Sales Tracking: New Ways to Drive Yourself Absolutely Crazy

By Karyn Langhorne

Just when there’s no more re-writing and revising . . .

Just when the book is finally on the shelves . . ..

Just when the efforts at promotion seem to be finally paying off . . .

There’s something new to worry about.

Sales. And a fresh crop of ways to drive an author attempting to build a career completely crazy.

Let’s start with the one of the most-widely known and easiest to become utterly and completely obsessed with: Amazon.com.

As most of you know, Amazon ranks books on its site according to number of copies it has sold. When you research a book on Amazon, you’ll find a little number that indicates its sales rank in comparison to the other million or so of books listed on this mega-sellerÆs website.

On the first day of its release, A Personal Matter/cite> ranked 1.3 million—dead last, or close to it, I’m willing to bet. A few days later, the book had risen to a rank of 52,000. A few more days later, it jumped up to a ranking somewhere around 8,000. When it climbed to a number in the 4,000 range, I started imagining myself making the top 100, seeing myself in reach of the Holy Grail—Amazon’s numero uno

Until it fell back to 8,000-something the very next day.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, that same day, I learned that Ingram Book Group, the book wholesaler responsible for supplying many libraries and independent bookstores, has several tracking tools authors can use to monitor sales . . . and drive themselves even crazier.

Apparently, Ingram tracks the Top 50 Titles by Demand in a number of categories. Since A Personal Matter is classified as a romance novel, there’s the Most-Requested Romance List, a weekly run-down of who’s hot . . . and who’s not. I haven’t figured out how to access this one yet, but when I do, I’m sure I’ll just have to add it to my weekly “things to do” list. You can also call Ingram and check out your progress through their automated stock report line. (1-800-937-8000, then press 4, then press the ext # 36803.)

You can learn lots of useful things with a simple phone call. The automated stock reports hotline can tell you: whether Ingram had to reorder your book (which is always a good thing); how a new book is selling compared to a previous one; whether demand for earlier books increases when a new book comes out.

New York Times top ten bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon, author of Night Play and the upcoming Seize the Night, recommends that obsessive authors making their first call to Ingram’s stock line need to call in before the book hits Ingram to see what the pre-order is. The average midlist author will have a preorder that falls between 700-1500 copies. While she adds that there are a few authors who are above 5,000 — and even some above 10,000 — there aren’t many who fall into that category. Armed with the pre-order numbers, an author can use Ingram’s stock line to get an overall look at how the book is doing.

But Sherrilyn is quick to remind excited newbies (like me) that Ingram, as an on-demand distributor, is just a small part of the overall market and while the information is helpful, it’s like looking a single slice of pie and calling it the whole.

Of course, I had to try it. Had to. Right away.

It was too late to check on the preorder — my book had already been available for a month when I found out about Ingram and this automated stock line. So I just had to dive in and find out what I could. I dialed tentatively, with the same hesitation I now feel when I visit Amazon.com. Will the news be good? Or will it indicate that there’s no demand for my book whatsoever?

I learned that Ingram has 219 copies of A Personal Matter in stock . . . and that it shipped 13 this week. Since August 31 (release date) it had sent out 384 copies.

Thank goodness — someone bought a few copies of the book!

But beyond that, I understand the caveats of my betters. I’m not exactly sure what this information means . . . any more than I’m sure of what the ranking numbers (beyond, let’s say, the top 100) on Amazon really tell an author about how a book is doing in the wide world out there.

Which means I’m going to have to ask some more questions.

Next Month: The skinny on how publishers track author sales.

Karyn Langhorne is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, who recently signed a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Her first novel, A Personal Matter, will be released in September, 2004. She has also written several screenplays and a play, Primary Loyalties, which was produced off-Broadway and was optioned by NBC-TV in 2000. Karyn Langhorne has a Website.

Writer’s Group Etiquette Tips

By Julie Rogers and June Ford

My editor and I frequently talk to writers—many who are or have been members of writer’s groups. More and more we find ourselves pulling out these tips because we believe healthy writing etiquette among peers in writer’s groups encourages good writing habits. When a writer begins working professionally with an editor, the writer’s group carryovers from training, etiquette, and experience become clear. If a writer is inflexible or impatient, that comes out in the process. On the other hand, if an editor is a frustrated writer, the end product will be overwritten and stylistically untrue to the writer’s original vision.

We encourage struggling writer’s groups to put the following writer’s group tips into practice for at least three meetings. We believe the best writing comes from writers who, by hard knocks or intention, are moving into higher realms of personal growth. Above all, we encourage all writers to continue becoming good writers, a process we believe never stops—by studying the craft, reading, and of course, writing your dream.

Writer’s Group Tips

  • Inventory—Who are the participants in the writer’s group, and what are they writing? A writer’s group with longevity caters to the writing interests and skills of the entire bunch. Periodic surveys are helpful in determining whether needs are being met.
  • Involvement—Encourage members to speak to the group on topics they feel comfortable presenting. Topics don’t necessarily have to center around the craft of writing, but can pertain to work, experience, hobbies, etc.
  • Reviews—Book or movie reviews teach writers about elements of critique and how to examine their own work. Encourage writer’s group members to present reviews, allowing ten-to-fifteen minutes, or one per meeting. When writing a review, include all statistics (genre, author, screenwriter, publisher, producer, director, year of copyright, etc.). Give a brief synopsis of the story, including the protagonist’s external and internal conflicts. Compare the work, if applicable, to other works that author/writer has produced. List strong and weak points of the work.
  • Written Critiques—Divide into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. The subgroup should be no larger than three people. Members should bring a predetermined amount of material (usually around five pages) to be read. The subgroup will read every set of pages silently for ten minutes and make notes or corrections on the copy. When all sets of pages are read, the group or subgroups will discuss each manuscript for ten minutes.
  • Oral Critiques—Divide the writer’s group into subgroups of writers who share the same writing interests. Each member should bring a predetermined amount of typewritten pages (no more than ten) to be read out loud. Allow ten minutes after each reading for oral critiques from other members of the subgroup.
  • Guest Lectures—If the writer’s group has no coffer for paying guest speakers, seek out possible freebies from new authors, editorial services, agents, area experts, and area colleges. Remember that these lectures should not center on the craft of writing. Area newspapers, and radio and television stations are good resources for who’s who or the latest up-and-coming in your area.
  • Positive Feedback—Read the entire work. As a general rule of thumb, find and list three positive points first about the work you’re critiquing.
  • Negative Feedback—Critiques that offer solutions to correct a problem are preferable. If you offer negative criticism, be prepared to present two possible solutions for every negative comment.
  • Share the Work—Whether by election or by proxy, members should rotate secretarial and moderator duties to avoid staleness and burnout.
  • Socials/Outings—Downtime and socials provide a more casual, less structured and intimidating atmosphere for discussing lengthier projects or writing woes. If the group consistently meets at one location, this change of setting can do wonders for fueling creative energies.
  • Respect Craft—Writers who truly love the craft will respect its difficulty and be enthused by any effort to write. Whether a manuscript is great, good, or terrible, someone took the time to write it. That’s commendable. No one writes the best work the first time out. We encourage writer’s groups to respect writers who really work at craft regardless of ethnicity, background, or education. These writers may be the very ones who become really good working writers.
  • Second Opinion—Most writers share the experience of limping away from a critique. Subjecting your baby to criticism—even good criticism—is tough. Collect a spread of criticisms, usually between two and five, and never, ever rework a manuscript on one critique alone. Good critiques will adhere to the feedback tips given above and will genuinely seek to be helpful, versus simply ripping someone’s work apart. If a writer in your group goes home, puts away the project, and never pulls it out again, due to a critique—there’s a good chance it was a bad critique.
  • Read, digest, study—Writing is challenging enough, and making time to read can be even more challenging. Listen to audio books while doing house chores or exercising. Stowaway books and audio books in your car. You’ll be surprised how much time you have on the road, waiting in line at the bank, or the post office, or at restaurants—even if it means reading in snatches.
  • Share book and movie reviews with other writers. You obviously don’t have time to read everything, but a comprehensive review from another writer or book club member can broaden your horizons. Read good, acclaimed works, classics, trades, magazines, breaking news and events.
  • Read what interests you, but also try broadening your perspective (and writing capabilities) by reading a variety of genres. Consider forming or joining a book club. Reading lists are available from Writer’s Digest as well as some editorial services, book clubs, and online writers’ web sites. Reading story analyses and summaries is good practice, as well. Study what works. Cliff Notes usually offer good story, character, and writing element analyses.
  • Golden Rule—Sadly, many conferences and online critique groups today feel they have to post requests for participants to be kind to each other. Cutthroat behavior can permeate a writer’s world at any level. We encourage writers not to play that game. Working writers with longevity in the industry establish their careers with genuine courtesy and appreciation of other people, especially other writers.

Julie Rogers’ articles have been featured in numerous self-help, inspirational, and fiction publications. She is the author of Happy Tails: How Pets Can Help You Survive Divorce, and the 1999 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition Grand Prize Winner for her short story “House Call.” She is a producer at True Grit Films and represented by Jeff Ross Management. Julie is a journalism graduate of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Julie Rogers has a Website.

June Ford has worked in a variety of editorial positions for publishing houses, magazines, and newspapers, including in-house for publishing companies as a managing editor, project editor, and editor. She has been commissioned to write trade books ranging from psychology to business and finance, coffee table pictorials to true crime. June has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Editor Speaks: I Like This! Have You Thought About Changing It?

By Selina McLemore

“Karyn?”

I bet she thinks I sound young. Really young.

“I’m Selina and I’m going to be your editor on this project.”

I love calling debut authors. I feel like I can really relate to the rush of excitement a new author feels. She’s worked so hard on her manuscript, rewritten it countless times, and finally she’s found someone who also sees all the great qualities it has. And with just a few more changes, it will be perfect.

For a lot of authors, new and experienced, hearing that their work — their baby — still needs tweaking is tough. And to be honest it took me a while to understand why. From my perspective, revisions are a natural part of the process, and to be expected. And after all, I don’t acquire an author if I don’t enjoy his or her work, so why would hearing about ideas to improve it be considered criticism?

But that’s how a lot of new writers view the revision discussion. Suddenly the warm, fuzzy feelings of making your first sale fade and are replaced by doubt: first, Will I really be able to do this? soon to be followed by, Does my editor really know what she’s talking about?

The answer to both questions, by the way, is yes.

I’m not saying editors are beyond error, but our goal is to make your manuscript as strong as we possibly can. And remember, we have some advantages you don’t. For one thing, an editor comes to the book with fresh eyes, just like the reader does. The most common problem I see in debut novels is a lapse in logic that the author, due to her familiarity with the work, can’t see. So a revision I often request is for an author to go back and add in explanation.

In my experience, most authors don’t have a problem when you ask them to write more. Go figure. What they are usually less receptive to is my second most common request, the request I made of Karyn: cut this.

Sometimes it’s a paragraph or a few lines here and there, sometimes it’s a whole character or an entire subplot —  whatever it is, no one likes losing material she’s worked hard on. But the request to cut is not just about making page count. It’s about rhythm, pacing, flow. It’s about making sure descriptive passages don’t dominate the book, taking away from the action. Think of every page as valuable real estate. There’s only so much, so you want to be sure you’re using it in the best way possible.

But if there’s one type of revision that’s even more difficult to discuss than cutting, it’s something I call the audience factor. Publishing is a business, and part of being successful in that business is knowing your audience, what they expect, what they’re looking for, what they’re missing. The audience factor comes in to play a lot when I request revisions to a character. It’s wonderful to have a main character who raises questions and calls on readers to really think about what’s before them. But the catch is that the reader still has to like her. If a reader doesn’t finish the book because the heroine is too abrasive, then her transformation at the end is lost. And if, because that reader didn’t finish the book, she doesn’t recommend it to a friend, you’ve lost another potential fan. Sometimes to get the message across, you have to soften the messenger.

So the lesson is: whatever revisions your editor requests you should immediately do? No. Of course not. But I am saying, pick your battles. Thinking you can avoid any revisions is unrealistic, but if you’re strongly against making a change, say so. No one agrees all the time, and Karyn and I are no exception. But when you keep an open dialogue and trust your editor, the fun of the first call can last through all those to follow —  like when we talk about your copyedits and cover art and publicity plans and galleys and quotes and option material.

Currently an assistant editor at Avon Books, Selina McLemore has worked in women’s fiction for three years. In addition to contemporary romance titles like A Personal Matter, Selina also works with authors who write historical romance and chick lit.

Last month, Karyn Langhorne Folan, the author of A Personal Matter, offered her perspective on working with Selina.

This is Your Editor Calling

By Karyn Langhorne

“Karyn?”

She sounded young. Really young. I took a deep breath, and answered, hoping I didn’t sound old. Really old.

“I’m Selina . . . and I’m going to be your editor on this project. First let me tell how much I loved your book.’

She might be young, but she was certainly smart. Anyone who loves my book has to be smart. As well as attractive, intuitive, talented, articulate, engaging, educated . . .

For me (and I suspect for most of us), one of the drawbacks of becoming a writer is that I’ve become very familiar with rejection. Before December 2003, I had heard “no” so many times, I’d begun to believe that the whole world hated me and my writing and that the only reason I kept doing it was because I was either too pigheaded, or too stupid to stop. Hearing someone say something NICE about my writing immediately turned me to mush.

When Selina told me she loved my book, I started grinning so wide my daughter could see the gleam of my teeth in the playroom two floors below. And if hearing her praises for A Personal Matter wasn’t enough, Selina, smart woman that she is, followed up her advantage by asking, “Tell me about the new one.”

I’m pretty smart myself (or at least I like to think so), but that question made all of my intelligent questions about what it would be like to work with the publisher, what my new editor expected of me, what I should expect of her—you know, IMPORTANT stuff — go straight out my mental window.

She wanted to hear about the new project. She wanted talk about my writing!

No one ever wants to hear about my writing. No, that’s not exactly true. Friends and family ask, and they don’t mind hearing a short answer like “Fine” or “Working on something new.” But beyond that, their eyes glaze over and they start looking at me with the same look people give computer geeks and the desperately intoxicated. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about, like you’ve never gotten the look. Until you’re as successful as Nora Roberts, John Grisham or Steven King, every writer gets the look. The look that says: That’s enough already. The look that says: You’re over your limit, bub. No more words on that subject for you.

Of course, if you become a really successful writer, people want to hear you talk about your writing all the time . . . as if you know some magic secret that changes crummy words to great ones, that performs alchemy that converts the worst of ideas into best-selling novels. When you become a best-selling novelist, people will flock to hear you talk about your writing in the hopes that you might share the magic with them and then they too could live the life of fame and fortune —

But I digress.

Selina wanted to hear about my writing. And she actually listened while I tried to explain my new and not quite completed project. She actually asked questions about it. Wow, I thought, still talking a mile a minute about possible directions for the story line, similar novels already on the market, etc. I like her. I like her a lot.

I was so busy talking and liking that I almost missed what she was saying. Which turned out to be something about a revision letter.

“Revision letter?” I repeated, reconciling the words “loved your book” and “revisions” in my brain. “What’s that?”

The revision letter, Selina patiently explained, outlines the changes the publisher feels are necessary. In a week or so, she would send me said letter, along with my complete manuscript. I would make the changes and send them back to her.

“Since we’re on an accelerated schedule,” she told me cheerfully. “You’ll have about thirty days. I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” she adds. “Your work is so strong, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with the revisions.”

Did you catch that? Did I say Selina is smart?

“Mostly you’ll need to cut it a little,” she continued.

“How much?” I asked, mentally imagining a little tightening here, tinkering there.

“Eighty pages,” she replied with that same bright, youthful energy.

The manuscript as submitted was 487 pages. Eighty pages is like . . . I do some quick math . . . 20% of the book.

“But that won’t be a problem for someone as talented as you, I’m sure,” Selina keeps right on going as if there isn’t a long silence at the other end of the line. And now I’m trapped by my own love of compliments.

“No,” I say, hoping that I sound neither old, nor ignorant, nor scared to death—and feeling every one of them. “That won’t be a problem.”

We hung up shortly after that. Reluctantly, I turned to my computer, opening the file named “A PERSONAL MATTER-final.doc” watching 487 pages load into my word processing program.

Final document? Apparently not.

Next Month: Selina’s Side of the Story. My editor has kindly offered to write next month’s column, sharing with AbsoluteWrite readers what she was looking for, why she chooses the manuscripts she chooses, what I did right in getting her attention (and wrong) and how other writers can put their best foot forward in getting published.

Karyn Langhorne Folan is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, with over 25 books so far. She’s  written for the groundbreaking educational novel series, Bluford High as well as an exciting line of post-apocalyptic fiction called Ashes, Ashes. Karyn Langhorne Folan has a Website.

Can you Really Write a Book in Two Weeks?

By Magdalena Ball

“You can write a novel in 14 days or less!” Sound familiar? I’ve seen a number of advertisements recently selling “how-to” guides on speedwriting. They offer some tempting promises, including that you will be able to (guaranteed!) write a fabulous book, either fiction or nonfiction, within a very short space of time, then market and reap the extraordinary benefits, including fame, fortune, regular speaking engagements, and sponsorship deals. The premise is based on the concept that the faster you write, the better your writing will be, and also the well-known adage that you should write about what you know, and that all the material you need is already floating around in your head.

While the idea of writing quickly, and without overt interruption from too much proofreading before the concept is fully realized, is not a bad one, especially for dealing with writer’s block, the idea of rapid and unfiltered writing, from idea to market, is a dangerous one that could potentially result in an author, even a good author, putting inadequately edited books on the market before they are ready. One of the English speaking world’s most skilled modern novelists, Julian Barnes, says he rewrites every page something like 40 times, and avoids a computer because it makes his work look too good too quickly. James Joyce took 10 years to write Ulysses. Real masterpieces don’t happen in 14 days. They take time, and skilled crafting, rewriting, recrafting, and lots of work. That is part of why they are masterpieces.

The well-known Australian publisher Hilary McPhee writes about this notion in her recent book Other People’s Words (Picador, 2001), in which she discusses how working with writers editorially is no longer considered efficient: “the old maxim rules: the reader is a mug and the writer is a commodity — sell 50,000 copies before anyone discovers they’re not much good.” (285) E-publishing and speed writing feeds perfectly into this philosophy. I’m not suggesting that e-books necessarily lack quality — I’ve written one myself, and have read many carefully constructed e-books, but it is an area where there are few quality controls in place, especially for self-publishing, which is now so inexpensive that anyone can do it. As McPhee suggests, it is marketing, rather than literary skills that make for an online bestseller — or maybe a combination of both. The market is so vast that a racy, easy to read e-thriller will probably do better in sales than a carefully constructed work of great literary fiction.

Nonetheless, literary masterpieces are still being produced. Authors like Rushdie, Barnes, Peter Carey, Umberto Eco, and a host of others are writing 20th century novels that will rival anything in the literary canon, including the works of Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Mann. However, these authors do not produce their novels in 14 days. Some of them, like the wonderful de Bernieres, may take 14 years. While this may be a publisher’s nightmare, the output of these authors, however popular, is not measurable in purely monetary terms, nor is it measurable in business styled cycle times. Books like History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, Oscar and Lucinda, or Foucault’s Pendulum are extraordinary, powerful, and change the way we imagine our language. A writer’s craft is like that of any artists. It can be carpentry — either skilled or shoddy, or it can be art — which works beyond simple craftsmanship.

Naturally a writer can write quickly — knocking out an article in a few hours, or less. Every journalist requires the skills to begin working, and to write fast. Not everything a professional writer will produce is going to be literary fiction. However, good literary work requires time. Not only in the original creation, but in the editing, the re-working, re-writing, and re-thinking. There is research involved, even if the work sits squarely within the area of a writer’s expertise, and there are characters, plot, setting, and linguistic drama to create. A 14-day novel is not going to add to the literary canon. That may be fine. As long as you don’t expect to produce the next Ulysses, or change your reader’s world. If writers want to do that — to write something truly wonderful, they will have to plan on spending more than a few weeks on it.

Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer and interviewer, and is the Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader (compulsivereader.com). She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and online, and is the author of several published books of poetry and fiction, including, most recently, the poetry book Unmaking Atoms (Ginninderra Press) and the novel Black Cow (Bewrite Books). Magdalena Ball has a blog.

How to Get a Top Literary Agent & Sign That Coveted Six-Figure Deal

By Susan Harrow

Top literary agents get about 400–1,000 unsolicited queries every month from hopeful book authors. Publishing houses sometimes juggle 5,000. Most of my private clients and participants in my seminar “How to Get a Six-Figure Book Advance” ask me, “How is a non-fiction author supposed to get an agent’s attention when there is so much competition?”

First of all, don’t write a non-fiction book—write a non-fiction book proposal. To capture a reputable non-fiction literary agent’s attention, you’ll need to show that you’re a media star, or a star in the making. Good writing can be bought but star power can’t.

Five Tips for Landing a Top Literary Agent

  1. Do your research.Literary agents for non-fiction specialize in very specific interests. For example, my agent loves tearjerkers but won’t take on books that involve children in peril. You want an agent who has represented books similar to yours, who sells books on a regular basis, who is devoted to you, and has the time to give you a little guidance through the publishing labyrinth.

Sometimes a newer, less experienced literary agent who is hungry for business is more dedicated and has more time to spend with you than an established one with a reputable cadre of authors. I recommend two ways to find the literary agent right for you:

  • Look in the acknowledgements of books similar to your topic. A happy author always thanks his literary agent. Once you’ve located your ideal agents, become familiar with their tastes, learn everything you can about their interests, pet peeves, and preferences, and review their websites for submission guidelines. Show that knowledge in your query letter or initial phone conversation.
  • Read Publishers WeeklyPublisher’s Lunch, and Variety to see who sold what and for how much. You will get a sense of an agent’s sensibility and be able to speak knowledgeably about the types of books they prefer when you know what’s happening in the industry in general and in your area of expertise in particular. You’ll know more than most people who submit proposals as you’ll be apprised of books that aren’t even published yet and movie deals in the making. And you’ll get a sense of market trends.
  1. Write a book proposal that reads like a thriller.

After you’ve located the agents you want to approach, the next step is to complete your book proposal. Once interested by your call or query letter, many literary agents move at hyper-speed.

There is a real art to writing a best-selling book proposal that makes the literary agent you’ve chosen say, “I want this person as a client.” To make your book proposal read in one sitting, you’ll want to write in short paragraphs with strong headlines. Be sure to give the chosen agent an immediate impression of how your book will read by writing the proposal in the same style as your book.

Find unusual, quirky, provocative tidbits about your subject that will entice the literary agent to say, “Wow, I never knew this.” Imagine the kind of tips that a terrific magazine article would include. When an editor at a top New York publishing house is reading your book proposal she is thinking, what kind of media exposure will we be able to get for this book? Can we get magazine feature articles, newspaper pieces, radio shows? Will the subject matter and the author interest the producers of Good Morning America, The Today Show,  CNN, or Oprah?

  1. Prove you have a platform.

The one thing that thrills a New York non-fiction publisher the most is your platform. Your platform is simply your reach. How many people are influenced by your ideas worldwide? To simplify this even further, a publisher wants to know one thing and one thing only (once they are interested in the subject matter of your book), and that is . . . how many books are you going to sell and to whom. You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re a great media guest, that you have an audience eager to snap up your books, and that you have a proven track record for selling your books or wares.

  1. Reveal how your past performance predicts future behavior.

Map out each venue and determine how many people are in attendance and how many of those people will buy your book. Include workshops, seminars, fairs, media appearances, book signings, keynotes, teleseminars, webinars, events, newsletter lists, blogs, partnerships, etc. Quantify everything in great detail. Estimate and base potential sales on past sales you’ve completed.

  1. Show you are the one.

Show that there is a clear need for your non-fiction book and that you are the only one who can write it. In other words, what problems are you solving and why are you the undisputed expert? What gap in the market are you filling? One of my clients whose topic was about how to be the very best at what you do and who you are, had a black belt, was a concert violinist, and had given seminars at The White House. She walked her talk, and lived her words. You need to have top-notch skills in order to gain the interest of a high caliber literary agent.

Follow these tips, and you can land a top literary agent and a six-figure deal. I hope to see your name on the New York Times best-seller list!

Media coach & marketing strategist, Susan Harrow has helped speakers, authors and entrepreneurs get 6-figure book advances. Susan Harrow has a Website.

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

By Magdalena Ball

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

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

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

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

Author Appearances: Top Ten Tips

By C. Hope Clark

Cover of C. Hope Clark's book The Shy WriterYour heart races, banging against your ribs, your chest, your throat. Fingers grip a pen to disguise the shake. The other hand flattens on your leg, your side, and your leg again drying the moisture that never disappears. You did not bargain for exhibition when you entered the world of writing. What started as a reclusive haven for your creative muse evolved into a public forum to sell your work. Good work should sell itself, you say, you wish. But nonetheless, there are invitations for author appearances.

Stepping before people, forcing yourself to say a few words, and pretending to enjoy the experience is the hive-causing, palm-sweating, mouth-drying bane of many an author. If the trauma of public appearances makes you question your chosen profession, stop and ponder ways to improve the experience and mitigate the stress.

Ten Tips for Author Appearances

  1. Take an assistant with you. Author appearances at book signings, book fairs and conferences are great places for an author’s “assistant.” The gregarious son, the extroverted spouse, or the effervescent niece can do what you cannot in many ways. While you sign books, your assistant can work the crowd and attract the customers. They charm the folks and lead them to the celebrity author (you), where you busily smile and sign books. Makes you look professional to have hired “staff.”
  2. Pretend you are famous. This is an age-old trick of actors and comedians, many of which who are painfully shy. Take a moment and paint on the persona of someone confident, energized and famous. The people feel it, and your confidence rises. Makes your voice a little louder, too.
  3. Hold a pacifier. Well, not literally, but holding something in your hands tends to settle a few jittery nerves. Jane Pauley fingers a paperclip when she makes author appearances. An author holding a pen is quite expected. Put a token of affection in your pocket to remind you to chill. A handkerchief in your pocket gives you something to fiddle with as well as wipe off sweaty palms.
  4. Share the spotlight. There are so many ways to do this. Sit on a panel instead of speaking alone. Have your assistant speak talk about you, introduce you, and close a function with you only saying thanks for coming. Share a booth with an outgoing author or other salesperson who draws people. Partner with a speaker who shares your topic’s expertise, and split commissions to have him incorporate your book in his presentation.
  5. Gimmicks speak alone. Branding yourself is common advice, but did you know that brands speak on your behalf? If someone recognizes FundsforWriters instead of C. Hope Clark, that’s fine because the connection is made either way. Without you saying a word, your image, logo, color scheme, or design says, “Here she is!” So hone that gimmick.
  6. Dress the part. As a “famous” author, you need to present yourself as polished at your author appearances. Hate pantyhose? Dressy slacks give a cool representation these days. Dressing like a gypsy does not speak professionally unless your book is in tune with that costume. If you dress casually, you tell customers you are casual in all ways, including the writing and marketing of your work. The sharp image attracts customers and lends an air of trust.
  7. Label yourself. Permanent nametags introduce you to others. Wearing your branded self on a professionally designed legible lapel pin is just like walking up to a person and saying, “Hello, I’m Jane Doe, the author.” You will find more people initiate the connection and relieve you of the icebreaking task when you wear a conspicuous form of identification.
  8. Visually dodge the group. Look at only one person at a time. Imagine a bookstore with hordes of people wandering around while you do a reading. Envision 200 people at a sit-down banquet. Think about a writers’ group of two dozen members. The numbers do not matter. Pick one person and communicate a thought. Move to another one and communicate your next thought. Keep the connection singular, and you tune out the sea of eyes and reduce it to a one-on-one coffee chat.
  9. Toss it back. Putting the spotlight on the other person takes it off of you. When meeting a stranger, compliment him, ask him questions, and keep tossing the conversation back to him. People love personal attention, and it relieves you of the same. In a group, ask for people to give examples or explain their experiences, releasing you of the entire speaking obligation. Not only do you release your own pressure, but also you become so special in their eyes. Oprah Winfrey is known for this talent, and everyone loves her.
  10. Preparation is everything. Memorize pat answers to questions like: What made you write this book; Why are you a writer; Where do you get your ideas; Are your characters taken from real people; and so on. You know the ones. Recite them at home and be prepared. You sound crisp and on cue when you do. For a speaking engagement, write the speech or lesson ahead of time in great depth — every word. Something about writing the words implants them on your brain. Reread your own book, if you need to make the words fresh in your mind. Preparation removes the stress from impromptu. You may know your work, but review never hurts.

The writing world is not the island of words it once was centuries ago. Electronics and media phenomena now place authors in front of their readers making them accountable. Fans want to see and hear their idols, plus, there is something about seeing an author that makes you real and credible. You might hate public author appearances, but options do exist to make it more palatable. By getting creative, you reduce the stress-factor while still giving your readers what they want.

C. Hope Clark is the author of The Shy Writer, and several mysteries. She is also the editor of FundsforWriters.com, and she blogs at TheShyWriter.com. You can find her personal Website at chopeclark.com.

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com

Book Review Barbara Wallraff Word Court

Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done
By Barbara Wallraff

Review by Andrea M. Chester

Barbara Wallraff’s Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done reminds me of my favorite English professor, and her charming way of correcting us. She taught her pupils to love the flow of a well-written piece, whether it was penned by Shakespeare, or Kipling, or Mark Twain. She made using good English seem relevant to our everyday lives, fun and flexible, and useful.

The author, Barbara Wallraff, is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, a benchmark of correct usage to many readers. Ms. Wallraff reassures her readers that they already know a lot more about good use of language than they think they do. She also wields a deft stick-pin, ready to puncture the over-inflated ego of those who think they’re the only ones who ever speak well. She’s funny, knowledgeable, and approachable.

The book is an amusing compilation of her columns, reflecting questions her readers have written her over the years. Some of them seem priggish. (As my teenage daughter would say, “Like, who cares?”) Others pick on some of my own peculiar notions about the way we speak, or should speak. Yet, for all its authoritative judgments on what’s standard and what’s preferred, this book is entertaining, rather than stuffy. It’s useful, rather than just another rulebook to collect dust on the shelf of the English Department at the community college.

More and more, new words, or old phrases with new meanings, crop up in our language. English is one of the most “wordy” languages in the world. With so many words, we can be more precise than most other languages allow, but we can also get into more trouble with those words. (For instance, would you rather someone said you were “a sight” or “a vision?” The words mean the same . . . or do they?)

People who wish merely to speak with each other may not be concerned with whether their choice of words carries the full flavor of their ideas. After all, in the time it takes to read 100 words, most of us can hear and process more than 400. We can talk ourselves into and out of misunderstandings, given just a bit of time and a person willing to listen. Written language, however, must capture and hold readers more quickly. To the writer, words matter very much, and precision is paramount. Our words influence readers to take us seriously, to trust our knowledge and integrity, or to consider us buffoons.

Those who write letters to each other or occasional letters to the editors of our newspapers might seldom use the wisdom in this book. For others—those who craft articles, or construct technical brochures, or devise business communications—Wallraff’s Word Court could be quite valuable. Whether you read it to become more accurate or to amuse yourself, you’re in for a good laugh from time to time, and perhaps a lesson or two about clear communication.

A compact handbook of preferred English usage, Wallraff’s Word Court is a fine addition to any working library. It can double as a college-level text, and makes a wonderful gift to anyone interested in being correct without being a pain in the lower back. In fact, if I can just track down my old professor, I intend to send her a copy!

Andrea and her husband Charles live in the mountains of western North Carolina, with three cats and a shaggy black dog. She’s a freelance writer and a community educator for a domestic violence agency.

I footnotes