How to Give an Awesome Author Interviews

By Patricia L. Fry

When you become the author of a nonfiction book, you are also considered an expert in your field. People want to read what you write and hear what you have to say. You want to promote your book and get personal exposure by writing articles and speaking publicly. Author interviews are an important part of your publicity program.

Why not add to your professional credibility by seeking interview opportunities through websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and publications related to the topic of your book?

Add to your professional credibility by seeking interview opportunities through websites, podcasts, radio talk shows, and publications related to the topic of your book?  

Interviews and interviewers come in all shapes and flavors. Some interviewers want you to respond to questions via e-mail and they post your interview as is at their site or publish it in their magazine. Others prefer to conduct a telephone interview which they will paraphrase in their publication. But the most popular interview processes today are the real time podcast and the online radio show.

Not everyone is comfortable being interviewed. Yet, if you expect your book to reach a high level of popularity—if you hope to sell thousands of copies of your book—you really must learn to handle author interviews.

I have been interviewed numerous times in a variety of ways. Personally, I love the e-mail interview where I just respond at my leisure by typing my answers. I like having the time to think about my responses and to reread them before submitting. My worst interview experience occurred when the interviewer, in a real-time interview, began challenging my responses—playing the devil’s advocate. I’m not a debater and I don’t do well under that kind of pressure. I had to work hard so as not to come off sounding defensive. I hope I was able to carry that off. Book sales after that interview were up and that’s always a good indication of a good interview.

You truly never know what to expect from author interviews and maybe that’s one reason why the fear of the interview is so prevalent among authors. Recently, I was asked to participate in a podcast interview. I guess I misunderstood the original instructions because I was prepared to have the host ask me some questions. That’s generally what happens when someone interviews you. Just minutes before the show aired, I learned that I was supposed to speak for twenty minutes on my topic, “The Right Way to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Book.” There would be no questions. No one else would speak. I was expected to take charge of the airtime all by myself for the first twenty minutes of the show.

I quickly revised an hour-long speech I’d given recently on the subject and printed it out as a crutch. There’s nothing worse in radio than dead air, I’m told. And I did not want to be at a loss for words. I think it went well. Even though I was simply speaking over the telephone, I imagined myself looking out over the airwaves into the faces of a large audience eager for the information I was imparting. At the end of the 20 minutes, the host stepped in and asked me a few questions before the show ended. Again, book sales were up for a few days after that.

If you would like to be interviewed on the topic of your book, here are some tips and techniques that could help:

Author Interviews: Tips and Techniques

Locate interview opportunities through websites and publications related to your topic as well as those that feature general author interviews. If you spend some time exploring the site, you will soon discover whether or not they conduct interviews. If you see no indication of interview opportunities, post an e-mail asking for the opportunity.

Do a Google search to locate directories of websites and publications with general interview opportunities or those related to your expertise.

Check Radio-TV Interview Report for possible interview spots.

Create a succinct, but impressive bio to include with your inquiry. A potential interviewer will want to know that you are articulate (which should show through, at least to some degree, in your writing style), qualified, credible, knowledgeable, and interesting. A bio can help to portray this. A good interviewer who conducts live interviews will also want to hear your voice. So give your phone number, as well.
Handle yourself as a professional during any interview. Here are some tips:

Think like your target audience. What do they want/need to know about your subject? Even if your interviewer gets off track with his line of questions, you can bring the discussion back to the issue at hand. Always keep in mind “What information and resources can I offer my audience?

Don’t be afraid to give. It’s highly unlikely that you could ever give away too much during a 30 or 60 minute interview. Besides, the more you give, the more the listener will want. And it’s that yearning for more that will sell copies of your book.

Keep it simple. Remember that your time is limited—there’s no room during author interviews to teach or share what took you several months to write. Concentrate on a few key points and, no matter what the interviewer asks you, try to bring it all back to the original points. My book, The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book, covers writing and publishing a book from start to finish and beyond (including distribution, promotion and so forth). During an interview, however, I may focus on the importance of writing a book proposal or the process of self-publishing or some aspect of book promotion. Your book on baking healthy muffins from scratch would be aptly represented by revealing a few of the recipes and describing the health benefits of the ingredients. If your listeners like what you gave them, they’re going to want more.

Read and listen to other author interviews to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Of course, you want to keep your own style of speaking, but there are definite faux pas that you want to avoid. Eliminate filler words such as “ah,” “um,” “er,” and so forth. Banish habitual phrases from your vocabulary. This might include “Ya know what I mean?” and “Right on,”” and “You bet.”

Practice speaking off the cuff. You will definitely need this skill when doing a live interview.

Join a Toastmasters Club near you and participate often in order to improve your public speaking skills.

As an authority on the subject of your nonfiction book, you will be sought after as a speaker, writer, and interviewee. You’ll also want to seek out interview and speaking opportunities. Prepare yourself now for the challenges ahead.

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of 25 books including The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book. She is also the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network). Learn more about her line of books at www.matilijapress.com. Patricia Fry writes a publishing blog. Patricia Fry has a website, and is the author of Promote Your Book: Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author.

C.L.E.A.R. the Comfort Clutter

By Michelle Gardner

Maybe it’s because the writing life is a lonely one that we surround ourselves with comfort clutter. Or maybe it’s because we always have a story or stories in various forms of completion that causes the research notes to spill into each other. Or maybe it’s because we want to have everything at hand should an editor need an article ASAP on the very topics consuming the carpet and credenza. Whatever the case, a writer needs to be organized enough to be efficient in the day-to-day. Daunting as it can be to attack the stacks of books, magazines, folders, papers, office supplies, coffee cups, and anything else that has made its way into your writing domain– you can overcome the clutter.

As an acronym aficionado, I have devised the C.L.E.A.R. method to help me with overcoming office space clutter. It’s an easy way to take things in small doses to avoid organizational overload. Remember, it took more than a day for your workspace to achieve its current look. It will take more than a day to bring it back to a model of efficiency.

  • Clear everything off your desk, bookcases, credenza, filing cabinets, and floor.
  • List everything you need to do your job.
  • Evaluate your workspace needs and wants using your list.
  • Assemble essential tools and supplies in your cleared workspace.
  • Remove and Return daily (if possible) any items, such as files and books, brought out for use on current projects.

The first step is easiest if you just throw everything into a box, but it will be harder and more time consuming when you get to the Assemble step. I have found that a three-box approach is best. One box for gotta have items, one for gotta file items, and one for gotta toss items. Once you’ve divvied up your collection, it’s time to use that vast expanse of clear desk space to write out on a sheet of paper what you need to do your job.

Listing is useful in two ways: It gives you an opportunity to think about those tools essential to your work, and it is the document you can refer to when things clutter up — and they will — in the future.

With list in hand, you now can evaluate how all of the puzzle pieces will fit together. You’ve already determined your needs, now you can open up to the wants aspect of designing your personal workspace. When I did this, I needed to have my computer, a work light, space for pad of paper and pencil, and a copy easel on my desk. My wants list included a framed poem from a friend, an anniversary clock from my previous employer, a paperweight that reads, “A deadline is the ultimate inspiration,” and my kitschy hula dancer statue that shimmies when I print documents. I know I can make this scene more efficient by hanging the poem on the wall, putting the clock on a shelf, and losing the paperweight as no great winds blow through my office, but the hula girl stays!

Assembling everything should be straightforward by this point. You have already cleared the way for the gotta have items on your list and have evaluated what needs to be where for efficiency’s sake. So, working from the gotta have box first, you can remove only those items that made the workspace cut. Anything else will be reassessed for placement elsewhere. The gotta file box, in my case, is always a work in progress. I take it in small bites by filing only a few items at a time. Some days I go crazy and file the whole thing when I’m procrastinating on an assignment.

All assembled; now the real work begins. Keeping your workspace clutter-free is like adopting any habit — it usually takes about a month to get into the routine. The last step is the one that will be the most difficult, but is the key to success with this process. Remove and Return any items to their respective homes at the end of the workday. My office is in the basement so my R and R mostly involves the collection of teacups and water glasses that need to be taken to the dishwasher. I’m also a recovering stacker of mail and magazines and have purchased a bill sorter and several magazine file stands from the office supply store to help me stay on track.

Admittedly, my journey to clutter-free writing is only beginning but now that my path is C.L.E.A.R., I don’t trip over unnecessary and unimportant items along the way.

Michelle Gardner is a former aviation publication editor who currently writes for trade publications specific to the construction, transportation, and wine industries. She was a regular columnist for The Brentwood Recorder, of Brentwood, England, as well as an editor of a monthly newsletter for expatriates living in the United Kingdom, and has been featured on BBC radio for her articles. You can find Michelle Gardner on LinkedIn.

20 Ways to Keep Your Writing Inspiration and Creativity High

By Catherine Franz

When we are stressed or blocked, it is wise to make a change so that we don’t stay in that place. Yet many times we forget some of the simple things that we can do for ourselves, quickly and easily, to bring our inspiration back and increase our creativity.

  1. If you usually type your first drafts, hand write them. Nothing compares to the feeling of the ink melting into the paper and the surge of that creative flow.
  2. If you spend too much time at the computer, take a break every hour. Go for a walk or just sit outside in the sun. Even five minutes in a winter sun does wonders for a mood and creativity.
  3. Flip through magazines or books. Their colors and ideas will give you sparks and switch your attitude. Blue and green can reduce your stress levels by 30% or more.
  4. Add strong smells to the room. Light scented candles around you, visit the fruit aisle at the grocery store, or go to a store that is heavily scented. Find an orange or strawberries and smell it. Both will change a mood or create inspiration. Smells awaken your creativity. Smells trigger memories and are a great method to rekindle stories from the past.
  5. Go see or rent an inspirational movie. Relaxation time is important. You can even take your notebook and record inspirational phases. Afterwards, free write what those phrases bring up from your subconscious.
  6. Read a book that stirs you or sparks your creativity. If you prefer, read poetry.
  7. Look at bold and bright colors for a few minutes. These change your mood.
  8. Talk with a friend about your topic to flesh out ideas and creativity. Record the conversation, with his or her permission of course, and play it back to hear the little nuances that you might have missed.
  9. Write an e-mail to a friend to tell him or her what you want to accomplish. If you are stuck, say so and ask for help.
  10. Check in with your vibrational energy and do something to switch it into high gear. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Turn on some music and dance naked for a few minutes.
  11. Hire a virtual assistant to do some typing so that you can stay focused on writing. You can fax your writing or dictate it into the computer and send her a voice file for transcription.
  12. Go to church for the noon service or whisper a prayer or two. This reconnects your energy with the universe and replenishes what might be missing.
  13. Complete an appreciation exercise. Pick something around you, like the telephone, lamp, or pen. Talk to it and tell it how much you appreciate having the electricity to turn it on, the opportunity to write with a tool that has the ink inside (not like a quill), or the softness of the paper you write on. Be grateful for that you have and not what you are missing. Or make a list of “count your blessing” items.
  14. Write a personal note to friends or family and tell them how much you love them, appreciate their thoughtfulness, or kindness.
  15. Authentic, flat-out, raw laughter frees the psyche and opens the creativity process.
  16. Find a setting with lots of trees and flowers and feel nature. If the weather permits, take off your shoes and socks and feel the grass between your toes. Nature has a way of freeing our spirit and renewing our soul.
  17. If guilt or a past incident has captured your mind, write a “Dear Me” letter and ask yourself for forgiveness to to loosen its grip and expand your freedom.
  18. Are you used to writing in a quiet place? Find a noisy place to write, like McDonald’s or the mall. When your space is noisy, you will have to focus harder in order to write with clarity.
  19. Go for a quiet leisurely drive, listen to a favorite CD. You can sing out of tune and no one will notice (laughter allowed).
  20. Do something nice for someone else that you wouldn’t normally do and be a gracious receiver of a hug.

That was exciting, wasn’t it? Post this list in a conspicuous place so that it is readily available when you need it. Do one or two of these daily and keep on writing. Your readers are waiting to read your words.

Catherine Franz is a marketing industry veteran, a Certified Business Coach, Certified Teleclass Leader and Trainer, speaker, author, and Master Attraction Practitioner. Business clients include professional firms, restaurants, retail stores, coaches, writers, the marketing challenged, and independent professionals across the globe from Japan to New Zealand.

Dealing with the Newbies

Five Tips for Handling People Who Want You To Critique Their Manuscript (for free, of course)

By Jonathan Moeller

First, some context.

I am a writer of no significance whatsoever. I wrote one novel, which disappeared without a trace, and I’ve written some short stories and nonfiction articles, but none have ever become well-known. In short, in the official taxonomy of writers I am Published but Obscure, and you’ve only heard of me if I’ve managed to tick you off to some extent. Or if I owe you money.

Yet people still ask me to critique their manuscripts.

This experience can range from flattering to downright creepy. One of the worst ones happened a few years ago, shortly after I published my one and only book, when a co-worker approached me during lunch.

Co-worker: “So I wrote a book, and was wondering if you’d read it.”

Me: “What’s it about?”

Co-worker: “Well, there’s a lot of sex with aliens. In fact, you could say it’s mostly sex.”

Me: (nonplussed) “Uh-huh.”

Co-worker: “And it’s pretty violent, too. Lots of just really raw violence.”

Me: (still nonplussed) “Okay.”

Co-worker. “And the sex is pretty violent, too. It’s really just sixty pages of really violent alien sex.”

(long, awkward pause)

Me: “I’m going to go clock back in now.”

Of course, not everyone who asks you to read a manuscript will hand you sixty pages of deeply, deeply disturbing alien love. But, still, it’s an awkward situation. I really don’t want to read someone’s 700 page manuscript, but neither do I want to make a new enemy. Here, then, are five tactful tips for politely turning down the opportunity to read someone’s 700 page magnum opus of interplanetary love.

1.) “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have the time.”

Writing takes a lot of time, and sometimes life makes it exceedingly hard to find that time.

The government could summarize my ethnicity and marital status as Creepy Caucasian Loner, so you’d think I’d have ample time to write. But I still struggle to find the time. I work full-time, and sometimes my brain is simply fried at the end of the day. And life throws other stuff at you. I really should cook something for dinner that didn’t come out of a box in the microwave, and I ought to sit down and pay those bills, and I’ve got to look for a new apartment, and I’ve put off returning some phone calls for long enough, and I can’t remember the last time I got some decent exercise, and I have got to get in touch with the car insurance company and my lawyers, and good Lord when was the last time I cleaned the toilet . . .

I am always amazed by married writers with full-time jobs and children who find time to write. Have they forsaken sleep entirely?

The bottom line is that if you’’re doing any kind of serious writing, you’re not going to have a whole lot of time. And that’s a perfectly valid reason to turn down the chance to read someone’s manuscript. You have a lot of other obligations and priorities, and you simply don’t have the time.

2.) “I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the kind of help you want.”

Sometimes people want help that you simply can’t give. They’ll ask for a complete line-edit of their manuscript. Or they’ll want help with a massive rewrite. Or they’ll ask for any number of things that would be a huge imposition on your time (see above) and that you’re really not comfortable doing, or even qualified to do. What then?

Fortunately, this is the era of the Internet, the golden age of information. Sure, there is a lot of garbage out there, but you can also find any number of good resources. Someone wants to know where to sell their writing? Direct them to Ralan.com, or Duotrope, or a copy of Writer’s Market. Need to know how to approach an agent? Several reputable agents frequently blog on that very topic. Want to know how to deal with an editor in a professional manner? Lots of editors write blogs, and heaven knows they’re not hesitant about dispensing their wisdom.

And there’s always Absolute Write, of course.

You may not have the time or the inclination to review someone’s manuscript, or provide them with detailed career advice, but you can point them in the right direction.

3.) “I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to take the legal risk.”

There are countless documented horror stories floating around the writing world. Rights-grabbing publications, greedy agents, dishonest agents, disappearing royalties; almost everyone knows someone who’s gone through that at one time or another. And it’s commonly acknowledged that reading someone’s unpublished work is a substantial legal risk. Why’s that? It’s simple; if you read someone’s manuscript, and then publish a work of your own a few years down the road, there’s always the chance that the same person will pop up, usually in the company of Nazgul-like lawyers, and claim that you stole their work for your own.

Granted, this isn’t all that likely. But like it or not, America (and most of the Western world) is something of a litigious dystopia these days. In certain ways this is a good thing; we don’t have to settle disputes with pistols at dawn. The downside, though, is that one spiteful person with an unscrupulous lawyer can really screw up your life. Reading someone else’s unpublished work is often just not worth the legal risk.

4.) Just ignore it.

Sometimes people will ask for your help in a polite fashion. And sometimes they’ll be total jerks about it. Who are you, they’ll say, to turn me away? You’re an arrogant gasbag! You don’t care about unpublished writers! You got to the top (right!) and you’re pulling up the ladder after you.

One of the great fallacies of the Internet, I think, is that people feel the need to respond to every stupid little thing. Someone writes a blog post you don’t agree with, and you leave a long, angry comment. You come across a message board thread that upsets you, and you plunge into the fray. A nasty e-mail message pops up into the inbox, and you fire off a response.

Life is short, and it’s full of nasty people. So why tolerate them any more than you must? Those Delete and Block Sender buttons are there for good reason. Use them. If someone gives you grief, start blocking and start deleting. Your blood pressure will be the better for it.

5.) Just do it.

And from time to time, you’ll come across someone whom you can help, and whom you want to help. Perhaps a friend, or a family member, or a student who shows a lot of potential. I know it’s hard to believe nowadays, but not everyone you meet is a potential lifelong nemesis with a fetish for litigation.

Everyone was a newbie, once upon a time. I don’t know much about writing or the business of writing, but everything I do know I learned the hard way; why not pass it on to someone? Give someone the chance to avoid learning things the hard way?

It is a risk, I know, and you should use your best judgment. But from time to time risks are worth
taking.

Standing over six feet tall, USA Today bestselling author Jonathan Moeller has the piercing blue eyes of a Conan of Cimmeria, the bronze-colored hair of a Visigothic warrior-king, and the stern visage of a captain of men, none of which are useful in his career as a computer repairman, alas.

He has written the “Demonsouled” trilogy of sword-and-sorcery novels, and continues to write the “Ghosts” sequence about assassin and spy Caina Amalas, the “$0.99 Beginner’s Guide” series of computer books, and numerous other works. Jonathan Moeller has a Website

My Father’s Models

By James D. Macdonald

My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden Paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young—at 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life. His hobby was model making, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his model making (talk about your fatherly love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned model work, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related, model work and novel-writing not excepted. Both of them center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith are some lessons I took away from my father’s model making, and use in my own works:

  • No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.
  • No one counts the rivets on a moving car.
  • If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.
  • Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.
  • A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear.
  • Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.
  • Let the paint dry before you touch it.
  • Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: Nothing looks so more like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.
  • It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality with them, and pull the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places and done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as just an object from a model maker’s workbench.
  • If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.

*  *  * 

I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses. 

Herewith are some exercises for all of you; they’re not too expensive, and again (I promise!) they will help you with your novel writing. (Or, anyway, they’ve helped mine.) 

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House, both by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., both published by Dover. Of the two, the latter has the greater story possibilities. 

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see it, or not.) Note: While the instructions don’t say to do so, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Remember: Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion, detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, the model tells a different story than the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out through the front door.

Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-sided house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

Another thing: In my father’s models there were always hidden details, stuff that only the model maker knew about. These things made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

Also: Even if a viewer can only see three sides of the model house, he will assume—because he knows what houses generally look like, and because you made the angles correctly—that there is a fourth side. This may not be true—you may not have a fourth side on that model house, but the viewer will supply it.

The viewer will also supply an interior to that house, even though the interior may quite literally not exist . . . that’s why I suggest that you build at least one interior room in your model house. You will know that it’s there, and your knowledge will be transmitted to the people who see your model, through your increased confidence.

Similarly, if you know who your heroine’s best friend was in fifth grade, and where she went on vacation in the summer between fifth and sixth grade—even if you never show these things to your readers—your character will be consistent in her later actions in the story that you’re telling.

That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangement, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark—you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don’t look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then . . . they’re magic.

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

doyle_editorial

The Commercial Novelist

By James D. Macdonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Color and Fire

By Julie Eberhart Painter

Had it not been for Mr. Sklar, my art teacher, I would never have survived college long enough to rediscover writing.

From age eight I’d wanted to write — short stories, poems, books — but my parents insisted I attend Moore Institute of Art in Philadelphia so I could help them run the family’s interior design business. Sixteen years old and powerless, I felt angry and betrayed that my future had been decided with no consideration for my wishes or aptitudes.

I vowed to adjust to college; it was my only choice, although I had no talent for drawing. I identified with one of Jascha Heifetz’s music students who once asked for a progress report.

“How am I coming with the violin?” he asked the professor.

“You have no fire,” Heifetz said.

The student quit the violin and went into another business. He was moderately successful, but not overly so. Years later the young man ran into Heifetz in town. “Thank you for steering me away from the violin. When you said I had no fire, I took up accounting.”

“Really?” Heifetz replied. ”I tell all my students that. The good ones stay.”

In spite of my lack of fire for art, Mr. Sklar helped me stay in art school, inspiring me with his own fire for self-expression. Opening day, he commanded my attention when he informed our class, ’Don’t tell me you have no talent; you have all the talent of the ages. You are forty-million years old.” After a few blank looks, Mr. Sklar wheezed through smoke-encrusted vocal cords, “You have the wisdom of the ages. Art must be a strong expression of your inner fire and contain the full spectrum of emotion. Even monochromatic shadows and colorful highlights from sculpture create excitement.”

A gnarly man, he loved his clay models of grape crushers’ feet. We used them to practice recreating their impression in plasticine clay. His other passion was for Henry Moore’s sculpture. Everything must remind one of something but not look like it.

By my junior year, Mr. Sklar had imparted useful techniques applicable to any artistic genre, including music. I remember a class in two-dimensional design. One day our instructor told us, “Time to add color to your paintings. This will make them or break them.’

For me, adding color had become an opportunity to save my work, but students more talented at drafting grumbled, “Crack!”

Before I realized that writing was my true creative outlet and must be pursued, fear of failure caused me to act as if I already knew the negative outcome of my efforts. I’d fast-forward to the conclusion and abort any chance of success. Writers are known for that scenario. I had difficulty holding enough enthusiasm to sustain me through each endeavor. In my rush to get to the last page, I became my own thanatologist. There were no flames, no excitement.

When I shed the false expressions of my creativity and gave myself up to writing, I rekindled the fire I’d sensed in Mr. Sklar. My stories and essays became a vivid palette of colors.

Using art as a paradigm, I build from the inside out, packing the clay of contemplation and metaphor until I feel the word composition represents my insights. Mr. Sklar feels everything we create must excite us, otherwise it isn’t worthy to be called art. His love of sculptural abstract design and his ingenious approach translates into whatever form self-expression takes. In writing, color equates to description.

Writers color works with examples: metaphor and similes. Form translates into structure. We build scenes, hooking interest and carrying the readers into emotions that resonate with their lives and hook their emotions. Or, the opposite: with that same color and fire we can take readers out of their lives, escaping to places they may never have envisioned.

Years later, when I think of Jascha Heifetz and Mr. Sklar, I vow to stay with writing. Colorful writing excites me and ignites the fires in my heart. Color and fire made me into a published author.

Julie Eberhart Painter was raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and studied interior design in Philadelphia. She has lived in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, and Florida. Her hobbies are duplicate bridge, volunteering, and world travel, but writing is her passion. Her short stories based on Celtic, Chinese, and Polynesian legends appear in publications worldwide. She’s published humorous, motivational, and how-to essays, and three books. Julie is a regular by-line essayist with the Orlando Sentinel and the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Julie’s  novels include  The World, the Flesh and the Devil.

Anticipation and Dread

By Kate Gerard 

Most readers will forgive other inadequacies if a story hooks them with suspense. How many times have you completely ignored mundane details when perched on the edge of your seat? If you’re like me, you’ll find surprises when you re-read a favorite suspenseful scene—details you were too busy or too involved to notice the first time around. This is the effect of suspense. It’s like a hectic carnival ride. Good suspense snatches the reader and propels her forward, faster and faster—details blur and her heart races—she’s so eager to see how the conflict resolves, she can’t read fast enough.

Unfortunately, new writers often fail to build suspense. Worse, they fail to resolve suspense in a climatic manner. The reader is teased by a potentially dangerous or emotion-laden situation, only to be disappointed when the conflict sputters—the characters either resolve the issue without escalating the tension, the tension escalates too quickly, or someone/something interferes too soon. Instead of perching on the edge of her seat, the poor reader slumps down in her cushion, disappointed and unsatisfied.

But suspense is not so difficult when we apply two simple principles: anticipation and dread.

Anticipation is a simple concept. In fiction, the secret to anticipation is letting the reader know something bad could happen. We create anticipation by introducing a situation that’s fraught with the possibility of danger or risk. Say your protagonist, a Department of Defense employee, is driving down the road, distracted about the documents he’s taken home from the office. Behind at work and with a report due tomorrow, he’s taken home top-secret papers, and he’s terrified of being caught. He misses a stop sign. Another driver leans on the horn, cursing, and your protagonist tells himself to pay closer attention. But a paragraph later, he’s back to worrying about those purloined papers. This is anticipation. The reader knows something bad is going to happen, and she’ll be glued to the page waiting for it.

Let’s take another situation. Say your protagonist, an assistant bank manager, is sitting at her desk when two strange men in dark suits approach. She rises to greet them, but instead of acknowledging her greeting, they walk past her and into her boss’s office. She hears the door lock behind them. Sometime later, she’s with a customer when she sees them leave, but her boss’s door is still closed and she shrugs it off. Any reader with a modicum of curiosity is going to wonder what’s up. That’s anticipation.

Or say your single father protagonist is chopping carrots and cuts his finger. It’s just a little nick, no big deal. He holds the cut under running water, and while blood is running down the sink, he has a sudden chill. He feels unaccountably light-headed and nauseated, but blows it off and goes on to prepare dinner for his children. The reader, being smarter by far than the protagonist, is immediately alerted to possible disaster. That’s anticipation.

In each of these situations, the reader knows something bad is going to happen. She may guess, she may speculate, she may nod knowingly; but she’ll have to read on to find out what the bad thing is going to be. You, the brilliant writer, have created anticipation.

The important thing to remember about anticipation is not to resolve it too quickly. Let the reader wonder what’s going on. Let the tension build. Sometimes anticipation will last for pages, sometimes chapters.

On the other hand, neither should you string out anticipation too long. Readers love being teased with anticipation, but they don’t like being manipulated. The reader will get annoyed if you don’t show her what’s happening in a reasonable amount of time. While allowing anticipation to simmer, make sure the intervening narrative is important, interesting and compelling. The reader will not forgive you if you leave her hanging with mundane, unimportant, or boring events.

The second principle of suspense is dread. Dread is the natural offspring of anticipation. Dread occurs after the bad thing has happened, but the outcome hasn’t been resolved. Let’s take the three earlier examples and see how dread works.

Absent-minded, your worried defense employee doesn’t notice the car in front of him has stopped for a red light, and he rear-ends the stopped car. He raises his head from the steering wheel, wipes the blood off his forehead, and gets out to check on the other driver. He approaches the car and finds an elderly driver slumped over the steering wheel. This is where dread is born. The worst has happened; now what will your defense employee do? Will he run for it, or stay to make sure the other driver is taken care of? What will happen to him? A good writer will play this moment for all it’s worth.

In the next example, for the rest of the day, secretaries and tellers go in and out of your bank manager’s boss’s office, many carrying boxes of files. No one looks her in the eye and when she asks, no one will tell her what’s going on. At the end of the day, her boss calls her in and accuses her of embezzling. Dread is born. Your protagonist is no embezzler, but who will believe her? Her boss is waving the proof in front of her nose. He picks up the phone to call the FBI. What will she do? What will become of her?

In the case of the carrot chopper, weeks pass and his symptoms progress. One morning he finds blood in his urine. Days later the worst is confirmed. He has cancer. Dread is born. What will this single father do? Who will take care of his children? What will happen to his family?

Dread should increase as the story progresses. Your protagonist will begin with many options. But, one by one, those options will prove untenable, and with each failure, the dread should grow. Present your reader with all the worst possible what-ifs, and don’t let her lose sight of those horrible possibilities. Remind her what’s at stake again and again. However, don’t ever clobber the reader with melodrama. Nursing drama takes a subtle touch.

Anticipation and dread can be used to propel the primary theme of any story, but a good writer uses these tools throughout the narrative. On a smaller scale, anticipation and dread can be woven into even minor conflicts. Don’t be afraid to douse your stories with suspense—readers will thank you and so will your publishers.

Kate lives in Kansas City, Missouri and is the moderator of the online critique group, WriteCraft.

Copyright Law

By Jodi Brandon

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

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

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

Fair Use

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

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

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

Requesting Permission

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

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

The Other Side of the Fence

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

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

Works for Hire

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

The Internet

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

* * *

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

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

Why I Write Commercial Fiction

By Steve Fey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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