|Writing questions are answered below by Susan K. Perry, author of Writing in Flow. |
How to write about my life?Q: I want to write a book about what my life has been like. Sexual abuse since age 5, had five children by my uncle, had the system remove them. Lived in a abusive marriage and was nearly killed several times, and how I got my life together to be able to be productive. I don’t have the foggiest on how to get started. —Jean
A: Lots of people feel an urgent need to tell their own story. Some simply write it all out in the form of a memoir for their own or their family’s “pleasure.” Others decide they want to write a self-help book, so others can learn from what happened to them. Others like to tell stories and decide to write a novel, BASED on their own experiences but fictionalized. I don’t know which one of these—if any—fits you. Writing a memoir of your difficult life and how you overcame it sounds like a good idea, but if you want to get it published, expect to have a hard time. It can be done, but it’s very difficult in most cases (unless you go to an e-publisher).My best advice for you right now would be to grab a notebook or a computer, and just start writing down everything you remember. Include all the details, as specifics are what make the best books. Once you’ve written a first draft of EVERYTHING, then you can take a course, online or off, read some books about the kind of book you have decided to turn this into, and go from there. You might make a point of reading various other memoirs based on difficult backgrounds. But at this point, I’d say just write it while the urge is there. If you’re ready to write a book, that means you’ve truly come a long, long way.
Will they steal my idea?Q: If I have an idea for a great book, and I run it by a professional to find out whether it actually IS a good idea, would I be risking losing my idea to another?
A: In almost all cases, the answer is NO. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but how you take that idea and write a book about it is going to be your unique contribution. Professionals rarely need your idea—they have plenty of their own. However, I wouldn’t give anyone ALL the specifics (names, addresses, and so on). Meanwhile, you might want to research your idea to find out if it’s already been done.
How support writing spouse?
Q: My husband Robert has always had a passion for writing, and I want to know how I can best help him. Sometimes I’m really interested in what he’s doing and listen wholeheartedly, but at other times, I really don’t want to know anything about it. Sometimes I feel he gets no writing done because I’m around. Part of the problem is he has to work outside the home due to finances and so can’t spend the time he would like to writing. —Kathy
A: You say you feel as though Robert gets no writing done because you’re around. Has he sometimes hinted as much himself, or is this merely your own guilty fear that you are somehow responsible for his less-than-huge output?
You can be supportive by respecting your partner’s privacy when he’s actually working, not interrupting him unless absolutely necessary. By encouraging him to set aside a set time to write every day or at least every weekend, and then not bothering him during that time, and not letting him get away with ignoring his own writing time. My husband (with my permission) used to urge me strongly back into my writing room when I was trying to escape and procrastinate. (Such co-dependence can backfire, so be sure you’re both in full agreement if you take ANY responsibility for urging him to work.)
As for his wanting to talk to you about his work, sometimes that’s the worst thing to do. It’s HIS imagination, and he ought to be WRITING it down, not talking about it with you. He might need a writing buddy or two, or to join an writer’s organization, or find some writing outlets for chatting with other writers online. There are tons of places like this—but they can get in the way of writing itself if he’s not careful. (Look up the ’best writers’ sites’ on Writer’s Digest’s own site—www.writersdigest.com, for starters.) If he wants to discuss literary or imaginative issues with you, form your own two-person book group and read the same book, then talk about it as you read. It’s fun!
It’s worthy of you to wish him luck, but in the final analysis, it’s his own belief in himself that really counts. And he has to back up that belief by sticking to some kind of self-imposed schedule. You can’t do it for him! You can only avoid discounting his work and his efforts. Let him know you’re on his side and that he can ask for what he needs from you, but that you can’t do it for him and you don’t necessarily help him by listening as he TALKS instead of WRITING.
How should I begin journaling?
Q: I have never “journaled” in my life and was wondering if there are any rules or guidelines? —Jeff
A: The main rule is that there are NO RULES. Thus:1. Just write as often as the mood strikes you, and say anything you want, without thinking of who it’s for later. Right at the start, it’s just for you. Do this on the computer if you’re comfortable doing so. I do. No length requirement, no ‘every day’ rules.
2. If life is funny, then so be it. Dating travails would make great journal entries.
3. Is it marketable? That’s like asking if a short story is marketable. First, you let loose and write it. LATER, much later, you share it and get feedback from professionals (ahem...) and then you see if any part or parts of it might be converted to an essay that might indeed be marketable. Essays are hard to place. But it’s done frequently enough to be a possibility. But put all thoughts of publication aside. A journal’s main purpose, as I see it, is to help you recognize patterns in your life when you re-read it.
4. Begin. Do not make a big deal of it. Just jot down the first thing that comes to mind to get the rust out of your writing muscles. Go for it. It’s fun.
Is self-publishing a joke?Q: Do you think self-publishing is still the joke it used to be? One friend of mine wrote and self-published a rather lukewarm novel on the Viet Nam era, and had them market it. He made over $90,000 and bought a house! Another friend is an authority on Winslow Homer. She self-published and sold out almost immediately. Are these flukes, or is it a good way to go? I have three novels gathering dust, and I’m working on a fourth. If I get involved with the mechanics of selling it, I will not be able to write. —Betty
A: Making a lot of money by self-publishing is certainly not a joke, but the truth is that there is still the general feeling that this is not the most credible way to go. Few reviewers will touch a self-published book. Your friends’ success was definitely a fluke, but ardent marketing can achieve wonders. (I don’t understand what you mean when you say he “had them market it” – if you’re self-publishing, marketing is entirely up to you).You say that if you get involved with the mechanics of selling your book, you won’t be able to focus on writing. Either way, though, you DO have to get involved. If you attempt to place your novels, one at a time, with an agent, who will then do the major work of selling it to a publisher, you STILL have to get deeply involved in marketing and publicizing it once it’s printed, or no one will know it’s out there and few copies will sell. Publishers depend on authors to get the word out about their own books.
If you spend a lot of money self-publishing your books, then you REALLY have to work hard marketing them, because there is no publisher to do a single thing. That’s why I would never self-publish. I want to leave the bulk of the selling to someone else so I can focus on what I consider more fun and meaningful. Nevertheless, since WRITING IN FLOW came out, I have had to spend a HUGE amount of time talking about it. And I’ve been told similar stories by many other writers. So it’s been hard to get back to the writing.
How do I find agents and publishers?Q: I have written a fantasy novel, and I am very interested in having it published traditionally. I am looking for submission addresses for publishers and names of agents who can aggressively promote my book to publishers. My novel is approx. 50,000 words and has been rewritten twice and proofed three times, so I am now ready to seriously pursue publishing. —Stacy
A: Congratulations for getting this far (though two rewrites aren’t so many!). I’ll suggest three books that will be worth their weight in nickels, at least, and should answer most of your questions. The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon will tell you the whole process you need to go through. You will need to write a “synopsis” of your book in order to sell it, and it’s important you do a very good job of this. Writer’s Market or Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market (both by Writer’s Digest Books, www.writersdigest.com) contain more than 1000 book publishers and many pages of agents. Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents would also be a great help. Lots of specifics on what each agent likes to handle and how they like to be approached. Also see www.literaryagents.org.
Is novel for boomers or young adults?Q: I’m writing a novel based on my experiences growing up in the 50s. The main theme is living in the shadow of the Bomb and expecting the world to be blown up at any time. I think it could find readers among young teens but also with adult boomers who lived through the same fears. I’ve written about half the book and have not tried to tailor the style for YAs, but it’s certainly accessible to them. Do you have any suggestions for how to make this decision? —Jan
A: I think you do, in general, have to decide whether you’re writing for young people or adults. It’s easy to say your book will be “accessible” to the YA crowd, but will the adults be fully engaged if it’s ALSO suitable for teens? They really are a different audience and will need to be targeted differently when you sell the book. Perhaps some of the writers’ forums where novelists of various kinds gather could offer you tidbits from their own experience.
Permission to quote?Q: In writing nonfiction, can you detail the guidelines for when permission must be solicited to reference printed material? Is there normally a fee and if so, how is it determined? What about writings from antiquity? Is footnoting enough? Are there any reference materials available that give “detailed” guidelines in these areas? Does the author solicit permission to reference copyrighted material, or does the publisher? —Cynthia
A: You do not need permission to “reference” printed material. When you use the actual words from another written source, you should always say where you got it, such as, “According to Perry’s book on the same subject, ‘Blah,blah,blah.’” You don’t need to pay anything to use a few words or a paragraph, so long as you give proper credit. The law is vague, but focuses on what’s called “fair use,” which means that you aren’t allowed to use so much of someone else’s work (without permission) that it detracts from the possible future sale or value of the original work. That means you can use up to, perhaps (there is no exact law on this) 250 words.
As for who gets the permissions, that depends on your project. Are you talking about a book? Usually your book contract will state that YOU, the author, is responsible for gathering permissions and for paying for those that you have to pay for. In my own books, I’ve never run into this situation. When I quote someone’s work, I do so briefly, give them credit, then mention them in the notes and references sections in the back of the book, if there are any. I believe that most writings from antiquity are fair game by now, but I don’t know for sure. You might do a search for “fair use,” and here are two other sources you can check: www.refdesk.com, and www.ipl.org (Internet Public Library). Or check with your local librarian, either by phone or if they have a web site.
How can a young writer learn to write? Get published?
Q: Do you think that it is possible for young authors (under 18) to get published?
A: In a way, I do think the first questioner is right, up to a point. I never took a writing course in my life, and I didn’t major in English or Literature or Writing (not for any of my degrees), and yet I’ve sold several books and hundreds of articles and many essays and one poem. I haven’t yet sold any of my fiction but I haven’t seriously tried. Yes, writing and writing and writing is how you learn to write, but it does help if you get guidance somehow. I read a lot of books about the kind of writing I like to do, and I also read a lot of really good novels, though I don’t write them, so I know what good writing consists of.I would suggest that if you’re serious about writing, you read a lot—both good books, and books about writing. I also think it wouldn’t hurt if you start sending your stuff out to publishers or editors and see what happens (that’s the hard way to learn, but it works, it worked for me—what they buy might be “good,” and what they don’t buy, you can always work on some more). As for getting published, the only thing that might keep a young author from getting published is that she or he hasn’t yet developed the art and craft of writing enough to compete with the older writers who have been at it much longer. It takes time to get good. One book I can recommend is Write Where You Are: How to Use Writing to Make Sense of Your Life (A guide for teens) by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., published by Free Spirit Publishing. It includes only about four pages on getting published (since, to be real, you can’t publish until you’ve done a lot of writing). Market oriented books that might answer your question RIGHT NOW: The Market Guide for Young Writers, by Writer’s Digest Books (www.writersdigest.com); The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Writer, by Janet E. Grant (Free Spirit Publishing); and try About.com.
How control creativity?Q: Sometimes a dream or some “thing” triggers something inside and a short story fights for birthing in an almost overwhelming wave, sometimes causing minor problems. Writing notes is a very temporary fix, as the story builds constantly in the background until it hits a snag. Is there any way to control or pace this? I work as a machinist, writing at night to relieve the pressure.
A: Congratulations for your lovely description of the “flow” state. When the urge to write a story hits, you really have no choice but to write or type as fast as you can for the amount of time you have to do it. Writing notes is exactly what I’d recommend, or writing phrases instead of full sentences. I’m not sure what you mean by hitting a snag. It often happens that a story will come in a rush, or most of it, but it won’t always finish nicely. That part we might have to take some time to work out. You’re asking, it seems to me, whether there’s a way to control your flow state so the story won’t try so hard to explode out of your head before you can get it on paper. But you say you write to relieve the pressure of your day job. Interesting! I think this gushing story material is helping you survive in a very real way. I wouldn’t fight it or try to manage it all that much, but simply learn to write in some kind of shorthand way or type in some way that you can keep up with yourself.
Publish short stories?Q: Where do I begin to look or submit short stories for magazine publication, such as in Self, Redbook, etc.? When submitting articles or short stories, what are publishers looking for? What is needed when submitting a story, outline or full text? —Kimberly
A: I would suggest you grab a copy of Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (look on the site of Writer’s Digest Books, www.writersdigest.com). This book lists many of the magazines that buy short stories and also gives you some idea of what each magazine is looking for. Remember that magazines such as Self and Redbook get thousands of submissions per year and are tough for a beginner to get into. You also asked, “when submitting articles or short stories, what do editors want?”—well, the answer is totally different for articles and for stories. For stories they want the whole story. For articles, they prefer a one page query letter. I suggest you take a course or read a book or two about getting published.
Prepare for radio interview?Q: I’m scheduled for my first radio interview for my first published book. Do you have any advice for getting along with the interviewer and/or doing a good book interview show on radio?—Thomas
A: I’ve done a lot of radio interviews, including two in the studio. Having those earphones on and sitting on a stool felt a little funny at first, but then you just get into your subject. Consider it a learning experience, so you can’t fail no matter what. I find talking to one person easier than teaching or public speaking. The interviewer won’t try to trip you up. I usually keep my table of contents of the book open in front of me, lest I go blank—that way, no matter what she asks, you can think of something to say. The best advice I ever got was to turn a question you CAN’T easily answer into one you can. “Oh, I’m not sure about what Thomas Mann would have said about mysticism, but I can tell you what Dr. Doolittle said, and was it fascinating!” Also, don’t keep saying, “my book.” Say the name of the book instead. Better for name recognition and also less braggish. “In Writing in Flow, there are lots of tips on writers’ block.”
How long is a novel and what goes in the query letter?Q: How many words would you say would be in a 325-page novel? I have only written eight chapters, but I am supposed to put the number of words (approximate) on the first page of cover sheet. I am going to submit three chapters to a publisher. Also, in a query letter, is that where you write about your books? Seems all publishers want that, but they never really look at it. I’ve had one out for six months now, and haven’t got it back or the manuscript first three chapters yet! Also, do you write a little about yourself as a short bio of author? – Suzi
A: I’d highly recommend you buy a copy of Elizabeth Lyon’s The Sell Your Novel Toolkit, which tells you EXACTLY how to write a synopsis that will help you sell your novel. You don’t usually send chapters until someone asks for them. But yes, in your query letter, you write about yourself and your books, and yes, I think they DO look at this. Six months is too long. I’d write to that publisher and ask what’s up, then start sending a query letter around to some others. Have you tried getting an agent first? Many publishers are more responsive to agents than to writers sending in unsolicited submissions.As for word counts, Elizabeth Lyon has a little chart in her book that talks about this. She says a mainstream novel would be between 85,000 and 110,000 words, making it 340-440 pages. Consider 250 words per double-spaced page. Consider your manuscript pages about the same as the printed version. First time novelists should keep their books a little shorter, says Lyon.
No support from family?Q: I don’t get any support from my family, or husband, whom all think I am nuts for “giving up” a good career to write! I was wondering if you ever handled this type of situation and if so, how you got through it? —MaryBeth
A: I certainly have. I hope you don’t handle it the way I did, which was to eventually leave that marriage. Of course, there was a lot more wrong with our relationship than the simple fact that he had no idea what it meant to me to want to be a writer. My second husband (we’ve been married 17 years) is a poet and now the shoe is on the other foot entirely. I have to be supportive and understanding even though, no matter how much he gets published, there will be almost no money attached. Makes me seem like the sensible one!
So, short of divorce, here’s what you can tell your family (and, above all, YOURSELF):
First person or third, present or past?Q: I notice that some stories and poems are first person, some third; some are present, and some are past. How do you decide? —William
A: Once you’ve been writing for some time, you simply begin to know how to make these literary decisions without thinking too much about them. You intuitively know what’s the best way to tell your story or write your poem. Until this ability becomes natural to you, you just start writing. There’s no one right way. If it feels right, it’s okay. You can always change it around later. Some folks are more comfortable writing everything from the first person point of view. Others prefer the slight distance of using third person. Whatever works to help you get the story or poem on paper!
How to begin?
Q: I’m electrified at starting to write. I have a number of ideas for romance and love stories, but I seem to always begin with something I dislike. Do you have any suggestions as to how to start writing a romance novel? —KaneA: Electrified? Is this good? What do you mean you start with something you dislike? Do you mean you end up not liking the way you have begun a story? I have two suggestions, applicable to any kind of novel, not just romance (I’ve only read one romance in my life, so I’m no expert).
First, pull some romances off your shelf (or grab some from wherever). Take each one and “analyze” how it begins. With suspense? Description? Dialogue? Setting the scene in an ordinary way? Perhaps you’ll find one technique that seems to fit what you have in mind for one of your own stories. Second, don’t start. I mean, don’t start at the beginning, since that’s keeping you paralyzed (I think, probably due to begin too critical of yourself way too soon, before you’ve gotten out of the starting gate). Start ANYWHERE. In the middle, or with chapter two, or with a scene that just comes to you but you don’t yet know where it will fit into the final novel. Eventually it will all come together and you’ll have a better sense of how to really “begin.” Diana Gabaldon talks a lot about this in my own book WRITING IN FLOW. That might be of interest to you as well.
A good intro?
Q: I teach middle school writing, and I am having a very difficult time getting my seventh grade students to write interesting introductions. I’ve shown them examples of good introductions, worked with creating imagery through metaphors, and explained the idea of anecdotes. They still want to begin with, “This essay will be about... ” Do you have any suggestions for making this concept clear and fun? —JoannaA: I asked Stephen (my husband), who has taught community college for many years and is very creative in his approaches, and he said your students would write more interestingly if they’re interested in the topics. Are you having them choose their own subjects? I also had a thought (maybe crazy), that you might try to tap into their visual sense (this is the generation that is turned on by film and TV, not necessarily words, right?). Suggest they imagine that someone is skimming through their essays with a channel changer in hand. What would get them to stop and read further, rather than changing the channel? Surely not a simple, “This is about a car crash.” A more likely “hook” for the reader/channel surfer would be this: “The stolen car raced down crowded Main Street at noon, narrowly avoiding ..... ” Etc. I’m not sure if such “jumping into the middle” type sentences will pass muster as topic sentences in your teaching plan, but I know they are much more fun to write and much more fun to read and they do hook the reader and make him or her want to keep going to see what will happen. Something else I tell my adult workshop students is to make their writing more interesting by getting involved emotionally THEMSELVES. No matter what the topic of an essay, there is a way to integrate oneself into it. It’s not necessarily narcissistic, and anyway, middle-school kids may NEED to have their self-interest appealed to in order to work a little harder at their writing. I very often try to find a way to begin an essay with some story from my own life. I would never say, “This essay is about how important it is to recycle,” but rather, “The last time I went to the supermarket I did something I was really proud of: I remembered to take my cloth grocery bags!”
Beyond He said, She said?
Q: I find my dialogue writing skills are very poorly developed. How does one keep dialogue interesting (and not “he said”, “she said”), yet avoid becoming so hung up on form that the story line gets lost? Where might I find some good references on writing dialogue?
Worthy of publication?
Q: As a mother of 2 sons who have faced growing pains and experiences in the past few years I have written a short (child’s) story and a poem on coping, with their experiences in mind. After sharing them with my sons, I wonder if other children and parents may enjoy them or find them helpful. What should I do with them? How do I know if they are worthy of being published? —SandyA: They’re already written, so you have nothing to lose by sending them out to magazines without worrying about how worthy they are. If they never get accepted, maybe they weren’t good enough. It’s a good way to learn what’s worthy! And cheaper than hiring an expert to read and critique them. I would go to a library or bookstore and get hold of the latest Writer’s Market, which lists thousands of markets for writers. They list magazines that take stuff for kids under Juvenile, and there are nearly 4 dozen possibilities to read about. That’s the way you start. And keep writing. It’s not very often your very first efforts will pay off. You have to learn the craft.
Copyrighting my work?
Q: Is it true that to protect your work all that is necessary is to write “copyright” and date it? What is the copyright process and what rights does it give you?A: Basically, yes. But writers’ organizations often suggest you actually register your copyright so you have better legal recourse in case someone uses your work when they had no business doing so. You have to get a form from the Register of Copyrights, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559, then fill it out and send it in with $20 or maybe more. You can register several things at once. You can also download the form from their site: http://lcweb.loc.gov/copyright. There’s lot of info there too.
Life of a writer?
Q: I am a junior high school student. In our social studies course we are required to research a specific job. Could you please answer the following questions about your job as a writer? – Nicole.A: —What are your basic job responsibilities? As a freelance writer of nonfiction articles and books, I set my own responsibilities. I have to research the markets for my work, contact editors, decide what I want to write about, write about it and get it in on time. I often interview experts to get quotes for my articles. I also read the work of other writers to keep up with my field, which is mainly psychological topics. —How much money do writers normally make? This is a hard question, and I can only answer for myself. In my 20 years of freelance writing, I have gone from making nothing, all the way up to making about $25,000 or $35,000 a year. Many writers make only a few thousand a year, and some are lucky and become famous and make $100,000 a year or much more. —Do you direct your own work or do you have a boss? I am my own boss. In a way, each editor I work with is the boss for that particular project, but if I hate working with a particular editor, I can also choose to work for other people next time (at other magazines). —How many hours do you normally work in a day? I try to be at my desk at 10AM every day, and I quit working, usually, around 5 p.m. In between, I get up, nap, eat, talk, go places, do chores. So some days I work 7 hours, some days I only work two hours. But I’m thinking about my work every single day, all day, except when I’m watching TV at night or reading a novel. —Does your job have any benefits? It does not have the kind of benefits like health insurance or vacations or disability insurance. None at all. The main benefit writing has is I can write about things that interest me, I can take time off whenever I need to, and I have a lot of flexibility about how I spend my days and live my life.
Book on male stripping?
Q: I am a male entertainer (stripper), for the past 7 years. I was considering writing a book on the subject including teaching how to do it for your girlfriend or wife. I have seen several books for women but none for men. I truly believe there is some psychology involved in the art (if you can call it that) of stripping. What do you think of the idea?A: It’s certainly unique! My first thought is that there wouldn’t be enough of an audience for a whole book on this—how many men would want to do a whole strip-tease for their lovers? But then, you would know this better than me. Do you have good size audiences of women for your act? If so, that would be something you would point out in your book proposal. You might try beginning a proposal, which is what you have to do to sell a book. I give an online course in writing book proposals that you might find useful. But basically, you begin with an Overview of the book, where you explain to the agent or publisher exactly what you intend to do, beginning with a “hook” that gets them to keep reading. Other parts of the proposal are where you tell about competing books, you tell about yourself, you tell about the market for this book (i.e., the potential audience), and you tell about your promotional plans for it (this is so important these days). In the process of working on a draft of these parts, you would be focusing your idea and finding out whether it sounds like a salable project. A book takes a lot of time and has to be written well. I don’t know your background. You might also consider writing an article for a magazine on this, “I was a male stripper.” Sometimes that’s a good start—or, rather, for a men’s magazine, “How to do a sexy strip-tease for your lover.” You DO have a good idea, but I’m not sure if it’s a book. It could certainly be an article, however (and there are writers who would love to write your story for you, if you decide you don’t even want to go that far).
Contacting interview subjects?
Q: I am working on a magazine article on a particular subject. I would like to include quotes from contemporary thinkers on the subject. How to I get hold of these people? —MaggieA: First you make a list of those to whom you want to talk. If they’re authors of other books, you can reach them by writing to their publishers. I recommend a personalized letter for a better response (though you can also call the publisher and explain you want to reach one of their authors—I do this all the time for articles). You might also see which of them have web sites—look them up with a good search engine. More and more of them do have sites or ways to reach them that way. If they teach at a university, you can look them up through their university’s site.
Gotta get organized?
Q: I’m a 19-year-old writer, and I’m having a few problems with my stories. It’s not so much writing, or the flow of it, it’s just that I have 20 different pages that could be combined into a novel with a few added transitions. The problem is, I’m so unorganized!! Is there a check list I could follow or something to keep myself organized, along with all of my papers? – Beaser
A: You say writing isn’t the problem, but organization is. Is your organizational problem ONLY related to your writing? Is your life a “mess,” chaotic in general? I make my own checklists for each project, which helps.
Try starting with something simple. Print out all your stories or those 20 pages you mentioned. Lay them out in front of you. Stare at them. Open a computer file and jot down your thoughts. “Move page 6 to start,” “try page 7 as ending,” “add character sketch to page whatever.” See if that helps you make the next step in putting all these assorted pieces into an order you can work with.
One of the interviewees for my book WRITING IN FLOW, Diana Gabaldon, said something extremely encouraging. She writes very thick historical time-travel romantic “fantasias,” as she likes to call them. She uses what she calls the “chunk” or “kernel” method. She writes a scene or a bit or a dialogue or a character description. She sticks them all in her computer. She says they are related in some way that isn’t always clear in the early stages (sounds like your 20 pages). Soon she has many of these assorted chunks, which she describes as being like the tips of islands sticking up out of the ocean, but connected somehow underwater. Then eventually, when she has enough of them, the islands rise up and she can begin to see how they’re connected.
Keep writing. That’s the main thing. Twenty pages isn’t that much yet. And if your LIFE is also disorganized, check into any of the good books on that subject. I find that people who are disorganized in general often have a tough time getting their writing lives organized. But some of the best work comes from these people, EVENTUALLY, if they just keep at it persistently.
To outline or not?
Q: I have been writing fiction for many years and have tried different approaches. At first I was told the importance of writing a detailed outline, etc. I tried that approach and found the end-result was a contrived, stiff story. Now, I use a “spontaneous approach,” where I have little idea where the story is going, only enjoying the extemporaneous moment, which captures the essence of life. I think the former approach failed, for me anyway, because it was artificial, a phony representation of life. Now, I enjoy what is over the hill, what is around the corner – much like the reader enjoys. However, I must say that it works ultimately best when the writer has had enough experience to know where to let the story lead and where to avoid. I think Stephen King writes that way. I only read one book by him called The Dead Zone and I had the feeling that he wrote spontaneously. On the other hand, Memoirs of a Geisha was great but I was told the author labored many years, which seems the opposite of the spontaneous moment. What are your thoughts on this? – Barney
A: I don’t know who told you to write a detailed outline for fiction. One of the exercises I like to do in my WRITING IN FLOW classes (based on my book of that name) is to have everyone come up with a list of “advice” they’ve heard about writing. ALL general rules are pretty much wrong. Outlines are very helpful for some people, very inhibiting for others. Many writers I interviewed told me that they would do a general outline to get started, then put it away and write. Later they=d go back and see how closely or NOT closely they had intuitively followed it. Sometimes they would be surprised.
Also, genre (mystery, romance, etc.) writers tend to use outlines more. But many of the best, most original writers say one of the most fun, flow-worthy things about writing is NOT knowing where they’re going when they begin. It’s the mystery and surprise that are their main motivators for sitting down to write every day. Where will these characters “decide” to go today?
Some writers told me they never wrote in “flow,” that they labored and crafted and revised over and over very carefully and consciously. Others told me they could only work in flow, forgetting everything but letting the story unfold almost by itself (then of course they almost always go back and revise it more critically). If you read WRITING IN FLOW, you’ll learn how many different ways there are to write.
Value of a Ph.D.?
Q: I have just completed my master’s degree in social psychology and am interested in pursuing a freelance writing career. I would be very interested in learning about your experiences, both as a writer and as a social psychologist. In particular, I am trying to decide whether or not to continue with my Ph.D. I absolutely love writing and have found that the time it takes to do my work as a student leaves me no time to write. My university is very focused on quantitative research. I want to do some kind of qualitative research – but that is not really allowed in my program. Also, I am very interested in your insights as to how helpful your Ph.D. has been in helping you write and being accepted and respected as a writer.—Kelli
A: If you want to do qualitative research, I probably wouldn’t recommend continuing at a school that doesn’t value that. You only learn a piece of the truth with statistics. You might want to have a peek at my own book (at almost any bookstore) for the chapter at the end on how I did my research. It was the best part of the project—interviewing people in depth—and that’s what I plan to do with my next book too. That’s perfectly valid research.You might also investigate other programs, whether traditional or nontraditional, that believe in what YOU want to do. Or else, do some writing and learn how to get published, and go back to school later when you’re clearer on your goals. The Ph.D. isn’t a necessity, but it’s very nice to have. But you shouldn’t torment yourself and try to fit into a niche that isn’t suitable for you, just to get it. I certainly wouldn’t put off writing, however. If you have the urge, you MUST find a way to do it and see if this is the life you truly want. As for the value of my own Ph.D., I wrote for about 15 years BEFORE I earned the degree. The masters helped, I’m sure, but most editors never knew my education.. I started as a generalist, then began to specialize. Often, the psychologists I was interviewing assumed I was a psychologist, because I had studied and learned so much that I really knew my stuff. Keep in mind that the popular press (if that’s your interest) can only cover issues in a fairly superficial way. And let me tell you one anecdote: I had been writing many short articles for Parenting Magazine for about three years, then told the editor that I was getting my Ph.D. She said, “Oh, most of the editors here don’t like Ph.D.’s. They can’t write well.” But you WILL have to learn journalistic style and interview others. No one wants to know what YOU think unless you’re an expert (i.e., someone with a degree or who has written a book).
Am I talented?
Q: I began writing short stories as a little girl, adding a few pieces of poetry here and there, with an imagination free of boundaries and a mind filled with a cornucopia of words. I devoured everything readable that was available to me. . . . I had two teachers who would have liked to see me explore the literary field, however I didn’t receive the necessary encouragement and backing from my family. I am now soon to be 36, with no formal education beyond high school. I don’t know where to begin to search for methods to maximize and utilize my talent, or, if I even have talent, in what area would I be best suited. Do I submit a few poems to an accomplished writer to determine if in fact there is some talent there to work with? Do I wait until I’ve taken a course or two, then write something and submit it for critiquing? Do I need an extensive education to actually become an accomplished writer, whether it be novelist or poet? —Pam
A: Consider checking into an online course or getting involved with some Internet writers’ forums. An online course is something you pay for. Check out Writers Online Workshops. A writer’s forum is just a web site where writers get inspiration from each other. I’ve got some listed in my Links section. You don’t need special courses to be a writer. There are tons of books out there to help you. You can do it by yourself or by joining a writer’s group at a local bookstore, if they have such a thing. One course at a college is a good start, but not crucial.
Getting poetry published is quite challenging. You will probably have to work at the craft for a long time to get good enough to sell what you write. Same holds true for fiction. If you don’t want to spend much to start, why not see what your local library has in the way of books on writing? That’s how I got started!! And Writer’s Digest Books publishes many dozens of easy to understand guides for writers.
As to your question of submitting your work to someone accomplished “to see if you have talent,” I don’t recommend it at this point. Take a course, see what the teacher says, but if you enjoy writing, don’t take one person’s word for it. And above all, keep reading. Read the kind of things that can inspire you to write. Good novels, short stories, serious poetry. Ask someone at your local independent bookstore for recommendations, or attend a poetry reading and see what you think of that poet’s work.
Q: When writing a book and you mention specific products or items, do you have to get permission to use the accurate and specific name? For example: if you were to mention a certain tent manufacturer and their specific name for their tent (i.e., Northface / clip flash tent). —Paul
A: I believe (and I’m no lawyer) that you do not need to get permission to refer to a product or company by name. They do want you to use the capitalized version of the name, however, so that you wouldn’t say xerox, but rather Xerox brand copier. In your example, the preferred method would be to say Northface brand clip flash tent (or a Northface tent). The point is not to take a specific name and turn it generic, like kleenex when you mean Kleenex brand tissues. If you follow that, no company will be upset with you.
World’s longest epilogue?
Q: I completed a 50 page novella in the first person narrative. I am working on the “epilogue” in the third person. The “epilogue” is more than 10,000 words and completes the “mystery” of the novella. Can I do that? Can an epilogue be 10,000 words long? —Li
A: The way I figure it, that means your “epilogue” is about half as long as your novella. A couple of things to consider: First of all, of COURSE you can do that. There are many fewer rules than most writers think. The more original you are being, the more insecure (hence your question). But there is no rule about when and how you apply an epilogue and what you call an epilogue. It does sound as though your epilogue may be another chunk of the novella, told through another point of view, but it could very well work labeled an epilogue. Do be sure that you aren’t spending too many words or pages unraveling the mystery – I mean, the same stylistic standards should be applied to this part of your story. That is, don’t just tell stuff, show it if you can. Sounds kind of intriguing. Good luck
Pay for critique?
Q: I am considering paying someone to edit my book. He claims to be a professional. I don’t know for sure, but I am desperate to have my book critiqued. My husband wouldn’t read it if I paid him. “I’m not in to that kind of stuff,” he says. Do you have any advise for an amateur writer trying to get her feet wet?
A: Ask him what his experience with this sort of thing has been. What does mean when he says he’s a professional? It may be a good idea to get someone (other than your husband) to read your novel and give you feedback, but it has to be someone who is good at this, or it could be expensive, useless, and, even worse, discouraging.
There are a number of “book doctors” and freelance editors out there. I do this sometimes. When I do it, I usually charge $75 an hour, and about $150 for a one-time read-through and critique. In that initial couple of hours, most of us who do this would give you a thorough written analysis of what=s working and what=s not working, along with some guidance as to where you ought to go next, whether you should just keep on revising or get some further editing help.
Back to the future?
Q: I am writing a true story about my sexual abuse as a child. And I don’t know at which stage of my life to start. Is it better to start from this age and then go back, or is it better to go from childhood to now?
A: There is never one right answer to this question. The best thing to do is simply to start at the beginning and write it all down, then decide how you want to revise it later. Memoirs are written in many different ways. Follow whichever direction your mind seems to be pointing you. If you want to start with a sharp memory that occurs in the present, then go back in the form of a flashback and tell the whole story, that’s also one way. I think it may be hard for you to decide exactly what final form it will take until you’ve written a lot of it.
Emotions and writing?
Q: I have read that if you have unresolved emotional issues from childhood that they will inhibit you from reaching into the creative part of your brain. Is it the left side or the right? I can’t remember. Yet, when I read this I became concerned. Why? Because I suffer from post traumatic stress syndrome. Though I am in therapy for this, it still is bothersome. But alas! My first book, In the Saddle: Exploits of the 5th Georgia Cavalry (Schiffer Publishing), is scheduled to hit book stores later this month. In addition, I write for a weekly newsmagazine. Do you agree that emotional issues impair a writer’s creativity? I have times of great creativity and times when skill, training, and craft must hold me over until the flow returns.
A: Some experts believe that it is precisely those unresolved emotional issues that drive you to write creatively. And whereas a great many writers do have emotional problems, they tend to do their best work when they are not at their worst emotionally. When you access your most creative self, as I explain in WRITING IN FLOW, you are not just working from your left or right brain, but rather you are making lots of connections between all parts of your brain and psyche. The best advice I know is to worry less about how your emotional state affects your creativity, but to get as much help as you can for your psychological difficulties while maintaining as regular a writing schedule as you can. This improves the odds that you will produce good work.
Novel synopsis vs. outline?
Q: I want to query an agent about my novel, but both of the most promising agents ask for outlines rather than for a synopsis. Do they want a chapter-by-chapter summary or are they really looking for a synopsis?
A: These agents MAY be using the word outline to mean the same thing as synopsis. Typically, the advice (as described clearly in a recent Writer’s Yearbook Extra by Writer’s Digest) is to submit one to three chapters and a synopsis, or sometimes only a synopsis. A synopsis is a “brief narrative summary of your novel,” says Evan Marshall, the literary agent who wrote the article I’m referring to. A good synopsis is always written in present tense, tells the entire story of your novel, including what’s in the sample chapters, and runs about one page of synopsis for every 25 pages of manuscript. No dialogue, just crisp exposition of what happens, and what happens next, and include your characters’ motivations and emotions. No need to divide by chapters, but you can start a new paragraph to indicate a new chapter or section. I assume that if you send something like this in, and it’s good, any reputable agent will at least take you seriously.
Of course, if you haven’t sent a one-page query letter FIRST, that’s what you need to do, to see whether there is ANY interest in your project or type of novel.
Promoting yourself to bestsellerdom?
Q: How did you manage to get WRITING IN FLOW onto the Los Angeles Times Bestseller list?
A: There’s no easy answer, but here’s what I did:
Of course, it goes without saying that your book has to be good, and this is one I’m particularly proud of, though the advance I got was fairly small and a number of major publishers turned down the proposal (and I hope they all find out about its success now).
The other thing is to be lucky in what editor and publisher you get. My publisher, Writer’s Digest Books, really stands behind their books. They have done whatever they could – providing me with bookmarks, flyers, review copies, letting me edit their press release for my book, and responding to every question I ask, if not by the first e-mail, then by the second. They sent me flowers the same day they heard (from me) about the bestseller listing.
Follow-up and persistence, in a word, is what it takes. And more energy than you think you have.
Prepare ahead for promotion?Q: How should I be preparing NOW for a public relations blitz when my book comes out next year? I’ve been assured by my publisher that they will hire a freelance PR person for 5-6 months to work on my book.
A: You’re lucky, since freelance book publicists charge thousands per month. This assurance on the part of your publisher, if indeed true, shows they think your book can really make a splash.
I’d recommend that you obtain a couple of books that can answer your questions in much more detail than I can: Susan Page’s “The Shortest Distance Between You and A Published Book,” with a substantial section on planning your PR campaign ahead of time; and the brand-new “Jump-Start Your Book Sales” by Marilyn & Tom Ross.
One thing you can begin right now is to surf your fingers off – looking for sites on the Internet that in any way relate to your topic. Make a list, and when the book is just about out, start posting and contributing to discussions. And begin planning your Web site, and learn all you can about how to make it an effective one, one that gets noticed and linked to others. Also, ask your publisher if they have a sample Author’s Questionnaire on file. They typically send these out when they start your campaign, but you can use it to begin brainstorming now.
When send sample chapters?
Q: When submitting sample chapters, synopses, etc., to either agent/publisher, would you recommend doing this when you have the book completed,nearly completed, half done? One expert may say not to write the book first, because the synopsis may have to be altered, and much work would be wasted if the agent/publisher doesn’t agree with some factor, while other advice says to perhaps have one third to one quarter of the book completed at this stage. How did you do it? —IsabellaA: I assume you’re talking about nonfiction books here, in which case what you need is a complete book proposal. A proposal consists of an overview, a few other sections of information about the audience for your book and how you’d help market it and who you are, plus a chapter-by-chapter outline of anywhere from a paragraph to a page or two for each chapter, plus about two sample chapters. This is what I submitted. While my agent was trying to sell my book based on this proposal, I continued to write the book. So when I had a contract, and discussed what the editor wanted and if I needed to make any major changes from my proposal, then I was able to complete the book. The further along in the book you are, the better your proposal is going to be, and the more likely it will get bought by a publisher. But if it’s all done, it’s true that the publisher may want you to make some changes.
If you mean a novel, then you generally write the whole thing, write a detailed synopsis, then try to interest an agent in the whole thing by sending in the synopsis.
Interviewing for article?Q: I’m a photographer for a small town newspaper published once weekly. My very first writing assignment is to interview the owners of a general store who are celebrating their 25th anniversary in town. I’m supposed to come up with an article between 2000 and 3000 words long. Do you have any suggestions for interviewing techniques and ways that I can get some additional mileage out of a fairly straightforward subject matter?
A: First I’d suggest you read other articles in the same newspaper to see what kinds of things they say in their longer features. Then pick up a few other newspapers and magazines and analyze what makes an interesting feature (notice the details, how the quotes are interspersed with the narrative, the amusing stories). Next, come up with a list of questions and go out for an interview with the owners, and be prepared to take an hour or two at least. I always tape record my interviews for accuracy, and so I can concentrate on listening and interacting, rather than on taking notes.
These folks have owned a general store for 25 years. How did they get started? What changes has the store undergone? What changes have their customers undergone? Has a family business been hard or easy and why? What one incident almost made them quit the business? What makes it all worthwhile? What are their hobbies? How do they feel about huge conglomerate stores in the area? Include lots of quotes and lots of specific details about products they used to carry that were popular and aren’t now, etc. John Brady’s The Craft of Interviewing could be helpful. And have fun!
Does keeping a journal help?
A: There are many ways that keeping a journal can help your writing. First, there’s the “writer’s journal,” where you keep lots of ideas for stories and poems, and where you fool around with words before starting on the actual story or poem. This can help you loosen up, and it can help you keep track of all those bits and pieces of ideas that would otherwise be lost. A diary where you record feelings can also help loosen you up and give you ideas for your writing. One writer who gave a talk said that at a certain point in his novels, he always gets discouraged. But since he keeps a diary of his moods and feelings whenever he’s writing a novel, he can look back to see what he felt like the last time, and it helps him not want to quit this time.