Last week we talked about researching to find facts to use in your queries and in your writing. Research plays another important role for the nonfiction writer: finding out what has been published before. If the market you want to pitch has already covered the subject, there’s no point in asking the editors to do it again. And if lots of publications have been hitting the same subject, you might as well put away your notes and do something else. But if only a few—and not your target market—have written about it, you can use the information in those previous articles to help you write your own and to make sure you take a different slant.
In my Freelancing for Newspapers book, I talk about going to the library and digging into the “morgues” at your local newspaper. You could still do that, but these days, you can do most of your research, including your library research, on the Internet. We talked about some of the sites last week. Google is always good. Do you know about Google Alerts? If you go to google.com/alerts and set it up, Google will send you notices of everything that gets published about your subject.
Some other sites to consider in your research:
YouTube–You might think this is just music videos, but it’s not. You can find all kinds of information there. When I wrote about salt-water taffy, I watched demos on YouTube of how it’s made. The site is loaded with interviews, how-tos, training videos, and all sorts of audio-visual information sources. Plug in your subject and try it. You’ll be amazed.
Magportal.com–This site will lead you to magazine articles that have been published on our subject.
Newslibrary.com offers extensive listings of articles published in newspapers. if you want to read the whole article, they will ask you to pay a nominal fee, but you might find enough info in the summary.
New York Times archives—You do not have to pay to read articles from the New York Times going back to 1851.
Blogsearchengine.org—We can’t ignore the wide world of blogs. This site will lead you to blogs on just about any subject.
Journalists Toolbox—I saved the best for last. This fabulous site offered by the Society of Professional Journalists provides an extensive list of places to do research and advice on how to research effectively.
One caution: These sites (and many others) offer so many fascinating things to see and read that you could spend all day clicking from one listing to another instead of writing. Save them for your reward after you get your day’s writing done.
Now go write.
You get an idea, whether for an article, story, poem or play and think, wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever thought of. I can’t wait to start writing. You grab your paper, your laptop or iPad and start spewing out words. Oh yeah, this is good. Your dinner gets cold, your dog is whining at the door, and your phone is ringing, but none of it matters because you are inspired. Isn’t this one of the greatest parts of being a writer?
My house is loaded with pieces of paper on which I wrote these brainstorms. But most of them haven’t gone anywhere because once the heat of inspiration cooled, I lost interest, or more likely, I realized I’d have to do a lot of research to make them fly.
Those of you who do only “creative” writing might be tempted to tune out here, but don’t. You need information, too. I’m still troubled by the poem which required me to search hard to find out whether that earth-moving tree-smashing thing I wrote about was a bulldozer, backhoe, tractor or what. In my not-yet-published novel, I did extensive research on earthquakes and tsunamis so I could make my fictional disaster as realistic as possible. I couldn’t just make it up.
When you’re pitching a nonfiction book or article, you need information for your query. That’s something I didn’t used to do. I would propose to find out all kinds of things if I got the assignment, but I didn’t realize no editor would go for the story unless I already had some information to share. For example, if I wanted to write a travel article about things to do in Newport, Oregon, I needed to know what they were and name them in my query. Because I live here, I already know, but what if I was writing about how to buy a timeshare in Newport. I don’t know anything about that except that lots of people do it? I cannot offer the editor a bunch of guesses and questions. I need facts.
Back in the olden days, I’d start with the phone book and make a list of people to interview. Now I’d probably do a Google search. When I search for “Timeshares Newport, OR,” most of what comes up is companies trying to sell timeshares. You can read what they have to offer, but know that they’re biased. They are not going to talk about problems, scams or hidden costs. Where do you get an unbiased view? Time to brainstorm again.
You can talk to somebody who owns one. Search for organizations or associations that focus on your topic. There are a lot of them for both users and sellers of timeshares. “Articles about timeshares” will bring you a list of articles that have already been written on the subject. Also look for books about timeshares. Amazon offers Timeshare Vacations For Dummies, among others. Don’t overlook the library, where they have actual books you can read for free. Many libraries even rent e-books now.
There’s more to the Internet than Google, of course. Click here for a list of search engines you might want to try. You’ll notice the list does not include Wikipedia, which can be a great source or a terrible one. The information is provided by readers who may or may not know what they’re talking about. Whatever you read, make sure it’s not just advertising or content spewed out by writers who haven’t done much research themselves.
I could write about research all day, but this post is getting too long. The important thing is to get your facts from a source that is as close to the beginning of the information chain as you can get. You can toss out a question on Facebook–I have–and read everything you can find online, but the best source is still a live human being. Your online search may give you enough information to take your original burst of inspiration to the next step, getting an assignment. Even if your research leads you to decide you don’t want to write this piece, look at the bright side. Now you know a lot about timeshares. Maybe someday, you’ll write a novel that takes place in one.
Happy hunting. Now go write.
Fourth of July is over now, but if you pay attention, the holiday offers lots of writing possibilities. For some reason, some of the most dramatic days of my life happened on the Fourth. All could be turned into fiction, nonfiction or poetry. I’ll bet you have some Fourth of July memories, too, or just some lessons learned from the fireworks that got out of hand, the potato salad that went bad, or the barbecue that was the most fun you ever had. Maybe just watching the people at the public events stirred up some story ideas. Now, when the holiday is fresh in your head, is the time to put your Fourth of July thoughts into words and get them ready to send out well ahead of the deadlines to be published next summer.
Here are a few ideas to consider:
• My worst/best Fourth of July
• Ten ways to make your Fourth of July better
• Ten things I will never do again on the Fourth of July
• Ten tips for having fun with your children on the Fourth of July
• Fourth of July celebrations gone wrong.
• How fireworks have changed over the years.
• As the fireworks flashed and crackled, she swore she would not ______________
• He stared into the campfire and _________________________
• He watched the child run across the sand into the water and _____________________
• The dog raced across the sand, nose down, tracking a smell. In a minute, he smelled it, too.
• The thing that scared him the most _______________________________
• Oh no, she thought. Not again.
• In the middle of the fireworks, I suddenly _______________________________
• The old woman paraded down the street between the trained dogs and the marching band wearing a red, white and blue tank top and a pink tutu . . .
Now go write!
When life takes you away from your desk and your routine, look around. Raw material for your writing lurks everywhere.
I’m in San Francisco this week. My father had heart surgery here on Tuesday. I’m happy to report that he did spectacularly well and is recovering quickly. At 91, he’s the strongest man I know. So there’s a character for you: the nonagenarian widower determined to keep living on his own. Yes, we’ve all seen the clichéd movies of the week where a woman shows up and softens the heart of the grumpy old man, but don’t go there. Find the real human being and the real story behind him.
Here’s another character: the tall stylish black woman in the elevator shouting into her smart phone, “Don’t let them cut off her leg! It’s not like what happened to Joey.” She has a Bluetooth in her ear and holds her phone at waist level. When the other passengers get off at the second floor, she turns to me. “They want to cut my mama’s leg off. Nobody’s listening to me. I can’t let them do it.” She follows me off the elevator at the wrong floor, still talking, then pauses. “How the hell do I get out of this place? I hate this place.”
The curly-haired woman whose 56-year-old husband collapsed on Thanksgiving Day with an aortic aneurism the size of a grapefruit and underwent 10 hours of surgery while she waited, sure he was going to die. Today she follows him, smiling and brushing away tears as he takes his first steps around the intensive care unit, pushing an IV cart.
The woman from India whose husband also went to the hospital on Thanksgiving in need of a triple bypass. She waited all weekend for an opening in the surgery schedule. In the intensive care waiting room, she deals with phone calls from co-workers who can’t seem to do their jobs without her.
The young black woman at the security desk who has been working since 5 a.m. and is making her Christmas list between visitors.
The guy selling bread sculpted into the shape of flowers in the courtyard in front of the hospital.
The Italian-born surgeon hurrying into the cafeteria to buy sushi between heart surgeries. He wears green scrubs and stops to shake hands with three middle-aged people picking at salad-bar salads. Their father is next.
The man on the street digging cans and bottles out of a garbage can. Above his ragged tennis shoes, his bare ankles are grimed with dirt.
The tiny old man sitting on a plastic crate outside the Japanese cultural center.
The man in a suit waiting for the bus at Geary and Fillmore.
Every one of these people has a story, a real-life story we could tell if we interviewed them or a fictional one we can make up. There’s a poem to be written about each one, too. Use your imagination. Where are they going? Where do they live? What will they eat for dinner? Do they have spouses, children, lovers, cats? Do they have hundred dollar bills in their wallets or a few coins? When they woke up this morning, what was their first thought?
Wherever you are, look around and ask questions. You will never run out of stories, I promise.
Now go write.
Earlier this month I went to California for my cousin’s wedding reception and some quality time with my dad. I took my laptop and a pile of work to do, but you know what? I didn’t do any of it. Didn’t even get those papers out of the case. All I had time for were some hasty notes at bedtime and lots of photos. But that’s okay.
I stayed at my father’s house, which may be the last place in Silicon Valley where I can’t get an Internet connection. Sure, the neighbors have Wi-Fi hookups, but they all require passwords that I don’t have. I could go to a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, but that would mean peeling myself away from the family I had driven 700 miles to see. So I couldn’t get online for three days, and I didn’t get much work done. But as I sat in the backyard listening to Dad’s stories and watching the squirrels and the crows, I felt my brain relax. And then, like the squirrels gathering nuts, I started gathering ideas.
I think that’s what travel is for, at least for writers. Can we call it a vacation? Maybe not; maybe it’s more of a supply trip. If you stay in the office day after day with most of your input coming from the Internet and TV, you find yourself getting stale. But out in the world, if you’re open to it, ideas sprout up everywhere, like mushrooms in October on the Oregon coast. The question is: Are you prepared to pick them and bring them home in good condition?
If you’re going to pick mushrooms, you need a bucket or a basket. A writer gathering ideas needs at least a notebook and pen, a camera, and perhaps a computer or iPad. I also use small voice recorders that I keep in my car for the ideas and information I can’t write down while I’m driving. Bring lots of rechargeable batteries and a charger; today’s electronic gadgets eat batteries like I eat chocolate chip cookies. Make sure you have a memory card and flash drive with plenty of room on them. Expect to take lots of pictures, gather all the handouts and brochures you can find, and take notes. Also expect that you might not write every day, that your schedule may fall completely to pieces. That’s all right. If you’re going to write about life, you need to live it in order to gather the raw materials for your writing.
Capture whatever you can before you come home. It starts to fade as soon as you return to your ordinary life. For me, when I get within a few hours of South Beach, I start thinking about upcoming appointments, deadlines I have to meet, and oh God, I still haven’t called the plumber. That magic I feel on the road, whether it’s standing alone on a windswept beach, staring up at the redwoods, or enjoying a family moment, fades away.
So gather the notes, impressions, stories and pictures. Don’t publish it all half-baked on Facebook without looking at the bigger possibilities. When you get home, spread your treasures out around you and look at all the ways you can use them. Parcel them out little by little, taking time to write, edit and publish what you gathered on vacation.
Travel disrupts my writing schedule, but it also brings the focus back, like a reboot. It hushes the noise in my mind and allows me to fill my bucket again.
It’s summer. Get out, change your scenery, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. Just don’t forget your bucket/notebook and camera.
Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work.
Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer, Writer’s Digest Books, 2006. Remember how boring it seemed when your high school teachers forced you to read and analyze poetry? Well, this isn’t. Read some of the world’s most famous poems, see how they work, then try writing some yourself.
At her Practicing Writer newsletter and blogs, Erika Dreifus offers a steady stream of advice and resources, paying markets, jobs and opportunities for writers. Don’t miss it. Click on http://www.erikadreifus.com/blogs/practicing-writing.
Stuck for a writing idea? Reach into your purse or pocket and pull out one thing, anything. Set it on the desk or table in front of you. Study it. What does it bring to mind? For example, a key might make you think of the door it opens or how you got that key or how you lost your keys on a special occasion. A receipt might bring to mind what you bought and why you bought it and who you met at the store . . . Give it a try. In live classes, I let students pick one more thing if they just can’t stand their first choice. Don’t have a purse and there’s nothing in your pocket? Try the junk drawer.
Now go write.
I received an email request recently from a reader named Ron. He tells me he has been journaling and writing letters to pen pals and to newspapers for years. He has also self-published a book which sold all 500 copies. What follows is an excerpt from that letter, as well as my reply.
I have a small, painless favor to ask for which I’d be very grateful for help with. I want to write a newspaper article on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the passing of a legendary singer who is often over-looked and forgotten. The date is in February but I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject. I don’t know anything about freelancing or the business but I want it to be one of those articles that gets picked up by papers all across the country. I don’t know where to begin on how to make that happen. But if you could point me in that direction with step one or step two I’d be forever grateful.
I’m going to respond to your letter both here and in my blog because your request is a common one, and many readers would be interested in the answer.
First, congratulations for your life-long love of writing. All those journal entries and letters have no doubt made you comfortable with the written word, and that’s a wonderful thing. Congratulations on selling 500 copies of your book. That’s quite an accomplishment.
However, what you ask is not “a small, painless favor.” What you are asking me to do is to distill the entire contents of my Freelancing for Newspapers book into one email. That’s neither small nor painless, especially right after Christmas when I’m typing in my sleep because my day job (and yes, like most freelance writers with bills to pay, I have one) is playing and singing music at church.
I hate to say it, but it would take a small miracle to get the article you describe published. First, you have a blatant grammatical error in your first paragraph. An editor reading “I must have wrote” would stop reading right there.
Second, journal entries and letters to the editor do not qualify one to write newspaper articles. Neither does a self-published book unless it’s on the same subject that you want to write about.
Third, when you say “I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject,” you have totally cut off any chance of being accepted. A good article takes time and effort, and your lack of humility is a real red flag to an editor.
Fourth, when you say you don’t know anything about freelancing but you want your article to get picked up by papers all across the country, you show that you have no clue how that happens.
If you truly want to sell this article to an editor, you must:
1) Research the market and find a suitable newspaper to approach
2) Write a query letter that includes an attention-getting opening, an explanation of why that newspaper’s readers would be interested in your article, a description of why you’re qualified to write it, and some samples of your previous work
3) If you get the assignment, you must research, write and revise until it’s the best article you could possibly write, following whatever guidelines you get from the editor, and hope that it’s published in ONE newspaper.
You might approach some of the syndicated news services listed in Writers Market, but only a few take one-shot submissions, and they won’t assign a piece to a writer with no experience writing articles of the sort they use.
I don’t want to burst your bubble on the day after Christmas. There are all kinds of writing, and it’s good that you’ve done well with letters and with your mom’s obituary. That’s a real gift. I’m impressed with the success of your book. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to write a newspaper article. You can learn, you can get experience and clips and move into article-writing, but you have to work your way up.
If you’re still determined to try, talk to a local editor to get a clear picture of what you need to do to write an article they will publish. Send out some queries and see what happens.
Don’t stop writing.
Best of luck,
Have you noticed that today, Oct. 31, 2012, is loaded with subjects to write about? No matter whether you write, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, articles, blogs or even screenplays, if you can’t find something to write today, you aren’t looking.
Hurricane Sandy has been amazing and horrible. When nature comes at us full force, there’s nothing we humans can do to stop it. Please join me in praying for all those suffering from this super-storm with its rain, wind, floods, fires and the subsequent destruction and shortages of electricity, water, food and everything else.
Now, let’s put on our writer hats. My 90-year-old dad said last night that he keeps imagining what he would feel if this happened to him, if everything he owned was suddenly wiped out. What would you do? Can you imagine yourself in that situation and write a poem or story about it? Might a character in your novel encounter a flood or hurricane? Take notes on what’s going on and use it in your writing.
Does this event bring up memories of something that happened to you or a loved one? Has there been something about Hurricane Sandy that especially horrified or inspired you? Something that made you angry? Write about it. Can you think of article ideas for how to cope with a disaster such as a hurricane, how to be safe, how to decide whether to evacuate, how to stay in contact with loved ones, how to deal with insurance, bank accounts and other matters? Write an opinion piece, research an article, or pull together a query letter.
While the hurricane has occupied most of our attention, did you know that British Columbia suffered a huge earthquake over the weekend and it triggered tidal wave warnings all along the Pacific coast, with measurable surges in Hawaii and the western U.S.? So many stories could be told there, maybe even making a connection with the hurricane or with previous earthquakes and tsunamis. Remember Japan?
If that isn’t enough to write about, the election is less than a week away, and it’s Halloween.
Get off the Internet, grab your keyboard or your pen, and start writing.
How do you prepare for a day’s writing? It seems there are as many ways as there are writers. Where, what and how you write makes a difference. When I worked at newspapers, I didn’t have much time for messing around. Deadlines loomed, and the guy in the next cubicle was concentrating on his own writing. I’d lay out my notes around the keyboard, type a heading, and then go to the bathroom.
Wait, what? Go to the bathroom? Yes, for two reasons. I didn’t want to have to run to the ladies’ room once I got rolling, and I needed a minute to organize my thoughts. Often my opening lines came to me in that three-minute trip.
It doesn’t have to be the bathroom. One could go down the hall for coffee, or, if working at home, do what I just did and put away some stray clothes and start getting dressed. I was putting on my pants when I decided what to write about. Some people do yoga, some pray, some knit, some go for a walk. It doesn’t matter what you do to prepare to write, but your brain has to be free to think. No media, no talking, no texting. I have closed my Internet connections, opened a fresh screen on my computer, and placed hot tea on the warmer beside me. I’m ready.
I don’t have a deadline today, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to write. I have plenty of half-finished projects and lots of notes scribbled on scratch paper that I can expand into stories or poems. I can always outline a new article or a query to get myself an assignment.
Writing muscles need regular workouts. You’ve all heard the advice to “write every day.” Actually it doesn’t have to be every day. Maybe you’re a Monday, Wednesday, Friday kind of writer or just weekends. That’s okay. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether you do it before work, while the kids are at school, or when everyone else is asleep. People rarely understand when you say “I have to work” or “I have to write.” Do it anyway.
Like an athlete, a writer needs to warm up. Creativity gurus Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg and others recommend “morning pages.” Just write whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about whether it’s beautiful or correct or publishable. If you can’t think of anything, you can even fill a page with “I can’t think of anything to write.” But honestly, there’s always something. Write about what’s bothering you. Write about something you read or saw on TV. Describe something that happened to you yesterday.
One exercise I’ve been doing this week came from Poets & Writers’ series of prompts. They credit this one to poet Linda Gregg. Every day for a week, you briefly describe six things you see each day. They can be absolutely ordinary things to which you usually don’t pay attention. At the end of the week, pick two of those things and write a poem about them. I have been amazed at how many things there are to notice in my house, especially my living room. I can already see that I’m going to write about more than two and it won’t necessarily be poetry. There are essays, articles and short stories in those things I’m seeing, things like the flute I never play, the tambourine I bought in Portugal, the stained carpet, or the dog sleeping on her smelly blanket on the floor.
I’m never going to run out of things to list. If I exhaust one room or even my whole house, I’ll simply change location. Meanwhile, having filled several pages of my journal, I’m warmed up and ready to tackle the day’s writing project. As soon as I go to the bathroom.
Get comfortable and get started. Write.
You spend 20 hours researching a great idea, e.g., why kids join gangs, and it’s rejected. Three months (or six months or a year) later, the editor calls: Will you write an article on how to plan the perfect wedding?
Despite the way writing publications constantly encourage us to query with our great ideas, most magazines are planned in-house. Editors and staff decide what stories they want to have written, then find writers to do it. They have annual special sections and departments to fill, and they always have to think about their advertisers. The wedding story fits into their bridal section and will help sell ads to every business that deals with weddings. The gangs article may be fantastic, but it doesn’t fit anywhere, and it doesn’t sell anything. There are publications that handle serious issues, but most of them are newspapers or journals with private funding, not the slick magazines sold at Safeway.
Why did they call you to write about weddings? Your query showed them you were a competent writer. They decided you were worth a try. Pat yourelf on the back and start calling wedding consultants. Once they know you, they’ll be open to your ideas and might even find a way to work that gangs story into a future issue.
One way to get inside the process is to look at magazines’ editorial calendars. These rough out the themes and featured topics for upcoming issues. They are routinely given to advertisers to encourage them to buy ads. Do a search for “editorial calendars” or, more specifically, your target magazine’s calendar and see where you can match your talents to their desires. For example, I just looked up the Horizon airline magazine’s calendar. It’s listed under its parent publication at http://alaskaairlinesmagazine.com/horizonedition/editorial. I see that they’re featuring Southern Oregon, the 2012 summer Olympics in England, and gourmet ice cream in July and doing a special section on Idaho in October. Hmmm.
If you really want to write for a specific magazine, study it so well that you know exactly what the editor is looking for and when, then offer to provide it. A good query may get your foot in the door, but the right query will have them inviting you in and offering you a chair.