NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, is all over the Internet right now. Are you doing it? The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel this month. That means 1,666 words a day if you write seven days a week. That doesn’t seem like so much for me. I can spew out words in profusion on the days that I choose to write, but seven days a week? Including Thanksgiving? No, no, no. That kind of schedule is a quick trip to burnout land for me. I purposely keep my hands off the computer keys on Sunday and sometimes another day of the week because it’s not just typing. The brain needs to recharge. It needs to go back to the warehouse for supplies. If I get an inspiration on my non-writing days, I may boot up the machine, but I’m more likely to scratch it out on a piece of paper so I’m ready to go in the morning.
For some people, NaNo works. The camaraderie and the pressure to report progress every day can really help get you writing. You can even attend “write-ins” in your community to pour out the words together. No critiques, no craft discussions, or worries about marketing, just writing. It’s all good. Just not for me. Not this year.
I have started NaNoWriMo a couple of times and pooped out because I realized the novel I had started to write wasn’t what I was supposed to be writing at that point. I already had writing projects I needed to get done, and NaNo was just a distraction. Plus I think it’s more important to write well than to write quickly. This year, I’m immersed in a nonfiction project and don’t really have a novel noodling around in my brain. I’m still trying to sell the last one I wrote. Plus it’s November. I’m as busy as a dog barking at squirrels under the woodpile.
Challenges can be good. I have gotten many poems out of Poem-a-Day challenges, and I enjoyed last year’s A to Z blog challenge. Anything that gets us over the wall between not writing and writing is good. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, go, go, go. God bless you. May your words flow easily into a great novel that we’ll all read and love. But don’t feel guilty if you’re not taking the challenge this year. Do your own thing. Make your own challenge that fits your life and your writing goals. Finish that book by Christmas. Send out a query a week, write 500 words of prose a day, or write a poem every Tuesday. Or just keep doing what you’re doing. That’s probably challenge enough.
Now let’s go write.
I got to thinking about this the other day after I talked to a freelance editor about working on my book. These days everybody says you need to hire an editor to fix up your book before you send it to agents and publishers. Critique groups are good, but you need to hire a pro to look at the whole book to help you shape it, cut the fat and find the “narrative arc.” Or so they say.
Years ago, an editor helped me with one of my previous books, and it was good. So I thought I’d try it again.
But here’s the problem. The editor I talked to charges $100 an hour. She thinks it would take 10 to 20 hours to do the job, which is only to look at the big picture, not to do any actual editing on syntax and sentences. That’s $1,000 to $2,000, for those who can’t do math without their calculators. I’m sure she’d do a great job, but that’s a lot of money. Her rates are on the high side. Others might charge less, but it’s still quite an investment. Check out this chart from the Editorial Freelancers Association.
My previous editor was expensive, $700, I think, but she did everything, from the big picture to the typos. If she edited the kind of book I’m working on now, I’d try her again.
It used to be that editors at publishing houses took your shapeless but promising manuscript and helped you rewrite it until it was perfect. That’s what happened with my book Stories Grandma Never Told, published by Heyday Books a few years back. The editor helped me make it much better, and I didn’t have to pay for the privilege. In fact, they paid me. Now, apparently editors at larger publishing houses don’t so much edit the books as advocate for them with the marketing folks.
So does this mean that unless you can afford to spend thousands on editing, you’re never going to get into a major publishing house? I pray to God it’s not true.
The cost of editing might explain why so many less-than-stellar books are self-published these days. And why we see so many typos in our books. Most of us think our books are fine after we finish our own revisions. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t, but I can’t believe we have to spend so much money to find out. Let’s go back to the critique group idea. Maybe we could trade manuscripts with each other to get the big picture view. You read my book, I’ll read yours, and we’ll compare notes.
I started out to write about the cost of being a writer. Editing is certainly not the only cost. Let me take a peek at my expense charts. The main expenses:
- Postage to mail my published books at $2.72 apiece via media mail. As for submissions, I rarely submit anything by snail mail these days so that cost has gone down considerably, but then there are . . .
- Submission fees. Not every publication charges a fee to submit, but more and more of them do, even ones that only pay in copies. It may be only $3 or $5, but it adds up, especially when I’m also paying . . .
- Contest entry fees. These keep getting higher. Most are $15 or more. I have seen book competitions with $40 fees.
- Internet-related fees. You’ve got to keep the Wi-Fi going, and it isn’t free. You may pay for a website or domain name (I have several). WordPress charges $18 for those domain names and that’s not even a premium account.
- Office supplies and office equipment, including computer gear, tablets and phones.
- Business cards, brochures and other printed matter.
- Professional memberships at $30 to $300 a year.
- Books and other publications (you don’t want to know how much I spend on this)
- Education: University degrees, conferences, workshops, etc. are not cheap.
You can keep your writing low budget, but not as much as in the days when all you needed was a pencil and some paper, envelopes and postage stamps. You can refuse to submit to contests with entry fees or publications that charge submission fees. You can skip the domain names and paid websites. You can get all of your reading material at the library or buy only used books. You can trade critiques with friends. But alas, being a writer is not free. Neither is anything else, however, whether you’re an artist, a quilter, a gardener or a golfer. If you love it, you find a way to pay for it.
I’ll figure out what to do about the book. Meanwhile, it didn’t cost me anything to put these words on the screen, and it doesn’t cost you anything to read them. Isn’t that wonderful?
Let’s go write.
Remember how we were talking a while back about following up on our submissions, how we should not be afraid to ask what’s going on with our stories or poems when we haven’t heard anything for a while? Well, sometimes you have to follow up on the followups.
I don’t want to scare you, but once in a while good news turns into less good news or silence. You told all your friends about your big acceptance and then . . . nothing.
Earlier this week, I wrote three followup emails on writing that had been accepted. One was for a piece that a big-publication editor asked me to write, which I did, in January. Nothing has happened. I had someone else who was interested, but I said no, I was waiting for the big-pub editor. I contacted her three times, was told each time that she was running behind but would get back to me soon. Nothing. My next email went unanswered. I tried again this week. Still nothing. Big-time publication and payment still in limbo.
One of my poems was accepted in March. No pay but a great outlet. I have heard nothing. Checked the website a couple times to see if the poem had been published without telling me. Nope. This week, I went to their website again and saw a notice that publication was suspended until March 2016. The staff is reorganizing and trying to catch up. But what about my poem? Message on the website: If you submitted something that has not been published and we haven’t contacted you, please email us. Which I did. No word yet.
A couple weeks ago, I received notice that I had won a prize for an essay, one of the most important essays I ever wrote. It will be published in an upcoming anthology. Fantastic. I sent them an email with my bio and picture and asked about rights, proofs, publicity, timing, etc. Nothing. I wrote again this week. The editor responded quickly, saying the information was in the contest guidelines and maybe her response to my previous email got caught in the spam filter. Nope. I check my spam regularly. Now I wish I had read those guidelines more closely. They’re taking only one-time rights, which is good, but there will be no proofs or editing; they assume the piece was ready to publish when I sent it in. They’ll sent me a press release to distribute when the book comes out. Okay. Not all the answers I wanted, but now I know more than I did before.
Lest you have decided by now to quit this crazy business, let me assure you that more often things work out well. Editors keep in touch, share information, send you proofs, and make sure you get paid. But sometimes you’ve got to be persistent. Don’t call or email them every day, but do keep in touch and let them know you refuse to be jerked around.
So follow up, and follow up again. If you never get an answer, take your business elsewhere. Their loss.
If you have been accepted by a publication, or if there’s one you really want to be in, check their website regularly, follow their blogs, and sign up for their email lists. Yes, you will get more emails than you like, but you will also know what’s going on with them. Then when you write your queries or cover letters, you can say, “I really liked that piece on X that you ran last month” or “That story you told about such and such inspired this” or “I heard you were looking for ____.” Showing that you know what they’re up to will help, I promise. And if they go silent on you, you might be able to find the answers for yourself.
Now let’s go write.
Once again, a young man has opened fire at a school, killing students and teachers. Once again, it’s in my state, Oregon. Once again, TV stations are showing nonstop coverage of the tragedy. Once again, I dropped everything to watch after I saw the news on Facebook about the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Then I went outside and hacked the wild berry plants crowding my deck until I had filled three garbage cans with thorny branches. At that point, I could not write. I had to do something physical.
But we’re writers. Eventually we have to deal with the news in writing. Back when I was working for newspapers, my task would have been to “cover” the event if it happened in my area. Gather facts, interview people, take pictures, type it all up for in the next edition. If it happened in another town, the task would be to find someone with a connection—somebody who went to that school or worked there, someone with family involved, someone from our town going to help. Beyond that, we would talk to local school officials to find out what they’re doing about security. Do they have a plan if a shooter shows up, how is the news affecting local students and staff, etc. We might talk to mental health professionals and get quotes from local officials. We might write an editorial about school safety, mental health care or gun control. Of course print is too slow in these days of instant information, so the stories would be published online first.
Journalists all over the country have been doing those things since the shooting, all working as quickly as possible and putting in extra hours. Do I miss those days? No. I miss the adrenaline rush, but I hated bothering people in crisis for quotes, pictures, names and facts. I know we need it. People need information, and journalists are devoted to providing it, but 25 years of that was enough for me.
If you have a connection, an insight or a source that you can turn into a freelance article related to the school shooting, pitch it to an editor today. If you can turn that story around quickly, you could end up with a byline and a check this week. If you wait until next week, it will be too late.
If news is not your thing, you can still find ways to address events like the Roseburg shooting in your writing, whether you write articles, essays, poems, novels, scripts, or something else. Maybe at first there are no words. I wrote an instrumental piece for the piano after the Sandy Hook shooting, and playing it again yesterday gave me comfort. Eventually the words will come. We may not be able to provide physical healing like the doctors and nurses treating the victims. But we can help heal broken spirits by offering comfort, trying to make sense of things, or expressing what other people don’t know how to express. We are the scribes, taking notes on history as it happens. We also can offer the gift of distraction, a story to carry us away from the pain for a while or a laugh to remind us we’re still alive.
Today, I urge you to write something about the shooting in whatever form feels right. Write for yourself if not for publication. It helps. We’re writers. That’s what we do.
Now let’s go write.
I’m seeing a lot of questions online these days from writers who are worried about their submissions. Either they have gotten no response at all, or their piece was accepted, but now nothing seems to be happening. Would it be okay to send them an email? Would they seem too pushy?Will they annoy the editor? Will giving the editor a nudge endanger their submission?
My friends, editors are just people doing a job. If you sent a jacket to the cleaners and it was taking forever to get cleaned, you’d have every right to know what happened to your jacket. But we put editors on a pedestal and are so afraid that if we say the wrong word, they’ll reject us. Having worked on both sides of the editor’s desk, I can tell you that’s crazy. They’re only judging the writing. Either they like it and plan to use it, or they don’t. Once you present your prose or poetry to them, nothing you say or do will change that.
That said, editors fall behind, overwhelmed with submissions. Things do get lost. Or sometimes they’re holding a piece in the hope of finding a place for it in a future issue. But we writers at home have no idea what’s going on unless we ask. Most publications list a response time in their guidelines. It’s usually two or three months. If that time has passed, then you have every right to shoot them an email asking for a status update. They won’t hate you for it. They might be glad for the reminder. Sometimes it gets things moving. One of my queries got lost. After I asked about it, the editor asked me to send it again, and she published the resulting article.
One caution: Some editors (and agents) now state in their guidelines that they will only contact you if the answer is yes. I think that’s rude, but so be it. If their response time has passed, assume it’s a no and move on.
If they have already accepted it, it’s only good business to keep in contact about what’s happening. If there’s a delay, you are entitled to know. If you have a contract, does it state when the piece will be published or give an expiration date, after which you can send it elsewhere? Your writing is your inventory, and if an editor is going to sit on it forever, neither publishing nor paying you, you might want to sell it somewhere else.
Many publications these days use the Submittable program. When you send something in through Submittable, you get a username and password, which allows you to log in and check the status of your submission. It doesn’t give you details, but it will tell you whether the piece is declined, accepted or in progress. Check there first.
Otherwise, write what I call a “que pasa” note. Be upbeat and polite. No accusations or anger. Say something like, “I sent X to you on (date), and I haven’t heard anything. I’m anxious to know what’s happening with it. Can you give me an update? Thank you.”
Sometimes they never got it. Sometimes it got lost in the avalanche of submissions. Sometimes they were just about to contact you because they love it and it’s going into the next issue.
Don’t be afraid to ask. Even if the answer is no, at least then you know and can move on.
You can’t submit what you don’t write, so . . .
Let’s go write.
When I was a baby writer, I had no interest in journalism. I wanted to be Robert Frost or Louisa May Alcott. In high school, I did not get involved with the school paper. I took creative writing. This was in the 1960s, and our “magazine” was a brown paper bag called “Your Bag” in which we inserted colored slips of paper with poems and stories typed on them. Those were wacky times, my friends. Lots of beads, miniskirts, and long straight hair parted in the middle. The scent of marijuana everywhere.
When it came time to choose a college major, I would have loved to major in creative writing or music, but I didn’t come from a wealthy family. College was a luxury we couldn’t really afford. I knew I had to make a living, so I chose journalism. At West Valley Community College, I edited a magazine full of poetry, fiction, and airy articles illustrated with black and white art. At San Jose State, I wrote lengthy articles for the school magazine. I did not get involved with the frantic activity over at the Spartan Daily office.
Then I needed a job, and guess where I ended up? Newspapers. One after another after another. Writing, editing, taking photos. Covering city council, school board, features, business, local artists, and everything else. I loved it. I was good at it. But I still wanted to write fiction and poetry.
Many years later, I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing, specializing in something called “creative nonfiction,” true stories using elements of fiction like point of view, characters, setting and plot. I was probably the only student sneaking time between classes to conduct interviews for my freelance article assignments.
So, now I was a certified creative writer. But what had all those years of journalism done to my skills? In academia, there’s a big divide between literary writing and journalism. Art vs. trade. Some literary types imply that journalism ruins a person for creative writing. Does it?
Let’s look at the pros and cons:
- Writing regularly for publication teaches you to write quickly and efficiently. There’s no time for writer’s block. You just do it.
- Journalists develop information-gathering skills and learn how to translate that information into palatable prose.
- In the course of their work, journalists meet a wide range of people and learn about many different subjects.
- You can build up your clips and develop a recognizable name which can lead to other opportunities.
- You usually get paid actual money for articles.
- Because of deadline pressure, journalists don’t have much time to revise and polish. They crank it out, do a quick spellcheck and turn it in.
- Because of a lack of space, journalists may not explore stories in much depth.
- Because the language of most newspapers is plain and simple, there’s a tendency to use a limited vocabulary.
- Sometimes the articles are little more than free advertising.
I think working as a journalist is a good thing for any kind of writer. Hemingway and Mark Twain did it. Pete Hamill and Tom Wolfe did it. Why not you and me? After all, you’re working with words every day, polishing your skills, and learning about the world.
But do those skills translate into creative writing? Read this article, “Journalists Who Turn to Fiction Writing Can Find It Tough Going,” about journalist-turned-novelist Scott Flanders.
What do you think? Can journalists also be literary writers? Why or why not? Please respond in the comments.
Now let’s go write.
Did you miss me last month?
I learned two important things while I was off-blog. One is that I missed doing this blog, even though I have two others to keep me busy. I like talking about writing, teaching it, and editing it. I just like playing with words.
Last month, I did some teaching at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, but I did even more learning. The big thing that I learned is the value of setting a project aside for a while. I’m talking about my novel, Being PD, which does not yet have a publisher. At the conference, I pitched it to a couple of agents who were interested but made no promises. I also attended a “First Page Gong Show” in which actors read the opening pages of participants’ novels. A panel of agents and editors “gonged” them as soon as they lost interest or heard something they didn’t like. Only about four first pages made it to the end. I was number 38, and they never got to my page. Thank God. Most important, I took several classes from Jennifer Lauck, author of four memoirs and a fantastic teacher. Her workshops on structuring one’s novel or memoir blew my mind.
While struggling with a memoir, I’ve been marketing my novel. I was sure the novel was finished, that I could not make it any better, and that even though 105,000 words is a little long for a novel, the editors would just have to live with it. I did not plan to look at it again until an editor from a publishing house demanded changes for the final version. I’ll bet you can see where this is going. After talking to agents and editors, attending the Gong Show and inhaling the wisdom of Jennifer’s classes, I came home and started tearing PD apart.
I was working on a deadline. I had assured the agents I would send the book to them within two weeks. So I cranked into high gear and got it done. Suddenly I could see exactly what I needed to do with this book, none of which had occurred to me before the conference. The first thing I did was ditch not only my first page but the whole first chapter. I didn’t need it. I needed to start closer to the action. Plus the gong panel was universally turned off by certain bodily functions. So, bye-bye. Cutting that chapter meant I needed to figure out how to include certain necessary details later, but it was not difficult.
The agents said I needed more romance. That was easy to add. And most surprising, I found oodles of words I just didn’t need. Excess verbiage. As I cut, the word count went down painlessly. Another big chunk went out toward the end of the book because I could see the ending went on too long. I trimmed approximately 9,000 words in all. Now I’m in the ballpark. And now I know this novel is the best one I’ve ever written. I was certain it was perfect before. I was wrong. It was good but not quite cooked. To read a brief excerpt from the new and improved opening, click on the Being PD link at the top of the page.
I couldn’t have done this revision if I hadn’t set the book aside for months while I worked on the memoir. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing. We all want our books out in the world as quickly as possible. But we need to let them marinate for a while, then throw away the excess sauce to make them the best they can possibly be.
It also helps to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes, whether it’s a critique group, a teacher, an editor, or an agent. Take classes, read good books, never say “good enough” just because you’re tired. Set it aside and come back to it later. It will be so much easier than if you didn’t wait.
Jennifer Lauck teaches online as well as in-person in Portland. You might want to check out her classes. She strongly recommends Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.
The annual Willamette Writers Conference takes place in Portland, Oregon the first weekend in August.
Now, let’s go write.
I was feeling all tangled up with the many different projects I’m working on, so much so that I dreaded sitting at my computer. Outside, it was summer, and I live in a place where people come for dream vacations. I decided to play tourist for a day. I went on a long drive that ended at the beach, gathered treasures at a used bookstore, and ate crab cakes at a swanky restaurant with a fabulous view. You know what I was doing the whole time? Writing. I filled page after page in my journal with observations, ideas and even a new poem. Suddenly the tap was wide open, all because I took myself out of my usual setting and my usual schedule. I also got away from the Internet, which was a big factor. I had forgotten to charge my phone, so I had to turn it off. And my brain said, “Yippee! let’s play.”
At lunch, while I was scribbling in my notebook, I couldn’t resist writing a description of a woman sitting at a corner table by herself. She wore casual clothes and her hair up in a ponytail. She had her laptop open in front of her and was eating with one hand and typing with the other. What really got my attention was that she was drinking champagne. As the bubbles rose in her glass, I wondered what she was celebrating and whether she actually tasted the champagne or saw the incredible view just outside the window. What’s her story? My imagination is still toying with that picture, which I would not have seen from my desk at home. You might want to play with it, too. Who is she? Why was she drinking champagne alone at noon in an expensive restaurant at the beach?
I’m taking the month of August off from this Writer Aid blog. More sunny days and other projects need my attention. My assignment for you is to take your notebook–I mean the paper kind–and a couple of pens or pencils and take yourself on a mental vacation. Turn the phone, tablet and computer off. Write down whatever comes to you. Don’t worry about marketing or any of that. You’re creating raw material. If nothing comes, just breathe, just live life for a while. The words will come when it’s time.
While I’m on vacation, you might want to look at my updated list of resources for writers. I welcome suggestions for things I have missed and alerts to links that don’t work.
See you in September. Let’s go write.