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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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magazine-806073_640I’ve been doing freelance writing in one form or another for 25 years now. When I started out, I was getting only a few assignments to write articles. Nowadays, I have plenty of work, and the best part is that many times the editor offers me the assignment without me having to send a query letter.

So I thought I would share some tips with you to improve your odds at getting the assignment. Many of these are quite simple, even logical, but I have run into writers over the years who have neglected them and then wonder why their query letters are rejected.

Going the Extra Mile

  1. Reply quickly to any inquiries made by editors. You would like them to do it for you, do it for them. This includes being quick about proofing. The quicker you are in responding, the more time they have to do their thing. I have had more than one editor thank me for doing a quick turnaround on a project.
  2. Be willing to be edited. Your words aren’t gospel. Unless an edit is incorrect, be willing to consider and accept the changes. You are being paid for the work.
  3. Add extra information when appropriate. For example, provide captions for any pictures you submit.
  4. If you are submitting pictures with your article, submit more than needed so the editor had plenty to choose from.
  5. Keep to the assigned word length. I’m not saying that you have to hit the number spot on, but you should stay within 10 percent of the assigned length. If you fall too far short, your story may no longer meet its purpose. For instance, your short feature story, might only be the length of a department piece. If you go too far over the limit, you are creating extra work for the editor who will have to edit the piece down to the proper length.
  6. Produce quality work. Always turn in the best story you can write. Poor work won’t win you more assignments.

By going the extra mile, you make an editor’s job easier. If you’re doing that, when an editor is considering who to assign stories to, you will be topmost in his or her mind as a writer who not only provides good work but also relieves some of the stress of their job.

Next week, I’ll provide some tips for developing a long-term relationship with an editor.

Here are some other posts that you might enjoy:

 

 

 

I saw this story yesterday, and I got a kick out of it. How many times have you seen a sign with a misspelling or grammar error? I especially get peeved when I see one that is on a permanent sign. Not only did someone decide to write the signed incorrectly, but someone else approved it, and a third person printed it that way. Now their poor English education is immortalized.

Apparently, it got to be too much for this guy who took matters into his own hands and became a “grammar vigilante.” It reminds me of the Studio C skit about Captain Literally and The Grammar League.

 

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Click to watch the video

 

The Grammar Vigilante’s tool of choice is an apostrohiser, which a “a broom handle laden with two sponges and a number of stickers,” according to the UK Telegraph. The newspaper reported that he has been replacing or removing misplaced apostrophes throughout Bristol, England, over the past 13 years.

He told the newspaper, “People might say what I am doing is wrong, but it is more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place.”

Reactions to the Grammar Vigilante’s efforts have been mixed. Some don’t mind being corrected, while others feel like it defaces a sign that may have cost thousands to produce. So far, police haven’t received any complaints about his efforts.

You can read the Telegraph article here.

 

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O’Rorke’s Restaurant in Gettysburg, PA, where the Gettysburg Writers Brigade meets.

 

On any given Wednesday night, on the second floor of O’Rorke’s Restaurant in Gettysburg, you’ll find a group of men and women gathered around a long table. Some of them will be eating, some sipping a beer, many of them talking to each other. Newcomers are welcome to the group, but if you sit down, you had better be ready to hear some unusual topics of conversation. How do you make dialogue snappier? How do you use Facebook to promote your writing? How do you get your novel published? Members of the Gettysburg Writers Brigade are all likely to have an opinion on the topics and probably not the same opinion, but that diversity of ideas is what makes the group so useful.

Writing a book is on a lot of people’s bucket lists, but they don’t know how to get started. The blank page that they are expected to fill with words can be intimidating.

You don’t have to face the challenge alone or uninformed, though. The Gettysburg Writer’s Brigade has been helping writers navigate the pitfalls of writing a book for nearly seven years and at the same time offering encouragement to those writers.

Will Hutchison, an author of three novels and two non-fiction books, formed the group in 2010.

“I think writers need to talk to writers and I wanted to get together with some writers to talk,” he said.

Since January 4, 2010, the group has had 372 official meetings and numerous unofficial ones. The official meetings are about 60 percent social and 40 percent writing technique with a little bit of critiquing thrown in, according to Hutchison. It seems to be a combination that works. Group membership has grown from six to eight members to 83 members on Meetup.com and 8 to 12 people on average attending the Wednesday night sessions.

Curt Herring is one of the newest members of the group. He joined in July 2016 when he was looking for tips on how to write a book about his father. A neighbor who was a member of the group told him about it.

“I like the fellowship and I’m learning something new every week,” Herring said. “I look forward to it each week.”

Not everyone in the group is an unpublished author. When the Gettysburg Writers Brigade first began, Hutchison was the only published author, but now he estimates that a third of the group has either had articles, books, poetry or something else published.

 

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Gettysburg Writers Brigade Founder Will Hutchison

“More people are getting published and that’s the bottom line,” Hutchison said.

 

Gail Furford joined the group in 2012 and now has two books published. “I like the input I get from each member,” she said. “I like learning from each other’s styles.

Even the group’s founder learns from the meetings. He has had two of his books published since the group started meeting.

“This group has also helped me write the books. I bounce ideas off the group and get feedback from the critiques,” Hutchison said.

While most writer’s groups are critiquing sessions that can be quite brutal to an insecure author, the Gettysburg Writer’s Brigade only does readings once a month. The group critiques must be constructive to help the author and not tear down the writer’s confidence or enthusiasm for writing.

A typical meeting begins with members filtering in a half hour or more before the meeting just to talk about what is happening in their lives. Between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. when it looks like everyone who is going to show up is in the room, Hutchison will get the group’s attention. Sometimes there are some general announcements to be made. Other times, he simply gets started on the evening’s presentation. It will be something having to do with writing, whether it’s technique, marketing, publishing or something else. Each week’s topics are decided on by the group at the end of the previous meeting.

“There’s a lot of pressure to have a presentation each week, but this is how the group likes it,” Hutchison said.

He originally thought the Gettysburg Writer’s Brigade would meet monthly, but the members enjoy the regularity of weekly meetings.

“It’s fun to sit with people who are going through exactly the same things you’ve gone through writing,” Hutchison said.

Furford agreed. “I’m getting so much more than I expected out the group learning from people’s different styles and the various topics,” she said.

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gjon-mili-writer-damon-runyon-working-on-script-at-deskThe most-frequent question that I get as a writer is probably, “Where do you get the ideas for your columns?”

It’s hard for me to give that questioner a short answer to this, especially when we’re talking face to face at a book signing. I thought that I would go through the process with you for my blog.

For those of you who don’t know, I write a local-history column for five different newspapers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. These aren’t the same column appearing in five newspapers. They are different columns, pertinent to each newspapers’ readership, published in those newspapers. This means I need to regularly come up with interesting history articles on a regular basis.

Finding ideasmultitude-clipart-writing-clip-art-3

I routinely go through the old newspapers that service the different areas where my columns appear. Many of these old newspapers can be accessed on newspaper databases that I subscribe to, but others require trips to different libraries that have the old newspapers on microfilm.

I pick a year at random, and I generally start with whatever month the month is when I’m doing the research. There’s no reason for this, other than it helps me gather articles not only from different years but different times of the year.

I start scrolling through the newspapers. I read all of the headlines looking for something that catches my attention. I search for stories about interesting people, unusual events, famous people, local versions of national events, and others. This is where personal preference comes in. My selection of stories is going to be different than someone else’s choices.

One other thing about story selection. I try to find stories that seem to have enough meat that I can turn into a column. If the original newspaper story is short, it had better be fascinating to me because I will probably have to do a lot of research to flesh it out.

As I find the possible stories, I save a copy to my idea file.

bernard-schoenbaum-writer-working-on-computer-uses-a-electronic-tablet-to-handwrite-his-words-cartoonStory selection

I don’t start working on the stories I save right away. When I need a topic for a column, I go to my idea file and look at the different ideas that I’ve saved. If the idea still catches my attention, I may use it.

Sometimes the story doesn’t. There have been instances when I have saved a copy of a newspaper page that had a story on it that I thought was interesting. When I went back to look at the story again, I couldn’t even tell which one was the reason that caused me to save the page.

Research

Once I select the story that I want to work on, I start researching it. The first thing I do is search the newspapers to see if there are additional stories concerning the topic. I also study the people and places in the story to get more background about them. Sometimes, I may interview someone, but often, I can’t find someone living who has something pertinent to say about the story. I may even do a web search to see if there is anything out in the ether that might help me.

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I transcribe the information and quotes from my research into a Word document. This pulls together all of my research into one convenient location. I then sort and rearrange the information into roughly the order that I see the story progressing. This will sometimes show me gaps in my research that I need to research and fill in.

At this point, what I essentially have is a very meaty outline.

Writing

I start writing, moving from point to point in the outline and including the quotes that still make sense to include. This is another place where individual style comes into play.

I may write about the same thing as someone else, but the story I come up with will probably be very different. Both stories may be fine versions of the same idea. It just depends on whose style appeals more to readers.

So, that’s my process. Nothing too fancy, but it works for me.

2500dagenrust-dicht-8001-300x300A common question that I hear when I teach novel writing or even talk with other writers is, “How long should my book be?”

My answer is usually, “What genre of book are you writing?”

There are different acceptable lengths for different genres of books. It doesn’t mean that you can’t write outside of those limits. I found one writer named Wildbow who had written a web-published book called Worm. It’s not on Amazon but you can find it online. It is made up of 31 arcs and an epilogue and each arc has about 10 sections. If it sounds long, it is. It has 1.75 million words or about 7,000 pages. Each arc I’m guessing could probably make up its own novel.

That’s an extreme example of an author writing outside of typical lengths. Some well-known novels can be outside of the typical lengths for their genres. Les Miserables runs long at 530,000 words while Old Man and the Sea is a short novel in any genre at 26,000 words.

Word count matters for publishers for a couple reasons. Longer books cost more to print, which means that they will have to charge a higher price, which could affect sales. Also, readers of certain genres expect books to be certain lengths.

Nowadays, an acceptable length for a novel depends a lot on the genre. Here’s a list I’ve compiled from different sources on the web and averaged out.

  • Flash  fiction: up to 1,000 words.
  • Short stories: 1,000 to 10,000 words.
  • Novellas: 10,000 to 50,000 words.
  • Middle grade readers: 20,000 to 55,000 words. The longer books are for the older students.
  • Westerns: 50,000 to 80,000 words.
  • Romance: 50,000 to 100,000 words. The smaller ones are the ones that are published by companies by Harlequin while the larger are independent.
  • Young adult: 55,000 to 75,000 words.
  • Memoirs: 75,000 to 85,000 words.
  • General fiction: 75,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Mystery: 75,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Horror: 75,000 to 90,000 words.
  • Historical fiction: 90,000 to 105,000 words. These tend to be longer because of the need to weave in historical detail.
  • Science fiction and fantasy: 90,000 to 115,000 words. These books tend to be longer because there is a lot of worldbuilding involved.

These numbers aren’t locked in stone. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which were all in the same genre and targeting the same audience, ranged from 76,000 words to 257,ooo words. So there can always be exceptions, but generally not for first-time authors. Even Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel was pretty close to the range for a young adult novel. The numbers didn’t grow until she had proven herself as a writer and the shown the popularity of the characters.

So, the first thing to do is write the best story you can. Once you have a good solid draft, then take a look at the word count.

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weight-loss-scale-clipart-5-things-the-scale-won-t-tell-dkfa60-clipartI started a diet a week and a half ago. It’s going well. I’m down 17 pounds in 12 days. I’m not even hungry usually. I am missing my favorite foods – burritos, tacos, stromboli. I count them in my sleep instead of sheep.

The reason I do bring this up is that my diet distracts me from my work every once in a while.

If I’m buried in a particular project and not paying attention, then things usually go well. The problem comes about when I start to feel hungry. Then I can’t get lost in my project. I try to concentrate on my work, but then my slight hunger pains pull my attention to my belly.

Hopefully, as I continue to lose weight, my hunger pains will lessen and when I do have them, I’ll have trained myself to focus more on my work.

In the end, if I hit my goal weight, it will be worth the inconvenience. I am already lighter than I’ve been since February 2014.

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