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

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.

Interview with Bill Shunn

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Bill Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others. 

Listen to Shunncast, his biweekly podcast at at iTunes or through your own podcatching software, where he’s serializing his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, about his youth as a Mormon missionary. His chapbook of short stories will be published in May 2007. Visit Shunn.net for more.

You’ve got an active career aside from your writing. Do you have a hard time balancing working full time with writing?

Yes, working full time gets in the way sometimes, definitely. The way I try to arrange my schedule is that I get up at five in the morning and do an hour of writing before I go to work, although depending on what’s going on at work, that doesn’t always happen.

And it’s pretty easy sometimes to let the writing slide, so it’s a real feat of discipline. I have a hard time writing after the work day. I need to do it before I’ve really exhausted my brain at the office. I just can’t do it after work. I like to give my best to my writing.

What’s the appeal of writing short stories? Do you know when you’re sitting down to start a new piece if it will be a short story or a novella?

I definitely know when I’m writing a short story or a novel, and it’s planned out that way. I’ve written a couple of novels and I’m actually still working on publishing those, and a book-length memoir also. I find it easier to focus for the duration of a short story. In a lot of ways, I just like short fiction better as a form, maybe because I haven’t mastered the novel form yet, but I think I enjoy reading the form more than I enjoy novels. I appreciate more the compactness that goes into a work of short fiction and the way that it’s so contained, every word has to contribute to the overall effect. I find myself a little bit more at sea when working on a novel. Not that I don’t want to write a lot more novels …

Do you usually write with a particular market in mind or do you write a short story first and then research a possible market for it? Or both?

I do both, but for the most part, when I’m writing a short story I don’t have a market for it in mind. There have been the odd cases where I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to a particular anthology and then I’m writing to a theme, but for the most part, I just write the story and hope that I can find an appropriate market for it. And it seems to work a lot of the time.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of revisions that way? Like if you write the story and then find a market and then have to go back and make a short story longer or shorter?

I don’t usually find that I have to do a lot of revisions to fit a particular market. I do end up doing several revisions on every piece of work but usually by the time I’m sending something out I [will have done] four or five drafts of the story

And then, the editor will very often ask for some changes, but those are usually minor. For instance, with my recent novella Inclination, I had been working on that story—and working on other things also—for three years, from the first draft through the draft I finally thought was good enough to start submitting. And then I sent it to Asimov’s and it was accepted right off the bat and Sheila Williams asked me to make maybe three very minor changes, and that was that.

 

And I was very comfortable with that story when I sent it out, I had a very good feeling that it had finally achieved what— well, maybe not what I’d had in mind when I first started it, but certainly by the time I was done, I had written the best story I knew how to do at that point.

 

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

 

Sometimes it just comes from what’s going on around me but more and more I find myself taking the inspiration for my stories from my religious upbringing and all the thoughts and new opinions I have about it, that I’m still developing. It seems like in a lot of cases I’m exploring what it means to have had the Mormon upbringing and background that I did, and I’m doing that in my fiction, whether it’s explicitly or just exploring some of the themes that that’s brought up.

 

With Inclination, the thing that inspired me from my own childhood was this idea that children in a repressive society don’t necessarily know that it’s okay to have other opinions or that other people can be right. And so there’s this idea of informed consent for the philosophies that you’’re brought up with . . . that story came directly out of me looking back on my upbringing now, and that happens a lot lately.

 

One of your novelettes, Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites was a Nebula Award nominee. How did you feel when you got the news?

 

It’s indescribable. I was just ecstatic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the field since the time I sold my first short story. It was just an indescribably exciting ideah . . . it’s a cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The idea of winning paled beside the idea of even being nominated in the first place. I was in such good company, I felt just very honored and excited to be part of all that.

 

Did you feel like you’d finally “arrived”?

 

In a way I did, in a way, but I’d also been around enough in the science fiction field to know that getting nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily suddenly catapult your career into the stratosphere. So I felt like finally I was starting to get some recognition and people were starting to know who I was and that was a really nice feeling but I didn’t really feel like I necessarily “arrived.” I hope I never do feel like that because I think that—maybe for me anyway—when I start feeling like that’s the case, maybe that’s the time I will stop growing and I just want to keep improving and keep honing my craft.

 

Watch for part two of Absolute Write’s interview with Bill Shunn in January!

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.

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.

Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

Becoming a Writer
by Dorothea Brande
First printing: Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1934
J.P. Tarcher, Inc., Los Angeles, 1981
175 pages

Some of the amazing things about Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, a writing how-to book (in addition to the fact that it was written in 1934), are the techniques used by  Brande to loosen up a writer’s creativity. The fact is that, without creativity, a writer cannot write, so all the technical information in the world cannot unlock the muse, thus causing the writer discontent. Brande believes “that basis of [this] discontent was that the difficulties of the average student or amateur writer begin long before he has come to the place where he can benefit by technical instruction in story writing.” She goes on to say that the frustrated writer seems to think there is a magic or trade secret that successful writers have, and she says in a way he is right.

Her target audience includes “those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well as they are able, that they will have taken every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

Motivated to write the book by attending one too many technical classes where the instructors never addressed the magic, Brande breaks the problems down into four categories; the difficulty of writing at all, the one book author, the occasional writer, and the uneven writer.  She suggests that “we must try to cure them where they arise—in the life and attitudes and habits, in the very character itself.” Addressing them one at a time through the lens of character, Brande zeros in on the issues and creates exercises to practice.

First, the two sides of the writer, the child and the adult must be discerned in daily activities. Creativity is the child’s world, spontaneous and imaginative, and the adult is the business manager; first work, then play. Call it left brain and right brain, or child and adult—some part of the writer has to dream up the plan and some part has to execute the plan. Brande gives us hope that they are both embodied in us and can be recognized and utilized at the right time and place to reach our writing goals.

As we learn to know ourselves through Brande’s exercises, we progress to levels of writing discipline very similar to Julia Cameron’s morning pages and writer’s date. Natalie Goldberg’s techniques are similar, as they involve freeing yourself to write anything without the internal editor, stopping us at every word to check for accuracy.

Following the exercises religiously frees our creative side (the child) and honors the adult to provide for the real passion (the writing). Set up a time for writing. Under no circumstances stand yourself up. If you do, she warns, “give up writing. Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write, and you may as well find some other outlet for your energy early as late.”

Her intention here is not to discourage, but to encourage the writer to set up a time daily to invite the unconscious to come and play. If the child (the unconscious creative mind) knows it is acceptable to come out every day at eight in the morning, come it will, and serve until it is put away when the adult must provide structure so that the child can come another day.

She says simply, “for the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect. There is much that the conscious can do, but it cannot provide you with genius, or with the talent that is genius’ second cousin.”

In a way, this simplifies the writing process. Turn it on and turn it off. Although, when you are a writer, you are writing all the time. But there is a time to turn the faucet onto the paper, and that is the delicious part of writing. To see the words you have been nurturing in your unconscious take form before your eyes.

Brande has several other very practical suggestions. She advises exchanging coffee for Maté and enjoying a meditation session before your writing appointment. She also advises to pay attention to the people who encourage your flow of consciousness and those who do not. If watching television stifles your creativity, do less of it (she would advise!). Be aware of what puts you in a creative mindset and what does not. Be disciplined! “If you are unable to finish a piece of work at one sitting, make an engagement with yourself to resume work before you  rise from the table. You will find that this acts like a posthypnotic suggestion in more ways than one. You will get back to the work without delay, and you will pick up the same note with little difficulty, so that your story will not show as many different styles as a patchwork quilt when it is done.”

I liked this book. I loved this book. The fact that it sat on my bookshelf for nine years has nothing to do with the book. Had I picked it up sooner, I would have avoided many pitfalls.  Brande’s 1934-style prose was a little difficult to wade through at times, but soon I found myself sitting down with her for a cup of Mate and discussing my latest writing block . . . this review!

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago and later attended Mrs. Starretts’ School for Girls and the University of Chicago, Lewis Institute of Chicago, and the University of Michigan. She held editorial positions at Chicago Tribune, and the Board of the Journal of American Medical Association. She taught private writing classes and lectured throughout the country. Among her other books are Most Beautiful Lady, a novel, and Wake Up and Live, which sold over 2,000,000 and was published in eleven languages. (I remember it on my mother’s bookshelf.)

According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, volume 39, she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an Episcopalian, a Republican, and enjoyed reading, knitting and embroidery!

I leave you with her words. “All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail. This is the talisman, the formula, the command of right-about-face which turns us from failure towards success.”

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?

The Healing Journey of Journaling: Madness, Rapture and Angst

By Julia Rosien

Women in conflict with the law have taught me more about my own journals than any book or motivational speaker ever will. I teach journal writing at a federal prison for women. They write to heal. And their writing reflects a path filled with heartache, shame, courage, and for some, hope.

We gathered for the first time on a snowy afternoon in November. The wind pushed against the institutional windows as I wrapped my hands around my steaming coffee. I had just handed each woman a journal. Some leafed through the pages to read the quotes, while others nervously twirled a pen or munched on a bag of chips.

I pointed to a prompt I had written on the board and asked each woman to write it on the first page of their journal.

I am hopeful.
Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes,
knowing that from those remains comes
A new beginning.

Then I asked them to write a poem using that as a model. They could use a list of things to describe themselves and every sixth line had to begin with I am. I sat back as they began to write. When we shared what we’d written, their descriptions of themselves surprised and delighted me. These women were bruised, but not broken.

Here are some of their words:

I am summer,
still as a steamy afternoon,
alive with promise,
the sky is mellow, like an vanilla cookie,
comforting, like my grandmother’s hug, my daughter’s warm hand.

I am a diamond,
a complicated pattern of emotions,
joy, grief, anger and love,
compressed into a perfect, admired jewel,
sparkling and priceless.

I am navigating solo through my life,
the space between sinner and saved,
so much like my other
of a lifetime ago.
similar on the surface, changed inside,
learning the ropes, getting burned, but holding on…

I am hopeful.

Permission to Enter, Please

Each woman stood at a doorway. Some walked through, eager to begin their journey of self-discovery. Others hovered, waiting for guidance. One woman locked her emotional door and left the class. She thought the demons behind that door were just too huge and too powerful to conquer.

My doors differ from a fellow teacher’s doors and from our students’ doors, but they exist. Some people swear they don’t harbor “emotional baggage”; they bury it in a place no one can touch. Instead of the ground though, they’ve buried it behind that door. Each time something terrible happens it gets shoved “in there.” And another padlock is added to that door, until its weight bears the soul down.

I began journaling again during a severe depression. I retreated to my journals to heal, to find a way to live my life with happiness and purpose. Writing created a bridge between my past and the future, between my fear and courage. I soon realized I possessed everything all writers have—paper, pen, language, my mind. I required no special talent, skills or experience—only a willingness to explore my despair and my ecstasy.

Looking back through the journals I’ve kept throughout my life, I wonder about that girl who wrote of her life in melodramatic prose. Her first journal entry is at twelve years old and her letters sit like fat little balls of dough on the lines. At sixteen her free-spirited strokes glide across the page like sails on a boat. Sometimes though, her writing resembles a soul searching desperately for a body as her words trail down the sides and across the bottom. It’s as if she’s afraid she’ll run out of time and forget what it was that was so important. Nothing is written in passive tones; it’s all emotion and angst and tears.

Journal writing is not second nature though, and there have been times in my life that I’ve reduced it to a luxury, something I only do when I have time. But I’ve learned self-care is anything but luxury. Self-nurturing provides the foundation for a fulfilling life. Journaling can be a vital component of that journey.

Moving Beyond

Each of us has unique stories to tell, yet we shy away. When we write to express our feelings, we often censor our true thoughts. When the raw truth puckers our taste buds, we deny the specifics rather than confronting them head-on. Perhaps telling it like it is, rather than how we wish it to be, is not so easy. Editing our words, or sugar-coating the truth, makes swallowing easier.

journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth.

Perhaps you’ve thought of writing, but the time didn’t feel right. Or maybe you thought you didn’t have anything to say, or felt that you couldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard). But journal writing isn’t about writing a masterpiece with grammatically correct sentences and stunning phrases. It’s about telling the truth, your truth. Your words, the color of ink, the slant of your handwriting, and the doodling (or lack of it) makes these stories uniquely your own. There are no deadlines, grades or judgments. Only you determine the start and finish.

Your stories, like fingerprints, memories, emotions and way of processing information make you unique. Dressed up truth is like donning gardening gloves when you’d really rather just stick your hands in the cool, dark earth.

If you can’t delve into the garden with both hands, try using a shovel first, working on the border. Instead of stepping into the middle with a shovel, sit on the edge and examine each event in your life as you would examine a weed or a flower. Write about what you saw one day, what you felt the next. Take baby steps. Remind yourself that expressing your story without censorship is necessary and beneficial.

When you’re ready, take off your gloves. Give yourself permission to bleed and then heal.

We are not who we present to the world, but a complicated tapestry of emotions, experiences and beauty that can’t be realized with a cursory glance. Like the underside of a tapestry, our journals reveal the loose threads of life, the knots and lumps. Looking below helps us understand, even years later. Maybe our journals are more of a guide than anything else. They help us navigate our lives, and maybe they’ll help others understand us after death.

They’ll be our defense and our alibi. They’ll be our secrets, our lies and our truths.

Write it by yourself, for yourself.
Write for your loved ones, your children, your parents, and your significant other.
Write for someone not born yet.

Here are a few suggestions for rediscovering you within your journal:

1. Make Sense of Pain

Write down your traumatic experience using your five senses and your feelings. Keep writing until it becomes less painful and loses its power to hurt you. If you have a chronic or life-threatening illness, for example, a journal can be the perfect place for you to discover your inner strength.

2. Take Control of Your Life

Instead of worrying, turn to your journal. Draw a line down the center of the page. On the left side list what worries you and on the right side list what steps will help you resolve the issue.

3. Stay Focused and Motivated

Whether you are trying to reach a weight loss goal, a financial dream, a spiritual plateau, or an educational aspiration, use your journal to log your progress.

4. Use Your Journal to Practice Positive Thinking

Taking time to list at least one thing you give thanks for. Finding and focusing on at least one positive thing in your life makes it hard to paint your whole world black.

5. Make Scribbling in Your Journal A Happy Habit

Pick a comfortable spot with minimal distractions and try to write for at least 15–20 minutes a day, depending on the subject. A log-type journal requires daily entries while major life issues are best dealt with if you write for a few days in a row.

Julia Rosien wields her pen for newspapers, international magazines and various on-line venues. She teaches creative writing at a women’s penitentiary, and at community college. Words she tries to live by: “Happiness is a way of life, not a destination.” You can find Julia Rosien at her website

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