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The keynote speaker at one of the annual writer’s conferences sponsored by the Washington Independent Writers.

For a job that relies on connecting with readers, writing can be a lonely profession. To start with, I have no workmates. I work in my den in my house. Now, that’s not the case for all writers. I have worked for businesses and newspapers where there were desks next to mine and I could speak and joke with the person sitting next to me.

 

Writers do a lot of talking to people for interviews, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to relationships. I do get to know some of the people well. These are people in the geographic areas that I frequently write about or experts on topics that I frequently write about. The vast majority of people I speak with, though, I only talk to once for a single article.

With that feeling of isolation, I find that it’s important for writers to have a support system in place. This includes family and friends, but it also includes other writers. I participate in a weekly writer’s group. It’s nice to meet with other people who share an interest in writing and talk about the craft or simply joke around.

This network comes with some benefits. First and foremost, it reinvigorates me for my work each week. This is important for me, particularly during weeks where I’m feeling very stressed out.

You also find the benefits that come with other networking groups. I hear about writing opportunities, and I can find people I trust when I need some help.

It also gives me a chance to pay things forward and help other writers when I can because I like seeing writers succeed. I might get a little jealous of their success, but I’m always happy for them.

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RULE

Ann Rule

Last month, I had the opportunity to take on a true crime book, but I turned it down. It wasn’t an easy choice. It was an interesting cold case, but I felt that I wasn’t ready for the project at this time. It would have required travel that I didn’t want to do, and time that I just couldn’t commit, at least not if I wanted to finish the book in less than a decade.

 

While I was considering the project, I also studied how to do true crime books. I have covered criminal cases when I was a newspaper reporter and even done investigative pieces. I’ve read some true crime books as well, but I wasn’t sure what goes into writing one. For instance, should you have your manuscript vetted by a lawyer? If so, that would have made it very different from other types of writing.

I found an interesting article that had some good tips from the “Queen of True Crime” Ann Rule. If anyone knows how to write a true crime book, it’s her. She is the author of books like Small Sacrifices and Heart Full of Lies. Her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, was about her co-worker, serial killer Ted Bundy. 138454

While she has great advice for being a writer, in general, here are her tips for being a true crime writer.

  1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
  2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience. (I used to try and take notes during trials, but I finally started recording them so I could do just this. If a writers soaks in the experience, it helps in setting the mood and scene when you write.)
  3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
  4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
  5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.” (She says this to keep you from getting in trouble with the judicial system, but it also follows the old adage, “If you’re talking, you aren’t listening.” You never know what you might hear if you are quiet and sitting in the right place.)
  6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
  7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.” (This was one of my hesitations with the true crime project I was presented. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t obsessed by it. Because of that, I was willing to let other things get in the way of me writing the project.)
  8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
  9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

x4459True crime is an interesting genre because you might actually have a real-world impact, such as catching a criminal. However, it also has plenty of things that could cause you headaches if you aren’t careful. Maybe one day I’ll find that true crime project that I can’t forget, and when that happens, I’ll take the leap.

Here’s the link to the original article where I found Ann Rule’s tips.

 

 

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gjon-mili-writer-damon-runyon-working-on-script-at-deskI’m trying a different type of post today. The Gettysburg Writers Brigade is a group of writers who both support each other and learn from each other. Our group’s founder, Will Hutchison, usually moderates discussions different topics. He also teaches more formal lessons from time to time.

You can click on the link below and download the slides from one of these lessons about creating a story.

Would you like to know how to structure a novel? The slides will give you tips from Will and famous writers on how to find your story and develop it.

Let me know what you think.

And if you would like to participate in the group, we meet every Wednesday at O’Rourke’s Eatery and Spirits at 44 Steinwehr Avenue in Gettysburg, PA. We meet in the second-floor dining room at 7 p.m. Come find us.

Story Story Story

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BookCoverPreviewI came across this post yesterday, and with the title “There’s no such thing as historical fiction,” it certainly stopped me. I mean, if there’s no historical fiction, then what have I been writing for years?

Here’s the post by Paul Lynch on Literary Hub so you can read for yourself. If I’m reading it right, it is saying that historical novels aren’t about the history but about exploring universal truths.

“Let’s suppose you are a novelist writing fiction set in an historical era. Ask yourself this question: What reader from 1817 would recognize themselves in a novel written 200 years later? That reader would collapse in a cold swoon and wake up bereft and bewildered,” Lynch wrote.

He says that the accurate creation of history “is an act of prestidigitation.”

“Of course, we read the “historical novel” and marvel at its simulation of the past. But pay attention and you will see the historical novel can speak with cool clarity about what is timeless in the present,” Lynch wrote.

With that, I think Lynch gets to his point, which is that history viewed through the prism of the present is tainted. This is something I see not only with historical fiction but also books that are touted as non-fiction.

I’ll go even further and say, it is the same problem that plagues the modern media. Events are reported through the biases of the writer. This leads to facts being left out, underemphasized, or overemphasized.

I think it is unavoidable. At the best, if you try to create an accurate portrait of the past, there will be things you don’t know and not even realize it. However, if you have done your best as an author to create a believable past and authentic characters, then you can be forgiven such mistakes.

The problems arise when you ignore information because it doesn’t fit within the narrative you want to create.

Sure, it’s fiction, but I learned a lesson in writing fantasy and science fiction that also applies to any fiction. If you want readers to believe, or at least accept, the unbelievable, you need to make as much as you can believable. This builds your credibility with the reader.

If you want to write about history, get as much right as you can.

So, while I disagree with the title of Lynch’s post, he makes some good points. There is historical fiction. Our job as writers is to make sure that it doesn’t become fantasy.

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dictation_recorders-mainI’m always looking for ways to increase my productivity. As a one-man show, I either have to do the job or pay to have someone else do it. So I’m always trying to get more from my day to tick off another few items on my “to do” list.

I have been thinking about dictation for awhile now. I even bought the Dragon Talk software. However, I quickly figured out that my most likely time to use dictation was not necessarily when I was going to be sitting at my desk.

I let the idea fall by the wayside for a while. Last week, I decided to try it again.

I downloaded a speech-to-text app onto my phone. Then the next time I went walking, I pulled out my own and started dictating a chapter in the book that I’m working on. When I had finished, I emailed the text to myself.

When I got home later, I opened my e-mail and copied the text into a word document. Then I took a couple minutes to read through the text, add punctuation, correct spelling, and format. Within about a third of the time that it would have taken me to type 1,000, I had my draft of the scene done. Plus, most of the time that it took to prepare the scene, I did while I was walking.

That’s an increase in productivity!

The other place where I’ve found the app pays off is when I go to bed. As I lay there winding down each night, I tend to think of things I need to do or scenes I want to write.

Now when that happens, I grab my phone and start dictating. Then I can review what I dictated in the morning.

Next up, I’d like to find a way to have my computer translate interviews that I conduct while I’m researching. I can’t simply use the app because there are translation errors that I would need to be able to refer back to original interview to check. I’m thinking I need to record the interview and then see if I can play it into my phone so that it’s translated.

Whether it works or not, dictation has definitely increased my productivity. I also think that it helps improve the flow of my writing, particularly when I’m writing dialogue.

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boy-2028167_1280June has been my best month as a freelancer so far, and the month is not even finished. I have sold more books and had more income this month than I’ve ever had.

I wish I could specifically list what I’ve been doing this month that has worked so well, but the truth is, I don’t know. I’ve done some new shows, but most of what I’ve been doing is the same.

I would say that my record month is a culmination of a lot of things. I’ve been working hard for years, and I continue to do a lot of hard work to build my business. I say this because I’ve seen my annual income and average monthly income rising steadily for the past five years. In fact, I just looked at my chart and saw that I will have made more by the end of July than I made in all of 2012!

Here are a couple things that I can recommend that have helped me be able to work full-time as a writer:

Be willing to try new things. I am willing to try new marketing methods, sell at new shows, and speak to new groups. If the opportunity makes sense and I can afford it, I will try it. Most of the time, it proves very worthwhile. Only a few times can I say that doing something new was a waste of my time. Even the things that don’t work for me give me information that help me make better selections for future opportunities.

Evaluate the opportunities you take. I have been breaking down each of my events to an hourly cost in order to know whether it was worthwhile or not. I may sell a lot of books at one event, but it that event cost a lot for the table, required overnight stays, and meals, the hourly rate may be less than a smaller show that is close to where I live.

Continue to write. You can’t write one book and expect to make a living from it. I publish at least one book a year. Lately, I’ve been doing more than one book a year because I write in different genres. This new material fills the need my fans have when they approach me at shows year after year and ask, “What do you have that’s new?” My growing backlist also provides plenty of material that I can use for promotions that I use to attract new readers.

Good luck in your efforts to make a living as a writer. It can be done.

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Portrait of Author Henry MillerHenry Miller, a painter and author from the 20th century came up with 11 writing commandments. Here are the commandments.

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

While these are all good rules, I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t follow them all. I can say that I regularly follow numbers 5, 6, 7, and 10. The rest I break regularly.

Although I break more of these “commandments” than I follow, my process works for me. That’s what’s important.

What works for you? Do you keep more commandments than you break?

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notes-514998_640In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about four different types of writers: Great, Good, Competent, and Bad. He also makes the argument that a Bad writer can’t move up to competent, and a Good writer can’t become great. His term is fuhgeddiboudit. Great writers, such as Shakespeare and Faulkner, seem to be born with the divine gift of creating magic from words.

That seems discouraging. Writers should aspire for greatness. If you don’t want to be at the top of your game, why write?

King does feel that Competent writers can with diligence and effort become Good writers. That was his silver lining.

I see an even larger silver lining. If we accept his premise that Good writers can’t be Great writers because Great writers are born that way, there’s still a lot that can be done.

First, how will you discover the greatness within you unless you write? Even Shakespeare had to learn to spell, Faulkner had to practice grammar. So don’t use the excuse that you will never be a Great writer as a reason not to write. Exercise the belief that you will be a great writer, and it just may come true.

Next, even if it doesn’t happen, working at the craft of writing to make it so will definitely improve your writing. King believes that Competent writers can become Good writers. More than that, there just isn’t one type of Good writer. There are lots of different levels within that broad category. Think of it as military rank. There are officers and enlisted men, but within each of those categories, there are varying ranks.

You can move from a Competent writer to a Good writer as King says, but you can also move from a barely Good writer to a very Good writer. You may never reach the level of Great writer, but continually working to develop and hone your skills will allow you to nestle just beneath the level of Great writer.

We should all seek to be the Avis of writers. We’re no. 2, but we try harder.

 

 

 

 

checklist-clipart-response-clipart-clipart-pencil-checklistSo in the past two weeks, I’ve talked about how going the extra mile and developing a relationship with the editor. For this final piece, I’m going to look at how becoming an expert in your field will help you get more assignment.

I’m not talking about getting a degree in every subject you want to write about. You can become an expert by writing extensively about the subject.

This is something that comes with time. As you consistently work with a magazine, your work may tend to fall into a niche. Usually, my niche is history, but I’ve written two stories with Hagerstown Magazine that accidentally turned out to be health stories. I’ve also written health stories from time to time with other magazines. I now have a niche in health writing.

As you start to develop a niche, the editor will begin to recognize you as such. You will become the magazine’s go-to person for that topic. It doesn’t mean you can’t pitch the magazine other stories, it’s just what you’ll become known for. When I first contacted the editor of Allegany Magazine about doing stories for him, he was very excited because he was a fan of my column, so he knew my work and was anxious for me to do local history articles for the magazine.

That’s not to say I only do history articles for the magazines. I’m working on a feature piece now about a local bookseller’s experience running a bookstore in Ireland.

Becoming the go-to person: The benefit of becoming an expert is that when the editor is looking to assign a story in your niche, you’ll be the first person to come to mind. The bad news is that you won’t be the first person to come to mind if it’s not your niche.

Extra benefits of being an expert: Becoming the go-to person for a topic leads to more than just editors contacting you with assignments about your topic. I know a man in Cumberland who collected historic postcards and pictures for years about Western Maryland. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, he published them in numerous books. He is considered the go-to man for local history in Cumberland and he is the first person everyone thinks about when they need a photo, a judge for a contest, a speaker, etc.

Continually improve your writing skills: Another aspect of becoming an expert includes becoming an expert writer. I’ve been writing professionally since 1988 and I still look for ways to improve and expand my skills. Never stop learning.

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adult-2242164_640Last week, I wrote about how to get more freelance assignments by going the extra mile. This week, I want to talk about how to get more assignments by developing a relationship with the editor.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about becoming buddies so that the editor does his or her friend a favor and gives you work. I’m talking about developing a professional relationship where you work well together to create an excellent finished product.

When you first start working with an editor, you are strangers. You may not have met or even spoken to one another. However, as the saying goes, “The work speaks for itself.” As you submit assignments, the editor begins to trust your ability to meet deadlines and deliver quality work.

Don’t underestimate the value of that trust. Chances are editors work with dozens of different writers and not all of them are professional or dependable. The fact that you are puts you a few steps ahead of them.

What’s the value of this to you? It means your stories will get accepted easier. A borderline idea might be rejected if the editor doesn’t know the writer, but if the editor knows you, he or she may be more willing to take a chance. I’ve had stories assigned to me after just writing a sentence or two to the editor about an idea.

Another nice thing is that once editors know what you can do and how well you do it, they may contact you to write stories. I love when this happens because it means that’s less work I have to do coming up with a story and querying different markets. I just had this happen recently when I ran into an editor I know and she asked me if I was interested in taking on an assignment that she had.

Meeting deadlines

I mention meeting deadlines a lot as a talk about freelance writing. That’s because I have been an editor who has had to wait and see if a new writer is going to deliver a story on time and in what shape it will be.

You may think being a little late is fine because the magazine the article is supposed to appear in is not due out for a couple months, but you have to understand that your deadline is just an early one in a series of deadlines that will allow the magazine to come out on time. There is some wiggle room, but not as much as you might think. Besides, it’s not your call whether it should be given to you or not.

That being said, sometimes you will run into problems. The story doesn’t work out the way you expect, interviewees don’t get back to you, or you might get sick or have an accident. Things happen. If you do run into a problem that will keep you from hitting your deadline, contact your editor as soon as possible and see what can be done.

Editors won’t hold it against you if you have a legitimate excuse. Don’t dawdle and waste your time with the story, though. Most editors will give you at least a month to complete your article. That sounds like a lot of time. You’d be surprised at how quickly it can disappear when you’ve got other things that need to be done.

I’ve gotten into the habit of creating my own mini-deadlines. For instance, when I had four articles due one month, instead of doing each in bits and pieces, I set it up so I could focus and finish one each week.

You might also want to prioritize. If focus most of my efforts on completing the story that is due the soonest while doing a little bit on any other articles that are coming due in the next month. This might be researching, interviewing, or transcribing notes. I do these things bit by bit so that when each story gets the focus of my attention, I’m ready to write.

Next week, I’ll finish up by talking about becoming an expert.

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