Finish everything you start, Mridu Khullar Relph advises in “The Secret Art of Reaching ‘The End,'” published at Writing-World.com. It’s a good column full of helpful advice. Yes, we tend to get a little squirrel-brained. We keep starting writing projects and not finishing them. We’ll never get anywhere unless we do actually finish something, she says. I totally agree.
Relph quotes the late Apple computer co-founder Steve Jobs as saying, “Real artists ship.” He means that at some point you have to stop tweaking, stop obsessing, stop revising, and send your product out into the world.
Relph adds that we need to look at how we’re spending our time and back off from tasks like social media that might be keeping us from finishing our work. We need to not just start projects but finish them.
All good points, BUT what if a product, be it a computer or a story, is defective, just not as good as it should be? What if no matter how hard you work on it, it just doesn’t have that special something, what one of my teachers called “juice.” Should you still finish it? I don’t think so. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you need to spend some of them eating, sleeping and relating to other people. If a writing project is not working, move on. But if it is working, finish it. Revise it, polish it, proofread it, find an appropriate market, and send it out. If it gets rejected, send it out again.
If you’re like me, you have plenty of ideas, but they don’t all get turned into completed poems, stories, articles, or books, often because you have a better idea that has more juice. Yes, you might have piles of incomplete writing and scraps of paper on which you scribbled what were brilliant ideas at the time. But I think that’s part of being a writer. Sometimes it takes numerous false starts or practice runs to get to the good stuff. You might write 20 poems and realize that only one of them is good enough to send out, but you got to that one by writing the other 19. You might have 20 ideas for novels, but nobody can write 20 novels at once, so you pick the best one and write it. If we had to publish every word we ever wrote, we’d be too stressed to write. Let the words flow. Figure out later whether it’s worth finishing.
Let’s talk a minute about Harper Lee and the just-released so-called sequel for To Kill a Mockingbird. (Why not? Everybody else is.) From what I can gather, Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before her bestseller. She considered it an inferior book and did not want it published. To Kill a Mockingbird was the new and improved version. Check out this sad review of Watchman from NPR’s Maureen Corrigan. I feel bad for Harper Lee. I’m also tempted to burn all of my earlier drafts of unpublished novels for fear some fool will publish them when I’m too old or too dead to stop them. The thing is, we all have projects we start and don’t finish or never publish because they’re not good enough or we lost interest. We need to focus on the ones that have the juice. Finish those, get them out, sell them, get famous.
Meanwhile, if you need some spare ideas, I’ve got a few thousand I can share with you.
So, what are you writing today? Let’s go write.
Rejections happen. The more writing you send out, the more rejections you get. I got one while I was working on this post. The wording usually follows a pattern: Thank you for letting us see your work. Unfortunately we will not be able to use it. We received hundreds of wonderful submissions and wish we had room for all of them. Sorry for this impersonal response. We wish you the best of luck.
For some reason, this makes me think of those dating breakups where the man or woman says they have to end the relationship, but “It’s not you. It’s me.” Right? You’re never sure whether it really is their problem or they’re trying to let you down easy. Either way, it’s over.
As one of the poetry editors of a new literary magazine called Timberline Review, I have been involved this month in the process of accepting and rejecting poems. It’s a discouraging process. We have only so much space, and we have two poetry editors and two managing editors who need to agree on the final selection. That means that some poems I love are not getting in and others that I was less thrilled about are getting acceptance notices today. It also means that while poets are allowed to send up to five poems—and most send five—we are probably only going to use one or two, even if the others are fantastic. We’re only using one from Oregon’s poet laureate, for Pete’s sake.
In addition, we are trying to create a good mix of styles and subjects, so if we have too many similar works, some will not get in. Ditto if it just does not fit. The process is flexible. When we thought we had our final list, a couple of us had second thoughts about some poems we wanted in and kicked out a couple of others that had been in the definite-yes group.
I’m sure the same process is happening with the prose submissions.
All this explains why a) sometimes it takes a long time to get an answer and b) good work gets rejected.
Discouraged? I don’t blame you. This whole experience has affected how I think about my own submissions. But what I’m saying is that rejection does not mean your work is bad. It could be great and still not make it. When you go shopping, don’t you pass up a lot of products because you just can’t use them right now? It’s the same with selling your writing. Most of the time, it’s not you. It’s us. Brush it off and send it out again. Rejections happen, but so do acceptances. Don’t give up. Next time they might say yes.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about how authors don’t make any money off used books. In the latest edition of Writing-world.com, Moira Allen offers another view of the subject. We authors might not get royalties, she says, but there is great value in having our books being shared and sold second-hand because it lets new readers find our work and become fans who will pay full price for the rest of our books. Click here to read her piece, “Books: Read and Delete, or Read and Share?”
Now let’s go write.
It has been seven years since my book Freelancing for Newspapers: Writing for an Overlooked Market was published. The world of publishing has changed dramatically since I wrote that book. Last week, I wrote here about my college journalism textbook, published in 1971, and the changes that have occurred since then. Well, the changes keep coming. As I lay awake last night trying to figure out what to write today, I realized it was time to open my own book and take a good look at what might be out of date.
So if you have a copy, open your book to the introduction and follow along. If you don’t have one, I have numerous copies of Freelancing for Newspapers. It is still a helpful resource, and I will happily mail you a copy for $10, including postage. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested. Or you can order the book in print or e-book form from your favorite bookseller.
People do still read newspapers, but they don’t always read them on paper. I’m thinking about my brother, an attorney who devours several major papers a day. Since he bought his iPad, he is more likely to read them online than in print. I’ve been known to read the news on my phone. My dad, who is anti-computer, still reads the San Jose Mercury News in print. So you might have a stack of newspapers, or you might just have your e-readers. You will probably find extra stories online that are not in the print versions—and you might find more opportunities for freelance articles online as well.
In the book, I mention two sources of market listings, Writer’s Market and American Directory of Writer’s Guidelines. I rarely use my Writer’s Market, and I never use the other directory. Print directories go out of date as soon as they’re published. Mostly I go directly to the publication’s website. For news about publishing opportunities, I subscribe to the Creative Writers Opportunities List (CRWROPPS, a Yahoo group), writingcareer.com, The Practicing Writer, and writing-world.com. I get tips from other writers in various forums, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. I also subscribe to the online version of Writer’s Market, but I’m finding its listings too limited; I always end up following the links to the publication anyway. If I’m looking for a particular type of market, I just look it up on Google. Writer’s Digest Publications puts out some great market directories, not just for articles, but for poetry, fiction, and other genres. You might start with these, but to get the latest information, you’ll need to go to the publications’ websites.
Every editor will tell you to study the market before you submit a story or a query. It’s still true, except that now you can do your studying online without seeking out a print copy. Look for areas where your interests might fit their needs, and look for freelance bylines, identified by tags like “Special to the Oregonian” or short bios at the end of stories that identify the writer as a freelancer.
Many newspapers have gone out of business or ceased publishing in print. Most are considerably thinner than they used to be. Fewer pages mean fewer stories. Lots of local papers have been purchased by giant media companies that use fewer local writers. Many reporters and editors lost their jobs in the double whammy of the recession and the increasing shift to Internet media. But there are still opportunities for freelancers, especially in specialty publications. Newspapers for particular hobbies, religions, occupations, interests or disabilities are still being published and using freelance work.
My own situation has changed since Freelancing for Newspapers came out. I’m not writing for newspapers these days. When Freelancing for Newspapers was published, I had just become the baby boomer correspondent for Northwest Senior News. I’m proud that the baby boomer section is still there, but I left that newspaper when my assignments kept shrinking so that I only had 500 words at most to tell my stories. I started writing for Oregon Coast Today, which paid well and gave me a chance to do some great stories. When a new owner took over, however, they decreased their freelance budget to almost nothing, and I was out. I was busy with other writing projects anyway. Since 2007, I have published two more books, Shoes Full of Sand and Childless by Marriage.
Is freelancing for newspapers still a viable thing to do? Or course. But if I were writing that book today, I’d give it a different title to reflect the need to include the many new ways one can publish in our multi-media world.
Next week, we’ll check out chapter 1.
But for now, don’t worry about publishing and all that. Write whatever needs to be written. For example, I’m working on an essay about ice cream. I invite you to write about ice cream, too. Take it in any direction you want. Let me know what you came up with.
Ready? Ice Cream. Now go write.
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-World.com has been offering great advice, information and markets for writers for 12 years and is still one of the best sites I’ve seen. Whatever type of writing you do, it has articles to help you do it. Click here and give it a read.
While we’re talking about Writing-World.com, editor Moira Allen has some books you might want to read. I’m proud to have contributed sections to two of them. Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer focuses mostly on nonfiction writing and covers everything you need to know to run a freelancing writing business. The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches & Proposals tells how to approach agents, editors and publishers with all types of writing. Her latest is Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.
Have you noticed how most of the headlines on magazine covers seem to have numbers? 12 ways to please your man, 5 foods that fight cancer, 8 romantic getaways. Numbered pieces sell and are easy to write. So, fill in the blank and starting: 10 ways to _______________________. It can be a how-to article, an essay, a humorous column, a poem, a short story, whatever suits your fancy. Remember Paul Simon’s song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover?”
Now Go Write.
I want to get my novel published, and I keep reading that I need something called a “synopsis.” That sounds like a disease. What is it and and How do I create one?
In plain English, a synopsis is a summary of what happens in the book. Tell the story of your novel in condensed form, from beginning to end. You write it up in paragraphs , using present tense, even if the book is written in past tense. For example:
Tim Brady, a divorced high school math teacher in upstate New York, wonders how he can possibly keep going until retirement. Then, one day, into his classroom walks the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. “I’m your new assistant,” she says.
Okay, this sounds like a lame book, but it’s an example of how you start this thing. Paragraph by paragraph, you describe the main events and the characters involved, adding bits of dialogue and brief quotes from the text of the novel, working your way to the conclusion. Don’t try to put everything in, just the highlights, the most important things that happen, and don’t keep the ending a secret.
You can find two great articles on writing synopses at
Writing-world.com. “How to Write a Synopsis” by Marg Gilks and “Writing a Synopsis from the Ground Up” by Dee Ann Latona LeBlanc offer step-by-step advice on how to write a synopsis. Also, Writing-World.com publisher Moira Allen explains it all in The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals.
How long should a synopsis be? It seems like it would take a lot of pages to sum up a whole book.
It certainly could take a lot of pages, but it’s a summary, not a book. Opinions on length vary. I have heard of synopses going as long as 50 pages, but editors and agents generally don’t have time to read that much. Limit yourself to 10 pages maximum, and if you can do it shorter, that would be great. I’m not saying it’s easy.
What else do I send with my synopsis?
Your package, which could be sent by snail mail or by email, depending on what the editor or agent wants, should also include: a cover letter, briefly explaining what you are sending and who you are, the synopsis, the first three chapters, and–if using snail mail–a self-addressed stamped envelope for their reply. If you’re using email, make sure you include contact information, and use the subject line to describe what you are sending, e.g., “suspense novel submission.”
Got questions? I’ll be happy to answer them.
This agent says she wants to see a “complete proposal” for my nonfiction book? What does that consist of?
The proposal is an important sales tool for nonfiction books, one that is often requested by agents and editors. It’s possible to sell a book that is not yet written on the basis of a good proposal. Essentially the proposal includes:
- a description of the book
- your background
- an analysis of the marketing possibilities for your book
- an annotated list of competing books, noting why yours is better or different
- a detailed outline
- sample chapters
Sounds like a big project? It is. My proposal for Childless by Marriage was 32 pages, not counting the sample chapters, but looking at it from the plus side, writing the proposal forces you to clarify what you’re writing and where it fits in the market. As discussed when we were talking about book queries last week, you really need to be able to sum up your book clearly and briefly in order to sell it, and indeed in order to write a good book. You also need to know who is likely to buy it and how you can reach them, as well as how it fits in the marketplace. Is there another book out there just like it or is your book something new and different? The outline will force you to organize your materials and see where you might have too much or too little.
Can you show me examples of good proposals?
If you Google “sample book proposal,” you will find many possibilities. Among the most trustworthy: http://www.writing-world.com/publish/samples.shtml; and http://www.absolutewrite.com/novels/book_proposal.htm. No, they’re not identical. Different folks like different styles, but the elements are the same. The agent who liked my Childless by Marriage proposal sent me a sample of the style she likes and had me revise my proposal to match before she sent it out to publishers.
How do I submit my proposal?
First, only submit proposals to agents or editors who say they want them. If they only want a query, send them a query. However, if their guidelines ask for proposals or they request a proposal in response to your query, follow their directions as to how to send it. If they tell you to send it by e-mail, do so, usually as an attachment, and be grateful to save the postage. If they want it by snail mail, print out a clean, double-spaced copy, with the pages numbered and your name and the title of your book at the top of each page. Fasten it with a big clip or a rubber band. Do not put it in a folder or binder. Put the whole thing in a big envelope, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for their reply, take it to the post office and cross your fingers.
Where can I find more on book proposals?
There are several great books that will guide you through the process of writing a book proposal. Three I would recommend are Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal, Jeff Herman’s Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why, and Stephen Blake Mettee’s The Fast Track Course on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal.
Next time: how to write a synopsis, which is a different critter from a proposal.
The freelance life is difficult, what with sporadic income, disorganized editors and the need to be perpetually self-disciplined. Perhaps you’re thinking about getting a staff job on a magazine or newspaper.
There are certainly advantages to having a job. High on the list are steady income and benefits. Also, you can concentrate on writing instead of marketing, you have deadlines to keep you going, and you become part of a work family. You can learn valuable skills without paying for classes or training programs. A job can also help you make connections that will help in the future if/when you return to freelancing.
On the negative side, staff writing jobs can suck up all your time so that you have nothing left for the fiction, poetry or creative nonfiction that makes you happy. You can do both, but it’s hard. You also might have to relocate to find a good job. Where I live, in a small town on the Oregon coast, the only staff option is the local newspaper, which pays barely above minimum wage. I tried it and went back to freelancing. Are you able to transfer your life to another city or another state?
Balancing jobs and writing is a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve for oh, about 40 years now. I spent many years working as a staff writer and editor at various newspapers and magazines, but I always wanted to freelance. When I was freelancing, I often yearned for the security of a job. The grass is always greener on the other side, right?
But if you have to earn a living from your writing and you haven’t yet made it into the national publications that pay $1 a word or more, you might not have a choice. You need a job.
It’s honestly not a good time for magazines or newspapers. Both have cut pages and staff drastically in recent years. If you study the bylines, you may find they use more freelancers than staff writers. Odds are better in public relations, corporate writing or advertising. But you can find a job if you really want to.
It helps to have a degree in journalism, English or a specialty in something like science, business, or technology. It helps to have strong computer skills. These days, staff writers often find themselves designing pages, writing for web sites, or blogging. You’re also going to need some clips and people willing to give you good references.
Where do you look? Some online outfits that promise to find you writing jobs charge a fee and never find you anything that’s suitable. If it sounds fishy or an ultra-traditional person like my dad wouldn’t approve, it’s probably not a real job. Good resources for jobs include: www.journalismjobs.com, www.mediabistro.com, and your state newspaper association—search for _________ Newspaper Publishers Association. For magazines, try www.foliomag.com, where you can read industry news and post your resume. Also try the Public Relations Society of America at www.prsa.org, which posts jobs and resumes. In addition, you can find some job listings at www.fundsforwriters.com, www.writing-world.com, and other writing sites.
The best resource may be your telephone book. Look under publishers and see what’s listed. Then find copies of their publications to determine whether you’d want to work for them and contact the office to find out if they’re hiring. If they don’t have an opening right now, ask if they’re open to freelance work. Being a reliable freelancer is often a good first step into a full- or part-time job.
Good luck in your search.