Creative Nonfiction

By Phyllis Hanlon

At the mention of “nonfiction” you may cringe and think of wordy, boring essays by long-winded speech writers, technical manuals bursting with legalese that no one except the creators can understand, or dry newspaper stories. Well, let’s place the word “creative” before nonfiction and see what a difference it makes. A new picture comes to mind, one that is colorful and engaging, sure to grab and hold your attention.

The proliferation of nonfiction writing is evident by the numbers of nonfiction articles being published in some major magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Years ago fiction filled the pages of these publications. Many of the magazines and journals on the newsstand today, due to changing times and technology, provide their readership with more nonfiction articles than fiction.

In the early 1920s American readers generally sought fiction in their magazines, but after World War II the climate of the world changed. Instead of looking for escape, readers were now interested in real-life issues told in an interesting manner. The New Yorker is a case in point. Glance through the index and you will find just a few fiction pieces; nonfiction articles predominate. Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly follow the same format, printing principally nonfiction pieces.

The nonfiction that is found in these major publications is so well-written that even a subject that you might never have considered reading about will hold your interest. Obviously the writer must show a keen fascination for the topic, do extensive research, and finally choose his or her words carefully to craft an exciting tale. Otherwise, the reader may never get past the first sentence.

“CoverAccording to William Zinsser in the fifth edition of his popular book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 1994), many writers began their careers as journalists. H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, Ring Lardner, Ellen Goodman and many other major writers were working journalists before publishing literary works. These writers concentrated on subjects that they were familiar with and wrote ”for themselves,” never worrying about slanting a story to meet requirements for a certain audience. In this way they were able to produce works that were successful. Most readers enjoy a story that is well written and displays obvious interest and enthusiasm on the part of the writer.

Journalism per se tends to be very factual and straightforward. The adage “The facts, just the facts,” rules most journalistic writing. However, there are many columnists nowadays who write interesting articles about common occurrences in daily life. Jacqueline Mitchard, Kathleen Parker, Maureen Dowd, Bob Greene, and Sid McKean are just a few names that spring to mind. These writers have a knack for taking the ordinary and injecting just the right touch of humor, outrage, empathy, or sarcasm to keep their readers interested. Of course, reporting straight news stories does require “just the facts” without emotion or commentary. However, the types of articles that these writers produce are personal opinion, responses to events both national and local, and criticisms or explications of an issue.

The above-mentioned authors have tackled a variety of subjects — children in their various stages of growth and development, spouses, teenage pregnancy, politics, touch tone telephones, feminism, sports, gun control, current news stories, personal anecdotes and a litany of other issues ranging from the serious to the silly. Some of these topics may seem inconsequential at first glance, but by writing from the heart they breathe life into the content, whatever the theme.

To cite Zinsser once again: “Beginning with nonfiction is the first step on the path to all writing.” After all, what writing teacher hasn’t told the class to “write what you know”? A nonfiction article is the perfect vehicle for doing just that. Take a subject you know and run with it. Your personal knowledge of the topic as well as your enthusiasm and interest will help to mold a well-written, well-rounded story.

Writing creative nonfiction gives the author license to express emotions and reactions to a situation as well. In addition to stating the facts, the heartache, joy, or anger that resulted can be recorded. In a prize-winning story that I wrote, my subject was the demise of my iron.  Sounds silly, right? The judges must have found my humor and honesty endearing, for the story won third place.  I took an incident that had just occurred and profoundly affected me in a negative way and then expounded on my distress at the loss of this “friend.” I am sure that there are occasions in your life when a trivial problem or event, either good or bad, can trigger feelings worthy of note. What has recently made you upset or nervous or angry or scared? You get the idea.

Each year Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Essays, a collection of nonfiction pieces written by well-known authors. A different guest editor, who also happens to be a published author, edits the book every year. Tracy Kidder, editor of the 1994 edition, explains that the traditional definition of the essay is personal reflection, sometimes referred to as literary journalism. Kidder looks for articles that “catch the reflection of human character on the page — [The authors] deal with the big themes, and sculpt the reader’s ruminations.” These tomes cover a broad scope of subjects, just at the journalists listed above do, ranging from airplane flight, orangutans, the plight of Salman Rushdie, and the history of punctuation, to a variety of others.

Following the guidelines that Kidder sets down, concentrate on a topic that offers you the chance to ponder the “big picture” of an issue. Once your subject matter is decided, contemplate these words of William Zinsser:

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it by willpower. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

The emotion and passion that you feel toward your subject will help carry the story from your head to the paper. Nothing is stopping you from retelling an event in a creative and exciting manner. Follow the example of the contributors to the literary magazines and the commentary pages of national newspapers. Your life is every bit as exciting and eventful as theirs; use those prosaic episodes to spawn your best creative nonfiction masterpiece.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible. 

Five Do-able Tips for Remembering and Writing Great Lifestories

By Denis Ledoux
Is your family one of the many whose history is lost to future generations because no one has written it down?

Writing your stories—even just a few—is a great way to memorialize your family and to prevent the experience of your life and theirs being forgotten. The details you take for granted or consider obvious may be lost to the next generation unless you make the effort to record them in writing.

Writing down a memory and sharing it with others is a way to celebrate your life and your family. It is not as hard as some people think. Anyone who is willing to follow the few simple steps I will outline below can succeed at writing their autobiography or family history. More and more people—in fact, many who at first think they can’t—are successfully exploring and honoring their pasts in this way.

Follow these five tips for remembering and writing a pleasing and meaningful lifestory that will honor both your family and yourself and create a legacy for your children.

These five suggestions are among the most powerful– and easiest– to implement in your personal and family history writing.

And remember: practice makes perfect. If you want to preserve your personal and family history, you must write, write, write. Set yourself a time to write and honor your commitment. Your great grandchildren will be so glad you did.

Good luck!

  1. Make a memory list. This is a list of everything you can remember about the people, places, and actions of a particular memory, era, or “character” in your life. Anything you recall is important enough to include. Jot down 3-5 words for each item on your list (“royal blue suit” “scent of eucalyptus”). Your list will eventually be hundreds of items long. Creating this list will stimulate you to remember more than you can now think possible. It will provide you with the details to make your story full and memorable. Once you have a memory list, you just pick an item and begin to write!
  2. Show your story; don’t tell it. Good stories engage us actively. Do this by recording action like a movie camera: show your “characters” (your family and friends) moving, talking and interacting rather than simply describing them. Write “She paced back and forth to the window, looking up and down the street for Jason,” rather than “she was impatient for Jason to get back.” Now really, which do you find more interesting to read!
  3. Use all five senses. Instead of writing that the room was “lovely,” give the reader details: color, style of furniture and curtains, lighting and decorations. Now, they can “see” the details for themselves. Use the other senses, too: smell, sound, taste and touch.
  4. Use dialogue. When you express thoughts and feelings in the “character’s” own voices, you make them jump right off the page. It’s okay to approximate or recreate a conversation especially if you take the time to remember unique phrases or pronunciations. Keep it short (it will be more believable and easier to write). Do not, however, make us read long dialogue. It will sound like you’ve put words in other’s mouths.
  5. Many adjectives are imprecise and simply do not convey the same meaning to one reader as they do to another. Use dialog, action, and setting to show what you mean.You’ll gain vividness and immediacy as a result. Change “she was protective” to dialogue: “she said ‘Don’t you ever, ever say that to my son again’.” Turn “she was angry” into an action: “she grabbed the plate and flung it against the wall.” Replace “we were poor” with details of setting: “The torn green and black linoleum barely covered the center of the room.”

The idea of remembering, reviewing and recording definitive versions of our family histories and our own lifestories, like many tasks we undertake in life, can be overwhelming. Reflect on parenting as an example.

Parenting is a creative project that would have daunted a lot of us if it had to be done all at once. Think of all those dirty diapers and sleepless nights, teacher conferences, recitals, ball games, dental appointments, and insurance payments— if they came all together, who could approach parenting at all let alone with eager delight? Thankfully, as parents, we only had to meet each day’s challenges as they come.

Approach lifewriting in the same way: write each memory or family story, each character or event one step at a time.

You’ll find the rewards are there waiting for you and your family—understanding and appreciation of who you are and where you’ve come from, affirmation and celebration of what you’ve achieved and where you’re headed—rewards that take you far beyond the names and dates.

Web Site for Memoir Writers & Teachers

Denis Ledoux is the Founder and Editor of Thememoirenetwork.com, which offers information, inspiration, exercises to jazz up your lifewriting project plus support for lifewriters and teachers through workshops, teleclasses, books, materials.

10 Steps to Publication

By Joyce Lavene

1. Read what you want to write.

I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t know what the market is doing, you can’t expect publication. Have a feeling for what you’re doing, write from the heart, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you love your baby, everyone else will. Get an idea of what’s going on before you start sending your work out. It will save you time, money and heartache.

2. Revise your work at least three times.

Once is not enough in this case. It would be even better if you have someone you can depend on to be honest who could look it over for you. If not, learn to be objective. Put it aside for a few days then take it out again. Slash extra words that repeat. Don’t be so in love with an idea that you can’t chop it out even if it ruins the rest of the story and you have to rewrite. If it doesn’t work, you won’t be the only one to see it.

3. Make sure you know the editor’s name and how to spell it.

There’s nothing that will get your work shuffled from one envelope to the next like not knowing the editor’s name or sending something “Dear Editor.” If your work is important to you, act like it. Know who you’re sending it to. And know how to spell his or her name. Not doing so is a frequent way to get rejected. It may not be fair but editors are only human.

4. Be sure that what you’re sending is right for the publisher.

Know your market intimately. Don’t send genre fiction to a nonfiction publisher, then be surprised because reject the submission. If you write fiction, be sure you know the different genres and sub-genres. Check out the publisher beforehand and make sure they publish what you’re sending to them. If they ask for 300 words, don’t think you can send 500. The rules are there for a reason. That’s what the publisher wants to see. Don”t think your work is so good they won’t be able to resist publication.

5. Don’t compare your work to others.

This can be difficult because you want to have some idea of how you’re doing. But there are no two writers just alike. Have some confidence in your work. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things or you have to be resistant to change. Join a critique group only if you’re comfortable with the people who will be reading your work. Don’t change everything or put your work aside because one reader says he or she doesn’t like what you’re doing. Remember that you’re developing your voice.

6. Be willing to edit.

I’m making a subtle distinction here between editing and revision. I’m classifying editing as what an editor wants you to change in your work. Out of all the books I’ve had accepted for publication, only a handful haven’t had edits. Sometimes big and sometimes small.

Bear in mind that when editors contact you about changes, even without a contract, they’re trying to find out if they can work with you. Show them that they can by being professional. Always listen to their suggestions carefully, write them down and think about them before you say you will or won’t do them. Be ready to have good explanations for why you don’t think their ideas make the story better. Editors want to feel they have a hand in the books they work on. Smile if they ask you to make some changes and sign the publication contract.

7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or get rejected.

Fear of rejection or of looking silly stops more manuscripts from being published than bad writing. You’re going to make mistakes and get your work rejected. It’s the only way to get where you want to be. Plan for it. Know what you’re going to do with your rejections. Then move on. If you do make a mistake, get over it. No one knows everything. Try not to make it again. Keep sending your work out.

8. Use a font and print size that can be easily read.

Every editor I’ve met has complained about getting too many manuscripts that are in tiny or strange fonts. Find out what the standard is and use it. Don’t think you can impress someone because you know what Gothic font 5 is. They don’t care. They just want to save their eyesight.

If you’re not having fun, find something else to do. Publication is hard and competitive.

9. Always send a cover letter.

A cover letter is important because it says who you are. It says if you’re impatient or easy to get along with. It says that you think of an editor as a person and not just a name in a book. Your writing should be excellent and speak for itself. But your cover letter is your only intimate point of contact with a stranger who you’d like to publish your work. Act like you’re trying to begin a relationship, in a professional manner.

10. Have fun.

If you’re not having fun, find something else to do. Publication is hard and competitive. If you don’t have chills when you finish a manuscript and cry with your characters, there’s something out there that’s easier and less stressful.

Joyce Lavene and her husband and writing partner Jim have written and sold more than forty romance and mystery novels together since 1999 (including the award winning Sharyn Howard mystery series). They also write non-fiction articles and short stories for publication. They are active in local and national writer’s groups and live in North Carolina with their family. They welcome readers to their websites at www.joyceandjimlavene.com and www.sharynhowardmysteries.com.

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction by Michael Seidman

Book review by Alex Shapiro

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction

By Michael Seidman

Writer’s Digest Books

2000

264 pages

In this easy-to-follow book, experienced editor and writer Michael Seidman explains how to approach fiction editing, using his own short story as example.

The author compares the writer’s job with that of a sculptor—both start with a block of words (or stone). They both chip and cut into the shapeless form until they getto the finished work.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction takes writers through the tedious process of chipping and editing the first draft until it becomes a final manuscript ready for submission.

The book is a must-have. It is, especially for the beginner writer, a trip into the world of fiction editing. Using examples from his own work, Michael Seidman describes the elements of a story, explains what makes a good, realistic character and talks about the stuff good scenes are made of.

The author gives his own tips on writing a realistic dialogue, one that is part of the story and pushes the plot forward. He also discusses the point-of-view, a topic that can get pretty confusing, even for more advanced writers.

What is a story without a plot? There are always changes to the plot, to “what’s happening in the story.” And the reader has the privilege of seeing the author in action, molding and remodeling his own plot, deleting and adding, shaping it into the final form.

Cover of Michael Seidman's Complete Guide to Editing FictionSomewhere into the fiction-editing trip, Michael Seidman stops to emphasize the importance of the story opening and to give examples of good (and not-so-good) openings. Revision after revision, the readers see the story transforming, taking shape, in front of their eyes. They become part of the process and learn to apply the lessons learned to their own work.

Once finding the shape of the story, does it mean it’s indeed the final shape? The author teaches the tips and tricks of fine-tune editing—such as pace, genre, choice of words and language, imagery and style, spelling and grammar.

The most important part of the book may just be the checklist; several pages offering a full, easy-to-use review of the dos and don’ts of fiction editing.

The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction teaches as much as it entertains. Readers have not only the opportunity to learn the insights of editing from a professional, but they also have the chance to enjoy a good story and be part of its shaping, from the beginning to the end.

This is a book to hold on to for when you are ready for revising and editing your writing.

Alex Shapiro is a freelance writer and photographer with works published online and in print. She lives in New Jersey.

Copyright 2003 Alex Shapiro.

Interview Preparation for Radio and PodCasts

By Roberta Gale

When it comes to media interviews, interview preparation is a two-way street. The host needs to do his part to become as familiar with the guest and her topic as possible. Whether this means reading (or at least skimming) her book, checking out her biography, or reading reviews, he should ideally be prepared with a list of questions that aren’t just jotted down verbatim from the guest’s press release. Consequently, if you’re guesting on a program, you also need to show similar respect and professionalism by being fully prepared for your part in the interview.

Here are some tips to help authors prepare for a radio program. In the long run, preparation on both sides makes for a more entertaining experience for listeners. And the more listeners are entertained, the more intensely they’ll pay attention to what you’re saying.

1. Know as much about the host, the station, and the show as possible before the interview.

Go to www.yahoo.comwww.radio-locator.com or www.zap2it.com to look up the station’s website. This will allow you to check out the format, hosts, upcoming promotions and contests, selected links, and other information that may be useful to you. If the station has streaming audio, (or obviously if you’re in the same market as the host), you’ll be able to listen to his show. If not, try calling the station’s talk line, tell the call screener you’ll be guesting on the show in the near future, and ask to be put on the “on-hold” line for a few minutes to hear the program. They may or may not honor your request, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

2. Find out as much as you can about the market.

Most local newspapers are on the Web, and you can find them using the above-mentioned websites. Take the time to look over the local paper prior to your scheduled interview. The information gained will enable you to toss in the names of local suburbs and hangouts during your time on the air. This is not only a great way to connect more deeply with both the host and listeners, but you may be able to tie your topic to a hot local issue or event.

3. Don’t forget the small stuff.

Write the name of the host, the station’s call letters, the city name and the number of the radio station on a Post-it note and stick it somewhere where you will be able to see it during the interview. That way, even if you have a temporary mental meltdown on air, you can focus on getting the more important parts of your interview on track and yet not forget who you’re talking to or where they are. And the phone number? No matter who calls who initially, you may need it in case you get disconnected.

4. Make sure you can be heard clearly.

It is very important to have a phone that will sound as good as possible when you’re on the air. Nothing will get you shown the metaphoric radio door faster than poor quality audio on your end. No matter how fascinating your interview, only a masochist would stick around to hear you on a low-level phone with a buzz. In my experience, more expensive phones don’t necessarily sound better than cheaper ones. And corded phones don’t always sound better than the cordless variety. Just find a phone that sounds clear and has sufficient volume. Prior to the interview, call a few of your friends and family members on the phone you intend to use and ask them how you sound.

5. Speak up!

No matter how high-quality your phone is, you must speak loudly and enunciate clearly enough to be heard. The path your voice has to travel before it reaches its intended audience is a long and complicated one, involving phone lines, audio processing, a few transmissions and re-transmissions and perhaps a satellite or two. Again, call a few people you know prior to the interview to test your clarity and volume.

6. I Can’t Hear You!

It was always funny when Sgt. Carter said it to Gomer Pyle, but it’s much less of a laughing matter when you have to say it over and over to the person interviewing you. Not being able to hear the interviewer correctly can not only ruin the tempo and pacing of your on-air performance, but it can lower the interest level of the host and audience. Your airtime may even be cut short because of it. If you’re hard of hearing, or if you just can’t hear the other party well, be sure to turn up the volume control on your phone, if it comes equipped with such a device. Since you never know how low the volume will be on the other end, and you may be talking to hundreds of different stations, it wouldn’t hurt to take a tip from my friend, Lorilyn Bailey of NewsBuzz.com, and invest $10-$20 bucks in a volume control device from Radio Shack.

7. Call waiting is your enemy on the air.

Yeah, it’s a godsend when you’re talking to your mother and the network is trying to call to let you know you’ve made the finals of “American Idol,” but it’s a less-than-stellar feature when you’re being interviewed on the air and the audience call hear the tell-tale “drop-out” as your call waiting kicks in. If you are supposed to call in to the station, be sure to disable your call waiting first. If you’re unsure how to do this, call your local telephone company.

8. Create the proper environment to execute an interview.

Whether you’ll be doing your interview from your office or home, be sure that you have a quiet place to think and speak. This is no time for children yelling, battery-powered wall-clocks ticking, co-workers laughing, and phones or doorbells ringing. Clear your desk of everything but your notepad, index cards, book, bottle of water, or whatever else you’ll need for the interview. Be sure that everything you need will be within easy reach.

If you follow these simple interview preparation  tips you will find that your interview goes more smoothly. But most importantly, the host will treat you with the respect due someone who actually put some thought into preparing content for the precious airtime you’ve been so generously given.

Roberta Gale has spent 22 years on the radio in every part of the country. She now heads Roberta Gale Media Coaching, which provides media training to authors, experts, spokespeople and businesspeople.  

 

Get the Most From a Conference

By Patricia S. Baker

Each year, thousands of aspiring writers flock to writers’ conferences bearing< suitcases, manuscripts, and high hopes for enhancing their writing careers. One of them might be you! Given that a considerable emotional and financial investment has been put into this endeavor, how can you optimize your chances for a successful experience? Here are ten tips.

Find the Right Fit

Carefully research and consider which of the many available conferences is a fit for your particular writing genre. Network with writers from your writers’ group who have attended conferences, or visit http://writing.shawguides.com/ for a list of conferences nationwide. Try to choose a conference that schedules critique appointments with editors or agents who are interested in the type of writing you do.

Register Early

Some conferences schedule appointments based on registration number. Attendees who register early are likely to get their first choice of editors, agents, or authors to meet with. The past two years I have been the first registrant simply by visiting a conference website early and printing off the registration form, rather than waiting for it to arrive in the mail.

Visit the Conference Website

Not only is browsing the conference website helpful in getting a jump on the registration process, but you can glean valuable information to prepare for the conference. Many times the site will have links to market needs or overworked topics. These can influence your decision as to what you’ll present during your appointments. It is also helpful if the site has pictures of faculty members, in case you want to familiarize yourself with them before attending.

Polish your Manuscripts

Polish your best work to take to the conference. Whether you are writing articles, stories, poetry, or book proposals, use the weeks before the conference to make your work shine. Have your writers’ group critique your work, or meet with another writer for feedback. Be sure it is typed neatly, free from spelling errors, and double-spaced; pack it carefully in a folder or manuscript box for travel.

Also prepare orally. Memorize a hook of no more than three sentences that describes what makes your work unique, and be prepared to share it with editors or agents you meet at the conference.

Design and Print Business Cards

Business cards can add a professional touch to your presentation during appointments and be a networking tool during the conference. Be sure to include your email address and website. These cards are also handy for staying in touch with new friends and acquaintances after the conference.

Confirm Reservations

You will have enough excitement during the trip without having to deal with last minute surprises in lodging and transportation. Try to make your reservations as early as possible, too; sometimes airport shuttles fill up even before the flights do. And when you make reservations for lodging, see if you can get ground floor accommodations if there are no elevators. Wheels on your suitcase aren’t much help on three flights of stairs.

Pack for Contingencies

I’ll never forget last year’s May conference in Colorado, which greeted our sandaled feet with six inches of snow. We huddled in our thin windbreakers against a three-day blizzard — beautiful to behold but not convenient, considering our wardrobes. The Boy Scout motto says it best: “Be prepared.”

Also be sure to pack your business cards, notebook, comfortable shoes, and a sweater for notoriously cold conference rooms. A camera is a good option, too.

Travel light

Don’t take more than you need, but do pack an extra suitcase or tote for all the free samples and purchases from the bookstore. Who knows, you may even win a contest or door prize. Don’t pack multiple copies of manuscripts or book proposals. If you are fortunate enough to have editors request your work, they will most likely want you to mail it to them after you return home. (They don’t want to lug heavy manuscripts at the conference any more than you do.)

Plan to Arrive Early

Arriving early can take some of the pressure off during the registration process, and give you time to unpack and get oriented. Many conferences have their appointment sign-ups at registration, and the spots can fill up quickly. Arriving early may also give you the advantage of attending any early-bird sessions. If nothing else, it will afford you a brief period of rest that can energize you for the nonstop schedule of the next few days.

Relax

Despite your best intentions, things may not go as planned. You may not get the appointments you’d hoped for, or be able to attend a certain workshop. But don’t rule out the serendipitous surprises that might await you. That editor you didn’t get a chance to make an appointment with may be the one to stand behind you in the lunch line, or sit at your table at dinner, giving you more time with him or her. Whatever the outcome of your conference visit, you’re sure to make valuable contacts and grow as a writer — and who knows, you might just have a lot of fun while you’re at it!

*First published in Christian Communicator. February 2006, Vol. 18, Number 2: pp. 17-18. Reprinted with permission.

A former teacher, Pat Baker writes articles, devotionals, and poetry from her home in Frisco, Texas. She has written for several publications, including Writer’s Journal, The Lutheran Digest, Spirit Led WomanThe Quiet HourBreakthrough Intercessor, The Secret Place, Christian Communicator, and The Lutheran Journal. When she’s not writing, she enjoys coaching figure skating and spending time with her husband Gary and their two children. Patricia S. Baker has a Website.

Write Tight — or It’s Gonna Cost You!

By Diane Sonntag

Our good friends at Strunk and White are always advising us to do away with those nasty adjectives and adverbs that clutter up our writing. This has always been a tough one for me. As someone who really likes to talk — and unfortunately, as someone who writes like I talk — removing those adjectives and adverbs has been a real challenge for me.

Personally, I have always rather enjoyed those cute little adjectives and those good old adverbs. They make my dry, boring sentences more pleasant, interesting, and fun for the intelligent, yet discerning reader. Cutting them out seems like cruel and unusual punishment. For a good long time, I just plain refused to leave out my favorite descriptive words.

See what I mean? Adjectives and adverbs are bad? What blasphemy!

Several years ago, I had to consult an attorney regarding a legal matter. In one of our first conversations, I explained the situation in great detail. I explained that I had been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this rotten person. I described how I had been naïve and trusting and this terrible, awful individual had seen that, and had milked it for every last blessed cent I was worth. I told him how this other party was just the most vindictive, cold, and heartless person to have ever walked the face of this great earth. (OK, I admit it — I might be ever so slightly dramatic!) The attorney just nodded and smiled throughout my monologue. He seemed perfectly content to sit and listen to me talk all day long. But he did glance at his watch every so often and smirk.

Three weeks later, I received an invoice for his services. And then I knew what the smirk was about. That one conversation had cost me nearly $500! At his rates, I was paying like $28 per adjective! I was both shocked and appalled at this bill, and I knew that something had to change. I simply couldn’t afford to carry on like I had during our next conversation. I had to be brief, or it would cost me dearly.

In an effort to cut down on my legal fees, I began to plan out what I was going to say to the attorney. I would write down what I needed to tell him, and then look for ways to pare it down. I reminded myself that unnecessary words were like money down the drain, and I took them out. I couldn’t afford to use two or three words when one would suffice.

No longer had I been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this no good so-and-so. Now I was simply “treated unfairly.” See how many words that saved? And in legal terms, that small cut also saved me like ten bucks!

Overnight, this other party changed from being “a vindictive, cold, and heartless beast who would sell his own poor mother for two nickels” to simply “an opportunist.” Did this person actually change their character? Certainly not! But when I changed how I described that person, it cut down on the words I used, which, in turn, saved me another $32.50. (But let’s be honest here — it did cut down on the drama of the story as well!)

Every time I prepared something to say to my attorney, I pared it down until it was as short as it could possibly be and still get my meaning across. And then one day, I was typing a query letter and I realized that unconsciously, I was doing the same thing. I was taking out all unnecessary words. The bank robber didn’t run quickly. He sprinted. The baby didn’t cry loudly. She howled.

I was condensing my writing down to the bare essentials. I was making it as tight as it could be. And yes, I was sacrificing my beloved adverbs and adjectives. It hurt the Drama Queen in me, but it did make my writing better.

And all of this because I wanted to save a few bucks. But when you think about it, being too wordy had probably been costing me money all along, and I was too dense to realize it. Editors were rejecting my work because it was too cluttered with adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. My writing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I was paying for it without even knowing it.

My legal situation resolved itself a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap fix. I paid a significant amount in legal fees. But when I think about what I learned about writing tightly and I realize how much more I’ve been published, I think I just about broke even.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “cold, heartless, vindictive beast” got what he had coming to him.

 

Diane Sonntag is an elementary school teacher and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Woman’s World, MOMsense, and Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul. She hopes to remain on the right side of the law from now on.

Writing A Great Blurb

By Mayra Calvani

A great blurb can make the difference between a customer taking out his/her wallet to buy your book or putting the book back on the shelf. Great blurbs sell books.

But what is a blurb, exactly?

A blurb is the copy on the back cover of your book. After the cover, the blurb is the first thing a customer will check when considering to buy a book. It should hook, intrigue, and grab the reader right away.

“Book blurbs are eye candy to the consumer,” says publicist Penny Sansevieri, founder of Author Marketing Experts.

Not only to customers. A great blurb can help you find a publisher or an agent, too.

Last year I sent dozens of query letters in my search for an agent. As you probably know, most query letters are composed of a blurb of the book (the hook), some info about the book (genre, word count, etc.), and a short author bio or list of qualifications. The agents who responded said “No, thanks.” I’m not surprised. The blurb was as flat as a French crêpe. One of these agents wrote to say she wasn’t particularly excited about my book, but asked if I had something else to show her. By this time I had improved my blurb and had a completely new version. I mentioned this to her and asked her to consider my edited blurb, which she did. Her response was “Well, I have to admit this is a pretty convincing blurb.” She requested the first three chapters. To make a long story short, she took me in based on the strength of those three chapters. In this case, my blurb was the key factor in getting the agent’s attention.

This is the blurb I first included in my query letter:

Can a good man be persuaded into committing murder and still retain his goodness?

Lullaby is about the restless soul of an aborted infant who, in order to become powerful enough to be reborn, must tempt humans into committing evil acts. Having temporarily acquired the form of a beautiful woman, this being plays mind games with the protagonist, bringing back memories of his tragic childhood. As deeply buried feelings of hate and revenge spring to the surface, the protagonist must struggle with his conscience to do the right thing. But will he, when his own ideas about justice and the higher good tell him it is right to kill?

Now compare it to the second one which got the agent’s attention:

At a trendy Turkish tavern one Friday night, astrophysicist Gabriel Diaz meets a mysterious young woman. Captivated out of his senses by her physical perfection as well as her views on good and evil, he spends the next several days with her. After a while, however, he begins to notice a strangeness in her—her skin’s abnormally high temperature, her obsession with milk products, her child-like and bizarre behavior as she seems to take pleasure in toying with his conscience.

The young woman, Kamilah, invites him to Rize, Turkey, where she claims her family owns a cottage in the woods. In spite of his heavy workload and the disturbing visions and nightmares about his sister’s baby that is due to be born soon, Gabriel agrees to go with her.

But nothing, not even the stunning beauty of the Black Sea, can disguise the horror of her nature. In a place where death dwells and illusion and reality seem as one, Gabriel must now come to terms with his own demons in order to save his sister’s unborn child, and ultimately, his own soul . . .

Here are some guidelines to help you create great blurbs:

Guidelines for Creating A Great Blurb

  • Keep it short (100-250 words). The aim is to convey what makes the book unique in a small amount of space.
  • In it set the mood, the scene, and the conflict or enigma.
  • It should have mounting tension. The beginning should  hint at the conflict or threat, yet remain pretty innocuous (look at my blurb number two: boy meets girl in a tavern). By the end of the blurb, the conflict or threat should be imminent (protagonist must save his sister’s unborn child and his own soul).
  • Think of the best angle to approach your story. Both of my blurbs describe what happens in my novel, yet the second one sounds much more exciting.
  • As with a good book review, never put “spoilers” in the blurb. You can do this in a book summary or synopsis, but never in a blurb. (Look again at my blurb number one. In it I make the big mistake of revealing the nature of my “evil” female protagonist—she is the soul of an aborted infant. In blurb number two, you suspect there’s something wrong with her, but you don’t know what. You’re left wondering).
  • Think about what makes your book different.
  • Question marks can be used to leave the reader intrigued.
  • Often ellipses are used at the end to leave reader asking questions.
  • Keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum and use action verbs.
  • Needless to say, make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors.
  • If your book is nonfiction, does it have special features like pictures or diagrams? What is the aim of the book? What are you trying to accomplish? Does it teach anything? How is this book different from others in the field?
  • Remember that blurbs are not summaries! Don’t tell the whole story—only the exciting part of it so that the reader will want to know more.
  • Don’t exaggerate or sugarcoat it. Be professional.
  • Study the blurbs from your bookshelves, paying special attention to their style, language, and content.
  • Write and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Then show it to people who can offer honest feedback.

One last tip:

Do you know that powerful, dramatic voice that you hear in the cinemas during movie trailers? That alluring voice, often exaggerated, that describes the movies? Well, read your own blurb with this voice in your mind, matching its tone and pitch. You’ll be surprised to find out how much that helps!

Copyright ©2005, 2007 by Mayra Calvani / All Rights Reserved.

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The WriterWriter’s JournalMulticultural Review, andBloomsbury Review, among many others. Mayra Calvani has a Website.

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.

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