The Commercial Novelist

By James D. Macdonald

Hello. My name is Jim Macdonald, and I write books. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, technothriller, and non-fiction, mostly. Upwards of thirty, total, over the last fifteen years.

Jenna asked me to write a column on “Writing the Commercial Novel,” so that’s what I’ll be doing. I can’t guarantee that what I say here will work for you; all I can say is that it works for me. As Kipling put it, “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays/ And every single one of them is right!”

First, let’s talk about why you want to be a novelist. Just as every way of telling a story (per Kipling) is right, every reason for wanting to do it is right. Commercial publication isn’t a requirement. You put words on paper? You’re a writer. Your reasons are your own.

Let me say, though, that if the reason you want to write is to send a message, there are better ways. If you’re interested in impressing other people, there are better ways. If you’re interested in making pots of money, there are better, easier, faster ways.

On the other hand, if the reason you’re a writer is because writing is what you’ve always dreamed of doing, because you’re the sort of person to whom words come trippingly, and because the idea of not-writing fills you with dread, perhaps you’re in the right place. If you want to share your writing with others, and you want to have a few laughs and make a few bucks along the way, so much the better.

All writers love their books. (I’m big on making flat universal statements.) Sure, you can find one or two miserable exceptions, writers who hate their books. Pretty much every writer goes through a stage or two of hating his or her particular book. If it doesn’t happen during the interminable mid-book slog (when you’ll hear writers calling their Work In Progress the “Gosh-Darn Farking Book from Heck” or something similar), then it comes right after finishing it, when the same book which had been so bright-shiny-new, original, and delightful in concept suddenly seems to be the biggest pile of cow-poop ever assembled, and the thought of reading it One More Time fills the writer with a desire to clean the toilets instead.

Still, writers love their books. The difference between a writer and a commercial writer is that the commercial writer has convinced someone else to love his or her book. Someone other than Mom. Someone called an “acquiring editor.”

Here’s where Art and Commerce meet. And here’s the hill that lots of would-be commercial writers never crest. You’re asking total strangers to bet tens of thousands of dollars of their boss’s money that other total strangers will want to read your book so much that they’ll plunk down money on the counter in bookstores where the bookstore owner has never heard of you either.

Egos of steel, that’s us. We believe that we lie so entertainingly that other people will pay money to hear us lie. All writers think that their books are that entertaining. Most writers are wrong. Sad but true: Most of the books in the slush heap (I’ve seen slush heaps; I’ve read slush) aren’t bad books. They just aren’t very good. They’re dull, they’re formless, they never get going or they lose traction half-way through, they don’t so much end as stop.

I’m going to talk about ways to lift your book out of that gray morass of nice-enough but not good-enough books. I’ll also make you a couple of promises.

First, if you write a page a day (that’s 250 words), at the end of a year you’ll have a book-length manuscript. A writer writes. If you’re a writer, you write.

Second, if you have a compelling story compellingly told, in workmanlike prose with standard spelling, presented in standard manuscript format, it will sell. Perhaps not to the first place you submit it, nor to the second, but it will sell.

Figuring out what is a compelling story is the next part, of which more anon. For right now, start writing.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.

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Copyright Law

By Jodi Brandon

As writers, we must be concerned with copyright law — both sides of the law: not infringing on others’ copyright when writing as well as upholding and protecting our own copyright. See if you know the answer to these three true-false statements.

  • Shakespeare would be able to sue the writer of West Side Story for copyright infringement of Romeo and Juliet.
  • Copyright infringement is legal as long as it’s unintentional.
  • A work needs the copyright symbol (the © in a circle) to be protected by copyright law.

All of the statements are false. Did you get them all correct? The reason copyright can get so confusing is because it deals in so many intangibles and case-by-case variables (as opposed to an exact, absolute standard). Despite the uncertainty that often accompanies decisions about copyright, writers are responsible for abiding by the law. To do that — as well as to protect our own works from being used illegally — we must understand the law. I won’t bore you with a history lesson on Copyright Law Through the Ages, though. I promise.

Fair Use

” align=“right” style=Lloyd J. Jassin and Steven C. Schechter put it simply and perfectly in The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: Fair use is impossible to quantify. As a writer, you can “copy” another person’s work as long as your use is considered fair use. So how do you know? Is there a magical formula, like an algebraic equation from seventh-grade math class, that writers can use? If only that were the case! There are guidelines. Here are the four factors of fair use to consider:

  • Purpose and character of the use.
  • Nature of the use.
  • Amount and substantiality of the use.
  • Effect on the existing or potential market of the use.

My lawyer recommends the same thing many legal and publishing experts do: that I ask myself the following question before taking directly from someone else’s work: If I were the author of the material I want to use, would I consider my use fair, according to all four of the factors just listed? I hate to simplify such a complex issue, but another way to think about it is this: Treat others (specifically others’ work) as you’d like to be treated. Mutual respect goes a long way. The bottom line is this: If you have even the slightest bit of doubt, get permission. (Don’t just attribute the material to its source; that’s not enough.) It’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to copyright infringement.

Requesting Permission

OK, so you’ve decided that your use might not or would not be fair. Now what? If the work is in the public domain, you’re free to use it as you wish. If it’s not, though, you need to find the copyright holder and request permission. Check the work for a copyright notice (e.g., the copyright page of a book). If you can’t find anything, you can search the records at the Copyright Office. Once you’ve found the copyright holder, put your request in writing. Include all the information pertinent to the decision to allow you or not allow you to use the material: exactly what material you’re using, the title and description of your work, the number of copies you expect to have published, your publisher/publication name, and what rights you’re asking for. The more information you can provide initially, the more likely a decision will be made without the copyright holder coming back to you for further information.

Remember that the copyright owner holds the cards here: He or she (assuming it’s a person; it could be a company) can ask for more information before making a decision, refuse your request, charge you for your use, or give you permission to use his or her work free of charge. You’re legally obligated to do what the copyright holder says.

The Other Side of the Fence

As writers, we not only have to worry about infringing upon the works of others, but we have to regulate our own copyrights as well, which can be difficult for the obvious reason that if our copyright is being violated, the violator isn’t going to send us a copy of his or her work with a friendly note to look for our own work inside. That said, we can’t possibly read every work written on every subject we’ve ever written about, can we? Unless we’re superheroes, of course we can’t. It’s possible to police our work on the Internet to some extent. Every once in a while, I type my name into a couple search engines to see what comes up. If there are copyright violators, I won’t find them all, but I will at least find those people who use my work and give me credit without permission. Really, though, you find your copyrighted work infringed upon by chance. The more specialized your writing is, the more likely is it that you’ll come across infringement, as you’re more likely to be reading the same sorts of material that you write. For writers who write on a wider variety of subjects and might not do a lot of focused reading on each particular subject, it’s more unlikely.

When you discover copyright infringement, let the infringer know with a cease-and-desist letter. If you see your work on-line, let the site owner know that your work is copyrighted and he or she needs to either pay you to post it (and include an attribute) or remove it.

Works for Hire

Works for hire merit mention because they’re unique in that writers don’t own copyright to their work. (This is also the case for employees who write something as part of their job, such as a copywriter or a public relations employee, but that’s not really our concern here.) The writers are, technically, the authors of the work, but for copyright purposes, the commissioning agent (say, for example, a book publisher) is considered the author. Obviously this would be spelled out in a contract before the writer begins his or her work. Even more obvious to us as writers, I’d hope, is that work-for-hire situations are not advantageous. Why would we ever want to simply give our rights away, copyright or otherwise?

The Internet

Although I know I promised not to make this a history lesson in copyright law, I think it’s only fair that I mention copyright law and its relationship with the Internet. Think about it this way: You sell FNASR to a print publication. The publication then gets a web site and posts your work on it. Are you happy that your work is getting further exposure? Sure you are, but you’re also a bit miffed that you were only paid for the article to run in print — one time — in North America. Putting an article or book excerpt or whatever on-line changes things. Is your publisher guilty of copyright infringement? Perhaps copyright law isn’t the problem here; perhaps it’s the language in publishing contracts. Either way, it’s an issue that writers will certainly be keeping an eye on in the future.

* * *

Copyright law isn’t the easiest or most fun law to understand and follow, but it is one of the most important to affect a writer’s life and work. We must pay attention to both sides of the law so that everyone’s work is protected, our own included. The Copyright Society of the U.S.A. just celebrated the first annual Copyright Awareness Week in April 2002. This is good news for writers, because the more people who know what the law means, the better.

In her role as president of JBedit, Jodi Brandon has edited and/or contributed to a number of high-profile book projects, including The Barnes & Noble Guide to Children’s Books (3rd Edition), The Buzz on Beer anthology, the Frommer’s Irreverent Guide travel series, The 50 Best (and Worst) Business Deals of All Time, and Copyright Plain & Simple. Jodi Brandon has a website and a blog.

Why I Write Commercial Fiction

By Steve Fey

I’ve always liked to write stuff. In elementary school I made up some awful bit of drivel about a baseball team, which is now lost to posterity. Posterity should send me a thank-you note. By junior high school, now known in most places as middle school, I was skipping doing my homework in study hall in favor of reading everything I could find by Poe, Twain, and the prodigious science fiction author for youth, Andre Norton. Besides lousy grades, this habit helped give me a broader perspective on life than that of most of my small town friends. That perspective was helped along in high school by an English teacher who forced me to learn to spell, and also forced me to read all sorts of “good books.”

You know “good books,” don’t you? Things like Withering HeightsThe Scarlet Letter, a few plays such as Macbeth. I was becoming “an intellectual.” Fer sure. And I got to read poetry, too. Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Robert Burns (lot of poets named Bob, apparently), Sandburg, Nash. There was some good stuff in there. College reinforced my earlier training. Even though I wasn’t an English major, I took a lot of literature classes. That’s where I found out what Huckleberry Finn is really about (and no, it isn’t a racist book at all), and first read John Fowles, Leo Tolstoy, Camus, and other living and dead authors. A lot of them I really liked reading, too.

I even read The Lord of the Rings when Tolkein was still alive to write dust jacket notes for the books. The books, so far as I’m concerned, are better than the movies, because you don’t need to have read the books previously to enjoy reading them.

I watched lots of movies, too. That’s relevant to what I’m saying because I now write scripts for movies. I love movies as much as I love good books. ThereÆs nothing I like better than a book or film that’s so good that I lose myself in it for a time. A great movie to me is one that I don’t deconstruct on my first time seeing it. If the movie is only good, I check my watch for the timing, analyze scenes, and otherwise distract myself from the fact that the film isn’t totally engrossing.

I learned about deconstruction in college, too. I remember the play We Bombed in New Haven, where the actors step out of character right in the middle and introduce themselves. I just loved that device. Very intellectual, isn’t it? The trouble is, most people in America have never heard of We Bombed in New Haven. That includes most of the people who have heard of, for instance, Lethal Weapon or The Matrix. Neither of those movies has ever been accused of being overly intellectual, but both have outsold the intellectually superior Bombed by maybe a couple of powers. What, you might ask, is wrong with people?

Well, that’s an entire thesis, or library, of an answer. Whatever it is, an author should remember that he or she is a person, too. So, whatever’s wrong with people is, gasp, wrong with the author as well. Consider an arena where intellectuality is more honored than in the United States of America: Europe. I’ve seen some movies from Europe that I really thought were terrific. German cinema is famous for innovative techniques in storytelling. France has produced some of the finest comedies ever written. It’s good to be an artist and intellectual in Europe. They’ll honor you there, much like some American musicians find appreciation on the continent that they never receive back home. It’s a paradise for “good” art.

“So, the problem is?” I hear you asking. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of top-selling movies in Europe are American. Not indies that were discovered at Sundance, but the big ol’ studio-produced, crass and commercial films like . . . well, how about Lethal Weapon and The Matrix? It’s true. In the home of honor for artists, where you can hear people criticizing the crass commercialism of American film, the stuff that gets watched is just that crass commercial product. How on earth can that be?

It may not satisfy a hard-core English professor to hear this, but “great literature” that remains popular for centuries follows the same rules as do commercial movies. There’s a mythological construct that underlies all good stories, in fact. If you want to see it in its least disguised form, read The Odyssey. If you don’t think that book would be a commercial success if it were written today, then you have missed some things in (or never seen) such films as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Frankly, folks, the same things happen at the same point in each of those stories.

Don’t believe me? Well, at 26-2/3 percent into a story, the hero (protagonist according to Aristotle) is thrust irrevocably into strange territory. Up until that point, there was at least a theoretical way out of having the adventure. At that point, there is no longer a choice. Guess what happens at just that point in Huckleberry Finn? If you guessed that Huck, Jim, and the raft drift right past Cairo in the fog, you’re right. Huck’s stuck now, and has no choice but to go on down the river. Mark Twin not high literature enough for you? Then consider one young Dane named Hamlet. I think most people consider Shakespeare to be “good” literature, after all. At that point in the play, the young hero, in a passage including the line “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” declares that he is going to set things right. No more wavering soliloquies now: he’s going in.

See? The Bard of Avon used the same timing scheme as Mark Twain, and as the writers of popular movies. Is that so bad, after all? I really like Shakespeare, as a career writer I mean. You know what he was really after? Do you think he sat down one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write a play about the dangers of revenge, with a great moral message for future generations to heed.”? No, he did not. He wanted juicy roles for himself and his friends, he wanted to please his Queen, and most of all he wanted to pack the house so he knew where his next pint of ale was coming from. He knew the rules for creating a popular story, too. So, while he certainly did create some great literature, he’d have considered that a happy accident. As evidence of that being the case, consider that he threw his stuff away, and it was his friends who saved it and got it published. Three cheers for his friends, but my point is that Will was writing commercial fiction.

And that’s just what I hope to accomplish as well.

Steve Fey has been writing throughout a lifetime of doing other things for a living. A few years ago he turned his attention to screenplays, of which he has now written five and has one in the works. Since the conventional wisdom holds that anything after the fifth one should be salable, he’s feeling optimistic.You can visit Steve Fey’s website

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.

Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the "Square One Writers Guide" series. Rudy has been responsible for the acquisition of more than 1,000 books, many of which have become bestsellers. He has lectured on the topic of nonfiction publishing at numerous universities and colleges across the nation.

How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?

I began my career in publishing as a field representative for a college textbook publisher. Basically, I’d go out to college campuses and try to get college professors to adopt my company’s textbooks for their classes. Having never sold before, it was a great learning experience. My next job was at another college textbook publisher, but this time, in addition to being a representative, I was also an associate editor. That was great training. I would look for professors to write books that I thought would sell based on my own selling experience.

After several years of doing this, I had the silly idea that I could do it better on my own. In 1976, I co-founded Avery Publishing Group. Initially, we produced college textbooks. As time went on, though, we began producing trade books for a more general audience. While I had had some great experience working for other companies, it was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience that provided the core of my publisher’s training.

In 1999, I sold Avery to Penguin Putnam, and two months later, I founded Square One Publishers—and I am still learning.

As you mention in the book, small publishers usually don’t offer the kinds of advances big houses can offer. What are some of the reasons why a writer might prefer to work with a small publisher?

While big houses do offer larger advances, statistically most of their authors never see more money than their initial advance. Part of the reason for this might be that today’s large houses tend to put in minimal editorial and marketing time on the vast majority of the projects they handle.

On the other hand, some well-run smaller publishers put much more emphasis on the editorial process, so that the final manuscript is as good as it can be. Additionally, they often spend much more time promoting a title (in their own way) than do larger houses.

Another benefit that smaller houses offer is longevity for titles. Many of the large companies keep their average book in print for approximately 18 months–only 1 1/2 years. Many smaller publishers keep a book in print for years. In some cases, they treat their backlist (older) titles as though they were front list (new).

However, let me point out that all small publishers are not created equal. Therefore, before signing any publishing agreement, it’s vital to check out the publisher.

Why is so important for a writer to identify the category in which his or her book would fit?

There are many reasons a writer needs to know what his or her book’s category is:

  • Identifying a category allows writers to more accurately target specific markets and audiences.
  • By knowing a book’s category, a writer can better select potential publishers who have experience publishing and selling in that specific area. Without a clear understanding of a book’s category, a writer simply chooses publishers at random.
  • When a book does not fit into any established category, there may not be any commercial publisher equipped to sell the book. Such a situation usually leads to negative responses from publishers.

In writing my book, I found that the chapter which identifies the twelve categories of books was the hardest to write. Once completed, though, I think it became one of the strongest features of my title.

Let’s say my book has been orphaned by a publisher. Is it wise for me to mention this in future proposals, or might this work against me?

The fact that a writer has had a book in print always strengthens the author’s credibility, and should definitely be mentioned in a cover letter. It is the fact that an author’s book was accepted by another publisher that impresses an editor, not that it may now be out-of-print.

I liked that you suggested a touch of humor in the writer’s response postcard. Are there other places writers can interject a bit of “personality”or humor, or is it usually best to “play it straight?”

Many times the nature of the project provides the ground rules for using humor. If a work is serious, humor may not be appropriate. If the topic is somewhat neutral, the use of humor may be fine. I’ve been told that you never know who’s at the receiving end of a query letter, so you may not want to take a chance with humor. While that is a legitimate point of view, if the topic allows, I think a natural infusion of humor can put an editor in a more receptive frame of mind.

You surprised me with a statistic: most books only sell about 5,000 copies. At big houses, a book will typically go out of print quickly if it doesn’t sell well right out of the gates, but at smaller houses, backlist titles may stay in print for years, even if sales are slow. As a writer, what should I hope for? Is it always good for a book to be technically “in print” even if it’s barely selling, or should I hope it goes out of print so I can try to sell it again or self-publish?

This is a complicated question and I probably can’t adequately answer it in a few paragraphs, but what the heck. If writers do their homework correctly, they should have some idea of how many copies a book like theirs will sell in the marketplace. Having a realistic number will provide them with more realistic expectations of success.

Here’s where it gets cockeyed. Sometimes it is best to have a publisher hold onto a book even though its sales are low. Sometimes taking a book back from a publisher is absolutely better. Writers have to ask themselves three things:

  1. Is the market really that big?
  2. Can I do a better job than the publisher?
  3. Do I really want to become-and can I afford to be-a bookseller/publisher?

If the answer is yes, the writer should still think about it before taking the first step.

Why is it a bad idea for an author to say their book is unique?

Unique books are one of a kind. They are different. Editors hate different. Different books have no established markets. If one unique book actually makes it to bestsellerdom, there is a likelihood it is an exception to the rule. Most editors know this and avoid publishing exceptions. Aspiring authors should never say they have a “unique book” unless they enjoy the feeling of rejection.

Once I’ve been offered a contract, do I have time to start looking for a literary agent? Should I bother, if I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t budge on fees?

If your project has the true potential of selling in big numbers, it is wise to consider getting an agent. If your project has a limited market, consider reading my chapter on “The Deal.” It tells you what you can do to negotiate a more favorable contract.

What do you think about the system of bookstores sending unsold copies back to the publisher? Do you think this is likely to change? Would authors make a great deal more money if there were no returns allowed?

The system of taking back returns was started shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression, it was a way publishers could keep bookstores in business. Before the crash, bookstores kept what they ordered. I personally think that the present system is terrible, but as far as bookstores go, there is little likelihood that things will change soon. If the system did change, I don’t think it would make too much difference regarding the royalty payments. However, it would eliminate the need for publishers to hold back portions of an author’s royalty due to the possibility of returns.

It seems that for better or worse, Pandora’s Box was opened in 1929 and it’s not going to close until technology figures out a better way to produce and sell books.

Let’s say I have the terrific fortune of having two publishers interested in my manuscript. Now I want to start my own private "bidding war." Do I tell Publisher 1 who Publisher 2 is? Do I get into specifics about what the other publisher offered?

As a rule, I would not tell one publisher who the other publisher is. As far as specifics about terms go, let one publisher know what the other is offering, and see if they can match or better them. Do it in a very business-like manner; do not sound as if you are playing a game. My advice is simple: Get the best deal from the best company.

As a publisher, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

I love publishing. I think I even like the things I don’t like. The hardest part of the job is the amount of work required to do a good job.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did I mention that my book is available through your website, and that my book is part of an ongoing series called The SquareOne Writers Guides, which includes How to Publish Your Poetry, How to Publish Your Articles, and How to Sell Your Screenplay? Did I also mention that all our other titles can seen by visiting our website at www.squareonepublishers.com? And did I mention that I have numerous employees who need to be fed and sheltered, and that any purchases of our books would be greatly appreciated?

Dry Dock: When Real Life Takes Writers Ashore

By Sarojni Mehta-Lissak

To set things straight, I am not a writer who suffers from writer’s block. Yes, the occasional lull passes through me and I feel stymied, but writer’s block is not my issue — real life is. Since becoming a writer, I have seen patterns emerge that interfere with my writing life; those life events that fall into our paths regardless of our professions, circumstances we must tend to which take us away from writing.  Yet, I have come to see these periods not as fallow, empty or unproductive, but as quiet times, absorbing times, periods when we come out of the water — as a ship in dry dock — while we take care of life’s responsibilities.

All of us experience low points in life and make the necessary adjustments to cope with these challenges. Writers are no different. When crises hit, we too, must take time away from our work to find solutions or tend to issues that hopefully are short-lived, but can be chronic and ongoing. We’re lucky if it’s simply a plumbing problem, but often it is taking care of an aging parent or tending to a sick child.  What’s important to realize is that these times away from our writing are not really “lost” times, they are simply periods that are dormant, because they must be, as we turn our attentions off the page and to the problems at hand. Though we are not actively writing, we are collecting images, documenting events, and absorbing our life circumstances to use in future writing.

Being in dry dock allows us to take in life, deal with the concrete nuts and bolts of it, and then get back into the water — the writing life — with a renewed depth and a broader range of material from which to draw upon. I have come to resist these quiet times less, as I realize that almost on a daily basis something happens which takes me away from my writing, whether it’s a family concern, a load of laundry or even a phone call from a friend.

As all writers know, our need to produce constantly and regularly is almost obsessive — perhaps even uncontrollable — yet we must allow ourselves to be freed from this strong need in order to attend to the practical aspects of daily living. We must believe in ourselves and in our capabilities. We must know that we can indeed, retrieve our words and thoughts at a future time to write about them when life is not pulling at us so vehemently. If we wrestle with this dilemma, then we are wrestling with ourselves, for life will continue to happen, regardless of our being writers.

I recently had an illness and found myself in bed for three days — nowhere near my computer.  I actually didn’t miss being in my office because my focus was on getting better; writing was simply at the bottom of my list. Yes, I was conjuring stories and articles in my feverish delirium, but I didn’t have a compulsion to get up and write. I tried to have trust in myself that these inspirations would reappear at a later time if I were meant to write about them. I think this is why writers are at times so tormented; perhaps we feel that if we don’t write, right now, it will all evaporate and be lost forever. Though pens and notebooks are great companions, we must trust in our ability to retrieve our words.

We are the captains of our own ships and we can choose to remain at the helm when in water, or when in dry dock. Life will continue to infiltrate our writing time and we can continue to resist it, unless we look at these breaks as times of gathering. Even though our fingers are not at the keyboard, if we are open to the experiences falling into our paths then we can use what we have learned for better writing in the days ahead. This is when we can incorporate the range of emotions and circumstances we have collected . . . until we sail once again to the open seas, as writers filled with bounty.

Sarojni Mehta-Lissak is a poet, fiction and freelance writer.  Her work has appeared in Wild Violet, The Birthkit Newsletter, Midwifery Today, FamilyTravelFun.com and Moondance.org. She has a website

Profit Vs. Pleasure: IRS Rules Strict on Losses

By Julian Block

Those obliging folks at the IRS allow write-offs to ease the pain for losses you suffer in ventures entered into make “profits.” But long-standing rules disallow deductions for losses incurred in pursuing “hobbies.”

Because of that distinction, the feds program their computers to bounce returns that show full-time salaries and other sources of income offset by losses from sideline undertakings that turn out to be hobbies — writing, photography, and painting, to cite just some of the activities that are likely to draw the attention of the tax collectors.

How do IRS examiners determine whether your intention is to turn a business profit from, say, your writing — or just to have fun? They get their cues from Internal Revenue Code Section 183, which provides guidelines on how to distinguish between a hobby and a business. To take advantage of Section 183, you have to establish a profit motive.

To cut down on disputes, the law presumes that you are engaging in a business rather than a hobby — with the IRS as partner who is entitled to a portion of your profits — as long as you have a net profit in any three out of the last five consecutive years. Net profit is IRS-speak for an excess of receipts over expenses. (By the way, Congress, in its wisdom, decided that writers and the like are not as deserving as individuals involved in the breeding, training, showing, or racing of horses. It conferred an easier standard on the latter: two out of seven years).

So, usually, not to worry when you have at least three profitable years during the last four. Satisfy that stipulation and you are entitled to fully deduct your expenses this year, even if this is a loss year.

A QUESTION OF “PROFIT”

What if you have red ink in more than two out of five years?  A much misunderstood point is that flunking the three-out-of-five test is not fatal. You still can establish that you conduct a “for-profit” business, provided you pass an IRS “facts and circumstances” test.

These are some of the circumstances that the IRS takes into account in determining your intention to make a profit:

  • The way you conduct your writing activities — for instance, membership in writers’ organizations.
  • How much time and effort you expend in the conduct of your writing career. The burden of proof to establish that is on you, not the IRS. To back up your deductions, in the event of an audit, save such records as queries to publishers and programs from writers’ conferences. Note, too, that employment full time in some other field (as is the case with most freelancers) does not trigger an IRS refusal to classify you as a professional writer.
  • Your success in carrying on other business endeavors.
  • The amount of occasional profits, if any, that are earned.
  • The elements of personal pleasure or recreation.
  • Your history of income or losses from writing. In particular, is there a string of losses?

Your activity has to be real work; you can not use a hobby that has no income and lots of expenses to offset other income. If you want to write the Great American Novel and have been at it 30 years, if there is no income, there are no deductions.

Copyright ©2004 Julian Block. All rights reserved

Julian Block is a syndicated columnist, attorney and former IRS investigator who has been cited by the New York Times as “a leading tax professional” and by the Wall Street Journal as an “accomplished writer on taxes.” This article is excerpted from his Tax Tips For Freelance Writers, Photographers And Artists. His publication covers key changes introduced by the 2003 tax act, shows how to save truly big money on taxes — legally — and explains the steps you should take to reduce taxes for this year and even gain a head start for future years. Julian Block has a website. His books are available on Amazon.

Sales Tracking: New Ways to Drive Yourself Absolutely Crazy

By Karyn Langhorne

Just when there’s no more re-writing and revising . . .

Just when the book is finally on the shelves . . ..

Just when the efforts at promotion seem to be finally paying off . . .

There’s something new to worry about.

Sales. And a fresh crop of ways to drive an author attempting to build a career completely crazy.

Let’s start with the one of the most-widely known and easiest to become utterly and completely obsessed with: Amazon.com.

As most of you know, Amazon ranks books on its site according to number of copies it has sold. When you research a book on Amazon, you’ll find a little number that indicates its sales rank in comparison to the other million or so of books listed on this mega-sellerÆs website.

On the first day of its release, A Personal Matter/cite> ranked 1.3 million—dead last, or close to it, I’m willing to bet. A few days later, the book had risen to a rank of 52,000. A few more days later, it jumped up to a ranking somewhere around 8,000. When it climbed to a number in the 4,000 range, I started imagining myself making the top 100, seeing myself in reach of the Holy Grail—Amazon’s numero uno

Until it fell back to 8,000-something the very next day.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, that same day, I learned that Ingram Book Group, the book wholesaler responsible for supplying many libraries and independent bookstores, has several tracking tools authors can use to monitor sales . . . and drive themselves even crazier.

Apparently, Ingram tracks the Top 50 Titles by Demand in a number of categories. Since A Personal Matter is classified as a romance novel, there’s the Most-Requested Romance List, a weekly run-down of who’s hot . . . and who’s not. I haven’t figured out how to access this one yet, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll just have to add it to my weekly “things to do” list. You can also call Ingram and check out your progress through their automated stock report line. (1-800-937-8000, then press 4, then press the ext # 36803.)

You can learn lots of useful things with a simple phone call. The automated stock reports hotline can tell you: whether Ingram had to reorder your book (which is always a good thing); how a new book is selling compared to a previous one; whether demand for earlier books increases when a new book comes out.

New York Times top ten bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon, author of Night Play and the upcoming Seize the Night, recommends that obsessive authors making their first call to Ingram’s stock line need to call in before the book hits Ingram to see what the pre-order is. The average midlist author will have a preorder that falls between 700-1500 copies. While she adds that there are a few authors who are above 5,000 — and even some above 10,000 — there aren’t many who fall into that category. Armed with the pre-order numbers, an author can use Ingram’s stock line to get an overall look at how the book is doing.

But Sherrilyn is quick to remind excited newbies (like me) that Ingram, as an on-demand distributor, is just a small part of the overall market and while the information is helpful, it’s like looking a single slice of pie and calling it the whole.

Of course, I had to try it. Had to. Right away.

It was too late to check on the preorder — my book had already been available for a month when I found out about Ingram and this automated stock line. So I just had to dive in and find out what I could. I dialed tentatively, with the same hesitation I now feel when I visit Amazon.com. Will the news be good? Or will it indicate that there’s no demand for my book whatsoever?

I learned that Ingram has 219 copies of A Personal Matter in stock . . . and that it shipped 13 this week. Since August 31 (release date) it had sent out 384 copies.

Thank goodness — someone bought a few copies of the book!

But beyond that, I understand the caveats of my betters. I’m not exactly sure what this information means . . . any more than I’m sure of what the ranking numbers (beyond, let’s say, the top 100) on Amazon really tell an author about how a book is doing in the wide world out there.

Which means I’m going to have to ask some more questions.

Next Month: The skinny on how publishers track author sales.

Karyn Langhorne is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, who recently signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her first novel, A Personal Matter, will be released in September, 2004. She has also written several screenplays and a play, Primary Loyalties, which was produced off-Broadway and was optioned by NBC-TV in 2000. Karyn Langhorne has a Website.

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters

Book Review: 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.
By Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Writer’s Digest Books
298 pages
2001
Amazon.com price: $13.99

Victoria Lynn Schmidt is a screenwriter for both film and television who was once told at film school that she couldn’t write a script about a female hero because those stories don’t sell. She vehemently disagreed and spent the next few years searching for the female hero’s journey. Despite taking every class she could find on the subject and learning a lot about myths, writing and feminist theory, she could find no answers, until she found a book about the journey of the goddess Inanna, the oldest myth in history. Then she knew she’d found what she’d been looking for—the female myth.

When she did, Jack Heffron at Writer’s Digest Books threw a monkey wrench into it by asking her, “What about the male hero?” Although she felt that the male hero had been done to death, she began to explore it, and discovered that the human journey was a part of both men and women. It could more appropriately be termed “feminine” and “masculine,” she felt, for men and women both took descending inner journeys albeit at different times and with varying results.

Cover of Victoria Lynn Schmidt's 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original CharactersHer research and thoughts on these matters became 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, which offers writers a new way of developing characters and plots through the use of archetyped characters taken from the pages of ancient myth and modern literature as well as from the screens of film and television. Ms. Schmidt has a lot of interesting things to say about archetypes and their journeys and how fiction writers can use them to produce blueprints from which to work and maps to plot out where their stories are going. One caveat, though—many of her examples will only make sense to readers who are conversant with U.S. popular culture.

Whether you agree with her theories or not, though—in fact, whether or not you even understand them completely—Schmidt’s archetypes are liable to change the way you write as well as the way you watch television and films, the way you read, even the way you look at friends and acquaintances. If, after reading this book, you find yourself unable to watch your favorite television show or read an entire novel without saying to yourself, “Oh, yeah, she’s a Nurturer!” or “He’s a typical Fool” and you catch yourself at the next family dinner trying to figure out if your cousin is a Father’s Daughter or a Backstabber, just remember—you were warned.

Book reviewed by Betty Winslow