Saturday, February 27, 2010

Beating Writer's Block

A writer recently wrote in asking for help:

"I know this may sound silly but how do you suggest handling writer's block? I have been having a real doozy case of writer's block that is (pardon my language) a real pain in the ass and need some suggestions as to how to get through this thing. Believe me, if you want a frustrated writer, then I'm your girl :)."

Writer's block? Is that what's bothering you, bunky??

It's a common malady, of course--common enough to have its own moniker. Here are a few proven suggestions on how to beat it.

1. Have more than one writing project going at any given time. I have 20 books, a few columns, and several articles underway constantly. If I don't feel like working on what I should be working on, I work on something else instead until the writing juices begin to flow, after which I can get back to the project I need to complete.

2. If you're working on a book-length property, try sitting down and reading what you wrote the last time you were at the computer. Read it out loud to give you a better chance of "hearing" how it sounds. You'll likely catch a few typos, change a few phrases, substitute a couple of words here and there, perhaps even add or subtract some sections in the piece. By the time you're finished with that, you'll be all warmed up and ready to tackle the next section in the book.

3. If you're working on a shorter piece, such as an article or a column, and you just can't get into it, try writing something else. Something ridiculous. Something offbeat (for you, at least). Write a limerick or a poem. Write an ad to sell your bongo drums on Craig's List. You get my point. By the time you're done fooling around, you'll be geared up to tackle what you really need to be working on.

4. Write something under a subjectively imposed deadline. Make it a letter to your fifth-grade teacher or a note to your mom. Give yourself 15 minutes, the way your editor would give you if you were working on a breaking story for the local newspapeer or a TV or radio news department. Do you think you'd have writer's block then? There's something very liberating about someone telling you, "I want it in 20 minutes or else!"

5. Try turning on several distracting contraptions, such as a television, MP3 player, and radio. Contrary to what you might expect, that often forces you to "block out" the distractions and focus solely on your writing.

Writer's block doesn't have to control your life. You have to control it. I've used all of the above tricks from time to time, and they have all worked for me. Believe it or not, I don't have writer's block anymore. Nada. Never. And I haven't had it for more than 30 years. I have become so used to writing all types of different-length genres under deadline that nothing interferes with my work anymore.

And that's an awfully nice feeling, especially when you earn your living from writing.


Copyright 2009 AmSAW

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

New Book Excerpt: Ten Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing is scheduled to be published in March 2010 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. It's worth a sneak peak:

1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.


Copyright 2009 AmSAW

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Build Your Writer's Platform for Success

I recently heard from my agent about how she wished she could get across the notion that a publisher's interest in a book is often only as good as the writer's platform. "I have explained it on our agency site, but I'm still not getting through. I have writers confusing their platform with their bio. Can you help get the message out?"

Well, I can try.

Think of a platform in terms of the number of people you can reach when you need to. I'm not talking about strangers but, rather, about those who know you, trust you, and want to help support you and your work.

That's an important concept to most acquisitions editors (those who actually specialize in acquiring new book properties) because the size of an author's platform directly relates to sales.

Sure, sure, I know. It's a publisher's job to market your book and generate sales. But publishers learned long ago that, if a writer could directly influence the sales of, say, 1,000 books, those sales are pure gravy--they're sales the publisher reaps in addition to its conventional marketing efforts. If a writer can influence the sales of 5,000 books, that's five times better.

Get the point?

So how do you build your writer's platform? Get your name out. Influence people. Contribute knowledgeable articles and comments to blogs, Twitter, Facebook, on-line magazines, etc. If you belong to an organization willing to promote your book, say so in your platform and list the number of members within that organization. VFW? The Rotary Club? Your college alumni association? All add to the strength of your platform.

In short, wherever you can come up with a thousand or twenty thousand followers, you're adding to the strength of your platform.

Once you have developed an impressive looking platform, get in the habit of including that information with all of your book proposals (and even article pitches, for that matter). You'll be increasing the chances of landing a lucrative book-publishing contract a thousand-fold.


Copyright 2009 AmSAW

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Dodges Ax

Good news for authors everywhere. The venerable Kirkus Reviews, the American book-review journal founded in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus (1893–1980), which was expected to close a few weeks ago, has received a new lease on life. According to a report in Daily Finance, the business has been sold to shopping-mall mogul and bookstore owner, Herb Simon. Simon is better known as the owner of the Indiana Pacers NBA franchise.

This marriage may seem unusual, but regardless, it's welcomed relief. Kirkus will keep its editors and maintain its bi-weekly publishing schedule. It plans to "beef up" its digital offerings--where there should be plenty of opportunities.

Kirkus Reviews is published on the first and fifteenth of each month. Reviews appear two to four months prior to a book's publication; the periodical features approximately 4,500 titles per year, which include fiction, mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, translations, nonfiction, and children's and young-adult (YA) books. Kirkus is the definitive pre-publication review source for the literary and film industries.

Elaine Szewczyk is the editor, handling fiction; Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor; Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor; and Molly Brown is the senior editor in charge of Kirkus Supplements. Sales director Beth Werner handles all sales, advertising, and marketing efforts.


Copyright 2009 AmSAW

Friday, February 12, 2010

Keep Cranking Out Those Proposals

I know it's tempting. You've pitched your novel, you've pitched your how-to book, you've pitched your article, you've pitched your brains out. All to no avail. So why go on pitching?

Here's one reason: because you're a writer.

Here's another: because editors are editors. And that's not always a good thing.

My agent pitched an editor with a financial book proposal I worked up more than a year ago. Nada. Nothing. No word. No interest? No, not so.

The editor whom she pitched e-mailed her the other day and asked if the property was still available because, if so, she wanted to take a closer look at it. Which is, of course, the very first step toward landing a contract.

Was I pleased? Are you kidding??? Was I upset that it had taken the editor so long to get around to requesting a look at the manuscript? Are you kidding???

But, while slow responses to seemingly timely proposals (a year ago, you'll remember, is just about when the financial crap hit the economic fan) are frustrating, they are nonetheless part of the editorial process. For every twelve book ideas we pitch, eleven will come back positive or negative within a couple of weeks. One will come back six months or more later. Don't ask me why.

The bottom line: Keep on plugging. Sooner or later, someone is going to find something you're pitching of enough value to offer you a contract on it. That's the good news. The bad? You'll never know when it's going to happen...until it happens.


Copyright 2009 AmSAW

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Tight Economy Creates New Freelance Opportunities

When the going gets tough, the tough get outa town. That's what I always say. And that's what a lot of Americans have been doing in this tight economic crunch we've seen for the past year, with little hope of change. They've literally been getting outa town--not buying, not investing, not saving for the future, not spending as they did once.

That's the bad news. The good news is that with every economic downturn come new challenges and opportunities--especially so for financial writers. People can benefit now more than ever from sound financial advice, and most people readily admit that they need it.

In fact, according to one source (the Harris Interactive 2009 Financial Literacy Survey), 41 percent of U.S. adults gave themselves a grade of C, D, or F on their knowledge of personal finances and economics. Another 80 percent believe that, even though they know something about the subject, the could benefit from some expert advice.

What's that, you say? You're not a financial expert? Perhaps not, but you are a writer. As such, you have the ability to interview and interpret and pitch your economic features to magazines, newspapers, and book publishers everywhere. Are you beginning to see a common thread emerging here?

Don't expect to land hefty assignments from the Big Four. Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, and Money magazines rely heavily on material produced in-house for their copy. That leaves few opportunities for freelancers to break in.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of other markets around just begging for articles offering solid financial advice for their readers, particularly general-interest trade publications such as Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and others.

The same holds true for local newspapers. Brian Johnson, managing editor of Arizona's Ahwatukee Foothills News, admits he has seen a marked increase in demand among readers for more finance-related articles in the past twelve months. While the Wall Street Journal and major magazines tackle the technical side of the financial markets and investing, Johnson's small community paper tries to educate average Americans on the basics of sound financial practices.

"I'm not looking for the sophisticated article about building a multi-million dollar stock portfolio," he said. "I'm just looking for the stuff that can help real people in our community--families with kids--learn about budgeting, credit cards and other financial 101 information."

And that, it seems to me, is exactly the market freelance writers are best able to fill.


Copyright 2009 AmSAW