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By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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Lots of writers take on both copywriting assignments and magazine articles. And a pressing question they have is whether it’s okay for them to do copywriting for an article source. In other words, if you interview Jane Smith for an article and she asks you to write some web copy for her…can you do it without breaking some ethical code or getting in trouble with your editor?
Using a client as a source is considered a conflict of interest. However, my advice is, if you ever have a question, is to simply ask your editor.
So here’s how I handled this recently.
I e-mailed my trade magazine editor:
I had a great interview with Jeff Jones of MoneyManagers today!
Jeff had taken a look at my website and let me know he’d be interested in having me write some client success stories for him. I told him that I would need to talk to you because there’s a potential conflict of interest if I write about him for Magazine and then have him as a client as well.
How do you and Big Editor Boss feel about that? I’d love to write for MoneyManagers, but I definitely don’t want to jeopardize my relationship with Magazine, which is one of my favorite magazines to write for! So let me know, and I totally understand if you’d rather not have one of your writers writing for a source.
Thanks so much,
Here’s the response I got:
Thanks for getting in touch about this. No issue whatsoever with you freelancing for Magazine and MoneyManagers. The one caveat is that we want the content you provide us to be exclusive—in other words, we don’t want to see the same content in Magazine also on the MoneyManagers website or on a brochure. If the content is separate and different, I’m fine with it.
Success! I asked politely and was open to — and prepared for — my editor to say no. And I was pleasantly surprised when he gave me the okay.
So: Don’t be afraid to ask your editor if you’re approached by a source who wants you to write for them.
How about you? Have you ever done copywriting for a source? Did you ask your editor for her okay? How did it work out?
Note: My next Write for Magazines 8-week e-course starts on April 9, and the Basic version is Pay What You Want (minimum $30) — a huge discount from my original $120 price tag! One of my most recent students just landed an assignment from Grit. Check out the e-course page for more testimonials and success stories. [lf]
All right, so I wrote the novel, revised the novel (and again ... and again) and thought I was all ready to jump into querying. Not so fast. Unsurprisingly, I ran into several questions, and I'm hoping you can answer them.
1. My novel has a prologue, but the "voice" in the prologue is much different from the "voice" in the rest of the book (long story...). If the submission requirements for Agency X want the first ten pages of the manuscript with your query, is it better to include the prologue in those ten pages, for clarity (my prologue is less than ten pages), or just begin with chapter one? In my case, at least, the prologue is referenced many times in chapter one, and I don't want to confuse agents.
If your prologue is truly integral to the story, then there should be no question that you should include that in any submission to the agent. If you feel that you should or could eliminate the prologue when sending pages or chapters to the agent, then my suggestion is to look more carefully to see if you need the prologue at all.
2. Maybe this is obvious, but I was wondering: If an agent's submission guidelines ask for a query and the first ten pages, those ten pages should be double-spaced, right? I don't want to be sending more or less than I'm supposed to! (Maybe I'm alone in this, but I always write with single-spaced lines. It wasn't until I started researching "how to get published" that I realized my idea of ten pages might be very different from someone else's.)
Any pages you send should always be double-spaced. The only exceptions are the query and the synopsis. Those can be single-spaced. This "rule" stems from the "old days" when all agents read on the printed page. The double-spacing allowed editors and agents to make notes on the pages, and it also protected their eyes. Now that agents read on ereaders this probably doesn't matter as much, but that's assuming you know for sure that the agent you're sending to is doing all of her reading on an ereader. Since you don't know that, always double-space your manuscript pages.
3. I've read many times that it's a mistake to put too much about yourself in a query letter; that agents don't care how old you are, etc. I'm 16. Does that make it different for me -- should I mention my age in the initial query? I don't want to risk an agent just hitting "delete" on my query or throwing it out when he or she sees "16," without considering me for my writing first. I also don't want an agent to feel like I was deliberately holding back information or being dishonest, if I'm lucky enough to get beyond that initial query stage and actually talk to an agent about representation (at which point I realize my age would definitely have to come up). Would the idea of working with a teenage author really cause an agent to back away?
It's not different for you. Your age doesn't matter. It's all about the book. I agree that it's a mistake to put too much of yourself in the query. That doesn't mean we don't want to know a little about you and who you are, but what we really want to know first and foremost is what your book is about. Never mention your age whether you're 16, 60, or 96. It just shouldn't be important.
By: Lisa Gail Green,
Yes, there are certain rules and widely held beliefs that we try to use as a guide. But each person - each manuscript is different. We already know that both plotters and pantsers are equally successful. We know that the parts that come easy for one are difficult for another and vice versa. I thought about this as I completed Nano, with the messiest rough draft EVER. So I decided to take a look at what are some pretty solid truths (although I bet you anything you all can, will, and should argue this in the comments) and things that vary.
Things we find on all paths to publication:
- The one thing I will never waiver on is behavior on the internet. If you want to succeed, you conduct yourself with manners and you don't lose your cool.
- You have to keep up on craft. No one knows everything. Everyone can improve. Keep reading posts, books, articles, and attending classes, workshops, and conferences. Whatever works for you.
- WRITE. You can't be a writer if you never get around to actually writing.
- READ. You can't really write in the genre you choose if you haven't read widely. Writers are readers.
- Time. Each road is different, it's true. Some have to work at it for a decade and beyond before something happens, some are fortunate to have the right timing and all the stars align. Either way, the thing successful writers have in common is perseverance. If you don't keep trying, you can't succeed.
Things that vary on our own paths:
- Environment. Do you write in the morning? At night? Do you work full time? Do you have twelve kids running around? Do you need music? Absolute quiet? A change in scenery? The same spot every time? You get my point.
- POV and tense. Some people swear by first person. Some people can only write past tense. Some people can't stand alternating points of view. What do I think? I think it depends on the manuscript and what's important for that one. Also, what your strengths are as a writer.
- Background. Our own stories are as varied as the ones we put to paper. And that's something to celebrate because there are so many different readers out there waiting for great books.
- Social Media. *gasp* it isn't for everyone. Not everyone enjoys it or feels comfortable with it. And which format you use varies also. I have a fondness for blogging and Twitter for example.
I'm a rule breaker. I believe there's a purpose to rules and I also believe there's a time and place to break them. As you know, I was closed to queries for some time, and yet I still got queries. Which was fine, because if you follow the guidelines you'd get my automatic reply that I was closed to queries and the query was dropped in my trash. I never saw it.
During that time, though, an author received an offer for publication through a contest. It was a decent offer, and even though I was closed to queries, with the encouragement of a friend she queried me by putting "offer from publisher" in the subject line. I was intrigued. I got back to her immediately and told her to send me the full manuscript. My thought was that I would take a look and see if it was decent. If it was I'd pass it along to either Jessica or Lauren, who are also looking for this particular type of book. Fortunately for me, I couldn't put the book down, and I definitely couldn't give it away. A day and a half later I eagerly offered representation, the author accepted, and we went on to sell the book for a deal we were both really happy with.
So see, sometimes rules really are meant to be broken.
I’m on sabbatical from writing in September and am running reprints. Based on an experience I had recently, I thought this one was worth another look. Enjoy!
A couple of things happened today that inspired this post. First, someone posted on a forum for professional writers asking for tips on how to get started as a freelancer. This, of course, caused many pro writers to become PO’d. (Why expect professionals to spend hours giving you advice that you can find in countless books and websites?)
Second, someone e-mailed me today asking for a list I compiled of magazines that assign health articles, which I mentioned on a different forum (the list was part of a handout for Diana’s and my Canyon Ranch presentation). When I sent her the list, which included about 30 magazines with their snail mail addresses, URLs, phone numbers, and e-mail formats, she wrote back lamenting that the list didn’t include editor names. (Oh, I’m sorry that the free information that I provided was not up to your exacting standards.)
Most of the people who write to me asking for help and advice are professional and polite. I don’t mind answering a brief question or two, and the asker often writes back later to let me know how he fared using my advice (which is gratifying). Everybody wins! But based on these two situations today, I think some writers need a lesson in how to ask for advice.
1. Let the writer know that you respect her time.
A little groveling never hurt anyone. Some aspiring writers start their e-mails by saying, “I know you’re busy, but I was wondering if you had a minute to answer my question.” Others launch into a list of questions without acknowledging that they’re asking the writer to spend her otherwise billable time helping out a stranger. Guess which ones get answered?
2. Keep it short.
Try to distill your question down to just a few sentences. This is good practice for all kinds of writing, and is also more likely to generate a response than a rambling recounting of your life as a writer.
3. Be specific.
A question like “How do I write a query?” would take the writer hours to answer; after all, there are entire books on the subject. Keep your questions as specific as possible.
4. Don’t poach.
Many professional writers have writing books or e-books or offer writing e-courses. Don’t ask a bunch of questions that the writer answers in her book or course. For example, don’t write to Jenna Glatzer, author of The Street Smart Writer, asking “How can I avoid writing scams?” Don’t write to Kelly James-Enger, author of Six Figure Freelancing, to ask how to boost your writing income. Most writers hate to say “Buy my book” but — buy their books! (I’m using Jenna and Kelly as hypothetical examples here; they haven’t expressed any grievances to me about writers asking for advice, and this tip applies to all authors.)
5. Do your research.
If you post on a forum (or e-mail a writer) to ask “How do I get started?” you might as well wear a flashing sign that says, “Flame Me!” Read the forum archives, do a Google search, pick up some writing books at the bookstore or library, and read magazines like Writer’s Digest and The Writer. Lurk on forums until you have a good idea of what kinds of posts are and aren&rsq
By popular demand, I’m posting the article I wrote for Writer’s Digest in 1999 that was based on the query I posted last week. While the query was about magazine writing vs. copywriting, the editor asked me to focus on advertorials in place of copywriting.
I’m leaving in the sidebar of places that buy advertorials even though it is really, really, really out of date. (One of them preferred to be contacted by fax!) Maybe they’ll give you ideas for other places to pitch.
You can tell how old this article is…I talk about mailing queries!
Editorial vs. Advertorial:
Which is for you–and can you do both?
by Linda Formichelli
Dek: Think articles and advertorials are mutually exclusive territories? Here’s how to ethically bridge the gap between the two–and make more money in the process.
It was a simple mistake, but it sunk my chances for publication in a popular women’s magazine.
Here’s what happened: As a fledgling freelance writer, I thought my query for a profile of a young businesswoman would look much more impressive if I printed it on the letterhead I use for my copywriting services. I printed out the query, signed it with a flourish and dropped it in the mail, confident that my professional stationery would be the detail that clinched the assignment. A few weeks later, I received a call from the editor. She loved the idea, she said, but because of my letterhead she suspected that the article subject might be a client of mine. The thought that my article might really be an advertorial caused the magazine to reject my idea altogether.
The Best of Both Words
The term “advertorial,” a clever combination of the words “advertising” and “editorial,” is used to describe an ad that’s dressed up as an article. Although ASME (the American Society of Magazine Editors) guidelines require that advertising content be clearly distinguishable from editorial content, advertorials can easily be mistaken for articles. If you’ve ever seen those pieces with subtitles like “My ex-husband turned green when he saw me walk into the restaurant fifty pounds thinner and on the arm of a Brad Pitt look-alike,” you may not have even realized you were reading an ad until you noticed the disclaimer “Special Advertising Section” at the top of the page.
In addition to ads that mimic the look of articles, advertorials can also be what the editor above was so leery of: an article written by a freelancer who was paid by the article’s subject. This type of advertorial is more economical for the advertiser, implies endorsement from the magazine and is less likely to set off a reader’s “hype detector.”
What’s the Big Deal?
According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, a “freelancer” is “One who acts independently without regard to party lines or deference to authority.” So it’s no surprise that many freelancers feel they have the right to write anything for anyone who flashes them some green–whether it’s an article for a religious magazine or an advertorial for a tobacco company. “I write for anybody who will pay me decent money,” says Jennie L. Phipps, a freelance writer and editor in Bloomfield Hills, MI. “That includes consumer mags, trade mags, PR companies and publications that buy advertorial. I haven’t noticed that it made any difference.”
Besides, we’ve all seen how editorial can be driven by advertising. Consider the article on pet health placed conveniently across from an ad for pet food. Or the piece on easy chicken dinners paired with an ad for prepared frozen chicken. Coincidence? Probably not. In light of this chummy relationship b
10. Mother’s Day is not a day. It covers the entire weekend from Thursday 6 p.m. through 9 a.m. Monday.
9. Instead of escorting spiders, ants, mosquitoes, earwigs, etc…out of our home, I will kill them on the spot.
8. You are not allowed to cry over said insects bereaved family members or wonder aloud about how said insects’ parents feel.
7. Don’t correct my grammar. I worked at the Chicago ‘effin Tribune, for God’s sake.
6. Do not, under any circumstances, say, “Mom look!” unless you are skydiving or graduating from high school.
5. I do not know where anything of yours is located.
4. I will change the TV channel at the drop of a dime to “The Dog Whisperer” or HGTV.
3. The words “Harry” and “Potter” are banned.
2. Play with those &%$ Zhu Zhu pets that I went insane trying to find for Christmas.
And my Number One rule on Mother’s Day……
1. Ask Daddy.
A shout out to MOMS — let’s make this list gigantic and laugh! Add some rules. Your day starts tonight.
It's time again for another agent pitch contest. I love doing these because not only do they get you in front of an agent but they also help the agents get some fresh queries :)
Today, the pitch is being judged by Sarah LaPolla from Curtis Brown LTD. You can read her interview with me here. And see her agent bio here.
Here are some other interviews to help you get to know her taste and style:
Mother, Write, Repeat
Guide to Literary Agents
Winner: Gets a 1st chapter/query critique from Sarah!
When: Begins today, Tuesday Sept 14th at Noon EST and ends Wed Sept. 15th at midnight EST (I will close comments when it officially ends so if you get a comment in, you are counted.)
What: Leave your paragraph pitch in the comments on this post. Your pitch can be NO MORE than 4 or 5 sentences and MUST be something Sarah is looking for.
- If your manuscript is still in WIP - you may enter since this is a query critique
- Your pitch must only be 4 to 5 sentences. Your entry must follow the rules to be counted.
- This is for unagented/unpublished book writers only. (if you've published articles or essays - you can enter!)
- You can only enter ONCE so choose wisely!
- You must be a follower of my blog and either twitter or my newsletter (whichever you would use more :). If I were you, I would also follow Sarah's blog and Twitter too!
In the comments you MUST leave the following information to be considered:
- title of book
- your paragraph pitch
- your email
by Cindy R. Williams
In 1922 my grandmother, Alice Rupp Sample, was a school teacher in Utah. Her career lasted all of one year because she got married the next year, and believe it or not, married women were not allowed to be teachers according to the Female Teacher's Contract which came into effect in 1923. My dear mother, Verlayne Sample Richardson, found the contract a few weeks ago and gave me a copy.
Here are the 12 rules:
1. Teacher is not to get married. This contract becomes null and void if the teacher marries.
2. Teacher is not to keep the company of men.
3. Teacher must be home between the hours of 8:00 PM and 6:00 AM unless in attendance at a school function.
4. Teacher must not loiter downtown in ice cream parlors.
5. Teacher may not leave town at any time without permission of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees.
6. Teacher is not to smoke cigarettes or drink wine, beer or whisky. This contract becomes null and void if teacher is caught smoking, or drinking wine, beer or whiskey.
7. Teacher may not ride in a carriage with any man except her brother or father.
8. Teacher is not to dress in bright colors.
9. Teacher may not dye her hair.
10. Teacher will not wear dresses more than two inches above the ankle.
11. Teacher is to wear at least two petticoats.
12. Teacher is to bring a bucket to school to clean and scrub the building every week.
My, my, my, I wonder what bloggers or "light year word writers" "space word floaters" or cyber writers" whatever they will be doing or called in 2110, a hundred years from now, will think about the rules for female teacher of our time.
I offer to answer readers’ burning freelancing questions on the blog. If you have a question, please send it to me at email@example.com. If you have a LOT of questions, please consider signing up for my phone mentoring for writers. I’m offering a 10% discount until November 15; e-mail me to find out how to get your discount.
Gail asks: When selling a reprint, should you update any statistics or information that may have changed since the first time you wrote the story? I have an opportunity to resell a story, but the statistics are old and one of my experts has changed titles, from professor to emeritus professor. All the other information is the same, but should I sell this as a reprint?
I don’t consider myself an expert in this area, so I asked someone who is: Kelly James-Enger, author of Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer’s Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books
and owner of the blog Dollars and Deadlines
Kelly says that she sends the Word file she has on her hard drive, not a PDF or other version of the story that actually ran. That’s easier for her, and means she doesn’t have to maintain PDFs, etc. of stories that have run to market her reprints.
She sends the editor the article as is and lets her know she’d be happy to update it; “I’m not going to do the extra work unless she wants to purchase reprint rights to it,” she says. If the editor would like Kelly to update the article for reprinting, she double-checks statistics, job titles, and so on. “It doesn’t take long and ensures that the reprint is up-to-date,” Kelly says.
Kelly is also willing to “tweak” a reprint to better fit the audience. “For example, I wrote a piece on how to lose weight for a woman’s magazine and rewrote the lead to focus on brides wanting to get in shape for their wedding and resold it to a bridal market,” she says. “This is still a reprint, but it’s been customized and/or updated (or both) for the reprint market, which will make your client happy.”
This is going to be a rant, unless I can reel myself in.
Frequently enough I reject or give my opinions on someone’s work, things like I didn’t find the character likeable enough or had a hard time understanding the world you’ve created, or the story didn’t feel like the genre you’re targeting, and all too frequently the author comes back with something along the lines of, “Well, that’s because I don’t write the typical Alpha hero or Beta heroine or I don’t write the formula plot blah, blah, blah.”
Do you really think I’m so narrow-minded as an agent that I don’t understand books unless they follow certain formulas or rules? Tell me how I could possibly have any success if that were the case.
When an agent tells you that something isn’t working, it’s typically not because you’ve decided to break whatever rules you think exist in this business, it’s because it’s not working. A character not being likeable enough usually means that readers didn’t like her. Now, sure it’s possible another reader might have another opinion, but it’s also possible that in your attempt to make her tough and damaged you’ve made her unlikeable.
This is an excerpt from my e-book Editors Unleashed: Magazine Editors Growl About Their Writer Pet Peeves. I spoke with 10 assigning editors at national and trade magazines (under condition of anonymity) to find out what writers do that piss them off — and how to avoid being an editor’s nightmare.
Interested in reading the rest? The e-book is only $6.95 — check it out and order it on the e-book page.
The Editor: Assigning editor at a national, large-circulation general interest magazine.
The Peeve: Writers who change the story mid-assignment.
What’s your biggest grammar/style peeve and why?
I don’t think I should have to tell a writer twice not to double-space after periods. I told a writer once, and the first time he did it I went through the copy and removed all the extra spaces; it took me a while, but it was fine. I sent him a note saying to put only one space after periods, but the next time and the time after that he did it again. Why? I don’t want to spend 10 minutes going through a story taking out the double spaces. It’s about attention to detail. I don’t know why some writers feel like they’re in an ethereal existence where it’s all about the art. It’s about the other things too.
Can you share a writer horror story?
A lot of writers we have the most problems with have the best credentials—they’re the ones who drop the national magazine names. They say, “I’ve been in Vanity Fair, Time, Newsweek, blah, blah, blah.” But they have some of the worst habits. I had one that had basically every national sports magazine title to drop, and awards that sounded incredibly impressive. The fundamental story we assigned was a profile of the fitness and nutrition regimen of an older top-name athlete. We discussed the idea thoroughly, and this athlete was not easy to get. The writer turned in what was a passable sort of mini-profile of the athlete. There were only one or two paragraphs in the whole 1,000 words that dealt with his fitness and nutritional regimen. I know a lot of assigning editors tend to do this passive-aggressive thing, but not me—I just said, “I hope you have 700 more words worth of content in your notebook on the topic we assigned.” That wasn’t the case, and it just didn’t work out.
What can a writer do to assure you’ll never hire him again?
The main thing that stops a writer from being used a second time is that the writer just didn’t get it.
We always say to read the magazine; this gives you a certain sense of the style, tone, substance, and presentation. But to really get the DNA of a magazine, you really have to write for it and go through the editorial process. I don’t expect a writer to turn in something that completely matches the tone, style, and so on exactly as we discussed the first, second, or even the third time. Still, there are some writers who just don’t get the fundamentals of the assignment. They have an idea in their head and say, “This is what the real story is about.” But we’re the gatekeepers here.
It’s okay to argue your point in the initial assignment conversation; I don’t take it personally. You can fight for your angle, but at the end of the conversation, we’re going to have an understanding, and I’ll even send an e-mail to summarize. When the story is turned in, it needs to be at least 70 percent there. I can’t look at it and say, “This is so not resembling what we disc
By: Lisa Gail Green,
Today I want to talk about rules. Writing rules of course. There are so many, and they can be a bit overwhelming when you're learning the ropes. But without rules there is chaos and anarchy. Okay maybe it's not that bad, but your manuscript COULD end up riddled with adverbial dialogue tags.
There are reasons behind the rules. And yet many say you can ignore the rules, it's okay. Myself included!! Confused yet? Let me try to clarify.
WE NEED TO LEARN AND UNDERSTAND THE RULES BEFORE WE CAN SUCCESSFULLY BREAK THEM.
If you don't understand that you're breaking accepted norms you run the risk of:
- Putting off agents and editors who may take it as a sign that you haven't bothered to do your homework and really learn about this business. They will then pass on your book in favor of one of the many from authors that do follow the rules.
- Never growing at your craft! If you don't bother to understand WHY we don't use so many adverbs (it's the lazy man's way of telling not showing and doesn't typically - see I break rules too - add to the book), you won't get that extra oomph of using them at the RIGHT times. And you'll have a weaker manuscript.
- Missing out. You MIGHT actually learn something useful if you try things a new way. A light bulb may just go on and a new idea or approach may surprise you.
- Not being a whole writer. What does that mean? Well, writing is an art, but it's also a business. If you don't acknowledge that there are rules, then you are not acknowledging that you are taking this endeavor seriously, and that you are willing to put in the extreme effort it takes to succeed.
So learn all the rules. Then as long as you have a darn good reason, you have my blessing to break them!
photo credit: mollypop
A couple weeks ago, one of my students — a talented writer with a couple national clips to her name — told me she’d taken a class where the writing instructor said beginning freelancers should write 15 articles for regional parenting magazines before pitching national parenting magazines.
I was flabbergasted when this dog of “writing advice” plopped itself on my desktop, practically begging for a rejoinder. I floundered at coming up with a thoughtful response. “That may be the silliest piece of freelance writing advice I’ve ever heard” is the best I could come up with. (BTW, my student hadn’t taken this gem to heart; she simply wanted to know what I thought.)
Let’s break the advice down. First, the premise: when you decide to become a freelance writer, there are dues to pay and you have to pay them by toiling in the Minor Leagues. There’s simply no sure path to the Majors. One of my first students had zero clips, but scored an assignment at Parenting by presenting a clever idea in a well-written pitch. You don’t need a mass of clips to do that, just some smarts with a side of confidence. I had another student who had a few regional magazine clips score a front-page travel section story in The New York Times. Not only was he an excellent writer with terrific ideas, he may be one of the most persistent writers I know. I’m pretty sure if it took calling Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at home to get the green light on that assignment, he’d have done it, no hand-wringing involved. And I know of other writers whose first clips appeared in Self, Glamour, Parents, and The Village Voice.
If you’re a strong writer with great story ideas and you’re persistent and motivated, there’s no reason on earth why you should head for the Minors just because, well, that’s where new freelancers start. Will landing work with the Majors be easy? No. But it’s not easy for anyone, even if you’re a seasoned pro with hundreds of credits. Yes, it’s possible you’ll run into an editor (or two) who won’t give you an assignment because they think you don’t have the clips/chops. If that’s the worst rejection you experience in this career, consider yourself blessed. There are plenty of other editors who will take a chance on you, so don’t let this fear get in your way. If you’re a solid writer with good stories to tell, any lessons you’d learn toiling for magazines that pay .15 per word can be learned writing for magazines that pay $1.50 per word. So if you think you’ve got that perfect story for Men’s Health or Saveur, swing for it!
Next: You need to write 15 articles for [small markets] before pitching the nationals. Says who? Oprah? The Dalai Lama? God? And why 15? Is there something magical about the number 15? Does it have special powers? Will the skies part and the angels come on down from nigh
By: Linda Formichelli,
Blog: The Renegade Writer
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I’m in the process of moving from New Hampshire to North Carolina, and things will be crazy around here until we get settled in. I’ll be running some oldie-but-goodie posts on the blog until I’m back to work. Enjoy!
In January, I wrote a post called I Just Got an Assignment. Holy Crap! Now What?, where I walk writers through what to do once you land an assignment, from negotiating deadlines to asking for the assignment specs from the editor.
So you got the assignment, you followed all the tips in my previous blog post, you wrote the article — and now you’re wondering what to do to wrap up the assignment. Here’s my advice:
Compile the Source List
Almost every editor will expect a source list so that the fact checker can contact your sources to check their quotes — or at the very least, to send them copies of the magazine if it’s not on the newsstands. You’ll need to include for each of your sources:
In addition, you’ll need to include sourcing information for every study you mention. For example, if you quoted from a study you found on PubMed.gov, you’ll need to include the URL.
Some writers send the source list as a separate document attached to the e-mail, but I prefer to just paste mine in after the end of the article. I title the section “SOURCES,” and if the magazine is not on the newsstands, after this heading I write, “Can you please send them copies of the magazine when it’s out? Thanks!” Editors have usually been happy to do this. (If the magazine is on the newsstands, sources can buy their own copy.)
Create an Annotated File
Your editor will let you know ahead of time if she expects an annotated article. I’ve had only one or two magazine clients that wanted this. If yours does, you’ll need to either use the footnoting feature in Microsoft Word or make up your own similar system to give backup for each fact you include in the article.
I like to create my source list, including expert source contact information and URLs of studies I cite, and give each source or study a number. Then, I go through the article and tag each fact with the number that corresponds to the source or study I got it from. For example, it might look something like this:
Vitamin C has been proven to whiten teeth , freshen breath , cure athlete’s foot , and promote healthy sleep .
SOURCES (this comes at the end of the article)
 Study “Vitamin C’s Effects on Athlete’s Foot and Tooth Whitening,” Journal of Medical Quackery, www.pubmed.gov/78932ny3891.
 Dr. Ima Dentist
 Study “Vitamin C and Sleep,” Sleep Disorders Research Journal, www.sleepdisordersresearch.org/vitaminC.
Spell Check It
Don’t rely on the spell check feature in your word processing program, which doesn’t know that you accidentally typed “you’re” instead of “your.” Go over it with your own eyes. Print it out if you have to; some people tend to miss mistakes if they read their articles on-screen.
Send It In
Once you’re sure your article is perfect (well, as perfect as it can get — we all make mistakes) and you have your source list done, you can send your article to the editor. I like to both attach the arti
Earlier this week I was giving advice to a freelancing friend of mine who was having a bad day, and I heard myself say, “If this assignment violates your code, then don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.”
It made me wonder how many of us have a code, personal rules or standards we won’t break as freelancers. For example, last year an editor who often gives me stories based on her ideas, assigned me a feature based on an idea she’d said I sent to her. When I read the idea, though, I knew I hadn’t sent it to her and told her so. My editor was grateful that I spoke up because the idea did end up belonging to another writer. Poof went a well-paying assignment — the money for which I could have really used — but the cost of breaking my personal code would have cost me more. However, I’m pretty sure many freelancers would have rationalized this by telling themselves, “I won’t say anything because she usually assigns me her own ideas, and besides, I need the money and it’s my editor’s fault if it’s a mistake.”
I’m not sure if honesty is my code. I’m not one of those folks who’ll tell a friend, “Your butt looks big in those jeans” or a student, “My seven-year-old can spell better than you can.” There are times when honesty isn’t a good policy, and it’s better to be diplomatic or even mute. It’s more like if I know something’s wrong and someone’s going to get screwed or hurt because of it, I’ll speak up, even if it’s not in my best interests. Maybe it’s the concept of playing fair that’s my code.
Other writers I know have different codes. I know a recipe developer who’s a vegetarian, and she runs from any project involving meat … indeed any project that doesn’t align with her food values. Another writer I know won’t work weekends. Weekends are for her family and nothing, not even an assignment, can interfere. And another acquaintance won’t write for a magazine that’s sold in a store she believes to be unethical.
So I’m curious … do you have a code as a freelancer? If you feel like sharing it (or want to admit that you don’t have one!) add your comments below. [db]
I have a new rule on my blog and that’s that you can’t ask me any more about the rules. I don’t want to be asked questions like whether or not the hero’s story can be the opening scene in a romance or how many pages of action an action-adventure needs to have. I don’t want to be asked at what page a body needs to be discovered in a mystery or how many pints of blood is too much.
The only rule of writing you need to know is to throw out all of the dang rules. I can’t answer any of the above questions because it depends on your work. Typically, yes, a cozy mystery should have a body within the first three chapters. But, if your first three chapters feel like a mystery and are engaging, then throw that body into the fifth chapter. It’s not about the number of pages or exact rules, it’s about the flow of the story. Do the hero and heroine have to have sex by page 20 in an erotic romance? Not necessarily, it depends on your story.
So the rule is, write what works for you and your book. If someone is telling you the murder should happen earlier don’t look at their advice as a genre rule, look at it as it pertains to your book. What they are probably saying is that the opening pages drag and they want something to happen. They are mystery readers and want the mystery. When writers ask me for rules I get the feeling they’re asking because they are looking for the magical in to publishing, that knowing the rules will make it all easier. It won’t, it will only make your job more complicated because it will hinder your ability to just write the story.
1. You have the right to say no.
An editor asks you to write for exposure? “No.” A source asks to see your article before you turn it in? “No.” A friend keeps calling during your working hours because “you’re always free”? “No.” See how easy it is? You have the right to say no — and not feel guilty about it.
2. You have the right to ask for more.
If an editor approaches you with an assignment that doesn’t pay what you would need to make it work, or asks for all rights, or offers a pay-on-publication writing contract, you have the right to negotiate for something better. The first offer from an editor is not the end of the negotiation, it’s the beginning. If the pay isn’t enough, say “That seems a little low…can you offer me X?” If the contract stinks, know what you want instead (pay on acceptance? First North American Serial Rights? More pay for more rights?) and ask for it. The secret: Be ready to walk away if you can’t get what you want. If you’re not prepared to give up the assignment, you have no bargaining power.
3. You have the right to control your own time.
Sometimes, editors come to you six months after you turn in an assignment and say they need a total revise plus three new sidebars — by tomorrow. You have the right to determine whether that fits into your schedule and act accordingly. After all, you’re a businessperson. It’s not like you’re sitting by the phone for six months, schedule cleared in case your editor suddenly needs a revision done like yesterday. You have other work now, and you’ve arranged your schedule the way you need it to be in order to get your current work done. If you do have the time, try to cooperate with your editor. But if you have three deadlines this week and would have to pull an all-nighter to do the revisions, you have the right to say you can’t get the revisions done when the editor wants them. Then negotiate a better timeline for yourself.
4. You have the right to be treated fairly.
If you wrote an article on assignment and it was accepted, and then the magazine changed editorial direction and your article was killed, what’s fair — getting a kill fee or getting full pay? Full pay, of course, since you did the work according to the contract. If you pitch a detailed idea and the editor says she wants to give it to a staffer, you have the right to say no (and sell it somewhere else) or to ask for an idea fee. If a magazine leaves off your byline, you have the right to ask for a correction, and ask for a PDF file of the story with your name on it. In short: You have the right to be treated fairly and professionally. After all, you are a professional.
5. You have the right to be paid for your work.
Some writers feel they aren’t worth fair pay. They write over and over for no-pay magazines in order to amass enough clips to finally move up to the magazines that do pay fairly. But do you know how many clips you need to command pay? Zero. One of my e-course students broke into SELF magazine with a front-of-the-book piece. (That’s a $1.50/word market, people!) How many clips did she have? None. My first assignment paid $500, and I had no clips. What you need is a strong query letter, not a portfolio full of non-pay clips. You have the right to be paid for your work, just like your plumber and petsitter do (even newbie plumbers and petsitters!).
6. You have the right to look good.
When you write and fact check an article, you have the right to see it printed error-free. You don’t have the right to complain that the editor has changed your perfect prose (so don’t be a diva!) but you can expect that your sources’ names will be correct, your byline will be correct, and the facts in the article will be correct. If any of these things are incorrect, you have the right to ask for corrections. And if a magazine is notorious about messing things up, you have the right to ask to see a galley of the article before it goes to print.
7. You have the right to be paid in a timely manner.
Something scary is going on in the women’s magazine world: They’re hanging onto articles for months and months before “accepting” them, which means that you wait months and months to get paid. In other parts of the publishing world, magazines are running into budget problems and putting their freelancers last in line for payment. Remember: You are a professional. If the printer and the electric company get paid on time, you should too. Can you imagine a lawyer politely sending e-mails after six months of no pay? How about an accountant? Well, you’re a professional just like them, and you provided a service according to contract. If you fulfilled your end of the contract, then the magazine should, too. Don’t be afraid to contact the accounts payable department, send certified letters asking for overdue payment, and, finally, threaten legal action (and go through with it if you need to).
What other rights should be in the Freelance Writer’s Bill of Rights? [lf]
Dan Baum has written for Rolling Stone, Playboy, Wired, and other big-name magazines, and is a former staff writer for The New Yorker; on his website, you can download proposals that landed assignments with these magazines. Baum is the author of Nine Lives, and runs a blog called WordWork. The account of his “short career at The New Yorker“ ran as a series of Tweets in May. Thanks to writer Greg Korgeski, who supplied some of the questions.
Many freelancers fantasize about doing the kinds of pieces that you’ve written. What does it take to succeed in that kind of long-form journalism?
The biggest mistake I see other freelancers make is that they don’t work hard enough. I know that seems odd because if feels like we all work really hard. But it always seemed to me that getting the assignment was the hard part; researching and writing the story is the easy part.
The trick is, proposals have to be really detailed. You have to do a substantial amount of the reporting and the writing just to get the assignment. So you’ve got to be clever about that, because if you spend weeks working on a proposal, you’re going to go broke because you might not sell the story.
On the other hand, if you don’t make the proposal really good, really dense, really packed with information and really well thought out, you’re not going to get the assignments. I’ve been doing this now since 1987, that’s 22 years, and I still write proposals that don’t sell. My website has a bunch of them.
Somebody pointed out on some blog that if you read my proposals that did sell and my proposals that didn’t sell, you’d be hard pressed to tell which is which, because there’s just a lot of luck in this business.
Margaret [my wife] and I used to do freelance for newspapers when we were living in Africa and in Montana, and they would only pay us like $150 per story, but they might also pay a little bit of travel expenses. So we would use the reporting that we did for the newspaper story to finance the writing of a magazine proposal; but it’s always this balancing act between doing enough work on a proposal to sell it but not so much that you’re doing too much work for free.
Generally, by the time I get an assignment, a third of the research is done, and at the very least, I know the parameters of where the research is going to take me and I have a sense of the universe of sources and documents that are going to be available. So I can pretty quickly and easily get the story reported and written.
It may be that you don’t need to do that. I’ve never had much success writing shorter proposals. This is just what works for me, and it’s not necessarily what works for everybody. I don’t want anybody to think that I’m saying that these are the be-all-end-all of story proposals, there are plenty up on the site that haven’t worked.
Well, you’re going to laugh because I cowrote a book called The Renegade Writer about breaking the rules of freelancing, and one of the rules you read in all the writing books is that your queries have to be one page long. But when I started writing longer pitches, I started getting into the national magazines.
Portfolio had a rule that all proposals had to be one page, and Portfolio just went out of business. I don’t think they went out of business because they demanded one-page proposals; I think they went out of business because they didn’t have a very clear vision of what the magazine was. But maybe their insistence on one-page proposals was indicative of a short attention span and a certain amount of panic that things had to move so fast. And that was a monthly, so they could have really taken their time.
Your proposals are a lot of work. When you come up with a proposal idea, do you target it only to one magazine or do you say “if it doesn’t work for magazine A I’m going to send it to magazine B”?
Well, you have to write a proposal for the sensibilities of a particular magazine, so when people tell me “I have an idea for a story,” my first question is “You have an idea for a story for what magazine?” Because you can’t say, “I have an idea for a story, and if I can’t sell it Playboy I’m going to sell it to Rolling Stone, and if I can’t sell it to Rolling Stone I’m going to sell it to Harper’s,” because it just doesn’t work that way.
The story and the magazine go together and it’s very hard to re-write a proposal that doesn’t sell at one magazine for another magazine. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
If you don’t sell that story to the magazine you originally have in mind, probably the smartest thing to do is put it aside, cut your losses, and go on to the next thing. Some people may try to recycle proposals for different magazines; I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do it.
Do you think that’s only for the type of writing you do? Because if I don’t sell something to Family Circle then I’m tweaking that thing for Woman’s Day.
It may be. I want to keep saying this that this is just my experience. Family Circle and Woman’s Day might be similar enough. In the small number of magazines that I wrote for, you just couldn’t do it. I mean, if you were writing a proposal for Wired, there’s just nobody else you could sell it to. I tried, I’ve tried, I really have. I really have tried and it just never worked for me.
What does it take to make it — what kind of interests and background do you need to be able to do the kind of journalism that you do? What is your background?
I worked for six years in newspapers and then we’ve been freelancing ever since. What does it take? I used to say that for people getting out of college, working at a newspaper is great training, but newspaper jobs are getting hard to get.
I think it takes relentlessness. When I’m starting to work on a story, I’ll start reading about something, and I’ll just follow every link, and as I’m doing it I’ll make a list in a Word document of the people that I need to find.
I start calling them immediately, and talking to them and taking notes on my computer. The expression I use with Margaret is “I had a red dog day today,” which means I had my nose down on the ground and I was going after everything today. Just hoovering in enormous amounts of information. And when I start a proposal, I try to have a series of red dog days where I am just relentless, going after everybody, and as soon as I encounter somebody’s name I pick up the phone and I call. When I finish the interview I say, Who else should I talk to? Then I call those people.
I don’t put it off — I don’t say these are people I’m going to call later — I do it right then. Man, there are times when in one day I can get enough information to write a proposal that will get me a $12,000 magazine assignment.
When you are calling people and you don’t have an assignment yet, how do you convince them to talk to you?
I say, “I’m working on a story for The New York Times Magazine.” Or “I’m working on a story for Wired magazine.”
So you don’t let them know you don’t have the assignment in hand?
No, I say I’m working on a story for Wired magazine and I am. My relationship with Wired magazine at that point is none of their business.
What do you do if they ask when the publication date is?
I say “I don’t know, that’s out of my hands; it’s above my pay grade.”
On to another topic: You have such a broad range of things that you write about. How do you know, when you come up with an idea, that it’s going to fly? If it’s already all over the Internet, how do you know it isn’t already too much in the public consciousness for somebody to want to run it?
Yeah, that’s what you always face. I want to write a story about Masdar, which is this city being built in Abu Dhabi — a zero energy city being built from scratch. I thought this would be a great story for Wired.
It turned out Wired never heard of it but they said they were suffering from Abu Dhabi fatigue — they have too many stories on Abu Dhabi. Then I tried to talk to The New York Times Magazine and didn’t get anywhere. So I dropped it. It’s a great story, but I just dropped it.
I look for stories with interesting people in them, and one of the tricks that I’m always trying to impress upon young writers is that when you’re interviewing somebody, like if I was interviewing the chief solar engineer at Masdar, a big mistake people make is talking to that guy only about solar engineering. You have to throw in questions that have nothing to do with the subject. How many siblings do you have and what number are you? What do you read? What are your hobbies? Are you married? How many kids do you have? Have you ever been divorced? You’ve got to get them talking about themselves. I’m asking these questions that are just none of my business, really personal questions, and I’ll just keep getting in closer and closer and closer.
I’ll ask, What do you earn? And you’ll see this kind of shock of recognition on the person’s face. Sometimes people say “Well, that’s none of your business,” but rarely. I can barely think of a time that’s happened to me. Usually you see the shock of recognition when the person goes, “Oh, that’s the level we’re talking on.”
People like it, when you get them talking about themselves and unrelated stuff. You need time for this, and it’s a hard thing to do on the phone. But when you’re getting all of that then you know this person as a whole person, and then you can fit them into the story in a way that you’re still writing about Masdar and solar engineering, but you can just throw in a few licks to just make that person real.
It’s kind of a New Yorker trick. When you read about people in The New Yorker, they are somehow more three-dimensional than sources in other magazines. They’re not just a font of quotes, or a representative of a point of view — they’re people.
You also mentioned that you pick up the phone and call people. How do you find them?
Oh, people are easy to find. On the net, you can Google them, and you may not find their phone number but you’ll find organizations that they’ve been attached to. It may take two or three calls. I just tracked down Oliver North and it took three or four phone calls.
It takes a certain relentlessness. It takes not being discouraged. Sometimes you’ve got to call 40 people until you find the right one. If you’re looking for somebody’s who’s obscure, you use an online phone book. If you know Mark Riseman lives somewhere in the Midwest, and you look up Mark Riseman and up come with 400 of them, you’ve got to go through and call all the ones that are in the Midwest. That can take an hour and a half and it’s tedious, but you’ll find him. That’s what I’m talking about a red dog day. You just have your nose down on the ground, and you’re on the trail all day.
Do you worry about competition — other writers coming in and horning in on your gigs?
No. For one thing, we’re kind of out of magazines. I think in a way, it’s over. I think the days of being able to make a living as a magazine writer are rapidly coming to a close.
That is so sad.
It is. I’m not boasting here, but I should be able to get work, right? I was on staff to The New Yorker for 3 years, I worked for Rolling Stone for a long time. I have written for the biggest and most prestigious magazines out there and I can’t get work. Magazines are closing, they’re shrinking, they’re going from 12 issues a year to 10 issues a year, and they’re going from 300 pages to 140 pages.
Some of them are cutting their rates.
Some of them are cutting their rates. You know, when we started magazine work in 1989, a dollar a word was middling pay. A lot of magazines are still paying $1 a word.
And for a lot of freelancers, that’s the Holy Grail. “If I get $1 a word, that means I’ve made it.”
Yeah, well that’s what we were getting in 1989. But you know that whole question of dollars per word is a terrible way to judge an assignment.
You really have to think in dollars per hour. Is that how you do it?
I think of dollars per assignment. This is kind of dollars per hour…if a magazine assignment is going to pay me $3000, then I can figure out exactly how many days I can work on that. The LA Times Magazine is a pretty good outlet for me. They paid a dollar a word but they took 5,000-word stories; I could work on that for two or three weeks, and make a living. I don’t care; it’s just as easy for me to write 5,000 words as it is for me to write 2,000 words. In some ways it’s easier. So I don’t worry about competition. People tell me that they like seeing my pitches, and it helps them. If it helps other people, if it improves the quality of writing out there, if it helps younger reporters get started, I’m happy to do it.
How do you feel about what’s going on in the industry?
My sense is this — and this may be optimistic — I think we writers are in for a few bad years, because right now the public is used to getting everything for free. So the magazines are dying and the newspapers are dying and the quality of work is going to decline because nobody has yet figured out how to get the public to pay for quality reporting.
I don’t know how long it’s going to take for the public to say we really miss reading the results of two and three weeks worth of investigative work, and that’s worth paying for. Somebody will figure out a business model to get people to pay for it. Then I think we’re going to be a golden era in journalism. I think it’s going to be spectacular some day.
When newspapers and magazines and even book publishers are no longer saddled with the expense of manufacturing, handling, and shipping atoms, it’s going to free up a huge amount of money and I think it’s going to let a whole lot more people get into this business — and there are going to be a whole lot more venues to write for, and it’s going to be great.
I think we’re going to go through a swale of no work. Until the public figures out that it has to pay for quality research and writing, we’re going to face some lean years.
I’m being optimistic. Maybe the public will never say that, maybe quality journalism is over. I kind of don’t think so.
The paper The New York Times is going to disappear; all papers are going to vanish. I don’t worry about that — I don’t really care what medium people are reading in, if it’s a Kindle or if it’s a reader, I don’t think that’s the issue. I think the issue is, how do we get the public to pay for quality research and writing? Nobody’s figured that out yet because right now the public is excited about getting all this stuff for free. It’s just going to take a little while and I don’t know how long it’s going to take.
Some day it’s going to be great for us.
I hope it’s soon…I make my living almost 100% from magazines.
Yes, we make our living 100% from our freelance writing. I’m 53, Margaret is 55, and right now it feels like we’re back at the beginning of our careers.
It’s scary, but it’s kind of exciting in a way.
Well, it’s exciting when I think about what’s going to follow this period. Although yesterday the Times had a story about digital book piracy, and that’s going to be a problem.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff out there to write about — we just have to figure out how to get the public to pay for it.
Blog: Day By Day Writer
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I’ve been going through a reading spurt lately, after I finished the third (and hefty) Eragon book, and I’ve noticed that you can’t judge the validity of the “rules” of writing based on what’s selling in stores.
There are plenty of “rules” that we hear when we’re just starting. I put the word in quotes because really, they’re not rules, but they’re things that as newbies, we might not be able to get away with as much as an established author. They’re things you’ll hear from fellow writers as well as in critiques, both from agents and editors.
What are the “rules”? Here’s a few that I’ve heard and seen broken in books I recently read:
Stick to one point of view: The first draft of my novel switched POV between my protagonist and his father for the first half of the book, then, after the two story lines had come together, focused on the protagonist. In a critique workshop with an agent, I was told children’s books rarely switch POV and I should rework it to just be from my protagonist’s POV. I did, and it worked out fine. But, if you read bestsellers out now, you’ll see that many don’t do this. Christopher Paolini’s Eragon books are a good example.
Avoid ly words: I’ve heard this one a lot, and as guidelines go, it makes sense. The descriptive ly words can slow down prose. Many times, they’re not needed. This is an extreme example, but you don’t need to write “STOP!” the man said loudly. The STOP! tells us he’s saying it loudly. But, I can’t help enjoying ly words at times. I use them probably more than those who tell the “rules” would like, but I like them. To me, used well, they can be delicious and make a sentence that would have been toast and jam, toast and jam with whipped cream and sprinkles. And guess who uses them a lot: J.K. Rowling. She’s pretty successful.
Never use the word Suddenly: I’ve heard this one a lot too, and actually, I’ve got to say I agree. Never is a bit strong. There’s probably a time and place when suddenly would spark up a paragraph, but not with sentences like: Suddenly, she grabbed him. Using the word suddenly to describe that something, well, suddenly happens, is fine but it’s easy. It’s the quick go to word, but it’s not the most creative way to move the action. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve used this word, and in sentences like my example, plenty of times. But when I see them in my revisions, I try to rewrite them. And most of the time, the context of the story, the action, is moving fine and doesn’t need a suddenly thrown in. Recently, I read the first book in the Sisters Grimm Fairy Tale Detectives series by Michael Buckley and was surprised to see that in the climactic scenes near the end of the book, Suddenly was running around lose and fancy free. Now, I really loved this book. The characters were strong, the story fun and many many times Buckley had me laughing out loud. But, to be honest, all the suddenlys stuck out to me, and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve heard the “rule” so much or what, but it actually slowed the pace of the action. They weren’t needed, because the action was doing fine without them.
For newbie writers trying to get a foot in the business, sure, we have to make sure our manuscripts are Mr. Clean clean. They’re going to be scrutinized more than one from an author whose last book sold 100,000 copies. Do we stick to the “rules” or break them? I say, go with your heart. Ultimately, tell a great story in a great way. If it’s a little unconventional, breaking the “rules” so to speak, it might take a little longer to find the right agent and editor, but you will; if you believe in your story, you will. But it’s good to know the “rules” so you can decide whether you want to break them. Some of them are said for a reason.
What “rules” have you heard and seen ignored in the bestsellers?
Today I looked at my blog and found this lovely award, sent to me by Sherry Rogers...who is not only a wonderful artist, but a gracious and giving one as well as my friend.
This award also comes with a few rules to follow:
Here's the rules for the award
Each Superior Scribbler must, in turn, pass the Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy buds.
Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.
Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List (!?) at the Scholastic-Scribe's blog. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives this prestigious honor!
Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.
So now if you are willing to accept the award and follow the rules I cordially invite:
Welcome to the 2009 Cybils awards. All kids books published in English between Oct. 16, 2008 and the close of this year's nominations are eligible. Nominations close at 11:59 p.m. on October 15th.
We're doing nominations this year with a simple, electronic form. See this post for an explanation.
But not the form.
You'll get that in a sec. First, some important advice:
- Brush and floss daily.
- Nominate only one book per genre
- Pick a book you're passionate about
- See rule #3 above.
I mean, geez, if you're kinda iffy on a book, why would you want to inflict it on us? We want to read books you think we shouldn't miss.
With that said ...
HERE'S THE NOMINATING FORM
Knock yourself out.
Read on for updates in each genre.
Here's the complete list of nominated books, updated continually:
Easy Readers/Short Chapter Books
Fiction Picture Books
Middle Grade Fiction
Non-Fiction Picture Books
Young Adult Fiction
I've written a couple of manuscripts, though not found myself at the point of querying yet. I'm also an avid reader, mainly of women's fiction, chick lit, romance and erotic romance. This will sound ridiculous, but it just occurred to me that nearly everything I read is in the past tense, yet I always write in the present tense.
As my goal is to produce, polish, and submit a novel so knock-your-socks off that you simply have to take me on as a client - would you say that I should adapt my style to the past tense?
This question coincidentally arrived the day I posted the question about writing a memoir in present tense, and while I’m going to ask you to go back and read that post and the comments readers made, I also think it’s a topic that’s worth revisiting.
In the previous post I said that I don’t believe in rules, that I’m more of a guidelines gal and yes, that still holds true today. While we certainly have, and need, rules of grammar and punctuation, I don’t think there should be rules when it comes to how a writer chooses to actually write the book. That’s part of what is often called voice, an author’s ability to make the work her own. That means writing in the way that best works for your book (and keep in mind what works for your book might not always be preferable to you as the writer). That being said, should you be writing in present or past tense?
Without reading your book I can’t say for sure. What I can tell you is veering too far outside the guidelines can be a bit like trying to sell Beef Stew Ice Cream to a traditionally chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream eating culture. While we’re certainly open to new things, we still like those new things to feel vaguely familiar. Present tense might be a more difficult treat to swallow.
However, it’s about more than trying to appeal to an audience or make something familiar. It’s about the craft of writing. I think the trouble writers have when writing in present tense or even first person is that it becomes a little too much about you telling a story, and the important pieces of storytelling (the showing) are actually left out. You forget the importance of other viewpoints, body language and description, for example. Of course writing present tense, just as writing first person, feels easier because it’s about you and this moment you’re in. However, when you really sit down to read it, it’s not easier to read. In fact, it’s more difficult. It doesn’t give the information that makes a story really sing for the reader or listener.
If you want a straight answer I would encourage you to start honing the craft of writing in past tense. Once you master that skill go ahead and try present tense.
I have been an agent for nearly ten years now, a packager for a year plus prior to that, and an editor for five years prior to that. In other words, I have some experience in this business and have learned what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. This holds true for submissions and queries as well as material I’m planning on submitting to clients.
When setting guidelines for authors I’m not making arbitrary rules just to make your lives harder. In other words, I ask for a query letter because before picking up a book or a partial I like to know what I’m reading first. In fact, that’s one of my biggest pet peeves about the Kindle. I miss the cover art and the back cover blurb that reminds me why I bought the book in the first place. I have shelves of yet-to-be-read books throughout my house and my office. When it’s time to pick up a new title I browse those shelves in the same way you browse shelves in a bookstore. I evaluate the cover art and reread the back cover blurb, sometimes time and time again before the right time comes for that book. For me the query letter is that cover art and blurb. It sets the tone for me before reading the material or helps decide if I even want to flip the cover open. It also helps me to determine if I’m in the mood to read the material that day or should wait until tomorrow.
These same sorts of guidelines apply to my clients. I don’t make them rewrite proposals (fiction and nonfiction) because I want to read each proposal 10, 15 or even 20 times. I ask them to do the work because after 15+ years in this industry I know what a proposal needs for me to sell it. Other agents might have other ideas, but this is what works for me and has worked for me over and over again. I don’t ask for revisions on a manuscript because I want an author to do unnecessary work or because I like to see authors sweat. I want them to do the work because I feel, based on my experience, that without changes editors have an easy reason for rejection.
Think of it this way: Wouldn’t my job, my life, be a lot easier if I simply submitted manuscripts exactly as they were when I originally received them from an author? If instead of asking for revisions again and again, reading the manuscript or proposal multiple times, and sending out revision letters, I just left it up to the editor? Wouldn’t it be easier for me to submit without crafting the query/cover letter I need to include to send to the editor? I spend hours on revisions, hours on the letter and even more hours following up with editors. Wouldn’t it be easier for me if I didn’t do any of that?
Life and getting published is not about easy. It takes work and I’m willing to do the work to help you build a successful career. Since it’s your career I would think you’re willing to do the work too.
And just so you don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker, here’s what caused today’s little rant: “I can't write a synopsis, summary, or blurb to save my life. My mind simply doesn't work that way. For this reason I will save you the trouble of reading the drivel that would be my traditional query attempt. Here are the first few pages of my novel.”
In any job or career there are things we love and things we have to do. In publishing, hopefully writing is what you love; revisions, editing and queries are things we have to do. I’m sure most firefighters love fighting fires, but there’s probably also a long list of things they have to do, like rescue potential suicide attempts or pull cars from frozen rivers. Wouldn’t it be a shame if all firefighters simply decided they were only going to do the parts of their jobs they loved?
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I have a question for the blog. How do agents, editors, publishers, etc. feel about poetry and songs in the body of the manuscript? We're all literary types, we're bound to write songs and poems, maybe even our characters are poets and singers, too. Bilbo Baggins is walking along, having a lovely adventure in prose when he suddenly stops for a few pages to sing a song about his adventures or recite a poem from memory. Is this a strict no-no, is there a way of handling it delicately, or does it simply depend on the circumstances?
When I started reading your question my first thought was no, absolutely not. Copyright issues for music is so tricky that I usually advise authors to avoid using music or lyrics as much as possible.
And then I understood that you would be writing the poetry and/or song lyrics and they would be original, and I thought, okay, that works, go ahead and do it.
And then I read your example, and while I know it was rough, I cringed. You’re writing a book, not a musical, and I just don’t know if breaking the action by adding a musical scene would really work for readers.
But then in the end I came to the same answer I so often give to writers. You have to do what works for you. There are no cut-and-dried rules in this business and the best books are so often those that surprise us by breaking the so-called rules. So, it would really depend on the circumstances.