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?

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.

Writers’ Resolutions for the Newly-Published—and the Yet-To-Be Published Alike

By Karyn Langhorne 

It’s that time of year again: the time of reassessment and reevaluation, renewal and revision.  In short, it’s time to resolve.

Since we’re all writers here, it seems appropriate to use this space to make some writing resolutions for 2005, resolutions that are true for me—and might also resonate for you as well. I’m writing them down here to solidify them for myself . . . and in the hope that the public confessional aspect will help me to stick to them better in the year ahead.

So here they are, my Top Three Writing Resolutions for 2005. Feel free to adopt as many as apply to you—and Happy New Year!

1. Let ’Em Live!

If you’re like me, you probably have a least a couple good ideas every day—and maybe more. Sadly, though, most of my good ideas die quick, brutal deaths. They should be killed off by editors, agents or publishers. But those folks never even see them, never even hear about them.

Why?

Because I kill my good ideas first . . . before anyone else can.

It may be only me, but I think writers get so used to rejection that we exercise a kind of “preemptory rejection process” or PRP.  PRP means that, in the speed of thought, we talk ourselves out of viable plans, possible story ideas, and future revenue streams. In short, we save ourselves the trouble of writing out proposals, and the pain of rejection by “getting ourselves . . . before THEY can.”

When I write about it in a column like this, it’s obvious to me how damaging and dangerous PRP is.  Sure, there are times when an idea is really half-baked and needs to stay in the oven a little longer . . . and there are ideas that we probably should toss out with the trash before they stink up the whole room. But there are many more ideas that need to have their moment in the sun– or least to be offered to the world– that never get their chance because PRP reinforces our laziness and appeals to our desire to protect our tender feelings from the possibility of further rejection.

And that’s the problem. PRP thrives in a mindset that assumes rejection. But maybe, just maybe there’s an acceptance or two or twelve out there with my name on it— with your name on it.  With PRP as my default expectation, I may never know how many acceptances are possible for me, and if it’s your default expectation, you’ll never know how many acceptances belong to you, either.

The truth of the positive possibilities of presenting ideas more aggressively was confirmed by my talented editor, Selina McLemore, who, when I informed her of the deluge of ideas coming her way, responded enthusiastically.

“I think it’s great to pitch as many ideas as you can,” she said. “When editors talk to new writers BEFORE they sign them, they’ll ask questions like ‘Do you have other projects you are working on? Are you developing any other story ideas?’ You want to have as long a list as possible. Lots of ideas shows an editor you’re always thinking . . . and that’s a good thing.”

So, my first resolution for 2005 is to change my selector from “assumed rejection” to “I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-but-I’m-willing-to-give-it-a-shot.” I’m not quite willing to assume that what I submit will be accepted . . . but I’m willing to give up PRP and see what happens.

What about you? Are you squelching your ideas before they’ve had a chance to grow? Maybe you should consider resolving to replace your PRP with something a little more optimistic in 2005!

2. Review the contents of the “The Drawer” for marketable ideas and get them out there.

You know “the drawer.”  The place where dead ideas go.  The home of stories with great beginnings that never grew middles or endings.  The holy repository of finished projects that were rejected all over town, and for unfinished projects with no clear future. Every writer has a “drawer,” a file folder,  or a floppy disc (or several of them) of projects that never quite made it out into the world.

The drawer is suspended animation.

Too often, however, writers consider the drawer not as project hibernation, but as the project graveyard. Once surrendered the drawer, the project is never revived again– except in reminiscent conversations, “Yeah, I started a story about that once, but it’s gone to the drawer now.”

Opening the drawer is like revisiting the skeletons in your closet– sometimes it’s a reminder of weaknesses, a chance to confront failures. Shifting your view of the drawer from death to life means being willing to confront your failures and to see them as stepping stones to a better, stronger and more vibrant future project.

In 2005, I’ve resolved to go deep into the drawer– and to look hard at its contents. I’m going to stop looking at the drawer as “defeat” and start seeing it as a “resting place” for those projects that I either didn’t have the ability, maturity or life experience to finish back then… but that might just have a shot now that I’m older and wiser.

Or not.

The point is, I’ll never know if I’m not willing to re-read, re-open, and reconsider.

Again my editor, Selina McLemore, agrees: “If you have one idea I like, I’m going to ask you about your other ones.  Even if those ‘dead ideas’ aren’t your absolute best, it’s great to be able to present as many ideas as possible. You might say something to an editor like, ‘Well I’m always thinking, and while I’m not in love with everything, some of my ideas have been x, y, z…’ And as I said before, having lots of ideas shows me you’re thinking all the time. That’s what editors want to see from writers: new ideas, all the time.”

How about you? What’s in your drawer? Maybe 2005 is the year to revisit a project from the past– and make it your magnum opus for the future!

3. Network with other writers.

Friends are good things—not just because it’s good to have folks around you who have similar interests, but because you never know whom you can help– or who can help you! Already in my long and checkered path to becoming published, I’ve met people who have turned out to be great supporters, friends and resources (some through this column, thank you!) who have helped me in innumerable ways.  They’ve taught me that the more willing I am to share, reach out, network, and assist others, the more good things come back to me in ways both anticipated and unanticipated.

I’ve been hesitant to share in the past; partly because I’ve doubted that my experiences would have meaning or value to others. And it’s true, not everything I do or say has worth to everyone. But that doesn’t mean my words are worthless to everyone either.  Sometimes, one little comment goes a long a way to one person, and that alone is enough to make the communication worthwhile.

Are you holding back because you think your contributions won’t please the masses?  Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about “the masses,” and start thinking about the impact you might have on just one person, if you’re willing to put yourself and your work out there!

In 2005, let’s all resolve to help each other—as fellow writers and as human beings—and see what a difference it can make!

Happy New Year—and happy writing!

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.

Review: Ask the Pros: Screenwriting 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting
101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals

Edited by Howard Meibach and Paul Duran
Lone Eagle Publishing Company
2004
205 pp.
Amazon.com price: $12.57

Review by Patrick Beltran 

Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is not your typical screenwriting book. Edited by Howard Meibach (of Hollywoodlitsales.com fame) and writer-director Paul Duran, this book does not attempt to teach you how to write a screenplay – at all. The book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: 101 Questions Answered by Industry Professionals.

Now, I have to admit that when I first sat down to read it, I did not think I was going to like this book or find much value in its approach to screenwriting “education.” A big fat frequently-asked questions (FAQ) list, in book form, for screenwriters? Containing such hoary gems as, “what makes a screenplay great?” (that was the first question of the first chapter). As a well-read wannabe, I prepared for the worst; I expected to find all the same questions and answers that I’d already read and heard in various forums, and in a thousand different ways, from every screenwriting seminar, how-to book, and advice columnist on the web.

So you can imagine my surprise when I started liking the book – and my total shock when I realized that I was actually learning from it.

Based on the “Ask a Hollywood Pro” forum from hollywoodlitsales.com, the premise of the book is deceptively prosaic: Gather a long and impressive list of working Hollywood professionals – writers, directors, producers, agents, studio executives, etc. – and get them to answer, in detail, the most common questions that screenwriters always ask about writing, selling, making movies, and breaking into the business. Arrange the answers according to question topic and the profession of the answerers, pepper the pages with sidebars to give extra details and relevant definitions, and voilà, you have Ask the Pros: Screenwriting.

But the real value, I discovered, comes not from the individual answers but from the collection itself – from seeing how each answer compares, side-by-side, with answers by similar professionals responding to the same questions. Look, we’ve all heard stories about the capricious nature of Hollywood, about the Politburo-like mindless conformity that supposedly permeates the corridors of power and leads executives to march in lock-step, regularly rejecting mega-blockbuster scripts like, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (“You’ve got to be kidding, right? There’s just no Greek demographic.”). Intellectually, we know that’s not the whole story – we know that good scripts rise or fall for a lot of reasons, and that somewhere on the other side of that monolithic Wall there are individual human beings with differing tastes, opinions and abilities.

Well, Ask the Pros: Screenwriting puts that diversity of opinion in stark black and white, right on the page for all to see. Sometimes the effect is comical: for example, one of the questions the producer-experts answered was, “How much does [script] coverage affect your [development] decisions?” One producer said, “coverage is very important”; a second one’s answer started off, “coverage is a waste of time”; and a third one said, in essence, “It depends.” Other contrasts weren’t so dramatic, but everywhere I looked, I detected subtle shades of difference in approach, attitude, and expectation. I suddenly realized – hey, these guys are professionals, and even they don’t agree on the best recipe for wannabe success.

This was the first, best lesson I learned from reading this book: When it comes to an artistic, creative endeavor such as making movies or writing screenplays, there is always more than one right answer.

The second best thing about Ask the Pros is its sidebar blurbs. I especially like the “Buzz Word” definitions, which explain various “Hollywood-speak” words in ordinary English. These are terms that most of us in “flyover country” (everything between NY and L.A.) don’t use in day-to-day life, but that regularly appear in industry magazines such as Variety. For instance, did you know that “tyro” means first timer? (As in: “Tyro scribe Jim Jones just sold his spec script ‘Drinking Kool-Aid’ to DreamWorks for an undisclosed six-figure sum”). Or that Praisery is another word for public relations firm? And if you ever see a film directed by Alan Smithee, you’ll know (after reading Ask the Pros) that this is a Director’s Guild-allowed pseudonym, and it is probably being used because the real director didn’t want his or her name associated with what he considered to be a train-wreck of a picture.

Ask the Pros also includes a CD-ROM with a demo copy of the latest version of Final Draft script formatting software. If you’re serious about your wannabe status, and if you want to have any real hope of ever tasting success on the other side of that Wall, then you absolutely must invest the money to buy a scriptwriting software package. I don’t care, save your dimes for a year if you need to, cause this type of software gives you 50 spoons’ worth of traction when you’re digging for that next killer script. Final Draft is one of two packages recognized and used throughout the industry (the other one is Movie Magic Screenwriter). The demo CD enclosed with this book has a full-featured copy of Final Draft that you can take for a time-limited test drive. If you like it, you can activate the full copy simply by purchasing and entering a valid serial number.

Bottom line — Ask the Pros: Screenwriting is useful for getting inside the heads of the many Hollywood professionals interviewed. Although the book won’t help you with the mechanics of writing a script, it will give you a clearer picture of how the whole Hollywood success thing works (or doesn’t). It also helps prepare you for what you’ll encounter once you type “The End” and want to scope out which section of the Wall you’ll slam yourself into first. It’s a first-rate spoon, this one: I give it an A. Now go, young wannabe tyros — dig and be happy.

Patrick Beltran is a screenwriter, independent producer, and freelance writer who works as an IT professional during the day to pay the bills. He lives in Virginia with his wife and three daughters

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.

Beating the Block: 10 Sure-Fire Ways to Cure Writer’s Block

By Magdalena Ball

You’ve got writer’s block?  So did I, for more than five years. I had plenty of grand ideas about what I wanted to write —the literary masterpieces which would stun the critics, the lofty poetry.  With idols and role models like Joyce, Woolf, Yeats and Faulker, it isn’t surprising that my meager efforts seemed hopelessly trite and mundane.  We live in a world of instant gratification, but quality takes time, hard work and many drafts.  No one simply brings forth genius in automatic and effortless writing.

The cure for my block was a simple one, and perhaps obvious too, but it took me a lot of lost writing time to work it out. Germination? The gaining of maturity and perspective?  Nonsense — just lost time.  The one and only way to beat writer’s block is to write.  It doesn’t much matter what it is.  Writing a full length novel is perhaps the hardest, most structurally and emotionally challenging type of writing you can do, so if you are having trouble starting, try something quicker and easier to get your work moving, and don’t worry if it isn’t an epic full of depth and pith.  That will come, but only with lots of rework.  In the meantime, here are a few ideas to get you through the block:

  1. Read the newspaper and pick a real life story that captures your imagination. Turn it into a fictional one.
  2. Keep a dream journal. The very process of translating those vague bits of imagery that make up a dream is the stuff of fiction writing.  Pick any dream theme that interests you and turn it into a full blown story.
  3. Pick a period of your life — any period. The year when you stopped believing in fairies, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, your first love (and breakup), the loss of a pet, childbirth — anything powerful, and write it out.  Have fun and change the ending to suit your story better — improve the characters, make that boyfriend suffer as you leave him instead of the other way around.  This is not only cathartic, it can make for very good writing as you recall those deep sensory impressions — the ring of truth will increase your impact.
  4. Pick an era or historical subject that interests you and research it like mad. Then write up a biography, historical paper or fictionalized story based on the original.  Some of the best examples of fictionalized stories based on real characters include Atwood’s Alias Grace or Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.  There are plenty of untapped famous characters whose lives make for excellent material.
  5. Write a pastiche of your favorite author. Try stream of consciousness, a sonnet, a short drama — anything you fancy.  Use it as a springboard for whatever theme you want to explore.  Try varying the form — do a sonnet and then turn it into flash fiction.
  6. Change tack. If you’re blocked on your normal style of fiction, try writing in a different genre.  Give horror, romance, science fiction, flash fiction, a children’s story (if you have children, try targeting their age group — you will have a good understanding of what will and won’t work) or fantasy a try. While this type of writing may not be your cup of tea, it can be quite liberating to write to a formula and you may produce something quite unusual by working across your normal genre.
  7. Try nonfiction. Write a book review, a piece on your last holiday, advice for saving money, for raising a child, for throwing a birthday party, gardening, make up a recipe — anything!  There are plenty of markets for this kind of work and it can be rejuvenating to produce a finished piece.
  8. Join a writing group. This is not for everyone, but if you are a socially inclined person, the pressure of having to produce something combined with the stimulation of being able to obtain criticism and support immediately could be just the sort of thing you need.  There is probably a local group in your area which would involve meeting up in a specific location with other like minded writers, and many of these are supported by a wider network.  The camaraderie, assignments, local submission information and support is worth the trouble to get to one of these groups.  You could also join or set up an online group.
  9. Take an on-line course. This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.
  10. Buy a book filled with inspiration.There are many on the market.  One of my favorites is Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days, which gives you a mini-assignment for every day of the year and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  Any writing book will provide inspiration, though.  Another favorite, which is a ‘must have’ for any writer is your local Writer’s Marketplace.  This has different names in different countries, but it is an invaluable list of markets, and very thorough.  Just reading the book will inspire you to produce material for submission.  Just read through its pages and stick a Post-it note on any of the markets you are interested in.  Then write for them!  One acceptance will generally pay for the cost of the book, so it is a very worthwhile investment.  In the US you can try the  Writers Market published by Writer’s Digest Books.  For other countries, just do a search at your favorite search engine on “Writer’s Market” + the country you live in and you should get a decent list of publications. The most current edition is also usually available at your local library if you want to just browse and say, choose a market a month to target.
  11. The secret is that writing begets writing. Your first efforts may well be trite, but the more you write the better you will get and the easier the words will flow.  Don’t ever use “lack of time” or “lack of inspiration” as an excuse. Inspiration comes out of the writing process — not before it, and time is an illusion. No one ever has time. Make time. You don’t need much as long as you are consistent and regular. Commit to writing something, anything, every day. If you wrote a page a day, you’d have a fat novel by the end of a year, a full length short story every month, or 2 articles a week. Few authors produce more than this. Even a half hour a day is worth committing to. Don’t make the mistake I did.  Write through the insecurity, the uncertainty and self-doubt and your block will most certainly disappear. Don’t expect immediate perfection, either. Ulysses took James Joyce 10 years to write. If you visit the archives containing his handwritten drafts, you’ll see that the first jottings were nothing like the finished product.  The main thing is to keep writing. Your own masterpiece is just around the corner.

Magdalena Ball is Editor of The Compulsive Reader and is the author of The Literary Lunch: Recipes for a Hungry Mind, and The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything.  Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in a wide range of on-line and print publications. Magdalena Ball also has a website, and blogs.

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