Thursday, April 30, 2009

Two Perspectives on the Writing Life

Here's one, courtesy of Agent Nathan Bransford.

And here's the other one, via Agent Janet Reid.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Phone as Writing Tool

Let's face it: Times are tough for freelancers.

Each day brings news of another newspaper or magazine going belly up. That reliable corporate communications director you've relied on for years has been axed. Prospective new sources of writing assignments seem as plentiful as Republicans at a gun-control rally. (Sorry, that last one just slipped out...)

So how do you freelance your way through these tough economic times?

The first step is to pick up the phone. Start calling everyone you know who might be a source of writing assignments or who might be able to refer you to others in need of your services. In some cases, this means calling clients you haven't worked with in a while.

These can be awkward conversations if not handled properly. So don't even bother trying to disguise the purpose of your call, as in, "I was cleaning out my desk drawer, came across your business card, and thought I'd give you a call..." This not only sounds phony, it also positions the call as an afterthought. Not exactly the impression you want to make.

Instead, be as straightforward and as professional as possible. Think of way to make the client or ex-client glad you called. The best way to do that is to talk about what the client or potential client cares about most. (Hint: It's not you!) Then, describe how you might be able to help, or express the desire to explore ways you might be able to help. For example: "I know a lot of companies are cutting back in a lot of different ways, which usually means an increased workload for people like you. I'm calling to see if there may be a way that I can help you with that."

Put the client's interests first, and the call is likely to get the results you want.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't Forget to Remember

At the poetry festival I wrote about yesterday, I also listened to a reading by the poet/memoirist Honor Moore. As she described her writing process, she said:

"Don't forget those sentences you remember."

She was talking about those little miracles -- words, phrases, insights -- that come to you when you least expect them. You know they belong in that novel or article or poem you're writing... or a new novel or article or poem. Unfortunately, for me, they usually come at the most inconvenient times, such as when I'm driving, taking a shower, or sitting in a dark movie theater watching a movie I've lost interest in. And because I've reached the age where Centrum Silver is now part of my diet, chances are I'll lose that word or idea if I don't write it down immediately.

I used to carry around a small Moleskine pocket notebook and one of those collapsible/expandable telescopic pens so I could capture those (what I hoped would later prove to be) inspirations. I prefer the smaller moleskine with no binding so that it fits into the pocket and conforms comfortably to the shape of my fat thigh. (See pic.) My kids called it my "idea book." I've fallen out of the habit of carrying one with me. But Ms. Moore reminded me that all writers should have one "on their person" at all times. You never know when you might need an idea for, say, a blog post. So I've decided to resurrect the idea-book habit.

All I have to remember now is to pull over to the side of the road before writing.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Start Sweating: The Poetry of Prose

This past weekend I attended of poetry reading at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. The poet I went to hear was my friend and poetry mentor Kevin Pilkington. During his remarks, Kevin said that when he writes he sweats over every sentence, every phrase, every word, every comma, and every period. In poetry, that's what you have to do. Each word must work. If it doesn't, it must be replaced or deleted.

Certainly the same applies to prose. When editing my fiction or nonfiction, I sometimes find myself keeping certain words or phrases that I personally think are brilliant -- poetic, almost. Yet while I try to justify the retention, my internal editor's voice is screaming at me: Doesn't belong here! Not working! Delete! Delete! Delete!

All writers -- poets, journalists, fiction writers -- need to listen carefully to that internal editor. And we all need to do what Kevin does: Sweat it out until you get it right.

To read more about Kevin's views on the writing life and process, check out this interview. To enjoy the results of his process, check out one of his collections. Here's my favorite, so far.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Please Don't Invite the New York Times to My Next Birthday Party

Poor Strunk & White.

On the the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Elements of Style," the New York Times has published an interesting debate on the merits of this venerable little style bible. Some pretty high-powered writers and grammarians took the opportunity to, er, rain on the old boys' graves, so to speak.

I've always thought this cogent little book as a must-read for writers. Looks like I'm going to have to re-read and re-evaluate.

The debate is worth reading to decide for yourself. Click here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Present(ly) Tense

I may be the only person who cares about this, but here goes.

Imagine that you're watching 20/20 or 48 Hours or Dateline and the feature story is yet another murder "mystery." (Hint: The spouse! The spouse!)

The announcer -- to the accompaniment of somber music and a montage of the victim cuddling kittens and kissing chubby-cheeked toddlers -- says something along the lines of:

It was a dark and stormy night back in 1984, and all-American Betty Bouffant leaves work early, telling her co-workers that she must get home to bake cookies for orphaned dachshunds. She arrived home and finds, according to what she tells police three hours later, a trail of crimson blood leading from the kitchen to the bedroom. She walks into the bedroom and discovered the lifeless body of her husband, whom she calls the love of her life ever since they got married straight out of grammar school...

Does anyone else want to throw something at the television for this annoying and idiotic switching back and forth between the present and past tenses? I know that using the present tense adds drama and a sort of you-are-there quality to the narrative. Fine. But.

Please. Make the decision between past and present tense upfront... and stick to it! The inconsistency is making me choke on my popcorn. Much more of this and I will become the subject of one of those shows.

Cue the creepy music.
Tonight's episode: Homicide... or Grammarcide?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Query Confession

Right on the heels of yesterday's post about accepting criticism, I get a healthy dose of it via a blog written by Jessica Faust, a literary agent I much admire.

Here's the deal. I've been sending out a query letter, trying to generate interest in a novel of mine. The response has been... well, let's just say tepid. I've been through this query process before and I got more requests from agents for partial or full manuscripts than I'm getting for this particular manuscript.

I have suspected all along that the problem is my query letter. Yet I put so much work into it... I've revised it so many times... I'm so gosh-darned impressed with it... that I have continued to send it without doing what Jessica in her post today is telling me I need to do: Take a deep breath, open the mind, quash that Montana-sized ego, and overhaul the damned thing!

Of course, Ms. Faust didn't write that post specifically about me or my query. But as with all good writing, I was able to relate to its message. Immediately.

Here's the link. Read and absorb.

And remember: The reader is in the driver's seat, not the writer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lesson Learned: How to React to Criticism of Your Writing

So here are excerpts from the email exchange between my daughter and me after yesterday's post:
  • Upstart Daughter: Hi Dad. Just read your most recent posts! After reading today's post I am wondering, who is Elizabeth Strout? Where does she teach? What kind of workshop did you take and what did you learn from her? What's the book about?
  • Know-It-All Father: It's a bloody blog, not a freakin' feature article!!!! If you want answers to those questions, Google her, buy the book, and figure it out yourself. Sincerely yours, The Cranky Blogger
  • Upstart Daughter: Dear Cranky: Please consider writing your next post on how to, after a billion years as a writer, develop the ability to absorb politely worded observations regarding your work.
When you're right, you're right. In recognition of my daughter's, er... rightness... I will now offer a five-step approach to reacting to criticism of one's writing.
  1. Read or listen carefully. Do not speak, except to say, "Interesting. What else?"
  2. Be open to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the person offering the critique has your best interests at heart. Similarly, assume that the person, as a reader, has the right to express his or her opinions on what they like, or don't like, about a particular piece of writing.
  3. Thank the person for taking time to not only read your writing, but also to offer comments and suggestions.
  4. Revise, if appropriate.
  5. Be grateful that there are people out there who care enough about writing--and you--to offer their observations (politely worded or not).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Looking for a Definition of Literary Fiction?

Just found out that Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her most recent book, Olive Kitteridge.

I had the pleasure of taking a week-long workshop she taught two summers ago. At the time, she was reviewing the galleys for Olive. I read it when it was released, and think it's a helluva book.

Read it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Blog Wars

My niece's young daughter recently started a blog. Unfortunately for her, mom is an English teacher. And mom's comments to her blogging daughter's posts are often reminders to pay closer attention to her grammar. I keep waiting for the "or else," the phrase I relied on so much when my own kids were that age: "Or else you'll find yourself in your room for the rest of the night." "Or else there'll be no dessert for a month."

Of course, her daughter is resisting, saying that nobody cares about grammar. But if she listens to her mother's advice, she will avoid many of the mistakes I see professional writers making almost every day.

Such as writing its instead of it's (or vice versa), there instead of their (or vice versa), and your instead of you're (and... well you get the idea).

I can't threaten to cut-off your ice cream, but I can warn you that too many of these sloppy mistakes in a cover note or article will quickly lead to fewer writing assignments.

Or will they? Seems like fewer readers today notice or care. That, I guess, is grist for another post. In the meantime, proofread carefully before pressing the "send" button. Then, proofread again.

After all, its important to you're image as a profesionel righter.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Frenemy of Productivity

It's getting harder to be alone these days. Even when it's just you, your computer, and your best intentions about getting some writing done, there's that constant distraction niggling away at your concentration like a friendly, funny neighbor in the next cubicle.

The distraction: The Internet.

How can you be productive when you've got an arm's length of bookmarked websites and blogs that you must visit every day? Among my must-visits: several literary agents (even though they all rejected my current Great American Novel); my daughter's blog,; The New York Times, Slate Magazine, Freelance Writing Jobs, and the Official Site of the New York Yankees.

Then, of course, there's all that research that absolutely must be done before starting on that first or second or third draft. Followed by yet another check of my email account to see if I've received any critical new messages since the last time I checked seven minutes ago. Thank goodness I don't Twitter... although I do follow my daughter's Tweets.

The Internet is an incredible resource for writers. But let's face it: It can also be a tremendous drain on productivity. How to deal with this friendly enemy? Here are a couple of strategies.

Identify your #1 motivator. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself of that motivator throughout the day. I've found it helps to keep pictures of my daughter and son highly visible, reminding me that if I don't get some billable hours in, they won't eat, get an education, respect me or, later, visit me in the assisted living facility they've already picked out for me.

Break your day into time chunks. I divide my day into three major time frames:
1. Non-billable. I get up early, so I devote an hour or two to non-billable writing. I like to use this time for fiction or poetry writing.
2. Billable. This is an eight-hour chunk of time devoted to writing on paying projects--or searching for additional projects. I also divide the eight-hour chunk into sub-chunks, depending on the number of projects I'm working on at any one time. For example, if I've got four active projects, I work on all four--each during a two-hour chunk. Assuming I haven't over-committed on deadlines, this prevents me from falling too far behind on any single project.
3. Non-billable. I reserve a chunk at the end of the day for whatever creative stuff I was working on in the morning, or new projects. This chunk may also be used to follow up on leads, research new opportunities, or tackle some of the more prosaic aspects of being a freelancer--such as writing checks or sending out invoices (!!!!).

Manage the chunks ruthlessly. Time management requires, above all else, discipline. Don't allow your non-billiable chunks to flow into your billable chunks. Remember that you've set aside two chunks for your creative output. To make money in this business, you've got to guard your billable time/writing zealously.

Stay off the Internet. I read an article somewhere that described a writer who kept two computers: One for fiction writing, the other for nonfiction. The fiction computer was not Internet-enabled. This helped him avoid the delicious but time-eating distractions the Web offers. You may not be able to have two different computers, but the lesson is a valuable one: When you're supposed to be writing, don't surf. Write.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

ABNA 100: Made It

Found out today that my as-yet-unpublished novel, "Bill Warrington's Last Chance," made the semifinal round in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. The semifinal round consists of the "top 100" novels selected from (if the promotional literature is to be believed) thousands of entries. I was pleased when I made the quarter-finals ("Top 500") and am delighted to have made this cut. Next round: Top Three.

If you'd like to read an excerpt:

Attention Young Journalists

My daughter Kate, an excellent young journalist, has an excellent blog for young journalists. Check it out:

Let's Give This a Try

Seems I can't read an article on freelance writing without feeling chastised for not hosting a web site, writing a blog, maintaining a Twitter account, enabling RSS feeds (whatever those are), and befriending my head off on Facebook. I'll start with a blog.

I've been a freelance writer for more than 22 years. (Yep, old.) Most of my writing has been for corporations, but I also have been dabbling in fiction and poetry.

The reason for the title is that, like it or not, writing is a business. It doesn't matter what you write--fiction, nonfiction, advertising copy, movie scripts, infomercials, cereal box tops--if you hope to make a living as a writer, you've got to treat writing like a business. The starving artist routine leads to... well, starvation.

So, let's give this a try. I'll jot down thoughts, ideas, suggestions, war stories, and other items in hopes that I'm not boring the bejesus out of you. If you don't click away, I'll welcome your comments, ideas, and questions. Who knows? Maybe someone out there will tell me what an RSS feed is.