Write & Wait vs. Write, Write, Write

A friend wrote me an e-mail yesterday asking for my take on doing simultaneous submissions for article query letters. This is an issue that has vexed a lot of writers. Magazine editors generally don’t like it because it puts pressure on them to respond to an article quickly. However, sending out a query letter and waiting months to hear from an editor isn’t a productive use of the writer’s time. Writers don’t want to tick off editors who might be willing to buy a story by sending out the same query to multiple markets, though.

I’ve got two ways I use to work around this problem.

Customizing a story. Some story ideas lend themselves to market customizing. For instance, I’ve written three articles about an itinerant movie director from the 1920s through 1940s. He would go from city to city using a stock script to shot a movie in which he cast local people in all the parts. He changed the title of the movie based on the city in which he was shooting.

I sold the article to three magazines. Each article was different in that I focused on the movies the director made in the magazine’s market area (i.e., Cumberland, MD; Pennsylvania; Tyrone, PA), but other information in the articles the same, such as biographical information on the director. In cases like this, the articles are different enough that I don’t mind simultaneous queries to non-competing markets.

Make it up in volume. The technique I use more often grew out of the volume of queries I have out at any one time. I’m at the point where I have so many queries with magazines I don’t worry about submitting the same idea to two magazines at once. I send out a query each week. Using this method, simultaneous queries don’t really become an issue because I’m too busy with other ideas.

The exception to this is when an editor doesn’t get back to me about an idea. I usually follow-up with queries if I don’t hear from an editor in a month or so. If I still don’t hear back, I consider the idea open to send to another market.

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Interviewing your main characters

third-degree-interrogationMy writer’s group did an exercise last week I found both interesting and useful. It’s also something you can do with your own writing. Interrogate your characters.

You are questioned by police as a material witness about a crime your book character may have been involved in. The crime is not specified. The interviewer just wants information about your character. You don’t need to pretend to be your character (although that would be a variation on the idea). You just need to answer the questions based on your knowledge of the character.

 

Also, don’t use notes. The idea is to discover how well you know your character. The better you know the character, the easier it will be to write from that character’s perspective.

In watching my writer’s group leader perform the interrogations, it was interesting to see how he uncovered discrepancies with how the character would react in different situations or conflicting personality traits. These were pointed out to the author to consider as he or she wrote. Discovering and rectifying these potential problems before the book is published can save the author headaches later. 

I also saw that the interview could lead to the author making up missing information on the fly. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it remains consistent with the character’s personality.

Try it with your characters and see what you discover that you didn’t know about them.

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Exercise to release your creativity

cyclingI know there are many reasons why, as a writer, you should exercise. At the top of the list is the myriad of health benefits you receive when you exercise regularly. This is particularly important for a writer because our work is such a sedentary activity. You need the activity to keep from growing too wide for your desk chair.

My favorite forms of exercise are bicycling and walking for 1-2 hours 3-5 times a week. I have found that the exercise clears out my head of a lot of the clutter and jumble, worry over projects I’ve got to do, marketing I’ve got to do, and things like that. In clearing that out, it allows me to hear my muse and unleash my creativity. I’ve believed that for a long time, but it became very clear to me yesterday.

I have a short story I need to write. It’s an original story I need to write on deadline because it will be published as a serial. Even though, I had a 1-2 sentence idea about the story; I didn’t know where it would go.

Over the weekend, I had come up with an opening chapter. It works really well, but it is still in a draft form. I was scared to turn it in because as part of a serial; I didn’t know what happens in the rest of the story. I didn’t know how the story would end. I definitely didn’t know how to fill in the middle so it would take up at least six installments. I was feeling a little panicked because I’d been the one who pitched the publisher this idea.

I had a long story I wanted to run because it would give me time to evaluate whether the newspaper’s readers liked serial fiction. My goal was that while that story was running for six months, I would come up with a more localized story for the newspaper’s audience. While the publisher went for the serial idea, she wanted to have it localized right away. I came up with three rough ideas for stories (during another exercise session), and I pitched those ideas to the publisher. She shot down two of them so I agreed to write the third story, which was the weakest of the three ideas.

I was walking yesterday morning and had my phone with me as I always do because it has my fitness tracker on it. It also has a voice recorder. I dictated into the voice recorder as I was walking. Over the course of a few miles, the story fell into place as I outlined, talked about characters, and spoke conversations.

I’ll transcribe the notes I recorded this week and sort them out into a coherent outline. However, it’s enough to know that by the end of my walk, my story was outlined. Yes, I still need to write it, make sure I have chapter breaks at the right points, and edit it, but that is technical details. The heart of the story is worked. Also, I can now edit the opening chapter with the knowledge of what will be coming. This will allow me to do any foreshadowing or adjust anything is needed to fit with how the story will unfold.

Most of all, I am excited about the story and not scared. It is a great story that I can’t wait to write.

So, yes, exercise to release your creativity!

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Secrets of Successful Authors: Write more

Note: This will be the first post in a series that write from time to time that look into the habits of successful authors. While I make a living from my writing, I’m still far from where I want to be. My hope is that as I examine these habits, I’ll learn just as much as you.

Successful authors write… and continue to write.

The old saying is, “Writers write.” Well, successful authors write more.

Look at your favorite indie author who is selling well. I bet you’ll also find he or she has a strong backlist of titles and probably publishes more than a single title a year, which seems to be the standard among traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean that such writers are hack because they write fast. I remember as a teenager reading that my favorite author at the time, Louis L’Amour, used to write three books a year when he was an up-and-coming author.

The simple fact is that if you want to make a living writing, you need to have books for fans to buy. Once you have turned a reader into a fan, that fan is going to want to read more of what you write. You need to have additional titles to capitalize on that enthusiasm. If you have 100 fans and only one book, you can only sell 100 books, but if you have 10 books out, you can potentially sell 1000 books.

Author David Gaughran writes in Let’s Get Digital that having additional titles is more effective than many platform-building activities that authors do.

A deep backlist also helps with your marketing efforts. For instance, if you have one book out, it’s hard to run a free book promotion. However, if you write a trilogy, you can offer the first book at a deal to hook readers and have them purchase the other books at the regular price. Similarly, when I sell books at a festival, I offer a “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” deal. It’s a deal that has significantly increased my sales, but I wouldn’t be able to offer it if I only had one or two titles out.

So once your current book is released, market it, but also start working on your next book.

This, of course, means you’ll need to spend more time writing. That is hard to do if you are also working a full-time job, but work to find the time.

It is a cumulative effect. The more books you get out, the greater your chances at seeing success. The more-successful you are, not only will you be more motivated to write, you will be earning more. This should help you cut back on other work.

Obviously, it will take time to build up your backlist so any extra time you can devote to your writing now will pay off down the line.

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Fiction needs to tell the truth

9780451198426I finished reading Homeland by John Jakes yesterday. It is a coming-of-age story about a young German immigrant who comes to America to live with his successful uncle in the 1890s. Paul Crown soon dreams of becoming a camera operator for the “living pictures”, a very early form of motion pictures. First, he learns to be a good photographer, and one lesson his mentor teaches him is that because of the power of photographs and living pictures, they should always tell the truth.

When I read this in the book, it made me think of something I always preach, which is historical fiction and history shouldn’t be written to prove or disprove an agenda. It should tell how things were, as best the author can, without judging those in the past by the standards of today. In other words, they should tell the truth.

The lo and behold, in the book’s afterward, Jakes wrote about a conversation he had in 1991 with a historian friend. They talked about the tendency to write history in such a way to prove the author’s view of history. For instance, if an author thinks of all the Founding Fathers as bigoted slaveholders, the only parts of the Founding Fathers’ biographies he will write will focus on that. It will warp other parts of their histories to show or mean something different from what they did. Mitigating and contradictory stories will be ignored.

“My friend shook his head over that,” Jakes wrote. “He said, ‘Our first responsibility is to tell what happened.’”

Truth in fiction9780345384683_p0_v1_s1200x630

If you don’t do that in fiction, your story won’t ring true. It will put off the reader as much as having a dinosaur appear in a story of the Revolutionary War. Readers can forgive such things if you set the story in the correct genre and the world you create is accurate in much of the other details. Guns of the South is a good example. Harry Turtledove didn’t make it historical fiction. It is considered science fiction. Also, although machine guns used to turn the tide of the Civil War didn’t happen, Turtledove stuck to the truth as much as possible, in particular, working to understand key historical figures and how they would respond to such a game-changing weapon.

Even in fiction, there is truth to tell. Be honest about your character’s personality and motivation, create a believable setting.

A writer whose name escapes me once wrote that the more fantastical elements of your story are, the more grounded in truth and facts other areas need to be. His reasoning is that readers can accept anything in a story as long as they feel connected to it. They feel connected to the familiar and believable. So, if you are going to write about a future world where the aliens on a planet are ants that join together to shapeshift, then you better have believable human characters or have it set on a planet that is very similar to earth. Those will be the things that ground your reader so their heads aren’t spinning because they can’t connect with anything in your story.

Truth in nonfiction

However, if you are writing a nonfiction history piece, you don’t get the same leeway as fiction. You need to write the history as it happened, not interpret it. Once you impose your views on the historical events, you are no longer writing history, you are writing an opinion book or a political book, and it should be labeled as such.

One reason I’m worked up about this is that I was reading an article recently about how some classic movies are disappearing because they show things that were fine to show when the movie was filmed but are no longer acceptable. It’s nothing new, but it is short-sighted. For instance, how can you teach about the Civil War, if you go around and remove every sign of the Confederate States of America? Taken to the extreme (which is where, sadly, it seems to be going), you’ll eventually have a generation of students asking, “Who were the Northern armies fighting?” They’ll get no answer because the books, films, pictures, and monuments will be gone.

As a writer of history, and to a certain degree other genres, you have a responsibility to tell the truth.

Whether it’s history, fantasy, or romance, tell the story with all its truth-good and bad-and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.

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He said, she said

people-speaking-avatar-collection_1347-100Dialogue in your story is important. It can reveal a lot about the characters and move the story forward. However, if not handled properly, it can be clunky.

I would guess that the no. 1 way of messing up dialogue is using too many tags and trying to use a variety of tags. A dialogue tag is what we connect to dialogue to identify who is speaking, such as he said, she asked, Jeff yelled, Marci questioned, etc.

 

You don’t need to get fancy. In fact, the fancier you get, the more likely you are to distract from the dialogue, and that is what you want your reader to notice.

Keep it simple. Unless you have a good reason not use it, said and asked are the only tags you need. One writer I know calls them “white noise” that readers don’t pay attention to, which is exactly what you want to happen.

The reader should take in the dialogue, see who said it, and that is all they need. Punctuation and wording can show the reader how to interpret the dialogue. A question mark means the person asked a question. An exclamation point shows the comment was made with emphasis. Repeating words imply hesitation. Actions you show happening during the dialogue can show the various emotions and state of mind of the speaker. If it is appropriate, you can also have one speaker identify another by name.

 

We are often told, “Show, don’t tell.” It applies to dialogue, and tags tell. They tell who is speaking and they often tell an action. Because of that, we should avoid using them except to identify who is speaking and we should minimize that. Don’t tell me Joe said something excitedly. Show me Joe acting agitated, throwing his hands in the air, or grabbing the person he is talking to. Use an exclamation point at the end of the dialogue line. The reader will see Joe is excited and assume those emotions will show in his speaking.

It may sound like I think we shouldn’t use dialogue tags at all. If you can get away with it, don’t do.

Otherwise, only use tags when the speaker needs identification. This will be minimal in a conversation between two people. Once the speakers are identified, each time the speaker changes, a new paragraph starts. If the conversation goes on for a long time, you might need to identify them again somewhere in the conversation.

 

One instance where you may need to use more tags than normal is to keep the speakers straight in a conversation that involves three or more people. Since the conversation is not the back and forth of two people, you need to make sure the reader knows who is who in the conversation.

TIP: Write your dialogue in the first draft with no tags. Then when you re-read it at a later date, if you don’t know who is speaking, you know you need a tag or some other identification technique. This tip also helps you know in longer stretches of dialogue when additional identification is needed.

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Changes coming

Watch for changes coming to this blog beginning next week. For more than 9 years, this blog has featured different aspects of a writer’s life. I’ll be the first to admit that it has wandered at times. Beginning next week, I’ll be renaming the blog: Write Now!: Secrets and Tips to Make a Living as a Writer.

I am narrowing the focus of the blog to focus on how to make a living as a freelance writer and/or author.

Judging by my interactions with other authors and responses from students I teach, I believe I have good information to share with new and experienced writers. I’ll write about freelancing, getting assignments, running a business, indie publishing, writing, marketing, and other issues. As I read books helpful to the writer, I will pass those recommendations along to you.

I may not appear on bestseller lists all the time, but I am making a living as a full-time writer. Here’s my background that has brought me to this point:

  • I have worked in full-time positions as a copywriter, marketing writer, reporter, and editor.
  • I have had two freelance writing careers; one was more business oriented, and the second is the one I am doing now.
  • I became a freelance writer in 1988, which is probably before some of you were born.
  • I have over two dozen writing awards.
  • I teach college writing courses and workshops at writers’ conferences, which gives me insight into what writers are questioning.
  • I continue to learn and improve.

So, watch for the changes beginning next week, and let me know about topics you want to read about, questions you might have, and changes you want to see to the blog.

My latest appearance on TV

I was interviewed on Good Day PA, a local talk show on ABC 27 in Harrisburg, PA. It was my fourth television appearance. I have previously been on a local cable show, another regional talk show, and C-SPAN.

This time, we talked about my latest book, Secrets of the Gettysburg Battlefield. The interview lasted about 5 minutes, but I had to be there more than an hour before I went on air, so I spent a lot of time sitting around. Here are a few behind-the-scenes pictures I took.

I will post the link to the interview when it becomes available.

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The ripple effect in marketing

320004_10150370257646867_270838901866_8795066_1718063802_nYears ago, there was a popular commercial for either shampoo or hair dye. The woman in the commercial was so happy with the product she said, “You’ll tell two friends about it, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on and so on.” Meanwhile, the image of the woman kept doubling and doubling until there were a couple dozen images on the screen.

It’s a great effect to have duplicated in your marketing efforts. Nowadays, it’s called going viral, and if you can achieve it, the results are phenomenal.

The problem is that there’s no sure-fire way to achieve it.

I have found one way that puts me in a good position to have things happen, though. It’s going to festivals to sell my books.

While selling my books, I almost always get requests to do talks, book signings, or other festivals.

If attending the festival is equivalent to dropping a rock in a lake, then each book I sell is a ripple. Each additional event I attend because of the festival is another rock in the lake. With enough rocks and ripples, soon that lake is looking like boiling water because of my books.

 

While I love selling my books at these shows, I delight in the additional opportunities that come my way. It’s like getting bonus sales.

It makes it hard to measure the effectiveness of a show, though. A show might only be average in sales, but perhaps, it yields a talk where I sell another two dozen books. How do I measure those sales regarding the original show?

To set yourself up in the best way for these opportunities, make yourself approachable. I always try to talk to people who stop by my booth. I am not hard sell. I point out which books are fiction and which are non-fiction. I ask what they like. I may comment on a shirt they are wearing. I will ask if they are enjoying the festival. I am trying to strike up a dialogue so they feel comfortable talking with me. I also try to stay positive and be diplomatic about controversial topics.

The key is I listen and react to what the customer is saying. One of my school teachers used to have a poster in her room that said, “If you’re talking, you’re not listening.” If you are continually pitching a potential customer to make a sale, you might not give them the opportunity to ask you about another opportunity.

If you really want to encourage these opportunities, add a line to your business card that says you are available for presentations and workshops. You can make it more obvious by creating a sign to sit on your table that says you are available.

 

So, attend a show, sell a book, give a presentation, and have the reader tell two friends about you and so on and so on.

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The benefits of joining a writer’s group

Writing can be lonely work unless you count your characters as company. Even if you’re writing non-fiction and interviewing people, the relationship is different than if you’re talking with friends.

That’s why I enjoy being part of a writer’s group. I’ve been a member of a half dozen or so over the years and have enjoyed them all. It’s nice to get together with other writers occasionally and talk about projects you’re working on, the craft or even something unrelated to writing.

Sure, a lot of writer’s groups are about reading pieces and getting feedback, but the value I get from them is simply being able to talk to someone else who understands the frustration of writer’s block, the joy from having a book published or the sadness at having one rejected.

That said, here are the top five benefits of joining a writer’s group as I see them. Let me know if you have anything different to add.

  1. Leads for new work. I actually got a new job writing a weekly column because a member of my writer’s group told me that the editors had changed at a local newspaper.
  2. Sympathetic ears. As I said, it’s nice to talk to someone who understands the writing life.
  3. Discussions about how to improve your technique. Lots of writers pay hundreds of dollars to hear other writers talk about creating fuller characters, writing vibrant dialogue and other things. In a writer’s group, you get it for free.
  4. Camaraderie. It’s nice to have friends with shared interests.
  5. Feedback on writing. What are you doing wrong? What are you doing right? Find out before you make a fool out of yourself by sending your manuscript to an agent.

writers-critique-group

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