Interview: Amy Gahran

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Amy Gahran is a self-proclaimed info-provacateur. She’s a writer, editor, trainer, content strategist, and consultant who’s been freelancing since the late 1990s. The author of Contentious, a weblog aimed at “how we communicate in the online age,” she’s just returned from the BlogHer conference this past weekend in Santa Clara, California. Here are excerpts from our conversation, when I got the opportunity to ask her about her work and her enthusiasm for communication and technology, and how other writers can use blogging tools to their advantage. For more information about some of the topics discussed here, check out Amy’s weblog and her tutorial on webfeeds.

I’ve noticed on your website you have a wide variety of clients that you;ve worked for. How do you develop your clientele? Is it mostly through the web? Do you do cold calling? What sort of marketing do you do so that people know you’re out there?

Two main ways: the weblog is actually the main marketing tool for my services and there are a lot of reasons why that works well. Weblogs are a kind of website and you can put any kind of content you want on to them but they’re also a very interconnected tool. A lot of infrastructure exists out on the Internet so that if you post something on a weblog, word spreads fast and widely, far more so than if you just post something on a website.

Basically, if you posted a bit of information or news on a website you might wait days weeks or months for Google to index it. But if you post it on a weblog, and you have a feed going from that weblog, the feed would then go to places that collect a lot of feeds and instantly say, “Whoa, somebody just published something on this.” Somebody searching one of those search engines for a keyword would find it right away. (Here’s a link to Amy’s tutorial on webfeeds.)

Also, I’ve seen evidence that leads me to believe that a lot of the big search engines are now picking up on those feed services that aggregate webfeeds. So probably a faster way to get your stuff into Google would be to publish it on a blog and ping (alert) a service like Technorati or Feedster. I know a lot of this is going to sound pretty alien—the bottom line is it’s a faster, broader way to get the word out because of the way weblogs are structured and interconnected—it’s even better than the web.

Another way is not just my own weblog but the comments features on other people’s weblogs. A lot of times, people find me because I comment on somebody else’s weblog and they’re like, “Well, who is this person?’ And then they go find out about me.

And I’m always expanding my professional network. For instance, I’ve worked with the Society of Environmental Journalists in various capacities for fifteen years. You know, if you work with an organization like that, you get to know a lot of people.

I typically don’t do a lot of the traditional marketing stuff—this is just stuff I would do anyway, so I leverage it to build my business.

Seems like weblogs are able to give writers a bigger footprint than websites.

Easier too, just because there are so many hosted services you can use to create weblogs. Some of them are free but most of them are really cheap. And they just make it so much easier to publish than having to actually go into a program like Dreamweaver or FrontPage and build your own site and ftp everything up. It’s just so much easier to do it with weblogging tools.

What inspired you to start Contentious and what motivates you to keep it going?

Two things—first of all, nobody can shut me up and second of all, sheer frustration.

When I started Contentious in 1998, the web was just starting to get big at that point and I was reading a lot of stuff about what people were doing with websites. People were mainly talking about design and programming and things along those lines—either the technology or the design aspects and I didn’t really see anything at all concerning what they were saying.

Content was treated as if it was just popped out of thin air. People weren’t talking about quality of content and content strategy, how the audiences are different online and how you need to connect differently with them through the way that you phrase your information. Even basic things like how to write a link in the most useful way for people—that’s part of the content online, too, the connections—so I just got fed up with that.

I’d recently left my last full-time job, which was as managing editor for a think tank for the energy industry, managing a lot of white papers and things like that—I [thought]”I need to go independent and this web thing is getting big and what do I have that’s unique to offer?”

I had spent about three months trying to do the traditional freelance writer thing (sending out queries to magazines and all that) and getting nowhere. I was frustrated. I know three months is not a lot of time but I just felt like this web thing was so big and I was going to miss it so just out of sheer frustration I posted the first issue of Contentious in April of 1998. Basically I was considering it a webzine at that time because there were no blogging tools and nobody was using the word. I posted it, went out to lunch, came back an hour and a half later and had 500 requests for the email newsletter that I used to announce new content on the website.

The next day, AdAge and Wired Magazine and a bunch of places were calling to interview me and I thought, okay, right place, right time. I’ve pretty much gone in that direction ever since. I’ve done a little bit of traditional freelance writing here and there, mainly on energy and environmental topics but the online thing—specifically helping organizations figure out their content strategy and how best to say what they need to say online—that’s been my bread and butter. That and e-learning; I’m also doing e-learning course development now, too.

That’s a great field, too. I know a lot of writers think about professional writing as magazines, newspapers, books, white papers, and things like that and there are so many options to put good writing skills to use. E-learning is just one of them and when I talk to writers I try to encourage them to get out there, look more widely and start thinking more widely about how they can apply their skills.

What spurred you to make the transition from full-time employment to freelance work?

I’m a pretty bad employee. I’m way too opinionated. In any working relationship, it needs to be equitable on both sides, and in a traditional employment situation, unless you are very fortunate with a very good employer, most of the time they’ll talk to you really nicely, but when it comes down to making decisions, you’re the peon and they’re the kings. And I had a real problem with that.

I find being independent works much better for me. I get a lot more respect. I take bigger risks; I’ve had lean times, especially after the dot com crash. Those were a hard few years, not just for me but for anybody who was doing anything related to online media or technology. But the thing is, it’s rewarding in that I feel like I’m more in charge of what I do. When I see an opportunity, I get to go after it. If I see something stupid, I don’t have to go along with it. And I’m not trying to dis my former employers; my former employers were really great and they did their best. In the long run, my interest just lay elsewhere.

I really didn’t deal well with that culture of, well, we do it this way and we’re the boss so you have to do it that way—I can go with that on smaller things but on a day-to-day basis I can’t do it.

How important is it for freelance writers to be able to offer clients a variety of services? One of the things that struck me about your website and Contentious is the sheer variety of things that you’ve done: writing, editing, coaching, workshops, site critiques, research, ghostwriting, consulting. You’ve got a really comprehensive list of things that you can offer a client.

That works to my advantage. Because just by offering a diversity of services, that aids in my credibility and gets me into more communities. I can go and talk with people about content management systems or science writing or how to do effective lobbying. This is why I became a journalist in the first place, I’m insatiably curious. I think a lot of freelance writers are very curious, but they tend to always funnel that curiosity in the same ways. Let me see if I can sell a magazine on an article on this topic rather than actually going out and doing a lot of these things themselves.

A case in point is a very good friend and colleague of mine. Cathy Dold is one of the most accomplished science and medical writers that I know of, and she does a wide variety of work for a wide variety of —everything from patient information brochures to articles in Smithsonian Magazine. And when she sees something that interests her, she doesn’t just think about writing about it, she thinks about doing it. And that makes a big difference for her. She also is very forthright in being a leader in organizations, in getting people—especially media people—together and working on projects. That’s another part of it, because a lot of gigs come from who knows who and she gets a ton of referral business.

I know a lot of the things that I’m doing with e-learning and feeds and workshops might be far a field from what a lot of writers are dealing with but they could look at what Cathy Dold is doing and probably say, “Hey, wait a second, there might be some opportunity here,” like if you have a lot of expertise in the printing business. You might really be able to do some interesting things for content and communications for companies that are in that industry. And it might not be traditional articles. It doesn’t even have to be PR, although there are a lot of very interesting opportunities in PR.

For instance, in any type of industry where there’s a factory setting there’s a big need to provide simple, plain language materials explaining some of the complexities. Like for the printing business, how do you comply with all of the environmental regulations? How do you set your priorities? How do you help people make decisions? Those sorts of things are best handled by somebody who knows how to communicate rather than an expert in the topic because experts usually can’t communicate very well.

I know so many writers who are virtual experts or they are very familiar with how to learn a topic quickly and explain it quickly—that’s what a good writer does. They can use that talent in a lot of different ways and leverage that through all kinds of media. E-learning is just one example of that. Intranets are another. A lot of times companies build these intranets, kind of their own mini-Internet, and nobody uses it because nobody has put any thought into the strategies: how do we make this useful to people? A real writer could walk around and talk to people in a company and say, “What do you really need? How do you make that useful?” That’s not something the technology people should be doing and it’s not something that somebody who’s enmeshed in the internal politics of that company can be doing, because they’re not going to look at the practicalities. That is a good consulting job for an effective writer. To go in and see what the communication needs are and then come up with lists: here are some ways that you could use your intranet to be more practical for people.

I think writers underestimate the value of their skill for quickly digesting and translating information in a plain language way and there’s a lot of ways you can put that to good use and make money off of it.

In part two, Amy Gahran shares more on how writers can use blogs to establish their credibility, how you can keep up on new technology like blogs, and writers’ participation in the public conversation.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. Visit Amy Brozio-Andrews’ Web site.

Interview: Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency, Inc.

Spotlight on Deidre Knight
Interview by Christina Hamlett

Name: Deidre Knight

Title: Agent

Agency: The Knight Agency

Address: P.O. Box 550648, Atlanta, GA 30355

How long have you been an agent?

I began agenting nearly seven years ago, in the spring of 1996.  My husband, Judson Knight, has been a silent partner since that time, and in 2003 will join our staff full-time as business manager. Our staff also includes administrative assistant Lisa Payne, hired in 1999, and agent Pamela Harty, who joined us in 2000.

What attracted you to the business of representing writers? 

I have always had a talent for selling, an interest in books, and a sense of what works in a story. Agenting gave me an opportunity to combine all three.

What categories are you the most excited about selling these days?

Romance and women’s fiction remain key areas of interest for the Knight Agency, and we are always in search of quality literary fiction. In nonfiction, we are interested in business, self-help, pop culture, travel, health, inspirational/religious, and reference books.

How does an author become a prospective client of your agency?

We usually recommend that a prospective client visit us at our Web page (http://www.knightagency.net), learn a little about the agency, then query us via e-mail. Snail-mail queries are also welcome. Romance writers interested in representation are encouraged to attend major national conventions, such as Romance Writers of America in the summer, as a means of meeting agents working in that genre.

Conversely, what really turns you off?

Prospective clients who query or submit manuscripts by means other than the ones that are recommended either by our agency or by authorities on the business in general. Whereas e-mail and regular mail queries are welcome, phone calls are not. If someone becomes our client, we will probably talk regularly on the phone, but until then, we are simply not equipped to handle phone queries. If we request a sample or manuscript, we expect to see something that looks professional, as per Writer’s Market, Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide, or a similarly authoritative guide. Keep in mind that, with thousands of writers for every agent, the agent must pick and choose authors with whom he or she will work, so it pays to be polite and considerate.

Do you charge fees?  If so, what do they cover and are they charged up front or as reimbursements after the sale?

The Knight Agency does not charge a reading fee, nor do we charge for basic expenses such as copies and general mailing expenses.

How many titles have you sold in the past year? 

Forty.

What is your commission? 

Fifteen percent on domestic sales, and 20-25% on foreign and film rights sales if a sub-agent is employed.

What percentage of manuscripts do you reject and what is the most common reason for that rejection?

Sadly—and this is true of virtually all literary agencies—we reject more than 99% of the manuscripts we see. The most common reason for this, in the case of fiction, is that a novel simply lacks that “something special” that would make it a standout in the marketplace. Many times, we review books that are perfectly good, yet fail to grab the reader, and we are forced to say “No.” In the case of nonfiction, rejection is likely to be for reasons that include the following: the market is too broadly defined, the market is too narrowly defined, or the author lacks credentials that would give him or her the “platform” sufficient to make the book a success.

If you could have lunch with any author (living or dead), who would it be and what would you most like to ask them?

Ernest Hemingway—in a sober moment, pre-World War II. I would ask him how he finds the courage to let go of all those extraneous details that writers love to hold on to but should leave on the cutting-room floor.

What would you say is the most important contribution you make to your clients’ careers? 

I see my role not as simply that of selling manuscripts to the publisher, which is only the beginning of a process; rather, I help the author plan an entire career. An active writer needs an agent who will serve as an advocate at all stages of the sale, and who will help him or her gain additional benefits in the form of foreign sales and so on. My job is to assist the writer in developing a recognizable “brand name” (or several brand names); therefore, rather than focus on the current book or the next one, I help the author create a strategy for an entire body of work.

Best words of advice to new writers? 

Just keep writing. History is full of stories about classics that were rejected over and over and over by publishers. All too often, writers—and this is especially true in this era of instantaneous everything—want it all now, and that’s not usually how it works. If you’re a female Olympic gymnast, then yes, it’s likely that you would need to achieve something within a certain age window, but for writers, no such restriction exists. If anything, age can improve an author’s work, and it usually does. Be patient with your work, and give it the respect it deserves; don’t just throw something out there. In fact, if you want something that will give you instant reward (other than the rewards inherent in writing itself), then writing isn’t for you. The process of taking a book from manuscript to published work takes a long time, so why shouldn’t it be the same for taking the book from idea to completed manuscript?

Interview with Bernard Cornwell

Interview by Christopher Seufert

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944, an illegitimate “war baby” whose father was a Canadian airman and whose mother was in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted as an infant and raised in Essex by a family belonging to a religious sect (now extinct) called the Peculiar People. They forbade alcohol, cigarettes, dancing, television, and conventional medicine. After an unhappy childhood, he escaped to London University, worked briefly as a teacher after graduation, and then joined BBC television. He started as a researcher in the Nationwide program and eventually worked his way up to Head of Current Affairs for BBC in Northern Ireland, and became editor of Thames TV’s News division.  It was while working in Belfast that he met his wife, Judy, a visiting American, for whom he moved to the United States. You can Bernard Cornwall’s books here.

I was astounded to find that you’ve sold more than 12,000,000 copies of the Sharpe series worldwide, which is just a fraction of your catalog. Furthermore, the Boston Globe recently stated that you were perhaps “the greatest writer of historical novels today.” Are you a success by your own standard?

I’m a success inasmuch that I enjoy my life, which is an enormous blessing and that doesn’t depend on commercial success (though I wouldn’t be such a fool as to deny that it helps). What I mean by that is that the point of life, as I see it, is not to write books or scale mountains or sail oceans, but to achieve happiness, and preferably an unselfish happiness. It just so happens that I write books, and I’m amazingly lucky that the books sell well all across the world, but even the biggest financial success will not compensate for an ill-lived life. I’m fortunate that the books sell, but even more fortunate to live in Chatham, to be very happily married and to have, on the whole, a fairly clear conscience. Anyone who claims to have an entirely clear conscience is almost certainly a bore.

The Boston Globe also pointed to the irony that “There are places where Bernard Cornwell is a household name. His adopted home here on Cape Cod isn’t one of them.” I get the sense that they’re correct, that you do in fact walk the streets of Chatham in general anonymity, as opposed to similarly successful Chatham residents. Would you say this is true?

Absolutely true, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Mind you, even in places where I’m much better known, I walk in anonymity, mainly because folks know authors’ names, but not their faces. I did a TV series for the British History Channel a few years ago and for a few weeks afterwards I was accosted by folk in Britain wanting to talk, which was flattering, but the memory faded and blessed anonymity returned.

Sharpe’s Havoc, published in 2003, was the first of your many novels to reach the New York Times best-seller list here in the U.S. Meanwhile in Britain, you’ve already had many best-sellers, [plus] the Sharpe series going to television. To what do you attribute this discrepancy? Do you see your popularity in the United States increasing with your increasing publication of stories based on American history?

The discrepancy is entirely based, I think, on the fact that I write best when I’m writing about what I know, and that is British history. And though I’ve lived in the States for over 25 years and am now an American citizen, I still hear British voices in my head. Writing British dialogue is easy, writing American is harder, and I feel much more confident writing about Brits. So the books have a greater appeal to a British audience, but that hasn’t stopped them making best-seller lists in places like Brazil, Japan, and at least a dozen other countries. In the end their appeal is not necessarily the history, but the quality of the storytelling, and a good story transcends national boundaries. I still have to crack the French market, though that isn’t entirely surprising considering that the Sharpe novels are endless tales of French defeat.

You’ve been a resident of Chatham for some years now. When you moved here, as the story goes, you didn’t have a work permit and so, began writing for a living. Were you surprised that it worked out as that practical a solution? I’d imagine many who came to that solution would end up back in England in six months.

I was astonished! Actually I moved to New Jersey in 1980 and didn’t discover Chatham until 1990, by which time the books were selling, but it was still a daft decision, based solely on love. Judy couldn’t move to Britain for family reasons, so I had to come to the States, and the U.S. government wouldn’t give me a green card, so I airily told her I’d write a book. Well, it worked, and I’m still here, and so’s she, and ain’t we lucky?

Looking back, of course, it was irresponsible, mad, forlorn, idiotic, but if you don’t take chances then you’ll never have a winning hand, and I’ve no regrets. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the first book had not sold—doesn’t bear thinking about, but I suppose we’d have made it work somehow.

Prior to 1980 you were a television producer with the BBC. Do you miss working in that medium? Do you find there’s a simplicity to writing that wasn’t there previously in your work as a television producer?

I don’t miss it at all. Television is a young person’s medium. I had ten great years in it, had an enormous amount of fun, traveled all over the world, and got out. And yes, there’s a simplicity to writing books because you’re not a member of a team, so you make all the decisions yourself instead of deferring to a committee. I get asked to appear on television—at the moment I have two invitations from Britain to present long military history series, but I’m not sure whether I really want to do it—I fear the seduction of vanity, but recognize that it would help sell books– so I dunno what I shall do.

Do you have a local writing community or fellow writers that you look to for support and advice?

Writing is a solitary occupation. If you can’t do it on your own then you probably can’t do it. So no, no local writing community. At risk of sounding foully pompous I think that writers’ groups are probably very useful at the beginning of a writing career. Not that I’ve ever been in such a group and the only time I was ever invited to one I left in disgust because they were pushing the idea of “writing as therapy.”

Did you have a writing mentor? Do you mentor others here?

I don’t have a mentor. I have a terrific, marvelous, unbelievably helpful editor in London and she has the biggest influence, but even so we disagree as much as we agree. I’ll happily mentor anyone who wants mentoring, and most of that goes on by Internet rather than face to face. The one thing I will not do is read other peoples’ unpublished work. The reason for that is that it doesn’t help. I’m not in a position to publish them or act as an agent for them, so instead I put them in touch with an agent whose job is to read unpublished work. I know that sounds churlish, but right now, on my desk, there are four books waiting to be read whose publishers want me to give them a “puff,” two books I’m reviewing for newspapers in London, one book I desperately need to read for research, and a couple more for pleasure, so I simply don’t have time to read more. Agents will read unpublished work because they might make money, and that’s their job. It isn’t mine.

You’ve written an admirable and ungodly number of books, about forty I read in my pre-interview research, which makes almost two books a year. I’m suprised that your publisher can handle that kind of output, frankly. What is their overall strategy and are they able to put the time and attention into it that each book deserves?

So far it’s 43 books in 25 years. Publishers don’t mind! Publishers like “established” authors because they can pretty much anticipate sales and therefore cash flow in an otherwise uncertain industry. The strategy differs from place to place—in London we produce a book for the Christmas market (i.e., published in October), while New York prefers to wait for the New Year when a book has a greater chance of making the New York Times list. If there’s a second book then we put it out in April and these days that’s almost always a Sharpe novel. Paperback launches are usually in early summer (to get the vacation market) and have a lighter colored jacket than the Christmas version—and so it goes on. But publishers are in the business of making profits, so they love getting two books a year. They’d have three if they could.

How do you approach the work of writing?

Cover of Bernard Cornwall's The Last KingdomWith unabandoned pleasure. It’s fun. I sit down every day and tell stories. Some folk would kill to get that chance.

What does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional nine to five job?

I start early—usually by 5 a.m., and work through to 5 p.m., with breaks for lunch, boring exercise, etc., etc. But it’s usually a full day. It’s better than 9 to 5 because I’m my own boss so I can take off when I want to, and the dress code is non-existent and the commute is terrific. I enjoy it, so there’s no discipline involved, and I’m not a subscriber to the idea of “writer’s block,” or rather I subscribe to the notion that on the day a nurse can telephone a hospital and be excused work on the grounds of “nurse’s block” is the day I’ll start suffering from writer’s block. I volunteered for this life, wanted it, and am not going to bitch about it now that I’ve got it. Of course some days are easier than others, but my worst day is better than being in most humdrum occupations.

How long does it take you to write a typical novel, including research, writing, and editing time?

Research is a lifelong occupation so it’s hard to factor it in, but I reckon most books take five months from start to finish.

Does your wife get involved in your writing and research trips or is she sick to death of it by now?

She likes the research trips—who wouldn’t? Spain, Portugal, India—lots of the English countryside. Other than that she doesn’t get involved, but I don’t think I’d survive as a writer without her. She has a busy time as a yoga teacher and hospice volunteer and doesn’t want to get involved with the writing which is, I have to keep stressing this, a solitary vice.

Your books are successful enough now to give you the freedom to essentially do what you want. Do you see yourself giving less time to writing in the future?

I’d like to cut it down to three books in two years instead of two a year—but whether that’ll happen I don’t know. I took time off last year to sail the Atlantic, and if I got more opportunities for blue-water cruising I might take them. Not sure.

In addition to the books you’ve already published, I’d imagine you have many more that are in various stages or other of completion. Is this true or do you tackle one book at a time, research it, write it, publish it, and move on?

One book at a time—though I’m usually doing the research for others while I’m writing, but that sort of research is fairly desultory and I like to stick to the book being written—and writing a book concentrates the mind so the research is more productive. Then you start another book and suddenly the galley proofs of the last one come in and you have to wrench your attention away from what you’re writing and try to remember what you were thinking when you wrote the previous one.

After the great success of your Sharpe series on British television, do you have any more novels that are being considered for television series or films?

I think they’ve all been optioned—but whether any will actually be made? I doubt it, and certainly don’t lose sleep over it.

Do you take vacations or do you find that your book tours and historical research give you enough travel?

Book tours and research provide a lot of travel—too much, I sometimes think, but we do take vacations. Judy is inordinately fond of the Far East so we try to go there every couple of years, and I make a pilgrimage to England every rugby season. I’d like to make a similar pilgrimage in the cricket season, but it coincides with the sailing season on the Cape and sailing wins every time.

Do you ever get sick of working in your office, grab your notebook and hit a coffee shop?

No, never. Not sure what I’d so with a notebook other than swat flies. If I want a break I’d rather go down to Stage Harbor and talk boats.

Where’s your favorite place in Chatham to depressurize?

Stage Harbor and adjacent waters. We have a gaff-rigged topsail cutter, which sounds much grander than she really is, but she’s exquisitely beautiful and shamefully slow and we spend a lot of time aboard when we can. But there’s no better place to relax.

How do you celebrate a novel’s completion?

Not sure I do any more, other than a general feeling of relief modified by the thought that another one will have to be started soon. I’ll probably have an Irish whiskey.

I haven’t seen much in your past interviews about the production of your audio books, which I shamefully happen to really like. Are you involved in the production of those as well?

Not in the slightest.

Why didn’t you narrate the audio books yourself? I would think actor Sean Bean, who played Richard Sharpe so dynamically on television, would also be in the running.

Sean did narrate some of the earlier ones, but I imagine his fee has become too steep for the producers, or perhaps he doesn’t enjoy doing it. I’ve never been asked to do it, and am not sure I’d want to.

I’ve read that there may be a new productions of your Sharpe book series coming to television and that you’re one of the producers. Is that looking like it will happen?

It looks as though they’ll be filming in India this winter, but it isn’t guaranteed. Say 95% certain?? I’m definitely NOT one of the producers, and don’t want to be. I know nothing about producing TV drama and any involvement on my part is liable to prove an obstacle to the producers, so I prefer to be a cheerleader and let them get on with it.

Do you like living in Chatham?

I love living in Chatham. It’s a huge privilege and a constant pleasure, and I don’t want to live anywhere else, and probably won’t.

Any plans to have a book set right here, somewhere in the rough-and-tumble maritime history of Chatham? The Monomoy Lifesavers had some pretty charismatic characters and of course, the British were in our harbors in both wars.

Probably not, but it’s dangerous to say never. There are some terrific books already about Chatham—I especially love the stories by Rose Connors—but I’m best known for military history fiction and it’s probably wise to stick to that and let Rose write Chatham’s portrait.

Christopher Seufert is a documentary producer and author based on Cape Cod.

Interview with Brette Sember

Interview by Alyice Edrich

When did you begin your writing career and what inspires you to write?

Writing runs in my family. My mother writes college textbooks and I began working for her when I was in high school. I also was the editor of my high school paper and co-editor of the school literary magazine. I majored in English in college and then went on to law school. After practicing law, I decided I wanted to be able to stay home with my children. In a serendipitous twist of fate, I got a phone call from an editor who asked me to write a book about how to file for divorce in NY. This was how my writing career began.

I am inspired to write by many things. My self-help law books are inspired by the obvious need I see to make the law more understandable and accessible to the people it is for. My children, my hobbies, and my desire to reach out to other writers inspire my other writing.

What was the first market you queried and why did you choose that market?

The first market I queried was a national parenting magazine. I wrote an essay about how I wanted to leave my law practice and stay home with my children. At first, I was writing simply to try to understand my own feelings. Then I realized I could sell the essay. I got an acceptance from At Home Mother, which was my first sale.

When did you decide to start writing for parenting publications?

Writing for parenting publications seemed a no-brainer for me, since I was committed to being an at-home parent and my children were (and are) an important part of my life. I had (and have!) lots to say about families, parenting, children, and family life. I wrote for parenting publications from the get go. I became a regular writer for my local regional parenting publication and soon had a column there. I began exploring how to reach other regional parenting publications.

What have you found the most difficult about writing for parenting publications?

I think it is difficult to break into national parenting publications. I found that it was more efficient for me to focus on regional magazines, where I could re-sell a piece to many magazines, than to spend all my time querying nationals.

In your experience, what are the best articles to submit to these publications and how far in advance should you query them?

There is no reason to query regional parenting publications. The editors prefer to receive written pieces so they can toss it or add it to their file for a specific month. They don’t really have the time or interest to deal with queries. It is best to send a piece to regional magazines three months before it would need to run—for example, articles about Christmas should be sent no later than September to appear in the December issue. Pieces that are not tied to an event, holiday or season can be sent as soon as you write them.

Regional parenting publications are always looking for articles that tie into seasons or holidays. Craft articles, family activity articles, and parenting advice pieces are well received. There is also a growing emphasis on articles that deal with pre-teens and teens. Magazines are finding that their readers want information and suggestions about parenting these age groups.

What do you find the hardest about writing with children underfoot and how do you compensate?

The hardest thing is always feeling as if I should be doing something else. When I am working, I feel as if I should be spending time with my kids or doing some household task. When I am with my kids, a part of my mind is always worrying about the work I need to get done.

Most writers want that steady income level that says, “I made it.” What would be your income level that says, “You made it”?

I think for me, success is measured more in terms of satisfaction with my work and achieving my goals. I feel that in that sense, I have “made it.” Of course, the problem with this is that I always have more ideas and more goals to pursue, so in that sense I am forever working towards bigger and better things!

Let’s say you were a new writer and you decided that was your figure, what would you do to reach that level of “success”?

I don’t think it is helpful for a new writer to set a monetary goal. I think that new writers are often unrealistic about their monetary goals. To create a decent income as a writer, it is very important to be versatile. Write about a lot of different things and write for print as well as online magazines. Write book proposals as well as articles. Try a lot of things. You will find some things that simply are not a good fit for you, but you will also find some things you are quite good at that you never would have imagined. It is also important to be able to find a niche for yourself. I was able to do a lot of legal writing since I was an attorney. Being able to use a specialized skill or knowledge you have that will set you apart from other writers will give you the opportunity to find work.

When the writer’s life is such a competitive market, why did you decide to share your parenting list with others?

I felt it was an important tool that many people could benefit from. I’m not afraid of other writers infringing on my territory, if that’s what you mean. There’s room for other writers in this market and magazines will buy those pieces that are good. I enjoy writing about writing. Being able to help other writers find success gives me great satisfaction.

You mention in your e-book the possibility of using a pen name; do you ever use one and why or why not?

Yes, I do use a pen name. There a few magazines that I do extensive work for and the editors feel uncomfortable having a lot of pieces in the same issue appear with the same byline. So, some of the pieces appear under my pen name and others appear under my real name.

Although you are not a tax advisor, hypothetically speaking, what kinds of things have you been able to write-off at tax time?

Writers should always consult with their own tax advisors about their own expenses and deductions. I deduct office supplies; postage; long distance calls; books and magazines that are related to my writing; mileage to the library, bookstore or my book signings, professional organization memberships; home office square footage; and purchases of computer equipment or office furniture.

What brings you the greatest satisfaction in your writing career?

When I get positive feedback from readers, I truly feel as if I have touched someone or made a difference in their lives.

Visit Brette Sember’s BretteSember.com

Alyice Edrich is the author of several work-from-home e-books, including Tid-Bits for Making Money With E-books—where parents earn hundreds of dollars selling information they already possess. She blogs at The Dabbling Mum Speaks.

Interview at Writer Unboxed

If you’ve ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings at Absolute Write and the Absolute Write forums, Jan O’Hara over at Writer Unboxed has just posted a two-part interview with me about AW, the community, the mods, and writing. Jan does a heckuva fun interview, and I’m not just saying that because she interviewed me—she’s got some terrific interviews on her own blog, Tartitude. And as a Web destination for writers, Writer Unboxed offers a lot of terrific information, insight, and conversation.

Part I
Part II

You can also find Jan O’Hara on Twitter @Jan_OHara.

Interview with Eugie Foster

Interview with Eugie Foster
Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

This is an interview from several years ago. Eugie K. Foster was an award-winning writer of short fiction and children’s books. Eugie Foster, author, editor, wife, died on September 27th 2014 of respiratory failure from cancer at Emory University in Atlanta. In her forty-two years, Eugie lived three lifetimes. She won the Nebula award for her novelette “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” in 2009. She had over one hundred of her stories published. She was an editor for the Georgia General Assembly. She was the director of the Daily Dragon at Dragon Con, and was a regular speaker at genre conventions. She was a model, dancer, and psychologist. See Eugie Foster’s Website for more.

Looking at all you do—editorships, active membership in SFWA, conference attendance, writing workshops, your own writing for magazines and books-in-progress—how do you maintain the discipline and motivation to keep it all going?

Caffeine!

Seriously, I love what I do—writing, editing, and everything associated thereof—which makes it easy to stay on track. When I was an IT cubicle monkey, weeks would go by where I would procrastinate on a project because I was so unmotivated. Nowadays, I’m pretty gung-ho about my daily writing/editing agenda. Occasionally, when it seems my “to do” list has acquired sentience and is campaigning for world domination or I’m stymied by my current work-in-progress, I may go AWOL for a day—just randomly surfing or letting my brain leak out of my ears in front of the TV. But, the day after, I’m so stressed about the time I lost and how much farther behind I am, I inevitably freak out, which is to say I launch into a desperate-panicky flurry of work. It’s the quiet implosion strategy for productivity. I quit worrying about how much I have to do because I don’t have the time to worry.

When that fails, I hook up the caffeine IV.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Pretty typical. I wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On weekdays, I wake up at around 6AM, get ready for work, and hop the metro train downtown. I love my day job (I’m a legal editor for the Georgia legislature), but the commute bites. The trip is over an hour, one way. Fortunately, the train lets me use that time to write or get some editing work done. My trusty laptop goes everywhere with me; it’s a tiny ultraportable—weighs less than 3 lbs. and has a battery which can go for eight hours on a charge. (Is it wrong to love a piece of hardware?)

My job has a cyclic work calendar, busier than God during the legislative session—about three months at the beginning of the year—and laid back the rest of the time. It allows me time to write during the day, pre- and post-session, and no time at all during. It’s a decent trade-off.

After I get home, I eat dinner, catch up with husband and skunk, then read, write, or catch up on editing work until bedtime.

Weekends are much the same, except without the commute or any day job duties. I haul self and laptop upstairs to my home office and stay there until husband and/or skunk start making plaintive noises.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got started writing?

I’ve always been a fanatical reader, pretty much ensconced in a library and buried in one book or other throughout my childhood. I always wanted to be a writer; even during my “I wanna be a ballerina” and “I wanna be a veterinarian” phases, there was “and a writer” tacked on. I started writing seriously—that is, trying to get published—after Ann Crispin’s Writers’ Workshop at Dragon*Con 2000. It galvanized me to really work on improving my craft and to treat it like a profession, not a recreation.

Has your work as an editor influenced your own writing at all?

Mostly, it’s cut into my writing time!

As an editor, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see short story writers making? Are there any science fiction, horror, and fantasy topics that you as an editor see as completely oversaturated?

Honestly, the biggest mistake for new writers is simply not paying attention to the basics: grammar, spelling, punctuation. While it’s fundamentally true that if you write a really compelling, fresh, and entertaining story, an editor will forgive your inability to spell or your penchant for creative capitalization. But they’ll be irritated. And why irritate your editor? And if the foundation of your wordsmithing is that bad, an editor might not make it to the “compelling, fresh, and entertaining” part before sticking a form rejection in your SASE.

As far as overdone tropes, I think the magic’s in how ideas are presented. If you take an old idea and spin it into something new, then it doesn’t matter that it’s an old idea. If you have a new one and fail to interest the reader with your storytelling, then it doesn’t matter that you had a good idea. The best stories are both interesting—either with fresh ideas or fresh takes on old ones—and entertaining.

But, on a personal note, I’m really jaded on stories about serial killers.

I’d always understood it that writers of short fiction generally didn’t have or need agents; is that actually untrue? How did you go about getting your agent? Can you suggest some of the elements that writers should look for in a good writer/agent match?

No, actually, that is true. Very few agents will represent short fiction, and most short fiction markets will accept submissions over the transom, which essentially removes the need for one. I and my agent aren’t an exception; he doesn’t represent my short stuff.

As far as how I got my agent, it was by and large the traditional way. I spent some time researching reputable agents online (I highly recommend Preditors & Editors as a good starting place: www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/) and then sent off a batch of queries and synopses of my middle-grade novel to my top picks. William Reiss requested the full manuscript, read it, liked it, and then called me with an offer of representation (which I wasn’t home to receive, so ended up hyperventilating at my answering machine). The only remarkable thing is that it took me less than two weeks from when I first started looking for an agent to receiving an offer of representation, which I continue to be somewhat agog about.

On your website, you write, “I’ve discovered that the best motivation and improvement resource a burgeoning writer can have is an audience.” When getting one of your short stories critiqued by fellow writers, how do you decide what’s valid and what you’d rather keep as is? Are there any factors that influence you one way or the other?

It’s instinct. Or zen. Phases of the moon?

Um, well, if it’s black and white—I made a typo or got a fact wrong or suchlike— then it’s a no-brainer; I make the change. Otherwise, if a suggestion resonates with me, I’ll implement it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t. I pretty much trust myself to know what a valid criticism is and what isn’t. There are exceptions, like if a whole slew of critiquers make the same suggestion which I don’t agree with, I might go against my gut feeling and make the change. But generally, I trust my instincts.

It’s a sort of weird line with critique groups. While on one hand, I have a manuscript that I believe could be improved but don’t know how, so I’m beseeching help, but on the other, I have to have enough confidence in myself and my writing to be able to say “no, I don’t agree with your suggestion.” It’s a precarious equilibrium, one that some writers can’t maintain, either getting defensive and hurt when they receive criticism or laboring under the belief that every single suggestion is valid and should be implemented—kind of a pickle when you get contradictory feedback.

You’re on MySpace and blog on LiveJournal; how important do you think it is for writers to stay on top of technology for the purposes of keeping in touch with readers and fellow writers?

Very. While I frequently rail against the reality and necessity, it’s inescapable. You have to network.

Editors choose what they publish on the basis of quality. That’s a truism. They will publish the very best stories they can. However, if two equally good stories get submitted and they only have one slot, and they’ve gotten drunk and sung sea chanteys in Klingon with one of the writers but don’t know the other from navel lint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which writer’s story will get bought. Likewise, an editor solicits stories to invitation-only projects from writers whose works they admire, but they’re more likely to go to writers whose works they admire and who they also know.

It’s not as bad as, say, the film industry, where you must schmooze and network if you expect to get work. But it’s still important to maintain a presence with other writers, publishers, and editors, and the best and easiest way to do that is with the Internet.

On the readership side, anything which will improve a writer’s name recognition and accessibility to readers is just good sense.

What’s one question you’ve always wished someone asked you in an interview? Here’s the perfect opportunity to ask and answer it for AW readers. 🙂

“Would you like to sign this book deal with a $1 million advance?” Me: Yes, please!

Amy Brozio-Andrews is the former managing editor for Absolute Write.

Friday Linkage

Just a couple of things I wanted to point to, before I go play hooky in the sunshine for the rest of the day.

It’s day two of the auction to raise flood relief funds for Nashville, over at Do The Write Thing. Agents, editors, and top professional writers have donated manuscript critiques, tee shirts, consulting phone calls, signed books, and other swag to help raise funds for Nashville.

Do the Write Thing
Writers pitching in for Nashville

If you’ve been wanting to help, not sure how or where to participate, or even if you just want to throw your support behind this amazing community of writers, stop in over there and take a look at all the stuff up for auction. This is a great opportunity to make some friends, meet some other writerly types, and Do the Write Thing for Nashville.

Meanwhile, YA writer Corrine Jackson posted an interview with yours truly over on her blog, where we explore some of the obscure and funny details of what it’s like to run Absolute Write and AW’s Writers Forum. It was great fun to get to visit with Cory, so you should stop over and tell her hello!

Finally, if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you might consider the Write to Publish open house event in Portland, Oregon, where Chuck Palahniuk and Ursula K. Le Guin will be talking about writing and publishing on May 23rd.

Navigating Self-Publishing, Interview with Victoria Strauss

Lisa Abbate of Wordmountain.com has done a terrific  interview about self-publishing with author-advocate and co-founder of  Writer Beware, novelist  Victoria Strauss. Ms. Strauss outlines some of the hows, whys, and best-practices writers should be aware of when they’re investigating self-publishing options, for Absolute Write’s readers.

Self-publishing is a perfectly viable model for a number of writers and a number of niches, but the various business models out there introduce a whole set of complications and dangers for any savvy writer to be aware of. In addition, it’s important that anyone planning to self-publish understands what they’re looking at, in terms of distribution and sales numbers:

Writer Beware often hears from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it was their expectations that were the problem—they didn’t realize that the average self-pubbed book sells fewer than 200 copies, or that the wholesale distribution offered by most self-pub companies is only half the distribution picture.

Read the whole interview here!

Victoria Strauss is the author of seven fantasy novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City). She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer’s Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and blog (www.accrispin.blogspot.com). She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009. Her personal website is http://www.victoriastrauss.com/

Lisa Abbate is a nonfiction author’s coach, writer, and editor for many innovative technology companies. She’s been a longtime contributing writer at Absolute Write and editor at Coyote Wild. Her website is www.wordmountain.com. She is also the founder and executive director of an environmental organization, visionforsalem.org.

You can find more interviews with Victoria Strauss on these websites:

FMWriters interview

Writer’s Write interview

WOW (Women On Writing) interview

Previous Absolute Write interview

Interview with Laura Kinsale

Lessons in French
Lessons in French

I get to read a lot of interviews with writers, editors, publishers, and other assorted interesting people. This interview posted on Tartitude is very fun. Not just because award-winning NYT best-selling author Laura Kinsale has a new book out, but Hope101’s interview questions aren’t just the same old standards, either, and Ms. Kinsale’s answers have humor, heart, and a sense of fun that’s a joy to read.

Ms. Kinsale has more advice for writers in a Q&A posted today on Apprentice Writer, as well.

You can follow Hope101 on Twitter: @tartitude

You can follow Laura Kinsale on Twitter: @LauraKinsale

You can find Lessons in French at your local bookstore, or your favorite online bookseller.