Attending a Conference for Writers: Anxiety and Ecstasy

By Krysten Lindsay Hager

The night before attending a conference for writers there’s always that excitement about going and meeting the perfect agent or editor for your work. Maybe it’ll be a magical moment where time will slow down and you’ll end up running in slow-motion toward each other,“Chariots of Fire” playing in the background as you leap, holding your manuscript in one hand, the other outstretched to literary glory. Or maybe you’ll just go, find out your genre isn’t selling and come home feeling defeated and a little poorer since you spent fifty bucks buying the speaker’s books. In reality, very few people find their editors at conferences.

In fact, in 2005 I attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference where I heard the most surprising news. An editor from a very well-known publishing house said that she had been shocked to find an author at one of these conferences that she actually went on to publish. The editor said it almost never happens and that she might see potential in a few writers that she had done critiques with, but she had never heard of anyone getting published from having a writing conference critique. This was news to me and the rest of us who had plunked down the extra thirty-five dollars for a critique and clung to dear life to the few positive comments that were thrown our way. This editor had been in the business for years and for her to say it was almost unheard of to find talent through attending a conference was shocking to me. However, it was also a relief.

I decided after hearing that comment that I would no longer get so worked up about missing out on my “big chance” with an editor or agent. Instead of handing out business cards and trying to corner agents and editors in every place but the bathroom (I have my standards) and missing out on the speakers’ advice because I was too busy “stalking my prey,” I was going to take advantage of the conferences in a different way.

First, no matter how interesting your work is, chances are an editor or agent isn’t going to remember what you looked like or if you told them a witty story. Instead of making editors and agents attending a conference uncomfortable by cornering them and asking if they’re interested in your new novel, take note of what the agent or editor is interested in. Find out what they’ve represented or published before and what they’re looking for now. They usually share these things in their presentations, but if they don’t you can always raise your hand to ask and, if you’re not the type to raise your hand in public, many conferences have a box for questions that is presented at the end of the conference for the speakers to address. That way you, once you’re at home, you can mention in your query letter that you enjoyed his presentation at whichever conference you attended and then ask if he’d be interested in seeing your work. The agent or editor isn’t going to remember you anyway, so you might as well do your homework and save yourself the embarrassment of coming on too strong with your proposal.

Many times it’s not the big names at the conference that will get you anywhere. One author I know spent all her time at a writing conference trying to find publishers and representation for her middle-grade novels. She ended up getting discovered through a query letter to an editor she had seen named in a writer’s guide and said the only decent contact she had made at that conference was me because once she got her books published, I wrote reviews on them in several places (both in print and online) and later wrote an article about a group book-signing she was participating in that gave her more attention as well as articles to put in her portfolio. You never know when the person you sit next to at the conference might help you more than the famous connection you’re trying to make by attending a conference.

Also, many times editors and agents come to conferences with an invisible shield up. They’re wary of taking writing and art samples at the conferences for many reasons. Your work could get lost, nobody wants to carry extra heavy manuscripts back home on a plane, and there are also the legal issues. They prefer to get work that’s been submitted in the mail. Plus, nobody likes to be put on the spot. Sure its easier for them to reject you via mail where they don’t have to face you, but may editors and agents are so put off by people trying to slip them manuscripts at conferences that they’ll give you a flat “no” if you ask about giving them work. So save your dignity and put your questions in writing.

Focusing on meeting fellow writers can also benefit you in finding out about publishers that are eager to sign on new authors. You might meet someone who gets published down the road and can later direct you to the right person to submit to at that publishing house. You can also meet people who write book reviews who, when you do get published, can later help you out by writing a great review and “bumping” a less-than-great review that’s been posted on Amazon.com. You might meet people attending a conference who are aware of great new places to submit to or critique groups or other writing conferences that might help you. I found out about a writing publication through a writing group member that later published one of my articles. I never would have found it on my own, but that publication has proven to be a great way to get my foot in the door. Finding out where other conference attendees have been published is a great way to get new leads for your work as well.

Plan to Enjoy Attending a Conference

Instead of staying up late worrying that you’ll miss your big shot to talk to the editor or agent that you “just know” would be perfect for your manuscript, relax and plan to enjoy attending a conference. You’ll end up gathering more information from the speakers and you’ll be just as far ahead (if not farther) than the people who tracked down that editor in the lunch line. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you make a personal connection at the conference because these professionals meet so many people at these things that they wouldn’t remember you anyway. So enjoy the conference, take notes on the market, and find out what each agent and editor is interested in. Then mention in your query letter that you saw them at the conference. In the long run, this will pay off more.

Cover of Krysten Lindsay Hager's book Can Dreams Come True? (The Cecily Taylor Series Book 1)Krysten Lindsay Hager writes about friendship, self-esteem, fitting in, frenemies, crushes, fame, first loves, and values. She is the author of True Colors, Dating the It Guy, and Can Dreams Come True. Krysten Lindsay Hager has a website.

Limiting Computer Time

By Katherine Huether

Most of my day is spent on the computer. I check e-mail, write queries, and use my word processing programs to complete the bulk of my assignments. Recently, I spent a day without my computer. I spent some time feeling lost and unhappy without my laptop and Internet access. Then, I dusted off my journal and started writing longhand for a change.

The end result of my time away from the computer was that I experienced more creativity and motivation than I have in a while. I’ve made it a goal to limit my computer use and spend at least one day a week away from the computer. I find that I need this weekly rest away from my writing and my “work.” Here are all the benefits I’ve experienced from this weekly ritual.

More Balance

When I first began my writing career, I felt that I needed to spend every free minute I had working. My kitchen was a mess, my house became disorganized, and my exercise and grooming routines both fell apart. My life was out of balance.

Even though I currently spend less time writing and developing my business, I am more productive. That day off recharges my mind and helps me use my time more efficiently. I exercise more, I eat well, and I spend time with my family.

Make a list of all the aspects of your life that feel disorganized and out of balance and make sure you give yourself ample time during your week to work on them.

Living Life

As a writer, I get most of my ideas from my life. When I spend all my time working, it is easy to run out of ideas. Since I take time away from technology and my business, I am experiencing life and giving myself a chance to develop new ideas.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of taking a whole day off, you can still schedule time each day to turn off your computer and ignore all telephone calls. Do something for yourself. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Plant some flowers. Go out for dinner. Make sure you bring your journal along so you can write down any ideas that may come to you.

Journaling

A journal is a powerful tool. There’s something about writing longhand that can spark creativity. Use unlined paper; this opens you up even more because you aren’t constrained by the lines provided. Do writing exercises. Observe the world around you. Jot down any ideas or thoughts. Write a poem. Keeping a journal on the computer doesn’t have the same effect. Turn off your computer at least once a day and find an inspiring place to write. Let yourself write whatever comes to mind. Then, go back through it later to extract all those little bits that can be turned into an article or story.

Stress

Although helpful, technology can also be stressful. Yes, computers, laptops, e-mail, cell phones, and our personal electronic organizers do make our jobs easier. But what happens when the phone rings all day and you check your e-mail on an almost minute-by-minute basis? This can promote stress. It isn’t necessary to respond to every call and e-mail you get as soon as you get it. In fact, it can cause stress.

Checking e-mail only a few times a day and letting voice mail pick up your calls can help you relax. Stress hurts creativity. When you are relaxed you can be more productive with your writing time and it is easier to come up with new ideas.

Greater Productivity

Yes, spending time away from your computer and from e-mail every now and then does enhance productivity. I know it seems hard to believe. I mean, it seems like you need to actually be at your computer in order to get things done.

I don’t know about you, but when I sit at my computer all day, I start to zone. I play a game or two of solitaire. Then I check my e-mail. I finally start writing but I can only write one sentence before I feel stuck.

At that point, I know I should switch off the computer and do something else. It’s time to take a break and at the very least do some housework. But when I take a REAL break away from the computer and take out my journal or get some exercise, that is when my mind starts to organize my thoughts and ideas and I am better able to return to my work refreshed and more productive.

Small Steps

Intrigued? You may want to start with small steps. Try taking a few ten minute breaks throughout your work day. Build up to taking an entire day off. You will be more creative and productive and have a lot more things to write about because you will be experiencing life

Katherine Huether is a freelance writer who takes care of the majority of her business with her computer. Her work has appeared in Herbs for Health and Herb Quarterly. Katherine Huether has a website.

The Power of Journaling for Writers

By Erica Miner

Anne Frank . . . Virginia Woolf . . . Anais Nin . . . Sylvia Plath . . . Henry David Thoreau . . . James M. Barrie . . . Franz Kafka . . . Samuel Pepys . . .

Some of these authors are best known for their journals; others have used journaling as both a source of inspiration and a stepping-stone to self-enlightenment. But they, among many others, have one important element in common: they have all engaged in that wonderful, creative activity we call journaling.

We all follow journeys of self-discovery at some points in our lives, but as writers we take these journeys on a daily basis. Journaling is a powerful way for us to chronicle these fantastic voyages. And as I like to point out in my journaling workshops and lectures, it’s no coincidence that the words “journey” and “journaling” come from the same root.

Not only do we gain personal insights and discover new layers of our psyches through journaling; it can also help us get our creative juices flowing and often help us through bouts of writer’s block. I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and wisdom about journaling that have served me well, both as a writer and as a voyager through life.

Just to give you a little background about myself, I was born in Detroit and started journaling at the tender age of thirteen, when I was just starting high school. Already I had found my journal to be my best friend, allowing me to confide my deepest secrets, fears, and emotions during that hormone-infused time of life. My recall of that era is so vivid that I am able to recapture my experiences in the novel series I have been working on about a young girl growing up in the volatile 60’s and 70’s — even though those journals have long been lost.

Years later, when I was going through a devastating divorce, journaling saved my life—literally. Suddenly I found myself with two children to raise and support on my own, and on my worst days I was ready to jump out of my ninth floor apartment window — until I started journaling and poured my heart and soul into my writing instead. And I’m not the only one who has had that kind of profound experience from journaling: Oprah herself credits journaling for saving her life. How powerful is that?

Yes, a journal can see you through difficult times. It can also be a veritable treasure chest of creative ideas and personal history that you can use again and again in your writing. I fervently believe we all have a book inside of us, if not more than one. How many of us have family histories just crying to be told, for example? Your journal could become a novel, or a movie — witness Angela’s Ashes or In America. The possibilities are endless. A number of writers I have recently met are penning novels that stem from stories they have lived: one woman is writing a novel about living through the blitz in London as a young girl; another, a man who survived the battlefields of World War II, is turning his story into a screenplay. Even our own personal family histories handed down by elderly family members can make for compelling writing.

What about travel journals? My own novel, Travels With My Lovers, started as a journal that I had written over a number of years. A number of my other travel experiences have ended up as articles in magazines. People love to read evocative descriptions of far-off places written from the point of view of an expressive observer. In fact, the entire June issue of Vision Magazine, to which I have contributed an article, is devoted to the “traveler’s path.”

There are so many other ways we can use journaling to enhance our lives. Journals have been kept to help women heal from traumatic illnesses: for instance, actress Lynn Redgrave recently published a book about her healing journey from cancer. I met a woman who keeps what she calls a “dinner table” journal, chronicling her favorite culinary and entertaining experiences and the conversations that went along with them. Parents who take the time to journal the miraculous changes that their babies go through from day to day are rewarded with a joyful record of their children’s early journeys through life.

And the beauty of all this is that you can journal in any way you like, in any form and under any circumstances. The only limitations are those of the human imagination.

So to get you started—or re-started, as the case may be—here are some of my suggestions for making your journaling journey pleasurable and rewarding.

Believe it or not, the type of equipment you use can be a major factor. It’s of utmost importance to choose the type of journal that will inspire you to crack it open and sully the pages with your thoughts and feelings. It can be a bound book of blank pages with a beautiful cover, an artist’s sketch book to which you can add your own inventive touches, a pocket-sized notebook for travel, or a journal with quotes from writers on artists on each page to help inspire you. There’s no limit to the types of journals you can find in stores and on the web.

It’s also important to use the type of writing implement that’s comfortable for you. If you have a favorite pen that feels nice in your hand or even makes your writing look more legible (trust me, even for hopelessly illegible penmanship like mine, there are pens that can do this!) then use it. Of course, if you prefer using your computer to journal, that will work well, too. I am often asked during my talks whether I prefer journaling in longhand or on my computer. I confess that I like to think of journaling as a cozy, intimate activity, and for that, only longhand will do.

Find your perfect time of day or night, when you can quiet your mind and let your thoughts flow. Sit by the fire or light a candle—both are conducive to deep concentration—and let your muse take over.

After you’re set up with that, here are just a few of the many “hints” and techniques I’ve got up my sleeve to get those creative juices flowing:

  • Create your own imaginary world and describe it in vivid detail
  • Write about someone you met only once but still remember strongly
  • Describe your favorite “secret hideaway”

And my own personal favorite:

  • Recount your very first childhood memory

These are but a few of the wealth of possibilities for journaling that I like to impart to my readers. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an e-mail through my website.

The key is just to take pen in hand, or create a private journaling file on your computer, and see where your personal journey will take you. Once you settle into your own “ritual,” you will discover what you have been missing!

© 2005, Erica Miner

Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner turned to writing as her creative outlet when injuries suffered in a car accident forced her to give up her musical career. She has since won awards for her screenplays, novels, and poetry, including the Fiction Prize in the Direct From The Author Book Awards for her novel, Travels With My Lovers. Erica has made a name for herself through radio and online interviews, book signings, and lectures. After a series of successful lecture tours, she has been named a top-rated lecturer for Celebrity Cruise Lines. Erica Miner has a website. Erica Miner is also on twitter and Amazon.

The “Do It Yourself” Book Tour

By Aliza Sherman

Everything I know about booking a book tour, I learned while in the music business. Sometimes, I joke that as an author I’m like a small rock band. I’ve been signed by a major label, given some money in advance to make my album, fed a lot of exciting promises about marketing and promotions, and then I’m on my own. It is entirely up to me whether my record succeeds or fails. If I work really hard and there is a blip in record sales somewhere, maybe, just maybe, my record label will put a little money toward promotions or do a little public relations for me.

Does this scenario sound familiar? As a currently non-best-selling author, I’ve learned that my publisher is the ideal distributor for a product — my book — but that I’m really the marketing and PR machine. Once I accepted my role, I took advantage of an extended road trip I was taking across the country to promote my second book, Cybergrrl @ Work. I ended up stopping in more than 50 cities in 2001 to support my book.

How did I do it? Based on what I learned while working in the music business — at booking agencies and music managements companies in the early 90s — I mapped out several months of tour dates. I also enlisted a friend — Alison Berke of bworks.com – to help me book the dates, something she was happy to do on the side while running a home-based Internet marketing business. Then I hit the road.

Here are some basic concepts of booking tours that work well whether you are an aspiring rock band or up-and-coming author.

Routing the Tour

The act of “routing a tour” simply means to map out the entire trip, specifying the cities you’ll cover, noting the mileage and drive time, then using it as a framework for actually booking the tour.

Your publisher will tell you that there are only a handful of major markets that they really care about. My publisher mentioned New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and maybe Seattle since my book was Internet related and at the time, Seattle was an Internet mecca along with Silicon Valley. Traveling between those cities can be unrealistic if you cannot afford the airfare. If you can take the time off, try routing a driving tour to hit as many major markets as possible or stick to a regional area around a single major market.

You can even book a tour within a driveable radius around your own hometown or fly to a major market, rent a car and create a tour in that region. The best market, of course, would be New York City and the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) plus Pennsylvania and Washington DC and even as far north as Massachusetts. Amtrak has good deals between these cities if you don’t like to drive.

To route my tour, I used these essential tools:

A Rand McNally road atlas to help me visualize the driving routes.

Mapquest.com’s Driving Directions section so I could check approximate mileage and driving times.

A good map of the entire United States to get a perspective of the overall territory. I found that the Rand McNally road atlas only had a small map of the country without much detail.

Maps of each state where I would be traveling. My local AAA office furnished me with every map I needed.

For the first leg of my tour, I began in South Florida with a plan to end a month later in New York City. I knew that I wanted to hit Atlanta, GA, and Charlotte, NC, so I couldn’t stick to driving north on I-95. I had to consider the drive time to each city and keep in mind that most bookstores preferred evening appearances on the weekdays and afternoons on weekends.

The first few weeks of my skeletal routing looked like this:

JAN
Jan 8 Mon Miami
Jan 9 Tue Ft. Lauderdale
Jan 10 Wed Pompano Beach
Jan 11 Thu Speaking engagement (already booked) – Ft. Lauderdale
Jan 12 Fri West Palm or Melbourne?
Jan 13 Sat OFF
Jan 14 Sun OFF
Jan 15 Mon Tampa
Jan 16 Tue Orlando
Jan 17 Wed OFF
Jan 18 Thu Jacksonville
Jan 19 Fri OFF
Jan 20 Sat OFF
Jan 21 Sun OFF
Jan 22 Mon Atlanta
Jan 23 Tue OFF
Jan 24 Wed Charlotte

I emailed the above routing to Alison. We received suggestions of bookstores in each city either by emailing friends and acquaintances in the area or by researching on the Internet.

Here is what the actual tour for those weeks ended up looking like:

Tue, Jan 9 Ft. Lauderdale, FL – 8:00 pm – Archives Bookcafe
Wed, Jan 10 Miami Beach, FL – 8:00 pm – Books & Books
Thu, Jan 11 Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Speaking engagement
Fri, Jan 12 DRIVE
Sat, Jan 13 Tampa, FL – OFF
Sun, Jan 14 Clearwater, FL – 1:00 pm – Barnes and Noble
Mon, Jan 15 Orlando, FL – 3:00 pm – Books A Million
7:30pm – Borders Books Music & Cafe
Tue, Jan 16 DRIVE
Wed, Jan 17 Atlanta, GA – 7:00 pm – Chapter 11
Thu, Jan 18 Atlanta, GA – OFF
Fri, Jan 19 DRIVE
Sat, Jan 20 Charlotte, NC – OFF
Sun, Jan 21 Charlotte, NC – 7:00 pm – Borders bookstore

The changes from my tentative routing to the final schedule happened mostly because of the available dates and times at each bookstore. I skipped certain cities because they didn’t fit into the schedule as it developed, and they weren’t big enough markets to warrant rearranging the schedule.

Submitting a Rider

Every rock band has a rider — an addendum to their contract that states what the band would like in the dressing room to make their appearances more comfortable. Whether it was M&Ms without the green ones for Van Halen or an enormous bowl of boiled shrimp for Def Leppard, I witnessed rockers getting almost anything their hearts desired at each concert.

As an author, you only get what you ask for. I created a rider that Alison sent in advance to all of the bookstores that requested things such as:

  1. How to obtain copies of my book and who to contact if there is any delay. I wanted to make sure they had my books at each signing. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many authors show up for signings only to find their books aren’t there.
  2. Request for the exact store location, contact information and driving directions to be emailed to Alison. I wanted everything in advance so I didn’t get lost.
  3. Request for specific event details. Would I be doing a signing only or did they want me to speak as well? Or were they going to set me up behind a table with my books at the front of their store?
  4. Request for Audio/Visual inventory. If they want me to speak, what would be the setup? Microphone? Podium and lectern? If they wanted me to speak, I did request a microphone and amplifier because I found that it attracted more attention storewide.
  5. Request for several bottles of spring water without ice. This was my luxury request.
  6. Request for local media contacts. If they provided Alison with these contacts in advance, she could help pursue media coverage of the event.

The rider worked out well for everyone, and I always had my bottles of water when I needed them!

Advancing the Dates

In the music business, to “advance a date” means to call a few days ahead of time to make sure everything is in order. Alison contacted each store within a week before my appearance to make sure everything was set, to go over the rider point by point, and to get answers to any last minute questions.

Advancing dates is not foolproof, but it is helpful. After over 50 tour dates, I had only had one mix up when we got a date wrong, and no one realized it until I missed my appearance. The store generously let me set up the following evening, although I didn’t have the benefit of promotions.

Promotional Tools

After many appearances at bookstores, I’ve learned that as an author, you can’t have enough promotional tools. Here are a few tools that have come in handy:

  1. Promotional Blurbs. Prepare a few, very short promotional blurbs about the book and about you that the bookstore can have in advance to include in their newsletter or give to the media. You can only imagine the erroneous and irrelevant blurbs I’ve seen about my book. Getting a consistent message out there is key to marketing your book.
  2. Pre-Prepared In-Store Announcements. Write out and give bookstores several options for storewide intercom announcements to avoid them reading blandly from your book jacket. Make sure you clearly specify how to pronounce your name. I can’t tell you how many times I’m announced as “Eliza” or “Aleesha” instead of the proper way — Uh-LEE-zuh. If you can, get permission to do the announcements right before your appearance if you are comfortable on a microphone.
  3. Book Blowups. Get several blowups of your book mounted on foam core. When you arrive in a town, go directly to the bookstore even if a few days in advance. Check the signage about your signing, and offer the blowups to put in their window or near their checkout counter with the date and time of your appearance taped to it. I was lucky enough to be given 3 blowups of my book by a New York City bookstore who had them made for my local appearance. The posters were so eye-catching that the store sold over 40 books the week before my appearance.
  4. Flyers. I made fliers at Kinkos with my photo, a graphic of my bookcover and the text: “Meet the Author — Tonite!” and “Aliza Sherman — “Cybergrrl @ Work.” I left blanks for Date, Time and Location. I made several copies of the master flyer and used a Sharpie pen to insert the appropriate information. I made copies on bright yellow paper to attract attention, and then canvassed neighboring businesses near the bookstore and asked permission to hang up the flyer in their windows. They almost always said “yes.”

Booking your own book tour can be time consuming and being on the road can be grueling, but as you begin to see book sales increasing in the markets you’ve visited, you’ll realize how effective a grassroots tour can be. Happy trails!

Aliza Sherman is an international keynote speaker, author of 11 books including Social Media Engagement for Dummies and The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, and a digital strategist since 1992. Aliza Sherman has a Website.

Tips for Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist

By Kris Saknussemm

The problem with “should” advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e., your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis—or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). Based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you—and with any luck will do a bit of both.

Tip #1. Do not spend years gathering interesting material—odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics, and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a figurative warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter-long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first birds of paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit—potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.

Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses, and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms—but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick, sharp answers to the following questions: In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? What’s your novel about in three sentences or less?

Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English—but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that—and many of their achievements end up looking like legless birds of paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.

Tip #4. Read your work aloud, ideally to some willing victim, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more important, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston, I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ’em.”

Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself—unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around)—unless you are willing to get lost, confused, and even terrified—then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

Cover of Kris Saknussemm's novel Private MidnightKris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia.  A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA. You can find  Kris Saknussemm on the Web at krissaknussemm.comKris Saknussem has  an Amazon author page

Keeping a Journal in Tumultuous Times

By Barbara Stahura

Memory is a tricky thing even in the best of times. But in times of great stress and chaos, you might as well kiss it goodbye, for all the good it will do you in accurately recalling events. When your world explodes, memory, too, falls into fragments around your feet — disjointed pieces that later shape-shift, ooze into old recollections or couple with imagination to create new patterns, or disappear altogether. So when I entered the most agonizing, confusing time of my life, I took my journal along and wrote pages in it nearly every day. As a wife and an individual in the midst of turmoil, and also as a writer, I’m grateful that I did.

At the end of 2003, my husband, Ken, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of a hit-and-run. For a short time, the accident shattered my life into chaos. Later, I settled into a weird rhythm so disconnected from my familiar life that it often left me breathless (and once sent me to the ER with chest pains). I had to maintain any stability I could for Ken’s sake, and for mine. Beginning the morning after the accident, I wrote in my journal nearly every day. At the time my reasons for journaling weren’t necessarily defined. I simply felt a driving need to record my thoughts. Now, though, I’ve had time to sort out and reflect on those reasons.

First, in the exhausting, agonizing weeks that followed the accident, I felt as if I had been cast into the deepest ocean without a life jacket. Visible land — the life to which I hoped to return with my recovered husband — was only a hazy strip in the far distance. Journaling provided a way to ground myself, at least for little snatches of time. It was a safe, private haven where I poured out my confusion, anger, and sorrow.

This had a positive result since I was less likely to express these emotions in the wrong place, as in the ICU, for instance, when Ken’s neurologist saw no need to speak with me. Furthermore, though any medical emergency is confusing, the addition of a TBI complicates the situation even more. The brain controls everything we do, directing not only our mental functions like memory and cognition, but also our personality, emotions, and all the other functions that blend together to create a self. And when the self of someone you love more than your own heart is diminished and damaged the way Ken’s was, you clutch whatever you can to keep yourself afloat. I clutched my journal as if our lives depended on it.

Second, Ken’s memory was damaged by the TBI (fortunately, it has returned, with only slight deficits). He remembers nothing of the earliest weeks after the accident and not much of his time in the rehab facility and the second acute care hospital where he was taken after developing a pulmonary embolism. Early on, I figured he might one day like to know what happened to him, to me, and to us during this lost time. I wrote in my journal for him, too. After he came home and was well enough to comprehend it (and, I’ll admit, decipher my handwriting), he read the entire journal and was grateful I had written so extensively.

Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries.

And, finally, I kept the journal because I am a writer. I knew I would eventually want to write my truth about this watershed event in our lives, and how could I do that without a record? To be enveloped by crisis and wanting to record it so I could later write about it, and even profit from it, can sound self-serving. Perhaps it is. But other writers understand. Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries. In the past eight months, I’ve read half a dozen memoirs from TBI survivors and their families, all of which used journal entries as memory aids and even as direct sources of narrative. And all of them have given me a clearer understanding of the devastation, struggle, and hope that surround this injury that is unlike any other a human being can sustain.

Like prehistoric pollen captured in cores of ancient ice, little nuggets of information glisten in a journal long after an event. Just as scientists use that pollen to infer a great deal about climate and plant life in centuries past, we writers can use our journal nuggets to illuminate much larger portions of our stories. Until I re-read my journal after Ken came home, I’d forgotten a bizarre, significant dream from two weeks after the accident. Now incorporated into the memoir I’m writing, this dream reminds me that I occasionally felt hopeful during the days when my husband sometimes couldn’t remember my name and when exhaustion and despair whitewashed my other emotions. I’ve also referred to my journal when writing several personal essays about Ken and brain injury. Each time, I’ve unearthed something vanished from my conscious memory that allowed me to present a clearer picture.

It can be wrenching to read my journal entries and relive those horrible, frantic weeks after Ken’s accident. But my journal now provides me something precious that was not available then: the luxury of remembering, at a distance and in great detail. Instead of feeling frustrated because that time has evaporated from my memory, I can turn to my journal. I didn’t record everything, of course, but I preserved enough to allow me to reconstruct events, feelings, and situations that otherwise would have been lost forever. As Ken’s wife, I’m gratified he also found value in my journal. And as a writer, I hope that what I scribbled all those months ago may someday have value to others who love TBI survivors.

Barbara Stahura is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona, who has written for a number of print and online publications, including Science & SpiritThe ProgressiveSpirituality & Health, and MSNBC.com. Barbara Stahura has a website.

Critical Critiques: Feedback from Friends and Family

By Natalie Lorenzi

You’ve heard the same advice over and over — nix the pink paper for submissions and don’t ever ask your loved ones  to critique your writing (unless they are writers themselves — and even then, it’s questionable). Why are so many writers negative about feedback from friends and family?

Feedback from Friends and Family

I’ll concede that writers should avoid pink (and otherwise colored) paper, but as for shunning feedback from friends and family —  I’m not so sure. Certainly there are writers who caution against familial feedback. Why? Because the people who love you will undoubtedly claim that they adore your work, since a) they don’t know any better, or b) they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I have to ask — is that really so bad? The answer: it depends on why you’re asking for their opinion.

You’ve already heard the major reasons to avoid soliciting feedback from familiar folks. Don’t do it…

. . .  to improve your writing skills.

Great Uncle Percy probably won’t offer any tips on subplot, nor will your best friend from high school shed insight on how to revamp your dialogue. And even if your neighbor really is a writer/publisher/editor/agent and hates your work, she can’t just send you a form rejection letter and pray that she never hears from you again. At the very least, she’ll still have to greet you when you take out the trash and pick up your mail.

. . . to impress an editor.

“My kids just adore this particular story . . . ” I can already see the harried editor cringing as he tosses your query over his shoulder. And it won’t matter if your kid’s entire fourth grade class voted your story as the best one in the annals of children’s literature — you might as well open your query with, “Hi, I’m new at this . . . ”

. . . for advice on submitting your work.

When you send in that article on the FDA’s new food pyramid, don’t follow your niece’s suggestion to put scratch-and-sniff food stickers on the envelope. And when your colleague suggests: “Random House publishes a lot of books — why don’t you send your story to them?” remember that you’ll still need to research markets to find the perfect fit for your piece.

Ok, so we know what our loved ones can’t deliver.

Now let’s take a look at why we should seek out their opinions anyway:

To give your ego a boost.

When I e-mailed my first children’s story manuscript to my best friend, she responded the same day: “I’ll be the first in line at your book signing when you hit the New York Times best-seller list!” How can you read something like that and not smile? And from my mom, the avid reader — “Oh, honey, it’s the best story I’ve ever read.” The gushing was palpable. Do I really think it’s the best story she’s ever read? Probably (ok, definitely) not. But even if it’s a story that only a mother can love, her comment still gave my writing ego a boost.

To ease the sting of rejection.

When an editor of a major women’s magazine passed on one of my queries, my sister’s response was: “That woman’ll be sorry one day when your story shows up in one of their competitor’s magazines!” I can just see her raising her eyebrows and nodding sagely. My dad confirmed: “What does that editor know? I don’t think that particular magazine is all that popular anymore, anyway. Why don’t you try one of the bigger magazines?” He had no way of knowing that “that magazine” boasts more than 13 million readers — he just knew that none of those 13 million would be reading his daughter’s article — their loss, apparently. Sure, I was disappointed about the rejection, but picturing my dad admonishing this big-time editor did elicit a smug smile from my lips.

For improvements

What? Didn’t I just explain that someone who loves you can’t help you improve your writing? Well, this may be true most of the time. But you just might discover a few nuggets of literary lucidity buried amongst all the “Oh, it’s wonderful!” comments. After my husband read my middle grade children’s manuscript, I sat back, ready to bask in the glow of his compliments. And he did say some nice things. But what sticks with me are the words: “Honey, all of your characters are boys. Girls tend to be more avid readers, anyway. Won’t you be alienating a good portion of your market by not having any female characters?” Huh? I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that. He was right, of course, so George became Susan, and thank goodness for the “Find/Change” feature that took care of all the instances of “she” and “her.”

Do you want the truth about your writing? Constructive feedback, maybe? Join a critique group, or take a class. Do you want a boost after finding your twenty-seventh consecutive rejection lurking in the mailbox? Then ask your loved ones to read your writing. Don’t use their feedback to hone your craft; use it to fill your heart. If you want to remind yourself that you’re worth more than the sum of your rejections minus those scant acceptances — go ahead and send a copy of your latest piece to your grandmother. I’ll bet she says it’s the best thing she’s ever read.

Cover of Natalie LorenziNatalie Dias Lorenzi is a full-time school librarian in Fairfax, Virginia, where a majority of her students are immigrants. She has previously taught in the US, Japan, and Italy, specializing in English as a Second Language. Natalie also writes curriculum guides for writers and publishers. She is the author of Flying the Dragon, which was a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Book of the Year. She’s a great writer — just ask her friends and family. Natalie Lorenzi has a Website

Living Creatively: Word Play

By Dawn Allcot

As a child, I spent hours playing Scrabble, Word Yahtzee, and Boggle with my mother. Thinking back, all this child’s play was merely a precursor to my adult life as a professional writer. I still love playing with word play; playing with letters and words, rearranging them to change their meanings, create a better flow, and entertain and inform my readers.

Not all of my word play is work, either. I still sit in front of the computer for hours, manipulating words on the screen at www.magneticpoetry.com or challenging people across the country at Yahoo’s online version of Scrabble, Literati.

It’s rare that I finish a game and don’t feel like writing. Often, the odd combinations of words crossing each other on the Literati board will spark a story idea or a poetic line.

“Magnetic poems,” short, haiku-ish things, beg expansion, giving birth to full-fledged poetry. Wackysentences created in Word Yahtzee demand explanations, entire stories created around one silly idea.

Writing’s a Game

Playing games with other writers is particularly fun and challenging. If you’re in the mood for a creative writing exercise, challenge another literary-minded friend to a game of Scrabble. When you’re done, jot down the words you’ve created and write your own story.

You can do the same thing after a game of Boggle, perhaps using the myriad of rhyming, monosyllabic words to write a silly children’s book. Upwords, a board game quite similar to Scrabble, lends itself to shorter words that may be conducive to limericks or short poems.

Remember Mad Libs? Everyone’s favorite party word game has been around more than half a century! And there is still nothing’s better to evoke uncommon verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Try to incorporate some of the unusual phrasing in the Mad Libs story into your own work. Or take your Mad Libs creation and turn it into a bizarre fantasy world for a story of your own. It doesn’t have to be good — it’s Mad Libs. Anything goes!

A glimpse down the game aisle at Toys R Us, or even through a game store such as Wizards of the Coast, indicates that there are more word games on the market now than ever before. Choices are no longer limited to Password and Scrabble.

Scattergories requires you to think of several different words in various categories, all beginning with the same letter — great for practicing your alliteration abilities!

Apples to Apples makes players match up adjectives with appropriate names. Some hilarious combinations may provoke creative descriptions, titles or even short story themes.

In Balderdash, players make up definitions for unusual words; the best bluffer wins! This game stretches your creativity and language skills, as you can employ an understanding of English words and word play to invent a fake, yet logical, definition for a word and bluff your way to a win.

Online Diversions

Word Whomp is a highly-addictive, harder-than-it-looks, word game available free online at Pogo.com. The goal is to make as many three to six letter words as you can from the words on the screen. While I doubt this game’s ability to stir your creative thinking, it’s a great diversion that exercises your brain a bit better than, say, Elf bowling or anything on Jib Jab.

Pogo offers many other unique and challenging word games, too, such as Book Worm, played like an old-fashioned word search with a few twists and Tumble Bees, a Tetris-like game that requires you to spell words. The site also offers standards such as Hangman and Scrabble.

To find some truly creative writing and word games, you need look no further than the Absolute Write Water Cooler’s Writing Exercises, Prompts & Whimsical Pursuits. Regular AW visitors write limericks together, play the Double Letter game, and even participate in a creative thread where you have to make up an outrageous lie about the person who posted before you.

Play these games in moderation, as they can be addictive. But when you need a break from your WIP yet want to keep your brain working, this type of creative stimulation via word play can be just what the writer ordered!

Going It Alone

Of course, don’t forget those games you can play alone: from the crossword puzzle in your daily paper to jumbles and word searches, these puzzles all get the part of your brain that deals with words primed for a day of writing.

Any writer who’s ever struggled over plot developments or characterization longs to go back to that time of childlike innocence, when he or she wrote with unleashed imagination and uninhibited creativity.

Word play and  games can help.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer who employs her creativity as a regular contributor to magazines. You can find Dawn Allcot at Allcot Media & Marketing.

12 Ways to Keep Your Nonfiction Book in the News

By Sandra Beckwith
Publishers are willing to publicize nonfiction books when they’re released, but they rarely do much after the launch to keep books in the news, even though most deserve ongoing media exposure. Here are some easy things you can do to generate continuing publicity for your title. Use a mix of these ideas to develop a 12-month publicity plan that will provide the support your book needs.

Turn the advice in your chapters into a series of monthly tip sheets. A tip sheet is a press release that offers tips or advice in a bulleted or numbered format. Start your tip sheet with an introductory paragraph that explains why the tips you’re offering are important, list your bulleted advice, then tie it all together at the end with a concluding paragraph. Send it to appropriate media outlets; the distribution list will depend on your topic.

Contact the press immediately when your topic is making headlines to offer your expert perspective. This is a sure thing with most local media outlets when it’s a national news story because you’re giving them a local angle. Fax or e-mail (no attachments) your bio and a cover letter explaining your position on the breaking news to the appropriate media contact. If you’ve done enough interviews to prepare for the big time, pitch the national news outlets, too.

Add the media to your newsletter distribution list. The same useful advice or information you offer subscribers in your print or electronic newsletter could be of interest to reporters covering that topic, too. I got a book contract several years ago from the publicity that resulted from adding the media to the distribution list of a newsletter I publish.

Repackage your book content into bylined trade magazine articles. Depending on the terms of your publishing contract, you might need to do some rewriting so it’s “new” material. Make sure the author credit at the end of the article includes your book title.

Capitalize on holidays and special months, weeks, and days by distributing a press release with useful, newsworthy information related to the topic, or by contacting the press to offer yourself as an expert information source. For example, many daily newspapers run articles in December about how the holidays are especially difficult for people who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing the anniversary of a loss. This presents many coast-to-coast interview opportunities fosr the author of a book on grief and loss— but only if the author reaches out to the press. And November 15 is “National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day”—surely there’s an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) member who can capitalize on that occasion!

Contact the public relations department of your industry’s trade association to offer yourself for media interviews. Association public relations people are often contacted by writers like us looking for members with a particular expertise to interview. Make sure your association knows about your qualifications and the topics you can comment on, and you’ll get referral calls.

Conduct a newsworthy and relevant survey on your topic and announce the interesting results in a press release. The author of a cookbook designed to make cooking simple and easy can survey people about why they don’t cook more, and release the findings in a press release sent to newspaper food editors and cooking magazines. The release should include information about your book’s connection to the survey topic.

Sponsor an attention-getting contest and announce the results in a press release. To promote my humor book about men, I conducted a “Worst Gift from a Man Contest.” The resulting press release led to nationwide media attention, including a holiday appearance on a national cable TV talk show.

Push your publisher’s publicist to monitor ProfNet for reporter queries related to your topic all year. Alternatively, subscribe to ProfNet via its PR Leads reseller and respond to appropriate queries. A $99 per month subscription via www.prleads.com is more affordable than a ProfNet subscription.

Monitor ASJA forums for source requests . ASJA members frequently post requests on the magazines and newspapers forum for interview sources.

Tell the media when you’re visiting their market. Reporters love to interview experts who aren’t local, so if you’re in another city for any reason, contact the appropriate media people two weeks before your trip to offer ideas for articles they can write based on an in-person interview with you. If you’re in town to speak, send an announcement press release several weeks in advance and offer to do a pre-event telephone interview.

Repurpose your best tips into a free booklet. Write and distribute a press release that describes the booklet and how people can get a free copy; make sure both the booklet and the release include information about your book, too.

Generating ongoing publicity is work, but it’s not rocket science. Invest the time so you boost sales while contributing to your author platform. You’ll see the rewards at the end of the year.

Sandra Beckwith, the author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity That Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, teaches the online “Book Buzz” class for Freelance Success. Learn more at www.sandrabeckwith.com.

Leslie Charteris

By George Alex Windish

Leslie Charteris is not a forgotten writer. Though he wrote other things, he will go down in literary history with his character, Simon Templar, the urbane, sophisticated, gentleman-adventurer better known as the Saint.

Charteris was born in 1907, the son of Dr. S.C. Yin, whose roots could be traced to the old emperors of China. Charteris was christened Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, and learned several language before he learned English. He was not a distinguished scholar, but did manage to write a novel while he was attending Cambridge. He continued to write, but seldom made money at it. To keep himself fed, he worked as a policeman, drove a bus, prospected for gold, worked in tin mines, fished for pearl, tended bar, and became a professional bridge player.

In 1926, he legally changed his name.

In 1929, he wrote Meet The Tiger, the first Saint book.

Meet The Tiger sold very well, and soon the followup adventures of Simon Templar were making Charteris famous and rich.

In 1932, he moved to the United States.

His style of telling a story was very breezy, fast-paced and exciting, and the Saint has always held the fascination of readers. The character has appeared in movies in the 30s & 40s, on radio, in comic strips and on television. A new generation was introduced to an updated version of the Saint n the movie starring Val Kilmer. There is also a meticulously researched website for Leslie Charteris.

Forty years ago, when I was 10, I picked up and read a copy of The Saint At Large, a collection of short stories. I have been writing ever since.

Leslie Charteris died in 1993.

George Alex Windish has been writing for many years, and has become a better typist, if nothing else. He has placed nearly a dozen short stories of horror and science fiction, has had a weekly column in a local Baltimore newspaper, and has written for and edited Country Line, a small Pennsylvania magazine. He has also done ad copy and correspondence for businesses. He has long been a fan of genre literature and truly tacky movies, as well as being a collector of vintage records.