Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Interview with non-fiction author Moira Allen

Today, my guest is the multi-talented author, editor and publisher of the well-known writer's resource, Writing World, Moira Allen. Ms. Allen is the author of Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer.

1) Tell me a little about your book and give a short synopsis.
Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer” is designed to be THE guide that can help you launch a freelance writing career, from start to finish.  It begins with the very basics of setting up your own business – the type of equipment and supplies you’ll need, how to set up a workspace, etc. – and progresses through all the steps a freelancer needs to take to get started.  It looks at how to “find ideas,” and turn those ideas into marketable article topics.  It shows the reader how to locate appropriate markets, and then how to contact markets via query letters and submissions.  It shows the reader how to develop an article idea, including how to choose the best structure for an article (hint: “think in subheads”). 

From there, the book goes on to explore other aspects of the freelancing life.  It shows the reader ways to expand from articles to other types of freelancing, such as writing columns, teaching classes, and business freelancing.  It also discusses the business side of writing (which is all too often neglected in “freelancing” books), including how to handle income and expenses, protect your rights, negotiate contracts, and so forth.

This is the second edition of the book (the first was published in 2003).  This edition is updated throughout, and includes an entire, new section on commercial freelancing and another new section on “the electronic writer,” covering blogs, social networking, and building a website. 

For anyone thinking of “getting started,” this is the book that will show you how.  The freelancing writing market is growing more competitive every day, and while there are thousands of would-be writers who want to “get published,” the only way to actually be successful is to know what you are doing.  This is the book that shows you the ropes.

2) What gave you the idea for this particular book?
Actually, it’s the culmination of a long career of writing for writers.  I’d been writing articles on various aspects of “how to be a freelancer” for years.  I’d wanted to write this book many years ago, and queried Allworth about it, but at the time, they didn’t want it (instead, I ended up selling them Writing.com, a book on how writers could take advantage of what was, then, the relatively NEW realm of the Internet).  Several years later, I was looking around for a book project, and my husband asked, “Well, what’s the book you’ve always wanted to write?”  This one, of course!  So I started organizing my articles and notes and such, thinking I’d just go ahead and self-publish – and just as I was getting started, Allworth came back to ME and asked, “Hey, would you consider doing a book for us on starting a career as a freelancer?”  Gee, I thought, lemme get back to you on that… In 2009, Allworth decided it was time to do an “update” on this book and on “The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals” (the second edition of that came out in September 2010). 

3) Are you a full-time writer or part-time, and how do you organize your writing time?
I’m a part-time writer, and I’m afraid I can’t say that I “organize” my writing time at all.  My schedule is always changing.  It’s easier to say when I’m most likely to do certain types of tasks.  For example, “work-related” writing and editing, such as tasks relating to the Writing-World.com website, are normally done during the day.  This is the sort of thing I’m most likely to do right after breakfast, when I’m in the mood to “knock off” tasks from my list.  If I have an article assignment, I’m more likely to work on that in the afternoon, after I’ve done household errands, gone to the gym, etc., and can look forward to several hours of uninterrupted work time.  Personal writing is something that I’m most likely to do late at night, after dinner – that seems to be when I’m most likely to want to just settle in and do something I enjoy for a few hours.  But I definitely don’t have any pre-planned or “assigned” times of the day to do this or that – that just seems to be how it works out!

4) When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
Oh, gosh, like, when I could read?  Actually, not quite that early.  But certainly by the time I was in junior high school.  At that time I couldn’t imagine being anything else. (The thought of maybe having to get a “real” job hadn’t yet occurred to me; in my household, which was a wee bit old-fashioned, that wasn’t something girls did, and we were all girls.)  Once the reality of having to earn a living sank in, I put writing on hold for quite a few years, but I never lost sight of the certainty that, one day, that was what I would become.  I got back into writing “seriously” (as in becoming a full-time freelancer) in 1996, but only last year have I actually gotten back to the original “dream” of writing fiction.

5) What do you hope readers will take from your writing?
My hope is that my readers will become better, and more successful, writers.

6) What is the toughest part about being a writer and how do you get past it?
The toughest part is simply finding the discipline to DO it.  This is particularly an issue for me with fiction – there’s no external deadline, nothing but my own desire to (eventually) be successful in this area.  So it’s terribly easy to find something else, something “more important,” something more immediate, something more lucrative, etc., to get in the way.  And if I can’t find something important, well, I can usually find something unimportant!  It’s called procrastination, and I’m an expert!  As for how to get past it, I don’t have any formula or secret of success.  In my experience, all the advice in the world that explains WHY you should do something (whether it’s writing or exercise or whatever) will never make a bit of difference until YOU are ready to do it.  Something clicks, inside, and somehow, you’re ready to do what you have been putting off and avoiding – and it’s just about impossible to say where that “click” comes from.

7) What draws you to non-fiction writing?
It’s a lot easier than fiction writing?  Honestly, that IS, to me, one of the great appeals of nonfiction.  I don’t have to make stuff up.  I don’t have to “convince” you that what I am writing is “true” (i.e., that Susan is really speaking with a ghost).  Good writing is still an important issue; after all, if I can’t write nonfiction well, no one is going to read it or gain anything from it.  But it’s a matter of taking “facts” that already exist, and finding a way to present them so that they will be useful to the reader.  Finding a way to hold the reader’s interest is also important, but presumably, too, the reader already has a reason to be reading about these particular facts, whether it’s how to solve a health problem in your cat or how to sell your first article.  If the reader puts the piece down, it’s more likely because it isn’t about a subject of interest, rather than “well, I just couldn’t understand the freelancer’s motivation in section four where she’s trying to craft a good query…”

8) What kind of research did you do for this type of book?
This particular book was based primarily on “life experience.”  I’d already been a successful freelance writer for several years, and I was also an experienced magazine editor.  I felt that bringing my expertise from “both sides of the desk” to the book would offer something most books on freelancing don’t have.  I could tell the reader not only “how I sold an article” but also “what I look for, as an editor, in the articles I buy.”  Those aspects of freelancing that I don’t know a great deal about (such as commercial freelancing), I found other experts to write about.

9) What about your book makes it special?
Getting back to what I mentioned in the previous question, I think it’s the perspective that arises from having been on “both sides of the desk.”  I’ve been a successful writer AND a successful editor.  So I know how to sell an article, from the writer’s perspective – what I did to make it work, how I crafted my query, how I developed my structure and did my research, etc.  But I can also say, as an editor, “Here’s what works and what doesn’t, here’s what’s most likely to get my attention, here’s what’s most likely to send you straight to the rejection pile,” and so forth.  I can also tell you what REALLY happens when your article or query lands on an editor’s desk, what rejection letters really mean, and also what happens after your piece is accepted. 

A couple of other things that make this book special… One, it’s not “about me.”  I’ve picked up way too many “how to get started” books and they are all about the author.  How “I” got started, including my woes and mistakes and triumphs (though most of the “me me me” books seemed to be mostly about woes).  I don’t think a would-be freelance writer wants to hear about ME, the author.  They want to know what THEY can do, not what I did and how that all turned out.  Two, I think this book treats the reader with respect.  Another thing I find many “getting started” books have in common is that they seem to be built around a boilerplate “how-to” manual, and all start to sound alike after awhile.  For example, every book I pick up on fiction writing (e.g., how to write a romance novel, a mystery novel, etc.) seems to have two or three chapters on the primary topic (e.g., romances) – and then four or five chapters on things like how to format your manuscript.  I can find that stuff somewhere else; tell me more about actually writing a romance!  A lot of these books assume you know absolutely nothing, and speak to you accordingly.   Mine assumes that you may not know a whole lot about freelancing, but it’s not condescending.

10) Where can people learn more about you and your work?
The best place to read more about my tips on writing would be my website, Writing-World.com (http://www.writing-world.com), which I’ve been managing now for just over ten years.  But your readers can explore other “facets,” if you will, on other websites… I manage the “Pet Loss Support Page” at http://www.pet-loss.net, which offers tips on coping with pet loss bereavement (which happened to be my first published book).  I also have a photography website at http://www.allenimages.smugmug.com – right now, that’s mainly a hobby.  I manage the “TimeTravel-Britain.com” website at http://www.timetravel-britain.com – it’s a site focusing on historic British travel destinations.  And I manage “Mostly-Victorian.com” (http://www.mostly-victorian.com), which is an archive of articles from Victorian magazines, because while living in England for a bit over a year, I became enthralled by Victorian magazines (they’re a lot easier to find in England than here). 

11) What are your views on self-publishing versus traditional publishing?
Ooh, hot button here, careful what you ask for!  I think that if you are trying to make a name for yourself in the fiction marketplace – i.e., you have just written a novel and you want thousands of people to read it – there is still no viable alternative to traditional publishing.  Forget all the hype that has gone on about “doing it yourself” and how you, all by your little lonesome, can get your overlooked, neglected masterpiece in front of billions of readers just panting to find something to read that isn’t on the shelves of their local B&N.  You want to get in front of lots of readers, you need a traditional publisher.  It’s even more true today, in a sad way, BECAUSE of the push toward DIY publishing . Bookstores are more wary than ever of the “self-published” book, because there are so many more of them now than ever before, and thus so much more absolutely unreadable material out there.  Twenty years ago, if you had a really good self-published book, you MIGHT make it into bookstores; now, with bookstores well aware that out of every 500 DIY books, 499 are going to be dreadful, they’re just not interested in looking for that one that is worthwhile.

HOWEVER, if you are a savvy nonfiction writer and you have a niche that you understand, and can reach that niche in some way (e.g., through your website, through a newsletter, through teaching or speaking engagements, etc.), self-publishing can be a very useful tool.  Often, big publishers aren’t interested in the “small niche” nonfiction book, because it doesn’t make enough profit to support a big organization.  But you’re not a big organization, so you don’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit to keep going – so self-publishing can indeed be the answer.  Notice, however, I said “savvy.”  When you become a self-publisher, you become all the things that a “traditional” publisher would be to you; you either have to do it all yourself, or you have to pay someone to do it for you.  Most especially, that means marketing and promotion – something a great many writers absolutely hate.  If you’d rather write than promote your last book, self-publishing probably isn’t a good option.

One thing I always try to do in this kind of discussion is educate just a wee bit about the difference between “self-publishing” and “print-on-demand” publishing.  In most cases, POD is not, in the classic sense, “self-publishing,” because you are not the publisher.  The POD company is.  There are a lot of things you don’t control in that situation (in some cases more than others).  So I like to use the term “DIY” (do-it-yourself) publishing to apply to both models.  Self-publishing usually means you take your book to a printer; POD publishing means you send it to a “publisher” who, in most cases, provides you with a royalty on every sale.  (There’s a lot more about that in our publishing section on Writing-World.com – http://www.writing-world.com/publish/index.shtml)

Now, before your readers get hot under the collar and assume I’m denouncing self-publishing or POD publishing, let me hasten to declare that I do both, and am very happy with both.  My book, Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet, has been self-published since the beginning.  It “enjoyed” a brief stint with a “real”, traditional publisher – a stint during which I sold fewer copies and made less money that at any other time in its 24-year history.  Now, I sell it both ways.  DogEar Publications is my main “publisher;” they get the book on Amazon, B&N, and even into distributors like Ingram, and they’re doing a wonderful job.  I also print the book myself and market it directly, especially to bulk customers (because POD offers too low a profit margin to make bulk discounts viable). 

For other projects, I’ve used both Lulu.com and CreateSpace.  I LOVE the ability to do personal projects on Lulu – now, you can create a real, honest-to-gosh BOOK that could be just something personal, like a family history, that you want to share with family and friends.  I love this.  I do all my photo albums on Lulu (though I’m moving toward Blurb now).  For a book that I want to sell on Amazon, I lean more toward CreateSpace, which is also free to set up, and seems to have a bit better sales. 

So for certain things, I absolutely adore free POD.  For something that I am certain I’ll be able to generate sales (e.g., I’m thinking of doing a companion book to “Coping with Sorrow”), I’m willing to consider paying the fee of a high-quality POD company.  For other projects, where I need to be able to set discounts, I’ll go the self-publishing route and pay to have 500 copies printed and store them in my basement.  But when I get that novel published, I’m going to a traditional publisher!

12) Do you have an agent and do you feel an agent is necessary for non-fiction?
I don’t have an agent at this time.  As for whether it is necessary for nonfiction, it depends on the subject and/or the type of publisher you want to target.  If you’re trying to produce a nonfiction book that has the potential to be a  big seller (i.e., several hundred thousand copies), you may need to approach one of the big publishers and, in that case, you may need an agent. If you’re approaching a smaller publisher for a more niche-market book, chances are you can manage it yourself with a well-written book proposal. 

Also, when shopping for an agent, be sure you find out what that person’s track record is.  A friend was delighted to recommend me to her agent.  That agent got me exactly nowhere.  Eventually I started comparing notes with a couple of other people who had used the same agent, with the same results.  We finally asked the friend, “Has she sold anything of YOURS?”  “No,” said the friend, “but she really tries hard!” 

13) Any tips for new writers hoping to write non-fiction?
Choose a subject you care about.  A nonfiction book is a long-term relationship, as writing goes – it may take you anywhere from one to three years (or more) to complete. If you have to do a lot of research, it’s going to take longer.  Plus, once you DO get it to a publisher, your relationship still isn’t over; you’re going to have to do edits and rewrites and galley proofs and so on…  If you don’t care about the subject, you’re going to get sick of it before it’s done, and that’s going to show in your writing.  But if you DO care, you’ll want to do the best possible job – and THAT will show in your writing, and go a long way toward convincing an editor to buy your book.

Conversely, don’t pick a topic because you think it’s hot, that it’s sure to sell, etc. – because that means, by definition, you’re just looking for the money and not writing something you care about.  It WILL show, and such a plan rarely (if ever) works.  There’s typically NOT a lot of money in nonfiction writing, so if you’re not writing about something that means something to you, there are better ways to spend your time!

Moira, thank you so much for sharing your expertise.  Your answers are very helpful, especially since I know you are an expert in helping new writers succeed.

1 comment:

  1. I have read some of her articles. she is a good writer. May be I will have a look at some of her books later.