Keeping a Journal in Tumultuous Times

By Barbara Stahura

Memory is a tricky thing even in the best of times. But in times of great stress and chaos, you might as well kiss it goodbye, for all the good it will do you in accurately recalling events. When your world explodes, memory, too, falls into fragments around your feet — disjointed pieces that later shape-shift, ooze into old recollections or couple with imagination to create new patterns, or disappear altogether. So when I entered the most agonizing, confusing time of my life, I took my journal along and wrote pages in it nearly every day. As a wife and an individual in the midst of turmoil, and also as a writer, I’m grateful that I did.

At the end of 2003, my husband, Ken, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of a hit-and-run. For a short time, the accident shattered my life into chaos. Later, I settled into a weird rhythm so disconnected from my familiar life that it often left me breathless (and once sent me to the ER with chest pains). I had to maintain any stability I could for Ken’s sake, and for mine. Beginning the morning after the accident, I wrote in my journal nearly every day. At the time my reasons for journaling weren’t necessarily defined. I simply felt a driving need to record my thoughts. Now, though, I’ve had time to sort out and reflect on those reasons.

First, in the exhausting, agonizing weeks that followed the accident, I felt as if I had been cast into the deepest ocean without a life jacket. Visible land — the life to which I hoped to return with my recovered husband — was only a hazy strip in the far distance. Journaling provided a way to ground myself, at least for little snatches of time. It was a safe, private haven where I poured out my confusion, anger, and sorrow.

This had a positive result since I was less likely to express these emotions in the wrong place, as in the ICU, for instance, when Ken’s neurologist saw no need to speak with me. Furthermore, though any medical emergency is confusing, the addition of a TBI complicates the situation even more. The brain controls everything we do, directing not only our mental functions like memory and cognition, but also our personality, emotions, and all the other functions that blend together to create a self. And when the self of someone you love more than your own heart is diminished and damaged the way Ken’s was, you clutch whatever you can to keep yourself afloat. I clutched my journal as if our lives depended on it.

Second, Ken’s memory was damaged by the TBI (fortunately, it has returned, with only slight deficits). He remembers nothing of the earliest weeks after the accident and not much of his time in the rehab facility and the second acute care hospital where he was taken after developing a pulmonary embolism. Early on, I figured he might one day like to know what happened to him, to me, and to us during this lost time. I wrote in my journal for him, too. After he came home and was well enough to comprehend it (and, I’ll admit, decipher my handwriting), he read the entire journal and was grateful I had written so extensively.

Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries.

And, finally, I kept the journal because I am a writer. I knew I would eventually want to write my truth about this watershed event in our lives, and how could I do that without a record? To be enveloped by crisis and wanting to record it so I could later write about it, and even profit from it, can sound self-serving. Perhaps it is. But other writers understand. Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries. In the past eight months, I’ve read half a dozen memoirs from TBI survivors and their families, all of which used journal entries as memory aids and even as direct sources of narrative. And all of them have given me a clearer understanding of the devastation, struggle, and hope that surround this injury that is unlike any other a human being can sustain.

Like prehistoric pollen captured in cores of ancient ice, little nuggets of information glisten in a journal long after an event. Just as scientists use that pollen to infer a great deal about climate and plant life in centuries past, we writers can use our journal nuggets to illuminate much larger portions of our stories. Until I re-read my journal after Ken came home, I’d forgotten a bizarre, significant dream from two weeks after the accident. Now incorporated into the memoir I’m writing, this dream reminds me that I occasionally felt hopeful during the days when my husband sometimes couldn’t remember my name and when exhaustion and despair whitewashed my other emotions. I’ve also referred to my journal when writing several personal essays about Ken and brain injury. Each time, I’ve unearthed something vanished from my conscious memory that allowed me to present a clearer picture.

It can be wrenching to read my journal entries and relive those horrible, frantic weeks after Ken’s accident. But my journal now provides me something precious that was not available then: the luxury of remembering, at a distance and in great detail. Instead of feeling frustrated because that time has evaporated from my memory, I can turn to my journal. I didn’t record everything, of course, but I preserved enough to allow me to reconstruct events, feelings, and situations that otherwise would have been lost forever. As Ken’s wife, I’m gratified he also found value in my journal. And as a writer, I hope that what I scribbled all those months ago may someday have value to others who love TBI survivors.

Barbara Stahura is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona, who has written for a number of print and online publications, including Science & SpiritThe ProgressiveSpirituality & Health, and MSNBC.com. Barbara Stahura has a website.

Critical Critiques: Feedback from Friends and Family

By Natalie Lorenzi

You’ve heard the same advice over and over — nix the pink paper for submissions and don’t ever ask your loved ones  to critique your writing (unless they are writers themselves — and even then, it’s questionable). Why are so many writers negative about feedback from friends and family?

Feedback from Friends and Family

I’ll concede that writers should avoid pink (and otherwise colored) paper, but as for shunning feedback from friends and family —  I’m not so sure. Certainly there are writers who caution against familial feedback. Why? Because the people who love you will undoubtedly claim that they adore your work, since a) they don’t know any better, or b) they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I have to ask — is that really so bad? The answer: it depends on why you’re asking for their opinion.

You’ve already heard the major reasons to avoid soliciting feedback from familiar folks. Don’t do it…

. . .  to improve your writing skills.

Great Uncle Percy probably won’t offer any tips on subplot, nor will your best friend from high school shed insight on how to revamp your dialogue. And even if your neighbor really is a writer/publisher/editor/agent and hates your work, she can’t just send you a form rejection letter and pray that she never hears from you again. At the very least, she’ll still have to greet you when you take out the trash and pick up your mail.

. . . to impress an editor.

“My kids just adore this particular story . . . ” I can already see the harried editor cringing as he tosses your query over his shoulder. And it won’t matter if your kid’s entire fourth grade class voted your story as the best one in the annals of children’s literature — you might as well open your query with, “Hi, I’m new at this . . . ”

. . . for advice on submitting your work.

When you send in that article on the FDA’s new food pyramid, don’t follow your niece’s suggestion to put scratch-and-sniff food stickers on the envelope. And when your colleague suggests: “Random House publishes a lot of books — why don’t you send your story to them?” remember that you’ll still need to research markets to find the perfect fit for your piece.

Ok, so we know what our loved ones can’t deliver.

Now let’s take a look at why we should seek out their opinions anyway:

To give your ego a boost.

When I e-mailed my first children’s story manuscript to my best friend, she responded the same day: “I’ll be the first in line at your book signing when you hit the New York Times best-seller list!” How can you read something like that and not smile? And from my mom, the avid reader — “Oh, honey, it’s the best story I’ve ever read.” The gushing was palpable. Do I really think it’s the best story she’s ever read? Probably (ok, definitely) not. But even if it’s a story that only a mother can love, her comment still gave my writing ego a boost.

To ease the sting of rejection.

When an editor of a major women’s magazine passed on one of my queries, my sister’s response was: “That woman’ll be sorry one day when your story shows up in one of their competitor’s magazines!” I can just see her raising her eyebrows and nodding sagely. My dad confirmed: “What does that editor know? I don’t think that particular magazine is all that popular anymore, anyway. Why don’t you try one of the bigger magazines?” He had no way of knowing that “that magazine” boasts more than 13 million readers — he just knew that none of those 13 million would be reading his daughter’s article — their loss, apparently. Sure, I was disappointed about the rejection, but picturing my dad admonishing this big-time editor did elicit a smug smile from my lips.

For improvements

What? Didn’t I just explain that someone who loves you can’t help you improve your writing? Well, this may be true most of the time. But you just might discover a few nuggets of literary lucidity buried amongst all the “Oh, it’s wonderful!” comments. After my husband read my middle grade children’s manuscript, I sat back, ready to bask in the glow of his compliments. And he did say some nice things. But what sticks with me are the words: “Honey, all of your characters are boys. Girls tend to be more avid readers, anyway. Won’t you be alienating a good portion of your market by not having any female characters?” Huh? I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that. He was right, of course, so George became Susan, and thank goodness for the “Find/Change” feature that took care of all the instances of “she” and “her.”

Do you want the truth about your writing? Constructive feedback, maybe? Join a critique group, or take a class. Do you want a boost after finding your twenty-seventh consecutive rejection lurking in the mailbox? Then ask your loved ones to read your writing. Don’t use their feedback to hone your craft; use it to fill your heart. If you want to remind yourself that you’re worth more than the sum of your rejections minus those scant acceptances — go ahead and send a copy of your latest piece to your grandmother. I’ll bet she says it’s the best thing she’s ever read.

Cover of Natalie LorenziNatalie Dias Lorenzi is a full-time school librarian in Fairfax, Virginia, where a majority of her students are immigrants. She has previously taught in the US, Japan, and Italy, specializing in English as a Second Language. Natalie also writes curriculum guides for writers and publishers. She is the author of Flying the Dragon, which was a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Book of the Year. She’s a great writer — just ask her friends and family. Natalie Lorenzi has a Website

Living Creatively: Word Play

By Dawn Allcot

As a child, I spent hours playing Scrabble, Word Yahtzee, and Boggle with my mother. Thinking back, all this child’s play was merely a precursor to my adult life as a professional writer. I still love playing with word play; playing with letters and words, rearranging them to change their meanings, create a better flow, and entertain and inform my readers.

Not all of my word play is work, either. I still sit in front of the computer for hours, manipulating words on the screen at www.magneticpoetry.com or challenging people across the country at Yahoo’s online version of Scrabble, Literati.

It’s rare that I finish a game and don’t feel like writing. Often, the odd combinations of words crossing each other on the Literati board will spark a story idea or a poetic line.

“Magnetic poems,” short, haiku-ish things, beg expansion, giving birth to full-fledged poetry. Wackysentences created in Word Yahtzee demand explanations, entire stories created around one silly idea.

Writing’s a Game

Playing games with other writers is particularly fun and challenging. If you’re in the mood for a creative writing exercise, challenge another literary-minded friend to a game of Scrabble. When you’re done, jot down the words you’ve created and write your own story.

You can do the same thing after a game of Boggle, perhaps using the myriad of rhyming, monosyllabic words to write a silly children’s book. Upwords, a board game quite similar to Scrabble, lends itself to shorter words that may be conducive to limericks or short poems.

Remember Mad Libs? Everyone’s favorite party word game has been around more than half a century! And there is still nothing’s better to evoke uncommon verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Try to incorporate some of the unusual phrasing in the Mad Libs story into your own work. Or take your Mad Libs creation and turn it into a bizarre fantasy world for a story of your own. It doesn’t have to be good — it’s Mad Libs. Anything goes!

A glimpse down the game aisle at Toys R Us, or even through a game store such as Wizards of the Coast, indicates that there are more word games on the market now than ever before. Choices are no longer limited to Password and Scrabble.

Scattergories requires you to think of several different words in various categories, all beginning with the same letter — great for practicing your alliteration abilities!

Apples to Apples makes players match up adjectives with appropriate names. Some hilarious combinations may provoke creative descriptions, titles or even short story themes.

In Balderdash, players make up definitions for unusual words; the best bluffer wins! This game stretches your creativity and language skills, as you can employ an understanding of English words and word play to invent a fake, yet logical, definition for a word and bluff your way to a win.

Online Diversions

Word Whomp is a highly-addictive, harder-than-it-looks, word game available free online at Pogo.com. The goal is to make as many three to six letter words as you can from the words on the screen. While I doubt this game’s ability to stir your creative thinking, it’s a great diversion that exercises your brain a bit better than, say, Elf bowling or anything on Jib Jab.

Pogo offers many other unique and challenging word games, too, such as Book Worm, played like an old-fashioned word search with a few twists and Tumble Bees, a Tetris-like game that requires you to spell words. The site also offers standards such as Hangman and Scrabble.

To find some truly creative writing and word games, you need look no further than the Absolute Write Water Cooler’s Writing Exercises, Prompts & Whimsical Pursuits. Regular AW visitors write limericks together, play the Double Letter game, and even participate in a creative thread where you have to make up an outrageous lie about the person who posted before you.

Play these games in moderation, as they can be addictive. But when you need a break from your WIP yet want to keep your brain working, this type of creative stimulation via word play can be just what the writer ordered!

Going It Alone

Of course, don’t forget those games you can play alone: from the crossword puzzle in your daily paper to jumbles and word searches, these puzzles all get the part of your brain that deals with words primed for a day of writing.

Any writer who’s ever struggled over plot developments or characterization longs to go back to that time of childlike innocence, when he or she wrote with unleashed imagination and uninhibited creativity.

Word play and  games can help.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer who employs her creativity as a regular contributor to magazines. You can find Dawn Allcot at Allcot Media & Marketing.

Self-Publish Your Own Book — A Timeline

By Patricia Fry

The thought of self-publishing can be daunting. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the processes of setting up a publishing company, writing a book, taking care of the business aspects of preparing that book, and then there’s promotion.

But many professionals recommend self-publishing as an alternative to trade publishing. Why? You maintain control of your project from start to finish. You make all of the decisions — decisions that affect the future of your book. You will develop a greater sense of intimacy with your project, and thus be better prepared for the task of promotion. And you get all of the profit.

The process of self-publishing takes time, effort, and money. But isn’t your book worth your full attention? Here’s a calendar to guide you in the steps necessary to self-publishing your book.

BEFORE WRITING YOUR BOOK

  1. Write a book proposal. While a book proposal is generally thought of as your foot-in-the-door to a publisher, there’s even a greater purpose: a book proposal will tell you if you even have a book. So before sinking your life savings and a year or more of your life into this project, make sure you actually have something worth publishing.
  2. Determine if self-publishing is for you. Talk to others who have self-published to find out what it entails. Read about self-publishing. I recommend The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. Study how a book is marketed. Preparing the book for market is a huge job, but marketing your book is ongoing. The amount of time you put into marketing will relate directly to how successful your book will become.

WHILE WRITING YOUR BOOK

  1. Name your publishing company. Be careful about using a name that reflects the nature of your book. You may decide to publish books in different genres in the years ahead. While Lace and Linen Press would be appropriate for a company producing books on sewing or crafts, it doesn’t work very well for historical or travel books.
  2. Apply for a fictitious business name. This is available through your county clerk. Have two or three names in mind in case your first choice is taken.
  3. Establish a business address. If you’re working out of your home, you might consider signing up for a post office box or a box at a mailbox store to use for business correspondence.
  4. Order business stationery.
  5. Open a business checking account.
  6. Request a block of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN). Assign one number to each book you publish. This number identifies your publishing company and the book and is necessary for books sold in the retail market. R.R. Bowker is the U.S. agency for distributing ISBNs. You cannot purchase just one number. You will probably want to start with a block of ten numbers, however you can also order blocks of one hundred or one thousand. The cost as of this date is $225 for ten. For more information and to purchase your ISBN printout, visit www.isbn.org. Contact the agency by phone at 877-310-7333 or by e-mail at isbn-san@bowker.com.
  7. Request an Advanced Book Information (ABI) form. About six months before your book is finished, fill out the form and send it to R.R. Bowker (POB 2068, Oldsmar, FL 34677-0037). This insures that your book will be listed in Books in Print– one of the industry’s most important directories. There is no charge for the form or for the listing. Books in Print is the directory that bookstores use to locate ordering information about your book when customers request it by name.
  8. Request Copyright forms. Contact the U.S. Copyright Office at 202-707-3000 or online at www.loc.gov/copyright. Wait to file this form until after you’ve completed your work on the book. The cost as of this date is $30.
  9. Contact your State Board of Equalization and request a resale permit.

 

WHEN YOU’RE ALMOST FINISHED WRITING THE BOOK

  1. (About six months before completion)
  2. Assign an ISBN to your book.
  3. Fill out an ABI form and send it in.
  4. Order your Publisher’s Cataloguing in Publication information (P-CIP). This information, which is printed on your copyright page, is important for library use. Contact Quality Books at 800-323-4241 or visit their website at http://www.quality-books.com/qb_pcip.html. The cost depends on how quickly you need the P-CIP information. Expect to pay $40 for a 60-day turnaround.

WHILE EDITING YOUR BOOK

(About three months before the book is completed)

  1. Search for a printer. If you’re going the traditional printing route, send a request for a price quote to eight or ten printers and ask to see samples of their work. The printer will want to know quantity of books, number of pages, type of binding, paper stock, size, number and type of illustrations, text color, and cover ink (4-color, 2-color?). Find printers listed in your local Yellow Pages and Literary Market Place (in the reference section at your library) and ask for recommendations from other small publishers. If you want to work with a POD company or produce an e-book, research these avenues.
  2. Send pre-publication review copies. While some experts are now suggesting that the small publisher doesn’t have a chance for a review by one of the important pre-publication reviewers, others recommend submitting your manuscript. If you get a review, this could jump start your book sales in a big way. I know self-published authors who have had marvelous reviews in these major review publications. Pre-publication reviews appear in magazines that are read by the book industry: bookstore and library buyers, for example. And these reviewers want to see the book before it’s published, so don’t wait to send a finished book. While you can send your manuscript, you’ll make a better presentation if you have it bound, even with a plain cover. Give your publication date as anywhere from three to six months in advance. Enclose a cover letter with your galley that includes the title, author’s name, publication date, ISBN, name of publishing company, price, and contact information. If you have a distributor or wholesaler lined up, list their contact information as well. Generally, however, you don’t approach distributors and wholesalers until you have a book to show them.
  3. Commission someone to design your cover. Contact authors and small publishers to find out who designed their covers. Locate graphic artists and illustrators through an organization such as SPAWN, the Yellow Pages or a local arts directory.
  4. Set your price. There are a couple of ways to figure your price. Some experts suggest pricing your book at an amount eight times the cost per book. This means if the total cost of producing your book is $5.00 each, you should charge $40 for the book. If you produce an 80-page book for around $1.50, you must charge $12. This doesn’t seem logical to me. I recommend comparing the price of books similar to yours to help determine your price.
  5. Order a bar code. Contact Bar Code Graphics, Inc. at sales@barcode-us.com. You will need an ISBN and the price of the book in order for the company to create your bar code. I generally pay around $30 for my barcodes.

WHEN THE BOOK IS FINISHED

  1. Choose a printing method and a printer. Find out how they want you to deliver the book and cover design.
  2. Deliver the book to the printer.

WHILE THE BOOK IS AT THE PRINTER

(approximately two to six weeks prior to publication)

  1. Solicit pre-publication orders. Send announcements to your mailing list which should include everyone who has expressed any interest in your book: friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. State to those whom you plan to give complimentary copies that they have one coming and if they’d like to order additional copies they may do so. Also mail notices to local libraries, bookstores, and anyone interested in the topic. Make it easy for people to order books. When you start receiving orders, don’t cash checks until the books have been put in the mail to the customer. Sometimes I offer a discount for those folks who order by a certain date.
  2. Fill out and send the copyright form. There’s a $30 filing fee.
  3. Create a list of post-publication reviewers. This might include book reviewers for magazines, newsletters, and websites on the topic of your book and general book reviewers, as well.
  4. List those to whom you wish to send complimentary copies. This might include those involved in helping to create the book: cover designer, typesetter, and so forth. Prepare promotional packets for key book reviewers and address mailers in preparation for your first shipment.
  5. Start planning your promotion program.

AFTER PUBLICATION

  1. Ship and deliver review copies, complimentary copies, and pre-publication orders.
  2. Send two copies of the book to Copyright Office (address on Copyright form).
  3. Send three copies of the book to the Library of Congress (address on Copyright form).
  4. Send one copy of the book to Quality Books. Ask them to consider your book as a distributor to the library market (1003 W. Pines Road, Oregon, IL 61061-9680).
  5. Fill out paperwork for the State Board of Equalization.
  6. Apply for a business license. Check into your city/county requirements for a business license. I have to have a county business license and one for the city since I live (work) in the county and sell books in bookstores in the city.
  7. Contact book distributors and wholesalers. Find listings in Literary Market Place.
  8. Put your promotional plan into action.

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of numerous books, including fiction and non-fiction titles. 

12 Ways to Keep Your Nonfiction Book in the News

By Sandra Beckwith
Publishers are willing to publicize nonfiction books when they’re released, but they rarely do much after the launch to keep books in the news, even though most deserve ongoing media exposure. Here are some easy things you can do to generate continuing publicity for your title. Use a mix of these ideas to develop a 12-month publicity plan that will provide the support your book needs.

Turn the advice in your chapters into a series of monthly tip sheets. A tip sheet is a press release that offers tips or advice in a bulleted or numbered format. Start your tip sheet with an introductory paragraph that explains why the tips you’re offering are important, list your bulleted advice, then tie it all together at the end with a concluding paragraph. Send it to appropriate media outlets; the distribution list will depend on your topic.

Contact the press immediately when your topic is making headlines to offer your expert perspective. This is a sure thing with most local media outlets when it’s a national news story because you’re giving them a local angle. Fax or e-mail (no attachments) your bio and a cover letter explaining your position on the breaking news to the appropriate media contact. If you’ve done enough interviews to prepare for the big time, pitch the national news outlets, too.

Add the media to your newsletter distribution list. The same useful advice or information you offer subscribers in your print or electronic newsletter could be of interest to reporters covering that topic, too. I got a book contract several years ago from the publicity that resulted from adding the media to the distribution list of a newsletter I publish.

Repackage your book content into bylined trade magazine articles. Depending on the terms of your publishing contract, you might need to do some rewriting so it’s “new” material. Make sure the author credit at the end of the article includes your book title.

Capitalize on holidays and special months, weeks, and days by distributing a press release with useful, newsworthy information related to the topic, or by contacting the press to offer yourself as an expert information source. For example, many daily newspapers run articles in December about how the holidays are especially difficult for people who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing the anniversary of a loss. This presents many coast-to-coast interview opportunities fosr the author of a book on grief and loss— but only if the author reaches out to the press. And November 15 is “National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day”—surely there’s an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) member who can capitalize on that occasion!

Contact the public relations department of your industry’s trade association to offer yourself for media interviews. Association public relations people are often contacted by writers like us looking for members with a particular expertise to interview. Make sure your association knows about your qualifications and the topics you can comment on, and you’ll get referral calls.

Conduct a newsworthy and relevant survey on your topic and announce the interesting results in a press release. The author of a cookbook designed to make cooking simple and easy can survey people about why they don’t cook more, and release the findings in a press release sent to newspaper food editors and cooking magazines. The release should include information about your book’s connection to the survey topic.

Sponsor an attention-getting contest and announce the results in a press release. To promote my humor book about men, I conducted a “Worst Gift from a Man Contest.” The resulting press release led to nationwide media attention, including a holiday appearance on a national cable TV talk show.

Push your publisher’s publicist to monitor ProfNet for reporter queries related to your topic all year. Alternatively, subscribe to ProfNet via its PR Leads reseller and respond to appropriate queries. A $99 per month subscription via www.prleads.com is more affordable than a ProfNet subscription.

Monitor ASJA forums for source requests . ASJA members frequently post requests on the magazines and newspapers forum for interview sources.

Tell the media when you’re visiting their market. Reporters love to interview experts who aren’t local, so if you’re in another city for any reason, contact the appropriate media people two weeks before your trip to offer ideas for articles they can write based on an in-person interview with you. If you’re in town to speak, send an announcement press release several weeks in advance and offer to do a pre-event telephone interview.

Repurpose your best tips into a free booklet. Write and distribute a press release that describes the booklet and how people can get a free copy; make sure both the booklet and the release include information about your book, too.

Generating ongoing publicity is work, but it’s not rocket science. Invest the time so you boost sales while contributing to your author platform. You’ll see the rewards at the end of the year.

Sandra Beckwith, the author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity That Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, teaches the online “Book Buzz” class for Freelance Success. Learn more at www.sandrabeckwith.com.

Anatomy of a Newspaper Feature

By Ben Baker

As a newspaper editor for longer than I really want to think about, I’ve written, read, edited, and cursed more newspaper feature articles than anyone except another newspaper editor.

The cursing part comes in because most newspaper feature articles I read are one-person interviews which are almost monologues of the person being interviewed. Nothing exciting, some potentially interesting anecdotes, but it’s not the kind of writing that reaches out and grabs a reader by the eyeballs and drags him into a story.

The fault for this is twofold: most newspaper reporters are under serious deadline pressure to get something written and get it on a page. This leaves little time for getting seriously creative in the storytelling process and storytelling is what a solid feature should do. The second problem is newspaper reporters are taught to keep a professional distance from the story, which prevents them from getting inside the story and looking out.

I recently had the chance to write a feature story, which is rare for me. As the story involved the father of one of my friends, I got into deeper than I normally would have. The story turned out to be a killer piece. I have included it below with some story-construction notes embedded in parentheses to show the process of how I generated this award-winning story.

By Ben Baker Editor (Byline. Duh.)

His arm reaches as high as it can as the tall man waves vigorously at the Cessna plane taking off at the Turner County airport. (This lede is intentionally ambiguous because I had awesome art to go with the story—a hunched over man covered in gauze between two very tall men next to a small single-engine plane. The 80 pt kicker headline read “A Dying Wish.” I knew I had the reader hooked with these two visual elements, but I wanted to make some suspense. It was important to show this big man waving at the plane for reasons that will become more obvious later in the story.)

You can’t see the big man’s eyes tearing up because he’s got sunglasses on as he watches the plane soar off. It’s not a wave good-bye. Well, then again it sort of is a way good-bye. (Key #1—why the wave was important. Here we have a big man. Men, as the adage goes, are not supposed to cry. Yet, here a very large man, as evidenced by the artwork, is crying. There’s also another suspense set-up in the double-entendre wave goodbye. Again, this will make sense later into the story. )

(These two ‘graphs are also a key place where most newspaper features fall down. I have not given the reader any information in the story that is useful so far as a plot line goes. But I have taken a line from fiction writers and I have built major character into this man in four short sentences. Character development is the number one area where newspaper feature stories fall down. A good feature writer doesn’t just interview. A good feature writer observes and reports on what is seen. Show the reader some details. )

The tall man in sunglasses is watching a lifelong dream happen as the plane disappears from sight. The airplane trip, piloted by Jay Leatherwood, is a ride sponsored by the Ashburn Pilot’s Association. Seated next to Mr. Leatherwood is a special passenger. A passenger who is stooped over, and has a head covered with gauze, a passenger who is getting a dream 80+ years in the making come true. (This paragraph sets the hook, to borrow a fishing term. I have grabbed the reader with a few key words: “Lifelong dream” speaks to everyone who has an unmet personal goal of any kind. We all have dreams. “Special passenger” lets the reader know this is not an ordinary event. The next sentence partially explains this, but builds more suspense. The “80+ years” is just more suspense and tightens the grip on the reader. These minor details are one of the instances where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Also, note my use of these descriptive details scattered throughout the story. Observe absolutely, but take your observations and shotgun them through the story. Keep feeding your reader bits and bites of information. Don’t lump all your observations into one sentence or one paragraph. It’s like butter and sour cream on a baked potato. Mix the condiments through the entire tater and it will taste good from the first bite to the last. )

The special passenger is James. J. Zabriskie. The gauze protects the skin-cancer ravaged skin on his skull from being damaged. (Now you know the man’s name. Critical information, but I delayed announcing it intentionally. I linked it to the cancer. Being in South Georgia, skin cancer here is extremely common. Everyone I know has had family members touched by cancer and every extended family down here has lost someone to cancer. Cancer, as with any dread disease, generates sympathy in a reader, especially when the disease is caused by external forces the victim had no control over. )

The internal cancer, well, it’s terminal. (Death. It’s the great equalizer. I wrote this sentence exactly like I would speak it to someone. In fact, before I wrote it, I spoke it aloud. The word “well” separated by commas generates a dramatic pause which lets the reader know something of major importance is coming up. Two simple words “it’s terminal” deliver an emotional blow like nothing else. )

James is Craig Zabriskie’s (call him Craig Z) dad. Craig Z is the tall man in sunglasses who watched the plane take off on the ride of a lifetime for his dad. (A simple wrap-up sentence to tie everything above together. Now the light goes off in the reader’s head. The suspense in ended, but a new suspense has been created. The old man went flying, which was his wish. So what was it like? This is where the interview with the feature subject is very important. I use Craig Z to ID the son because that is how Craig Z is known in our community. As he explains, no one can pronounce his last name. )

“I would have given my life to fly,” the elder Mr. Z says standing outside the plane. (Just me being a bit difficult and teasing the reader by dragging out the suspense. It’s very important that this kind of tease be short. Take it too long and you frustrate the average reader who will move on to a less annoying story, unless the reader likes mysteries in which case more teasing is a good thing. I also differentiate the two men by calling the father Mr. Z. )

After 83 years, Mr. Z got his wish to soar above the earth, shaking off the fetters of gravity that have kept him bound to the surface. (An almost hyperbolic statement. Pure and simple, it’s a case of me as a writer injecting imagery into a story. Instead of saying, “He got to fly.” I jazzed it up with extensive descriptive language. This too is another failing of many newspaper features. Instead of telling the reader Mr. Z flew, I give, as I count, nine separate images: Age, soar, earth, shaking off, fetters, gravity, kept, bound and surface. Again, a case of the whole is greater than sum of the parts. Egad, this is so hackneyed, but so true—show, don’t tell. )

As Mr. Leatherwood and Craig Z helped the elder Mr. Z into the front seat of the plane, Craig Z joked “This is the Turner County Make a Wish Foundation for old farts.” (Straight quote. No way I could improve on it. Sometimes you get a gem of an interview, sometimes you don’t. I got lucky with this one. )

The Zabriskies are carnival people. Craig Z runs a bigtop tent manufacturing and repair facility on Stanford Road. He moved up here from Florida and resumed operations in the old Industrial Park before moving to the Standford Road facility. He got into the business because of his Dad. (More background info. I could have dressed this up some, but the story is really about Mr. Z, so I left this pretty plain. But, it’s important information as the next ’graph illustrates. )

“I could write you a serious story just about his life,” Craig Z said. “He grew up with his mother. His father left them. He went into the carnivals to try and impress his dad. He was a WWII prison camp guard.” (Luck of the draw, pure and simple. A great interview and a man with an interesting past. )

After that, Mr. Z went to a trade school and learned about the big diesel engines that power so many carnival rides. (More background, but as most people have been to a carnival, they probably never gave a thought to what goes on behind the scenes. Still, running away with the circus is often a childhood dream and still something adults joke about. Here’s one man who did it. This creates another emotional link between the reader and Mr. Z. More luck of the draw sort of. I say sort of, because everyone has a story—sometimes you just have to look harder to find it. I didn’t have to look long to find this one. )

Even through all this, he never let go of the dream of flight. (A setup line. Pure and simple. Short. Sweet. Alludes to hard times and still holding on to a dream—this is clearer in the next paragraph. Another emotional link forged in the chain connect the reader and Mr. Z. As a writer, you should look for ways to connect the feature subject to the reader. )

“When he was a little kid, he used to build model airplanes. That was his passion, to learn to fly,” Craig Z said of his dad. “He was born with one bad eye and never could go for his pilot’s license.” (More background, but presented in a killer quote. I got lucky again. )

The plane meanwhile, has warmed up and is taxiing out to the runway. (I draw the reader back to the story at hand. I wrote this story in present tense first, changed it to past tense and went back to present tense because in my mind present tense for the flight is more real and immediate to the reader. It brings the reader into the story with me. The sentence also announces the flight, mentioned in the lede, is about to begin.)

“I’ve got to get over here,” Craig Z said by way of excusing himself to the other side of his pickup. ‘I’m all busted up over this.” (More luck of the draw quotes, but also ones that show Craig Z has made his own emotional investment in the story. Parents will clearly identify with this as will people who’ve had to care for ailing parents. )

After a few minutes to recover his composure, he comes back around to the front of the truck. The plane is at the far end of the runway. Mr. Leatherwood is preparing for takeoff. (Straight observation. Keeps the reader involved in the here and now in the story. I could have expanded this to discuss the plane zipping down to the far end of the runway while Craig leaned on his truck, but I chose to leave this part unspoken and merely hint at it. This is a case of forbidden fruit is always sweeter. By leaving it to the reader’s imagination, they can create in their own mind what happened and thereby move even deeper into this feature. )

“It’s been his lifelong dream. Jay is fulfilling it for him,” Craig Z said. “He’s terminal with cancer. He came home here with me to spend his last days. I thank God for all the people here in Turner County. Y’all have been so great to all of us.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality. It’s what we do. It’s also luck of the draw on quotes. )

The plane is now rolling up the runway. Tina Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s granddaughter is filming the ride from the ground. Nicholas Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s grandson is riding in the plane’s back seat. The plane leaves the runway and Mr. Leatherwood pulls back on the yoke. The plane rises. Craig Z waves as hard as he can. (This wraps the plane ride, but not the story. )

THE NEXT MORNING (subhead break—announces a second part of the story. )

The next morning at the Zabriskie house, walking in the house from the shop out back, Craig Z said his dad had a wonderful time Thursday afternoon. (More setup. We know Craig Z has a giant tent shop. This is just stage dressing and fill-in material to build on later.)

“He was grinning from ear to ear,” he said. (So it’s trite. Believe me, the average newspaper reader doesn’t have a problem with trite quotes in a story like this. )

Inside, Mr. Z is laying back in a recliner at the Zabriskie home. His nurses are leaving the house, having prepared him for another day. (I remind the readers Mr. Z is terminal with cancer. At this point in the story, that detail is a bit fuzzy for some readers. The recliner is also one of those condiment issues. I could have said he was sitting, or just said Mr. Z was in the home. By mentioning recliner, I have made Mr. Z even more real as a person to the reader because the reader can identify with laying back in a recliner. Give the reader something to hang onto and identify with in your feature article. )

“It was good. He took me for a nice ride. We got a good view of what Ashburn, Ga., looks like from the air,” he said. (Not much of a quote, but it needs to be a quote. Mr. Z has to put it in his own words. He continues shortly. )

The first destination in the air was the Z family house and the shop. From there, they flew around the County. Mr. Z said he saw big drainage ponds—somewhere. (I chose to paraphrase this because Mr. Z’s quotes were not very good. Besides which, the county I live in is dotted with irrigation ponds. So, the reader could imagine Mr. Z flew over their house. This makes another connection. )

The afternoon ride was rescheduled from Thursday morning. Late Thursday morning the winds picked up. Mr. Leatherwood was concerned it would be too rough in the air for Mr. Z so the flight was rescheduled with hopes for calmer winds. (Creates tension. This is important in any good story. But, we already know what happened, so why is this important? “Mr. Leatherwood was concerned” is the central element of this paragraph. It puts a link between the pilot and Mr. Z and the reader. Also, this graph will become important with the next graph. )

“He was afraid of shaking me. He could have shaken me like a salt shaker and I would have gone,” Mr. Z said. (WHAM! Now you see why the turbulence graph was so important where it was place. Again, luck of the draw on quotes. )

He said the flight was more and better than he expected. (segue .)

“I got to get up and see everything. It looked real good,” he said. As for what was best, “Everything. I can’t put my finger on it,” he said. (His own words. Very important because this is an emotional statement, not a factual observation like what he saw from the air. )

There were no surprises either. (In interviews with someone achieving a goal or doing something new I find one of the most revealing questions I can ask is “Did anything surprise you?” Sometimes it’s a bust, sometimes not. This appears to be a bust, but isn’t as you’ll see. )

“I was well pleased with everything. It was a good takeoff and landing, not that I’m an authority,”” he said. (This shows why no surprises is not a bust. Also, an emotional statement so it needs to be in his words ).

“I told him just don’t go kamikaze on us with a smile on your face,” Craig Z said. “We want you around a while longer.” (Luck of the quote draw. )

Mr. Z said he wouldn’t do that. He also wasn’t worried about the landing; he knew the plane was going to land. The important part was getting airborne. (Reinforces the dream realized. Also links kamikaze crash landing to walk away from it landing. )

Mr. Z retired from a lifetime of working the carnival routes. He plans to be cremated and wants his remains poured on Interstate 90 North and South. He wants that because he spent so much of his life on that road with the carnivals. (Segue. Background information with ZING! We know what Mr. Z did and cremation is a rarity down here. To have his ashes poured out of a plane, what an image. Again, I got lucky with this interview. )

“I said, will it be OK if we dust you out the airplane? He said ‘Hell yeah, that will be even better,’” Craig Z said. (Even more luck. Craig Z is just a great interview. Use of the word “fart” and “hell” did give me pause since my paper serves a VERY conservative Bible belt readership. But I made the decision to use the words for two reasons: It was a direct quote. It made a major emotional impact. )

But now, he’s somewhat changed his mind. He said he’d be happy to have his remains spread over Turner County, but do it from the air. (Errrr, WHAT?! is what the reader is now thinking. A sudden unexpected shift of direction which was the luck of the draw. )

“What the hell. It’s better than being shot from a cannon. That’s a one shot thing,” he said. “They sprinkle me everywhere. They’ll know Jim Zabriskie was there.” (Now some readers are horrified, which is good because I know this story has connected on a gut level. As much as I hate to admit it, again luck of the draw on quotes. )

Craig Z jokes that this year’s cotton crop should be a bumper one, growing off his Dad’s ashes. (More Z family humor. May be disturbing to some, but it is who they are. As a writer I have an obligation to present them as real as I can. )

Mr. Z will celebrate his birthday in April. If he’s able to, he’ll fly again on his birthday. (A promise to repeat the dream. Readers are now cheering Mr. Z on. )

Again, if he’s able, Mr. Leatherwood has promised to let Mr. Z take over the controls for a little while. As far as Mr. Z is concerned, that’s a promise Mr. Leatherwood will have to keep. (And the crowd goes wild! They storm the field! They tear down the goal post! They throw Mr. Z from one end zone to another! Sorry. Got a little carried away myself .)

“I’m going to make it,” he said. (More cheering!)

A SURPISING ATTITUDE (Another subhead break to announce a change in the story. This was also included at the request of the Z family. This being a feature about Mr Z, I felt it was important to put it in because it adds even more substance to the flesh of the man I have built to this point.)

The one thing about South Georgia which has surprised him is the reception he and the family have received.

“I didn’t realize we had so many good friends here,” Mr. Z said. “They didn’t do that when we went to Okechobee. We had to pay for everything. (Here) everyone cares.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality baybee! We like it when someone compliments us on it, which, combined with the next two comments, is the cement that binds the reader to the Z family in a very personal way. )

“Here, everybody took us in just like family,” Craig Z said.

“We thank you for the love and support in this community,” Mr. Z said.

Post-story note since I don’t wanna leave readers of Absolute Write hanging—Mr. Z died 11 days before his birthday. Pilot Jay Leatherwood said Mr. Z is going to get his plane ride anyway ride. Mr. Z did on Sunday, May 13. Mr. and Mrs. Z’s ashes were combined into one bag. The combined ashes were dumped over Craig Z tent plant and the surrounding fields. Working on this story now.

Ben Baker is a South Georgia newspaper editor, author and evangelist. He’s a member of the Southern Humorists .

Leslie Charteris

By George Alex Windish

Leslie Charteris is not a forgotten writer. Though he wrote other things, he will go down in literary history with his character, Simon Templar, the urbane, sophisticated, gentleman-adventurer better known as the Saint.

Charteris was born in 1907, the son of Dr. S.C. Yin, whose roots could be traced to the old emperors of China. Charteris was christened Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, and learned several language before he learned English. He was not a distinguished scholar, but did manage to write a novel while he was attending Cambridge. He continued to write, but seldom made money at it. To keep himself fed, he worked as a policeman, drove a bus, prospected for gold, worked in tin mines, fished for pearl, tended bar, and became a professional bridge player.

In 1926, he legally changed his name.

In 1929, he wrote Meet The Tiger, the first Saint book.

Meet The Tiger sold very well, and soon the followup adventures of Simon Templar were making Charteris famous and rich.

In 1932, he moved to the United States.

His style of telling a story was very breezy, fast-paced and exciting, and the Saint has always held the fascination of readers. The character has appeared in movies in the 30s & 40s, on radio, in comic strips and on television. A new generation was introduced to an updated version of the Saint n the movie starring Val Kilmer. There is also a meticulously researched website for Leslie Charteris.

Forty years ago, when I was 10, I picked up and read a copy of The Saint At Large, a collection of short stories. I have been writing ever since.

Leslie Charteris died in 1993.

George Alex Windish has been writing for many years, and has become a better typist, if nothing else. He has placed nearly a dozen short stories of horror and science fiction, has had a weekly column in a local Baltimore newspaper, and has written for and edited Country Line, a small Pennsylvania magazine. He has also done ad copy and correspondence for businesses. He has long been a fan of genre literature and truly tacky movies, as well as being a collector of vintage records.

Review Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Review by Lynne Mahan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

Interview by Jenna Glatzer

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

How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else you’d like to add?

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Why Editors are Not the Enemy

By Mridu Khullar

Editors can be mean, unethical and downright unprofessional. But not all editors fit that bill. In fact, most editors would rather give you money than take it, would rather make no changes than rewrite whole pieces two hours before deadline, and would rather accept a piece than start their mornings sending out rejection slips. But step into an editor’s shoes, and you’ll know why that’s not only hard, it’s just plain impossible!

Here are the most common complaints writers have, and why editors aren’t always guilty of them.

Completely Changing Your Work

An editor I frequently work with was in distress. One of her regulars had just written to complain about his perfectly brilliant beginning being chopped off. “They sometimes don’t get our style,” she told me over lunch. “We need more quotes, we put them in. We need a stronger beginning; we change it. There’s nothing much I can do about it. It’s the way we work.“ But while this editor was very forthcoming about her reasons, and gave the writer an explanation, you’ll usually get no further correspondence. That doesn’t mean that they don’t understand the anguish you go through. But editors have word limits, voice and style limitations, and a dozen other factors to keep in mind. Editors simply don’t have the time to offer explanations to each writer.

Paying Less or Not Paying At All

Most writers believe (or are led to believe) that editors just don’t want to dish out the cash. Sure, if they’re running a small business from home and can hardly pay their bills, they probably won’t. But editors in big offices don’t really care whether you earn $100 or $1,000. After all, they’re not the ones paying from their pockets!

I was in a publisher-editor meeting the other day, and one common concern was raised — why weren’t suppliers (including freelancers) paid on time? A complaint unanimously raised by . . . editors!

An important thing to remember is that while it may appear so to us, editors aren’t really the ones calling the shots all the time. That’s the publisher’s job. So hating the editor’s guts won’t get you anywhere. While some editors may be creeps, most of them are on your side! So, if you want more money, just ask for it. Chances are the editor is the only one who can help you get it.

Not Responding

Editors would love to respond to every query, you know. But there’s only so much they can do. And while each e-mail you send will determine where your next paycheck comes from, an editor will get paid regardless of the number of queries rejected. Their job is putting together quality content. No one’s going to promote them for being nice to freelancers. It’s a simple matter of priorities. And when the choice is between finishing up the issue and answering yet another freelancer’s query, get real — editors will finish up and go home.

Killing Articles

We tossed a coin. The losing editor would have to tell the freelance writer that his article had been killed. That, too, after we asked him to send us a dozen writing samples, come up with a dozen off-beat ideas, get a feel of our style, and send us a 600-word piece. We’d even negotiated the price. It would have taken him at least a day’s work, if not more. We felt cruel, but decided that the guy had potential for future assignments.

I lost the toss and sat down to draft the e-mail. I explained at length how our policies had changed, told him that we’d be willing to give more assignments, and even added a touch of humor. But the writer was obviously blinded. He thought of me as the devil. And by doing so, he’d just lost a perfectly good opportunity for more assignments.

Editors aren’t out to take advantage of freelancers or make their lives miserable. In fact, if you get to know them a little, you’ll find that they’re often a very friendly bunch. Stop looking at your editor as the enemy, and you might just find a friend.

Mridu Khulla Relph is based in London and New Delhi. She has written for  The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, The Independent, Forbes, The CS Monitor, Ms., Elle, Marie Claire, Vogue, Glamour, Cosmo, and more. She has a website, a blog, and has written several books.

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