Dear writers and readers, this blog has been dormant since late last year, but I had to mark the 10-year anniversary of my first post by telling you that I have updated the past posts, revising where the information was no longer accurate and making sure all the links worked. Those updated posts are my gift to you. Because I think it would be good to have all the advice put together in one place in a logical order, I am also planning to compile my blog posts into an e-book. I will let you know about that as soon as it’s available.
In the beginning, the blog was called Freelancing for Newspapers. I started it to publicize my then-upcoming Freelancing for Newspapers book. I’ll be honest. Some of those first posts were so lame it hurts to read them now. I was just learning how to blog. Now I offer a class on it. (click on Classes above). Over those first few years, I offered a mix of my own experiences writing freelance articles, plus information about the newspaper business and advice for writers on everything from how to get an assignment to how to get paid.
But the publishing world changed, I changed, and so did this blog. It morphed from Freelancing for Newspapers to Freelancing for Newspapers +, the plus sign indicating I might talk about more than newspapers. Eventually it became Writer Aid so I could address all sorts of writing, including fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction (and also maybe lure readers into my servers for writers).
At the same time, the newspaper business was changing. With the double whammy of the recession and the Internet, newspapers were going under or shrinking. Longtime staff writers were losing their jobs by the hundreds. And freelance opportunities became harder to find. Our local daily, The Oregonian, went from a stuffed package loaded with special sections to a thin tabloid. How could one write for the garden or arts sections when even the decades-long editors of those sections were now unemployed?
My own life was changing, too. I was caring for my husband, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. In 2009, he moved into a nursing home, and in 2011, he died. Through it all, I kept writing, but I was easing out of article writing and focusing more on poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing. I started teaching. I published two more books, Shoes Full of Sand and Childless by Marriage.
All of these changes were reflected in the blog as I talked about self-publishing, poetry, plots, settings, characters, and selling books. For a while, the blog shrank down to three quick tips because that’s all I could manage, but I kept it going. Last December, I decided there were too many writers blogging about writing, and the world didn’t need me doing it. I would focus on my other blogs, Unleashed in Oregon and Childless by Marriage.
I’m still not sure the world needs me writing about writing. Writers are so inbred, and I think it’s important to talk to the rest of the world. But as I put together the e-book, I suspect I will find topics that I have not yet addressed, and I will write new posts to fill in the blanks. If you sign up to follow the blog, WordPress will let you know when that happens.
You can still buy the Freelancing for Newspapers book. Some of the information is outdated now, but the basics of writing and selling articles is the same. The steps in the book will lead you from idea to published story, not just in newspapers but in magazines and online publications. Order a copy.
Now go write something.
Book review: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
by Dani Shapiro, Grove Press, 2013
Still writing? It turns out I’m not the only writer who gets that question. I usually reply with some variation of “If I’m still breathing, I’m still writing.” Dani Shapiro, author of two memoirs and five novels, as well as Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, is also asked that question. She says she usually nods and smiles then changes the subject, but adds: “Here is what I would like to put down my fork and say: Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of y capacity to reason. Even if my fingers were to clench and wither, even if I were to grow deaf or blind, even if I were unable to move a muscle in my body save for the blink of one eye, I would still write.” Amen!
Sections of this book address all kinds of things about the writing life. Shapiro talks about writer’s block and finding time to write, common subjects in books for writers, but she also discusses insecurity, trust, envy, and luck. She shares generously of her own life, of her successes and failures and her struggles to balance family and art. Her reflections are personal yet universal because we are all equals as we face the blank page.
It took me months to read Still Writing because it was too beautiful to rush. It is filled with wisdom, inspiration and truth for the writer. Sermonettes is the word I keep coming up with. I recommend writers read this book not just once, but at least once every year, pausing between sections to reflect on what has been said. You will not find grammar advice, marketing tips, or how to build a platform here. It’s all about the writing, without which the rest is useless.
I recently purchased Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann. I haven’t read it yet, but the one section I read in the sample pages on Amazon.com changed my whole outlook on the memoir I’m working on for National Nonfiction Writing Month. Years ago, Freymann was the literary agent who spent a half hour on the phone with me explaining why she was rejecting my book and what I needed to change to make it work. She was so right. That book is Childless by Marriage, which I published in 2012. I’ll report back to you after I finish reading Your Life is a Book, but I suspect I’m going to love this book.
Meanwhile, we’ve got some writing to do.
Let’s go write.
You’re sitting at your desk in your bathrobe thinking you’ll spend the morning writing when you get an email from the Huffington Post.They want you to join a live panel discussion later today and need to test the connection NOW. They want you to connect to something on Google called “Hangout” so they can hear and SEE you. You haven’t brushed your teeth yet, your hair is going every which way, and you haven’t even thought about putting on makeup. Suddenly it’s like those nightmares where you show up at work in your pajamas and everybody’s laughing at you.
In theory, people who work at home never have to get dressed. There are advantages to that. A couple weeks ago, some door-to-door evangelists rang my doorbell mid-morning. When I answered the door looking like I had just gotten out of bed, they said, “Oh, I see this is not a good time,” and went away. Thank you, Lord. They would have been amazed to know I’d been up and working since dawn.
People who give advice about productivity often suggest that we can be more efficient if we dress as if we were going to a job. There’s supposed to be a psychological advantage to suiting up. They may be right. I find I’m better at the business end of being a writer when I’m dressed for success. When I’m actually writing, however, I don’t think it matters what I’m wearing. I enjoy being comfortable, and my dog Annie, who likes to sprawl beside me while I write, would get fur all over my good clothes. However, if a client or media person is going to actually see me, I guess I’d better pull myself together instead of putting on my pants during “The View,” brushing my teeth during “Kelly and Michael,” and maybe finishing with a shirt sometime after lunch when I decide I have to go to the post office or the grocery store.
Or I could just keep the Internet turned off and miss the email that might make me famous. Makeup! An important fact that I rarely hear about in all the advice for writers is that when media calls, whether it’s a newspaper reporter, a blog editor, or a radio, TV or webcast producer, they usually want you to act NOW. A while back, I got an email from a newspaper reporter in the UK who wanted some quotes for that day’s paper. I was already behind because of the eight-hour time difference, but this sounded like a good thing. I answered her questions immediately, before breakfast or shower or getting dressed, and wound up being quoted as the author of Childless by Marriage in the same article as actress Dame Helen Mirren. Very cool. But if I hadn’t checked my email and reacted right away, I suppose some other writer would have been quoted or Ms. Mirren’s words would have stood alone.
When Huffpost Live called, the webcast panel was only hours away. So while I downloaded the Hangout program, I got dressed in a hurry. In my newspaper days, I frequently asked people to provide quick answers to my questions. I was on deadline. I needed information, a quote, or a photo right now. Later would be too late. So if I couldn’t reach someone, I ditched the story, tried someone else, or wrote the story without their input. Now reporters have even less time because their stories are published online as well as in print.
Writing must have been much more relaxed in the days when one could only communicate by mail that might take weeks or months to arrive. Day after day, no input from the outside world. No email, no Facebook, no telephone calls startling you out of your story. Sounds nice. But writers probably didn’t sell nearly as many books as today’s bestselling authors do, and their publishers had much more patience with slow sales.
If you want to sell your writing today, you have let people know what you have written and who you are. It’s called building a platform. Sometimes you’re lucky to add one little nail or screw to it. But sometimes responding quickly to one phone call or email can add a whole section to that platform that will make people want to read everything you write.
If it interrupts your writing time, so be it. We all have times when we write best, but if necessary we can write any time and any place. Prima donnas don’t last long in this business. So get up, get dressed, get to work and be ready for whatever comes. Meanwhile, keep writing.
Guess I’ll trade my nightgown for a shirt now. Maybe I’ll even comb my hair.
So, you’re ready to self-publish. You have the inside of the book, but how do you get a cover?
The good news and the bad news are the same: You’re in charge of your cover.
Unless you are a professional artist, preferably with some graphic design training, don’t try to do it all by yourself. Your cover is a critical part of selling your book. Even for e-books, the cover is what customers see when they go shopping. It can either turn them off or draw them in. You want them to love it so much they just have to see what’s inside the book.
If you are an artist or know someone who is, that’s an advantage. However, not all artists know how to do book covers, and you don’t want to ruin your friendship if it doesn’t work out. Still, a wonderful image, such as an original painting or photo, can make your cover sing.
Having control over your own cover is one of the advantages of self-publishing. I have had publishers provide covers that I loved and covers that I hated. If you look closely at my Freelancing for Newspapers cover, the print on the third newspaper down talks about “genital warts.” I was horrified when I saw it, but there was nothing I could do.
Likewise, on the first edition of Stories Grandma Never Told, the publisher used a picture of one of the women I interviewed. I hated it. I wanted a picture of my great-grandmother, but here was this other lady, and I didn’t want her on the cover. Too bad.
When I published Azorean Dreams through iUniverse, I sent them a picture of a harbor from one of the Azores Islands. They sent me a gorgeous cover featuring a couple kissing on a rock, with the harbor behind them. The background was a luscious blue. Just one problem. My hero had a mustache and this guy didn’t. They drew on a mustache. Fine. A couple years later, I discovered the same picture on the back covers of six months worth of Oregon Coast Magazine as part of an advertisement. The same picture. The same couple, minus the mustache. By then, I was pretty sure that was Italy, not the Azores. They had used clip art, available to anybody willing to pay for it. I was appalled, but that’s still the cover on the book.
When the original publisher let Stories Grandma Never Told go and I republished it myself, I got the cover of my dreams. The designer, Andrew Cier, from Newport Lazerquick, used photos I had provided to design a gorgeous cover that still makes people stop and comment.
For my latest book, Childless by Marriage, I didn’t know what to do. I was hoping the artist suggested by my printer would catch the essence of the book and come up with something wonderful, but she didn’t. She e-mailed me several completely inappropriate covers and insisted I choose one. Refusing, I wound up with a plain brown cover with a pair of wedding rings on the front because I needed something to get the e-book out by Mother’s Day. Ultimately, I went back to Lazerquick. My “artist” had used “clip art,” nothing I couldn’t have gotten myself . I went online. I found some great images, but then I thought: wait, I think I have something in my photo albums. Sure enough, I found the wedding picture that Jeffery Shirley turned into a cover I truly love. I wasted a bit of money with the earlier unusable versions, but it was worth the expense to get the right cover.
What I’m saying is that if you’re publishing your own book, you have to get the best cover you possibly can. Don’t try to do it without expert help, but also don’t expect them to be mind-readers. Look in your photos, your art, even at clip art for images that might work. One precaution: You can’t use somebody else’s copyrighted image without obtaining permission. It’s easy to grab something off the Internet or scan a picture you find in a magazine, but it’s illegal to use it for your book without taking the proper steps.
Study other covers to see what you like and don’t like. Remember that the cover has to allow space for the title and your name. Think about what colors you would like for the background, the spine and the back cover, all of which will include print that you want people to be able to read.
If you Google “clip art,” you will find sites such as “clipart.com” where you can purchase images for a surprisingly reasonable fee. A search for “book cover design” will bring you lots of companies willing to design your cover or offer you templates. These may work. Check them out carefully before you spend money. Just make sure you get the cover you like, preferably one that won’t turn up someday in a magazine ad.
Coming up: formatting your book and finding a printer
For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about book publishing. Posts have covered making the decision to write a book, how to approach a traditional book publisher or literary agent, and how to self-publish with a print-on-demand company. Before we move on to e-books and other forms of self-publishing, let’s take a minute to talk about why we might want to publish a book.
Dick Lutz, an author/publisher, notes that publishing a book is like buying a lottery ticket. One’s chances of winning the big jackpot—fame and fortune–are small, but we love to try because there’s always a chance that this book is the one.
In a recent column, he wrote something that got me nodding my head and writing “Yes!” “Success at book publishing can be measured in many ways. It’s not only whether or not you make money. Many a book that didn’t sell well enough to break even is still a success in that it served a purpose or fulfilled a need.”
Lutz goes on to list reasons to publish a book besides getting rich, all of them valid. Most of us don’t write just to get rich and famous. We also write to tell a story that needs to be told, to inspire, inform, educate, or entertain. We might do it just for fun or as a stepping stone to building a career.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I try to figure out how to explain to my father why I just spent $2,500 to print copies of my new book, Childless by Marriage. I’m sure I’ll spend more to publicize and market it. I hope I make money at it. I believe that I will at least match the modest but steady income that I get from my other books.
I daydream about a major publisher picking it up and zooming it to number one on the bestseller lists. But even if that doesn’t happen, I needed to tell this story. I needed to open the discussion of what it’s like to be childless because the man you marry is unable or unwilling to have children with you. If I never make a cent, I’ll still be glad I published this book.
Childless by Marriage has been available as a Kindle e-book since Mother’s Day. Yesterday, I picked up nine boxes of the paperback version. I’m not sure where to store them yet. I could have used the print-on-demand method, where the book is stored in digital form on a computer somewhere and copies are only printed as orders come in, but I’m an old-fashioned writer. I wanted books I could hold in my hand, carry in my car, sell at talks, meetings, fairs, conferences, etc. I didn’t want another company to come between me and my readers.
This book took more than a decade to see print. I will spend years marketing it and talking about it. Like a child, a book becomes a permanent part of your life. Before you commit to such a project, know why you’re doing it. If money is your only object, think again.
It seems as if everybody’s writing books these days, even celebrities who never did anything literary before. And if you’re not a celebrity and can’t get a million dollar contract, you can publish your own book, so why not?
I started creating books shortly after I learned to write. When I was about 8 or 9, I put together little books with cardboard covers and typing-paper insides. I printed the text with pencils and did the illustrations with crayons. I only made one copy of each, but it showed the direction I was destined to go in. I was always the little writer girl. I got sidetracked in the newspaper biz for a long time, but I still had this dream of a bookshelf full of books I had written. That shelf is half full now, but I’ve been at it a very long time. I wrote an awful lot of articles, short stories, essays and poems and published quite a few of them before I ever published a book.
My first two books were works for hire. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce hired me to write a guide for newcomers moving to Santa Clara County. They supervised the whole thing, which was really a compilation of articles and photos, not so different from my newspaper work. I got paid by the hour. By the time they updated the book a few years later, a private company had taken it over and hired their own writer. But it was a start. The second book, The Iberian Americans, came as a result of an ad in Writer’s Digest. Chelsea House, which publishes books for young adults, was looking for people to write about various nationalities. I sent an outline and sample chapter and got the gig. I got paid a flat fee, no royalties, no book tour. But it was and is a beautiful hardbound book full of wonderful photos and with my name on the cover. I was so thrilled when I saw it that I cried.
The Iberian Americans, which was about Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants, led to Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. That one was completely my idea, and I’m proud that it’s still selling well after 14 years. But here’s the thing: It took nine years from the time I roughed out the idea to when I held the finished book in my hand. That’s a long time. Much of that time I wasn’t working on the book at all, just trying to sell it. I had decided to just photocopy the damn thing and hand it out to my friends by the time Heyday Books took it on and made my dream come true.
I’m not going to torture you with the process for all of my books–six published now, several others not published and set aside. Childless by Marriage, the new one, has been in the works for about 20 years. What I’m saying is that a book can take a long time. After it’s published, it becomes part of your life. You will always need to be selling it, talking about it, and answering questions as some kind of expert. As I write this, I’m on my way to California to sell books at a Portuguese festival, where I will be pushing Stories Grandma Never Told, a novel called Azorean Dreams and my newer books. Because of these books, I have a reputation as a Portuguese-American writer.
My question for you is this: Are you passionate enough about your subject, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or poetry, to spend years getting it published and the rest of your life loving it, promoting it and talking about it? It’s a huge commitment, a bit like marriage or having children.
It can be daunting to face a whole book at once. Try writing a short version first, an article, essay, short story, or poem. Is there a market for it? Do you have enough left for a whole book (think 300 pages)? Are you eager to keep going? Then go for it. If you never sell a single copy but you enjoy the process of writing the book, it’s still worth doing. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for having done it.