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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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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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I 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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Here’s something that I was thinking about last night. There’s no right answer, but I would be very curious as to the reason why you answer the way that you do.
Let’s start with the assumption that you are a very successful writer (Yay!), now would you:
- Want to have authored a book that that was a mega-bestseller and then spend the rest of your career not writing anything close to that successful again? This is where J. K. Rowling is right now, although she may still write something more successful than Harry Potter, it’s hard to imagine it happening.
- Want to write books that sell well, although none can be considered a breakout novel? I would say, another favorite author of mine, David Baldacci, fits this model. He writes consistently good thriller so that there’s not one particular title that he’s best-known for.
- Want to write regularly and have some of your novels become bestsellers, but then have your other novels be considered subpar?
- Write a book every five to 10 years, but have those novels be bestsellers?
There are advantages and disadvantages to each option. It depends on what you are looking for from your writing career?
Money? Then the first option might be what you want. Like Rowling, you could make a lot of money this way and be set for life, but I don’t think I would like working the rest of my life trying to recapture that early glory. I guess this could be called the “peaked too soon option.”
A long-lasting career? Then the second option might be you. This is the one I think I would like, although I wouldn’t say “no” to any of them. I have a lot of ideas. This option would mean that I am able to write and have them published regularly and have them sell well. The money is good, but it doesn’t give Warren Buffet any competition.
Critical acclaim? Then the last option might be what you strive for. With this option, you would be considered one of the best writers out there, but you might not be able to make such a great living at it. Each book makes you good money, but it has to be spread out over a number of years.
The third option is a combination of the second and fourth. You publish regularly and would have regular income, but your writing would be inconsistent. When you hit the mark, it’s a bullseye, but otherwise, you hit in the outer rings.
As I said, I think my ideal would be option number two, but that’s for me and my personality. What is your choice?
When I used to work as a reporter, I didn’t have a whole lot of leeway in what I wrote. I had a beat and it was my job to cover as much as I could in that area. A lot of times that meant I was writing about meetings or events that I was not too interested in. I used to come up with some great ideas when I was writing for a newspaper, but I couldn’t write the story because it wasn’t part of my beat.
That’s one of the things that I like about freelance writing. I write about topics that interest me far more often than when I was a reporter. The drawback is that usually I have to be the one to pitch the story to a magazine or other media outlet.
The way to make that pitch is with a query letter. There have been books written about how to write a query letter and they are filled with lots of examples that you can use as patterns. So if you are really having trouble putting a query letter together, I would suggest borrowing one of these books. Check out the list on Amazon here. You can also check out writers’ web sites. One good place to visit is Writer’s Weekly. There are lots of different articles about what to do and not to do when writing a query.
It all comes down to this: The sole purpose of the query letter is to hook the editor, intrigue him or her, and make them want to learn more.
In that respect, a query and your article work the same way. They both need to hook the reader. So that first paragraph is very important. Many times, the first paragraph in my query also ends up being the first paragraph in my article. If it hooked the editor and got me the assignment, then it can hook readers and keep them reading.
After I catch the editor’s attention with a paragraph or two, I lay out the article I am proposing. If I have a title, I’ll add that, but mainly I’ll let the editor know what the article will be about, who I will be interviewing, and any other resources I have that will help paint the picture that I am the person the editor wants writing the article.
The next paragraph is where I lay out my qualifications to write the article. I list pertinent publications that have published my articles and that I have won 25 newspaper writing awards.
Finally, I wrap it up by letting the editor know how to get in touch with me and asking for the assignment.
My queries aren’t long, but I have found that this is the format that works best for me. I have sent hundreds, maybe even thousands, of queries out over the years. This is the format that seems to get me the most assignment.
Check out the query letter books, though, and try a few of the formats that seem to catch your attention and see how they do. I occasionally change my format if I think the subject lends itself better to something different or I see a different type of query that catches my attention. Always look for ways to improve.
A couple other points to consider when writing your query:
- Always check and see if there are writer’s guidelines. Nowadays with just about every publication having a web site, you will often find them there. Even if you don’t you will see current articles and be able to judge the lengths.
- Consider writing for a department when trying to break into a new market. Editors will usually assign large feature articles to writers whom they know will deliver. If you are trying to break into a new market, pitch an article for one of the magazine’s departments. These are smaller pieces and less important to the magazine, which means the editor has less risk by assigning it to a new writer.
- Address the query to a specific editor. Unless otherwise stated in the writer’s guidelines, find out the name of the editor who handles the type of article that you are proposing. This can be found by looking at the magazine’s masthead, which lists the magazine’s staff.
- Use only published clips. If a magazine asks for clipping, use only published clippings. Scan them into your computer and attach them to your e-mail query. If you don’t have published clippings, then simply don’t attach anything.
I realized today that I’ve got writer’s block although I’m still writing around 6,000 words a week. I’m writing articles, blog posts, newspaper columns, and presentations. What I’m not writing is my next book project.
So can that be considered writer’s block? After all, I’m still writing. I’m just not working on the projects that I want to be writing. Even when I free my schedule up so that I’ll have time to write a few pages of my new book, I still wind up doing something else.
At first, I thought it might mean that the new book just isn’t working. I’ve been dabbling with three potential book projects, though, and I’m doing very little work on any of them.
Has anyone had this happen to them? I didn’t even realize it at first. Since I was writing, I thought everything was going fine. Writers write and I was writing. It was only when I started trying to focus on writing my book that I realized I had other things I could be writing.
Now that I’ve recognized the problem, I’m going to redouble my efforts to get some of my book writing done. Hopefully, I can break through the problem.
Some other post about writer’s block:
I’ve written about the pros and cons of freelance writing from the writer’s perspective in other blogs. That all still holds true if you are considering writing on a freelance basis. However, the person paying the bill needs to find benefit in using freelance writers, too. Employers don’t care that you can select your own projects or have a flexible schedule. They want quality work at a good price with as little hassle as possible.
Part of being successful as a freelancer is understanding what role you as a freelance writer play for with an employer. How you help them? Knowing that, you can fulfill their needs better and improve their satisfaction. This allows you to more easily retain those businesses as clients and get more work from them.
Magazines like to use freelancers because they provide new sources of ideas and perspectives. If a magazine uses full-time writers, it might only be able to hire a handful, but if it uses freelance writers, the number of potential writers is limitless. The editor can pick and choose the most-promising stories from a large pool of possibilities. So not only does the magazine get more new ideas, the editors can choose from the best of new ideas.
I used to do a lot of stories for a now-defunct magazine called Maryland Life. As the name suggests, the magazine’s coverage area was the entire state of Maryland. If the magazine had had to hire full-time writers to cover the entire state, it would have been too expensive. By using freelance writers, they don’t have to pay benefits, which can account for around 30 percent more above a full-time employee’s salary.
It can be simpler to hire a freelance writer. The company pays the writer a set fee for the article and the writer is responsible for dealing with paying the employment taxes on that amount.
In general, a freelance writer would charge less than an agency a company might hire for public relations or advertising. They can also get a higher level of expertise if they search for a freelance writer with the skills they want.
These are just a few things to keep in mind. While you become a freelance writer because of the way it benefits you, the only way you can stay a freelance writer over the long run is if you find ways to benefit your clients.
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- Tips for making more money as a freelance writer
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I facilitated my first writer’s workshop this past weekend. I wasn’t sure what to call it until I started writing this post. It wasn’t a traditional writer’s conference where there are lots of speakers and classes that an attendee can choose from. It also wasn’t a writer’s retreat where a writer’s goes off to some inspiring locale for a week to write and critique writing.
The Mountain Maryland Writers’ Institute conferences are a series of three themed weekends. The weekend that I facilitated was for history and historical fiction. The institute is part of Garrett College in Garrett County, Maryland, which is a beautiful place to visit.
Friday night was an ice breaker for me, my fellow facilitator Neil Brooks, and the attendees to get to know each other.
Saturday, we traveled to the Evergreen Heritage Center in Mount Savage, Maryland. This is a historic homestead as well as a nature and ecological study site. The students got a tour of the grounds and were told about the history of the place. Then we settled down outside in a pavilion next to an old sawmill to start talking history. It was a good back and forth discussion, which helped me keep focused on making sure I was meeting the needs of the students. I also had certain points that I wanted to make sure that I hit.
There were supposed to be three different sessions that I taught on Saturday, each with a different topic, but they all seemed to get rolled into one long discussion about how to write history and historical fiction.
That evening, there was another session that was a Q&A with the facilitators about how and why we became writers.
Sunday morning was a half day of meetings. We traveled to Oakland, Maryland, to the Garrett County Historical Society to tour the facility and see the research aides that the historical society has. I talked with them about how to find the facts for a story and how to use them in their writing. We also toured the B&O Railroad Historical Museum to talk more about the value of historical sites for research purposes.
This was different than any writers’ conference that I’ve either spoken at or attended. I liked it and I especially liked not being stuck in classrooms all day. We were out and about enjoying the sun and perfect weather. I feel like the historic sites helped the writers envision the past better and I hoped they found value in what Neil and I had to say.
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