirs.

Writing in a journal can be the catalyst you need to start writing. There are many options from which to choose, from the old-fashioned hand bound journal to numerous blogging sites on the Internet. If you choose the Internet, you have the option of posting your journal to the public, only your friends, on keeping it personal until you are ready for others to read your writing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Turn Personal Experience into Writing Dollars

Writing articles based on personal experience can be as easy as checking out magazines and newspapers for personal-experience pieces written by other authors. If you see something to which you can relate, you might find yourself thinking if that person can write about his three-legged dog, why can't I?

I've had several articles published based on my own volunteer experiences. For several years, I worked as a crisis line peer counselor and new volunteer trainer for our local women's resource center. From the experience and training I received doing that job, I published two articles on grant writing, one on date rape for girls , and one on date rape for guys . This same volunteer experience also gave me the material for two articles on how to be a good listener. One for teens and the other for parents.

For several years, I have also volunteered for a statewide organization which promotes human dignity and tolerance. Using my work experience from this organization, I wrote an article entitled "Learning Tolerance."

Look around at the things that are happening within your own family for article ideas. I sold two articles about preparing for college when my son was trying to decide what school he wanted to attend. "www.college.go" gave teens ideas for help in finding the right college. Another college-related article I wrote advised teens on ways to find those elusive college dollars. Both of these articles were the direct result of the time my husband, son, and I spent preparing for college.

My son's fascination with reptiles when he was younger, led me to research, write and sell an article, "Creepy Crawlies Can Be Good Pets." Coming up with crafty ideas for my daughter resulted in a craft article. You, too, can turn your personal experiences into salable articles. What interests you; what interests your family? Look around, then write that article.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Continuing the search for ideas

Following up on my recent posts, consider the following ways to seek out ideas. If you write nonfiction, read articles which interest you, in magazines with editorial slants which fit you. If you read something and say, "Wow, I could write better than that," look at issues from the last three years. You'll find article ideas are often repeated after one or two years. Find out what was written a year or two ago. What's new in that field now? Then, write about it. Keep in mind, however, that the person who wrote the original article probably has the same idea.

In order to actually get a sale, you need more than just an idea. You need an angle for the idea. Anyone can think about writing about gardening, for example, but how could you put a special twist on that. Do you know any handicapped gardeners? What about a senior citizen who gardens and gives away his produce to the neighbors? Is there a community garden in your neighborhood? Make your approach unique.

Many workshop instructors urge you to brainstorm before writing an article. To do this take an idea such as the gardening idea above. Then write angles for as many types of articles you can think of relating to gardening. When you're brainstorming, don't take time to think about whether or not it's a good idea. Put down whatever comes into your head. Write down the ideas as fast as you can. When you're finished, look at your list and eliminate ideas that have no sales potential. Also, eliminate any angles that have been overused and aren't fresh.

Take some time today to browse through old issues of magazines in which you'd like to see your byline. Is there an article you could update with current information? Before submitting your article, be sure to check out a current issue of the magazine. Their slant may have changed along with their editor. Be sure not only your article but your guideline information is current.

Monday, November 10, 2008

More about finding ideas

Sometimes when I'm reading, I feel like I'm procrastinating and just looking for an excuse not to be writing. In fact, reading can be a useful tool for a writer. Reading can take the form of research for an article, story or novel. Reading can also energize your brain cells by teaching you something new.

Read through magazines and newspapers for interesting pictures or articles. Clip these out and save them in an "idea" file. Several of my own published stories are the direct result of articles I've read. My first published fiction story, "Iceman," saw its inception in a National Geographic article about a frozen mummy found buried in the snow. Looking at that mummy's picture, I imagined what it would be like to be the young fiancee left behind. Using the information in that article to give my fantasy story credence, I created a world in which a woman finds the frozen body of her long lost lover.

Another of my fantasy stories, "Ashley of Ashland," was the direct result of my reading an article about a man from Ashland. In the article, he related a folk tale which was a "Cinderfella" type of tale. My own Ashley was a minor wizard who conjured images using fire, but he did spend a lot of time staring at the cinders.

Use your imagination while you read. You never know what you might create. Use the articles as starting points for "what if" scenarios. Don't be afraid to let your imagination run wild. You can always rein it in after you do your initial brainstorming.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ideas

I've written about writing what you know, but a common question always seems to be where do writers get ideas. You know there are lots of ideas floating around out there. After all, you pick up magazines every day filled with all kinds of articles and stories. Still, you find it hard to come up with an idea to write about.

First, you need to get your creative juices flowing. A few years ago, I attended a one-day workshop facilitated by Lisa Dale Norton, who was founder and director of the Neahkahnie Institute ( Manzanita, Oregon), author, and writing instructor. At the workshop, Lisa encouraged writers to use the right side of their brains. To do this, she suggested ten-minute free writing exercises. In this exercise, you start with a partial statement, such as "I'm feeling . . . ," or "I remember . . . ," or "I see . . . " Then, just write continuously for ten minutes. Don't stop to edit your work or think about what you're writing. It's O.K. to repeat words or sentences. It's O.K. to use incorrect grammar. The purpose is to allow your right, creative, brain to do its job, unencumbered by the critical left side of your brain. It's amazing how well this technique works. Once your brain is in high gear, it's easier to be creative.

Another technique suggested by not only Ms. Norton, but other writing instructors including Gabriele Lusser Rico author of Writing the Natural Way, is to try clustering. Take a single word chosen at random such as "beach." Place it in the center of your paper. Then cluster around it other words that remind you of beach, like "sand," "seagulls," "children," "sand castles," etc. Connect them to "beach" with lines. Without stopping to think, expand on each of those words, until you have filled a large portion of your paper with related words. As you look at what you've written, you'll most likely see a story idea or a memory that evokes one.

In the days to come, I'll offer you some other tricks for finding ideas. Happy paper trails.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fact or Fiction

When my husband read my post about our puppy, Oscar, he asked me, "Is that really fiction?" Good question. Oscar was real. Oscar was hit by a truck. I had to think about that for awhile, but ultimately I decided the piece I wrote should be considered fiction. I attributed traits to Oscar which he may or may not have had. After all, do I really know he thought of himself as big like the others? No, so I made that part up - fiction. Do I really know it never entered his head that he was too small for the truck to see him? No, that too is fiction. When I watched him play, I imagined he would feel and think these things, but there is no way I could possibly know what went on his little doggy brain.

Fiction is many times made up of reality. We, as writers, are often told, "write what you know." At times what we know is based on research. Other times, it is based on what has actually happened in our lives. We may have to change names, alter descriptions, or recreate dialogue, but we use what we know to write our stories. It's amazing where stories can be found. The trick is to be able to see them when they present themselves.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Flash Fiction




Recently at the Muse Conference, one of our homework assignments was to write a piece of flash fiction. This is something I'd never attempted before and found it way more difficult than I thought it would be. First I went back and looked at some shorter pieces of fiction I'd written, and I attempted to change them into flash fiction. That wasn't working, so I thought about what I could write that would be powerful, short, and tell a story. This is what I submitted to the group:

Oscar

He ran outside.
Hair blew back from his face and sloppy grin.
He pictured himself big like the others.
It never entered his head.
He was too small for the truck to see him.
Tires squealed.
A pool of blood formed around his furry little head.
His four legs twitched slightly and were still.
A spark of puppy life gone in an instant.

This was a difficult year for us with our animals. We lost our 11 year old Dalmatian/Labrador dog to cancer in the early spring. We bought Oscar, a sweet little Lhasa Poo, in June. He was hit by the truck in September. Finally, two weeks ago, we lost our dear cat, Jack, to kidney failure. It's hard to lose members of our furry family, but it was, for me, cathartic to write the above piece about Oscar. Try it yourself. Sometimes it's easier to write about our pain than to talk about it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Beginning

My journey as a writer started lifetimes ago. My father told me stories as a young child, and while he didn't live to see me become a published writer, he was my inspiration. I spent many a day, writing stories and illustrating them, then lovingly binding them with heavy paper and ribbon. I still have a number of those one of a kind hand-crafted treasures.

Recently, I had the immense pleasure of attending another MuseOnLine Writers' Conference. Lea Schizas and Carolyn Howard Johnson work together to find presenters, create a user-friendly web space and ensure the attendees get so much material, it takes a year to process it all. The amazing part of this enterprise is that it's offered for free. Check out the website http://www.themuseonlinewritersconference.com/ Registration information should be posted soon. If you are at all interested in writing, this is the place to go.

One of my "resolutions" from the conference was to put more effort into marketing myself, my books, and my writing. Starting this blog is one way I hope to focus my writing and share some of my learning with others struggling to perfect their craft.

I retired in January 2008 from a career as the office manager of our county district attorney. The job was stressful and cut into my writing time significantly. My goal as a retiree was to get back to the enjoyment I find every time I sit down, close my eyes, and envison a new story. Here, then, starts the journey, side-tracked by too many years working for a paycheck.