Anda di halaman 1dari 402

From The Editors of

Writers Digest Books

The Craft & Business


of

Writing

Essential Tools for Writing Success

Introduction by Robert Brewer,


editor of Writers Market

The Craft & Business of Writing 2008 by The Editors of Writers Digest
Books. Manufactured in China. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the
publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published by Writers Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc., 4700 East
Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45236. (800) 289-0963. First edition.
Visit our Web sites at www.writersdigest.com and www.wdeditors.com for information on more resources for writers.
To receive a free weekly e-mail newsletter delivering tips and updates about
writing and about Writers Digest products, register directly at our Web site at
http://newsletters.fwpublications.com.
11 10 09 08 07

5 4 3 2 1

Distributed in Canada by Fraser Direct, 100 Armstrong Avenue, Georgetown,


ON, Canada L7G 5S4, Tel: (905) 877-4411; Distributed in the U.K. and Europe
by David & Charles, Brunel House, Newton Abbot, Devon, TQ12 4PU, England,
Tel: (+44) 1626 323200, Fax: (+44) 1626 323319, E-mail: postmaster@david
andcharles.co.uk; Distributed in Australia by Capricorn Link, P.O. Box 704,
Windsor, NSW 2756 Australia, Tel: (02) 4577-3555
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The craft & business of writing : essential tools for writing success / from the
editors of Writers Digest Books.
p. cm.
Includes index.
ISBN 978-1-58297-487-3 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Authorship. I. Writers Digest Books (Firm)
PN145.C83 2008
808.02--dc22

Edited by Lauren Mosko


Designed by Claudean Wheeler
Production coordinated by Mark Griffin

2007045826

Table of
Contents

Foreword by Robert Lee Brewer, editor of Writers Market................................... vii

Part I: Introduction
Getting Started............................................................................................................................ 1
General Business....................................................................................................................... 39

Part II: Fiction


The Craft of Fiction.................................................................................................................. 75
The Business of Fiction.........................................................................................................140

Part III: Nonfiction


The Craft of Nonfiction.........................................................................................................179
The Business of Nonfiction..................................................................................................203

Part IV: Childrens Writing


The Craft of Childrens Writing..........................................................................................231
The Business of Childrens Writing....................................................................................275

Part V: Poetry
The Craft of Poetry.................................................................................................................315
The Business of Poetry...........................................................................................................358
Contributors.................................................................................................................379
Index...............................................................................................................................388

foreword
by Robert Lee Brewer,
editor of Writers Market

he art of craft and the skill of business seem impossibly linked for those who
have dreams of making it as professional writers. To sell your work, or at
least to make consistent sales over a period of time, you have to master the craft
of writing (which is more than just noun-verb sentences that have correct punctuation and dont run on). The craft of writing involves plot, characters, dialogue,
voice, and so much more. But even writers whove honed their craft find themselves unprepared for the business of writing, so their polished manuscripts go
unread because they dont know how to query an article or propose a book. As the
publishing industry becomes increasingly competitive, the only writers who will
see their work in print are those who know the mechanics of both the manuscript
and the market.
Luckily, this book has the answers you need to realize your dreams as a writer.
The information in these pages was culled from more than eighty years of our Writers Market series of books, which now include Writers Market, Novel & Short Story
Writers Market, Poets Market, Childrens Writers & Illustrators Market, Guide to Literary
Agents, Photographers Market, Artists & Graphic Designers Market, and Songwriters Market. Our market guides have been used by successful writers and professionals since
their inception, providing the contact and submission information for thousands
of publishing opportunities. In addition to listing book publishers, magazines, literary agents, contests, and more, our guides have also included articles that inform
and inspire working writers.
This book is for people who wish to find success as writersno matter what their
genre or specialty. In fact, if you are unsure which niche you wish to pursue as a
writer, this book will be incredibly helpful in your decision-making process. Fiction,
nonfiction, childrens writing, and poetry are all covered here with articles explaining the craft and business sides of each genre. The range of genres makes this book

vii

The Craft & Business of Writing

comprehensive; the inclusion of both craft and business information for each genre
makes it truly unique.
I was first introduced to the knowledge of the Writers Market series when I was
still in high school. My first copy was read cover to cover, and I started submitting
a lot of unprepared manuscripts. While I had ambition, my craft was still in its infancy. Over time, Ive been published and paid for my writing. I have Writers Market
and these articles to thank for that. And now, of course, Im the editor.
As Ive contacted professionals for listings, interviews, and articles in my book,
Ive found over and over that other publishing professionalswriters, editors, agents,
and publicistshave found success using the listings and articles in the Writers
Market series. When one of our readers suggested combining the best advice from
the entire series into one volume that could be easily referenced, we finally had the
excuse to resurrect years of hard work. So began The Craft & Business of Writing.
I was lucky enough to help go through this massive archive of articles to provide
you with the true timeless gems of writing and marketing advice that will help you
realize your goals. This project took more than a year of compiling only the best
information available. And now that you have this book in your hands, I advise reading it closely. Thousands of writers have found success by doing so. You could be
the next.
Until next we meet, keep writing and marketing what you write.



Robert Lee Brewer


Editor
Writers Market
WritersMarket.com

The Craft &Business of Writing

Writing on the Run: Find Time To Write................................................................... 1


by

Allen & Linda Anderson

Nine Habits of Published Authors............................................................................... 5


by

Stephen Blake Mettee

Building a Writing Career............................................................................................ 9


by

Sean Murphy

The Writer-Editor Relationship................................................................................. 16


by

William Brohaugh

Making Manuscripts More Salable.......................................................................... 21


by

Glenda Tennant Neff

Overcoming Writers Block........................................................................................ 25


by

Anthony Tedesco

What to Know Before Your Book Comes Out......................................................... 29


by

M.J. Rose

The Scams Are Out There!......................................................................................... 34


by

Nancy Breen

General Business
Literary Agents: What They Do and How to Get One............................................. 39
by the

Staff of Writers Market

A Writers Guide to Money........................................................................................ 44


by

Gary Provost

Smooth Starting for Full-Time Freelance Writing................................................... 50


by John

F. Lauerman

The Art of Negotiation................................................................................................ 58


by

Gregg Levoy

Book Contract Clinic: Quick Fixes for Bad Clauses................................................. 63


by

Stephen E. Gillen, Esq.

Getting Started/
General Business

Getting Started

Writing on the Run:


Find time to write
by

Allen & Linda Anderson

uilt slithers onto the scene, masquerading as a writers envious companion, and it
reminds us every minute we spend writing could be used in another way. Guilt is
why writers transform ourselves into brazen thieves of time.
No one is completely successful at eliminating every twinge of guilt when the
shoulds start raining down, but there are simple and innovative ways to decrease the
intensity of push-pull thoughts and feelings.
As a husband-and-wife writing team, we shared a strong desire to be published
authors. Yet we were already busy people with complex lives and responsibilities. We
often felt guilty for taking time away from our children, our jobs, and each other, but
we knew that to be truly happy, we wanted and needed to write. Our passion for our
subject, our willingness to work hard to achieve our goals, and our ability to find the inbetween moments in life helped us learn what we call writing on the run. We became
proficient at writing anytime, anywhere.
Allens day job required him to travel 80 to 90 percent of the time all over the
United States, so his writing took place in airports and hotel rooms. Linda wrote at
home, where she had to keep up with the responsibilities of an active family of growing children and pets, a day job in public relations, an aging house, and numerous
tasks such as shoveling snow in the Minnesota winter (which seems to last all year).
In order to write; find publishers for our books, articles, and columns; and publicize
and promote them, we devised systems for building writing time into almost every
aspect of daily life.
Following are some of the suggestions we and other writers have discovered for
finding guilt-free time to enjoy the gift of writing.

Writing at Home
The person who writes at home tends to rise earlier than others in her household, stay up
later, and write when family members are otherwise occupied. She cooks, cleans, cares for
the children, and performs chauffeur duties while writingat least in her imagination.

Getting Started

The home writer devotes drawers or shelves to holding writing materials. Notebooks and pens are easily accessible in every room, along with handheld tape recorders
and laptop computers ready to capture her brilliant ideas for later transcription. She
shields herself from interruptions by writing in the bathroom, in the corners of the bedroom, in the laundry room, and at the kitchen table while the kids and spouse are elsewhere. She writes while meals cook, while children do homework, and while her spouse
watches television. She posts Do Not Disturb and Mom Will Be Available Again at
___ OClock signs on the door to the bedroom she has converted into an office space.
She loses herself in fantasy worlds and creates white noise to eliminate distractions by
running the vacuum cleaner or garbage disposal.
The writer who is a parent of young children faces challenges to her aspirations that
would seem to defy solution. Yet the writer can be terrific at creating ways to appease the
guilt monster. Jennifer Scheel Bushman laments that, because she stays at home with
her children, even though she is the author of Hard Sleeper, people dont understand she
works at writing. Shes found ways to be both a good parent and a published novelist. I
hire a babysitter, exchange babysitting with a friend, or write while my daughter takes a
nap. I carry a notebook and pen and my work with me wherever I go. Most importantly,
Ive learned to push aside my guilt and steal away on the weekends to my home office
with my husband tending to the children. I block out peoples remarks about our grass
being too long or that they cant believe I dont iron. Ive stopped feeling guilty for doing something I love, pursuing a dream, and trying to do it all.

Writing on the Job


Writers and best-selling authors werent blessed with any more time to write than most
of us. They usually started out their careers, and often continued them, while holding
day jobs. In Id Rather Be Writing, Marcia Golub writes, Anton Chekhov was a doctor,
William Carlos Williams was too. Franz Kafka worked in insurance, T.S. Eliot in banking. Henry Miller was a telegram messenger. In Women Who Write, Lucinda Irwin Smith
reports Agatha Christies job in a pharmacy gave her free time each day to study bottles
of poison. Armed with this knowledge, she went on to write her mysteries, having researched how victims could meet their deaths.
Many writers think they shouldnt use time at work to write, but the guilt of writing
at work, when an employer is paying for the time, doesnt have to be an obstacle. Every
job requires taking breaks, and many people write during a portion of their lunchtime
and through coffee breaks. The on-the-job writer doesnt buy into the fallacy that he
cant write without having large blocks of time to devote to a project. Because he isnt
gifted with hours or days for writing, the on-the-job writer values minutes and transforms them into opportunities for incrementally achieving goalshe quickly researches a fact or statistic, or he writes one more paragraph, sentence, snatch of dialogue, or
detail about a character. For quick and easy access, the at-work writer keeps in a desk
drawer, on a bookshelf, or in his briefcase an array of writing materials: notebooks, pens,
a computer disk for saving files to take home.

The Craft & Business of Writing

The on-the-job writer learns to make better use of time spent driving to and from
work. While making his daily commute, he speaks into a tape recorder or lapel microphone when inspiration strikes. He keeps a notebook handy and, while stalled in traffic
or waiting at stop signs, quickly jots down notes. If he rides a bus, train, subway, or taxi
to work, he writes paragraphs, poems, screenplays, and novels while on the ride.
Writing at work provides rich resources for characters, plots, and experiences. We
mentally record characteristics of co-workers and clients, listening for unique phrases
and expressions and observing physical habits and appearance. These details provide
fascinating quirks that can be mixed, matched, and adapted into fictional characters.

Writing While Traveling


Writers often travel for business or pleasure, which enables them to write in airports
and hotels during times that might otherwise be wasted or frittered away. These precious moments, when the weary traveler is relieved of other responsibilities, frees the
imagination. While Allen traveled extensively for his work, many airline passengers became models for characters in his novel and screenplay.
On the plane, Allen often edited one of our book manuscripts or wrote passages
for them. Whenever he read a galley with its attractive cover featuring adorable animals,
flight attendants and seatmates asked about the book. He started taking along promotional postcards that contained ordering information and release dates for the books.
Theres no telling how many pre-orders online sellers and bookstores received for our
books because Allen wrote during his travels.

Writing on Vacation
Vacations take a writer away from the ordinary and stimulate creativity. In addition to
rest and relaxation, vacations and holidays offer opportunities for mixing it up with
new people, hearing different dialects, experiencing exotic settings, and eavesdropping
on conversations.
Joan Airey, a freelance magazine writer from Manitoba, takes a holiday every year
and pays for the vacation by writing about the stories and people she meets along the
way. I enjoy having informal interviews with people, from artists to CEOs. One afternoon I visited a couple that had worked together for fifty years building their business. I
took a walking tour with them of their orchards, market garden building, and gift store.
I ended up with one main story and numerous mini-articles to sell. While on vacation, I
always take my cameras and keep a diary.

Writing While You Sleep


Most people dream four to six times each night. So, why not put dreams to work by
turning them into time for writing?
Linda uses a technique that has worked well to help her transform dream time into
writing time. Prior to going to sleep, she writes a question about a project on which

Getting Started

shes working on an index card. The question may relate to a character, plot point, article theme, or other aspect of her work. Then she places the written question under her
pillow. This cues the subconscious mind to find answers and ideas in the dream-state.
Upon awakening, she quickly jots down her dreams and ideas for interpreting them.
These dream ideas have led to improvements in her individual and our joint writing
projects. In one case, a dream teacher instructed Linda to write a title on a chalkboard
ten times so she wouldnt risk forgetting it. Upon awakening, she did remember the
dream, and the title turned out to be great!
In Naomi Epels Writers Dreaming, award-winning novelist Reynolds Price says when
hes writing intensely on a book, hell often dream the dreams of a character that fascinates him. I really feel as though, not only am I creating that persons life in the daytime
while Im writing the book, but I almost seem to be dreaming that characters dreams. I
have literally transcribed some of those dreams and attributed them to the character.
Daily life is the best resource for a constant supply of writing material. Using minutes in between tasks and activities yields hours of extra writing time. By seizing overlooked opportunities to think, plan, research, and imagine, writing becomes a guilt-free,
enjoyable pleasure that enriches and serves rather than takes time away from family,
jobs, vacations, and sleep.

Busy Lives, Productive Writers


Try these ideas to squeeze minutes of writing time into your busy daily life.

Schedule writing time. As you plan your day or week, make appointments with yourself and put them in your appointment book or calendar. Be as diligent about keeping
writing commitments as you are about other obligations.

Co-author with your children. Rather than always reading books to your children at
bedtime, try making up stories with and for them. Later, write the stories that elicited
the most positive responses.

Give yourself a deadline. Plan to enter your writing in a contest that has a deadline,
or create an artificial deadline. For example, I will write three pages by Wednesday.
Make the deadline stick by putting it in your day planner and telling a friend what you
intend to accomplish and by when. Reward yourself when you meet your deadline.

Give a twist to road rage. While youre driving, observe the drivers in other cars. Are
they friends or foes? Create lives for them. Turn them into characters. Give them dialogue to say.

Bust the telephone time-wasters. Keep a notebook and pen by the phone. While
youre waiting for service or if youre caught on the receiving end of a long-winded
caller, jot down phrases and words that catch your attention. Compose a jingle or limerick to express how much you dislike being put on hold.

The Craft & Business of Writing

nine habits of
published authors
by

Stephen Blake Mettee

s I go about my vocation of publishing books and my avocation of reading everything I can get my hands on, I am often struck with the thought that writers who
consistently get published share common traits. These traits can be distilled down to
nine simple principles.

1. They learn what the market requires


Im a writer, not a businessman, we protest. But if you want to be published regularly,
youre going to have to grasp the fact that publishing is a business. At the most basic
level, publishers simply supply products to consumers. In turn, you, as the writer,
supply the product to the publisher. Thats the business.
And heres the key: You must supply product a publisher can use to satisfy the
demands of its consumers, and you must do it in a businesslike way. Here are a few
simple strategies you can use to help make the business of publishing your business.

Put on your professional persona when contacting editors. Use crisp, clean paper for
your letterhead. Never handwrite letters or manuscripts. Always be polite, concise,
and nondemanding when talking on the phone to an editor. Always include a selfaddressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with each query or unsolicited submission.

Know who it is youre contacting. Use guides such as Writers Market to find the
appropriate editors name and precise title, then check the publishers Web site to
verify that this editor is still employed with that particular company and is still the
correct editor to contact. Spell the editors name correctly (double-check this).

Use standard format (8" 11" white paper, double-spaced, numbered pages)
for manuscripts and book proposals.

Let queries and other short correspondence sit overnight, then reread them before

Learn as much as you can about the demographics of the potential reader for
whatever it is you are writing. What gender is the reader? What age? Income and

sending them out. For manuscripts or book proposals, make it at least a week.

Getting Started

education level? What else is this person likely to read? Keep this reader in mind as
you pitch your idea and when you write the article, short story, or book.

If you plan on submitting to a magazine, obtain a copy of the magazines writers


guidelinesthe tip sheet prepared for potential contributors by the magazines editors. (These guidelines are often available on the Internet or by sending an SASE
to the publisher.) After perusing the guidelines, pore over six to eight issues of the
magazine, analyzing the nuances of content and tone.

If it is a book youre proposing, be sure the book publishers you contact publish
books of the type and genre youre proposing. (Like magazines, many book publishers prepare writers guidelines.) In your query or cover letter, explain why you
selected this publisher.

Synchronize your book, short story, or articles length to your prospective market.
If novels in your genre rarely exceed 150,000 words, it is unlikely a publisher will
be interested in one that runs 300,000 words. This also holds true with nonfiction
books. And if a magazines upper limit for short stories or articles is 2,500 words,
5,000 words will get a rejection slip.

Pitch one idea to a publisher at a time, but tweak the idea and pitch it to other

Do not try to chase trends. Remember that whats published now is what editors
were buying one to two years ago. Look for what hasnt been done.

publishers at the same time.

2. They always write their best


I know writers who always seem to be saving their best for later. Sometimes, its because
they dont allow themselves enough time to do the job right. They tell themselves the
next piece will get the attention it deserves. Other times, its because they dont feel they
are being paid enough for what they are writing. This is good enough for what theyre
paying me, is a common refrain. Yet, while a writer who turns in shoddy work may get
it published, the editor certainly wont put that author at the top of his call list. And,
although low pay is ubiquitous in this industry, poor-quality writing does not build a
reputation that attracts higher paying offers.
Some writers feel that if they put their best effort into what they are writing now,
when the big break comes along, they wont have anything left in their creative reserves.
The truth is, however, the better you write today, the better you will write tomorrow.

3. They know the rules and break them


Dont try this at home: In the Dan Fortune mystery Chasing Eights, novelist Michael
Collins adroitly switches between points of view and from first person to third person.
Thats the literary equivalent of trying to juggle six china plates while threading a needle. The most likely outcome is disaster. But Collins, a pseudonym for Dennis Lynds,

The Craft & Business of Writing

not only pulled off this bit of legerdemain, Chasing Eights is all the better for it. Collins
had been writing for years. He knew the rules. And, he knew how to break them.
Neophyte writers often weaken their writingand pick up rejection slipsby breaking rules in ways they feel are clever but in reality are just inappropriate. You can get
published regularly with good, sound prose that follows the beaten path, and thats
what I suggest you do until you are accomplished at staying on the path. But then,
reach out, stretch for the virgin, the rare, the wonderful.

4. They exploit their passions


Two things dominated my life in the 1980s, raising my son and developing my printing
business. When I look back at the articles I wrote during those years, Im not surprised
to discover that they ran in publications with names such as Indys Child and Quick Printing Magazine. The reason I was getting published was because I was writing on subjects
about which I was deeply passionate. Answer this question: What are the two or three
things you are most passionate about? These are the things about which you will write
best. Follow your passions, and editors will be passionate about publishing you.

5. They hook readers with strong leads


Go into a bookstore and pull down five novels. Read the first three paragraphs of each,
then ask yourself which book most entices you to read onward. That books author
knows the value of writing strong leads.
The leadsometimes called the hook, because it hooks the readeris the first few
sentences or paragraphs of whatever youre writing. The job of the lead is to get the reader
interested in reading more. Use strong leads with everything you write, from query letters
to book proposals, from romance novels to nonfiction articles. Strong leads should be
found at the beginning of every chapter in both fiction and nonfiction and each time you
transition to a new concept within an article. A strong lead for a short story may make the
difference between selling it to an editor and finding it back in your mailbox.
What kind of leads work? Creative ones. Anecdotes that set a scene or mood and intriguing or startling facts are common components of strong nonfiction article leads. Posing a question in your lead entices the reader to read on to learn the answer and often works
well. In fiction, starting in the middle of the action often helps plunge readers into a story.

6. TheY dont add to editors workloads


Todays editors are busy multitaskers. I know a senior editor at one of the big New
York book publishing houses who says he doesnt mind he has a two-hour-each-way
commute to work. He says the time on the train is the only time he has to read and
edit manuscripts. If you make an editor rewrite portions of your work or correct your
spelling or double-check your facts or chase something you promised to have to him a

Getting Started

week ago, hes not likely to smile with pleasant anticipation the next time you suggest a
project to him. Make life easier for editors and watch your acceptance rate soar.

7. They are great readers


Last year, when a local TV anchorman approached me about publishing his book, I
asked him a trick question. I asked what he liked to read. His answer, as is so often the
case when I ask this question, was, Oh, I dont have much time to read.
Because Im such a swell fellow, I took a look at his book proposal anyway, even
though I already knew it wasnt going to be very good. I wasnt disappointed.
Am I prescient? No, I just subscribe to the theory that youll never be a great writer
until youre a great reader. Certainly, if you write mysteries, read mysteries, or if you write
technical pieces, read technical pieces, but dont just stick to your genre; read a broad
range of literature. Read fiction, read poetry, read newsmagazines, read cereal boxes. The
more good writing you feed your brain, the more good writing it will give back.

8. They continue to cultivate their skills


When I present at writers conferences, I suggest attendees buy one book that I dont
publish: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. I tell them to read
Strunk and Whites delightful treatise before they write anything else.
What I am actually telling them is to continually hone their craft. Elements of Style is
a thin volume that provides concise instruction in the essence of good writing. Reading
it and rereading it is an excellent way to keep the basics of superior writing at the front
of your mind as your fingers dance on the keyboard.
What else can you do? Peruse the information in books like this one; read magazines such as Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, and The Writer; go to writers conferences;
join a critique group; take classes; listen to feedback from those whose opinions you
have reason to respect (but beware of well-intentioned family and friends); and analyze
what other writers are doing. Never stop learning your craft.

9. They spend money on postage


Wouldnt it be great if you could write the Great American Novel, leave it on a park
bench where an (apparently bored) editor would happen by, recognize it for the brilliant work it is, then hunt you down to get a contract signed? Fame and fortune would
follow. Best of all, your mothers doubts would dissipate forever. Since real life isnt the
movies, submit to submitting. If you dont submit your work to publishers, it isnt going to get published. Thats a given.
And, when your work comes back with that little note that starts, Dear Writer,
Thank you for letting us see this, but ... send it out again. And again. While the first article, short story, or book proposal is out, write something else. Soon one will get picked
up, then another, and then another. Eventually, editors will be contacting you.

The Craft & Business of Writing

building a
writing career
by

Sean Murphy

hen I was younger, I imagined the writers existence to be a calm, contemplative


one. Lots of time to spin scenarios while staring out the window, long walks in
the woods with the dogs, that sort of thing. I dreamed of having a life where no one
bothered me much, other people handled my business affairs, and the bulk of each day
was devoted to creative work. I had plenty of time to dream in this fashion, since my
first novel, The Hope Valley Hubcap King, took me twelve years to completesandwiched
between making a living and going to graduate school.
I received a big wake-up call, however, with the publication of my first two books,
six months apart from one another. Not only were my publishers, to my surprise, busy
with other books and not solely occupied with promoting minebut the advances Id
received had been spent in the writing, and there were no royalties in sight for at least
six months. I had to come to grips with the fact that no one was going to make sure
that my books sold if I didnt do itand certainly no one else was going to bring in an
income. Clearly, a broader approach was necessary if I were to make a life as a writer.

Realize This: Youre No Hemingway


Im speaking largely here of the book business, but the general principles apply to writers in any field, whether published or unpublished. In todays competitive market, we
dont have the leisure enjoyed by a Hemingway or Faulkner of gradually building up a
career under the patient guidance of a beneficent publisher. In any case, this hallowed
status enjoyed by authors of old is, at least partly, a myth. T.S. Eliot worked for years as
a banker. Faulkner and Fitzgerald wrote for the movies. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive, and William Carlos Williams a family physicianin both cases, for the
majority of their adult lives.
In the last few years, Ive been taking my own personal crash course in how to build
a writing career from the ground up, from selling my first book to placing follow-up
articles, dealing with promotion and marketing, public events, the mediaan array of
activities Id never imagined myself doing. Ive learned that its important to use every

Getting Started

resource available in my life to develop my career. The reason for this is simple, if sobering: Most of us, unless were extremely lucky, are unlikely to make enough income from
our writing alone to support ourselves. To truly live the writing life requires a broadbased, multidimensional approach to build a platform for your workthat includes
many activities other than sitting in front of the keyboard, slipping into the seductive
dream of the story. If you view the whole project, including placement, marketing, promotionin fact, your entire career as a writeras a creative act, your efforts not only
become more effective; the process is also more enjoyable.
So how do you go about building a life in which every element supports and enhances your goal of becoming a successful writer? Im going to lead you through some
areas worth considering, in roughly the order I encountered them.

Enter the Fray: Awards and Contests


When I finished The Hope Valley Hubcap King, I faced the universal challenge of all unknown novelists: getting the manuscript before an agent or publisher. I reasoned that
submitting it for competitions might be a starting point. That way I was sure someone would read the manuscript in its entirety (something I suspect rarely happens in
the case of unknown authors), and Id receive feedback that could improve it. Even if I
didnt win, I might place in the finals or semifinals, and could mention this in my query
letter, which would make it stand out from the masses of correspondence editors and
agents receive.
I decided to enter every novel contest available. I ended up placing in three of these,
which would probably have been enough on its own to attract an agents interest. Then
I won the Hemingway Award for a First Novel, which included an agent as part of the
prize, thereby solving part of my problem. I always encourage my writing students to
enter competitions. There are many available, in fields ranging from nonfiction to short
stories to poetry. If you submit work on a diligent, thorough basis, youll tend to get
results, no matter how minor, that may help in acquiring an agent or publisher. If not,
this tells you that you need to go back to the drawing board and hone your crafteither
that, or youre ahead of your time, in which case it wont hurt to work on your craft
some more anyway! And youll get advance warning of the obstacles you may face in
placing your work.

Be Flexible: Use Success to Open Doors


One of the first questions my agent asked, to my surprise, was whether I had any ideas
for nonfiction books. As it turned out, I did have an idea Id been nursing for some time.
Being a practitioner of Zen meditation, Id noticed that every few years a collection
of Zen teaching stories was published, and met with some success. However, most of
these assemblages of enlightening quotes and anecdotes (you might call them Miso
Soup for the Soul) depended on ancient tales of Asian Zen masters for their material.
Despite the fact that there were an estimated 1 million or more Zen practitioners in the

10

The Craft & Business of Writing

United States, no one had yet written a book of Zen wisdom drawn from contemporary
American sources.
My agent thought this was a salable idea. We decided it would be a good strategy
to try to sell this book before selling the novel, as a nonfiction book with a built-in audience would be easier to place than a novel by an unknown author, prize winning or
not. The proposal went to auction, and within a month wed sold One Bird, One Stone:
108 American Zen Stories, based on a twenty-five-page synopsis. Oddly, Id sold the book
I hadnt written before selling the novel Id already finished! This is an example of how
being creative in ones marketing approach can yield results. And having one book contract under my belt made placing the novel an easier task.
I find in working with writing students that they often have more resources at their
disposal than they are aware. Learning how to take advantage of these can be a key aspect in developing your career. For instance, I have a student who raises purebred dogs,
belongs to various related organizations, and uses these contacts in pitching articles
and securing speaking engagements. It is worthwhile to consider what areas of knowledge or expertise youve developed that might lend themselves to a book or series of
articles. Classic automobiles? Jazz music? African violets?
If you write books, these can provide material for articles; and many a successful
article has been expanded to a book-length project. Broadening your scope can be an
important element of career building. Ive been able to spin off from my books to write
articles for publications including Yoga Journal and Tricycle. These have not only helped
promote my books, but have provided valuable contacts with editors who later published reviews and excerpts from my work. This is better than free publicityyou can
publicize your work and actually get paid for it!

Quick Tips to Help You Develop


a Multidimensional Approach

Diligently submit your work to writing contests, if only to walk away with feedback to
help you improve your manuscript and resubmit it to another contest at a later date.

Consider the areas of knowledge or expertise you have, and use those areas to develop a book or series of articles.

Attend events, writers conferences, book signings, book clubs, and readings that allow you to interact with other members of the writing community.

Join a community of writers who share your thoughts and goals, and allow that group
to help you develop your work and morale.

Garner local media coverage by sending out press releases, making phone calls, and
networking with members of your writing community.

Become an active writer, not a passive one. If you want to make writing your career,
you must make it a priority in your life.

Getting Started 11

Give help and take it: networking


Bantam Dell expressed a strong interest in buying The Hope Valley Hubcap King, but were
hesitant because its unusual mix of dark comedy, social satire, and the protagonists
quest for meaning didnt fall clearly into an existing genre (in publishing lingo, this
means they werent exactly sure how they were going to sell it). They asked me to come
up with a well-known author to provide a cover blurb.
Two years earlier Id met Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming, at the
SouthWest Writers Workshop conference in Albuquerque. Id prepared for the conference by printing postcards to publicize my novel. These featured a picture of a hubcap
on the front and mock, humorous blurbs from authorities as diverse as Bill Clinton,
Julia Child, and Winnie-the-Pooh on the back. McCourt got such a kick out of the card
that he gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I ever needed anything. I
did call, two years later. He read the manuscript, loved it, and provided me with a full
page of praiseand Bantam Dell bought the novel.
Successful authors, however, often have so many demands upon them that they
may find it difficult even to find the time to write. If you go after these people hungrily,
with the attitude of wanting something, they are unlikely to respond well. The important thing is to attend events where you can rub shoulders with members of the writing
community, to be friendly and open, and especially, to help others.
When I was finishing The Hope Valley Hubcap King, I met periodically with two
friends, Daniel Villasenor, who was writing his novel, The Lake, and Mirabai Starr, who
was working on a new translation of St. John of the Crosss Dark Night of the Soul. We
read each others work, providing encouragement and suggestions for improvement.
When Daniels novel was published, he shared his lists of agents and other contacts,
and after my book was sold I referred Mirabai to my agent, who placed her translation
with Riverhead Books. Our first books ended up coming out within eighteen months
of each other.
I cannot overemphasize how important it is to be part of a community of writers
who can help and encourage one another. One of the most common ways agents and
publications acquire new talent is through referrals from authors they already know.
And friendship with fellow writers is one of the joys of the creative life.

Be a Joiner: Memberships and Affiliations


Personally, Ive never been much of a joiner. Ive always hated meetings, elections,
committees, and other such elements associated with organizations. Nevertheless, Ive
found that joining a few select groups has been invaluable, not only in terms of networking, but in practical areas such as health insurance, contract negotiations, and opportunities for readings and workshops. There are many writers organizations available, but just to provide an idea, here are the ones to which I belong:

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (www.awpwriter.org). They


publish a monthly list of residencies, fellowships, and academic appointments.

12

The Craft & Business of Writing

They also sponsor a dossier service, which submits recommendations, school


transcripts, etc., on your behalf to any positions for which youd like to apply.
And their magazine, The Writers Chronicle, is one of the smartest writers publications around.
The Authors Guild (www.authorsguild.org). I signed up to get on their medical
insurance plan, which is reasonably priced and, in general, excellent. Ive since discovered that they provide contract consultations, legal services, and low-cost, easyto-maintain Web sites. Their Bulletin is an excellent resource for keeping abreast of
such issues as copyright, e-books, and freedom of speech.
Local writers organizations. I belong to two of these, the SouthWest Writers
Workshop (www.southwestwriters.com) and Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS) (http://somostaos.org). Their equivalent can be found in most
metropolitan areas. Both organizations have sponsored me for readings and
workshops. And theyll print free announcements of member publications and
other events in their newsletters. Groups such as these provide a built-in audience for your work, as well as a strong base for networking with other writers.
Making an inquiry at a local library or bookstore is a good place to start looking
for one in your area.
PEN (www.pen.org). This venerable writers organization and advocacy group is
another good resource.
Alumni and religious organizations. They will generally print publication announcements for members in their newsletters.

Remember, every group to which you belong helps build community; and every community provides valuable contacts and an audience for your work.

Apply Yourself: Grants, Fellowships,


and Residency Programs
The U.S. government, as well as many states and local communities, has arts boards
and grants councils, private organizations, and residency programs that provide financial assistance to writers. These often-overlooked resources were of tremendous help
to me in the early stages of my writing career. Community organizations in California
and Colorado awarded me grants when I was living there. Aside from the financial benefits, I found the application process enormously helpful, as it required that I focus and
delineate my project clearly in the proposal. I also developed skills in presenting and
marketing my work, which have served me well ever since.
Many writers have made their start, and in some cases sustained themselves for
years, through such programs. Although these can be competitive and time-consuming
to enter, the rewards are enormous. A fellowship, grant, or residency can provide the
freedom to write, while removing the financial pressure that makes it necessary to do
something else for a living. What more does an author need?

Getting Started 13

Broaden Your Platform: Public Speaking


Although you may not realize it, publishing a book or article makes you an instant expert. Teaching or giving talks on your subject can be an invaluable way of broadening
the platform for your writing career, sharpening your own craft, and building an audience. Ive taught writing and literature for the University of New Mexico in Taos, as well
as the Taos Institute of Arts. I also taught for four years with Natalie Goldberg, author
of Writing Down the Bones, in her writing seminars, and now conduct my own workshops
at locations throughout the United States.
I have assembled an extensive contact list of all my students. When my books come
out, there is a built-in audience waiting, and I know how to spread the word. On the
basis of teaching and publications, Ive secured speaking engagements at conferences
and on radio programs. These, in turn, have helped publicize the books. And the books
attract more students, in a self-reinforcing circle. While not everyone has a degree
that allows them to teach university courses, most communities have organizations
that sponsor adult education courses. These may be a perfect venue for your talents.
Churches and recreation centers may be interested in sponsoring you for a weekend
writing workshop. Or you can set up your own events and publicize them by putting up
posters or through the local media.

Make the News: Using the Media


Its taken me a while to catch on to this. Why give readings, I wondered, when your
average bookstore event might only attract a dozen listeners? It doesnt take a rocket
scientist to figure that royalties from the handful of books sold is hardly adequate compensation for your time. So why do it?
Building good will among readers and positive relationships with bookstores are
worthy goals in themselvesparticularly because hand-selling by booksellers is of central importance in getting the word out to readers. Word of mouth continues to be the
single most important factor in book sales. People who enjoy your work are likely to
recommend it to their friends, creating an ever-expanding web of readership. For these
reasons, its not only worthwhile to schedule readings but also to visit booksellers and
sign copies of your books whenever you have the opportunity.
But theres another quite compelling reason to schedule such events: the media
coverage they generate. This not only promotes books, but also raises your profile in
terms of getting public speaking engagements, teaching opportunities, and requests
to write articles.
When One Bird, One Stone came out, I did five readings in my area, which provided
a news hook for me to contact local media. The result was three radio interviews and
reviews or features in four publications. When The Hope Valley Hubcap King was published, I had my media contacts already in place, and they were eager to hear more from
meparticularly since a new author publishing his first two books in the same year
provided a newsworthy angle. I did four readings in New Mexico for Hubcap King, which

14

The Craft & Business of Writing

generated six articles and a half-dozen radio interviews. I spoke to dozens of people
afterward who mentioned: I heard you on the radio or I saw that article in the paper.
Local bookstores couldnt keep up with the demand.
Regional media coverage can be achieved through press releases, phone calls, and
referrals from members of your writing community. Everybody is fascinated by writers, and they want to read about our glamorous lives (no one seems to realize we spend
most of our time alone in small rooms staring at computer screens). Many of these
readers may go on to buy our work.

Keep Faith and Focus: Staying on Track


When I began sending out my first manuscript, I was teaching part time and working as
an audiovisual technician and projectionist for a local theater. Although these were interesting arts-related occupations, they were not directly allied to my goal of becoming
a writer. In recent years Ive realized the need to streamline my work activities so they
reinforce one key area: my writing.
Sometimes giving up a peripheral activity requires a leap of faith. When I quit working for the theater I wasnt sure how I was going to make ends meet. But I soon made
up the lost income by writing articles and giving workshops, activities that more closely
supported my goals. Simply put, if you want your writing career to work, you have to
make it a priority.
Its important to remember that when creativity is applied to business and promotion, the entire process is enlivened. The multidimensional approach is one Ive seen
used successfully by many writing friends and colleagues. There are other benefits too:
Agents and editors are more likely to take on authors who will actively promote their
work. Its simple economics. They realize such authors are motivated toward success
and will ultimately sell more books.
All of this may sound like hard work, but its part of the package, particularly in todays increasingly profit-driven publishing world. Remember that, in the largest sense,
there is nothing in your life that isnt a part of your career.
Who knows? You may just find yourself enjoying the process. If notwell, if going
through a little bother allows you to realize your dream of succeeding as a writer, isnt
it worth it?
After all, writing beats working in a bank. Ask T.S. Eliot. He got out of there and
never looked back.

Getting Started 15

the writer-editor
relationship
by

William Brohaugh

can roughly translate many of the questions I field from writers into a single question: How can I light fires under editors?
The need for such editorial ignition stems from a variety of problems: the editors
(or agents) in question are slow to respond, to take notice, and even to pay. The writers who encounter procrastinating, inefficient, or uncaring editors want responses to
their queries and especially payment within a reasonable time. They also want to be
given the courtesy they deserve as working professionals and the ability to have control over their situations.
There are a variety of ways to solve these problems, to gain control, to light fires.
Some of them involve specific negotiation tactics, which Ill describe in a moment. Most,
however, involve a general attitude you must employ in dealing with editors. Its a businesslike, professional and distanced attitude that will first give you perspective on the
problems youre encountering, and will next allow you to handle the problems without
placing a self-destructive fire under yourself.

The Writer-Editor Debt


The first step in approaching problems with editors is to identify which situations warrant fire starting and which dont. Sometimes youre far better off ignoring a problem
(because it isnt one, or isnt one worth correcting), shrugging it off, or dealing with it
in a more constructive way. To make that identification, remember that there are two
types of responses an editor gives you:

those the editor owes you, and


those the editor does not owe you.

For example, an editor does not, in any sense of binding obligation, owe you a response
to an unsolicited query. And here Im not talking matters of courtesy. Professional
courtesy does indeed dictate that the editor respond to you, as quickly as possible. But
the editor does not owe you a response. You have approached him, without being asked,

16

The Craft & Business of Writing

with a business proposition. If the editor isnt interested, thats the end of it. Nor does
the editor owe you immediate response to unsolicited material. With all the proofreading, business meetings, budget work, correspondence with writers on assignment, personnel work, and everything else an editor does to get a magazine to press or a book in
the stores, unsolicited material often must be given low priority.
If an editor is slow to respond or doesnt respond at all, take professional umbrage
at the lack of courtesy, then calmly and systematically move on to the next editor. Dont
berate the editor for his apparent lackadaisicalness. Dont try to light fires. In this case,
youre only heating up tempers.
If the material was solicited, on the other hand, the editor does indeed owe you an
answer. By asking you to send it, the editor has made an implicit commitment to consider the work and to let you know what he thinks of itwithin a reasonable amount
of time. Heres where you can and should bring out the matches if you feel youre not
being treated well.
Therefore, when you have a problem with an editor, first determine whether its a
problem you can do anything about in the first place. To do that, translate the situation into something closer to homeat your doorstep, to be more precise: the traveling salesperson.
Assume youre not a writer, but someone selling magazine subscriptions door to
door. Assume the editor is a customer behind one of those doors. Then ask what the
editor should be required to do when the magazine salesperson comes a-knockin. Ask
yourself what you would do in that particular situation.



If the salesperson leaves a flyer at your door detailing the magazines available, would
you be obligated to specifically inform the salesperson if youre not interested?
If you turn down the magazine offer, are you obligated to tell the salesperson exactly why youre saying no?
If you buy the magazine and pay for it, would you be offended if the salesperson
tried to dictate how soon you read it?
If you buy the magazine but dont pay for it right away, does the salesperson have
the right to demand payment?

The answers vary. But phrasing the questions in this way gives you some perspective on
the writer-editor relationship, and helps you determine a reasonable course of action.

Problem Solving
I must stress that we arent speaking matters of courtesy here; were speaking obligations.
You cant ignite courtesy. It just wont happen. Be courteous to me, you shout, shaking your fist. You can guess the response to that. You can ignite fulfillment of obligations, however.
To do that, take these steps:
1. Inquire politely about the problem. Dont place blamein fact, you might want
to deflect potential confrontation by shifting blame elsewhere. The post office, for

Getting Started 17

instance, is a common scapegoat. I havent heard from you, and I wondered if you
even received my query.
2. Inquire more firmly. Its been some weeks since I mailed the manuscript, and I
havent received a response. What is its status?
3. Call or e-mail. Sometimes problems can be solved quickly and easily on the phone;
sometimes not. Sometimes a situation prompts immediate action (its harder to
dodge things in conversation than through correspondence); sometimes it only
aggravates the problem, especially when the editor fields several nagging phone
calls he doesnt think are justified. Its this very chanciness of using the phone that
makes it inappropriate as a first step.
4. Determine if you want to pursue the matter further. If not, withdraw the
manuscript or query, or back away from the situation as appropriate (obviously
you dont want to do that if money is involved). If so, make your third mail inquiry the firmest. I still havent received a response, and though Id like to work
with you, I need to know if youll be buying my manuscript or if I should market
it elsewhere.
5. Look to others for help: Might a letter to the editors boss prompt some action? Go
over someones head only as a last resort, however. Such a fire under an editor can
burn a tender place, and he will blame you for it. It could mean the end of a relationship. Would someone with less authority (and perhaps a less demanding schedule) be
able to check into things for you? For example, a managing editorwho monitors production schedulesmight be able to answer your questions. Would an invoice to the
accounting department spur payment? This is often an effective way of securing overdue payment. Would a letter from your lawyer open some eyes? The lawyer might not
be able to do anything specifically, but no one, including an editor, wants to get
into legal squabbles. Would a trip to small claims court be appropriate? Not if youre
seeking the contributor copies the editor promised, but perhaps if that payment
check has been months slow in coming.

Pre-Ignition
Perhaps one of the best ways of lighting fires is to have them burning from the very start
of your working relationship with an editor. Give the editor every reason to want to
work with you efficiently and responsibly, to respond and pay quickly, to treat you with
courtesy. To do that, be a professional. Professionals want to work withand are generally
far more responsive toother professionals. Heres how to get editors to want to work
with you, and to keep you happy:

Though courtesy cant be ignited, it can be bredwith courtesy. Certainly


dont genuflect before editors, but do treat them with the respect youd accord to
anyone with whom you have business dealings.
Try to eliminate possible problems early on. If the editor hasnt said when or
how much you will be paid, ask, and get the answer on paper. If you want to see the
prepublication galleys, negotiate for that right before you finalize the assignment.

18

The Craft & Business of Writing

If the article youre submitting is timely, request an answer within a specified time
so the manuscript wont go stale.
Learn as much as you can about the business so youll know what to expect.
What ways of handling things are standard operating procedures? What ways vary
from situation to situation? What ways are unusual? Much of this education simply comes with time and experience; more comes from doing a little reading.
Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) in all postal correspondence. The SASE not only invites response, but also instills in your correspondent
a feeling of obligation to respond.
Dont whine, gnash teeth, moan, or scream during negotiations or even when
complaining. State your case clearly and vigorously, but unemotionally. Remember that youre two businesspeople at this point, not two temperamental geniuses
locking creative horns.
Dont go in with the attitude that the editor is trying to rip you off. Sure, some
disreputable editors are out there. Some disreputable writers are out there, too.
But not many, and not enough to worry about. Paranoia about having your work
stolen only gives off the wrong signals to the people youre working with, and
wastes your time.
Dont insult the editor by trying to trick or manipulate him. I once heard
of a writer who submitted manuscripts single-spaced, typed to every margin,
not because the writer didnt understand the conventions of basic manuscript
preparation, but because the writer wanted to preclude editing by not giving the
editor space in which to make editing marks. Trickery and manipulation always
backfire. As clever or as compelling as you think youre beingfrom inserting a
page upside down to see if the editor has read the manuscript to threatening to
cancel your subscription if the editor doesnt buy the piecethe editor has likely
seen it all before.

Taking Control
There are also ways to gain control that dont depend on the editor. For example:

Some writers complain of editors who lose or damage manuscripts. The solution:
Dont depend on the editor to send your manuscript back. Keep the original, and
send a photocopy, one that, if lost or damaged, you can replace.
Some writers worry about editors changing the titles of their manuscripts without
consulting them. The solution: Give the editor a choice of titles. Better yet, write
a title that is very much in the style of the magazine youre selling to. (You might
also negotiate for the right to approve the title before you finalize the magazine
assignment or before you sign the book contract.)
Some writers want to conduct business with great speed. The solution: Set a
deadline for a response from an editor. But dont force the deadline on the editor
unless nothing else has worked and youre ready to go into your or-else mode
(I need a response by the 15th or else Ill be forced to withdraw the manuscript).

Getting Started 19

In your own mind, set a deadline. If you dont hear from the editor by that date,
assume the editor isnt interested and move on to the next. If the editor eventually says no, you havent wasted any time waiting for the answer. If the editor says
yes, you have the choice of working with that editor or with an editor you moved
on to who said yes.
Some writers get peeved by a lack of editorial courtesy. The solution: Just dont
get peeved. Decide on a list of things you Wont Worry About. Sure, its aggravating when you send first-class postage for the return of your manuscript and it
comes back fourth class. But why worry about it? Youre out a few cents, maybe
a couple of bucks. Consider it a part of the business, and worry about something
more important. That and supposedly filched paper clips and the like are inconsequential. This is related to the concept of knowing what editors do and dont
owe you. Yes, on an absolute bottom-line basis, they owe you that postage and
those paper clips. But is worrying about it, fretting over it, complaining about it
going to gain you anything?

In other words, sometimes putting a fire under the editor doesnt solve anything. In the
long run, the most important thing is for you to take charge, in a professional way, of
your own writing career.

20

The Craft & Business of Writing

Making manuscripts
more salable
by

Glenda Tennant Neff

hen writers receive rejection slips, some immediately send the work out to another publisher, magazine, or agent. Others agonize over revisions they can make;
some quit submitting the manuscript at that point and forget about trying for publication. For a few writers, creative self-expression of their ideas may be enough, but most
want to see their work in print. Art and commerce do sometimes go hand in hand,
says author Raymond Carver in Michael Schumachers After the Fire, Into the Fire: An
Interview with Raymond Carver. When I first got something accepted, it gave my life
a validation that it didnt otherwise have. It was very important to me.
While youre creating art, editors, copy editors, and writers say you also can improve your manuscript in ways that help sell it. Before you send an unsolicited manuscript or assigned article, be sure it meets the following criteria.

The Structure Test


Whether youre working on fiction or nonfiction, be sure youve chosen the best form
for your writing. If your assignment is a 2,000-word magazine article but you have
enough information to write a book, youll have to condense orbetter yetnarrow the
material to one aspect that is suitable for an article. Likewise, dont try to stretch a small
amount of information over a longer format. If you find yourself trying to keep a gossamer thread of plot, stretched over too many pages, from snapping in your face, then
reconsider your story, freelance copy editor and proofreader Ann Finlayson advises fiction writers. Maybe it needs a subplot or two. Maybe it needs cutting to 5,000 words.
Whatever your choice of forms, be sure that its the best one for the content.
As the second part of the structure test, be sure that the theme is carried throughout
your work. Does everything in the story or article contribute to that unity? Approach
the manuscript from a readers point of view, eliminating any digressions and material
that, however interesting, do not directly contribute to your nonfiction or advance the
plot of your fiction. In Beyond Style: Mastering the Finer Points of Writing, author Gary Provost advises writers to place this sign over their desks:

Getting Started 21

A story is not everything that happened. Its every important thing that happened. An article is not everything thats true. Its every important thing thats true.

Good writers also learn to eliminate slow starts. Sometimes in a nonfiction article, the
writer backs in to what should be the lead paragraph with unnecessary introductory
sentences. Other times a fiction writer will include several pages of background material on the characters and the setting before beginning with the story. The message in
publishing is plain: Make things happen from the beginning of your manuscript. No
one will wade through several pages to see if it gets better or more interesting; you must
make it that way from page one. If you are disappointed that some of your prose will
be discarded, remember the comment of an expensive hairdresser when his client complained about the small amount of hair he trimmed for the price: Its not the amount
I take away that matters. Its what is left when Im done.

The Readability Test


Editors, agents, and freelance manuscript readers see thousands of manuscripts each
year. Some are assigned, but many are unsolicited, also known as over-the-transom or
slush-pile submissions. Again and again editors emphasize that only original material
will attract their interest. As a writer, you may think its nearly impossible to develop an
article idea that hasnt been covered in some way or write a short story with characters
who have problems not dealt with before.
Before you give up, thinking that an original manuscript is beyond your reach, approach it from a different view. Dont insist on making the manuscript original in every
aspect, but concentrate on making it unique. Work on a new slant for your article, add
fresh information, and come up with a great lead paragraph to introduce it. In fiction,
make your characters and the situation believable and interesting. Writer Adele Glimm
says: I try to invent a situation which reflects the readers problems and concerns but
is much more intriguing than the readers life is likely to be. What will surprise readers,
entrance them, make them curious, make them react strongly? I search for the meeting
point between myself and the reader.
An editor or an agent, like any reader, wont bother to finish a manuscript that is
wordy (in spite of the fact that written instead of since) or redundant (current trend,
exact opposites, major breakthrough). Go through your manuscript carefully to replace
generalizations with specific images; you want to avoid simply telling your audience
what you can show them. Also, be sure to take out clichs. The weather may be hot as
blazes in your story, but you can find some other way to write it.
In fiction, writer James N. Frey advises you to put your characters actions through
the would he really test, which is outlined in his book, How to Write a Damn Good
Novel. Readers must be able to believe, or at least have some previous indication, that
the character would do what youre having him do. If you dont make your people real,
you stand small chance of ever being published, Ann Finlayson says. That involves
removing clichd characters or giving them more dimensions. In rejected stories, she
says often people are either immensely rich or desperately poor, in which case they are

22

The Craft & Business of Writing

cold and haughty or earnest and hardworking, respectively. Grandparents are invariably dear decrepit old ladies and gentlemen, retired and probably speaking in a hillbilly
dialect. Villains are always perfectly mindless.
Finlayson counsels writers to be careful observers and chroniclers of people. In
slush stories, characters never seem to have facial expressions, and yet in real life you
take much more careful note of a familiar persons expression than at his features or
build, she says. Too many writers dont seem to pay much attention to what human
beings really do: what their natural reactions should be to such-and-such an event, how
they are likely to behave under certain circumstances, how they live, what they are apt
to think of certain other kinds of people, the jobs available to them, and so on.

The Style Test


Every writer has others whose work he admires. If imitation is the most sincere form
of flattery, then its not unusual for us to imitate other writers in the same way. Little
leaguers regularly practice mannerisms of the big leaguers they admire. As baseball
players grow in experience, however, they learn to do what works best for them instead
of what worked best for their idols. Its the same in writing. Theres nothing wrong with
admiring and learning from other writers, but you should work to remove any obvious
imitations from your manuscript and let your own voice develop. After imitating others for years, author Ray Bradbury says in his article, Run Fast, Stand Still, I finally
figured out that if you are going to step on a live mine, make it your own. Be blown up,
as it were, by your own delights and despairs.
In evaluating the style of your manuscript, its also important to consider the focus
and the tone of the work. If its fiction, do the qualities you started with carry throughout the manuscript? A story with a cynical tone throughout but an unexpectedly idealistic
ending will leave readers perplexed. Thats not to say that your characters cant change, and
with that change cause a change in tone, but you must give the reader some reason for it.
If its nonfiction, do the focus and tone of the article match the audience youre targeting? Editors are often very specific about the tone of articles they publishwhether
its serious or chattyand they demand that manuscripts are focused on the subject
they assigned and written to address concerns and interests of their readers. One topic
can be approached many different ways. For instance, a feminist magazine and a religious magazine may both have articles about abortion, but the focus and tone will be
entirely different. Dont underestimate this in affecting acceptance or rejection of your
manuscript. If the article is properly focused, I have a hard time turning it away even if
there are other flaws, says former Rider magazine editor Tash Matsuoka.

The Research Test


Whether youre working on fiction or nonfiction, your research must also be credible
to anyone considering your work. Insufficient or incorrect data in nonfiction, as well as
inappropriate clothing or dialogue in fiction, will be spotted, and editors almost always

Getting Started 23

take it as a sign of sloppy work habits. Its not necessary to know everything you need
for a nonfiction article before you accept an assignment, but you must be willing to do
the necessary research before you start writing. Writer Debra Kent says in a Bloomington (Ind.) Sunday Herald-Times interview: With every assignment, I get a new education.
Youll find that producing a good manuscript often requires that kind of thorough
research. If you have questions or are unsure about some aspect of your story or article,
the reader probably will be, too, so dont be afraid to ask questions.
A tougher thing to spot in your manuscript is overuse of research. Its possible to
give readers so many facts, figures, and details that your work becomes textbook-like.
Some writers are so eager to use all the information theyve gathered they submit a
bibliography on the first page and then rub the readers nose in it on every page they
write, Ann Finlayson says. She cautions writers to do so much research that you take
it for granted: You dont go out of your way to include something, but you dont avoid
mentioning it either. Keep in mind Gary Provosts advice, too, and make your article,
story, or book every important thing, not everything your research included.

The Revision Test


Some writers claim never to revise manuscripts; they pull the final page out of the
typewriter or off the computer printer and send the manuscript immediately. While
this may work for some, its rare that a manuscript cannot be improved by revision.
Many writers even like to let a manuscript sit for a day or two before they begin to
revise; the time away allows them to approach it more like an editor reading it for the
first time. Poet Pat Parker says, I see it simply as a task that must be done, like tuning
up a car. With servicing, it runs better. Although revising may not be as satisfying as
the initial writing, rewritten portions can make the difference between an adequate
manuscript and a good manuscript, a sale or a rejection. The first draft is a surge
of emotion, says writer Suzanne Hartman. Revising is approaching creation with
respect and, one hopes, grace.
After youve submitted the manuscript, you may still have to make revisions to suit
a publications or editors style. Theres nothing wrong with discussing changes or giving an editor reasons you think a passage shouldnt be altered. You shouldnt completely reject proposed revisions, however. As a freelance writer, you must be prepared
to cope with styles that differ from publication to publication and editor to editor. You
may be your own boss in some ways, but when it comes to writing and revising you have
as many bosses as there are projects, according to freelancer Mary Alice Kellogg in her
article, Its an Okay Life, Being a Hired Gun.
As a final note, be sure you are pleased with your work. A manuscript can meet dozens of criteria, but if it doesnt please you, then you wont want to send it out with your
name on it. As I grow more experienced and learn whose judgment to trust, I believe
my instincts more and more, says Suzanne Hartman. If my work in progress moves
me, I trust it.

24

The Craft & Business of Writing

overcoming
writers block
by

Anthony Tedesco

f youre a writer and havent yet experienced writers block, you will eventually. Thats
not some literary hex; thats the truthand an attempt to exorcise any unwarranted fear
from you. Writers block isnt to be feared; its to be expected and overcome. The trick is to
figure out whats causing you to falter so you can then choose and customize your cure. Ive
diagnosed five causes of writers block and put together a prescription of twelve antidotes.

Five Potential Causes


Writers block is an idiosyncratic malady with a myriad of personal sources. Ill spare
you my amateur psychoanalysis and let you take a little alone time to consider whether
any of these potential causes ring true.

1. Self-doubt
Self-doubt can creep into your subconscious at an early age. Then again, it can also
attack with one fell swoop of a crass, insensitive critic or an abruptly orphaned book.
Regardless of how you acquired the self-doubt that sparked a fear of failure, those little
looped critical voices will eventually translate into a knotted-up muse.

2. Perfectionism
Make sure your perfectionism isnt just a pretty name for fear-of-failure-ism. If you
truly are a perfectionist, youll be able to point to writing youve done you consider
good. Its less a confidence issue and more a quality issue with your current effort. Perfectionists tend to get hung up on leads or even just opening linesalways going back
to craft a better (and better) sentence.

3. Ill-suited subject or genre


Any writer who has difficulty in writing is probably not onto his true subject, but wasting time with false, petty goals, says Joyce Carol Oates. Until you find your true subject,
style, voice, or genre, writing will often feel like insurmountable work.

Getting Started 25

4. Fatalistic career outlook


Kristi Holl, author of Writers First Aid, refers to this cause as marketplace blues. She
writes: After a few months or years of nothing but rejection slips, it can become harder
and harder to keep pouring your heart into your work ... [T]he writer may feel unable
to face another editorial comment, bad review, lost manuscript, payment that never
arrives, and stories that dont get published. In other words, hes blocked.

5. Poor time management


Writing takes timefor research, multiple drafts, recuperative breaks, etc.and if you
dont leave yourself enough time to go merrily through the process, youre going to
crumble under the deadline pressure and deem it writers block.

Twelve Proven Cures


Ideally, youve deduced the cause of your writers block and are ready to choose your
perfect prescription. Even if youre on deadline and desperately looking for a quick fix,
one of these cures just might do the trick. Experiment. What might seem gimmicky to
you now will seem 100 percent godsend if it works for you right at the buzzer.

1. Fight negative with positive


The first thing you want to do is identify the inner voice who talks to you all the timethe
voice that fills you with criticism, self-doubt, and negativity, says Rachel Ballon, PhD, the
founder/director of the Writers Center in Los Angeles and a psychotherapist who has
coached hundreds of writers on their personal and professional issues. Realize the voice
isnt telling the truth, and take away its power to block you when you start writing.
Ballon suggests creating a list of positive statements about yourself as a writer and
reading them until you memorize them. Use these positive statements to silence the inner
critic as soon as it starts. [It] really works if you read your positive affirmations for twentyone daysevery morning when you wake up and every evening before going to sleep.

2. Relax
Clear your mind in six calming breaths, each consisting of five slow seconds in through
your nose and five slow seconds out from your mouth. During each exhalation, gently
place the tip of your tongue onto the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth.
Are you doing it right? Yes, because any way you do it that feels comfortable is right.
The main thing is to focus on nothing but your breathing. If your mind wanders, dont
worry. Just notice it, and bring yourself back to focusing on your breaths. Its one minute of meditation to help silence those inner critics.

3. Get gratified
Instead of reaching for the pint of Vanilla Swiss Almond Hagen-Dazs, seek gratification
from a market that publishes short, swift pieces to writefillers, jokes, postcards, shortshort stories, letters to the editor, etc. Online markets are particularly quick in their turn-

26

The Craft & Business of Writing

arounds, usually moving to press far faster than print publications, and they often run
short pieces to spare readers from having to continuously scroll down the page.
To make your task less daunting still, you could even consider writing something
for a publication that doesnt pay. Real writers dont write for free is a limiting myth,
according to Jenna Glatzer, author of Outwitting Writers Block and Other Problems of the
Pen. Glatzer understands the logic of not devaluing the industry, but knows its not so
black and white. Ive written for national magazines, books, and major anthologies,
and I still write for free sometimes ... I do it when I particularly want to support a publication that cant afford to pay, or when Ill get valuable publicity from my efforts.
Writing for free could just be the trick you need to break into the industry and to
break through any block you may be experiencing from those marketplace blues.

4. Freewrite
Whether its a grocery list or your favorite writing prompt, anything that gets you writing is a good thing. If you havent yet acquired a favorite writing prompt, fear not. The
editors of Writers Digest magazine have prepared 365 idea joggers and brain starters
to get your writing going. Visit www.writersdigest.com/writingprompts.asp for a new
prompt every day, as well as access to all the previous prompts you may have missed.

5. Start in the middle


The New York Posts Phil Mushnick points out writers block occurs most frequently at the
very top of ones work. Mushnick goes on to say, Lose that tortured lead you were laboring overit probably wasnt any good, anywayand write it straight. Halfway through the
piece itll come to youand itll better rhyme with what you were after when you began.

6. Write badly
Im serious about this. Write badly, really badlya first draft with run-on sentences, incoherent dialogue, typos, and ludicrous plot twists. Let it be the worst first draft youve ever
written because it doesnt matter. According to Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some
Instructions on Writing and Life, the only thing that matters about a first draft is that you finish
it. She says, All bad writing leads to good writing. I know this advice sounds traumatic to
perfectionists like me, but Lamotts rationale is sound. No one ever sees this first draft, and
it enables you to get your raw ideas down on paper where they can be tweaked. Plus, lets be
honest, it lets you actually finish something. Its a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

7. Allow more time


I know, easier said than done, but your schedule will even out. Time allowed for pressure-free prewriting, brainstorming, bad drafts, and small goals will save you time previously spent staring at the screen or otherwise fearfully procrastinating.

8. Read
One thing I do to get my creative juices flowing is to read, says professional writer Barbra Annino. I read a favorite book or something about the topic I plan to write about.

Getting Started 27

There are also many self-help books dedicated to overcoming writers block. In addition to the aforementioned resources, consider Heather Sellerss Page After Page, which
helps writers push through writers block for both the sake of the stymied composition at
hand and for the potentially successful career at risk. Ninety percent of beginning writers
stop practicing their craft before they have a chance to discover their talents, says Sellers.

9. Change subjects or genres


I dont necessarily believe in writers block. However, subject block is another matter,
says Thomas Nixon, a writer, academic counselor, and author of Bears Guide to Earning
High School Diplomas Nontraditionally. If I find I cant write about what Im writing about,
I work on my next book for a while. Still writing, still making progress, but using different information from my brain. Often, giving the other writing time to germinate will
result in progress on both my book and the article. Working with multiple subjects
and genres can help you find the writing that flows naturally from you.

10. Exercise
Ernest Hemingway was an advocate of exercise. Hes quoted as saying, It is better to produce half as much, get plenty of exercise, and not go crazy than to speed up so that your head
is hardly normal. A ten-minute walk can get your blood flowing and, often, your ideas. Following Hemingways advice, professional writer Amanda Castleman suggests taking a twominute workout. When fidgeting with a phrase, I sometimes crank out a few push-ups to
get the blood flowing. Yoga postures also help, if Im feeling less Hemingway-esque.

11. Break from forcing it


Castleman also says to give yourself as many breaks as you need until its absolutely necessary to work. I once was pottering about, procrastinating on deadline, when I bumped into
two architect friends. One ordered me to stick my butt in a chair and produce. The other
(more successful) architect said, Youre a professional. You know youll get the work done,
brilliantly, under last-minute pressure. So you might as well relax and enjoy yourself guiltfree, until the adrenaline kicks in. Thats what I do. The advice has proved invaluable.
Taking breaks is also a good way to treat yourself to nonwriting activities you enjoy,
and to help you recognize yourself as a person as opposed to just a writer. This distinction is vital to staving off those marketplace blues mentioned earlier. Holl says, Remember to keep your professional distance and separate yourself from your script, so
when your writing is rejected, you just keep on writing no matter what happens.

12. Set a deadline


Set a deadline, or have a stern friend set one, and stick to it. Finish. Put a period somewhere, and call it the ending. Julia Cameron, author of The Artists Way, says, All too
often, it is audacity and not talent that moves an artist to center stage. Instead of being
envious, be audacious. Be brave and be done with whatever piece is stressing you and
then move on to your next piece. The more you write, the faster youll be at recognizing
and remedying writers block.

28

The Craft & Business of Writing

what to know before


your book comes out
by

M.J. Rose

ongratulations. Youve signed the contract and mailed it back to your agent. Its
real. Youve sold your first book. Hopefully you and your family will pop the cork
on a bottle of champagne and make a toast to your success. But what will happen when
you wake up the next morning and the 364 mornings after that until the day when your
book hits the shelves?
Unfortunately, your publisher isnt going to tell you, and while your agent will be
happy to answer all your questions, she doesnt have the time to educate you about
the business. And thats what it is now that the book is donewriting is an art, but
publishing is a business. The more you know about how the business works, the better
prepared youll be.
Usually a book comes out twelve to eighteen months after its bought and the contract is signed. There will be periods in that year where youll have a ton of work to do,
and stretches where you never hear from your agent or your editor and theres nothing
to do but start your next book. (Which you should be doing as soon as the contract
is signed. Nothing is better than to be working on a new book when the first comes
outit keeps you centered and makes you more of a writer.)
So what should you expect?

What? No Flowers?
Dont expect your agent or your editor to send that big bouquet when you sign the contract. While your agent is probably thrilled for you, shes also probably sold hundreds
of books in her career. Shes done her job, and she will have more to do, but in terms of
hugs, flowers, or excited phone calls, shes a businesswoman, not a mom.
As for your editor, shes also bought hundreds of books and probably has a roster of
anywhere from twenty to seventy-five authors whom she works with every year. So while
your book matters to her, shes not going to send anything eitherexcept the check.
And speaking of money, you dont get the money the day you sign the contract. You
dont even get it that week, or even the next. It can take from six to eight weeks until the

Getting Started 29

first payment comes. Talk to your agent if it goes longer than that. Knowing the payment schedule will help you figure out if you can quit your day job or not. Not is more
usual than unusual.

The Author-Editor Relationship


The most important thing youll do in the first months after the contract is signed is
work on your book. Again. And maybe even again. And then once again. No one is quite
prepared for how many times theyre going to have to read and revise their books, so Ill
do my best to explain it here.
The first communication youll get from your editor in e-mail or snail mail is the
editorial notes. These usually arrive one to three months after the contract is signed,
but that time depends on when your book is scheduled to be released. The notes you
receive are your editors big suggestions, changes, and requests. This is the time for the
hard questions and decisions.
This letter can be anywhere from one page to twenty pages. It isnt the line edit;
there wont be comments about an actual word here or there. Rather, youll get notes
like: Add a chapter that shows how the character reacts to the murder or I dont
understand your main characters motivation in running away from home. We need to
set this up better.
Usually youll have three to six weeks to address these notes (sometimes longer depending on your books publication date). Feel free to call your editor and discuss her
editsshe wants you to. She does not expect you to smile and accept every change she is
suggesting. But she does expect you to take her requests seriously. Almost every author
I know has issues with some of the suggestions in the notesdont hesitate to discuss
them with your editor.

The Big Switch


What do you do if you get shifted off to an assistant or your book is delayed? This can
happen to the best of us. Know that the assistant doesnt do anything without your editor knowing about it, and that delays do not mean the house has lost interest in your
book. If this happens to you, talk to your agent. Let her help you through the process.

Cover Up or Down
About nine months before your books publication date, youll get an overnight package that contains a cover for your book. Why so early? The publisher needs the cover for
the sales conference and the catalog (which the booksellers get about six months prior
to your books publication date). These catalogs are important. Often, they are the only
way the book buyers will find out about your book.
Do you love the cover? Like the cover? Despise the cover? Dont call your editor in a
fury. Call your agent. There are some things you can call the editor directly about (like
editorial conversations), but complaints with the cover should go to your agent first.
Let your agent argue and fight with your editor. Its better for your editor to get mad at
your agent than at you.

30

The Craft & Business of Writing

What if your agent likes the cover but you dont? Talk it out with her. Sometimes
the publisher and the agent understand the market better than you do. Even if you
dont think the cover fits your book, it still may be the right choice. Unless youre a book
designer or a bookseller, its probably best to go with what your publisher thinks the
cover should be like.

Edits Again?
Yes, this is the year of edits. Once youve sent the revised manuscript back to your editor, she will read it again and mark it up. This is called a line edit. This edited version
will include cut sentences, suggestions for word replacements, questions about specific
phrases, or comments on weak transitions or chapters that end too abruptly. Youll
probably have two weeks to look over this edit and make changes.
Do you need to make every change? No, but you do need to take every change seriously and come up with good reasons not to make the suggested changes.

And More Edits?


About a month laterwhich brings us to about six or seven months pre-publication
youll get the copyedit. This edit is done by a copy editor, not your editor. It corrects
the punctuation and grammar in your manuscript. You can break those rules and take
issue with the copy editors suggestions, but again, you need to have a reason. Usually
youll have two weeks to look over this version of your book. Do it carefully because
youll only have one more chance after this to see your book before it goes to print.

The Last Read


About three to six months before the book comes out, youll get to see first-pass pages.
Editors dont expect you to change much at this stagea dozen words here, two sentences there. This is not the time for you to rewrite the book, but rather read the final
book to make sure there are no typos.

When Do the ARCs Come?


Advanced reading copies (ARCs) are created about six months prior to your books publication date and are sent out to reviewers and bookstores five months before the publication of your book. Lately, publishers have been making ARCs out of your pre-edited
manuscript to save time. Talk to your agent after the contract is signed, and make sure
she talks to your editor about getting the manuscript edited before the ARCs are made.
Since the ARCs are what the reviewers see, you want them to be as close to the final
book as possible.
You also get ARCs of your book. Your editor or someone from the publicity department should call and ask you how many ARCs you want. This should happen about
eight months before your publication date. If no one calls, you should call your agent
and see if she wants to handle this, or see if she wants you to call your editor.
How many ARCs to ask for depends on how many big mouth people you know. If
you have ten friends who have newspaper columns or run big book clubs, you want to

Getting Started 31

make sure you give them all an ARC. If you are really friendly with your local bookstore
owner, you want to give him a personalized copy. Ideally, you want five to thirty ARCs
to give to people who can get buzz started for your book because word of mouth is the
best advertising a book can get.

You Need a Marketing Plan


As the number of books published increases and the size of publicity departments
seems to shrink, its more important than ever that you have a marketing plan when
you first approach book publishers. At the very least, it should include a list of what
youre willing to contribute in terms of time, energy, and exposure and what opportunities youve identified for speaking or signing appearances, as well as your personal and
professional mailing lists and a detailed description of all built-in audiences to which
you know you have access. (Are you a college professor or other expert in your field? Do
you have a successful online newsletter or blog? Do you regularly speak to or participate in any national organizations?)
Its important to meet as many of the people working on your book as possible
even if only by tele- or videoconferenceespecially your publicist and the in-house marketing staff. Call your editor seven months before your book comes out and ask if you
can have a marketing meeting. It is one of the most important things you can do for
your book.
The purpose of a marketing meeting is to find out what the publisher is going to do
to market your book. The reality is that few books get enough publicity or marketing.
Its just the economics of the business. Publishers are publishing more books than ever
and dont have the time or money to support them all.
If you can find out what your publisher is doing, you can figure out what you can do
yourself to add to these marketing efforts. Some authors take their entire advance and
hire outside publicists, while others take part of their advance and go on tours they set
up themselves. There are hundreds of things you can do to add to what your publisher
is going to do.

Sweet Dreams
About three weeks before the your books publication date, youll get a surprise package.
In it will be a copy of your book. Finished. All done. This means the print run is in the
warehouse, and the books being shipped to bookstores.
Theres a superstition among writers that when you receive that first copy of your
book, youre supposed to sleep with it under your pillow that night for luck.

Todays the Day


What will happen on the day of your books publication? Not much. Youve waited for
this day for two, three, four, or forty years, and you wake up on the release date and
nothing happens. The editor doesnt call. The agent doesnt call. The TV crews dont

32

The Craft & Business of Writing

show up. Over three hundred books come out every day. So while your book is everything to you, its business as usual to the rest of the world.
Plan your own celebration. Enjoy the day: Go to the bookstores and see if the book
is out. Sometimes books dont get unpacked in time and arent on the shelf on the day
of the books scheduled release, but dont worry it will be on the shelves soon.
It can be depressing, but remember: Writing is an art, but publishing is a business
and the course of business doesnt always run smooth. Whats important is this book is
done, and its time to start again with your next book.

What Should I Ask?


Its important to find out what the marketing staff is doing to promote your book, but you
need to do it without being antagonistic or sounding like a prima donna. So this is what I
suggest you say:
I know you guys are great and know how to do promotion, but I also know the realities
of the business and know how many books you have in-house. So what are the things you
think would help my book but that just require too much time or personal attention for you
to do in-house? I really hope youll be honest with meI wont be upset. You guys have a
hundred books a quarter, I only have one a year, so what can I do to help?
After you make your pitch to the team, you can use the following six questions to help
you navigate through the meeting:

How many ARCs are you printing?

When will the ARCs go out?

Are you planning any kind of book tour?

What are you hoping to do for the book?

Are you taking out any ads? If so, where?

Are you doing any kind of follow-up mailing to the ARC mailing?

Getting Started 33

the scams are


out there!
by

Nancy Breen

re you one of those writers who worries about being ripped off? While most industry
professionals are upstanding and trustworthy, there are individuals and operations
that prosper at the expense of nave writers eager to see their work in print. Such disreputable activities result in criminal investigations, class action lawsuitsand millions of
dollars bilked from those unsuspecting writers who dont know how to spot an unscrupulous publisher, literary agent, or book doctor.
How do these things happen? Could they happen to you? With basic knowledge of
how scams operate and the obvious warning signs (not to mention a well-developed
sense of skepticism), youll be better equipped to detect a scam before you get taken.

How Scams Work


Publishers: Theyre called subsidy, or vanity publishers. They recruit authors through
display ads in writers magazines, spam sent to online newsgroups, or even through
unsolicited letters and brochures sent by regular mail. ATTENTION: WRITERS
WANTED they trumpet. When you respond with a query or manuscript, you receive a
letter awash with praise for your writing and chock-full of promises of success and exaggerated claims for all the wonderful things the publisher will do for your manuscript,
from printing to promotion. Then, when the contract comes, you notice the clause that
states how much YOU are expected to contribute, usually a significant sum of money.
For this you will receive X number of books out of X number printed, your book will be
widely distributed and promoted and you will all live happily ever after.
Dont bet on it. These kinds of publishers make profits from the fees they charge
writers, not from sales of the books they produce. The finished books are often of dubious quality, theres actually little or no promotional effort expended by the publisher,
and youll be hard-pressed to find your book in major bookstores (or even small ones).
The publisher may not even print as many total books as promised. Without sales there
are no royalties, and the hoodwinked writer ends up with little to show for a considerable investment except stacks of unsold books.

34

The Craft & Business of Writing

Literary agents and book doctors: Shady agents recruit writers much as subsidy
publishers dothrough ads, online spam, and direct mail. When you submit a manuscript, the agent responds that the work isnt quite up to standard and could use some
editing. But dont despair! The agent gives you the name of an excellent book doctor
who understands just what that agent, and todays publisher, is looking for.
For an inflated fee, the book doctor works his magic on your manuscript. You
resubmit the work to the agent, but wouldnt you know it? In the meantime, the market
for your book has changed, or the agent represents an entirely different genre of writing, or ... Well, the end of the story is you wind up with an unpublished manuscript that
wasnt even particularly well doctored, you have no representation in the marketplace,
and youre out of a big chunk of change.
Anthologies: You see an ad calling for writers or announcing a competition that offers thousands of dollars in cash prizes. You submit a poem or story and, lo and behold,
you receive a heartening letter: Your poem didnt win, but its so good its been chosen
for inclusion in a special anthology of only the best poems submitted. What a feather
in your cap! Now, you dont have to purchase the anthology if you dont want to; but
should you wish to see your poem among this treasure trove of literary gems, it will
cost you only $45 (or whatevercould be more). Deluxe hardbound edition, mind you.

If Youre the Victim of a Scam ...


... or if youre trying to prevent one, the following resources should be of help:

Contact the Federal Trade Commission, Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-877-FTCHELP (382-4357) or log on to www.ftc.gov. While they wont resolve individual consumer problems, the FTC depends on your complaints to help them investigate fraud.
Your speaking up may even lead to law enforcement action. Contact them by phone
or enter your complaint through their online submission form.

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (1 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022) is a group of volunteers from the legal profession who assist with questions of law pertaining to all
fields of the arts. You can phone their hotline at (212) 319-ARTS (2787), ext. 1, and have
your questions answered for the price of the phone call. For further information you
can also visit their Web site at www.vlany.org.

Better Business Bureau (check local listings or visit www.bbb.org)the folks to contact if you have a complaint or if you want to investigate a publisher, literary agent, or
other business related to writing and writers.
In addition, you should contact your states attorney general with information about scamming activity. Dont know your attorney generals name? Go to the National Internet Fraud
Watch resource site (www.fraud.org/info/links.htm#agsoffices) for a wealth of contact information, including a complete list of links for each states attorney general.

Getting Started 35

Wont you be proud to show it to your family and friends? Why, theyll probably want
to buy copies for themselves.
When you receive this grand volume, you may be disappointed in the quality of the
other poems chosen to appear in this exclusive publication. Actually, everyone who
entered was invited to be published, and you basically paid cash to see your poem appear in a book of no literary merit whatsoever.
These are the most common scams out there, although enterprising con artists are
devising new ones all the time (modern technology, from display sites on the Internet
to print-on-demand schemes, have opened up lots of fresh possibilities for emptying
your wallet).

The Warning Signs


How do you protect yourself? Its important to learn the warning signs common to
most publishing scams. Spotting even one of these danger signals should be enough to
make you pause and ask some appropriate questions.
Heres what to watch out for:
A request for money. Heres how the legitimate system works: An agent sells your
work to a publisher and takes a percentage of the sale amount as commission. A publisher agrees to publish your work and makes money off the sales of your book. At no
point in the process should you be paying anyone for anything. That goes for reading
fees, marketing fees, contract fees, and so on.
What about contest fees? True, many literary magazines, small presses, and literary
organizations (such as state poetry societies) conduct contests that require entry fees
(also sometimes called reading fees), and most of these are legitimate. The fees they
charge go toward the expenses of conducting the contest, paying judges, and putting
up prize money, not lining someones pocket. Also, entrants often receive a subscription to the magazine or a copy of the prize issue in exchange for the entry fee (or a copy
of the winning book or chapbook in the case of small presses).
When in doubt, consider the reputation of the press, magazine, or organization,
how long its been in existence or sponsoring the competition, how dependably winners
and entrants are rewarded, and the quality of the winning entries. If a competition asks
for money but does not pay in cash, contributors copies, or some other tangible prize,
enter your work elsewhere.
One more note about money: Do expect to pay for professional services, such as
personal editing of your manuscript. However, be sure what youre being charged for
(simple copyediting vs. deep revision, for example). If theres a contract, read it carefully
and take pains to make sure both parties understand all points. And never pay the full
cost of the service up front!
Referral to a specific agent, publisher, or book doctor. Unscrupulous agents,
publishers, and book doctors could be in cahoots. For instance, an agent or publisher
might suggest he will look at your manuscript if its worked on by a certain book doc-

36

The Craft & Business of Writing

tor. An agent might suggest that a certain subsidy publisher is your best bet to see your
work in print. And so on. If youre referred to just one individual or company, beware!
Phrases like joint venture agreement, authors contribution, and copartnership. Its that money thing again. Beware of any wording that even remotely
suggests your financial participation. Your contribution will be bigger than you ever
imagined and bring you far less than you ever wanted to believe.
Extravagant praise or unrealistic promises. Does the publisher or agent just rave
about your work? Does he go on and on about the incredible success and financial
rewards you can expect upon publication? Are you fed glorious visions of promotional
campaigns and massive distribution? Dont be a chump. Hes setting you up for the
kill. Legitimate publishers and agents arent going to gush all over you; and those spiels
about promotional campaigns and widespread distribution are blue-sky come-ons that
never materialize into anything. Great stuff for feeding your ego in the beginning, but
later youll wonder how you ever could have been so gullible.
Vagueness about details. If a publisher, agent, or book doctor seems reluctant to
provide basic information about her business activities or suggests sharing such confidential information could compromise the businesss operation, be on guard. Its not
crossing the line to ask about sales figures or how royalties are calculated and how often
theyre paid, to request a client list (i.e., references), a complete breakdown of costs to
you, and whatever else youll need to help you make a sensible, well-informed decision.
Broad, inaccurate statements about the publishing industry. This is especially
true of negative statements that make it seem as if you have no hope of ever selling your
manuscript; at least, not without that partys assistance. If an agent, publisher, or book
doctor makes claims such as publishers dont edit manuscripts anymore, kick your
skepticism into high gear. While its true many editors are less involved in the nuts-andbolts editing than they used to be, do some research on your own to find out whats
really going on in the publishing world. Knowledge is power, and youll be better able to
detect the distortions in a scammers spiel.
Display ads for agents, publishers, contests, and anthologies. Youre better
off resisting these ads entirely. Legitimate, successful agents and publishers dont
need to advertise; theyre deluged with more writers than they can take on. Whats
more, these ads are misleading. Study them carefully and you probably wont find any
mention of a fee, but you can be sure that requests for money will be introduced once
you respond to the ad.
As for contests and anthologies, these ads are tempting with their promises of big
cash awards. Even if the awards are actually paid to the winners, what youre more likely
to receive is an invitation to buy an anthology. Understand that writers publications
do run display ads for entirely legitimate contests, but these are usually sponsored by
literary magazines and small presses. Those ads with the grandiose titles that appear in
both writer and nonwriter publications are what you really have to watch out for (The
Best Damn Poetry in the Cosmos Competition or Universal Library of Literary Giants
Competition or ... well, you get the idea).

Getting Started 37

These are just a few of the tip-offs to scams that prey on writers. When searching for an agent, publisher, or book doctor, apply the same common sense that you
would to finding a good mechanic, caterer, or carpenter. Request a resume and references. Check with the Better Business Bureau. Talk to clients past and present. Search
the Internet. You can even generate a professional background check (fees for this
vary, so be careful here, too).

Dont Rush to Publish


Writers serious about their craft should never be so impatient for publication that they
rush into dubious business arrangements. Devious publishers, agents, and book doctors understand the vulnerability of unpublished authors who feel anxiousdesperate,
evento see their work in print.
If youre good enough to be published, youre good enough to be the payee rather
than the payer. On the other hand, if you really are not ready for publication, paying
someone to rush things along isnt going to earn you the reputation and success you
desire. So put away your checkbook and credit cards and dig out your manuscript. Concentrate your energies into making your writing the best it can be. If your work deserves
an audience, it will find one without the process draining your bank account.
The scams are out therebut you do not have to be a victim.

For Info You Can Trust


There are plenty of books that can help you identify reputable publishers, literary agents,
and book doctors, including Writers Market and its online counterpart at www.writers
market.com (subscription-based), Guide to Literary Agents, and Literary Market Place. The Internet is also a rich source of information. Simply type publishing scams into your favorite
search engine. Here are some of our favorite sites (not only for scam information, but for
good writing advice as well):

National Writers Union (www.nwu.org) for their Writer Alerts page (accessible
to nonmembers)

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (www.sfwa.org/beware) for


their Writer Beware section

Preditors & Editors (www.anotherealm.com/prededitors) for their Warnings page

38

The Craft & Business of Writing

literary agents:
what they do and
how to get one
by the

Staff of Writers Market

n todays competitive marketplace, books only get published when they have a series
of passionate individuals who believe in the project. The author must be dedicated
and passionate enough to complete the book and polish it until its as perfect as it
can be. Then the author must have an agent or editor who is enthusiastic enough to
champion the work to the necessary publishing board and sales and marketing teams,
who in turn promote the book to booksellers and the media. Its a highly collaborative
process, and every individual or group along the way must support the book in order
for it to be successful.

What Can an Agent Do For You?


When an agent agrees to represent you and your work, you have reached the first step in
the publishing process; you now have an ally within the publishing industry, someone
else who is excited about your book and wants to see it in print. In addition to believing
in and being an advocate for your writing, an agents value lies in her knowledge of and
connection to publishers: When she agrees to represent a manuscript, she knows which
editors at the various publishing houses are most likely to feel as excited about your
book as she does. As the representative for your work, your agent will tell the appropriate editors why she believes in your book and why they should, too. But beyond being
enthusiastic about your book, agents offer expanded access to publishing houses.
Although there are many writers who successfully sell their manuscripts without
the help of a literary agent, most of the larger publishing houses will only look at manuscripts from agents. In fact, approximately 80 percent of books published by the major
houses are sold to them by agents. If you feel that an imprint of one of the larger publishing housesRandom House, Simon & Schuster, Grand Central Publishing, HarperCollins, Penguin, or Holtzbrinckis the best fit for your book, youre going to need
an agent just to get your book through those publishers doors. Thats only a small part
of what an agent can do for you. The following describes the various jobs agents do for
their clients, many of which would be difficult for a writer to do without outside help.

General Business 39

Agents know editors tastes and needs


An agent possesses information on a complex web of publishing houses and a multitude of editors to make sure her clients manuscripts are placed in the hands of the
right editors. This knowledge is gathered through relationships she cultivates with acquisitions editorsthe people who decide which books to present to their publishers
for possible publication. Through her industry connections, an agent becomes aware
of the specializations of publishing houses and their imprints, knowing that one publisher only wants contemporary romances while another is interested solely in nonfiction books about the military.
By networking with editors over lunch and at conferences and trade shows, an agent
also learns more specialized informationlike which editor is looking for a crafty Agatha Christie-style mystery for the fall catalog, for example.

Agents track changes in publishing


Being attentive to constant market changes and vacillating trends is also a major requirement of an agents job. He understands what it may mean for clients when publisher A
merges with publisher B, and when an editor from house C moves to house D. Or what
it means when readersand therefore editorsare no longer interested in Westerns, but
instead cant get their hands on enough Stephen King-style suspense novels.

Agents get your manuscript read faster


Although it may seem like an extra step to send your manuscript to an agent instead
of directly to a publishing house, the truth is an agent can prevent writers from wasting months sending manuscripts to the wrong places or being buried in some editors
mountain of unsolicited manuscripts (called the slush pile).
Editors rely on agents to save them time as well. With little time to sift through
the hundreds of unsolicited submissions arriving weekly in the mail or by e-mail, an
editor is naturally going to prefer a manuscript that has already been approved by
a qualified reader. (This is the reason many of the larger publishers accept agented
submissions only.)

Agents understand contracts


When publishers write contracts, they are primarily interested in their own bottom line
rather than the best interests of the author. Writers unfamiliar with contractual language may find themselves bound to a publisher with whom they no longer want to
work, or trapped in a clause that prevents them from getting royalties on their first
book until they have written several. An agent uses his experience to negotiate a contract that benefits the writer while still respecting the publishers needs.

Agents negotiate Subsidiary rights


Beyond print publication, a savvy agent keeps in mind other opportunities for your
manuscript. If your agent believes your book will also be successful as an audiobook, a
Book-of-the-Month Club selection, or even a blockbuster movie, he will take these op-

40

The Craft & Business of Writing

tions into consideration when shopping your manuscript. These additional outlets for
your writing are called subsidiary rights. Part of an agents job is to keep track of the
strengths and weaknesses of different publishers subsidiary rights offices to determine
the deposition of these rights to your work. After the contract is negotiated, the agent
will seek additional moneymaking opportunities for the rights he kept for his client.

Agents get escalators


An escalator is a bonus that an agent can negotiate as part of the book contract. It is
commonly given when a book appears on a best-seller list or if a client appears on a
popular television show. For example, a publisher might give a writer a $50,000 bonus
if she is picked for a book club. Both the agent and the editor know such media attention will sell more books, and the agent negotiates an escalator to ensure the writer
benefits from this increase in sales.

Agents track payments


Because an agent only receives payment when the publisher pays the writer, it is in her
best interest to make sure the writer is paid on schedule. Some publishing houses are
notorious for late payments. Having an agent distances you from any conflict over payment and allows you to spend your time writing instead of on the phone.

Agents are strong advocates


Besides standing up for your right to be paid on time, agents can ensure your book gets
more attention from the publishers marketing department, a better cover design, or
other benefits you may not know to ask for during the publishing process. An agent
can also provide advice during each step of this process as well as guidance about your
long-term writing career.

When Might You Not Need an Agent?


Although there are many reasons to work with an agent, an author can benefit from
submitting his own work. For example, if your writing focuses on a very specific audience, a niche topic, or is less commercial (such as literary fiction or poetry), you may
want to work with a small or specialized publisher. These houses are usually open to
receiving material directly from writers. Smaller houses can often give more attention
to a writer than a large house, providing editorial help, marketing expertise, and other
advice directly to the writer.
Some writers use a lawyer or entertainment attorney instead of an agent. If a lawyer
specializes in intellectual property, he can help a writer with contract negotiations. Instead of receiving a commission, the lawyer is paid for his time only.
And, of course, some people prefer working independently instead of relying on
others to do their work. If you are one of these people, it is probably better to shop your
own work instead of constantly butting heads with an agent.

General Business 41

The Basics of Contacting Agents


Once you and your manuscript are thoroughly prepared and youve determined whether
your work is best suited to a large commercial publisher or a smaller house, the time is
right to contact an agent. Finding an agent can often be as difficult as finding a publisher.
Nevertheless, there are four ways to maximize your chances of finding the right agent:



1. Obtain a referral from someone who knows the agent.


2. Meet the agent in person at a writers conference.
3. Submit a query letter or proposal.
4. Attract the agents attention with your own published writing.

Referrals
The best way to get your foot in an agents door is to be referred by one of his clients or
by an editor or another agent he has worked with in the past. Because an agent trusts
his clients, he will usually read referred work before over-the-transom submissions.
If you are friends with anyone in the publishing business who has connections with
agents, ask politely for a referral. However, dont be offended if another writer will not
share the name of his agent.
If you dont know any publishing professionals, use the resources you do have to get
an agents attention.

Conferences
Going to a conference is your best bet for meeting an agent in person. Many conferences invite agents to either give a presentation or simply be available for meetings with
authors. Agents view conferences as a way to find writers. Often agents set aside time for
one-on-one discussions with writers, and occasionally they may even look at material
writers bring to the conference. If an agent is impressed with you and your work, she
may ask for writing samples after the conference. When you send your query, be sure to
mention the specific conference where you met and that she asked to see your work.

Submissions
The most common way to contact an agent is by a query letter or a proposal package.
Most agents will accept unsolicited queries. Some will also look at outlines and sample
chapters. Almost none want unsolicited complete manuscripts. Check agents Web sites
or market guides like Guide to Literary Agents to learn exactly how an agent prefers to be
solicited. Never calllet the writing in your query letter speak for itself.
Because a query letter is your first impression on an agent, it should be professional
and to the point. As a brief introduction to your manuscript, a query letter should only
be one page in length.

The first paragraph should quickly state your purpose and your project: You want
representation for a [novel/nonfiction book/childrens middle-grade reader, etc.]
thats approximately [X],000 words and fits into the [X] genre.

42

The Craft & Business of Writing

In the second paragraph, mention why you have specifically chosen to query him.
Perhaps he specializes in your areas of interest or represents authors you admire.
Show him you have done your homework.
In the next paragraph or two, describe the project, the proposed audience, why
your book will sell, etc. Be sure to mention any special features.
Then discuss why you are the perfect person to write this book, listing your professional credentials or relative experience.
Close your query with an offer to send either an outline, sample chapters, or the
complete manuscriptdepending on your type of book and the agents guidelines.

Remember, like publishers, agencies have specialties. Some are only interested in novellength works. Others are open to a wide variety of subjects but may actually have member agents within the agency who specialize in only a handful of the topics covered by
the entire agency. You must put as much research into deciding which agents to query
as you would when choosing publishers.

Publishing credits
Some agents read magazines or journals to find writers to represent. If you have had an
outstanding piece published in a periodical, you may be contacted by an agent wishing
to represent you. In such cases, make sure the agent has read your work. Some agents
send form letters to writers, and such agents often make their living entirely from
charging reading fees, not from commissions on sales.
However, many reputable and respected agents do contact potential clients in this
way. For them, you already possess attributes of a good client: You have publishing
credits, and an editor has validated your work. To receive a letter from a reputable agent
who has read your material and wants to represent you is an honor.
Occasionally, writers who have self-published or who have had their work published
electronically may attract an agents attention, especially if the self-published book has
sold several thousand copies or received a lot of positive reviews.
Recently, writers have been posting their work on the Internet in hope of attracting an
agents eye. With all the submissions agents receive, they have little time to peruse writers
Web sites. Nevertheless, there are agents who consider the Internet a resource for finding
fresh voices. The future will show how often writers are discovered through this medium.

A Final Word
While agents can help you sell a single book, theyre more interested in representing
your entire career, so be selective about the agents you query and eventually agree to
work with. Agents are invaluable business managers, and your relationship with them
is a lot like a marriagewith ups and downs, joyful times and disappointments, lean
times and successful timesso make sure an agents personality and business style are
ones youre comfortable with before you agree to be represented by him. The process of
publishing is a lot more enjoyable when you and your agent communicate well on the
direction of your writing career.

General Business 43

A Writers guide
to money
by

Gary Provost

friend of mine, who Ill call Rocky, spent fifteen years writing a very good 500-page
novel. When he sold his novel to a major hardcover publisher, he received an advance
of $3,000, which he probably spent on therapy. The novel got a small first printing and
good reviews. Soon after that all existing copies of the book were sucked into an enormous
black hole, never to be seen again. Rockys novel was not reprinted in paperback; no producer bought a movie option; no magazine published excerpts; nobody asked for Rockys
autograph. In short, Rockys book met the fate of most literary first novels: no advertising,
no publicity, few sales, a short life. Almost certainly, that $3,000 is all the money Rocky will
ever receive for his fifteen years of work.
On the other hand, Robert James Waller required only a few weeks to write The Bridges
of Madison County. The book took up almost permanent residence on the best-seller list. In
1993, The Bridges of Madison County sold more copies than the top ten best-selling books of
1983 combined. Wallers follow-up book, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, which some have seen as
a thinly disguised rewrite of Bridges, also went directly to the best-seller list without passing
go. Waller, a singer before he was a writer, has parlayed his fame into a successful CD. Clint
Eastwood has made Bridges a film. All of this has brought to Waller a paycheck well into the
multimillions of dollars, putting him in the same tax bracket as Shaquille ONeal.
Hardly seems fair, does it?
Of course not. Rule #1 about writing and money is that fair has nothing to do with it.
Nobody is going to buy your book, short story, or magazine article just because you worked
really hard. A fair days pay for a fair days work doesnt apply to writing for a living.

First, Some Money Myths Debunked


If you want to understand how writers make money, you must first lose a lifetime of assumptions about work and money. Specifically, you must delete these three ideas from
your mind:
1. My pay is related to the number of hours I work (the hourly wage).
2. My pay is related to the number of items I produce (piecemeal).

44

The Craft & Business of Writing

3. My pay is related to the quality of my work (merit).


Look at my earlier example: Waller worked fewer hours, wrote fewer pages, and created
a work of, some might argue, lesser quality. But his paycheck was thousands of times
greater than Rockys.
Certainly the hours put in, the volume of work turned out, and the quality of your
writing will contribute to the overall financial success of your writing career. But the
number one determiner of your paycheck on any given project is not hours, volume, or
quality. It is the market. Who bought it? And who did they sell it to?
In the case of my friend Rocky, he sold his product to a book publisher and they in
turn sold it to the small number of people who were willing to spend $22 for a hardcover literary novel by an unknown writer. In the case of Waller, he sold his product to a
big publisher, Warner Books, but for various reasons, Warner was able to sell The Bridges
of Madison County to millions of people who had heard about the book.
Short stories and magazine articles sold to a publisher are also resold as part of
the periodical in which they appear. The market for an article can be the small-town
newspaper that in turn sells it to their five thousand subscribers, or the regional magazine that sells it to their seventy thousand subscribers, or the big national magazine
that sells it to their three million subscribers.
The editors of all these publications have two things in common: One, they are
looking for well-written material that will interest their readers, and two, theyre not
particularly concerned about how hard you worked to come up with the material. Did
you make thirty phone calls trying to get that interview with Tommy Lee Jones, or did
Tommy talk to you right away because he went to school with your cousin? They dont
care. Did you walk into the library and find what you needed right away, or did you
spend hours there because some sophomore was using the computer for his science
project? They dont care. Did you use your research material in three other articles, thus
making your time more cost-effective, or is this article the only one you will write on
the subject? They dont care. You are going to get paid what your work is worth to the
editor, not what it is worth to you. In the case of Rocky, that is bad news. In the case of
Waller, that is good news. So the question is not, Whats fair? The question is: What
can you do to be more like a Waller than a Rocky?

Periodical Pay Rates


You can begin by understanding the writers market. Lets start with magazines and
newspapers. We can generalize and say that a magazine or newspaper makes money by
selling advertising space. If a magazine has a big circulation, it can charge advertisers
more money, and then it will have more money to spend on writers. That means that if
you write a 750-word column about how to have fun with a fax machine and sell it to a
small-town newspaper, you might get $30 for it. If you were to sell the same column to a
newspaper in a mid-sized city, you might get $80100 for it, and if you sold the column
to a big city newspaper you might get $200300 for it. If you write a 2,000-word article
on tax revolt for a city magazine, like Atlantic City Magazine, you might get $300. Sell

General Business 45

the same piece to a regional magazine like Yankee and maybe youll get $900. Sell it to a
big circulation national like Readers Digest and maybe youll get $2,000 or even $3,000.
Same article, different markets.
This generalization is useful, but not absolute. There are, for example, magazines
that dont need a lot of advertising money in order to pay you well, because they are not
trying to make a profit. Magazines such as AARP: The Magazine exist not to make money
on their own, but to serve the members of an organization, in this case the American Association of Retired Persons. There are also magazines, like The New Yorker, that make a
lot of money because they are able to reach the desirable upscale readers who can afford
the sports cars and expensive evening wear advertised in their pages.
So you can see that the writers market is sometimes as complex as the stock market,
and if you want to make money from your writing you must study guides like Writers
Market and the individual guidelines of the publishers listed in it. Remember, better
writing without better marketing wont earn you a dime more. The lifestyle editor of
the local newspaper is not going to pay you Redbook wages just because your piece on
the history of spoons is of Redbook quality.

Efficient Writing
However, as important as the market is, there are many things you can do as a writer
to make money flow to you more often and in greater amounts. (Notice that I didnt
say faster. Money moves very slowly toward writers.) While time, volume, and quality
are not directly responsible for the size of your paycheck, they will in the long run
combine to make you solvent or lead you into bankruptcy. The quality of your writing is what will help you compete with top writers for the best-paying markets. And
the speed of your writing will help you turn out a lot of material, even if it happens to
be for lower-paying markets.
When you combine all of thesemarket awareness, good writing, and speedyou
have efficient writing. Efficient writing means not just studying the market and writing
well, but thinking about how you can squeeze the most dollars from each hour spent
on your writing and research. You will learn your own moneymaking tricks as you move
through your career. But here are a few basics.

1. Use research time wisely


This means when you research a subject for an article, learn enough for two or three
or more articles on the subject. This goes for books, too. If, like me, you write fiction
and nonfiction, so much the better. I wrote a nonfiction book called High Stakes: Inside
the New Las Vegas. Now I am working on a mystery that takes place in Las Vegas. The
research is paying off twice.

2. Reslant your article for another magazine


Lets say youve written an article for Inside Detective on people who took the law into
their own hands. Maybe one of your most interesting anecdotes concerns a Boston man

46

The Craft & Business of Writing

who foiled a pet shop holdup. He might get three paragraphs in your piece for Inside Detective, but maybe you could write a complete article about his case for Boston Magazine
or the Sunday supplements of the Boston Herald or Boston Globe.
When you cant use all of the research, use part of it. Maybe in your research you
found that most of these people used handguns. You could use your stories as a takingoff point in another article either for or against gun control.

3. Think about added value


To the writer added value means giving the customer a little bit more and getting paid
for it. Once youve agreed to write an article on ceramic banks for, say, $400, there are a
few things you can do to fatten the paycheck. Artwork, meaning photos or illustrations,
is usually paid for separately, and often brings in more money than the article itself, so
be creative in coming up with ways to illustrate your article. Another source of revenue is
sidebars. A sidebar is a small article, perhaps 200 words, that runs in a box beside or below
the main article. For your article on ceramic banks, you could write a sidebar explaining
how the pig came to be the model for piggy banks. (And by the way, the reason I thought
of that example is that I came upon the answer while researching another article.)

4. Resell your article or story


As you research the market, you will see that many magazines buy reprint rights or
second serial rights. That means they will pay you money for the right to publish a
story or article that you have already published elsewhere. Maybe you spent ten hours
on your piece about backyard swimming pools and you got $500. Thats $50 an hour.
Now you sell it again for $200. Youve just raised your hourly rate to $70 an hour. Just
be sure that you sold the previous publisher first rights only.
Another way to get more money for your magazine article or short story is to make
it part of a book. For example, I once wrote an article called The Seven Beacons of
Good Writing for Writers Digest magazine. I have sold reprint rights to that article to
six different writing anthologies, for a total of $2,000.

Books and Money


While the principles of efficient magazine writing also apply to book writing, there are
important differences regarding money in book writing. The money you get for writing
a book comes from two sources: the royalties and advance, and the subsidiary rights.

Advance and Royalties


Author royalties vary, but not by much. There are standards in the industry: 10 percent of
the cover price on a hardcover book, 6 to 8 percent on a paperback. Usually there is an escalator, an increase in the royalty rate after the book has sold a certain number of copies.
The advance is an amount of money you will get before the book is published, usually
one-half when you sign a book contract and one-half when you deliver the completed
manuscript. It is an advance against royalties and your royalty statements will arrive with-

General Business 47

out a check until that advance has been earned back. I can give you some examples of advances, but I cant promise that they will be useful. Two women I know recently sold their
first true-crime books as paperback originals. One got $10,000, the other got $12,000.
One of my students recently sold her first novel, a paperback original, for $8,000. Another
sold his in hardcover for $4,000 and still another sold his in paperback for $3,000. I have
another friend, very well established, who gets $300,000 advances for his hardcover novels.
My own advances for true-crime books have been in the $50,00070,000 range, but I only
got $40,000 for a business book last year, $10,000 for a book about writing, and when I
write a childrens book Im lucky to get $7,000. I know of one author who was offered a
$15,000 advance for his novel by one publisher, and $400,000 by another.
As you can see, when it comes to money, book publishing is a crazy business. Certainly the great majority of advances fall between $4,000 and $50,000, but there are
many superstars like Stephen King and Nora Roberts who get millions. Robert James
Waller probably got a small advance for The Bridges of Madison County because nobody
had ever heard of him, but he probably got a zillion dollars for the next book because by
then everybody had heard of him.
The reason for all this diversity is that the advance is often based on perceptions,
not realities. A publisher bases his advance on what he thinks the first print run of the
book will be. That number is based on what he thinks will be the advance orders for the
book. That guess, in turn, is based on how enthusiastic he thinks the sales force will be
about selling the book. That guess could be based on what he thinks the finished manuscript will look like. And so forth. It is all guesswork fueled by such varied things as the
fact that a similar book did well last year; the author has a good track record; Madonna
has agreed to write a quote for the front jacket; Steven Spielberg is interested in making
a movie of it; or the authors agent has a reputation for discovering great new talents.
Of course, it is not as much of a crapshoot as it seems, because these beliefs tend to be
self-fulfilling. When you pay a million-dollar advance to an author, you automatically
print a lot of books and spend a lot of money on promotion and advertising.

Subsidiary Rights
The other source of money for the book author comes from subsidiary rights. That is, all
the rights he hasnt sold to the publisher. Subsidiary rights include audio rights, foreign
rights, movie rights, electronic rights, serialization (in a magazine) rights, and in some cases
the right to base a T-shirt, towel, or desk calendar on your book. The best way to wring the
most money out of these rights is to get a good literary agent before you sign the contract.

Some Good News


If youre feeling overwhelmed at this point, dont be. After all the small checks and
the slow checks and the frustrations that come with this profession, we writers have
something that sane people do not. We all have it in us to write that next bestseller that
brings the six-figure royalty checks, the movie deal, the book club offer, the huge paperback reprint, the letters from adoring fans. We wont all be Robert James Waller. In fact,

48

The Craft & Business of Writing

very few of us will be. But all of us can wake up each morning knowing that we are part
of a profession that makes that dream at least possible.

Know Your Rights


Writers and editors sometimes define rights in a number of different ways. Below you will
find a classification of terms as they relate to rights.

First serial rights: Rights that the writer offers a newspaper or magazine to publish
the manuscript for the first time in any periodical. All other rights remain with the
writer. Sometimes the qualifier North American is added to these rights to specify a
geographical limitation to the license. When content excerpted from a book scheduled to be published appears in a magazine or newspaper prior to book publication,
this is also called first serial rights.

One-time rights: Nonexclusive rights (rights that can be licensed to more than one
market) purchased by a periodical to publish the work once. These are also known as
simultaneous rights, that is, there is nothing to stop the author from selling the work
to other publications at the same time.

Second serial (reprint) rights: Nonexclusive rights given to a newspaper or magazine to


publish a manuscript after it has already appeared in another newspaper or magazine.

All rights: This is exactly what it sounds like. All rights means an author is selling
every right he has to a work. If you license all rights to your work, you forfeit the right
to ever use the work again, in any form or media. You should avoid submitting to such
markets or refuse payment and withdraw your material.

Electronic rights: Rights that cover a broad range of electronic media, from online
magazines and databases to CD-ROM magazine anthologies and interactive games.
The contract should specify if and which electronic rights are included. The presumption is unspecified rights remain with the writer.

Subsidiary rights: Rights, other than book publication rights, that should be covered
in a book contract. These may include various serial rights; movie, TV, audiotape, and
other electronic rights; translation rights; etc. The book contract should specify who
controls the rights (author or publisher) and what percentage of sales from the licensing of these rights goes to the author.

Dramatic, TV, and motion picture rights: Rights for use of material on the stage, on
TV, or in the movies. Often a one-year option to buy such rights is offered (generally
for 10 percent of the total price). The party interested in the rights then tries to sell the
idea to other peopleactors, directors, studios, or TV networks. Some properties are
optioned numerous times, but most fail to become full productions. In those cases,
the writer can sell the rights again and again.

General Business 49

smooth starting
for full-time
freelance writing
by John

F. Lauerman

t 7 a.m. I rise smiling and unblinking from my bed and begin preparing for another
day of the life of a freelancer. First theres a hearty breakfast, a few minutes of play
with Hanna and James, and then a long, hot shower.
At 8:30, dressed in mismatched socks, a torn sweatshirt, jeans, and high-top sneakers (who cares what I wear?), I make my way downstairs to the office where my computer
hums expectantly. My to-do list beckons: an op-ed piece for the Times, a 6,500-word
article on chaos for The New Yorker, a speech for the president of General Motors (due
tomorrow), and the script for a Nova episode on the physics of baseball.
Like a pilot strapping into the cockpit, I take the controls of my word processor and
begin meticulously crafting sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters. A full two hours
pass before I even glance away from the screen, but when I do, holy cow! The sun is out,
its a beautiful day, and its still only 10:30.
Golf! I yelp, and hurriedly add the Pings to the collection of sports equipment
in the Miatas trunk. As I race to tee off, the cell phone rings. Its my agent: The sixfigure book deal has come through. Checks in the mail! she says. Dont spend it
all in one place.
Wow, I love this job!

What Kind of Person Freelances?


Well, it isnt always like that. As a matter of fact, its almost never like that, and to be absolutely truthful I would have to admit I cant remember a single day of freelancing that
was even remotely like that. Sure, I take some days off. Yes, its true that I seldom dress
up for work. Given, some of the jobs are exciting. But all in all, the freedom of freelancing has been greatly exaggerated. Most freelancers have offices, and most of them spend
their nine-to-five day in that office, trying to make a living.
Being a successful freelancer doesnt necessarily mean having time to work on your
golf game, or writing for high-profile national magazines. I once read that a good farmer is one who can make enough money to keep on farming. The same is true of freelance
writing: If youre making enough money to keep afloat, you must be doing okay.

50

The Craft & Business of Writing

To Specialize or Not ...


Building a specialty can be vital to maintaining your freelance career. In fact, many freelancers start out with a specialty interest, and the desire to write about it. Ive been writing
about science and medicine for more than ten years, and here are a few observations:

Specializing can be important to financial and career survival. If you can say, I know
architecture, Ive been writing about it for years, its helpful when youre looking for
jobs, or when youre trying to sell yourself. The best markets in freelancing provide upto-the-minute, accurate, understandable information about specific fields. The best
way to do that is via specialization.

Dont be intimidated by specializing. That is, you dont need to be an architect to write
about architecture. Sure, it helps to know something about it, and have more than a
passing interest. But the important thing is to become familiar with the terminology,
be able to communicate familiar concepts, and cultivate contacts in the field.

Once you do specialize, the world tends to get very small. Treat your sources as well
as you can, particularly when youre starting out. Some sources will want you to read
quotes back to them. Depending on the type of assignment youre working on, you
may want to accommodate them, or at least negotiate something with them. Calling
people back to comment on what youve written also gives you a chance to do more
reporting, and to cultivate them as regular sources. Maybe some of your sources, particularly the higher-placed ones, will be very concerned about whether they can trust
you, and they will remember if they think theyve been burned.

I often think of a freelancer as an artisan, not unlike the silversmith Paul Revere:
He lived upstairs, worked downstairs, and was as active in the community as he was
in his own profession (recall his famous ride?). Before the birth of large corporations,
virtually everyones work life was organically related to life in the community, by both
proximity and function. As it happens, todays economic climate allows for a certain
amount of artisanship in the field of writing; people who can fill that niche are able to
make a living.
That being said, there are lots of talented people who have tried freelancing and
returned to office work; likewise, there are others who have left the daily grind and
hightailed it back to the home office. I began freelancing while on a science writing
fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, doing pieces for the San Francisco
Examiner and San Jose Mercury News. Later, when I took a job with the Harvard Medical
School news office, I continued to do occasional articles for the Boston Globe, the Patriot
Ledger, and the Boston Herald, as well as other publications.
The notion of full-time freelancingas opposed to after-hours, weekend freelancingoccurred to me in the same idealized way that it strikes a lot of people: be your
own boss, more time for writing fiction, tennis at three. These were the ideas float-

General Business 51

ing around in my head. Two children, a mortgage, and a car loan have dashed those
dreams, but Im still a thriving small businessman, I still decide more or less how Im
going to spend each dayas long as I spend it workingand I still have the sense of artisanry and identification with my work that I think only freelancing can provide.

Whats in a Freelancers Toolbox?


As I think Ive proven often enough, you dont have to be a gifted writer to freelance.
You just need to be willing to gather information and write it up clearly. That, in a nutshell, is what most freelancers provide: fresh information served hot. (See the sidebar
on specialization.) However, the news many writers arent prepared for is that freelancing is hard work, and it requires planning, risk-taking, and doing a few things most
people arent used to doing on a daily basis:





Working alone
Marketing your services
Editing your own work
Motivating yourself
Being your own office manager
Doing other work for which you have no training

Are you prepared to do these things? Erin Martin was a public information officer at a
large Boston teaching hospital until a merger forced her to reconsider her position. She
knew freelancers who were making $100 an hour writing public relations copy for local
firms, and decided to take a stab at it herself.
The work was there, says Martin, but I didnt like the isolation. The telephone
man came to install a new line and I wanted to have lunch with the guy. I didnt like
freelancing very much. Im much more comfortable in an environment where I interact
with other people.
Luckily for Martin, she managed to find another position quickly, where she now
hires many freelancers. However, many would-be freelancers find they have difficulty
getting adequate work. I receive any number of calls from people who are simply looking for new clients, or advice on how to find them. The reality is that the vast majority
of assignments come by referral, and that the best time to develop a client base is before
you go out on your own.
Marketing your services is an unending part of the life of a freelancer. As long as
youre peddling your own services, you will need to put your products and abilities in
front of the people with the power to buy them. This means going to professional meetings, having lunch, making calls, small talk, and friends. Keep in mind that none of this
is a replacement for good writing and editing, the most important components of a
good marketing effort. But personal relations with editors and managers make getting
repeat business much more likely.
Many freelancers are unprepared for the level of writing and reporting they will
have to reach to satisfy their clients. Bob Whitaker, editor of CenterWatch, a newsletter

52

The Craft & Business of Writing

that follows the clinical drug trials scene, says that many freelancers are surprised when
he asks them to go back for additional reporting.
Some freelancers think they can do a couple quick interviews without really understanding the subject, he says, and then use their writing skills to cover that up. I need
someone who can report stories in a thorough manner.
Then theres the Big Mo: motivation. I cant tell you how often people ask me how I
motivate myself to go to work in the morning. My answer is that theres no better motivator than a mailbox with a paycheck in it. However, I find many people cant make the
connection between working in December and eating in January; if youre one of those
people, keep commuting.
One of the hardest things to get up for is the everyday running of your office. I
often tell new freelancers that their most important job is collecting receipts so they
can keep track of their expenses. Those receipts are worth money, and when I started
off, I collected everything, even if it was for a cup of coffee. Now Im a little more selective, but Im always thinking about my expenses and how theyll affect my earnings and
taxes. (See the sidebar on financial habits.) As I write this, Im getting ready to prepare
my taxes, something I never look forward to. I also have to make all the decisions about
what equipment to buy, when to buy it, and when to get rid of it. It gives one a whole
new appreciation of the job an office manager has to perform.
Office management may sound imposing enough, but this may not even compare
with some of the professional work youll do. In the quest to keep a steady stream of clients, and to find interesting and rewarding work, Ive written all kinds of things Id had
no experience writing before: market analyses, video scripts, slide shows, advertising
copy, you name it. If you need work, you may have to expand beyond your comfortable
area of expertise and try some new things.
If youre ready to do all these things, and take some unforeseen chances, then you
have what I consider the basic traits to become a freelance writer.

Myths Busted: The Business Plan


A few years ago, when I was starting out full time, I felt that there were some important
gaps in my understanding of how to make the freelance business work. Naturally, the
most important thing I was concerned with was cash flow. I decided to attend a seminar on the business of freelancing to see how other people handled their finances, and
perhaps get some expert advice that would help maximize my income. At the course,
we students sat in an attentive circle, waiting to hear what pearls of wisdom would fall
from the mouth of our instructor.
First of all, he instructed, you need a business plan.
Everyone in the circle quickly wrote down Business plan! I felt naive and embarrassed; I had never had a business plan. How would I ever get ahead in life without a
business plan? However, I wasnt sure what a business plan was, so I decided to take a
reporting tack. I raised my hand.
What did your business plan say when you started out? I asked.

General Business 53

Some Financial Advice


My late mentor, Lillian Blacker, gave me one piece of important financial advice: Always
keep your milk money tucked into your mittens. Here Im adding a few more tips for beginning full-time freelancers:

Keep track of all money coming in or going out. Have a good idea of how much money
you need to meet your monthly expenses.

Keep some emergency money in the bank. This admonition may sound hackneyed
and unrealistic, but most family financial advisers recommend a cash reserve equal
to three months of your incomeand theyre talking about people who already have
jobs! Your ability to continue freelancing will depend on whether you can get through
tough times.

This may be the most important sentence in this article: Save your receipts. Every dollar you can legally deduct from your taxable income is more money you can keep. The
current tax situation is not particularly friendly to freelancers, so keep track of every
dollar you spend; then find out from a tax expert what you can legally deduct.

Save for the future. If you figure to be freelancing for a long period of time, you must
think realistically about your retirement income. Take advantage of things like self-employment IRAs and other tax-exempt savings opportunities. That leads me to an important point: If you have children (or plan to), set up a savings account for their education.

If you feel you need to know more about finances, learn it! I read all kinds of books
and went to one-day seminars on small business administration, says Judi Norkin, a
freelancer in Newtown, Pennsylvania. I am always actively teaching myself about the
business side.

Get an accountant. It may cost more in the short run, but if you are ever audited, it may
be very useful to have someone with you at your elbow as you face the IRS. An accountant can objectively evaluate all your deductions and tell you how the IRS is going to
look at them, which could save you quite a bit of money.

Well, admitted our instructor, I never actually had a business plan myself, but this
syllabus Im using says you should have one.
It was a telling moment, but in looking back, Im not that surprised. Almost no one
Ive ever talked to had a business plan before beginning his freelancing career. Most successful freelancers Ive spoken to went out on their own because they just couldnt stand
another day of business-as-usual and office politics. Rob Dinsmoor, a good friend of
mine who has been freelancing almost as long as I have, got started in a fit of temper.
My employers were about to publish a table in eight-point type, and I knew no one
was going to be able to read it, he recalls. They had done it before, and I thought that if
no one said anything they would do it again. So I started shouting and before I knew it I

54

The Craft & Business of Writing

was having a tantrum. The next day I was so ashamed, I gave my notice. But I started picking up freelance work right away, before I even had time to look for a full-time job.
Rob didnt have a business plan either, but he did have what he really needed: paying
clients. As a freelancer, having clients is your #1 concern; my idea of a business plan is
that you know where the money is coming from. Rob was lucky enough to have enough
contacts, including his former employer, to generate the income he needed to cover his
bills. If you know you have enough business to cover your expenses before you go out
on your own, youve basically won the battle before a shot has been fired. A common
fatal error committed by freelancers is they start their business without any idea who
their clients will be.
To start off, new freelancers should optimally have one big client or several small
clients. I began with one medium-sized client, a medical alumni magazine. A friend of
mine was obligated by circumstances (the birth of her first child) to take a three-month
maternity leave. So, my first freelance assignment was to fill in during her convalescence. This gave me three months of steady, paid work during which I could look for
additional clients.

How Much Should I Charge?


How many clients do you need to start with? You can never have too many clients, but
you want to be assured of enough business to pay your bills. Aspiring freelancers come
to me all the time asking how much they should charge for their services. The answer is:
enough to pay your bills.
Theres an easy way to figure this out, which I actually picked up from a freelancing
seminar. To figure out how much you need to earn each hour, try this exercise:

Sum up your annual expenses: rent, groceries, clothing, car payment, utilities, opera tickets, greens fees ... everything. Add in the costs of running your own business,
like office supplies and telephone bills that formerly would have been charged to
your office. Also add in things like health insurance and your contribution to a
retirement fund. Then figure that if you make enough money to cover all these
expenses, youll have to pay about one-third that amount in taxes. So add up all
those expenses, plus one-third more: thats the amount of money you need to get
by each year. Lets sayvery conservativelyits $35,000.

All right, time is money. Lets see how much time you have to earn your annual
$35,000. There are fifty-two weeks in a year.

Say youre a tough boss to start off with, and you only give yourself two weeks vacation. Plus you take the major holidays and your own religious or cultural holidays.
If youre an uncultured atheist, this adds up to five days, but for other people it
could be more. Take another five days for sickness and personal matters. Lets say
we have forty-seven weeks left for you to work forty hours in: 47 40 = 1,880.

Of course, you wont spend all that time working on projects you can bill for. Your
main activities in your office will be (from greatest to smallest, we hope) working,

General Business 55

looking for work, and office management. In your first year of freelancing, you
could spend as much as 30 percent of your time actually looking for work, and 5
percent managing your office. That means that with any luck youll spend (65 percent of 1,880) 1,222 hours or 152.75 days working. So, in order to make $35,000,
youll have to charge about $30 an hour for your services.

So, the first sentence of your realistic business plan should read something like this:
Find enough clients to give me 152.75 full days of work paying at least $30 an hour.

Dont interpret all this as saying you should try to earn just enough money to keep
you out of poverty. Far from it! My own hourly rate is more than double the figure Ive
suggested here, but for reasons Ill explain in the next section, that doesnt mean I earn
more than $70,000 annually. My point is that your business plan should tell you how
much money you need and how much time youll need to get it. While that makes your
planning process a little simpler, it doesnt solve all your problems.

Reality Bites
That little exercise only took a couple of minutes, and it made everything sound so
simple. Well, the unfortunate reality is that nothing is simple, least of all starting your
own business. For starters, almost none of my clients allow me to charge my hourly rate,
with the consistent exception of PR companies. However, its not like driving a cabas
a freelancer, you cant just turn the meter on and charge whatever it says when you get
to the airport. Even PR clients have a budget for each project, and you start off with an
understanding that youll spend a limited number of hours on the project and charge
within the budget.
Most of my newsletter, newspaper, and magazine clients, on the other hand, pay on
a per-word basis, which is similar to a project basis in that youve agreed ahead of time
how many words the project will be. So, no matter how many words you actually write,
the project will pay the same amount of money.
Unfortunately, you cant assume that if you work longer hours and do a better job
on a project, youll be rewarded for it. But there are two things you can do: look for
better-paying clients, and negotiate. If you hustle, chances are youll find lots of clients, and work on many different kinds of projects. As youll see, some types of projects
tend to pay more than others, although not always. However, you can quickly identify
the clients who pay well and on time. My advice is, phase out those clients who pay
poorlywith the exception of those who can give you good exposureand go with the
clients who can pay your bills.
Negotiation on price is also extremely important. This process is something that
many freelancers are not too familiar with. It can be extremely uncomfortable at first,
but eventually you may find it very rewarding. Although there are no hard-and-fast
rules to this, here are three important things to remember:

Recognize your strengths. Clients are calling because they need you. Dont assume
theyre doing you a favor by giving you work.

56

The Craft & Business of Writing

You can always negotiate down, but you can never negotiate up. Think before you
bid on a project, and always start higher than you think the project is worth.
Dont take professional negotiations personally. Understand that its your clients
job to try to get good services at low prices. Remember that its your jobnot your
clientsto make sure youre fairly reimbursed.

Get Going!
Every time I teach my course in freelance writing, we run out of time long before everyones questions are answered, and I usually stand at the front of the class for several minutes doling out advice and encouragement. No one can tell you everything you need to
know about freelancing in one 4,000-word article, even with ample sidebar space. There
are so many more things that could be discussed in detail, such as marketing your services, writing good query letters, client relations, how to choose jobs, and more.
One final note: Remember the best reason to become a full-time freelance writerthe enjoyment. You have to like being at home and being with the people who live
with you at home. Make sure you discuss your plans for full-time freelancing with your
spouse, significant other, and children before making the move. Let them know their
support is important to you, and there may be some tough times ahead.
From my standpoint, its worth it. Nothing you learn as a full-time freelancer will
ever be wasted, especially the feeling of freedom and satisfaction that naturally comes
from independence. Its like learning to fish; its a skill that can put food on the table
for a lifetime.
As my fellow freelancer, P.J. Skerret, says, The beauty of having freelanced successfully is knowing that, no matter what happens, you will always have a job you can fall
back on.

General Business 57

the art of
negotiation
by

Gregg Levoy

any years ago, one of the magazine editors I regularly sold to left his spot on the masthead to become a fellow freelance writeran irony only a writer can fully appreciate.
During a phone conversation he told me something he never would have revealed
while an editor: You should have been asking for more money, more often, especially
once you began writing for us consistently. You always took whatever we offered.
When breaking into a magazine, he said, writers should take whatever terms they are
offered. Continuing this practice after breaking in, however, is like turning down raises.
I was guilty as charged. My views on asking editors for more money, or more anything, could best be described as approach-avoidance: If I didnt approach the subject of
negotiation, I could avoid rejection (which Id already had plenty of, thank you).
Id also thought of negotiation as something only for J.R. Ewing types. I didnt realize that the very qualities that make me a writer and made me think Id be eaten alive
at the bargaining tablesensitivity, thoughtfulness, creativityare also typical (when
combined with a bit of assertiveness) of the best negotiators.
But the former editors remarks fired me with both insight and indignation. I began experimenting. When a magazine editor asked to reprint one of my stories for $75, I screwed
up my courage and said, How about $125? He said, How about $100? I said, OK.
I made $25 for less than ten seconds of talking! That would make a dandy hourly wage.
Not all negotiations have been this easy, but each time I managed some success I
was emboldened. Within a year I was negotiating with some of the buck-a-word magazines for money and rights that would eventually double my income. I learned three
lessons in short order:

What you can get if you ask is astonishing. One editor I know told me that nine out of ten
writers never ask for anything, and she almost always says yes to the one who does.

The worst thing an editor will do is say no. Not one editor in twenty years has hung up
on me because I asked for more money.
Everything is negotiable, from money and rights to deadline, expenses, payment
schedule, kill fee, length, tone, and editing.

58

The Craft & Business of Writing

Collaborative Bargaining
There are more than a few writers who feel they couldnt warm up to editors if they were
burned at the stake together. They approach negotiating in an atmosphere of trust not
unlike that surrounding two nations exchanging captured spies at the border.
Editors, however, arent our enemies. They are hardworking people trying to be recognized for their efforts. Theyre also not people youre selling used cars to. You want
to develop long-term relationships with them, because the more steady customers you
have, the more steady income you have. Your negotiations must be collaborative, with
both sides feeling good about what they get. So how do you manage a win-win outcome
when editors have all the power?
First, understand that editors dont have all the power. Its a buyers market for
some writers, and a sellers market for others, as determined by the law of supply and
demand. If most writers offer roughly the same thingpassably good writing, fairly
good ideas, occasional reliability, a modest stamina for rewrites, and a deep-seated fear
of asking for anything more than editors offerits a buyers market, and editors will
buy the cheapest work available.
But when you begin giving editors what they want mostbang-up writing, imaginative ideas, a firm grasp of the audience, punctuality, and a product that sells magazines
and when you then ask for payment commensurate with that quality of performance, it
turns into a sellers market, with editors favorably disposed to negotiating to keep you.

Using Your Bargaining Power


Negotiating is not an event; its a process. Its more than just a quick pitch; its the whole
sales campaign. It begins not when you pick up the phone, but when you pick up the professional relationship; bargaining power is the cumulative effect of everything you do in
that relationship. Most writers dont recognize this and underestimate their bargaining
power. These five power tools will help you build a strong negotiation position.

1. Performance
Several years ago, I told one of my regular buyers of short pieces, Allied Publications,
that I wanted to renegotiate my fee, which had held steady at $25 per piece for two years.
He told me to put it in writing and let him think about it. I wrote the following letter:
Dear Richard:
It was nice chatting with you on the phone yesterday. I look forward to putting together
more pieces for Allied. As for the business: After having written eight or ten pieces for Allied
over the course of two years, at $25 each, I am hoping we can consider a higher fee, $50
each. I hope that given the consistent quality, fast turnaround, and minimal editing my articles require, this will seem like a fair price. Give me a ring and we can discuss it.

His reply: He raised my rate to $35 and suggested we could discuss another adjustment
in six months. Meanwhile, 45 percent raise.

General Business 59

When you deliver the goods and give editors more than they bargained for, dont let
the fact go unnoticed at negotiating time.

2. Presentation
From the first impression on, your presence should communicate enthusiasm, selfmotivation, attention to detail, resourcefulness, humor, patience, and, above all, confidence (fake it if you must; it has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy anyway).
How you present yourself is conveyed, whether you know it or not, through your phone
manner, correspondence, query letters, stationery, and writing.

3. Professionalism
During the negotiation that led to my first piece for Pursuits Magazine, the editor wanted me
to pay expenses for a trip to Seattle to do the article, for which she would reimburse me.
I explained that I was currently on assignment for two other national magazines, both
of which wanted me to pay out-of-pocket expenses for trips (one to South America), and
doing so was fast depleting my savings account. I asked her to reconsider her request and
send me a check before the trip to cover my expenses. I also offered to send to her an itemized list of what I anticipated spending. She sent a check for $600 that week.
I had, in this case by implication, demonstrated that I was a professional with credibility and competence, that I was worth sending not just to Seattle but to South America, but that I nonetheless had a limited bank account. Bringing self-esteem into your
business and writing affairs can have a commanding effect.
Professional writers, for instance, are those most likely to succeed at changing
pays-on-publication clauses to pays-on-acceptance, simply because they know that
in no other business do people, professional or not, stand for not being paid their
wages on time. At the least these writers appeal to an editors sense of logic, fairness,
and business principles by pointing out the time-honored tradition, common to all
deferred-payment plans (such as credit card payments), that a buyer pays a higher price
for delayed payment, and a seller gets a higher price for waiting.

4. Polish
Go the extra mile for editors: Burn the midnight oil to give a story that extra shine. Help
them track down photos. Do your own editing. Double-check your facts. Oblige all
reasonable requests for rewrites. Get work in before deadline. Then remind your editors
of these facts at negotiating time.

5. Personal contact
People enjoy doing business with those they identify with. So give editors lots of opportunities to identify with you. Drop them notes, call with updates on stories, go visit
them and break bread. Once youve broken into the stable of writers, cultivate your
editorial relationships as if your livelihood depended on it. Remember: The stable is
usually not far from the pasture.

60

The Craft & Business of Writing

Think Big
Several years ago, a Vogue editor called to buy a story idea from me. Not the story, just
the idea. How much do you want for it? she asked.
Now, what is a story idea worth? Theyre a dime a dozen$100? I did save them
time, though, by already doing the outline$200? And now they wouldnt have to pay
me to write$300? How about $400? I finally said, thinking big. Sold! she said.
There was a moments silence, during which I thought to myself, Damn.
Anytime a buyer accepts your first offer, youve blown it. Youve undersold yourself.
Your writing is worth whatever someone will pay for it, and that is determined by how
much they need it, how valuable they perceive it to be, the going rate, the budget, and
your bargaining power. But set high aspirations. Come in with a price before the editor
does, one that is perhaps a third to a half higher than you expect to receive, or expect
them to offer. Often your expectations of both are too low.
Remember, aspirations can always be lowered. Once stated, they cant be raised.

Approaching Your Negotiations


You just asked an editor to pay you on acceptance instead of on publication. She flatly
said no, sorry, company policy. Quick, whats your response?
You dont want to be reduced to responses like, Well, it doesnt hurt to ask, huh?
You need instead studied comebacks that grow out of planning your negotiations. Do
not go into them thinking youll just see what happens. Rely on homework, practicing what youll preach, knowing what youll say if an editor invokes company policy.
Script it out if need be. Above all, know what you want out of the negotiation and what
youre willing to settle for.
Another form of planning I undertake is keeping notes on all my conversations with
editors. Several years ago, an editor at Health Magazine mentioned to me that rates were
probably going down for shorter pieces and up to a dollar a word for longer features.
I jotted it down. Four months later she called with a go-ahead on a query and offered
me $1,500 for a 2,000-word piece. I pulled out my file and there was the note about a
probable rate change. I asked her about it. After much squirming, she finally offered me
$1,800 for 1,800 words. Less work, more money.
You can also brainstorm advance solutions to potential negotiation deadlocks.
For example, both sides usually want more money, and conventional wisdom suggests that more for you means less for them, and vice versa. Not necessarily. The pie
can be expanded.
When I travel on assignment to a city where I have friends, I offer to stay with them
instead of at a hotel, if the editor will kick back half the savings into my fee.
If the deadlock is over editors taking all rights, denying you the chance to make extra income from your writing, try this: Offer to retain syndication rights. You can sell
your pieces again, but only to newspaper syndicates that agree to put at the top of the

General Business 61

story Originally appeared in XYZ Magazine. The magazine gets its exclusivity; you get
your extra income.

Eight More Negotiation Tactics


All of these strategies are based on collaborative principles:
1. Listen. Sometimes the cheapest concession you can make in a negotiation is simply
letting an editor know hes been heard. And remember, listening is not necessarily agreeing.
2. Be quiet. Nature abhors a vacuum. People will naturally rush in to fill silences,
but if that silence is going to be broken with a compromise, let it be theirs, not yours.
During the negotiation with an in-flight magazine editor about his pays-on-publication policy, I mentioned that as a business practice it didnt seem fair, and then I
shut up for a moment. In the awkward silence that ensued, the urge to blurt out somethinganythingto ease the tension was excruciating. He broke first, and he did so
with a compromise, effectively talking himself right out of his position.
3. Attack problems, not people. In the in-flight negotiation, I made sure to focus
my attention and displeasure on the issue, not the editor. It was the policy that was unfair, not the person trying to uphold it even against his own principles.
4. Ask open-minded questions. The more information you have about an editors
needs, interests, and dilemmas, the better your bargaining position. So get them talking (before and during the negotiation) by asking questions that do not elicit yes or no
answers: Why do you have a pays-on-publication policy? or Are there improvements
I could make in my writing that would make it work better for you?
5. Have a concession strategy. Acrobats are the only people who make any sort
of a living bending over backwards. Dont give in just to avoid conflict (but dont dig
your heels in either, biting when a simple growl would do). If you come in with a price
of $900 and your editor counters with $500, dont immediately whittle away at your
initial offer by suggesting $700. Tell him why you believe youre worth $900.
When conceding, start small. Dont jump from offering $1,000 to backing off to
$500 in one giant step. It will appear you can be bought for even cheaper than that.
6. Discuss fees last. Fee is the area youre most likely to disagree about, so, if you
can, start discussing more easily agreeable areas. If an editor suggests a three-month
deadline, say you can get it done in two and a half. If she says $50 is all she can give you
for phone expenses, say youll make your calls in the evenings and weekends and save
her $20. Then, once youve built up common ground and warmed the editors heart
with your conciliatory nature, talk price.
7. When you stop negotiating, stop. Make sure you discuss all negotiables in one
session, not piecemeal. Once youve made your final agreements, dont try to better them.
8. Get it in writing. When you finish negotiating, make sure you commit your
agreements to paper, be it a written contract or a simple letter of agreement. If an editor
suggests you forego a written contract and just leave it at a friendly handshake, politely
tell him that youd like to keep the relationship friendly, so you would much prefer to
work with a written contractyou can even tell him thats your company policy.

62

The Craft & Business of Writing

book contract clinic:


quick fixes
for bad clauses
by

Stephen E. Gillen, Esq.

f youve been published, then youve seen it beforea whereas and a therefore followed
by eight or more pages of preprinted, pedantic prose offered up by the editor as her
standard publishing contract. Other than a few tiny spaces for your name, the title of
your work, and the manuscript delivery date, the bulk of it looks as though it were long
ago locked down in Century Schoolbook type.
But the truth is that there is more to review than the spelling of your name, choice
of title, and projected completion date, and more to negotiate than you might realize.
Here are three critical points to get you in the right frame of mind, followed by an explanation of five typical clauses to help you understand what is (or ought to be) worthy
of negotiation.

1. You Have More Leverage Than You Think


Editors are under ever-increasing pressure to sign new titles, meet publication dates,
and deliver sales results. For many of them, these factors have a direct bearing on their
year-end compensation (a circumstance that can work to your significant bargaining
advantage as year-end approaches). While there are many aspiring first-time authors
out there, only a relative handful will be published. If you have attracted interest or a
contract offer, then you have already made the cut.
A reasonable list of tactfully stated concerns and requested amendments will only reinforce the impression that you are a competent and thorough professional. Moreover,
the editor will have invested a significant amount of time in reviewing your proposal, perhaps getting outside reviews, preparing a pro forma profit and loss analysis, and drafting
a publication plan and recommendation for her superiorsif you are not signed, all of
this effort will have been for naught and the editor will be back to square one.

2. You Have to Do Your Homework


Negotiations are ultimately influenced by which side knows the most about the other
sides positions. The editor starts this contest with an advantage gained from experi-

General Business 63

ence in the market, experience doing other similar deals (undoubtedly many more than
you have done), and the benefits of your perspective as reflected in your proposal.
The way you get on an even footing with your editor is to learn more about your
publishers plans for, and expectations of, your workinformation that will help you
evaluate your leverage. Ask about them after the editor has indicated an interest in your
work but before you engage in active, contract-focused negotiationsin the context of
learning more about your editor or publisher, more about her list and her business,
more about the market and your potential competition.
Ask the editor yourself, either in person or over the phone. Negotiations may be
formal and may be best handled by your attorney or agent in order to preserve your
relationship with your editor. But information gathering will be most effective if you
do it yourself. A question perceived as innocuous when asked by you will be viewed with
suspicion if posed by your agent or attorney. It may take some probing, but the information you gather will prove valuable, so take copious notes.

3. Decide Whats Important to You


There is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you make your living as a professional writer,
then money issues will likely be at the top of your listadvances, grants, royalties, and
re-use rights should be the focus of your attention. If, on the other hand, youre an
academic living by the publish or perish mantra and in search of the inner peace that
tenure will bring, then the money issues may well take a back seat to ensuring that your
work is actually publishedon schedule and intact. If you are a professional of another
sort (doctor, lawyer, accountant) and you view your book not so much as a revenue generator but more as a promotional piece and as your professional bona fides, then your
principal focus may well be on the noncompete provision and ensuring that it does not
preclude you from engaging in the kind of professional writing, speaking, and consulting that does pay the bills. Keep your goals firmly in mind as you review the clauses and
the better and best alternatives that follow.
Odds are, you will not prevail on all of these issues. But odds are equally as good
that you will not lose on all of them either. In any event, you will not get that for which
you do not ask. So ask away ... at the end of the day you will have a better deal and a
more informed relationship with your publisher.

author warranties
AUTHOR WARRANTIES, REPRESENTATIONS, AND INDEMNITIES. The Author hereby warrants and represents that: (i) the Author has the right to enter into this Agreement and to
grant the rights herein granted and the Author has not and will not assign, pledge, or encumber such rights; (ii) the Author is the sole Author of the Work and, except for material of
others, permission for use of which has been obtained by the Author pursuant to Paragraph
_______, the Work is original and previously unpublished; (iii) the Work is not in the public
domain; (iv) neither the Work nor its title will contain any material that would violate or
infringe any personal, proprietary, or other right of any person or entity or that would vio-

64

The Craft & Business of Writing

late any contract of the Author, express or implied, or that would disclose any information
given to the Author in confidence or on the understanding it would not be disclosed or
published; (v) no material in the Work is inaccurate; (vi) the use of any instruction, material,
or formula contained in the Work will not result in injury; and (vii) appropriate warnings will
be contained in the Work concerning any particular hazards that may be involved in carrying out experiments described in the Work or involved in the use of instructions, materials,
or formulas in the Work, and descriptions of relevant safety precautions. The Author hereby
indemnifies and agrees to hold the Publisher, its licensees, and any seller of the Work harmless from any liability, damage, cost, and expense, including reasonable attorneys fees and
costs of settlement, for or in connection with any claim, action, or proceeding inconsistent
with the Authors warranties or representations herein, or based upon or arising out of any
contribution of the Author to the Work. The Publisher will notify the Author of any claim,
action, or proceeding, and the Publisher may use counsel of its own selection to defend the
same. The Author may participate in the defense, at the Authors own expense, with counsel
of the Authors own choosing. The Publisher will have the right to withhold payment of
sums otherwise payable to the Author under this or any other agreement with the Author,
and to apply the sums withheld to such liability. The warranties, representations, and indemnity of the Author herein will survive termination of this Agreement for any reason and
will extend to any licensees, distributors, and assigns of the Publisher.

Publishers usually require their authors to make certain representations and warranties about the work submittedthat it isnt libelous, that it doesnt infringe thirdparty copyrights, and so on. This is generally a reasonable request because, in many
respects, only the Author is in a position to know whether or not the Authors work
is original and noninfringing. Be careful, however, that these representations apply
only to work as supplied by you and not to the work of other contributors or editors.
Also, we all know that every editor likes to put his mark on a work by changing the
title. Be sure that you do not warrant that the title does not infringe trademark or
other rights (unless, of course, it is indeed your title and you have taken appropriate
steps to clear its use).
Most contracts will also require you to indemnify the publisher for any damage
or cost incurred as a result of your breach of the foregoing warranties. It is reasonable for you to ask that such indemnification be limited to defects as determined by
a court of competent jurisdiction and also to ask that your obligation to indemnify
the publisher be capped at the total royalties and other payments you actually receive
from the publishers exploitation of your work, or that you be added as a named insured on the publishers media perils policy. While the latter may sound like a happy
compromise, understand that the deductibles (for which you would still be liable) are
generally very large.

Better
AUTHOR WARRANTIES, REPRESENTATIONS, AND INDEMNITIES. The Author hereby
warrants and represents, with respect only to the Authors contributions to the Work,

General Business 65

that: (i) the Author has the right to enter into this Agreement and to grant the rights
herein granted and the Author has not and will not assign, pledge, or encumber such
rights; (ii) the Author is the sole Author of the Work and, except for material of others,
permission for use of which has been obtained by the Author pursuant to Paragraph___
______, the Work is original and previously unpublished; (iii) the Work is not in the public
domain; (iv) the Work contains no material that would violate or infringe any personal,
proprietary, or other right of any person or entity that would violate any contract of the
Author, express or implied, or that would disclose any information given to the Author in
confidence or on the understanding it would not be disclosed or published; (vi) to the
best of the Authors knowledge no material in the work is inaccurate; and (vi) the use of
any instruction, material, or formula contained in the Work will not result in injury, and
appropriate warnings will be contained in the Work concerning any particular hazards
that may be involved in carrying out experiments described in the Work or involved in
the use of instructions, materials, or formulas in the Work, and descriptions of relevant
safety precautions. The Author hereby indemnifies and agrees to hold the Publisher, its
licensees, and any seller of the Work harmless from any liability, damage, cash, and expense, including reasonable attorneys fees and casts of settlement, for or in connection
with any claim, action, or proceeding based upon a breach as determined by the final
and nonappealable verdict of a court of competent jurisdiction, of the Authors warranties or representations herein. The Publisher will notify the Author of any claim, action, or
proceeding, and the Publisher may use counsel of its own selection to defend the same.
The Author may participate in the defense, at the Authors own expense, with counsel of
the Authors own choosing. The Author will not be responsible for any settlement of a
claim, action, or proceeding with respect to which the Author has reasonably withheld
the Authors approval. The Publisher will have the right to withhold its reasonable estimate of the total liability of the Author (including reasonable attorneys fees) from sums
otherwise payable to the Author under this or any other agreement with the Author, and
to apply the sums withheld to such liability.

Best
AUTHOR WARRANTIES, REPRESENTATIONS, AND INDEMNITIES. The Author hereby warrants and represents, with respect only to the Work as submitted by the Author, that, to
the best of the Authors actual knowledge: (i) the Author has the right to enter into the
Agreement and to grant the rights herein granted and the Author has not and will not assign, pledge, or encumber such rights; (ii) the Author is the sole Author of the Work and,
except for material of others, permission for use of which has been obtained by the Author
pursuant to Paragraph ______, the Work is original and previously unpublished; (iii) the
Work is not in the public domain; (iv) and the Work contains no material that would violate
or infringe any personal, proprietary, or other right of any person or entity that would violate any contract of the Author, express or implied, or that would disclose any information
given to the Author in confidence or on the understanding it would not be disclosed or
published. The Author hereby indemnifies and agrees to hold the Publisher, its licensees,

66

The Craft & Business of Writing

and any seller of the Work harmless from any liability, damage, cost, and expense, including reasonable attorneys fees and costs of settlement, for or in connection with any claim
based upon a breach of the Authors warranties or representations herein as determined
by the final and nonappealable judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction; provided
that the Publisher promptly notifies the Author of any such claim and cooperates with the
Author in its defense. The Author shall not be responsible for any settlement of a claim, action, or proceeding with respect to which the Author has reasonably withheld the Authors
approval. The Publisher shall add the Author as a named insured on the Publishers media
perils policy of insurance.

Strategy
The publisher may have a limited ability to alter the language in these clauses as a result
of the requirements of its policy of insurance. In any event, your exposure under these
clauses is largely within your control. If there is something about the nature of your
work that makes it susceptible to attack (e.g., its an expos of a private figure), it is
in your best interest to be sure the publisher is fully aware of the issues and you work
closely with the publisher and its media-perils insurer to minimize the likelihood of a
successful challenge.

royalties
ROYALTIES. Except as otherwise provided below, the Publisher will pay to the Author a
royalty of _____% based upon the Publishers net receipts from sales of copies of the Work,
revisions thereof, or reprints of all or portions thereof. A royalty at one-half the aforementioned rate will be applied to the Publishers net receipts:
(a) from sales by it in foreign markets of special editions, adaptations, or regular editions of the Work, or from sales by it in the domestic or foreign markets of foreign language
editions or adaptations of the Work;
(b) from sales by it of visual or sound reproductions or adaptations, motion pictures,
educations, and commercial television versions, Braille and large-type editions, microfilm
or microfiche editions, and microcomputer adaptations of the Work;
(c) from the sales by its subsidiaries or business affiliates through trade channels, mail
order or coupon advertising campaigns, and solicitation by radio and television;
(d) from the Publishers use or adaptation of the Work (or any portion thereof ) in conjunction with any other work as a part of a database or custom-published work through any
means of storage, transmission, or copying now known or hereafter devised. With respect
to this subsection (d), the Authors royalty shall be applied to a pro rata portion of the net
receipts, said portion to be determined through use of a reasonable and objective method
of relative valuation to be selected by the Publisher in its sole discretion.
The Publisher will pay to the Author 50 percent of the Publishers net proceeds:
(e) from agreements to transfer, sell, or license to others the right to reprint all or portions of the Work, to include the Work in an electronic database, or to make visual or sound
reproductions or adaptation, motion pictures, educational and commercial television

General Business 67

versions, Braille and large-type editions, microfilm or microfiche editions, microcomputer


adaptations, electronic versions, translations, or foreign editions or adaptations either in
English or in foreign languages.
No royalty shall be paid on copies sold at a discount of more than 50 percent or below the cost of manufacture. Publisher may set up a reserve sufficient in its opinion to
allow for returns.

The royalty clause provides for a base rate on the cash received by the publisher from
sales through its traditional distribution channels, with much lower rates on sales
through a number of secondary channels. It has become common for publishers to
provide for some discretionary mechanism for allocating the sales proceeds from special bundling deals and from exploitation of electronic rights (subsection d above).
On rights sales (subsection e above), as opposed to product sales, the publisher typically splits the proceeds 50/50 with the author. Sometimes the publisher takes a
larger share; only with some significant effort will you get the publisher to take less.
Understanding these provisions means understanding the publishers distribution
and accounting models, which can be labyrinthine. Include an audit clause, and leave
this to the sharp pencils.

Better
ROYALTIES. Except as otherwise provided below, the Publisher will pay to the Author a
royalty of:
_______ % on the first _______ copies in any single edition;
_______ % on the next _______ copies in any single edition;
_______ % on all copies thereafter in any single edition,
based upon the Publishers net receipts from sales by it of copies of the Work, revision thereof, or reprints of all or portions thereof (net receipts means cash received by the Publisher
less returns, exchanges, and any amounts separately itemized on the customers invoice
for shipping, handling, or taxes). The Author shall have the right, upon reasonable notice
and during usual business hours but not more than once each year, to have the books and
records of the Publisher examined at the place where the same are regularly maintained,
insofar as they relate to the Work, by an independent public accountant. Such examination
shall be at the cost of the Author unless the net of all errors aggregate to more than three
percent (3%) of the total sum accrued to the Author are found to Authors disadvantage, in
which the cost of such an examination shall be borne by the Publisher. Any amounts disclosed by the examination to be due to the Author shall be promptly paid together with interest at the highest allowable statutory rate calculated from the date the payment should
have been made.

Best
ROYALTIES. Except as otherwise provided below, the Publisher will pay to the Author a
royalty of:

68

The Craft & Business of Writing

________% on the first _________ copies in any single edition;


________% on the next _________ copies in any single edition;
________% on all copies thereafter in any single edition,
based upon cover price of the Work and revisions and reprints thereof. The Publisher will
pay to the Author 50 percent of the Publishers net proceeds from agreements to transfer,
sell, or license to others the right to exercise any of the Subsidiary Rights granted herein.
Author shall have the right, upon reasonable notice and during usual business hours but
not more than once each year, to have the books and records of the Publisher examined at
the place where the same are regularly maintained, insofar as they relate to the Work, by an
independent public accountant. Such examination shall be at the cost of the Author unless
the net of all errors aggregate to more than three percent (3%) of the total sum accrued to
the Author are found to the Authors disadvantage, in which case the cost of such examination shall be borne by the Publisher. Any amounts disclosed by the examination to be due
to the Author shall be promptly paid together with interest at the highest allowable statutory rate calculated from the date the payment should have been made.

Strategy
Royalties are the proverbial two birds in the bush. Far better to negotiate for nonrefundable advancesthese represent a bird in the hand and, if they are significant, increase the publishers stake in promoting your work to ensure its commercial success.
In any event, know whether your royalties will be based on cover price, invoice price, or
net receipts. And if they are based on the latter, ask the publisher to define the net in
net receipts so you know what will be deducted. Also ask for a copy of the publishers
discount schedule and for some historical averages (i.e., how much of the publishers
sales are typically done at each discount rate) so you can compare apples to apples in
the event you are the happy holder of two or more contract offers.
What is a good royalty rate and how much should you ask for? There is no pat
answer to this question. If you do your homework, however, you will at least be able to
ask for a tiered royalty structurea base rate up to the publishers break-even volume,
a higher rate on sales over breakeven, and a higher rate still on sales over the volume at
which the publisher achieves its target margin. Watch out for an unlimited ability to reserve for returnsany such right should be subject to a cap based upon the publishers
historical experience. If you are successful in obtaining substantial advances, be sure
they are paid upon submission of the manuscript (and not on the publishers acceptance, which might be delayed) and they are not cross-collateralized (i.e., recoverable
from royalties earned by other titles you might have written or might yet write for the
same publisher).

submission
SUBMISSION OF MANUSCRIPT. The Author will deliver to the Publisher, on or before
date, a complete and legible typewritten manuscript (and word processed text file) of
Work satisfactory to the Publisher in form and content. If the manuscript for the complete

General Business 69

Work is not delivered on or before the date specified above, or if the manuscript is not satisfactory to the Publisher in form or content, the Publisher may, at its option: (a) allow the
Author to finish, correct, or improve the manuscript by a date specified by the Publisher;
(b) have the manuscript properly prepared by such other Author(s) as it may select and
the Publisher may deduct the cost of obtaining such Authors services, whether compensated by fee or royalties, from the Authors royalties; or (c) terminate this agreement by
written notice to the Author, in which case any manuscript shall be returned and all rights
therein shall revert to the Author, and any amounts which may have been advanced to
the Author will be promptly refunded to the Publisher. In the event circumstances since
the date of this Agreement have, in the sole judgment of the Publisher, caused the market for the Work to change or evaporate, the Publisher may reject the Work. In such event,
the Publisher shall so notify the Author, the Author shall be entitled to retain one-half the
advance specified in Paragraph ______ as a kill fee, all rights in the Work shall revert to
the Author, and neither the Author nor the Publisher shall have any further obligations
lie hereunder.

Its one thing to be signed to a publishing contract, but unfortunately (and perhaps
unfairly) quite another to be published. Editors come and go and markets change. An
open-ended manuscript acceptability standard (like the one above) can leave you holding an unpublished manuscript. Most form contracts will require that you deliver a
completed manuscript that is acceptable to the publisher in form and content. This arguably allows the publisher to reject your completed work for any reason (provided it is
not acting in bad faith). You should strive for an acceptability clause that requires only
that the finished manuscript conform in coverage and quality to the sample chapters
provided with your prospectus or, alternatively, a clause that requires the manuscript to
be professionally competent and fit for publication. You should also ask for language
that obliges the publisher to provide you with detailed editorial comments and at least
one opportunity to revise. And you should not permit the publisher to complete or
otherwise use your work and charge any third-party costs against your account without
your consent.

Better
SUBMISSION OF MANUSCRIPT. The Author will deliver the completed Work on or before
date. The Publisher acknowledges and agrees that the manuscript will be deemed acceptable so long as it is professionally competent and fit for publication in the good faith exercise of the Publishers reasonable judgment.

Best
SUBMISSION OF MANUSCRIPT. The Author will deliver the completed Work on or before
date. The Publisher acknowledges and agrees that the manuscript will be deemed acceptable so long as it conforms in content, coverage, style, and rigor to the outline and prospectus previously provided (a copy of which is attached hereto as Exhibit I). In the event the

70

The Craft & Business of Writing

publisher deems any submission not acceptable, it will so advise the Author in writing within thirty days of the date of submission and will describe with particularity the deficiencies
therein and the changes required to make the submission acceptable, in which event that
Author shall have thirty days to make the required improvements. The Publishers failure to
so advise the Author in the time and manner specified shall be deemed the Publishers acceptance as to the tendered submission.

Strategy
Dont assume that just because you were offered a contract based upon your tender
of a completed first-draft manuscript that the publisher will necessarily publish your
work. If the acquiring editor moves on, you will be back to square one with a new editor who may not have the same level of interest in or commitment to your work. When
seeing your work in print is an important objective, make sure you close and lock the
publishers back door.

noncompete agreements
CONFLICTING WORKS. During the life of this Agreement, the Author will not without the
prior written consent of the Publisher participate in the preparation or publication of any
work on a similar subject, which might tend to interfere with or injure the sale of the Work,
and will not authorize the use of the Authors name in connection with any such work.
OPTION. Author grants the Publisher the option to publish the Authors next book-length
work. The Author shall submit the completed manuscript for such work to the Publisher
and the Publisher shall have ninety days within which to notify the Author of whether it will
exercise its option and to tender to the Author a publishing agreement for same and substantially the same terms as are provided herein. During the option term, the Author shall
not offer such work to any other publisher and thereafter shall not offer such work to any
other publisher except on terms more favorable than those offered by the Publisher.

Almost every publishing contract will include a noncompete provision calculated to


ensure that the publisher has a monopoly on your work on a particular subject and that
you do not publish or assist in publishing any other work that might compete. These
restrictions are usually very broadly drafted and open-ended in scope. As such, they may
be unenforceable as an unreasonable restraint of trade. Better, however, to try to narrow
them before you sign. Also common is an options clause that gives the publisher dibs
on your next manuscript. Strike the option clause and tell the publisher that if they do
a great job with the current one, you will certainly be back with the next.

Better
COMPETING WORKS. During the life of this Agreement, the Author will not without the
prior written consent of the Publisher participate in the preparation or publication of any
directly competing work. For purposes of this Section, a directly competing work shall be
defined as any book-length work on the subject of [be as specific as possible].

General Business 71

Best
COMPETING WORKS. During the life of this Agreement, the Author will not without the
prior written consent of the Publisher participate in the preparation or publication of any
directly competing work. For purposes of this Section, a directly competing work shall be
defined as any book-length work on the subject of [be as specific as possible] and intended
primarily for distribution and sale to [be as specific as possible] through [specify channels]. The
Publisher acknowledges that the Author has in process the following works, provisionally
entitled [specify] and agrees that these works do not constitute directly competing works.
The Publisher further agrees that the Authors activities as a [specify]; and any work that
she/he might write or present in connection with the performance of those activities (and
not constituting a book-length work) for trade distribution shall not be deemed a breach
of the provisions of this Section. Nor shall the use of her/his name or likeness in connection
with such activities be deemed a breach thereof.

Strategy
The narrower the noncompete, the better. The more precisely you can define what it is
you will not do and what it is you are free to do, the less opportunity there will be for
misunderstandings. If the publisher expresses a reluctance to more precisely define the
boundaries, ask for a quid pro quoi.e., a parallel commitment from the publisher to
refrain from publishing the works of other authors on the same subject. It is highly
unlikely that the publisher would entertain such a prospect, but the mere thought may
make him more reasonable about the scope of your noncompete.

copyright
GRANT OF RIGHTS. The Author acknowledges that the Work was specially commissioned
by the Publisher and intended as an instructional text and agrees that the Work shall be
considered a work-made-for-hire, with the Publisher deemed the author and sole owner
thereof for copyright purposes. In addition, and against the possibility that the Work might
ultimately be deemed incapable of characterization as a work-made-for-hire as a matter of
law, the author hereby irrevocably grants to the Publisher all right, title, and interest (including, without limitation, all copyrights throughout the world and all other legal and equitable rights in all media, whether now known or hereafter invented) to the Work. The Author
acknowledges that she/he shall not acquire any rights of any kind in the Work as a result of
his/her services under this Agreement.

The grant of rights clause spells out the breadth of rights being acquired by the publisherand there is a broad range of possibilities here. Least favorable to the author
are work-for-hire provisions (like the one above), which transfer the broadest possible rights to the publisher and deprive the author of certain statutory protections.
While relatively uncommon in trade book deals, they are often used in educational
publishing (especially at lower curricular levels). More common (and slightly more
favorable to the author) are grants of all right, title, and interest (also included

72

The Craft & Business of Writing

above, as the publishers fallback position in the event the work at issue does not
qualify for work-for-hire treatment). While appearing to be all encompassing, the all
rights grant at least leaves the author with her statutory protections intact. But in
the final analysis, there is little reason for the publisher to get rights that it does not
intend to exploit. If your publisher intends only to publish a hardcover edition for
distribution in North America, then the grant of rights should convey North American hardcover rights only. Alternate editions can be addressed by amendment to your
book contract if and when the publisher expresses an interest in publishing them.
The following provisions represent possible compromises that allocate rights in the
work more equitably.

Better
CONDITIONAL GRANT OF ALL RIGHTS. The Author hereby grants to the Publisher the
sole and exclusive right and license to publish, promote, distribute, and sell (or permit
others to do so) the Work in all languages, in all media, and throughout the world; provided, however, that the right to publish the Work in any form other than book form (see
Subsidiary Rights) shall become nonexclusive as to those Subsidiary Rights which have
not been commercially exploited by the Publisher within two years after first publication
of the Work in book form and the Author expressly reserves the nonexclusive right also to
exploit said unexercised Subsidiary Rights, free of any obligation to pay royalties to the
Publisher, but agrees to cooperate with the Publisher to ensure that any such exploitation shall not interfere with the Publishers exclusive right to produce and publish the
Work in book form.

Best
GRANT OF EXCLUSIVE BOOK PUBLISHING RIGHTS. The Author hereby grants to the Publisher the sole and exclusive right and license to publish, promote, distribute, and sell (or
permit others to do so) the Work in the English language only, in book form only, and only
for distribution in North America. All other rights in the Work are expressly reserved exclusively to the Author.

Strategy
Most publishers are positioned to exploit (through subsidiaries, affiliates, and standing relationships) more than book publishing rights, and it is in your best interests
to let them have everything they will effectively commercialize. The extent to which
you bargain to retain some of these rights will depend upon the nature of your work
and whether it lends itself to these alternative uses, the publishers ability and interest
in exploiting them for you, and your ability to do this independently. But you should
resist the temptation to get sloppy here and you should endeavor to force the publisher
to specify which, if any, of the following rights they truly need and are presently positioned to exploit:

General Business 73

hardcover reprint edition book club audio (books on tape) radio


trade paperback multimedia (interactive digital and games) digest
mass-market paperback first serial second serial abridgement
electronic (text-only database and information retrievalon disk or online)
syndication condensation merchandising selection television
anthology motion picture (theatrical) collection dramatic (live theatrical)

The list goes on and on. To the extent these rights are licensed by the publisher to some
other buyer, they are referred to as subsidiary rights (i.e., rights subsidiary to the publishers principal line of business).

74

The Craft & Business of Writing

The Craft of Fiction


In Defense of the Short Story..................................................................................... 75
by

Lee K. Abbott

More Than Form: The Novel and the Story............................................................. 79


by Jack

Heffron

Why True-Life Stories Dont Make Good Fiction.................................................... 87


by

Alyce Miller

Weaving Plot and Subplot.......................................................................................... 93


Donna Levin

Plotting the Mystery Novel......................................................................................... 99


by Judith

Greber

How to Write Todays Horror.................................................................................106


by

D.W. Taylor

Not Just Happily Ever After: Writing Real Romance...........................................117


by Jennifer

Crusie

Believability in Science Fiction & Fantasy............................................................122


by

David Gerrold

Jump-Start Your Fiction Through Your Characters..............................................125


by John

Tibbetts

Adding Life with Dialogue........................................................................................131


by

Monica Wood

The Business of Fiction


Writing the Query That Sells...................................................................................140
by

Susanne Kirk

Agents Roundtable...................................................................................................144
by the

Staff of Writers Market

The Big Challenges of Publishing in Little Magazines...........................................149


by

Will Allison

The Serious Business of Choosing Literary Fiction................................................154


by

Ben Nyberg

Superior Bambini and Other Samples from the Slush..........................................161


by

David Groff

Rejection Slips: A Writers Guide to What They Mean.........................................169


by

Will Allison

Self-Promotion: Maximizing Your Novels Visibility............................................174


by

W.E. Reinka

Fiction

by

In defense of the
short story
by

Lee K. Abbott

his time she was in the third row, toward the center, hers a face even Warren Beatty
might not tire to gaze upon. This time she was young, though on other occasions
she had been younger or older or, not infrequently, not a she at all. This time she got
her question in early, well before Id had the chance to charm her and the rest of the
audience with a joke or yet another display of shallow wit. This time she actually smiled
when she askedsemi-chagrined, Im hoping, to have to ask it in the first place.
Why dont you write a novel?
I dont think she meant to insult me. But only quick thinking and a knowing
chuckle from my host, not to mention the memory of my mother wagging her finger
at my nose to emphasize yet another lesson regarding good manners Id failed to learn,
kept me from saying the obvious: Why, sweet cheeks, isnt a bear a horse? Which is to
say, without a lot of the hooey that nowadays attends far too many things, that she, like
so many theretofore, seemed to think that in the scheme of matters literary, writing stories was decidedly minor league; that grown-ups, those with more on their minds than
what USA Today needs only a hundred words to say, wrote novels; that a real artist(e), a
typist with monstrously BIG ideas between his ears, needed at least a three-inch pile of
paper to get the talk walkedall assertions as full of dangerous nonsense as any issuing
from the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.
I do not think of stories, even the most traditional of them, as practice for the supposedly harder and putatively more sophisticated work that were told the novel is. I do
not think of stories as inherently an easier form to fail in. Nor do I think of stories, no
matter the age or ilk, as insufficient to the task of detailing, as Updike once noted, how
it is to live in the here and now. I do not think of stories as childs play, less demanding
because they are less long. I do not consider stories, in fine, as efforts silly or ephemeral
or provisional. Nah, I write stories, too many of them not short enough, because I can.
Which is to say, with nary a twinkle in the eye, that the form suits my temperament,
never mind my understanding of our goofy and condemned kind.
In the first place, as a scribbler who came of age in the sixties, I am impatient, eager
to grab the next goody in the refrigerator, anxious to go on the next adventure. World

The Craft of Fiction 75

peace? Yeah, today that, and tomorrow the end of hunger in Africa. What do you mean,
as my father used to say, Rome wasnt built in a day? For me, youre beginning to gather,
speed is of no little premium. Hence, if two or three orGod help me!four stories go
bust before Independence Day, no big deal, because I know that, come Thanksgiving,
Ill have at least one to be reasonably proud of, one to show to a stranger with a checkbook and a publication that reaches Americans at bulk rate.
I am also eager to horse around with the fundamentals of my faith. Second person?
Why the dickens not? Ditto with the present tense. How about a story in the subjunctive mood? Can do (and, golly, was once done by yours truly, an undertaking, owing
to related sleights of hand with time, that nearly broke my head in half). What about
multiple thirds? Or telling a story backwards? Maybe a story of one sentence (another
chance, by the way, to practice ones grammar and gifts at subordination). You say you
want to tell a story in 1,500 words exactly. Go to it. Not use quotation marks for dialogue? That, too. For story is a form that invites heedless experimentationa form, in
fact, whose principle virtue is its possibility, its fluidity. (You want proof? Okay, smartypants, define the form, beginning with the easiest of questions: How long is the story?
Or this: When does a story become a novella, a novelette, or a, uh, long story? Geez, at
least we know, with all due respect to the differences among Spenser and Shakespeare
and Petrarch, that a sonnet is fourteen lines long. With a story, the rules are less fixed
and more ambiguous. Length? Mr. E.A. Poe said it should be read at one sitting. This, of
course, was before the red-eye to London, the bus ride to Katmanduall sittings almost
impossible to sit through.)
Another reason to write short is that you dont have to know very much. More proof?
Try this: Think of your favorite novel. Now think what X had to know to write that
bookthe facts, if you will. Moby-Dick? The minutiae about knots alone were worth one
darned chapter. The Great Gatsby? Man, how much time do you have for a lesson or two
about shirts? Go ahead, try it yourself. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Libra by Don
DeLillo. And Lord help you if you should undertake to create your own world. Does
the name William Faulkner mean anything to you? Or what about Ray Bradbury? The
Denis Johnson who wrote Fiskadoro? Lordy, you might even have to invent a language
la A Clockwork Orange. With a story, even one about places long ago or never were, you
can, well, fake it. I once, for example, wrote a story about a father who was obsessed with
his brothers death on the Bataan Death March at the beginning of World War II. To
do right by the material, I read one bookand, no pun intended, a short one at thatto
learn the history, to find the names, to get the anecdotes. To write a story on UFOs, I
read another book. To concoct some artful lies about Pancho Villa and Black Jack Pershing, maybe three books.
Washington Irving, he of the Headless Horseman and the minor role in Catch-22, used
to say that writing at novel length inevitably lead to dull patches. Not surprisingly, I, in
the words of the miracle that is Smokey Robinson, second that emotion, especially because I agree with the aforementioned Mr. Poe that we writers ought not to write even one
word that does not, as he put it, contribute to the unity of effect. This, folks, is hard to
do. Harder than getting into heaven, methinks. The story writer cannot be self-indulgent

76

The Craft & Business of Writing

or indifferent to the need to hurry along to the next dramatic moment. We have to make
our mark, often not subtly at all, and press on. His skin looked like week-old pork, we
type and are thus finished describing the software tycoon with the tongs and the barbecue mitt and a mistress with a charge card to Fredericks of Hollywood. Her voice made
my hair melt, we type and dare not go into any more detail about, say, her full-sprung
thighs or her peculiarly fetching way of getting from hither to yon. No, the emphasis for
the story writer is brevity, an aesthetic economy where less is more.
Similarly significant to understand is that, metaphorically speaking, you dont often turn corners in stories nowadays where what youve discovered about Debbie-do or
old Phinizy Spalding is grave enough to scare the pants off you, or have you wondering
why that bit of news was yours to behold. Novelists, I think, run the risk of learning stuff about themselves through their characters that might well give the lie to the
easy convictions they cleave to as citizens. What, you wonder, did it cost John OHara
to write BUtterfield 8? Or what horrible truth was John Cheever coming to in Oh, What
a Paradise It Seems? And how long did it take William Styron to start breathing again
when he finished the last chapter in Lie Down in Darkness? To be sure, such remarkable
looks into the dark well of us can, and do, happen with story. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that we ought not ever to write a story that will only cost us time to get between
margins. Still, with the novelunique to its form, dear readersmuch is demanded,
not least a broader, more comprehensive sense of character, which is to say, finally, a
more straightforward and more honest view of ourselves, the analogues for the selves
we breathe into life with language. You cant, I fear, spend years with Dr. Jekyll without
having more than one heart-to-heart with Seor Hyde.
I am here to say that a story is nicely accommodating to material, the stuff youre
alive to fictionalize. In the twenty-seven years since I published my first histoire (the
only word in French worth repeating in polite company), Ive written about, oh, a dukes
mixture of men and women bedeviled by the roil and rue of lived life. Ive a hapless hero
who killed two dogs, another who believed his mutt could speak enough English to
pass the SATs. In an attempt to learn what structure alone can say, Ive told two different stories precisely the same way. Ive given myself over to a guy, shaped like the Pillsbury Doughboy, who aims to get out of his draft physical by wearing India silk panties
(crotchless, of course) and smooching a general or two. At various times in my career,
into my head, always unbidden, have sprung, in addition to the usual rakes and flounders, a football coach with a fondness for high heels, a professional voice breaking
into his own house, a teenager watching his father destroy a brand-new set of Wilson
golf clubs, two former college buddies who like to hold up Stop N Gos, a being from
outer-goddam-space, a mother who makes no apology for being a drunk, a twice-divorced scoundrel who likes to box waltz with women in the aisles of his local food mart,
a banker who watches his wifeevidently naked, at least from the waist updrive by in
the Volvo sedan of his bridge partner, a woman in love with an ex-G.I. who hears voices
and owns a Russian handgun to do battle with them, a smart-mouth delinquent whose
directions to his place in the desert take six pages, and a session drummer with astonishingly bad taste in sweethearts. Why, Ive even presumed to take up residence in the

The Craft of Fiction 77

interior life of a thug named Forka sad sack, really, who offered to be to us what pestilence had been to our forebears. In short, whatever has interested me, and a lot certainly
has, Ive had a form accommodating enough to do the heavy lifting that art is.
Novel writing, so E.L. Doctorow is said to have once remarked, is like driving at
night on an unfamiliar road. For the story writer I am, that trip to the end of Lonely
Street is neither less daunting nor less spooky; its just shorter. Like our brothers and
sisters who go long, we at the to end of narratives fro must be equally watchful,
equally vigilant, equally attentive to what surprises will spring out at us from the dark.
I likewise believe that story writing fits well with these parlous and busy times. In my
own case, I went short in part because, with a wife and two children and no little desire
to be an acceptable husband and father, I had no time to go long, especially with the
tenure clock ticking in the background. We had soccer practice to go to, trombone lessons to take, school plays, trips to the orthodontistthe alpha and omega, in short, of
all thats involved in rearing youngsters you mean to keep clear of woe and despair and
ignorance. Hence, I wrote at night, after story time. I wrote when I didnt have class to
teach (or, sigh, prepare for). I wrote when there was no department meeting, no advisee
rapping at my chamber door, no sleep to have, no administrator to knock some sense
into. I wrote when I didnt have papers to grade, softball to play, flesh to press, or shilly
to shally. Mainly, however, I wrote short because, well, after thirty pages I began to lie.
I have, I should finally confess, tried to go long. Three times, in fact. The painful autobiographical novel (featuring a young man far too sensitive for the crudities of the modern world). The pornographic novel (yes, literally). The historical novel (see that mouthbreathing son-of-a-gun Pancho Villa from above). With each, fortunately, I learned yet
more about being brief, about what to leave out, about how to cut, about why, among
other things, all the little birdies go tweet-tweet-tweet. I learned the felicity of the right
word at the right time. I learned, very quickly, to get to the dadgum point. I learned not
to overstay my welcome, to leave the party well before the fistfights start and the drunks
get to singing college fraternity songs. I learned to fish, not cut bait. I learned that a
good title is worth a chapter all by its lonesome; that a nameTump, for example, or Mr.
Pitifulis worth, at the very least, a page of vital statistics. I learned that writing is not
necessarily prose. I learned, to coin a phrase, to make time fly, days and even years disappearing in a sentence. I made pals with the angel that is white space. I became explicit,
maddeningly so. I learned to kill two, sometimes three, narrative birds with one stone.
And, yes, Ive learned what I cant do. Ive learned what I have is the stamina, the time, the
imagination, or the courage to typenot the least valuable lesson, importantly, one can
learn about ones singular, miserable self. And, best of all, I am not through learning.
I dont expect that Ill changetoo little time left to become passingly good at the
high and low of another genre. Besides, I have more, albeit short, to say. And short, as
the poet reminds us, is sweet, right? In any event, I have nothing rousing to finish with,
no rhetorical flourish of the sort you might think to underline or commit to memory.
Rather, I hope my words have become a comfort to those similarly afflicted with the
need to be brief. Had I been a more proficient writer, this, too, would have been shorter.

78

The Craft & Business of Writing

More than form:


the novel
and the story
by Jack

Heffron

doubt there is a fiction writer anywhere who would need more than a moment to
define the difference between a novel and a short story. The primary difference, of
course, is length. And yet, that simple, easily discerned difference creates a good many
other differences in the writers approach to the work, her relationship to it, the strategies she uses to complete successfully a piece of fiction, long or short.
Still, we discuss the forms as if they were very much the same, though we make
clear distinctions between, say, the short story and the poem. Early in our literary careers, most of us find ourselves as either a fiction writer or a poet. For the majority of
fiction writers, those early years are served writing short stories. We began writing seriously (that is, for others, strangers, to read and criticize our work) in an undergraduate
creative writing course. And though the syllabus may not have called for a short story
instead of a novel chapter, we all banged away at the smaller form. A short story, to the
novice, seems a good bit easier and, well, less presumptuous.
We planned to learn the finer points of plot, characterization, and point of view in
the shorter form, then to graduate to the longer one, the assumption being that the
novel was simply a much longer short story. Such thinking denies some very real differences in the forms. In fact, the short storys demands for economy, compression, and
unity may be more difficult to satisfy for the novice than the novels need for endurance
and stamina. As William Faulkner once said, All the trash must be eliminated in the
short story, whereas one can get away with some of it in a novel.
The story demands that every detail, every word, serve a specific and clearly focused
end in order to achieve an overall unity of effect. In many ways, the short story is closer
to the poem. Rick DeMarinis, who has published a number of story collections and
novels (including The Year of the Zinc Penny, a novel, and The Voice of America, stories), believes the notion of writing stories in order to graduate into novels is wrongheaded.
I did serve such an apprenticeship in the misguided belief that a short story was
easier [than the novel] because it was shorter, he explains. He perceives the difference
as largely a matter of discipline and attitude. The novel requires the discipline of the
endurance runner; the short story requires the discipline of the tightrope walker.

The Craft of Fiction 79

In a novel, problems in character development, plot, tone, and others, can be solved
by adding whatever seems necessary. In a story, any addition requires achieving a new
balance, a realignment of all the other parts. The process of revision often involves
a good bit more taking out than putting in. The task is getting the piece to read as
though it were written in a single sitting, as though the writer simply took dictation
from the musean occurrence not nearly as common as story writers would have their
readers believe. More often, the story writer revises over and over, tinkering with sentences, scenes, dialogue. He lives by inference, by suggesting a world outside the story to
create the illusion that we are examining a detail from a very large canvas.

Word By Word
Thus, the short story, because of its demands, seems an unlikely place for the apprentice writer to begin, unless the writers goal is to work for a good long while within that
form. In terms of creativity, a week of short story is far more exhausting than a month
of a novel, says Robert Olmstead, who has enjoyed success with stories (River Dogs) and
with novels (Soft Water, A Trail of Hearts Blood Wherever We Go, and Coal Black Horse). I
take great pleasure in working on novels. Theres a generous pace to them. Its leisurely.
You can take time to get up and walk around, refill the coffee cup, light a cigarette.
Olmstead, a graduate of Syracuse Universitys MFA program (where he worked under
Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff) and who now is Director of Ohio Wesleyan Universitys Creative Writing Program, believes that the apprenticeship is served with short stories
because the workshop setting handles the shorter form more easily. He also believes, however, that apprentice writers should concentrate more on sentences and paragraphs than
on the larger structures. The best apprenticeships are word by word, line by line, two
people sitting next to each other discussing a paragraph for an hour.
His belief is echoed by Kate Braverman, a novelist (Lithium for Medea and Palm Latitudes) and story writer (Squandering the Blue). She believes that young writers should not be
so concerned with form. Structure gives people a superficial concept of what writing is.
Im interested in people writing good lines and being aware of the fact that good lines are
built on a choice of words, how they sound, how they resonate, what they suggest.
Like Olmstead, she feels the emphasis, in the early years, should be on writing for its
own sake, divested of a defining form. The best apprenticeship that people can put in
is to go and sit in front of a building and do five pages on what that building looks like.
Go around and learn your world, what the architecture is, and what the trees are and
what the history of your street is, and the names of the Indians who used to live there,
the gods they believed in.
If the apprentice writer feels he must choose one form over the other to work in,
there are, admittedly, advantages to the shorter one. It does allow the young writer to
finish work, an important aspect of the learning stage, since a finished product offers
a sense of accomplishment, a feeling that one has met his goals. The shorter form also
allows for a greater range of experimentation. The writer can vary points of view from
story to story and can play with different narrative structures.

80

The Craft & Business of Writing

Developing Characters
The strategies a writer uses in developing characters for a novel are different from those
used in a short story. A short story, first of all, allows the writer to develop only a few
characters, seldom more than two, into complex, rounded fictional people. Since the story must be focused on the characters crisis of the momentthe storys central impulse
little room is left for supplying background and exposition. The characters history as
well as his life beyond the current crisis must be implied by a few well-chosen detailsa
pocketwatch passed down from a great-grandfather, a ribbon won at the seventh-grade
track meet. Through these details, the reader senses lives being lived, so that the characters seem more real. Without them, the characters will appear flat, mere props to carry
out the storys conflict, or worse, to serve some agenda beyond the storya message the
author wants to convey or an issue the author wants to explore through fiction.
A telling gesture or detail can help character developmenta scar, a beard that is
constantly stroked, fingernails manicured to perfection that the character flashes at
odd moments. These details summon forth the character, make her clear in the eyes of
the reader by inferring behavioral traits and patterns that the story does not have room
to show at greater length: a tip of the iceberg approach.
Finally, the old truism is trueaction is characterand a short story simply offers
fewer opportunities to show your character in action. Thus, a character can be complicated by a single acta harsh man tenderly pulling a blanket over a child, a kindly softspoken woman demanding her due from an impudent store clerk.
A short story that, for me, offers textbook strategies in characterization is Richard Giless The Whole World, which appeared in the Winter 1990 issue of Story. In
it, Giles quickly establishes his main character, Pope, a hard-bitten, tough old farmer
whose daughter returns home, pregnant, having been driven off years before by her
fathers inability to accept her adult sexuality. Popes primary physical detail, his tag, is
a missing finger, a stump that he stroked as another man might pick his teeth. The
detail suggests Popes past, his life before the story, giving him a history. It also suggests
how tough his life has been, full of harsh physical labor, and perhaps it hints at his
stunted emotional development.
But rather than settle for a one-dimensional, American Gothic image of the stoic
farmer, Giles also offers a few of what DeMarinis calls telling gestures. We glimpse behind Popes mask and find that while lying in bed waiting for sleep, he fantasizes about
being a night bird, free in the dark sky to fly and to screech. Later, in a vain attempt to
keep his daughter entertained (and thus away from the men in town), he retells the
story of losing his finger, relishing her laughter. He becomes suddenly vulnerable in the
readers eyes, and a complex individual.
The best stories, those whose characters linger in our memories long after the story
is over, employ characters that, like real people, are full of contradictions, of fantasy
lives that are not even suggested on the surface. Since the story writer does not have
room enough and time to show a character in a variety of fully developed and revealing
scenes, she must find other ways to move quickly past the characters masks (and past

The Craft of Fiction 81

the type with which the character is most easily identified). The surest means to this
end is asserting a great deal of pressure on the character. He must want something very
badly, must need desperately to escape whatever torment dogs him so that the reader
can see the character without disguises or defenses, a naked self that is weak or strong,
passionate or indifferent, brave or cowardly (or both, depending on the situation).
Asserting that pressure by constantly raising the stakes, constantly creating new
roadblocks for the character, can also lead to some nice surprises for the writer. A character we thought of in one wayshy or arrogant or friendlysuddenly bursts off in a
new direction. In such cases, the cozy confines of the story help the writer assert this
dramatic pressure, since both the writer and the reader can live with a heightened narrative tension over the short haul. If the character is under tremendous pressure from the
start in a novel, the reader and the writer will be exhausted after the first hundred pages
(if that long). The novel demands that the tension be modulated, rising and falling like
waves or, depending on the story, like a roller coaster.

Showing Change
The writer of the short story also is limited in his ability to convincingly show a characters change. Of course, many stories lead to an epiphany, to a change in perspective
about the subject of the story, but length prohibits showing more fundamental changes in character. Therefore, when we show a character working her way through a bad
time, say the months following a divorce, we can suggest at the end, given the events of
the narrative, that she will be able to cope better in the future. But if her selfishness and
basic dishonesty caused the divorce, it is difficult, in 5,000 words, to convince the reader
that the action of the story has ignited a significant reversal in behavior and that the
character will now be a considerably more generous, giving person.
In the novel, not only one but other characters can and do change, explains James
B. Hall, who has published novels (Mayo Sergeant, Racers to the Sun, and Not By the Door)
and story collections (The Short Hall). Life changes them and we see it happen and
believe. The novel involves process, and given enough process, a change in character
becomes acceptable. Whereas short fictions commitment to unity of effect, to only a
very few full scenes, legislates for revelation within a character, but precludes the melodrama of a characters fundamental change, let us say, from a bad man to a good man.
One way the story writer might attempt to circumvent this limitation is by opening
the story with a catastrophic event that changes the characters life view, then developing this change throughout the story. In The Country Husband, John Cheevers protagonist, Francis Weed, survives a plane crash and returns to his repressive suburban
world a changed man. The story documents his rebellion in comic detail, but even
here, the change is only temporary and Francis returns to his normal self.
In developing characters into complex, rounded literary folk, the novelist has many
more options. She can sketch entire scenes for the sole purpose of developing an aspect
of a main character. The novel allows tremendous latitude in the introduction and
treatment of characters, says DeMarinis. You can give ten pages, if you want, to the

82

The Craft & Business of Writing

description of a cab driver or of a psychiatric nurse just for the joy of exercising your
powers of description or to indulge your insights into the varieties of human behavior.
The novels latitude not only allows, it forces the writer beyond the short storys
limits of inference and gesture. For a classic example, consider F. Scott Fitzgeralds The
Great Gatsby. We first see Gatsby bathed in moonlight, his arms spread wide to the green
light at the end of Daisys dock. He is the distant, enigmatic, romantic hero. Before seeing him, we learned a bit about his legend, heard the rumors about him. Then we watch
as he presides over one of his grand parties. Then we meet him, along with Nick, and
our early perception of him as mysterious hero is complicated by his laughably bogus
life story. Later still, we see him as gangster, as shy boy-man made vulnerable by love,
and finally as a desperate dreamer. And Gatsby, despite all the scenes in which he is
developed, remains somewhat vague. Think of the complexity of Nick Carraway, even
Daisy. All are shown in a number of contradictory ways.
The larger canvas allows for such contradictions without suggesting that the characters development is somehow wrong, inconsistent. In the story, a number of contradictions would make us wonder who the character really is. Thus, we tell the writer that
we dont believe the sweet, vulnerable protagonist weve come to know in the storys
first fifteen pages would do such a thing on page sixteen. We insist that the writer foreshadow such a contradiction earlier, give us some clue as to the characters complexity
before foisting such a change upon us.

Plot, Pace, and Structure


A novel demands greater modulation of pace, a rising and falling action rather than a
beeline for the exit. While short stories do not require a fast, linear, forward movement,
they must be focused on one or two very specific goals. Even daring, fragmented structures such as those used by Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, and William H. Gass
have a clear direction.
Its the very rare short story that can accommodate a subplot, says DeMarinis, but
a true novel almost requires such excursions. The pace of a story is obviously faster than
that of a novel. Like a poem, a short story has a detectable rhythm. Some novels do, but
most do not. Or if they do, it is not as crucial an element to their aesthetic success.
In a story, I would not enjoy the luxury of a five-page scene since such a drastic
change in intensitysuch as a shift in the established rhythmwould register on the
reader as a soft spot, and an alert editor would trim or cut the scene, or perhaps combine it with another one so that at least it would be working on a number of levels, accomplishing several necessary chores for the story.
Likewise, the length of scenes, by necessity, must be shorter in the story. A scenes
success is judged by its precision, its control, its tightness. When writing a scene in a
short story, I write everything that transpires between the characters. I record all the
dialogue, the gestures, the asides, all the starts and stops and hems and haws to make
sure that I have done well by the scene in my headgiven it plenty of time to develop
on its own, to take over and become something different, such as when a character

The Craft of Fiction 83

suddenly says something I had not foreseen. Once completed, I go back to trim, reviewing the scene dozens of times until Im sure all the fat is gone, that the scene is tight.
A master at creating and sustaining long dramatic scenes within the short story
is J.D. Salinger. In his classic story Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut, he uses, primarily, only two characters who remain, for the most part, in a single room, talking and
drinking during a long afternoon. But such stories require wonderful dialogue in order to sustain the readers interest, and their apparent aimlessness must be controlled
with a deft hand.
Several years ago, Madison Smartt Bell told us that Less Is Less, and the past few years
have seen a slight shift away from minimalism to more fully developed narratives. Still, the
story writer (and to a lesser extent, the novelist), in order to compete in the marketplace,
must make more of less. Robert Olmstead, defending his former teacher Raymond Carver
from the (now pejorative) tag of minimalist, noted, I read a Carver story and the word
that comes to my mind always is generosity. Hes an immensely giving writer.

Point of View
Todays novelists and short story writers enjoy great freedom when choosing a works
point of view, but each form offers slightly different freedoms and limitations. In both
cases, the caveat remains: It must seem naturalan organic part of the work. The writer
fails if the chosen point of view is too limited, too self-conscious, or too distracting.
For this reason, unusual points of viewsecond person, for instancetend to be
easier to execute in a short story simply because the writer is not forced to sustain that
device over many pages. Thus, Bob Shacochis uses second person with wonderful results in his story Lord Short Shoe Wants the Monkey. The use of you rather than I, he,
or she does not become a bothersome convention of the story. Sustaining that very idiosyncratic approach over the course of a novel is extremely difficult, since it calls such
attention to itself, drawing the spotlight away from the characters and plot. (Of course,
it can be employed occasionally with great effect, the most famous contemporary example being Jay McInerneys Bright Lights, Big City.)
The same reasoning holds true for first-person narratives in which the voice is very
idiosyncratic, a dialect perhaps. The novelty of such a voice can engage a reader for a
short while and can add a delightfully fresh perspective to ones material, but the writer
must ask herself: Can the reader tolerate such a voice through hundreds of pages? Can
this voice communicate my entire story, even the more subtle aspects or those that require keen observation? Or will the limitations and eccentricities which seem so charming and which allow me to sustain a strong element of mystery for twenty pages become
annoying or overly confining in a much longer work?
Of course, examples in which an unreliable, idiosyncratic first-person voice tells a
long story are legion: Mark Twains The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for one; Allan
Gurganuss The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is a more recent example. But a
writer making such a strategic choice here must be aware of the challenge he has set

84

The Craft & Business of Writing

for himself. For all the novelty and freshness this voice gives the work, it creates a great
many demands.
The most common point-of-view technique in use is, of course, the limited third
person, which focuses on the thoughts of a single character but allows the writer to
move in and out of that characters mind and to make more general observations. The
writer also can sustain tension through what his main character does not know. This
point of view seems to be the easiest one to employ in a short story. Over the course of a
novel, however, it may become too confining. Locked into the mind of just one character without the benefit of a rich voice, the reader can feel claustrophobic. He may want
to jump into the consciousness of another characteror two, or three, or more.
Novelists, therefore, often choose an omniscient point of view, though not in the
nineteenth-century mode of jumping from one character to the next even within a single scene. They use a more limited omniscience but with a number of characters changing, say, with each new chapter. This technique gives the novel an openness, allowing
the reader a fresh look at the events of the narrative. In fact, the switching perspectives
can become the central focus of the novel as a number of characters investigate the
same events. The master of this approach was William Faulkner, particularly in The
Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying (in which first-person narrators are mixed). A more
recent example is Tobias Wolff s The Barracks Thief, in which first person and third person are mixed to great effect.
Such shifts within a story are more difficult to execute since the goals here are economy and unity. The reader does not take kindly to shifts in perspective unless the writer
establishes this openness early in the storywithin the first several pages. Certainly writers can use an omniscient point of view, and can even use more than one first-person
or limited third-person narrator. An excellent example of the latter is T. Coraghessan
Boyles story If the River Was Whiskey, in which the very tight third-person perspective switches between father and son. But Boyle marks the shifts by inserting a space
break each time. The reader may be jarred if the switches simply occur without apparent pattern. A writer also risks jarring the reader (and violating the readers trust) when,
after the first ten or twelve pages of a single point of view, he changes to a new one.
Of course, such rules have never limited the creative mind and should, instead,
be used as guideposts that can save the writer time spent on trial and error. Even
better, they might be used as challenges the writer creates for herselfbarriers to be
broken through.
If you can write in a voice I want to hearI dont care how long, in fact, I dont care
what form or even what subject matterI will read, read, read, says Olmstead. For everything we can say about the nature of the endeavor, theres a writer out there running
roughshod over our tenets.

A Different Dynamic
In discussing how a writer decides between novel and short story, Braverman says, Finally, its not enough that you choose it, it must choose you. Its a dynamic. It seems to

The Craft of Fiction 85

me the notion of a dynamic between writer and work cuts to the heart of the difference
between novels and short stories. The primary difference is one of our relationship to
the form in which we are working. Since fiction writers are very different from each
other, so, too, are their relationships with their work.
Though I truly love the short story form and would never want to choose between
forms, I find myself more at ease when working on a novel. As Olmstead noted, there
is a leisurely quality to the relationship, an awareness as I write that tomorrow I will return to this world and the next day, and the day after that. In fact, while writing in this
longer form, the writer lives, at least part of the time, within that world. And so much
of what happens in the real world seems somehow to fit that other one, so that I find
myself writing notes constantlyin supermarkets, theaters, restaurants, everywhere.
Some writers can avoid the keyboard for days, maybe weeks, while allowing ideas
to incubate. When ready, they attackwhipping out short stories in a single sitting or
a section of a novel in a week. Unfortunately, I am not one of those writers. I must face
the keyboard nearly every day, and novels ease that chore by prolonging the process
of creation: Tomorrow I will write what comes next. With short stories, I write as the
pieces come to me, in whatever order, and the process of creation is a good bit shorter
than the process of revision. And though the short story offers that sense of completion
more oftenundeniably, a wonderful feelingthe writer is then faced with the task of
beginning again, of starting over from scratch.
Rick DeMarinis agrees. Beginning a short story is almost as hard as ending one,
which always takes some miracle of insight. This involves some agony. I think a writer
of short stories needs to depend on the inspired moment. The novelist is more of a plow
horse than a gazelle.
So each writer must ask herself, Which am Iplow horse or gazelle? And it is
unlikely that any of us are one as opposed to the other: Were both. The question then
becomes, Which am I most often?
Braverman sums it up this way: A story is like a love affair, and a novel is like a
marriage. A story offers initial exuberance and, since the end is never far from sight,
plenty of romance. The novel offers more certainty, a stronger sensefor better or for
worseof permanence.
Though she enjoys both forms, Braverman feels the novel grants a greater sense of
achievement. For a writer, I think the novel is the ultimate performance, she says. Its
the ultimate test of intelligence and stamina and the ruthless will to succeed. The ability to embrace ghastly solitude. And you cannot conceal who you are across the dimensions of a novel. A novel ultimately reveals the quality of the soul.
The important point here is to remember that the forms are indeed different, and
that the young writer who charges into the sunset armed for battle must remember that
his strategies must change to fit the opponent.

86

The Craft & Business of Writing

Why true-life
stories dont make
good fiction
by

Alyce Miller

ow many times have you been inspired to turn a true story (amusing anecdote,
tragic episode, personal experience) into fiction? Or after hearing a particularly
good story, one that moved you to laughter or close to tears, youve thought, Wow,
now that would make a good piece of fiction?
Why is it that after transcribing the story to paper, you discover it has failed miserably on the page? Worse, readers and editors conspire to tell you the story is boring (nothing happens), improbable, predictable, or even unrealistic. How can real stories seem
unrealistic? Dont most fiction writers borrow material from real life for their stories?
The answer is yes, but fiction writers draw on many other sources as well. Often
what appears in works of fiction is a combination of true stories, imagination, and
invention. This is what distinguishes fiction from much nonfiction.
Six of the biggest pitfalls in writing directly from true life are as follows:

1. Writing stories from which you have either too much or too little distance: With
too much distance, you may not know enough to flesh out the story beyond
anecdote; with too little distance, your close-up familiarity may get in your way
as you assume your reader will automatically feel the same way you do about
the material.
2. Relying on and allowing the real-life plot to drive the story toward the way it
really happened, rather than exploring alternate routes.
3. Neglecting character development; assuming that because you think a real-life person is funny or tragic, your reader will, too.
4. Wanting to stay in control and explain why everything happened the way it did;
overlooking the wonderful possibilities of ambiguity, irony, and understatement.
5. Straitjacketing the writing itself because you know exactly where the story is going.
6. Failing to include essential details that convince and give texture; again, relying on
your own emotional response to a real-life situation, rather than to the detail and
development that move the story machinery.

The Craft of Fiction 87

Inventing Another Kind of Truth


Its helpful to remember that one of the shifts that marks so much twentieth-century
fiction is from what the writer already knows and wants to impart to what the writer
discovers. Twentieth-century fiction typically resists demonstration and instruction,
and leans more toward exploration and open-endedness. Readers of contemporary fiction expect to play a very different role from their nineteenth-century counterparts.
Writers who get stuck in transcribing real-life stories cheat themselves and their
readers of the potential for mutual discovery.
My creative writing students frequently express frustration with their flawed attempts to transform real life to fiction. A student in an adult fiction class I recently
taught dismissed all critiques of weak moments in her stories with this rationalization:
But thats the way it really happened. Its the truth. Her readers responses were, But
you havent convinced us.
What my student forgot is that fiction is, as the adage tells us, a means of transforming, not simply transcribing, life. Truth is always prismatic. Fiction, by its very nature,
alters and falsifies. The fictive dream offers the illusion of truth. It is very different from
factual reportage.
Certainly, fiction writers often borrow ideas from real life, but they also mix and
blend real-life events and characters and images with what they invent and imagine. Often, writers may start with a snippet of conversation or an interesting image from real
life and work from there, allowing each idea to choose the next. Fiction writers must always be open to possibility. Perhaps in real life the main characters of your story live in
southern California, but if you know little or nothing about southern California, and
if the landscape and culture of southern California are not essential to the story, you
might consider choosing a setting you are more familiar with. Readers can tell when
youre stretching thin what little you do know.
Sculpting real-life events and characters is a given in fiction. Remember, youre not
a journalist concerned with the exact recording of facts. Fiction writers are inventors
of another kind of truth.

Examining the Truth


Another student of mine recently wrote a long, involved love story based on an emotional experience that really happened to him. The story failed on many levels.
It opened with the accidental reunion of two high school sweethearts in a small
Western town they just happened to both find themselves in. The woman now worked
as a waitress in a bar where the man had coincidentally stopped to gamble. We are told
in the second paragraph that the woman had jilted the man eighteen years before, and
the man was still nursing a broken heart. By page three, the couple had slipped off to a
motel and fallen into bed together. In the afterglow of sexual ecstasy they realized they
had never stopped being in love. By page five, they were living together. The woman
had a young daughter, by another lover, named Valentine. The little girl immediately

88

The Craft & Business of Writing

became attached to the male protagonist, no questions asked. The three lived in perfect familial harmony for a year until the final pages when the man realized he simply
could not make a commitment. We never knew why, since up until that point everything seemed to be going along swimmingly. The story ended with the departing man
promising the little girl he would send her a card every year on her birthday, which fell
on Valentines Day.
So how did the story fail?
First, coincidence (in this case, the accidental meeting) is always difficult to pull
off in fiction. Handled carelessly, it comes across as a trick, or even laziness on the part
of the author (the way the line And then I woke up does). The coincidence in the
students story, even though true, rightly struck the readers as hokey. But because it
really happened, the student was reluctant to part with that detail.
Since the coincidence was not essential to the story, the student might have considered other possibilities that would also have served character development. Example:
What might happen if the man deliberately came looking for the woman? What if he
had been seeking revenge? What if he was happily married to someone else? What factors in his present life might have prompted him to seek out the old girlfriend? What if
the reunion took place in their old hometown, which the woman had never left, making
it logical for the two to be in the same place simultaneously? What if the man didnt
recognize the woman right away, or vice versa? What if she had come looking for him?
A second problem: The student relied on the weight of his own emotional attachment to the situation, rather than character development, to convince the reader to
care about the two characters. He assumed the readers would automatically accept the
mans passion for the woman. What he forgot is that the real-life subject matter was
not loaded for his readers in the same way it was for him.
Third: His choice of perspective through a thinly disguised version of himself as the
male protagonist allowed him no opportunity to play with point-of-view possibilities.
Writing himself restricted him. The issue of distance arises here. Perhaps because
he felt so emotionally linked to the situation, he found it impossible to write with a
certain necessary detachment that might have led him to a more fully realized character.
As a result, he ended up with a shamelessly bland protagonist whose motives were vague
and whose actions seemed unfathomable. Hard to feel sympathy for such a character!
Fourth: The dialogue between the two lovers showed none of the tension or irony
this strained situation would ostensibly produce. The student stuck pretty much to
real-life small talk, which may have been true to life, but is rarely of interest. Fictionalized dialogue simulates real-life dialogue, but must be carefully selected for the way
in which it serves the story. A line like What a nice house you have could work if it
was, say, ironic, if we knew the woman lived in a run-down trailer, for example. But the
students dialogue consistently mirrored the action (Would you like some lemonade?
she asked, handing him a pitcher) and revealed nothing about the characters feelings
or motives. When in conflict or crisis, people often dont say what they really mean, and
this can be used to great advantage by writers in developing tension. Many times actions
speak louder than any words. Example: How would the reader have read the same scene

The Craft of Fiction 89

if the woman offered the man lemonade and her hands were trembling? Or she poured
him a glass of lemonade without asking him if he wanted any? Or she gave him a glass
of lemonade while she drank beer? Or she gave him lemonade that was too sour?
Fifth: The student failed to develop the dynamics inherent in the main conflict between the two characters. After all, the man had been jilted by the woman. What must
he be feeling? How would he behave? When he jumped in bed with her were his motives
mixed? The setup offered tremendous potential for the subtle expression of complex
dynamics, but the story as the student wrote it lacked any of the tension suggested by
the circumstances.
Finally, the student relied on a clich at the end as a stand-in for the complexity of
the mans sadness at leaving the little girl named Valentine. Even though in real life the
childs birthday fell on Valentines Day and her name was Valentine, the device felt corny.
Readers objected that the story had descended unforgivably into bathos. How to get away
from that? The student might have reconsidered whether the Valentines Day detail was
crucial to the story and discovered he was using it as an easy stand-in for more complex
dynamics yet to be explored. Or he might have set out to discover what would happen if
the little girl were not so likable. Or what if she werent six (as she was in real life), but
ten or fourteen? What if she had been omitted entirely from the story?

Avoiding the Clichs of Life


Writers must be attentive to the clichs that real life serves up and either make something
of them (freshen them, challenge them, work against them) or abandon them altogether.
Speaking of clichs, the love story is by its very nature already a clich. How to work
against that? Consider a piece as poignant and disturbing as Anton Chekhovs The
Lady With a Dog or D.H. Lawrences The Horse Dealers Daughter. Both are love
stories. But both leave the reader uneasy by resisting what is expected and challenging
the reader to think beyond the narrative lines of boy meets and gets girl.
Another problem with translating directly from real life is that real life is only infrequently punctuated by trouble that is interesting. A happy family reunion in which
all the relatives are thrilled to see one another, true as it may be, is boring to read about
because nothing happens. It lacks the critical elements essential to fiction: conflict or
crisis. A conflict or crisis can be as subtle as the boy narrators thwarted romantic quest
in James Joyces short story Araby or as shocking as the murderous jealous rage of Leo
Tolstoys protagonist in The Kreutzer Sonata.
At the other end of the spectrum, remember that real life can be stranger than
fiction. Trouble in real life may be far too complicated or unbelievable to translate
directly into fiction. It may need condensing and distilling in order to make it work.
Again, the very strangeness of real life may be a stumbling block unless the writer can
work in the details that convince, or push the strangeness to new levels.
I have often wrestled with the challenges of fictionalizing the complexities of real
people and events. For example, I tried to write about a woman I know who has been
kidnapped, raped, and beaten; who has had seven abortions and three children, all by

90

The Craft & Business of Writing

different men; who has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse; who finally shot to
death her abusive common-law husband and spent four years in prison where she was
impregnated by a guard. When she gave birth in the prison hospital, her family had
only a couple of days to make arrangements to get the baby out. After the womans
release from prison, she dated an ex-prisoner who at age fourteen had bludgeoned his
grandparents to death. Shortly thereafter, she slept repeatedly with her one sisters husband, also an ex-convict. She had a second sister who was an alcoholic and lived with a
string of abusive men.
All of the above are facts drawn from real life. Yet their very volume proved distracting. I discovered that the undiluted, untransformed truth was far too complicated and
implausible to work as fiction. I realized I would have to stretch my readers credibility
too far and run the risk of disrupting the fictive illusion. I might easily be accused of
contrivance or soap opera camp.
When working from complicated real-life stories, you might consider simplifying
and concentrating on one event, allowing the story to blossom from that point. Discover what it is that interests you most. For example, I might have chosen to focus on
the moment when the womans baby was born in the prison hospital. Or the moment
when she had to hand the child over to her alcoholic sister. Or I might have focused on
the hours leading up to her sisters discovery of the adultery.
Some of the other real-life events might work as texture, woven into the background
fabric. By narrowing the overwhelming number of explosive facts about this womans
life, I would be more likely to develop the story with depth and not rely on a barrage
of sensational events to pump up emotion. And I could have made use of some of the
other details through implication and understatement.
Remember that writing fiction is a selection process. Writers sift through a vast array of experiences (real, imagined, and borrowed) and choose the details that serve the
story. Real life has no such filters. It comes in gusts and storms.
Fiction, like life, is not static or fixed. Writing is an act of discovery in an infinite
field of possibility. Telling a story exactly as it happened may put a stranglehold on the
sheer delight and pace of invention. Dont suffocate the life out of interesting stories.
Allow them to breathe and grow.

Some Things to Remember


Real life is only one source for your story ideas. Combine what you observe in real
life with what you invent and imagine. Keep a writers notebook. Collect ideas.
Truth is often stranger than fiction. Create composites of people and events by
finding their essence. Simplify without flattening. Say more through less. Allow implication and nuance, not volume, to create texture and depth.
Real life happens a day at a time. A hundred years can pass in a fictional sentence.
An hour can be elongated to last an entire novel. Time in fiction is often collapsed or
prolonged. It does not adhere to the neat little increments of real life. Condense or skip
over periods of time that have little bearing on your story.

The Craft of Fiction 91

Complexities and contradictions of human beings must usually be refined in


fiction without reducing characters to attributes. Consider what is most interesting
about the characters youre working with. Resist the urge to overexplain, a habit with
tellers of real-life stories. Allow your curiosity to roam freely. Allow real-life characters
to be transformed. Dont hold any real-life detail too precious. Be ruthless. If its not
working, abandon it.
Try starting with the kernel of a real-life story. The best way to enter a story is
through your own curiosity. In real life you know Aunt Carol wept at Grandmas funeral because she was sad. But, your curiosity might suggest that maybe Aunt Carols
tears signified something other than sadness. What if she was actually elated Grandma
died and her tears are tears of joy? Or shes crying out of guilt because her last words to
Grandma were cruel? Or perhaps her tears have nothing to do with Grandma at all, but
with the unexpected presence of her ex-lover at the funeral?
If youve conveniently entered the story from your real-life point of view, try
telling the story through another characters eyes. Explore different I narrators.
Explore the use of third person (both limited and omniscient). Notice how a change in
point of view allows the thinly disguised version of yourself to become someone else.
Finally, dont get stuck in real life. Keep your fictive possibilities open! Real life is
only part of the story.

92

The Craft & Business of Writing

weaving plot
and subplot
by donna levin

enry James once called the novel a loose, baggy monster, but if youve written a
novel, or tried to write one, you know that Mr. James was being overly kind.
A well-plotted novel reads as if its all of one piece, as seamless as a crystal vase. Funny
thing, when you try to construct one of those novels yourself, you feel as though you are
the sole engineer responsible for threading together all of the freeways of Los Angeles.
Thats one reason writers find novels so intimidating, and its also a reason that
sometimes writers who have mastered the short story have a tough time making the
transition to novels. Some short story writers think all they have to do is keep the short
story going for three hundred pages, instead of stopping after twenty, and theyll have
a novel. Not so.
A novel is not only longer than a short story, its wider. It has a main plot, but even a
relatively short, slight novel has at least one subplot, and most novels have several. You
cant avoid being devoured by the baggy monster that is a novel by keeping your story
simple. No, because then you end up with a novel that will be thin and uninvolving. But
neither can the subplots you do put in place be just arbitrary, other-things-that-happen.
They are part of the composition of a novel that, once complete, seems so effortless and
whole. So how do you come up with one of these perfectly fitting subplots?
You create a subplot that exists for a reason: It either highlights the theme of the
book, drives the main plot forward or, at the very least, provides us with a context for
that main plot. It might even accomplish all three.

The Thematic Subplot


Its always satisfying for us as readers to see subplots that intersect with main plots; it
appeals to our wish to see life itself makes sense. By intersect, I mean that the same
characters appear in both the plot and subplots. (Its sort of like the way Mr. Drucker
was in both Green Acres and Petticoat Junction.)
But for a subplot to function, it is not absolutely necessary for it to intersect with
the main plot. A classic example of this is Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina

The Craft of Fiction 93

is the story of a beautiful Russian aristocrat, Anna, whos married to the upright but
uptight Alexei Karenin. Shes a virtuous woman, but also a lively, emotional one. Meanwhile, her husband is the kind of guy whose idea of a good time is to clip his fingernails.
So when the fatally charming and handsome Count Vronsky falls in love with her, although she tries to resist his advances, it isnt long before she succumbs and embarks
on an affair with him.
Anna finally leaves her husband and child for Count Vronsky, but her own conscience, in part, wont let her live with this choice, and eventually, she commits suicide
by throwing herself under the wheels of a train.
The premise, or the point, of Annas story is that adultery leads to death. (Not always the case in real life, of course, but the point of Annas story nonetheless.) In the
same book, however, Tolstoy included a subplot, the story of Konstantin Levin, a noble
landowner who woos and finally wins the lovely Kitty Shcherbatsky. They marry and
have a child, and suffer some rather typical trials and tribulations of the first year of
marriage, a sort of Russian Barefoot in the Park. They fight over little things and reconcile
over big things. The love of his wife and child make Levin a stronger yet gentler man,
and toward the end of the book, Levin, who has been an agnostic up until now, experiences a religious conversion. The premise, or point, of Levins story is that fidelity (or a
happy family life) leads to salvation.
The characters in Annas story and the characters in Levins story overlap, but only
incidentally. For the most part, the purpose of the subplot, and thus the unity of the
novel, arises because the two stories make two sides of the same argument. They are
thematically linked.
When the plot and subplots of the novel do not intersect, then it is crucial that they
all prove a single theme, otherwise the subplots will seem arbitrary, like stories that
belong in other books.
For example, lets say that you want to write a searing, insightful young-peopleadrift-in-the-big-city book. You assemble a group of various typesan artist, a shrewd
entrepreneur, and a lawyer who wants to help the poor among themand tell their
stories in episodic fashion. The entrepreneur starts selling the hats she designs on the
street; the promising artist is seduced by drugs; the lawyer tries to find ways to compromise with the system without losing her ideals. Meanwhile, these characters dont
interact much with each other except that theyre sharing the same loft space so they
have to wait in line for the others to get out of the shower.
When you get to the end of the stories about these young people in New York, whatever happens to all of them will have to be consistent with a single point that you, as
the author, have proven. Perhaps the point will be only the strong survive in the big city.
In that case, well have to see how, indeed, the strong characters overcome the obstacles
they face while the weak characters wind up broke and alone, or worse, become discouraged and go back home to Peoria.
The thematic link in a book such as this can be the difference between an amateurish, rambling novel about nothing in particular and one that possesses that seamless,
crystal vase quality.

94

The Craft & Business of Writing

An Even Better Way


The thematic link of plot and subplot has worked well in many books, and anything
thats good enough for Tolstoy is good enough for me.
However, it doesnt hurt to devise subplots that also drive the action of the main
plot forward. As an example, lets look at one of the emblematic books of the 1980s,
Tom Wolfes The Bonfire of the Vanities. Bonfire tells the story of Sherman McCoy, an arrogant bond trader whose life unravels after he and his mistress get lost in the Bronx and
run over a young black man. The hit-and-run accident becomes a cause clbre for the
entire city of New York, a symbol of racial oppression; ironically, in the end, Shermans
punishment isnt to go to jail but to get stuck in a kind of criminal justice system limbo
in which he must defend himself forever.
Although Sherman himself does not really have the stature of a hero, his downfall
results from forces outside of his control and his tragic dimensions. Also, while Sherman is a bit of a pompous snob and occasionally a buffoon, he isnt the most evil character in the novel (theres lots of competition for that honor), nor is he responsible for
all the social injustice that is visited upon him personally.
The two main subplots of Bonfire (there are several, more incidental subplots as
well) concern, first of all, Larry Kramer, an assistant district attorney who is looking for
a Great White Defendant to bolster his career, and secondly, Peter Fallow, an alcoholic
British journalist who similarly must find a good story to cover. Wolfe creates complex
lives for both Larry Kramer and Peter Fallow, but for each of them, the central goal becomes to nail Sherman, the perpetrator of the hit-and-run. Therefore, as each character
either comes closer to or is pushed farther away from his goal, Sherman is affected and
thus Shermans story moves forward even when hes off-scene.
This makes for an admirably dense novel, because the same phenomenon works
in reverse. When we read about Sherman, we are also reading about Larry Kramer and
Peter Fallow, because the outcome of Shermans storywhether or not he achieves his
goal of escaping the consequences of his involvement in the hit-and-run accidentaffects them as well.
This is a fairly tricky concept, so, lets once again take an invented example to illustrate further. Say that youre writing a novel in which the main character is a mailman.
One day he witnesses a murder through the window of one of the houses on his route.
The killer sees him. Now Mailman knows that he has to flee or the killer will have to kill
him, as well, in order to eliminate the only witness to his crime.
Now cut to Mailmans home where we learn that Mrs. Mailman has been unhappy
in her marriage to Mailman for years and has finally taken a lover. She and her lover
would like nothing better than to get rid of Mailman and move in together. But the
house is in Mailmans name and Lover has recently been fired from his bank tellers job,
so they have no money. (Mrs. Mailman is a former socialite who is morally opposed to
working because it might damage her manicure.)
Mrs. Mailman hears Mailmans key in the door. Whats he doing home in the middle of the day? Lover escapes through the bathroom window just before Mailman bursts

The Craft of Fiction 95

in, declaring that she must hide him. Ah-ha! says the reader (though perhaps not aloud)
because the reader knows that Mrs. Mailman might want to see Killer find Mailman
and do him in, because then she would get the house and the AT&T stock and be able
to be with her lover. It would resolve her story.
Whats crucial here, and what causes these two plots to drive each other forward, is the
way in which both Mailman and Mrs. Mailman have different stakes in the outcome of
the same problems. Will Mrs. Mailman actually help Killer find her husband? Or, seeing
Mailman vulnerable, will she fall in love with him all over again and decide that she must
protect him, so that Mr. and Mrs. Mailman now must flee Killer together? Or will Mailman learn of Mrs. Mailmans affair and go after Lover? Either way, the two storiesMrs.
Mailman wanting to be with her lover, Mailman running from Killeraffect each other.

The Subplot as Social Context


The effect of plot and subplots doesnt have to be reciprocal, though. Take Margaret
Mitchells Gone With the Wind: History itself is a subplot throughout the book, but especially in the first part, in the form of the Civil War, we follow the victories and defeats
of the two armies, and then, when Shermans army comes upon Atlanta, it forces one
of the more dramatic incidents of the book: Scarlett and Melanie must flee on the very
day that Melanie gives birth.
By the way, this should be the case to a greater or lesser extent in any historical
novel: that the true, historical incidents will affect the lives of the invented characters. Heck, if that didnt happen, why not just set your novel entirely in the Mall of
America in 1994?
It is also in a historical novel that a subplot can provide a context for a main plot,
that is, help us understand the characters and what their choices are. However, this is
really a nice way of saying that the subplot of historical events impacts the main plot
more subtly. In the case of Gone With the Wind, the sweeping economic changes that follow the Civil War force Scarlett to reveal sides of her personality we might not otherwise
see: scrabbling for financial security, her dormant ruthlessness comes to the fore. More
specifically, for example, the shift in power that occurs during the Reconstruction enables Taras former overseer to levy taxes on Tara that Scarlett cant pay. This causes her
to marry Frank Kennedy, a man at whom she otherwise wouldnt bother to wink, so
that she can get the money.
The subplot that works as context isnt confined to the historical novel, however.
Some of the more minor subplots of The Bonfire of the Vanities illustrate this principle as
well. Early in the novel, Edward Fiske III, who represents a church group, goes to see a
certain Reverend Bacon. Fiske is trying to ascertain what happened to the $350,000 that
the church gave the Reverend for a day care center. The Reverend, in turn, subtly threatens
Fiske, implying that he can, if he wants, create unrest and even violence in the black community, and that even if he cant account for the $350,000, it isnt much to pay for peaceful
neighborhoods. The conflict between Fiske and Reverend Bacon forms a complete, if small,
subplot. Fiske is worried about what will happen to his job if he cant recover the money,

96

The Craft & Business of Writing

while the Reverend has every intention of keeping it. But the reason this subplot functions is that it provides a context for the main story line. The background it gives us about
poverty in Harlem and the Bronx helps to explain, in part, how it is that when Sherman is
inadvertently responsible for running over a young black man, he unleashes so much rage.

When Theme Meets Plot and It All Ends Happily


(or Otherwise)
In the very best-plotted novels, not only do the main plot and the subplots affect each
other, but they also form a thematic whole. For this, lets look at F. Scott Fitzgeralds
The Great Gatsby. Like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Gatsby captures the spirit of an age, and
like Bonfire, it embodies that spirit in some very specific people.
The main plot of Gatsby is the story of Jay Gatsbys unwavering love for Daisy Buchanan, a young woman who represents not only all his nave and intense ability to love
but the insouciance of America in the 1920s. Gatsby pursues the elusive Daisy for years,
refusing to abandon his image of her as an unspoiled angel who loves him equally in
return, even though she has married another man and had a child.
A subplot involves Daisys husband, Tom, who is having an affair with an auto mechanics wife, Myrtle. From a thematic point of view, this subplot provides a contrast to
Gatsby and Daisys story: While Gatsby idolizes Daisy, Toms affair is completely cynical.
The two stories drive each forward as well, in the way weve discussed, because
Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom have a stake in the outcome of each others relationships. For
example, when Daisy becomes involved with Gatsby, its in part motivated by her anger
at her husbands infidelity.
But the real joining of plot and subplot comes late in the book. Gatsby runs over
Myrtle in his car, killing her. At least, thats what Myrtles husband, the auto mechanic,
believes (in fact, Daisy killed Myrtle), and it is in the wake of this outrage that Myrtles
husband kills Gatsby, whom he also believes was her lover. Thus, the resolution of the
subplot (Toms affair with Myrtle, which is resolved with her death) provides a fairly
thorough resolution to the main plotGatsbys relationship with Daisy obviously ends
with his death. But yet another character is affected and yet another subplot indirectly
resolved by this event: Nick Carraway, the narrator (although a secondary character) of
the book, is so disgusted by the way that Gatsbys so-called friends, and Daisy herself,
abandon him in death, that it drives him from this land of the Lifestyles of the Rich and
Famous From Hell. Nick leaves the East and returns home.
When two or more plots simultaneously resolve each other this way, the reader has
the sense of reading something inevitable, something plotted by Fate itself.

Yes, Its Harder Than It Looks


(But That Doesnt Mean You Cant Do It)
Sure, its no sweat for us to take apart the great works of Western literature. Sort of makes
you want to say, Okay, Leo, okay, Scott, now its my turn!all the while knowing that

The Craft of Fiction 97

when you sit down to weave your own perfect tapestry of plot or subplot, you may find
your threads getting a little knotted up along the way.
Before you start your novel, spin out several versions of what happens. Brainstorm
and experiment with various scenarios. Ask yourself what the characters need from
each other. If there isnt anything, make something up. Once you have a main character
who is embroiled in a story, dont let your secondary characters sit on the sidelines to
comment on the action. Ask yourself, what stake might each of them have in the outcome of that main characters story?
Or, ask yourself, what is the point of the main characters story? Then, how can you
demonstrate some other aspect of that story through the secondary characters lives?
For example, if your main character is a surgeon wrestling with the ethics of his profession (i.e., cutting down on hospital stays under pressure from insurance companies),
then logical subplots would deal with other doctors who in different areas either abuse
their positions (perhaps doing makework surgery) or who continue to fight the good
fight to maintain high standards (spending extra time with patients even when theres
no extra money or glory in it).
Look, too, at how the setting of your novel might provide opportunities for subplots. No one is entirely independent of the culture in which she lives. Whether the
novel is historical or contemporary, there are always social forces at work impacting the
characters. So ask yourself: Does the Rotary Club approve of the new teachers methods? Is there nuclear testing going on nearby? Is some revolutionary cell trying to recruit your protagonist?
But most of all, look to the characters themselves. Ultimately, the most stirring plots
emerge from character, characters who are active and who create their own destinies. As
you write about the characters and get to know them, their more subtle qualities will
emerge, leading you to more plot ideas. This isnt the same as saying that a character
takes over the book, which is one of those quaint writing myths perpetuated by novelists who forget that characters arent real people.
In the early stages of writing your novel, there will almost inevitably be gaps in your
own plotting logic. But we novelists must put a lot of faith in our unconscious minds to
provide us with the raw material; then we must use our conscious minds, and elbow grease,
to shape that raw material into something fine. Something like a crystal vase, even.

98

The Craft & Business of Writing

plotting the
mystery novel
by Judith

Greber

ts said that James McNeill Whistler, the artist of Mother fame, spent a great deal
of time pre-envisioning his paintings in such detail that when he mentally saw the
completed work, he blended his paints into their ultimate hues on his palette. Applying
the colors was swiftly done.
Other artists begin with a hazier image from which they draw one or more preliminary sketches, followed by layers of paint, brush stroke by brush stroke, a days work
often scraped off and begun again, changing and adding to the original idea until they
get as close as they can to what they now know they want.
The same spectrum of possibilities applies to writing a novel, even one as crafted as
a mystery. Plotting, or pre-envisioning, creates a road map for the trip ahead. You can
either plan your entire route in advance, or proceed knowing only a general direction.
Either way, youll get there.
Some people are Whistlers who prepare outlines that can be hundreds of pages long
and are actually first drafts. Others begin with a scrap, and off they go. Their first drafts
are exploratory, and they ultimately become long outlines. Some writers can pre-envision
to a point, and then the only way through the murk ahead is by living the storyi.e., writing it and finding a way through. Here are the approaches of just a few of todays writers:

Elizabeth Georges intricately plotted novels are preplanned only to about fifty
pages of the manuscript. Then she writes and discovers what else is ahead. But
before that, she devotes a great deal of preparation time to the characters, and in
so doing, sees possibilities in how they might behave.
Janet LaPierre gets as far as she can on her initial idea and she composes a midpoint outline, a look back at what has happened so far. Then she projects what still
has to happen.
Shelley
Singer starts her books wherever she has an idea for a scene and continues

in every which way and direction until she figures out what connects those scenes.
Michael Connelly knows what the case is going to be and who did it, but from
then on, he wings it. I find its actually the best way to create, he says. It gives
you the most freedom and you enjoy it the most.

The Craft of Fiction 99

Tony Hillerman gropes through, able to see the details that make a plot come
to life only while writing the scene, in the mind of the viewpoint character. But
he needs to be familiar with the location of the story, the nature of the crime, and
a theme, plus have some idea of one or two characters in addition to the sleuth.
Once finished, now knowing where the story has taken him, Hillerman rewrites
the first or first few chapters. He says, ... you dont have to be able to outline a plot
if you have a reasonably long life expectancy.
P.D. James spends more than a year planning each book she writes.
James Lee Burke doesnt know whats happening beyond a scene or two.
Lia Matera, author of twelve mystery and suspense novels, says: If, going in, I
know too much of whats going to happen, I lose interest. I need to be in suspense as much as the reader does. As you might imagine, this means a tremendous
amount of rewriting. Once I figure everything out ... many scenes no longer work,
my clues arent in place, the moods and tone are likely to be wrong. It would be far
less work to outline, and it would certainly mean less hand wringing and breastbeating. But I would lose my juice for the story, so I guess Im stuck ... I have to be
trapped in a corner, unable to write one more word, before Ill continue the painful
process of plotting. Id like to be an outliner, but I resent them for being so smug
about something thats probably genetic.

Presenting the Problem


Beneath all the spins youll put on it, your basic story is either how the protagonist or sleuth
finds/vanquishes the killer or how the proposed victim or sleuth prevents the ultimate disaster from happening. So somewhere near the beginning you have to present the problem.
For examples sake, say youre intrigued by a news story about an embezzler. You
were awed by his cleverness, appalled by his chutzpah, or tempted that somebody in
your office is doing the same thing. Doesnt matter. You were emotionally affected. You
decided to use his crime as the basis of your mystery. Let your mind wander around possibilities. Where does the murder fit in? Why? How? Who?
Begin with who was killed and why. This why, the motive, leads you into the back
storywhat happened leading up to the murder, the reason for it, which is a great deal
of what your sleuth is going to have to uncover.
Nowwho? The corpse might be the embezzler, the embezzlers boss, the mailroom
clerk who happened upon an incriminating bit of evidence, or somebody who was there
to deliver a warrant or flowers or ...
Or maybe theres no dead bodyyet. There need not be one immediately, just a sense
of impending danger. But the crime should happen early in the book since it generates
much of the action. If youre aiming for suspensethe bad thing thats going to happenyou may think about the crime in a different way. Maybe the embezzler is actually
the hapless pawn of someone using his cleverness to destroy the company or wreak revenge on someone. Maybe the embezzler has become our protagonisttrying to break
free, go straight, come clean before hes killedbut the noose keeps tightening.

100

The Craft & Business of Writing

The contemporary puzzle-mystery has by and large adopted the traditional suspense finale and no longer pretends that all the suspects would passively gather in the
library to be told which of them committed the crime. The contemporary climactic endscene will be a direct, generally physical confrontation with the killer.

Getting From A to Z
Now, to figure out how to get from A to Zwhat happens in between the crime and the
confrontation with the killer. Alas, that space looms as wide as the Grand Canyon, and
worse, youve got to build a bridge across it to where youve planted your conclusion
on the other side. Nobody ever said it was easy, just possible. (Its also possible that the
original spelling of plotting was plodding.)
What to do? Consider that crime novels are actually three stories. First, what physically happened. In this case, a dead person in the conference room had a bullet wound.
Second, the theory of what happened. The police decide that poor X was the victim of
an interrupted robbery. And third, what really happened. Thats the story your sleuth
will glimpse in bits and pieces, a.k.a. clues that shine through the surface veil, those
facts that dont neatly dovetail with what supposedly happened.
So that your detective has a serious job ahead of him, think of four other people
who, for different reasons, would also appreciate the victims demise. (His ex-wife whos
fatally ill and has come to realize how much money was hidden from her during the
divorce. A corrupt off-hours cop who was providing security and also, it appears, a bit
of special aid and comfort to the dead mans current wife. A woman who, with good
cause, sued him for sexual harassmentand lost. A man hired to ghostwrite his autobiography who gets next to nothingunless the books a bestseller, which it might be if
its subject died violently.)
Write down these reasons and draw lines to the dead person, connecting them.
Youve got five suspects now, counting the one you know is guilty. Five ways the crime
might have happened. Youve also got five aspects of the dead mans life, paths for your
sleuth to follow into blind alleys and finally, home. Write bios of those people explaining who they are, why they hated the dead person, why they dont have a clear alibi, or
why they behave oddly when informed of the news or questioned by the sleuth. Think
about what else in their life theyre protecting or hiding that will make them suspicious.
I like to have every suspect lie. Most are hiding minor embarrassments, some real but
nonrelated offenses, but they all twist the truth to serve their own purposes, and that
makes the sleuths job harder by generating wrong theories and misdirection.
Why isnt this an open-and-shut case? Or if it seems as if it iswhy does your sleuth
disagree with that opinion? Whats odd about the murder to the sleuth? What is the
initial and erroneous theory of what happened and why? Why does the sleuth think
this isnt right?
If you arent writing a police procedural, how does your sleuth come to be involved
in this crime and why arent the police functioning adequately? (This is when youll
envy those who are writing historical mysteries set in the days before there were official

The Craft of Fiction 101

police forces.) This is often where what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin comes
in. This is an element that gets the story going, often a gimmick that seems to be the
issuemissing papers, a Maltese Falconbut isnt the actual problem that drives the
novel or film. A MacGuffin, a side or secondary issue may pull your amateur sleuthor
PI who isnt allowed to investigate an open homicideinto action. Or it may set the
police off in the wrong direction, but all the same, pull them into the actual story. If
you use a MacGuffin, be sure its question is also answered, ideally before we get to the
solution of the central question.
Is there a way to link the crime into the amateurs job? By virtue of her profession or
personal life, does your sleuth know something seemingly unrelated to the crime and
only she sees the connection?
Sometimes the amateur is driven to action because shes the prime suspect, but obviously, this cant be used too often if youre planning a series. Which of the suspects
might she know or have access to so as to sleuth in some sane fashion? Did something
she did or said make it worse for her buddy so that she feels obliged to do penance via
sleuthing? Does she work for the embezzler? Date the biographer? Have her hair done
at the same salon as the ex-wife?
Or, she might be linked to a bit player wholl provide one significant piece of the
puzzle, or a lead toward itwitnesses, friends of friends, informants, gossips who unwittingly know something valuable, e.g., the dead mans fiance or cleaning woman.
(And Lord knows what a mess his closet was with that shredder in there. No wonder he
kept it lockedmust have been ashamed of its looking like a big packing crate in there.
Had to beg him to clean the place out every three months, and he took off from work so
he could stand there watching me the whole time. Peculiar man, rest his soul.)
Figure out how your detective will reach some of the players. Could she possibly be
a client of the same cleaning woman as the now-dead embezzler? If soset it up early.
Coincidence is fine to start events rolling, but never to solve the crime. So, before you
need it, establish that the cleaning lady exists, is late, is switching days with another
clientsomething to make her later appearance feel natural. In fact, everything in your
book that will eventually provide a surprise needs to be set up so the reader feels you
played fair. Even if hes forgotten what you set up by the time it resurfaces, hell then
remember that you did establish that fact.
Are there links to any of the other suspects that need a preliminary establishing
scene or mention? If you have a PI, and local law says PIs cannot investigate open homicide cases, then what permissible work is he doing that leads into this murder? Often
his assigned case is something of a MacGuffinnot the real problem at all, but his involvement in it pulls him into something darker and more dangerous.
If its a police case, what makes it more than run-of-the-mill, of personal meaning
to the detective? Next, ask yourself what has to happen in order to set up the above. Can
you begin with the sleuth walking in on the dead man in the conference room or are
there things we need to know beforehand? Sometimes you need to plant clues before
the crime is committedaction or dialogue by the impending victimsomething the
sleuth doesnt particularly notice at the time, but in context, later, will recall. You might

102

The Craft & Business of Writing

need to set up where your sleuth is before and during the crime so that his arrival at the
inauspicious time and his weak alibi makes sense.
You want to introduce all your significant characters fairly early in the book, so
think of ways to bring them on stage. This may be obvious, but worth saying: You never
want to spring the hitherto unseen villain on the reader at the end. Let your mind float.
See what follows what ifs. Ask questionshow did this happen? Why would she be
there? What would she do if she were there? Free-associate. Dont strain to organize it
at this point.
You can make anything happen if you make us believe this person would do that.
Think about the character and why hed behave a certain way. As always, check your
reflex actions. If your first thought is that your character would run away from the situation, take a moment to consider whether a different course of action might be equally
true but less predictable and more interesting.
What makes certain people suspects? Where were they at the time of the crime?
Your sleuth will track down these false leads. For example: Ethel, the sexual harassment
plaintiff, now works in another town. In order to time the killing so precisely, she had
to know the details of the victims erratic schedule. How did she know? Howd she get
into the office before it was open? How did Ethel, who does not drive and has only one
leg, get to the scene of the crime? How will your sleuth find these things out in order to
formulate a theory?
A chapter might be built around discovering that Ethel was not where she should
be at the time of the crime. (You can arrange these discoveries and scenes beginning
with the least revealing and most confusing in order to keep the puzzle spinning.)
Or around finding out that Ethel had hired an airport limo that morning. (Howd
the sleuth find that out? Picking through Ethels trashanother scene? Waitwhat
made her do that?) However you set it up, we find out that Ethel went to the airport
that morning at dawn. Weve reached a seeming dead endEthel was in the air when
the murder happened. Perhaps the sleuth takes a new tack, looks at somebody else
with more interest.
Then, elsewhere, another scene built around the discovery that Ethel wasnt carrying luggage when she got into that limo and, from that, discovering that she immediately took a second shuttle from the airport to downtown, one block from the
scene of the crime. Motive and opportunity. The sleuth revises the theory again, starts
tracking Ethel but guess what? Just as shes about to be declared the murderer, Ethel
herself is found dead. The logic of the puzzle changes one more time. And becomes
more urgent because its now obvious that the actual killer is willing to kill again
rather than be caught.
Maybe. Or maybe Ethels death had nothing to do with the other crime and when
thats realized, the theory will again be in need of revision.
Eventually, youll have a list of things that have to happen, each of which will become a scene that provides either a real or imagined clue or frustration as the sleuth
hits another brick wall. Each plot point changes the status quo, and as in physics, each
action produces a reaction. Something else now needs to be figured out and done.

The Craft of Fiction 103

Avoiding Plot Clichs


Throughout, remember that character is destiny and your character is not an idiot. You
want drama, but not because of behavior that makes the reader want to shake your
sleuth silly. Avoid such plot machinations as having your protagonist agree to meet a
suspect on a lonely pier late at night.
While on the subject of plot clichsavoid the scene where someone tells the sleuth
he possesses vital information hell share later. Of course, hell be dead before a word of
it is uttered.
Or the idiotic police force or DA. Instead, make the officials inability to solve this
based on inadequate methodology or incorrect assumptions, but not plot-convenient
denseness or orneriness.
Or the villain who postpones killing the protagonist because he needs to brag about
how clever hes been. He hasnt been clever enough to read mysteries and see that during his monologue, our heros going to figure a way out of this.
Or anything else that youve read and seen too often for it ever to feel new again.
Tell yourself your story often. Youll probably see more details each time. At each
juncture, ask, Whats the worst thing that could happen here? and go for it. Youll
increase the tension and advance the plot.

Subplots
You may have been told you need subplots, and indeed, they can enrich your story. But
rather than think of them as extra plots you need to create, simply consider what else
is going on in the protagonists life besides foiling an evildoer. Is he also facing a love,
health, family, professional, or financial impasse? How might that impact, reflect, enrich, or further complicate the main story? What about the other characters? Remember, your story is what happens at the intersection of many peoples individual stories.
These other issues will come out of your characters and enrich the mix. Resolve these
minor, secondary issues before you resolve the main one of guilt and apprehension.

Scene By Scene
Transfer your jumble of doodles, lines, names and ideas, to a more manageable medium.
Screenwriters use 35 cards, putting one sceneone thing that has to happenper card.
Phrase your sentences as actionsShe visits the limo company but they refuse to open
their records. If you can, also make note of the purpose of the scene. Shes so mad
now, shes not worrying about protecting Ethel anymore, and she decides to go to the
police. Such cues will generate action and remind you of motive and cause and effect
more than, say, checks out limo company.
Try to put characters into as many of your scenes as possible so you dont always
have your solitary sleuth ruminating. Interaction with others is dramatic and provides
tensionthe sleuth wants information, the person being interviewed doesnt want to or
cant provide it. Dialogue is action.

104

The Craft & Business of Writing

Eventually youll have a tabletop of cards that will reveal where holes are. Dont
worry if it seems scrappy; its good and necessary to leave room for surprises. But the
cards might show that you have your sleuth in two places at once, or arriving at a conclusion that has nothing supporting it, or that nothing much happens for a long spell.
That last plot problem was supposedly solved by Raymond Chandler by bringing in a
man with a gun. Its not a bad plan. Create action. Up the tension by introducing a new
threatalways think in terms of whats the worst that could happen now?or some
dramatic change of behavior on the part of your characters.
Play with the order of scenestake one away, combine the points of two of them
into one solid scene, and so forth. If you hit a wall nowor in the writing processwhen
your character seemingly has become paralyzed and cant function usefully, look back
and see if you can change the given thats called halt to present action. Does your
sleuth really, truly, have to be half of Siamese twins?
It can be useful to think in terms of stage and screen. Your drama, too, will have
three acts. Your first act is roughly the first third of the book. It sets up and presents the
crime, establishing the conflict. It also introduces your cast of characters, their relationships, and your setting.
The second act is devoted to complications and crisesthe great middle-muddle,
the sleuthing in a mystery, or further threats and escalating dangers in suspense. Protagonists try and fail and try, try again. In fact, there is almost a rule of threethe
initial attempt establishes the problem and its difficulty, and nobody succeeds if at
first. If they did, thered be no story. The second attempt and failure shows that its a
really big problem and not at all easily solved, and the third becomes the real test that
breaks the pattern. (A fourth try seems excessivegive your sleuth a break!) This is true
in almost all quest stories and fairy tales. Its a pattern that works.
So theories prove to be wrong, often by the introduction of a second corpse, perhaps the former prime suspect, and we try again. The tension is now sky high. This
portion usually comprises the bulk of the book.
The third act eliminates more theories, thereby tying up subplots while it builds
to The Big Scenethat do-or-die point of no return, the crisis, when the sleuth finally
figures it out and confronts the villain, or the suspense protagonist finally meets his
demon face-to-face.
And then, a brief coda for closure. This isnt an explanation of what youve already
shown, but a page or two giving the reader an idea of whats ahead, or what the events
meant to the protagonist. And thats it.
When you write the first draft, no matter how much time and effort you lavished on
your outline, parts of it are probably not going to work. New ideas will occur to you as
you live the story, and youll be wise to go with them and say adios to your best-laid
plans. The outline was a road map. The writing is the trip and real adventure.

The Craft of Fiction 105

How to write
todays horror
by

D.W. Taylor

t all began thousands of years ago in some dark and smoky cave with a tale-teller chanting to his awestruck tribe huddled around a sputtering fire. He sang of strange beasts,
angry gods, and dark magic afoot in a dangerous world. In other words, horror stories.
All known societies have a rich history of these supernatural myths and legends. Their
purpose, like fairy tales for children, is to explain the threatening universe beyond the
cave, to simplify a confusing world seemingly dominated by forces greater than ourselves.
But were civilized now. No more of that moon eating the sun business. We know
an astronomical event when we see one. Why, we dont even throw virgins into volcanoes anymore to keep them (the volcanoes) from erupting.
Yet we still love our horror tales, and horror is everywhere in our post-print media.
The genres three archetypesthe Vampire, the Monster, and the Ghosthave been immortalized in the breakfast cereals Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo Berry. On
TV, horror is used to hawk everything from floor polish to charge cards. The number of
horror films is staggering, multiplying themselves in sequel after sequel like some evil
spawn. And dont forget that the music video that sparked a craze, Michael Jacksons
1983 Thriller, was nothing if not a little shop of horrors.

Horrors Awe-ful Appeal


The first task for a writer hoping to publish in this genre is to understand the reasons
for such enormous popularity, to fathom the complex social and emotional elements
which fueled the horror boom that began in the early 1970s and continues nearly
unabated today. Like Freddy Krueger and Jason, horror refuses to die. And to write it
successfully, we need to know why.
When H.P. Lovecraft observed in the 1930s that the appeal of horror was narrow
because it required imagination and detachment from life, the Rhode Island recluse
couldnt have anticipated the profound threats to our imaginations and lives in the last
decades. Can anyone doubt that we live in a horrific world? Missile silos overflow with
pent-up doom. The AIDS virus stalks our globe. The greenhouse effect has nothing

106

The Craft & Business of Writing

to do with fecundity. And above Antarctica theres a hole in the ozone layer thats the
size of the continental United States. Someone should wake up Lovecraft and tell him
that imagination and detachment have become virtual requirements for maintaining
ones sanity today. Our need for horror stories parallels our sense of alienation, helplessness, and fear as common today as pollution. Horror has become an important way
for us to deal with these emotions by letting us confront them in a make-believe world,
gain a sense of control there, and bring a little of it back with us.
But a horror writer need look no further than his own backyard to find his subject
matter: the misery of the ghetto-child, the degradation of women, the shame of the
homeless, the unspeakable isolation of a nursing home. Theres real horror in loneliness and rage, in twisted love and jealousy, in the rampant greed that threatens to rot
us from within. Much of todays horror is about these dark stains on our souls, the
cancers of our minds.
Since Lovecrafts time weve increasingly fooled ourselves into thinking that the universe is fully explainable in terms of natural laws that are discoverable through science.
Once we understand these laws, the reasoning goes, well be the undisputed masters of
the universe and our lives in it. Yet, at the same time, we suspect and hope that there are
still occult forces out there that we can never fully understand. We are driven to seek them
out because our science and rationalism threaten to rid the universe of all mystery.
But there is another appeal about which we mustnt fool ourselves: the violence of our
species is found in horror literature in distilled form, pure as plutonium, and is a metaphor
for the everyday brutality that lies just beneath the surface of our lives. This compulsion to
violence is another legacy from our early hominid ancestors, who fought off extinction on
the African veldt. Eons of biological evolution have ingrained the savage instincts of the
hunter into us, yet our current lives give us little opportunity for its expression. In many
ways we have become automatons regulated by the corporations clock and must suppress
our savageryand pay the price in ulcers, heart disease, and social psychopaths.
The emotional and physical violence of horror literature act as a safety valve for
our repressed animalism. What commuter doesnt cheer for King Kong as he rips the
five oclock train from its tracks? Who hasnt wished to strike out against the nameless,
faceless regulation of our lives, a conformity that threatens to turn us into unthinking,
unfeeling workaholics? Who doesnt see in Frankensteins monster, who was refused
the affection he craved, the expression of our own innate hostilities? Few of us in this
complex, technological, alienating world have not felt at times misunderstood, unappreciated, alone, dehumanized. Horror stories have become a convenient and harmless
way of striking back, of giving in to those mysterious and feral forces, allowing them to
take control and wreak havoc on the stultifying regularity of our lives.
A safety valve. One which allows us to exercise, in the words of Stephen King, those
antisocial emotions which society demands we keep stoppered up ... for societys and
our own good. We can also understand why this literature appeals so strongly to adolescents in the process of rebelling against authority and social conformity. Horror
literature, like rock n roll, is strenuously antisocial and especially popular with teens
experimenting with the extremes of their emotions.

The Craft of Fiction 107

Horror also appeals to the dark side in us. We hold an inescapable fascination with
the grave and the mystery of death. At the instant of our birth, the countdown to oblivion begins as each passing moment brings us closer to death. It is said that Voltaire
possessed a clock which, in addition to chiming the hour, intoned the solemn words:
One hour nearer the grave. Death is the one aspect of life that cannot be denied. And
as Stephen King observed, the reading of horror and supernatural tales is a form of
preparation for our own deaths, a Danse Macabre before the void, as well as a way to
satisfy our curiosity about the most important event in our lives except birth.
So perhaps the ultimate appeal of horror is the affirmation that it provides. The
opposite of death is life. If supernatural evil exists in this world, as many horror stories
posit, so must supernatural good. Black magic is balanced by white. The Wicked Witch
of the West met her match in Glenda the Good Witch. If the fallen angel Lucifer lives
and is at work in our lives, so must be God.
In a starkly rational world that would banish such beings, horror literature gives
them back to us: their magic, their power, the reality they once held in simpler times.
As critics over the years have noted, fantasy literature works like religion in our lives.
It helps to satisfy our need to believe in forces greater than ourselves, worlds different
from our own. It touches that part of us that dreams of what never was and can never
be. But for a brief and magic moment it is real and we believe. And are filled with awe.

What Todays Readers Want


So the question becomes how to write awe-inspiring stories that will leave readers panting and our bank accounts swelling. What worked for M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood in the twenties, Lovecraft in the thirties, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury in
the fifties, Robert Aickman in the sixties, Stephen King and Peter Straub in the seventies, Stephen King and Clive Barker in the eighties, and Anne Rice in the nineties wont
necessarily frighten or entertain readers in the twenty-first century. What will?
During a course in Contemporary Horror Fiction at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, I asked thirty-two undergraduates, who represented virtually every major from
accounting to zoology, exactly that question as well as several others in a market survey
of this genres traditionally most enthusiastic audience: young adults.
I first asked, What are the elements that make for a good horror story? And then
had them explore the flipside: What ruins a horror story for you? I wanted to know if
their answers would reveal any difference between the standards that critics and teachers
have set for the contemporary horror story and the personal criteria that readers actually
use as they stand in front of the rack at Waldenbooks and decide whether or not to reach
for their wallets. Even a cursory glance at best-seller lists, especially those from decades
past, reveals the striking difference between popular taste (what sells) and critical taste
(whats praised). That sounds hideously commercial, and any writer who would slavishly
follow the results of a market survey is bound to write only perfunctory, uninspired drivel.
The one thing this genre doesnt need is more cynical, assembly-line novels penned for the
sole purpose of making money and feeding off the accomplishments of serious writers.

108

The Craft & Business of Writing

The horror story, so far at least, has managed to outlive the hacks and sleazoid publishers whose only allegiance is to the quick buck, a testimony to the power of this genre and
humanitys need for it. But there is also too much focus in school on literature written
mainly for an audience of critics and teachers. Thats a shame because the true glory of
literature, Ive come to believe, lies in its ability to hold an audience spellbound with the
power of narrative, which is our oldest and still most prevalent way of understanding the
world. Weve always told stories to each other, especially horror and fantasy stories, as a
way of mentally shaping and reshaping the inscrutable universe around us. Although one
may deplore and berate TV and movies as sugar-water substitutes for the meat and potatoes of literature, these media rather democratically satisfy the human thirst for story,
for narrative. And whenever a serious writer forsakes the obligation to tell a good story,
whenever his purpose for writing is no longer to weave the magic spell of narrative but to
produce great art and to please elitist critics, that writer will surely be replaced by movies and TVor a better storyteller.
So I agree with J.N. Williamson, who in connection with this course appeared at our
college for a lecture and public reading. This popular American novelist said to my students one day in class, Art is accidental; it is incidental to having told our story as best
we can. The fact that more than one hundred students tried to register for the thirtytwo available seats in this course is evidence that horror authors like Williamson have
never lost their commitment to tell a good story, to entertain, and the students knew
that. Therefore, an attempt to understand the expectations of readers in this genre isnt
necessarily a bad thing; indeed it is a manifestly logical and necessary thing.
The results of the survey surprised me. By the end of the semester, we had read
and discussed over forty stories from contemporary commercial and small press magazines like Grue, Pulphouse, and Noctulpa; from literary anthologies like Masques; and from
single-author collections like Kings Skeleton Crew. Our semester of dark fantasy was
brightened by the novels of several sons: Jackson, Matheson, Williamson, Wilson; as
well as by Straub, Koontz, and the King. Student reaction was as varied as our story
types. Some reveled in rock horror and splatterpunk, finding the quiet literary horror
tale monumentally boring. Others felt that technohorror and urban allegorical horror
spoke most directly to this age of AIDS and wildings in Central Park. Still others
couldnt get enough of the ghosts, vampires, and werewolves of old. Surely, I thought
after presiding over impassioned debates about the literary merits of Blood Rape of
the Lust Ghouls, there is going to be little, if any, agreement among this bunch on the
elements of a good horror story. I was wrong.

Suspense: Keep Em on the Edge


One result astonished me: Ninety-seven percent of the students listed suspense as
the primary ingredient of a good horror story. Keep in mind that this was not a multiple-choice survey; these students had a blank page in front of them and could have
written down anything. The fact that all but one self-selected the element of suspense
further underscores its cardinal importance to them. In effect, the results say that these

The Craft of Fiction 109

readers bring to the horror story one paramount expectation: to be entertained with
the element of anticipation, dread, and uncertainty; in a word, suspense. Virtually every
student wrote something like:

I want to be kept on the edge of my seat.


True suspense keeps you glued to the book until its finished, then you say, Whew!
I like stories that have constant suspense and give me ideas of how to get revenge on
my brother.

Hope youre not that brother.


In their comments on suspense lies a strong clue as to how to handle one of the
most challenging aspects of writing in this genre: providing a satisfying ending. These
students obviously preferred, when possible, for the unrelenting suspense to lead to an
unexpected, even shocking ending. They wrote, I want the suspense to lead to a good
twist at the end, and, A good ending is one you didnt expect. One even borrowed a
favorite word of Stephen Kings: A suspenseful ending is one you didnt expect and
leaves you scared shitless!
Now, everyone owes thanks to Douglas E. Winter, who has engendered more respect
for this genre than any other modern critic. Yet it is both interesting and instructive
that in his essay, Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction,
this eminent critic does not once mention suspense. Yet when professional writers like
Dean Koontz and J.N. Williamson, whose hungry families depend upon them to sell
books, instruct us on the craft of writing horror fiction, their primary topic is how to
create and maintain suspense. So there is, at least in this instance, a difference between
the viewpoint of the critic and of the reader, for whom the bottom line is to be entertained. No doubt a writer should aspire to standards of excellence. But in order to be
read, which is surely a writers first goal, he had first better make sure he tells a suspensepacked story that leads to a dynamite ending.

Character: Someone Like Me


What surprised me about the second result was how much everyonestudents, writers,
criticsagreed on it. Believable characters are what hold a horror story together; they are
the engines of its power. In his essay Keeping the Reader on the Edge of His Seat, Koontz,
the acknowledged Dean of Suspense, provides this maxim: Suspense in fiction results
primarily from the readers identification with and concern about lead characters who are
complex, convincing, and appealing. Douglas Winter lists characterization as his second
standard of excellence and quotes another pretty good horror writer, Stephen King: You
have got to love the people ... that allow horror to be possible.
My students agree: They listed believable, sympathetic characters as the second key
to a good horror story. Typical of their comments were: A really good horror story for
me is when the author is able to make you feel for the characterstheir pain, fear, happiness, wanting. Others said simply, Having believable characters is what lets me get
into the story. Considering these comments, it should come as no surprise that stu-

110

The Craft & Business of Writing

dents voted as their favorite work of the semester Robert R. McCammons Nightcrawlers (Masques), a suspenseful story of a Vietnam vets nightmarish guilt, a sorrow that
becomes so strong that it explodes with a harrowing and deadly substantiality.

Setting: A Mirror for Madness


Perhaps another reason for the popularity of Nightcrawlers is that its vivid setting, a
stormy summer night at a roadside diner in rural Alabama, fulfills a third requirement:
A story of dark fantasy must be anchored solidly in a believable, realistic setting. Modern readers expect the modern horror story to take place in familiar surroundings that
provide a mating ground for the natural and the supernatural. Todays readers seem to
know intuitively that todays horror requires a context of normality, a true-to-life backdrop that accentuates the grotesque.
There was a close similarity between my students comments and those of critics.
In Horrors: An Introduction to Writing Horror Fiction, T.E.D. Klein, Twilight Zone
Magazines first editor, writes that before bringing the supernatural on stage, the writer
must first establish, so thoroughly that we can believe in it, the reality of the world.
One student put this simply as: Ive got to believe Im there. When another student
wrote, A good horror story needs a balance between the realistic and the bizarre, its
almost as if he had been reading Douglas Winter: An effective horror writer embraces the
ordinary so that the extraordinary will be heightened. So readers and critics agree: Use
of the fantastic does not excuse the horror author from the task of conjuring up a vivid,
everyday reality on the page. On the contrary, it increases the importance of that task.

Plot: Picking Up the Pace


Another strong preference, and one that is closely related to the need for suspense, concerns the pace of the writing and the plot. What should an aspiring horror writer make
of such comments as: The action has to keep up. Once it lets down, its all over for
me? Or, I like it when the tone is very fast-paced reading. Its too boring when it reads
slow and feels drawn out? Is there a key to best-sellerdom in this students desire for
concise and coherent stories [that] are both easy to read and entertaining. When reading for entertainment, one shouldnt have to analyze a story to understand it? Similar
preferences for a quick, easy read were expressed by a majority of the students surveyed.
Why this desire for a fast-paced, action-packed story? No doubt much could be
made of the shortened attention spans of this generation that has never known life
without the Internet, the steady decline in standardized reading scores, the increasing emphasis on immediate gratification, the murder-by-the-minute slasher films and
MTV. Regardless, the single ineluctable fact is that when they pick up a horror story,
these young readers expect to be entertained. They may surreptitiously admire James
Joyces dazzling experiments they may harbor a secret craving for John Updikes perfumed sentences, they may even look to Saul Bellow for help in an existential crisis.
But when they pick up a horror story, they want fun. And that means fast-paced and

The Craft of Fiction 111

suspenseful, easy on the literary embellishment, and without a side order of metaphysical reflections on life in a godless universe.

More Gore: Taboo or Not Taboo?


The results here reaffirm the important distinction between literary horror and celluloid horror, whose shock schlock attempts to exploit young readers. Significantly,
these students warned against too much explicitness in literature. Too much gore, if
not justified, ruins a story, although I like to see it on films to admire the special effects. Of those who expressed a preference for gore and the emotion of repugnance,
each did so with important qualifiers, saying for example, A little gore doesnt hurt;
and Graphic gore to a tasteful point.
Explicitness is an expected part of the genre today; indeed, the job of the horror writer
always has been and always will be to assault taboos, to broadcast our unspeakable urges,
to show us the nauseating possibilities that we fear. But there still is a clear line separating
effective from ineffective use of the genres extreme and rebellious materials: They must
be justified by the storys context, tone, and theme. As sometimes splatterpunk Robert R.
McCammon (Swan Song, The Wolfs Hour) said in a recent interview, I dont believe there
can be any bad taste in creating a scene, only bad writing in handling it.
Explicitness can also be a double-edged sword. Many expressed a preference for suggestiveness in description, which we called narrative blurringa phrase T.E.D. Klein
uses to capture H.P. Lovecrafts dictum: Never state a horror when it can be suggested.
These students agreed. Description should be only enough so that the reader can get
a picture, but not so much that theres nothing left for the imagination. Such comments illustrate the principle that still guides even these jaded viewers of the hack-emand-slash-em films: Our own imaginations can still scare us more than any author
could ever hope to. Good horror writers collaborate with our minds.

What Todays Readers Dont Want


An important part of writing successfully in any genre is learning what not to do. Unfortunately, the path to publication is not straight and narrow, without blind alleys and
sloughs of despair. And to avoid those pitfalls one must discover not only what a good
horror story is, but also what one isnt.
Just as these readers were unanimous in what they wanted most from a horror story
(fast-paced suspense), they were equally adamant about what ruins their fun: anything
that smacks of a literary treatment and slows down the pace. Eighty-one percent
made comments like:

Cant stand long, drawn-out stories which overkill with background and details about
characters and about lifemakes for tiresome reading.
I dont like stories that go into so much detail about everything that I lose the plot and
my head spins by the time Im through reading.
Detail upon detail, description upon description, bore upon bore!

112

The Craft & Business of Writing

One student said simply: Literary horroryuck! On the surface, such comments seem
to contradict the need they expressed earlier for finely drawn characters and setting.
But these students are actually displaying a solid understanding of this genre and its
uniqueness. As readers of horror, they expect to be entertained by a suspenseful tale of
dark fantasy. Their comments imply that while theme, realistic characters, and settings
are important props in the entertainment, those elements must be kept secondary. Too
much of a good thing blurs the boundary between the horror story (a literature of fear
and the fantastic) and the literary story (a literature of character and theme), which
theyve come to associate with school. As one student begged when we were about to
discuss Stephen King for the first time, Please dont tell me hes good literature; I like
him too much.
Sadly, literature for many young readers has become associated solely with the
stories of mainstream realism chosen by authority figures for textbooks, stories which
for many years students have had to analyze, take tests on, and regurgitate teachers interpretations ofa useless and demeaning experience at best. For the above student and
many like him, horrorwith its emphasis on plot, suspense, and extremesgives back
to literature what schools have managed to strip away: its pleasure, entertainment, fun.

The Guessing Game


A lot of the fun in this genre comes from the important game that goes on between
writer and reader, wherein the writer tries to stay always one step ahead, doling out
just enough information to keep the story intriguing and coherent yet the reader still
guessing and in suspense. The horror writer must walk a tightrope, balancing delicately
between predictability and obscurity, telling neither too much nor too little.
Failure to avoid those extremes was the pitfall most frequently cited by these students. Eighty-eight percent complained about predictability, saying again and again: I
dont like authors who give away too much too soon. Their comments here also reaffirm the importance of the ending in this genre. Several students wrote, An obvious
ending ruins the whole story, and one even made an impassioned plea to writers: To
all horror authors: please dont give away the ending before I get there. It makes me
want my money back!
These students also grew impatient with authors who withheld too much information and left readers baffled about what really happened. Sixty-nine percent objected to
stories where everything is a confused jumble of events. Their typical reaction was not
one that bodes well for repeat sales: Too much confusion in a story and I just give up.
Some of these comments arose from our reading of several experimental stories in
which authors challenged the reader by violating one or more traditional rules of narrative and attempting to let the form of the story mirror a characters confused mental
state or be a comment on the illusory nature of reality. That myself and several English
majors in the class were the only ones who liked such stories further underscores the expectations of the majority: A story that is entertaining does not make unusual, literary
demands on its readers. Experimentation may be important for an artists and a genres

The Craft of Fiction 113

growth, but it wont necessarily do well in the bookstore. The student who wrote, A
horror story that loses me is boring. If I cant understand it, I cant very well enjoy it,
was also serving notice about his tolerance for literary innovation.

One Mans Meat


These students were traditional in another way. A majority flatly rejected gratuitous
acts of sex and violence. They would agree with Ramsey Campbell, author of The Influence, who once said in an interview: In the worst horror fiction, violence is a substitute
for imagination and just about everything else one might look for in fiction. Campbell
was drawing the same distinction between sensationalism and the legitimate use of violence as my students did:

Stories that have no justification for their violence bore me.


Blood and guts shouldnt be used unnecessarily, some writers dont understand this.
What ruins a story for me? Too much purposeless blood and gore.

I should add that Moravian College is church-affiliated in name only; these are typical
students from a variety of religiousand nonreligiousbackgrounds. I think their reaction is a typical one, and it helps to answer a question posed by many social critics and
parents about how far explicitness can go in the media: Where will it end? Whats the
stopping point? These eighteen- to twenty-year-olds, products of the sexual revolution,
suggest that explicitness contains its own antidote: boredom.

A Willing Suspension
These readers also objected to what they called unbelievable writing: setting, characters, style, or story logic that failed to keep them immersed in the tale, their skepticism
on hold. They wrote: The horror has to be made believable. If not, then the story has
nothing for me, and I have to be able to believe in the setting, characters, and esp. the
monsters, etc. My favorite remark about style was: Writers should avoid clichs like
the plague.
These comments touch on one of the real paradoxes and challenges of dark fantasy:
an author must write so convincingly, so realistically, that the reader achieves a willing
suspension of disbelief in the face of that which is patently unreal. Most English professors, whose primary focus is the slice of life moralistic tale, would have a difficult
time understanding the pitfall that these students are pointing out.
Horror fans know that, in this genre, writing believably means more than just capturing everyday reality. It means using the same qualities of prose found in the best
mainstream writing to set up a quotidian reality, and then to move the reader beyond
it into the realm of the fantasticwhile maintaining his belief in something that just
isnt so. To quote Richard Matheson, grand pre of the modern horror story: Pound
for pound, fantasy makes a tougher opponent for the creative person. Fans know that,
even if their teachers dont.

114

The Craft & Business of Writing

Getting fresh
Robert Bloch, another grand pre who in Psycho staked out fresh territory for the psychological horror story, remarked in his introduction to How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy,
and Science Fiction that ... in order for a writer to do his or her best, he must incorporate
originality, a prime ingredient for success. If the theme is old, the twist or payoff must
be new. My students couldnt agree more. They derided stories that seem to be carbon
copies of others. These readers demanded that A plot should not seem even remotely
familiar, and that If the supernatural is used, it must have a new twist.
Like Bloch, they seemed to recognize that each genre places a premium on different writing talents: the extrapolative powers of the science fiction author, the observational skills of the mainstream realist, the plotting finesse of the mystery writer. The
students were laying down an important caveat for aspiring horror writers: in a genre
which attempts to entertain with suspense and dark fantasy, there is a keen demand for
raw imaginative power and an unorthodox daring-do of mind that can take writer and
reader where others fear to tread.

In the End
Its clear that young readers have a genuine enthusiasm for this literature. Contemporary horror fiction taps an excitement for reading in them that is almost always absent
from a classroom dominated by the classics and the modern darlings of English Departments. Anne Tyler, Saul Bellow, and John Fowles are fine writers, but what truly excites these students is horror. It speaks to them in a way that Silas Marner does not. And
their response to horror fiction reaffirms the force that literature can have in young
lives when teachers allow it.
These readers have also a clear set of their own standards. While they can appreciate
the graphic detail and daring assaults of splatterpunks like John Skipp, Craig Spector,
David J. Schow, and Joe R. Lansdale, they still insist that certain boundaries be observed.
They demand quality writing, especially in characterization. One of the more hotly contested questions among todays criticswhether horror should be psychologically or
supernaturally baseddoes not seem important to them. An equal number of students
wrote, A good horror story blends reality, fantasy, and the supernatural as did those
who said, I like stories that can really happen because they scare me the most.
In the end, although the surface features of the horror tale have changed to reflect
the times, todays readers still want genuine characters inside a vividly written story
based on a fresh and frightening premise, pulled together by a suspenseful plot that
keeps them turning the pages rapidly. Although no formula can guarantee writing success, that one is a good place to start.

Horror Novel Checklist


Like any literary form, the horror novel has its conventionsones which the apprentice
struggles with, the professional masters, and the greats soar beyond as they shatter the

The Craft of Fiction 115

boundaries of genre, whether it be Elizabethan revenge tragedy (Hamlet) or pact-withthe-devil tales (Faust).
At Moravian College, as part of a workshop in writing the horror novel, we analyzed
thirty mass-market paperbacks from among the latest releases by Zebra, Leisure, Onyx,
Pinnacle, Dart, Tor, St. Martins, and others. Not surprisingly, we found that the basic
elements of fictionan opening that hooks readers, exposition of characters and their
situation, complications, climax, and resolutionstill provided the underlying structure, but these elements had been altered to fit the special conventions of a literature of
fear and the bizarre. Heres the checklist we devised for writing our horror novels:

The Grabber. Have you opened with a prologue or short chapter which provides a

brief but tantalizing (and usually violent) glimpse of the secret horror which will
propel the story forward?
Backfill. Within chapters 15, have you introduced the main characters and their
problems, and isolated them in one locale (a town, resort, swamp, etc.) along with
the horror?
Turn Up the Heat. Do your middle chapters show increasingly weird or violent events
which threaten the protagonists and force them to investigate and eventually confront the horror (usually ancient or occult) that has been triggered?
Flash Slash. If the pace slows, have you flashed to a slash or mutilation scene of
minor characters to show the horror at its gruesome work?
Final Jeopardy. Does your final climax scene contain sufficient payoff for the reader? When things have gotten as bad as they can get for the protags, with seemingly
no way out, just as they are about to be overpowered by the superior horrific force,
something enables them to triumph: courage, ingenuity, imagination, a tool or
piece of information previously planted.
It Lives. A short final chapter or epilogue should show the main characters at peace,
resuming their normal lives but changed forever by their encounter with evil. But
have you also hinted that the victory is a temporary one, and that the horror has
merely gone back into hiding and could rise again somedaypossibly in a sequel?

Other conventions to keep in mind: Cupid Strikes refers to the romantic subplot in horror novels wherein the hero and heroine meet and join together (spiritually and physically) to fight the evil besetting them.
Bang for the Buck means that readers expect the horror novelist to offer well-researched information on a legend or myth, occult or psychic lore, exotic geographical
location, sport, profession, etc.
Body Count and overall levels of violence vary greatly from publisher to publisher; be
sure to analyze a particular houses recent releases before submitting. Doing so could
save a great deal of postage, waiting, and grief. More importantly, such study and preparation is the real secret to writing a horror novel.

116

The Craft & Business of Writing

not just happily


ever after: Writing
real romance
by Jennifer

Crusie

ou want to write a romance? Congratulations! Youve chosen an exciting genre with


a noble past, although you may find yourself arguing that with the Vast Uninformed.
While working on my MFA in fiction, having already published three romance novels, a professor said to me, Jenny, you write so well. Have you ever thought about writing literature?
Heads up: Romance fiction is literature, the finest kind of literature, the kind that
explores the most powerful emotion known to humanity, a force that has driven people
to great deeds and horrible acts, that has elevated and destroyed, that can create life or
inspire death. Love is not just a subject for silly love songs, and romance novels are not
silly chick books with embarrassing covers. Love is a maelstrom that attacks our bodies,
our minds, our hearts, and our souls, transforming us forever. Romance novels tell the
stories of what happens when we get caught in that maelstrom.
A less dramatic definition: A romance is the story of two people who meet, struggle to
build a relationship, and commit to spending the rest of their lives together, facing the future with optimism. Convincing an increasingly jaded readership that this one is forever is
no easy task but its an important one: a good romance novel does nothing less than restore
a readers faith in the power of true love, even if its only for four hundred pages. Half the
mass-market fiction sold in this country is romance novelsalmost 2,300 romance titles
were published in 2004 aloneso clearly, romance novelists are doing something right.
That also means theres never been a better time to write romance. Unfortunately,
there have also never been so many dumb assumptions about them. So first, here are
some myths to wipe from your mind (or from the minds of others, by force if necessary):

Myth #1: All romances are alike


Not even close.
Historical romances are love stories that take place before the twentieth century.
As we move further into the twenty-first century, the line blurs a little more and the
earlier decades of the twentieth century will become more popular as settings. The
key is that the story is removed from the present to a time beyond memory. Popular

The Craft of Fiction 117

settings are the American West, the revolutionary period, and the Civil War; medieval
and nineteenth-century England, Scotland, and Ireland; and anything with Vikings,
but just about every time period and country has been written about by now. A subset
of the historical is the Regency novel; set in the early nineteenth century, the Regency
has a set of conventions as rigid as the sonnet and should be studied apart from historical romances set in the Regency Periodan entirely different kind of romance.
Contemporary romances are love stories set in the present time. This genre also has
several popular subgenres, for example, the romantic comedy, a genre with its roots in the
screwball comedies of the thirties and forties and before that in the comedies of manners
by Jane Austen; and the sweet romance, generally defined as a traditional love story with no
explicit sex scenes. Other subgenres combine romance with other kinds of fictionromantic suspense, for example, combines mystery with the love story; the tradition goes back
to the nineteenth-century Gothic novel, and its twentieth-century roots include Daphne
Du Mauriers Rebecca. Paranormal romances blend horror or fantasy with the love story,
drawing on classic legends such as the ghost story and the vampire tale. The inspirational
romance blends the story of faith with the love story. Finally, there is a growing market for
erotic romance, stories with a dual purpose to both tell the love story and to arouse.
A third kind of romance, called the series romance, encompasses both contemporary and historical elements. These books are published in a numbered series by Harlequin/Silhouette, and are divided into categories, which is why theyre also called category novels. Harlequin Intrigue, for example, is a category romantic suspense line, while
Harlequin Romance is a traditional or sweet line.
Deciding you want to write a romance is like telling a waiter youd like some food.
If you arent reading romance already, youre going to have to study the genre to find
the kind of stories that you want to write, and also to understand the genre as a whole.
Romance readers are extremely discerning and they can spot a faker by the end of the
first chapter. Nonbelievers need not apply.

Myth #2: Romance novels must have a happy ending


Nope. Romance novels must have an optimistic ending, but many romances deal with
catastrophe and deep trauma. To slap a and they all lived happily ever after without
the benefit of therapy ending on such a book would be a betrayal of the characters, and
a good romance novel is first and foremost about character. The romance novel heroine
is not Cinderella or Pollyanna; she knows there will be tough times ahead, but she faces
them with optimism, as does the hero. No last pages with cockroaches scuttling across
cracked linoleum floors while the protagonists stare sullenly at each other. Tomorrow
is another day is writ large upon the romance protagonists hearts.

Myth #3: Romance novels have no conflict


Oh, please. Show me a romance in real life that has no conflict and Ill show you two
first-graders whose desks are not next to each other. One of the many reasons romance

118

The Craft & Business of Writing

novels are so popular is that everybodys had at least one bad romance and would like
to believe a good one is possible, even if only in the pages of a book.
However, there is a problem inherent in the romance conflict. A great fictional conflict is a fight to the end between the protagonist and the antagonist, resolved when one
destroys the other completely. This is a bad beginning to a long-term relationship, so
most romances that use the heroine and the hero as protagonist and antagonist end
in compromise. Thats good for relationships, bad for fiction climaxes. My suggestion:
pit the heroine and hero against an outside antagonist and have them work together
to thwart him or her, cementing their relationship during the struggle. Studies have
shown that pain and stress actually make it easier for people to fall in lovethink starcrossed lovers, office romances, and all those war babiesso a conflict external to the
romance can actually deepen it.

Myth #4: Romance novels are soft porn for women


First, not all romances have sex scenes. Second, not all sex scenes are porn. Third, whats
wrong with explicit fiction for women? Were not supposed to smudge our shiny little
brains with thoughts of great sex? Romance novels encourage women to go after what
they want and need, and a multiple orgasm never hurt anybody.
Romance novels are not about sex, any more than dinner is about dessert. However,
sometimes dessert is a good thing. It just depends on your appetite.

Myth #5: If a romance novel is really good,


a publisher will call it womens fiction and
make it a hardcover
Never confuse quality with marketing. The category printed on the spine of the book
(general fiction, womens fiction, romance) and the kind of cover protecting the book
(hard or soft) are marketing decisions, based on getting the book to the right reader. Many
terrific books are published as paperback originals; many real stinkers have hard covers.
So what exactly does determine category and cover?
The line between romance and womens fiction can be a blurry one. A romance is always a love story. Womens fiction is always about womens lives and womens relationships, although not necessarily romantic relationships, and is usually about a personal
journey; that is, the woman grows and learns during the course of the novel. If a story
is about a womans journey as demonstrated in her romantic relationship, you have a
novel that fits both categories. This is when the marketing department steps in because
the label on the spine is about selling the book to the largest number of readers who
will be satisfied by it. There are many womenpoor, misguided soulswho will not
read romance novels because they think theyre tacky, but who will devour the same story if its sold as womens fiction. So why not categorize all romance fiction as womens
fiction? Because the most passionate book buyers shop in the romance section. Its a
conundrum, so marketing makes the call.

The Craft of Fiction 119

As for packaging, books are published in both softcover and hardcover because the
markets for the two forms are different.
People who buy paperbacks often buy by genre; that is, they want something good
to read on the plane or the beach, so they go to the mystery section or the romance
section because thats what they like. They buy by author name and word of mouth,
too, but theyre willing to take a chance on an unknown author because the cover
price is relatively cheap. The average romance reader goes through five books a week,
so cover price is important to her. Shell look at a hardcover by her favorite romance
author and think long and hard before plunking down the cover price. Therefore,
introducing a new romance author in hardcover can be very tricky. Many romance
novelists who are in hardcover established their readership in paperback first; their
hardcover sales come from the readers who love their work so much that they cant
wait a year to read the paperback.
People who buy hardcovers buy, on the average, one book a month, and they buy
because they want to read that book: they like the author, or the book has good word
of mouth or it has information in it they want. They do not buy by genre, and this, coupled with the widespread misconception that romance is poor-quality fiction, means
that they often will not buy a romance author. This is why so many of the new romance
authors that begin in hardcover are issued as general fiction, and why so many of those
romances have what has come to be known as mainstream elements including intricate plots and subplots apart from the romance.
Nowhere in any of this discussion has quality come up. Thats because its irrelevant.
Publishers package and label books to best target the books to buyers, not to alert the
readership that some arent as good as others.

Joining the Party


Now that youre up on romance basics and youre ready to join the party, what should
you do?
Write the love story you want to write, the one that fills your mind waking and
sleeping, the book you must write. You have to really need to write that book because if
you dont, you wont.
As you write, study the craft of writing. Read books on it, take classes in it, go to
conferences and talk to other writers, and rewrite and polish your work until it gleams.
Understand point of view, plot and character arc, conflict, motif, metaphor, and all
the other tools that good writers understand and use. Writing stories is a very old and
very honored calling and demands nothing less from you than the very best you can
give. Many writers have written several books before they got one published, and many
of those have been grateful because it gave them the chance to make their mistakes in
private. Nothing you write is ever wasted; its all part of your growth as a writer.
Give the finished book to somebody who likes the same kind of romances you
do. Ask her to be honest. When shes honest, dont argue with her or defend the book.
Listen to the things she had trouble with or didnt like and try to figure out why she

120

The Craft & Business of Writing

didnt like them. Explaining things to her is not an option; youre not going to be able
to explain things to every reader when the book is published, so you have to put everything on the page so it doesnt need to be explained.
Study the genre. When you find romances you like, or are similar to the stories you
want to write or already have written, youve identified your market. You do not study
the market to find out what to write, you study the market to find out which section
of it will buy what you already want to write. (The best answer to the What should I
write? question is an old one: Write the book you want to read but cant find.)
Find out who edited the book that is most like yours that you liked the most (call
the publishing house and ask). Write a query letter to that editor and (1) explain why you
liked the book she edited, (2) tell her youve written a book you hope shell like as well
(but not one thats better than the other book or as good as the other book), (3) describe
the books characters, conflict, and interesting plot points in a few, short, punchy sentences that are so fascinating that she must read the manuscript (think of it as a movie
pitch), (4) and then give her every possible way of reaching you short of carrier pigeon
(phone, fax, e-mail, snail mail, and the always popular self-addressed stamped envelope).
If she writes back and says, Yes, please send the proposal, send her the first
thirty to fifty pages of the book plus a synopsis of the plot, usually about one paragraph per chapter, ten to twelve double-spaced pages in length. In the cover letter, thank
her for asking to see the manuscript; this is very important because it keeps you out of
the slush pile, a dark place in the corner of the editors office where manuscripts can rot
for months and, in some cases, years. Include another SASE.
If she calls and asks to see the manuscript, congratulate yourself and send it. If
you get the proposal back with a letter explaining why she isnt interested in publishing
it, feel good: if she took the time to write you a letter, shes interested in you as a writer.
If she sends it back with a form letter, assume shes just made a terrible mistake shell
someday regret, and send a query letter to the next editor who edited a book you liked.
If she calls later and says she wants to buy it, say, Thank you very much, Ill
get back to you. Theres a tendency to want to give away the farm with your first novel
because youre so grateful somebody wants to publish it. This is when an agent comes
in handy; agents are never grateful.
At some point, probably shortly after you decide you want to write a romance
novel, join Romance Writers of America. RWA is one of the smartest writers organizations around, and not the least of its benefits are its online bulletin boards where
members discuss craft and industry issues and where you can get information on everything from agents to zoology (as in never kill an animal in a romance novel). RWA
also has guidelines for recognized publishers and agents, position papers on contracts
and the various rights negotiated therein, and a monthly journal that addresses the issues romance novelists are facing. For more information visit www.rwanational.org.
Romance fiction is a vitally important form of fiction that places women at the centers of
their stories and celebrates the liberating and redemptive power of love. As a romance novelist,
youre part of a long tradition of life-affirming, feminist storytelling, and that tradition grows
stronger every year. So welcome to the genre; we cant wait to hear what you have to say.

The Craft of Fiction 121

Believability in
science fiction
& fantasy
by

David Gerrold

ver notice how sometimes you go to a movie and you see what you think is a terrific
picture? You have a marvelous time; afterward, you go out for coffee and sit around
chatting with your friends about what a wonderful movie youve just seen. Finally you
head for home; later that night you decide to have a little snack, and just as you open
the refrigerator door, a question hits you smack in the face: Hey! If E.T. could fly at the end
of the movie to save himself and Elliott, why the hell didnt he fly away at the beginning of the movie
when they were first chasing him? (This one is easy to answer. He didnt have a bicycle ...)
And you stand there in front of the open refrigerator, your snack forgotten, realizing
youve been conned and cheated, while the ice cream melts in your hand.
Sometimes the refrigerator door question reaches out of the screen and bites you
even as the dialogue is still falling out of the actors mouths. How come in the movie
Independence Day Earth scientists were immediately able to decode the operating system and data files of an alien computer system? Most of us have enough trouble running the computer systems we do know. And if Han Solo can make the Kessel Run in
less than twelve parsecs, why doesnt he know that a parsec is a measure of distance,
not time?

Bolognium: Handle With Care


Yes, you can postulate something that violates our experience of the way the world
works; just know that youre inventing a special form of bolognium.
The term comes from Larry Niven, author of Ringworld, one of the best science fiction novels of the twentieth century. In Ringworld, Niven postulated a gigantic ring circling a star. It had the surface area of millions of planets, and trillions of beings lived on
it. In order to construct this massive object, Niven postulated scrith, a substance strong
enough to build a ring 180 million miles in diameter. There is no such substance in the
known universe, but Niven needed it for his story. So he invented it. It was pure unadulterated bolognium. Absolutely necessary for the storyand absolutely preposterous by
the known laws of physics.

122

The Craft & Business of Writing

In that same story, Niven also postulated a character named Teela Brown, who was
the result of seven consecutive generations of winners of the breeding lottery. She had
been bred for luck. This is another form of bologniuman outlandish power or ability,
presently unknown. Obviously, we dont know if its possible to breed for luckiness, but
Niven needed it for the resolution of his storyhe needed to make an impossible chain
of events look inevitable. The story included a couple of other kinds of bolognium as well,
including stasis fields and salver weapons and several very interesting species of aliens.
Niven says that there is a limited amount of bolognium that a writer can put into a
story. A good science fiction story can sustain one piece of bolognium quite well. Stories
with two pieces of bolognium require significant skill in juggling and should not be attempted by beginners. Three pieces of bolognium represent critical mass, and no one less
than a grand master should attempt such a challenge. Stories with four or more pieces
of bolognium are called fantasies.
The trick with bolognium is to handle it as if its a toxic material. Wear protective gear
and handle it with tongs, or better yet, work through robotic arms. If you want the reader to believe something impossible, you have to find a way to connect it to something
the reader already knows. One of the best examples of this is the discussion of how to
breed a new generation of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (either Michael Crichtons book or
the film). Even though common sense tells us that its impossible for the genetic material of dinosaurs to have survived for sixty-five million years, the authors careful discussion of how the DNA can be retrieved from the bodies of mosquitoes sealed in ancient
amber is just convincing enough to energize our desire to believe.
When a storyteller invents a colossal whoppera tale so tall that it needs an express
elevatorhe needs to seduce the readers cooperation in creating believability. The author does that by grounding the story in the reality of the readers own experience. If you
want to lend believability to an outrageous idea, you surround it with a whole bunch of
other things that feel believable. Think of your story as a colossal lie; the trick in selling a
lie is to surround it with so much truth that the listener believes the lie is also true.
Alfred Bester wrote what many consider the greatest science fiction novel of all time,
The Stars My Destination. It was predicated on one single piece of bologniumthat human beings have an inherent psychokinetic ability to teleport through space (and later,
time). He called this skill jaunting. To make it believable, he did a brief history of how
the skill was accidentally discovered when a scientist jaunted himself out of a certaindeath situationand how other scientists tested for the existence of the ability to jaunt.
He took the preposterous and surrounded it with the scientific method and examined
how it would work. He created specific limits and rules. (For instance, you couldnt
jaunt to any place youd never been, because you needed a mental target.)

Do Not Make the Star Trek Mistake


Do not confuse technobabble with science.
How many times have you had the experience of watching an episode of a science
fiction TV show where the problem was solved by someone turning up the knob on the

The Craft of Fiction 123

double-talk generator? Did you feel frustrated and cheated? You should. Thats not science fictionthats desperation on the part of an incompetent writer.
DATA
Its life, Captain, but not as we know it. A creature of pure energy.
GEORDI
(concerned)
I cant give you any more power, Captain. The creature has transmogrified the dilithium
volatizers and the blabberfax cant handle the increase in plaso-dimensional discoordination stress. Well have to immobilize the greezinchokker or the ship will be narfled
into quiblets!
PICARD
I know you can do it, Mr. La Forge! Go to Warp 11!
WESLEY
Captain! I have an idea! If we cross-polarize the dibbletizer, just by switching these
two colored wires, we can reinvent transwarp capability and achieve speeds as high as
Warp 37 at half the power. Gosh, why didnt some grown-up think of this already? No
wonder you need a fifteen-year-old super genius on this ship!
Q
(to himself )
With all my superpowers, why am I wasting my time on these chimpanzees?

In 1966, when Star Trek first came on the air, Gene Roddenberry established a very simple rule: If I wont believe it on the bridge of the battleship Iowa, I wont believe it on
the bridge of the starship Enterprise.
If only the subsequent inheritors of the Star Trek tradition had listened ...

124

The Craft & Business of Writing

Jump-start your
fiction through
Your characters
by John

Tibbetts

ll fiction writersyoung and old, the novice and the experiencedare intimidated by a blank page. Many writers have blocks that can last for days, months,
or years. Consider some of the brilliant writers who have been fallow for long periods: Herman Melville, Katherine Ann Porter, and Tillie Olsen, to name just a few.
So how do you get started when your mind is empty, when youre staring at that
blank page, stumped?
When I cant get started writing, its because I am concentrating on the wrong thing;
that is, I am focusing on the plot of the story. Instead, Ive learned that I should concentrate on my character or characters. If I can understand my characters, then the plot will
take care of itself. To break through a block, I must find out where and how my characters have lived, how they make their living, who are their mothers and fathers.
To learn about your characters, do some research. I dont mean research in a library.
No, this is the research of your own life and imagination. You need to explore the people you have known, and within them youll find your story.
Plot is character, said Henry James. About Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, James
wrote: The germ of the story ... was never an affair of plotthat was the last thing he
thought of. The first form in which a tale appeared to him was the figure of an individual, or a combination of individuals, whom he wished to see in action, being sure
that such people must do something very special and interesting.
So, in effect, James advised you should think of someone interesting, someone you
find intriguingand write about him. Put your character into a situation that would
make him uncomfortable and then watch what he does.
I have six exercises that will help you get a story rolling. If one of these exercises
doesnt work for you, try another. These strategies are all ways of keeping your story
alive. At the same time, these exercises can help you discover and develop your characters, because when you make a character live and breathe, your reader will follow that
person for page after page. Alter all, we all remember Huck Finn, Anna Karenina, and
Pip better than we remember the plot details of the novels written by Mark Twain, Leo
Tolstoy, and Charles Dickens.

The Craft of Fiction 125

1. Name your character


Elmore Leonard, that wonderful writer of crime thrillers, once said that he cant get a
story straight in his mind until he gets the names of his characters right.
Same with me. I cant start a short story until I choose an appropriate name for my
protagonist. How a writer chooses a name for his characters will tell you a lot about that
writers methodsand philosophyof storytelling.
For instance, the novelist and filmmaker John Sayles has said that he chooses the
shortest name possible for his main character. He doesnt want to type a long name over
and over again. I agree. It sounds superficial, but I dont want to type Christopher, Jonathon, or Elizabeth dozens of times if I can type Chris, Jon, or Liz. So when I look over the
stories Ive written, I see the following names of my characters: Jeff, Ned, Ann, Tim, Bert.
These names fit my characters. The people I write about would go by a short name
rather than a long one. Informal people, they would likely have nicknames. They are usually Midwestern and they dislike pretension. Their tastes tend toward the simple rather
than the complex, the unornamented rather than the rococo. These characters are common peopletheyre not rich or particularly successful or remarkable in any superficial
way. But generally theyre intelligent, politically aware, well-read, and perceptive about
the people and the world around them. They are an unheralded group: schoolteachers,
small-time musicians, students, and small-town or alternative journalists.
No matter how hard I try to change the kinds of people I write about, I cant do
it. Frank OConnor, the Irish storyteller, wrote that the short story is usually about a
member of a submerged population. My characters are indeed members of a submerged group: a group submerged under the stream of attention given to the more
successful, the more flamboyant.
But perhaps the flamboyant is what interests you, as it did F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Think of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise. Its a name that fits the romanticism of
Fitzgeralds protagonist.

2. Write from the point of view of an alien


I often start a story by basing the main character on myself. Most writers probably do
the same thing; we know ourselves better than we know anyone else. But the character
based on myself becomes boring very quickly. Soon I want to write about someone else
without losing that freshness that comes from confessional writing. But its tough to
write about strange people with different backgrounds from ourselves. The trick here is
to find a common element between yourself and another person.
Begin by writing an account of something that has happened to you. It can be something ordinary. Lets take, for example, this common experience: Your close friend has
just married someone whom you find unsuitable.
Include details about how everything looked to you: the groom, the bride, the cake,
the families, the music. Tell us about the smells, the sounds of the wedding. After all,
the experience was different for you than for anyone else.

126

The Craft & Business of Writing

Now pick someone you know, a friend or an acquaintance from a different social or
economic or ethnic background. Make this person the main character of your story; he
will have some of your qualities and some of his own.
Put your character into your unhappy situation: His friend is marrying badly. See
this scene from your characters eyes.
How will your characters experience differ from your own? How will it be the same?
You might learn that all people have similar basic emotions; for instance, we want our
friends to be happy, but we express those basic emotions in different ways. You might smile
and congratulate the bride and groom while someone else might brood, drink too much,
and say hostile, inappropriate things.
If you can identify with the emotions of people who are different from you, then
you can understand their actions. By concentrating on emotions that each of us have,
you can write from the point of view of a truck driver or a debutante, a sailor or a senator. After all, each of us at some time feels envy, disappointment, and pride. And sooner
or later, each of us probably copes with a friend marrying someone we dislike.
The filmmaker Steven Spielberg is a master of creating characters from varying
backgroundsand a master of showing how these characters would respond to the
world and to conflict. (You can learn a lot about storytelling from the best moviemakers, after all.) In the movie, E.T.The Extra-Terrestrial, for instance, the opening sequence is a lesson in an unusual characters point of viewa creature from
another planet. Remember, the movies first sequence shows us the creatures first
night on Earth. Spielbergs camera is fixed at waist level for much of the first five
minutes of the movie, because the creatures eyes are at that level. What E.T. sees,
the audience sees, too.
The camera shows cars approaching. The camera is positioned low to the ground,
from E.T.s point of view. Then men emerge from the cars, and the audience, along with
the creature, hears keys jinglingthese keys are attached to a mans belt, at waist level.
As the creature tries to escape, running to his spaceship, which will soon fly away
without him, the camera becomes E.T. The camera pushes through the undergrowth of
the forest, striking bushes, and you hear the panicked breathing of terror. So the audience experiences the mad dash along with the creature.
In this sequence, Spielberg masterfully illuminates how to get inside someone different from yourself. Spielberg identifies with an emotion that is common to everyone:
fear. It is the fear of the unknown, of being left behind, of being hurt by someone bigger
and stronger.
Spielberg does not concentrate on the differences between us and the creature, but
the similarities. Of course, as Spielberg continues to tell his story, he sentimentalizes
his creature and neglects to give him any ugly attributesmeanness or selfishness. But
his strategy of getting inside a character is consistent with Tolstoys approach: Tolstoy
noted that once he got inside a characters skin, once he saw the world through that
persons eyes, he took pity on him. Its Spielbergs empathy for the creature that makes
that first sequence work so effectively.

The Craft of Fiction 127

3. Create composite characters


After a time, you may come to a dead end with your character. Hes not complicated
enough or interesting to you anymore. Now you might think of grafting another person
onto your character. Many storytellers have noted how their characters are composite
bits of many people theyve known over the years. A writer takes attributes of qualities
from one person and then grafts those onto someone elsegenerally someone similar
in a certain respect. I always have at least twosometimes three or fourdifferent models for each major character in my stories, though one model generally is predominant.
But first you need to learn to ignore the boundaries of time and space. Start this exercise by picking a friend from childhood, someone you havent seen in years. Imagine
what he would be like today. Describe his marriage, his work, his education.
The idea here is to avoid the literal truth; you need to find another, more playful
truth, an artists truth. Fiction writers and poets create their art by mixing people and
situations, by disregarding temporal boundaries. Robert Frost wrote, The artist ...
snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not
so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic.
One of the pleasures of storytelling is finding the similarities among disparate people.
I began a story once about an old girlfriend. I wrote about her humor, gentleness,
resourcefulness, toughness, and her fierce independence. But what I remembered most
was her mulish stubbornness that made her difficult to be with. As I wrote about her,
she suddenly reminded me of my grandfather. I saw similarities between a woman I
cared for when I was twenty-four and a man who died when I was sixteen. I saw the
connections between a redhead with long legs and a fierce old country doctor. I saw the
connection between the qualities that I intermittently found attractive in a woman and
the spoken and unspoken values of my family.
My old girlfriend and my grandfather both came from hardscrabble families; they
both had alcoholic fathers; they both pushed away those they loved; they were both
tender, sarcastic, and harsh. So in my story, I gave my girlfriend a little bit of my grandfathers background. By blending their histories, I made sense of something that never
made sense beforemy attraction to this difficult person. And I created a richer, more
complicated story.

4. Make readers use at least two senses


I cant get rolling on a story unless I know the setting. If I am going to live imaginatively
in a place for the duration of a story, then Id better find it stimulating in some way.
Also, my character must have some emotional reaction to the place where he lives or
where hes visiting; he must be in conflict with it somehow.
One way to learn about your character is to put him into a place, then have him
respond to that environment. Its important for your character to sense things around
himto smell, to touch, to hear, etc. Flannery OConnor, the short-story writer and
novelist, wrote that she always tried to get at least two senses into the first paragraph

128

The Craft & Business of Writing

of a story, preferably three. That is, she wanted her protagonist to respond physically
to his setting. After all, human beings are not of another world; we are grounded to the
earth; we sweat, we lust, and we fight. Consider the first few sentences of Ralph Ellisons
King of the Bingo Game:
The woman in front of him was eating roasted peanuts that smelled so good that he could
barely contain his hunger. He could not even sleep and wished theyd hurry up and begin
the bingo game. There, on his right, two fellows were drinking wine out of a bottle wrapped
in a paper bag, and he could hear the soft gurgling in the dark. His stomach gave a low,
gnawing growl.

In these few sentences, we learn about the setting: a dark, crowded theater with a potentially rowdy audience (the wine). And we learn about the protagonist. He probably
doesnt have a home; if he had a place to live, he probably wouldnt be trying to sleep
in a theater. Hes poor, tired, and hungry. And we, the readers, become absorbed in this
character because we perceive the environment along with him. Ellison has provoked
our senses with the smell of peanuts, the sound of the wine gurgling, and the sound of
the protagonists stomach growling. Two senses are evoked; one sense evoked twice.
And the essence of storytelling is absorbing the reader in the world of your character. Making your reader smell, touch, feel, hear, and see (along with your character) will
get that reader hooked on your story.

5. Create smart characters


Most of us enjoy stories about intelligent, savvy people. A fictional character may not
realize that he is intelligent (Huck Finn) or he may think he is more astute than he really is (Pip and Anna Karenina), but in one way or another we continue reading about,
and believing in, a fictional creation because we admire his alertness to the world. Even
Vladimir Nabokovs child-molesting Humbert Humbert is admirable to the extent that
he is resourceful and perceptive, if only on the basest level.
Consider how Anton Chekhov in his great story The Lady With the Dog shows us
the perceptiveness of his protagonist, Gurov:
One evening while (Gurov) was dining in the public garden, the lady in the beret walked up
without haste to take the next table. Her expression, her gait, her dress, and the way she did
her hair told him that she belonged to the upper class, that she was married, that she was in
Yalta for the first time and alone, and that she was bored there.

We know a variety of things about both Gurov and the woman. We know that Gurov is
attracted to her, that he is a ladys man, and that he can read characterboth good and
bad. We also know that he is cynical. About the woman, we know her class, her marital
status, and her willingness to have an affair. Would Gurov be capable of making so
many judgments about a woman hes never met? Of course. Most of us make swift judgments like this every day about people we dont know, and frequently we are correct.

The Craft of Fiction 129

What makes this strategy so effective, however, is the fact that Chekhov does not
allow his narrator to make these observations. In most cases, the omniscient narratorone that sees the truth about characters and tells us the meaning of a scene or a
storyis a monotonous and outdated strategy. Instead Chekhov filters these perceptions through the mind of Gurov. Notice that all the information comes to the reader
by way of Gurovs perceptions. Thus, the story has a greater richness and complexity.
Allow your characters their full intelligence and perceptiveness. Allow them to know
as much about human nature as you do on your best, most enlightened days.

6. Show character through action


Sometimes the simplest thing in storytelling is the toughestand the most important;
that is, showing characters moving through the world without the crutch of getting inside their heads. As thousands of creative writing teachers have pointed out, it is more
difficult to show than to tell. When you find yourself getting too fancy, or when you are
stuck, return to this simple principle: what a person does tells us about his character.
Try writing a page showing a person involved in action. Dont enter your characters
mind. Just concentrate on what your character does. Gesture, said the eighteenth-century
French novelist and philosopher Denis Diderot, is more illuminating than explanation.
A suggested start: After lunch he went to the porch to get the mail and found a
large brown package.
Dramatize how your character responds, step-by-step, as if you were writing a play.
Does your character throw out the package without opening it? Does he open it? What
does he find? How does he react? If a story is going badly, or if I cant get a story started,
I usually try this exercise. It forces me to concentrate on action.
This strategy reduces a story to something happens and my character must react.
And isnt life like that? Something happens and we must react. We react badly or
well. Then we judge and measure our reaction.
Think of the plot of Shakespeares Othello. Without realizing it, Othello has made
an enemy of the evil Iago, who is determined to destroy him. The story is about how
Othello reacts clumsily and foolishly to the challenges of this evil plotter.
The plot of Hamlet is similar in this respect. Something has happened to Hamlets
familyand how the hero reacts to this event and subsequent events is the story.
Again, we are reminded of what Henry James wrote about Turgenev: Plot is character. Action defines character.
But grand heroics are rare for most of us. You could go through a lifetime without
an opportunity for obvious heroism. Most of us, in fact, live quietly. However, underneath the quiet a drama is going on, and the best writers are attuned to this everyday
drama. They are attuned because each of our responses to the small stuff is the genuine
barometer of character, good or bad, and is the heart of storytelling.

130

The Craft & Business of Writing

adding life
with dialogue
by

Monica Wood

ave you ever read a transcript of a presidential press conference? Even the most
lively and intelligent-sounding presidential answers can look like idiocy on the
page. How about the conversation you overheard in a cafeteria? You wrote it down verbatim on a napkin:
So her mother says to me, not the mother but the one that I thought was her except for that
one green tooth? She says to me, you know your friend Danny, thats the guy I went out
with just before I dumped Kevin ...

That one green tooth is kind of interesting, and the convolutions of mothers and boyfriends might be a promising place to start from or go toward, but to make this found
conversation fiction-worthy youll have to run it through a dialogue filter a few times.
As a writer, you must choose your characters words wisely: Dialogue sets pace, controls tone, reveals character, and moves the story forward. Good dialogue isnt a representation of how people really talk; it only reads that way. To get dialogue to read well,
you have to practice writing a lot of it; and it helps to follow a few guidelines.

Using Dialogue to Reveal Story


It is common knowledge that in order to keep up with the story line on a daytime
drama, all you have to do is tune in for twenty minutes every month or so. In this case
common knowledge is actually true, because of dialogue like this:
Aging Ingenue
Well, if it isnt my little brother Max.
Lead Male Hunk
I guess we havent seen each other since Mother left her modeling job in Los Angeles
to search for Justin.
Aging Ingenue
A lots happened since then. The fire at Cross Enterprises that left Paige and Whitney dead

The Craft of Fiction 131

Lead Male Hunk


And who would have guessed that our own father would turn out to be the Port City Stalker.

This is not story revelation; this is shameless plot review. Rather than push the story
forward, as good dialogue should do, this kind of information-giving dialogue stops
the story altogether in order to identify characters and convey plot information. Useful in daytime drama, death in fiction. To write good dialogue, you must not think of
dialogue as a device. If you have certain pieces of information that your reader must discover, dont depend on dialogue to do the whole job for you unless you want something
akin to a soap opera exchange. Dialogue can do some of the job for you, however, in a
way that straight prose cannot.
Lets look at an example. Your main character, Roddy, is a little boy with the face of
Gabriel and the soul of Lucifer. In your story Roddy wreaks havoc on his unsuspecting
parents and spins their lives out of focus, illuminating nuances of parenthood that
reverberate with rare and important truths about the human condition. Thats your
hope, anyway.
So far you have seven pages of clear prose, packed with telling detail. It reads flat.
Roddys manipulation of his parents lacks tension somehow. If this is like most first
drafts, chances are the story suffers from an overdose of exposition and an underdose
of revelation. The reader probably envisions the author at the end of each paragraph
holding up a cue card that says, DO YOU GET IT YET?
Try giving Roddy a shot of dialogue. Four lines of good dialogue can save you four
pages of exposition. Forget your six-paragraph description of diabolical little Roddy.
Forget the two-page passage you wrote about Catherine, Roddys mother, that included
the phrase her heart quivered every time Roddy opened his mouth to speak. Try the
old show, dont tell routine:
Catherine set the last of the groceries on the checkout counter. An enormous woman with
a We Please button clipped to her bosom smiled down at Roddy as she blipped each item
through the scanner. She had to lean halfway over the counter to really see him. Carrots,
soup cans, boxes of cereal beeped as Roddy, unsmiling, returned her gaze.
Arent you a cute little buzzard, she said, running a block of cheese over the scanner.
Catherine saw the purse of his lips, the stony set of his shoulders. She clasped her hands
together. Hes not very talkative, she said, hopefully.
The woman laughed. Hes just shy, arent you, little fellow?
Roddy raised his tiny eyes. I hope you die.

Within a few lines of dialogue, fortified by gestural pauses and a well-placed dialogue
tag (more on that later), you have conveyed plenty of information about Roddy: He is
a child (cute little buzzard); he is short (the woman has to lean over to see him); he
has tiny eyes; and his mother is afraid of him (she said, hopefully). You have revealed
the two crucial elements of the story: Roddy is an unpredictable, and possibly evil, little
brat; and Catherine is an ineffective and somewhat fearful mother. Not bad for a few
inches of type.

132

The Craft & Business of Writing

Dialogue Tags and Gestural Pauses


In the Roddy-Catherine scene, you probably noticed that the actual words of dialogue
are no more crucial than the dialogue tags and gestural pauses that set the tone and
pace of the dialogue sequence. Dialogue tags are the he said/she saids of a dialogue
sequence; descriptive dialogue tags are tags with a gesture attached (... buzzard, she
said, running a block of cheese over the scanner); and gestural pauses are the full-sentence interruptions (Roddy raised his tiny eyes) that you sprinkle through a dialogue
sequence. Look how eliminating gestural pauses diminishes Roddys scene:
Catherine set the last of the groceries on the checkout counter. An enormous woman with
a We Please button clipped to her bosom smiled down at Roddy as she blipped each item
through the scanner. She had to lean halfway over the counter to really see him. Carrots,
soup cans, boxes of cereal beeped as Roddy, unsmiling, returned her gaze.
Arent you a cute little buzzard, she said.
Hes not very talkative, Catherine said.
Hes just shy, arent you, little fellow?
I hope you die, Roddy said.

Not only is the he said/she said overbearing, but the pace of the scene, the sense of a
life (in this case the bustle of a grocery store) going on around this little beast and his
mother, is completely lost. Gone are the block of cheese being swept over the scanner,
the womans laugh, and Roddys tiny eyes. Gone are Catherines nervousness and the
checkout womans heartiness, both of which combine to infuse tension into this small
exchange. By eliminating gestural pauses you are left with too swift a pace, a sliver of a
scene, and too many dialogue tags in order to identify the speakers.
It is best to dispense with dialogue tags altogether whenever you can, but sometimes a well-placed tag can inform the scene in a way a gestural pause cannot. Consider
the she said, hopefully after Catherines one line: This is a woman afraid of her own
child. While the best writing advice I ever received (from George Garrett, years ago at a
writers conference) was Circle all your adverbs, dear, and then kill em, a well-chosen
adverb in a dialogue tag can be most effective. Use them sparingly, however, and watch
for redundancy: If the description is in the dialogue already (and in most cases it should
be), leave it out of the tag. (For example: I hate your guts! she said angrily. Or: I cant
go on, he murmured sadly.)
Another mistake some writers make when creating dialogue tags is trying too hard
to jazz them up. He said/she said is just fine. Spare the reader from she hissed/I laughed/
he groaned. The aforementioned functions cannot actually be performed simultaneously with speaking, anyway. He shouted/she whispered/I screamed are probably all
right, since they can at least be performed with words, but your best bet is to avoid tags
in favor of gestures. Consider this scene:

Frank presented the daisies. I picked these.


So? She gave them a brief glance. What do you want, a medal?
You said you liked romantic men.

The Craft of Fiction 133

I said I liked romance. She put up one finger. Theres a big difference, Frank. Huge.
He stared into the flowers for a moment. Are you real mad, or only a little bit mad?
Real mad.
Frank turned the flowers around a few times in his hands, considering. I guess this
would be a lousy time to ask for that sixty bucks you owe me.
She snatched the flowers and tore off their yellow tops one by one. Thats right, she
said, handing him the bunch of stems. It would.

In this scene it is easy to keep track of who is speaking, with minimal use of dialogue
tags. In the girlfriends final line you have used a descriptive dialogue tag for a certain
effecther line is slowed down, by virtue of the tag (she said, handing him the bunch
of stems), and as a result she is rendered imperious rather than impetuous. This is how
the last line would look minus the descriptive dialogue tag:
Frank turned the flowers around a few times in his hands, considering. I guess this would
be a lousy time to ask for that sixty bucks you owe me.
She snatched the flowers and tore off their yellow tops one by one.
Thats right, it would.

The girlfriends action is less controlled in this second version, for she does not hand
the stems back; and her line, uninterrupted, reads snappish and petulant. In the original version the girlfriend is much more self-possessed. Small decisions about how to
present dialogue have large consequences for your characters.
One caution about using any of these presentation devices: One device used exclusively will make the dialogue sequence monotonous:
Over here, she said, waving her program in the air.
I thought Id never find you, he told her, picking his way over the row to the seat
beside her.
Ive been waiting for hours, she said, pushing the sticky strands of hair from her face.

In other words, vary your construction. (This goes for all aspects of a story, of course,
not just dialogue.) Your best bet for presenting realistic, snappy dialogue is to use a
combination of presentation devices: tagless dialogue, gestural pauses, descriptive tags,
and simple tags. This is especially true when long tags serve as a connector for an already long line of dialogue:
I cant see you again, Marilyn, Neville said, extracting his pocket handkerchief with a magicians flourish and presenting it to her with a trembling hand, because Mothers wheelchair
broke and shes asked me to fly to Japan with her to have it fixed.

Two mistakes here: The obvious one is the endless dialogue tag, and the other is the long
line of dialogue with the connector because. You might salvage a line like this as follows:
I cant see you again, Marilyn, Neville said. He presented his pocket handkerchief with a
magicians flourish. Mothers wheelchair broke and shes asked me to fly to Japan with her
to have it fixed.

134

The Craft & Business of Writing

Once you begin to write dialogue with a better sense of the importance of presentation,
you will notice that character and story revelation depend as much on the surrounding
details as they do on the dialogue itself.

Revealing Character
Now that you know something about the function of dialogue and its nuts and bolts,
youre stuck with a blank page and a character aching to say something. But what?
It depends on the character. Children dont talk like teenagers; teenagers dont talk
like adults; southerners dont talk like northerners. Ethnic and cultural diversities also
make for dialogue challenges: a Hopi Indian doesnt talk like a Boston Catholic; a steelworker doesnt talk like a lifeguard.
This is not a simple matter of vocabulary, either. Your characters words reflect so
much about himhis background, motivation, inner and outer lifethat the words
he speaks are barely as important as how he speaks them. The cadence of dialogue, its
syntax and grammar, and even the number of words it contains help show the reader
who your character is.
You might have a character whose worldview is maddeningly simple: Things are
either good or bad. His dialogue is a series of platitudes that drives the other characters
nuts. Another character might be painfully shy, or burdened by a terrible secret: she
cant seem to eke out more than a few words at a time.
In the Roddy-Catherine scene, Roddys line is not I hope you get sick, or I hope
you get sick and die, or I bet youre going to die someday. He says, in the stripped,
direct, bottom-line vocabulary of a child: I hope you die.
Similarly, in the scene between Frank and his girlfriend, the verbal exchange has a
certain cultural color. How differently would the reader perceive them if you were to
change their words:
Frank presented the daisies. These are for you.
She gave them a brief glance. I suppose you thought they would thrill me?
You said you liked romantic men.
I said I liked romance. Theres a difference, isnt there?
He stared into the flowers for a moment. Are you horribly angry, or only a little?
Horribly.
Frank turned the flowers around a few times in his hands, considering. I suppose it
would be unwise to ask for the money you owe me?
She snatched the flowers and tore off their yellow tops one by one. Indeed.

The changes are small but the ramifications are great. The difference between horribly
angry and real mad, or thats right and indeed, is entrenched in the education,
class, goals, and expectations of your characters.
Interesting dialogue, in fiction and in life, depends as much on what you leave out
as what you put in. The following scene tries to reveal some aspect of the relationship
between a mother and daughter, from the daughters point of view.

The Craft of Fiction 135

Id just like to see you settled, thats all, my mother says.


What do you mean? I know exactly what she means.
Settled, she says, glaring. I mean settled.
Im settled, for heavens sake. I have a job, a house, a dog. I send out for pizza every Friday night. Shes still looking at me. Mom, Im settled.
She purses her lips, drums her spotted fingers on the tabletop. Theres more to this life,
young lady, than the company of a dog.

In this scene, what the mother and daughter do not say is what makes the scene work.
The daughter knows what the mother is getting at, the mother knows the daughter
knows, and yet each is refusing to acknowledge the others meaning. This unspoken
argument provides the scene with emotional tension and reveals the characters as two
strong wills locked in struggle. If you rewrite the scene using the dialogue the first version left out, you get something like this:
I wish youd get married, my mother says.
I dont want to get married, Mom. I have everything I need right now.
She is glaring at me. A husband would make your life a lot fuller.

The scene loses its punch when you write the real dialogue. Remember, people seldom say exactly what they mean. Thats what makes stories, and real life, so interesting.
In the mother-daughter scene, the language itself is not readily identifiable as belonging to any particular social stratum, but the words and cadences are carefully chosen nonetheless, for they illuminate a universal mother-daughter struggle. The mothers use of young lady illuminates her desire to establish position. The daughters
deliberate misinterpretation of the word settled as meaning, among other things, I
send out for pizza every Friday night is understandably infuriating to the mother. The
word settled, repeatedly and deliberately misunderstood, is the ping-pong ball in this
back-and-forth game the mother and daughter are playing.
Varying the length of the sentences also reinforces the push-pull of this scene. By
keeping the words but slightly altering their order and cadence, you get a scene robbed
of some of its tension and most of its rhythm:
Id just like to see you settled, thats all, my mother says.
What do you mean? I ask, though I know exactly what she means.
Settled, I mean settled.
Im settled, for heavens sake, Mom. Shes still looking at me. I have a job, a house, a dog,
and I send out for pizza every Friday night, so Im settled.
She purses her lips and drums her spotted fingers on the tabletop. Young lady, theres
more to this life than a dogs company.

The alterations are slight but the rhythm is much changed. Treat each line of dialogue
like a line of poetry. If you make every word count and pay attention to line breaks, your
character will stay alive.

136

The Craft & Business of Writing

One more observation about the original version of this scene: Notice the one
line of internal monologue: I know exactly what she means. This line sets up the
ensuing tension and lets the reader in on the daughters part of the push-pull. Combining dialogue with internal monologuemaking the reader privy to the difference
between a characters thoughts and wordsis a fascinating way for the reader to get
to know a character.

The Pitfalls of Writing Dialect


Lets say you have done everything rightlabored over word choice, meticulously laid
out cadences, chosen a syntactical pattern peculiar to and compatible with your characterand still the dialogue looks stiff and unconvincing. Your character is Patsy, an old,
angry, southern lady, but you wouldnt know it by reading what she has to say. To solve
this problem, you decide to literally spell it out for the reader:
Buddys been playin bluegrass all naht long, Patsy said. An mah haids bout to explode.

This technique is not only out of vogue, it can be vexing to a reader who must slow
down in order to figure out what the character is saying. Besides, if the line doesnt
sound southern in the first place, spelling it out wont make much difference. The
translation for the above line is: Buddys been playing bluegrass all night long, Patsy
said. And my heads about to explode. With the possible exception of the word bluegrass, this line could be attributed to anybody from Boston to Seattle. It has no particular regional slant. (This is not necessarily bad, except that you want to identify Patsy
as southern through her speech.)
If you cant get Patsy to sound southern, its probably because youre northernor
western, or Canadian, or Bulgarian. If you insist on using Patsy, you have two choices:
Move to Memphis or find some southerners to make friends with. Otherwise, you will
probably resort to feeding Patsy lines like shut my mouth and pass the grits, which
will not endear her to many readers, particularly your new southern friends.
Creating true speech is a noble goal. To make your character as real as possible,
though, you dont have to write full-blown, phonetically spelled dialect. Some wellchosen phrases and a general rhythm in the language will suffice, allowing readers
from outside the particular region to appreciate the linguistic differences while still
being able to read the words.
Lets say youre from northern New England. Why not move the story to Maine,
where youre more familiar with the local dialect? This way you can give Patsy a believable voice without resorting to dropped letters and suspicious spellings.
Howards been wailing on that guitar all night long, Patsy said. You better believe I got one
wicked headache.

A beautiful example of dialect that uses the language itself, with no spelling variations,
comes from the great Irish playwright, J.M. Synge (pronounced, appropriately, sing).

The Craft of Fiction 137

Here is a line delivered by Pegeen, the barkeeps daughter from The Playboy of the Western
World, after she meets Christy Mahon, a stranger who wanders into her fathers tavern:
Well, youll have peace in this place, Christy Mahon, and none to trouble you, and its near
time a fine lad like you should have your good share of the earth.

Its difficult to read that line in anything other than an Irish brogue.

Knowing When to Stop


Finally, youve got your characters talking to your satisfaction. Now its time to learn
how to shut them up. Real people have a habit of repeating themselves and drifting off
in conversation, but fictional characters can afford no such luxury.
As a general (and arbitrary) rule, dont let your characters say more than three sentences at once unless they have a compelling reason. Youll be surprised how well this
works. Lets look at Spike and Arnold, two high school boys hanging around outside a
school gymnasium.
Arnold leaned against the scarred brick, his jacket slung over one shoulder. It was cold but
his black shirt looked good. You were the one who was dying to come to this stupid dance,
he said to Spike. Just because Sherrie might show up within the next century is no reason to stand out here freezing. Weve been waiting over an hour and she still isnt here. I
wouldnt be surprised if she didnt even show up at all. It wouldnt surprise me one bit, considering her past history.
What makes you think I care if Sherrie shows up? I didnt say anything about Sherrie,
Spike said. He huddled inside his leather jacket, sucking on a cigarette. Were through, anyway. I wouldnt give her the time of day at this point, if you want the truth. Six months was
enough of her, let me tell you. I wouldve given her the shirt off my back in those days, but
now I wouldnt lend her my extra jacket if she was freezing to death in Siberia. Sherries
nothing to me. I dont care if she lives or dies.
I think I see her.
Where? Spikes head whirled around like the light on top of a squad car.

This scene has possibilities, but the characters are too long-winded to move the scene
forward. Theres plenty of story revelation hereSpike and Sherrie dated for six months
and Spike is still smitten; Arnold and Spike have been waiting outside the gym for over
an hour; Sherrie has a history of not showing up when shes supposed tobut how important are these facts to the real story? Doesnt it read a little like a daytime drama? Try
putting a muzzle on this pair and see what you get:
Arnold leaned against the scarred brick, his jacket slung over one shoulder. It was cold
but his black shirt looked good. You were the one who was dying to come to this stupid
dance, he said to Spike. How much longer are we supposed to wait for her? Another
century or what?
Did I say I was waiting for Sherrie?

138

The Craft & Business of Writing

Its pretty obvious.


A lot you know, Spike said. He huddled inside his leather jacket, sucking on a cigarette. I wouldnt give her the time of day at this point, if you want the truth. I dont care
if she lives or dies.
I think I see her.
Where? Spikes head whirled around like the light on top of a squad car.

In this second version, not as much information is conveyed, but the essence of the scene
the difference between Spikes words and actionsis distilled from the cluttered original.
We dont need to know how long Spike and Sherrie dated; the interesting part is
that hes still carrying a torch for her. We dont need to know theyve been waiting
over an hour. Arnolds impatience and the cold air already imply a long wait. This
revised version is cleaner and more effective. Where the original scene hovered, the
revision moves.
Dialogue is not always a solution; in the wrong place, dialogue can burden a story.
Even in the right place, good dialogue can drag a story if it is too long.
All of these suggestions for writing good dialogue are, of course, simply guidelines
that you are welcome to sidestep. Fiction isnt much fun to write if you go strictly by
the rules. In John Irvings novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owens entertaining dialogue
sometimes goes on for paragraphs (in capital letters!). Alice Walkers luminous novel
The Color Purple is full of spelling variations. However, when youre stuck, when you
get to the inevitable point in a story where something stops working, the rules are a
handy refuge for getting your story moving again.

The Craft of Fiction 139

writing the query


that sells
by

Susanne Kirk

very day five or ten query letters arrive in my already overcrowded inbox. They come
from all over the country, from all kinds of people, trying to sell me all kinds of manuscripts. They are letters that may have taken many anxious hours for an author to write;
but Ill know in a minute or so whether or not it describes a project Ill want to see.
Writers reveal a great deal about themselves in query letters, and editorsby definition overworkedhave learned to spot potential winners quickly. What do we look for?
To oversimplify, we want a subject that is right for our publishing house and right for
the market, and an author who can write and who has some idea of the practical and
professional realities of publishing.
Recently I received a serious query letter from a first novelist who knew he had
a bestseller on his hands and requested a $30,000 advance on the spot. He generously
agreed that I could read the first two chapters before paying him the $30,000 but requested that I accept his terms when answering the query. Even if his work were exceptional, the author would be impossible to work with. He clearly doesnt know the first
thing about publishing.
The typical query letter doesnt make such outlandish demands, but it often shows
its authors weaknesses. Words are misspelled, syntax is poor, or the subject does not
fit our publishing list and may be more appropriate, say, for a paperback romance imprint of a publishing house. The letter may be too long; or it may be too short as is the
following: Dear Editor: I have just written a wonderful fiction novel [sic] that will be a
bestseller. Would you like to see it? Such a cryptic note, which doesnt even classify as a
cover letter (to accompany entire manuscripts), is sure to get a negative response.

The Perfect Query


Occasionally I receive the perfect query such as Sonia Gerness letter for her novel The
Way to St. Ives. I had taken her query and sample material home with me one cold January day, together with a number of other manuscripts and queries. We editors read
hundreds of manuscripts and proposals to find one that seems right, so I was both

140

The Craft & Business of Writing

thrilled and anxious when I came upon Sonias querythrilled to find something
that sounded so right, and anxious that I had had the proposal for several weeks and
she might already have approached another publisher. I immediately reached for my
telephone and told Sonia how much I wanted to read her manuscript. Sonia tells me
that the eagerness and interest expressed by that call made her feel that we were the
right house for her novel.
What made Sonias letter so good? Lets analyze it in detail. She began by addressing
me by name. I later learned that Sonia got my name from Literary Market Place, choosing me because my name was far enough down the list that I might be fairly junior and
therefore perhaps more receptive to works from unknown authors than some of my
colleagues. Its an interesting theory, but listings in LMP are often merely alphabetical.
Sonia was lucky because, as it happened, I do a lot of fiction. (Most editors who receive
an intriguing query outside their own specialties are delighted to pass it on to the right
editor in their house. We all hope for a similar favor next time.)

Make the Editor Read It


Once you have addressed an editor by name, how do you attract and keep that editors
attention? Heres what Sonia said in her letter to me:
I am enclosing a synopsis and the first two chapters of a novel I am completing. The Way to
St. Ives is the story of Rosie Deane, of her progress from scrupulous spinster to autonomous
woman in a small Catholic town on the prairies of western Minnesota. Rosie is an innocent, young woman kept within a narrow and sterile existence by the constraints of family,
church, and a childhood illness. Her brothers death as the novel opens and her friendship
with a liberal though alcoholic young priest remove the most obvious of these barriers, and
the attentions of Ray Bowen, an attractive and rather mysterious newcomer to the community, pull her fully into a world that includes sexuality, conflict, and moral choice.

This paragraph tells me what I need to know: The Way to St. Ives is a Catholic novel set
in Minnesota with some interesting-sounding characters and some salable themes. But
how will the novel fit into the overall market? Sonia tells me in her next paragraph:
The novel belongs to what one critic has called the rite-of-passage novel of the midlife
woman, a category which has been highly popular in recent years, and includes such
commercially successful novels as The Womens Room, Fear of Flying, The Summer Before
the Dark, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The Way to St. Ives has in common with all of
these the theme of women searching for integrity and autonomy, but the novel takes its
feminist stance in a very subtle manner, and would appeal to a wider audience than more
stridently feminist fiction. The most obvious similarity in plot is to Mary Gordons Final
Payments, though Rosie moves through a very different milieu and, unlike Isabel, has internalized the most scrupulous aspects of Catholicism, particularly those concerning sex.
Her struggles are different from Isabels and her growth is more dramatic. The setting of
the novel might be compared to Wright Morriss recent Plains Song or to Larry Woiwodes
Beyond the Bedroom Wall.

The Business of Fiction 141

Now I have a marketing peg. The novel will appeal to some of the readers who liked The
Womens Room, Final Payments, and Beyond the Bedroom Wall. Because of Sonias themes,
her novel will inevitably be called a Mary Gordon-type novel, so Sonia is wise to address the similarities and differences head-on.

Sell Yourself
Having introduced the project and its potential in the market, the query writer must be
specific about what she is offeringand why she is qualified to write a book. Heres how
Sonia concluded her letter to me:
The manuscript of The Way to St. Ives is approximately 350 pages long and is at the stage
of final revisions. May I send you the complete manuscript for consideration? I enclose an
envelope for your reply: You need not return the chapters. I am an assistant professor in the
English Department at the University of Notre Dame and have published quite widely as
a poet in The New Republic, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, and many others. This is my
first novel.

End With Oomph


What else do I learn from Sonias concluding paragraphs? She seems professional
and considerateshe encloses a self-addressed stamped envelope, and she does not
ask that I return the chapters. She is also fortunate that her qualifications are impressiveshes a published poet and a professor at a major university. What she doesnt
tell me, and what turned out to be of particular interest to the media, is that Sonia
is a former nun who writes about Catholic themes with a special knowledge gained
from years in the convent. Sonia could have used this background as an extra selling
point, but she probably thought it was inappropriate to be so personally revealing in
an initial query letter.

Be Sure Not toOr to ...


Sonias letter is a fine example of an ideal letter to an editor, but every query letter is necessarily unique. There are, however, some simple dos and donts that apply to all queries.

Dont:


misspell words
use bad syntax or grammar
affect an overly informal or cute style (no Hi, Susanne or Good Morning, Su-

relate your whole plot (include a separate synopsis if you must)


use more than one page, unless absolutely necessary
send a full manuscript with a query; enclose a sample chapter or two if you wish (in

send a hard-to-read, blurry photocopy; send only a freshly printed original (never

sanneutterly repellent when the letter arrives late on a depressing afternoon)

accordance with the submission requirements of each publisher)


send the only copy of your story, however!)

142

The Craft & Business of Writing

Do:

address the editor by name (get it from LMP or Writers Market or Novel & Short






Story Writers Market)


research
your potential publisher to make sure it produces your kind of books

(look in the stores for books similar to yours and make a note of their publishers)
be brief
explain how your project fits into the overall market
tell why you are qualified to write the book
type your letter neatly with no errors; use a letterhead (your university or business)
if possible, especially if the letterhead is in any way related to your project
use
your best writing style (have somebody you respect edit your letter before you
send it)
remember
that the query is your sales tool

After you send out the perfect query letter, your wait begins. It may go on for a week, a
month, or even several months. When the response comes, I hope its a good one.

Query Formatting Tips


A query letter should make a compelling case for a book, show why you are the person to
write it, and outline the market potential for your novel. Once youve got these elements,
its time to prepare your submission. Here are some basic formatting tips for a novel query:

Use standard business-letter format, with an easy-to-read typeface (black ink, 12-point
Times New Roman font).

Use a one-inch margin.

Single-space the body of the letter; double-space between paragraphs.

Use letterhead or type your personal information in the top right corner.

Try to keep the query to one page.

As with an article query, try to grab your readers attention with a strong lead making
the case for your book.

The Business of Fiction 143

agents roundtable
by the

Staff of Writers Market

ach year we visit writers conferences across the country to find out what writers
want and need to know. Invariably they ask about agentshow to find one, how
to work with one, and how to know if an agent is doing a good job. We decided to go
straight to the source and asked three well-respected agents to answer these and other
frequently asked questions about their roles.

Eileen Fallon was an agent with Lowenstein Associates for eight years before establishing her own agency, The Fallon Literary Agency, in the summer of 1990. The agency
handles mainstream fiction, mysteries, and romances, as well as a range of nonfiction.
Jeff Herman founded the Jeff Herman Agency, Inc., in 1985. The agency handles gen-

eral nonfiction, business reference, commercial self-help, and computer books and is
becoming increasingly active in general fiction. Prior to opening his own agency, Herman worked in a New York public relations firm and as a publicity associate for Schocken Books. He is the author of Jeff Hermans Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary
Agents: Who They Are! What They Want! How to Win Them Over!
Evan Marshall is president of the Evan Marshall Agency, which specializes in books of
adult fiction and nonfiction, as well as original screenplays. He was previously an agent
for Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc., and before that held editorial positions with Dodd, Mead,
Everest House, and New American Library. He is also a contributor to Writers Digest.

How can new authors increase their chances of attracting an agents attention?
Eileen Fallon: One attracts an agents attention through professionalism, pure and
simple. Professionalism encompasses everything from putting your name, return address, and a daytime phone number on correspondence to spelling the agents name
correctly (and sending mail to the right address) to just about the most important aspectresearching the market before you write, through haunting local bookstores and
using Writers Market or Novel & Short Story Writers Market and then contacting an agent
who definitely handles the kind of material you are writing. For instance, do not send a
science fiction novel to someone who does not represent books in that genre.

144

The Craft & Business of Writing

Jeff Herman: Remember the agent is probably being flooded with submissions and

that the vast majority of them will be rejected for a variety of reasons. At the same time,
most agents are seeking the next jewel. To be that jewel, the writer should avoid the
most common disqualifiers. Briefly, here are some basic dos and donts:

Establish contact with a query letter describing the project. Dont send anything
that cant fit into a #10 envelope unless requested to do so. Include an SASE to
facilitate a response. Make sure the letter provides a good sales pitch and is personalized and professionally written.

Get good, personalized stationery. Have your name turned into an impressive logo.
This will make you look sharp and businesslike.

Dont call. Most projects, especially fiction, have to be read for proper assessment. Hearing about it on the phone is a poor use of the agents time and wont be appreciated.

Evan Marshall: I look first for evidence that the writer knows the market for which

he or she is writing, the conventions of the genre. Then I look for writing that is technically well crafted and a story that embodies fresh ideas and plot concepts as well as
characters that are interesting and somehow unique. If all these are present, and the
writer exhibits a professional manner in the way she corresponds with me and presents
material, chances are Ill be interested.

How important are referrals? Any suggestions on how to obtain some?


Fallon: If a writer is referred by someone I know, usually another writer or an editor, I
will most likely consider that material sooner than I would that of someone who hasnt
been referred personally to me. But it has no bearing on whether or not I take the material on for representation. I take on projects I can sell and dont take on those I cant.
Herman: Referrals are invaluable as door-openers. Anytime someone calls or writes
and states that theyve been referred by someone I respect, they get serious attention. It
doesnt mean Ill represent them, but I will notice them. It also means that the person
didnt just get my name from one of the many public directories of agents.
To get referrals, the writer should talk to or gain access to anyone who has been published and is using an agent. The writer should join local and national writers groups
to network and gather information about agents and the industry as a whole.
Marshall: A referral is helpful but not vital. Many editors refer writers to me, and I do
take special notice of these writers because the editors feel their material is of good quality and right for me. My clients also will refer writers to me and I look carefully at their
work too, because obviously I respect the literary judgment of the people I represent.

Please explain agent contracts. What should an author look for in a contract and
how long should such a contract be binding?
Fallon: In such a contract, authors should look for a clear spelling out of termswhat

the commissions are on both domestic and foreign sales, what fees or deductions (if

The Business of Fiction 145

any) there are in addition to the commission, a clause telling you how to end the relationship. Contracts call for a variety of lengths of time that they are in effect. I prefer a
book-by-book contract; I dont think you can represent someone who no longer wants
to be represented by you, since this is a very personal relationship.
Herman: In my opinion, the contract should be brief and easy to read. Some of the
basic points that should be addressed include:

What will the agent represent? Will it only be the work in question? All future
works, too? Anything and everything the writer ever writes, including nonbooks?
My personal belief is it should only apply to the works at hand and not be binding
regarding anything else.
What is the agency commission? (10 to 15 percent is normal.) What expenses will
the writer be responsible for? (Photocopying, postage, and long-distance calls are
often charged back to the author.)
How and when will the contract terminate? In my opinion, there should be no
time limit here. Either party should be able to terminate the agreement at any time
upon written notice. However, the agent should be entitled to remain as agent-ofrecord regarding any deals that were made or any that may result from efforts that
were made prior to the termination. In other words, if I submit your work to ten
publishers on Monday and on Tuesday you fire me, but on Wednesday we receive
an offer from one of those ten, I shall be entitled to be the agent-of-record if you
enter into an agreement with that publisher or any of the other nine.

Marshall: A representation agreement should state the types of material the agent

will handle for the writer (books? short stories? screenplays? plays?); the commissions
the agent will receive on sales made domestically as well as overseas for the various
types of material he will represent; whether the agreement covers a specified period (I
have heard of periods of up to five years) or simply continues in effect until either party
terminates by letter; how much time the agent has, after notice of termination, to complete deals he has begun; and whether the agent may deduct from the authors monies
expenses such as photocopying, messengers, and overseas postage.

How can an author judge how an agent is doing (apart from sales)? What can
authors expect from an agent?
Fallon: Authors should expect to be updated about the status of projects; if they are
not happy with how frequently their agent gives them status reports, they should let
the agent know right away (any problem should be aired as soon as possible).
Herman: The way to judge your agent is to request frequent reports about who the
work is being submitted to and what the status of those submissions is. You should
request to receive copies of all publisher correspondence in response to your work. Even
if no sales are resulting, your agent may be making aggressive and appropriate efforts
to sell the work. What you need to know is that she is indeed making ongoing efforts to

146

The Craft & Business of Writing

get a deal and hasnt forgotten about you. Dont be a pest, but you are entitled to call at
least twice a month for status reports and strategy discussions.
Marshall: Apart from sales, an agent should be submitting a clients material both aggressively and judiciously. Beyond this, an author should expect career guidance, which
includes editorial feedback based on the agents knowledge of the markets and advice
as to which projects the author would be wisest to pursue. Finally, the author should
expect reasonable communication regarding the status of active projects and prompt
remittance of monies the agent receives on the authors behalf.

What are some of the things writers ask for that they should not expect from an agent?
Fallon: In my experience two things writers should not expect: 1) publicity advice, and
2) their agent to take on unsalable material (once a relationship has been established).
Frequently, a good, competent nonfiction writer, someone who does practical books,
wants to work on something more literaryunfortunately, just because one writes
good nonfiction, one doesnt necessarily have the artistic skill to pull off fiction.
Herman: Many agents can and do help authors write and revise their manuscripts. But
this is a luxury. The writer should not automatically expect this service. After all, they
are the writers. Writers should not assume the agent has a lot of time for unproductive
chitchat, especially during business hours. Writers should not assume the agent is responsible if the publisher screws up and makes a mistake in marketing or distribution.
In such cases, the agent is also the victim, as may be the editor.
Marshall: A writer should not expect constant (for example, daily) communication with
her agent, who, after all, must serve a number of clients. A writer should not expect an
agent to lend money, make travel arrangements, or publicize a writers book. Perhaps most
importantly, a writer should not expect an agent to market material the agent does not
feel is marketable or to make demands of publishers the agent believes are unreasonable.

What are some of the basic steps you take to market a writers work? What happens
from the time a writer signs on to the time a contract is negotiated?
Fallon: I keep abreast of the fields I handle and keep my ears open for opportunities. I
keep constantly in touch with editors. I look for two things first when examining manuscripts: 1) I must feel excited about the writing, and 2) I must feel I am knowledgeable
about the market for the material. Next, based on my knowledge of the market, I work
with the writer to shape the material. I must have the very best material to submit. Editors really are overworked, so I must prepare a good package. Just as with a job interview,
put your best foot forward and submit a well-prepared packageboth in content and
mechanical presentation. That is why I spend a lot of my time helping authors reshape
the material before presenting it to an editor.
Herman: In general, the steps are: 1) Make the proposal or manuscript as perfect as possible. Develop a sales concept and strategy. 2) Discuss the project with several appropriate

The Business of Fiction 147

editors, and submit it to those who showed significant interest. 3) Make follow-up calls to
further massage their interest. 4) If and when an offer is received, call all the others who
are still considering it and see if they would like to make an offer. If yes, set a deadline and
create a bidding situation, whereby the project will be sold to the highest bidder.
Marshall: Once a writer and I have agreed to work together, I go right into the market
with his material. Often this means calling or meeting with editors who I believe would
like this material. Submission methods vary widely, from the single submission to the
auction-with-rounds, and I try to market a book in the most effective way possible for
that book. During the marketing process, I try to keep my client informed about where
the project has been and how the editors have responded. When an editor (or editors)
makes an offer, it is of course my job to negotiate as effectively as possible on behalf
of the client, explaining terms and policies as necessary and always offering my advice.
Once a book is sold, it is up to me not only to monitor its progress up to and through
publication, but also to pursue subsidiary rights such as television and film rights, serial rights, and rights overseas. Later, when royalty statements arrive, I must scrutinize
them for accuracy and be ready to explain them to the author.

When should an author and agent part company?


Fallon: When one or the other feels that they are no longer the best partnership in
terms of furthering the writers career.
Herman: The author should leave if he believes the agent is no longer providing reasonable or honest service.
Marshall: When an agent has lost enthusiasm for a writers work, when a writer has
lost faith in an agents ability to handle her work, or when any sort of tension has crept
into the relationshipthese are times when it is probably best for the agent and the
author to part.

Explain your role as business manager. How does an agent keep track of royalties, etc.?
Fallon: This sort of business duty is handled the same way as in any other business,
through a workable system set up by the firm.
Herman: Essentially, the agent is the conduit for the authors due income from the
publisher. This money should be turned around within ten business days. In most cases,
theres nothing extraordinary about this role. Sometimes an agent can spot errors and
be effective in having them promptly corrected.
Marshall: As a writers business manager, I handle all the details of the publishing
process so that the writer can attend to what she does bestwrite. It is my job to see
that a clients book is published well and to intercede when it is not. Perhaps, most importantly, having an agent allows the writer to keep her relationship with the publisher
pure, preventing the awkwardness that can arise when a writer represents herself.

148

The Craft & Business of Writing

the big challenges


of publishing
in little magazines
by

Will Allison

re you tired of making money from your writing? Do you enjoy waiting months for
an editors reply? Do you thrive on exceedingly long odds? Do you prefer to publish in magazines that most people havent heard of?
Im only half-joking when I say you should be able to answer yes to each of these
questions if you want to see your short stories in literary magazines. Consider the cold,
hard facts: The majority of literary magazines pay in contributors copies or subscriptions rather than cash, and those that do pay cash sometimes offer as little as five dollars
per story. Its not unusual to wait six months for a reply on a submission. At many magazines, more than 99 percent of all manuscripts are rejected. And if you do manage to get
published in a top quarterlysay Epoch or The Southern Reviewdont expect your family
or coworkers to be impressed. Expect them to say, Thats nice. Could you pass the salt?
Of course, none of this discourages thousands of short story writers from submitting their work to literary magazines each year. These so-called little magazines perform an important, if unsung, role in the world of letters. In addition to providing a
home for cutting-edge fiction that mainstream magazines wont publish, literary magazines are a proving ground for new writers. Your mother or boss may not read them but
agents and book editors do, and many of todays serious writersthe authors whove
won Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awardsgot their start in modest quarterlies.
But the real, practical reason that writers submit short stories to literary magazines
is because they have few options. These days, only a handful of major magazines still
publish literary fiction regularly. The sad truth is that there is little demand for short
storiesespecially literary short storiesoutside the realm of little magazines.

Theyre Magazines, Not Markets


When it comes to literary magazines, forget everything youve learned about the business of fiction writing. Instead, think labor of lovea term that applies both to the
writers, who are lucky to make a dime from their stories, and to the editors, who are
lucky to make a dime from their magazines. If you flip through any listing of literary

149

The Craft & Business of Writing

magazines, youll notice that many are affiliated with (and primarily funded by) universities. Many more are funded by grants, private contributions, or the editors themselves.
Few if any literary magazines turn a profit, and, frankly, few are trying to (if they were,
they wouldnt be publishing short stories and poetry).
Writers should therefore approach literary magazines with an appreciation for the
ways in which they differ from more commercially oriented publications. For starters,
writers ought to refrain from referring to literary magazines as markets, especially in
their cover letters. (Dear editor: Based on my research, your publication is an appropriate market for my fiction.) I do not know a single editor who thinks of his literary
magazine as a market.

The Editor Is Your Ally ...


After you receive your first or tenth or one-hundredth rejection slip from an editor, you
may begin to hate that person a little. You may begin to think that he doesnt like you,
that he enjoys turning down your work, that he doesnt even bother to read your stories.
You wonder why it takes him months just to say no.
Despite the frustrations of the submission process, a levelheaded writer will always
bear in mind that editors are allies, not opponents. No editor has ever gotten rich or famous by editing a literary magazine. They choose their jobs for the same reason that you
write storiesbecause they care deeply about fiction. In fact, many editors are writers
themselves and know full well how it feels to accumulate a shoebox full of rejection slips.
Rest assured, when an editor reads your story, he wants to fall in love with it. He wants
to publish it. He wants readers to clamor for more of your work. He wants the story to win
a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Award and be chosen for The Best American Short Stories
and New Stories From the South. And if youre unpublished, he really wants to love your
story, because few things are more satisfying than discovering talented new writers.

But the Odds Are Against You


Chances are, however, that your story will be rejected. Editors simply dont have the space,
resources, or desire to publish the vast majority of stories they read. For instance, Zoetrope:
All-Story receives about six thousand manuscripts each year and publishes only twentyeight to thirty of thosean acceptance rate of about .5 percent, or 1 in 200. (Compare that
to undergraduate admissions at Yale, where the acceptance rate is about 15 percent.)
Depending upon the size of the magazine and the way its staff is organized, your
story will likely be screened by one or more editors or readers before reachingor failing
to reachthe editor who actually chooses which stories to publish. Up and down the
line, these readers are rooting for your story, but by necessity, theyre also reading to
reject, looking for any reason to discard your manuscript and move on to the next.
Most submissions land in a magazines slush pile, its stack of unsolicited manuscripts. Such stories are said to have come over the transom. The majority of submissions are read and rejected at this level. Generally, the way a new (unpublished) writer
gets past the slush pile is by writing a great story that catches the eye of an editor who
then passes it up the ladder or sets it aside for a closer read. Some lucky stories bypass

150

The Craft & Business of Writing

the slush pile altogether and go directly to higher-ups. These might include solicited
stories, stories sent by agents, stories by well-known or well-published writers, and stories by writers with whom the editor has previously corresponded.

How Your Story Is (or Isnt) Read


How can editors read so many submissions and still have time to publish their magazines, much less eat and sleep? The answer is, most editors dont read most submissions
all the way through. This is true for every editor I know (though, to be fair, I once heard
of an editor at a small journal who claimed to read every word of every manuscript she
received.) Depending upon the story, an editor may read as little as a single line or paragraph, butbased on my experience and on conversations with other editorsI would
guess two or three pages, minimum, is the norm.
Cruel as it may seem, such a strategy makes perfect sense. Given the volume of stories they receive, most editors dont begin to have time to read every manuscript from
start to finish. An editor need read a story only up to the point at which he loses interest,
the point at which he knows he doesnt want to publish it. There is no reason for him
to read any further.
But what if the editor stops reading just before the story gets good? What if the
story has a great ending, one that the editor would have loved? It doesnt matter. Literary magazines publish stories, not pieces of stories. An editor must love the whole thing,
from the first word to the last. And, alas, you have no control over an editors judgment.
All you can do is send your work to magazines whose editors judgment and taste you
trust based on the stories they publish.

Not All Submissions Are Created Equal


Editors of most literary magazines will tell you sincerely that theyre looking for the best
stories they can find, period, and therefore give equal consideration to all submissions.
Some magazines even employ a blind reading policy in which the editors arent allowed to
see authors names or cover letters. In practice, however, its fair to say that outside influences often affect the attention a story receives from an editor. Lets say your cover letter
indicates that youve previously published fiction in The Paris Review, won The Missouri
Review Editors Prize, or attended the Iowa Writers Workshop. Maybe youre submitting your story on the recommendation of a well-known author or friend of the editor.
Maybe youve received favorable feedback from the editor on previous submissions.
None of these factors is going to cause the editor to publish your story. He may,
however, be more patient with it. He may give your story an extra two or three pages
to catch his interest before setting it aside. No doubt about it, previously unpublished
writers are at a disadvantage, especially if their work ends up in the hands of an editor
who hasnt learned to trust his own taste, who needs outside validationsuch as that
provided by publishing creditsto make his decisions. Nevertheless, its safe to say that
most editors strive not to be biased, because they know that an open mind increases
their chances of recognizing quality work. You dont discover the next Tim Gautreaux

The Business of Fiction 151

or Annie Proulx simply by following the pack. Most editors will happily give your story
a fair shake, regardless of your credentials. All you have to do is avoid giving them a
reason not to.

Multiple vs. Simultaneous Submissions


The terms multiple submission and simultaneous submission are often used interchangeably, but theyre two different things. If you send a single story to more than
one magazine at a time, youre making a simultaneous submission. If you send more
than one story at a time to a single magazine, youre making a multiple submission.
In their writers guidelines, most magazines clearly state their policy on simultaneous
submissions but often dont indicate their position on multiple submissions. Even if
a magazine doesnt explicitly prohibit multiple submissions, I recommend that you
avoid sending more than one story at a time to a magazine (unless, of course, the editor
asks to see several of your stories at once).
The temptation is understandable. Lets say youve got three stories that you want to
send to a particular magazine. Why not send them all at once and save a little money and
a lot of time? Three reasons. One, its selfish. To send three stories at once is like saying
to the editor that you deserve three times as much attention and time as those writers
whove sent only one story. Two, you run the risk of shooting yourself in the foot. If the
editor dislikes your first story, he mayregardless of his good intentionsbe less patient
and less open-minded with the next two. Three, a multiple submission suggests to an editor that you arent able to gauge the quality of your own work. An editor wants to believe
that youre sending him your best story. To send three or five or ten stories is like telling
the editor that you havent learned to separate your wheat from your chaff.
Also, its wise to wait until youve heard back from an editor before sending him
another story. Some writers will mail a new story off to the same magazine every week
without waiting for a reply on the last one. Such behavior suggests an emphasis on
quantity over quality, and it discourages the editor from initiating correspondence:
Why should he bother with a handwritten suggestion if the writer isnt going to read it
before sending his next story?

The Value of Kind Words


Writing is a solitary pursuit, but so is editing, especially if you have only a few hundred
readerswhich is usually the case among literary magazines. (A readership of more
than one or two thousand is big news.) Like everybody else, editors appreciate feedback.
Ive heard more than one editor wonder aloud if anybody even reads his magazine. In your
cover letter, consider taking time to let the editor know which stories, authors, and issues
youve most enjoyed. If youre a subscriber, why not mention that, too? And if you cant
find anything nice to say about the magazine, you shouldnt be sending your manuscript
there in the first place.
Complimenting the magazine isnt going to make the editor like your story, but it
might make him like you, or at least help him to remember your name next time around.

152

The Craft & Business of Writing

Most importantly, it will show him that youve actually read the magazine, which will
distinguish you from the vast majority of writers in the slush pile.

On Handling Rejection
No matter how many years you spend honing your writing, no matter how many stories
you send to a magazine, its possiblein some cases, even likelythat the editor will
never accept one of your stories. Never! If youre unable to deal with this, you probably
shouldnt be sending out your work.
As you begin to build a collection of rejection slips, remember that when your story
is turned down, it doesnt mean the editor doesnt want to publish you or your work; it
means only that he doesnt want to publish that particular story. Dont take rejection
personally. Also, a rejection slip doesnt necessarily mean that your story is unpublishable. Every day, editors reject stories that are snapped up by other editors further along
the line. (Often they pass up such stories knowingly. An editor is not obligated to publish every story he finds acceptable, only those he falls in love with.) Publishing a short
story, then, is a matter of finding the right editor at the right magazine at the right time.
In other words, luck is involved.
When you boil it down, all stories are rejected for essentially the same reason: The
editor has read (or expects to read) other stories that he likes better than yours. Beyond
the words youve put on the page, you have no influence over the editors decision, so
dont waste time stewing. Keep writing and try your luck at the next magazine.

Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?


Rejection slips are never much fun, but some are better than others. In the process of
sending out your stories, you may receive good rejection slips, ones on which the editor has taken the time to write a brief note telling you that he enjoyed the story, inviting
you to try again, or offering some suggestion for improvement. Such notes are rare and
good things. They mean youre getting closer. Youve at least got an editors attention, if
not a yes. If you receive a good rejection, dash off a quick thank-you note to the editor. This is not brownnosing, just common courtesy, and the editor will be more likely
to remember your name next time around.

Know When to Move On


Though editors are by and large fair-minded, hard-working people, inevitably there are
some bad eggseditors who are lazy about getting back to writers, who lose manuscripts, who write rude rejection letters, who dont give every story a fair shake, who
publish lousy stories. These editors are not worth your tears and curses. When you
come across one, the best thing to do is simply move on. Thats one of the beauties of
literary magazines. Though editors have different tastes, philosophies, and missions,
most are looking for essentially the same thingthe best short stories they can find. As
a writerand a readeryou have plenty of choices.

The Business of Fiction 153

the serious business


of choosing
literary fiction
by

Ben Nyberg

o take, or not to take: Thats the bottom-line question we editors are always asking.
When I first became a practicing editor back in 1966picking stories, poems, and
essays for Kansas MagazineI had no complicated set of criteria to help me answer that
question, and fortunately, I didnt need many. If something was publishable, we wanted
to publish it. Not that we didnt reject plenty of stories. We had our standards. But they
were like a home plate umpiresa story was a strike or a ball; if a strike, we took it.
A year later, Harold Schneider and I found ourselves editing Kansas Magazines successor, Kansas Quarterly, with four times the space to fill. I dont think weve ever widened
the strike zone to make up our quota of pages. From the start, I believe Kansas Quarterlys
standards have been consistently high (or at any rate consistent). But I know that at first
it was still possible to make editorial decisions largely on the toggle basis of printworthiness: publishable, green light; not publishable, red light. Sometimes I yearn for those
good old days, when I could feel that every deserving submission we screened saw print.
But only sometimes. Most of the time Im happier being an editor besieged by deserving writers, deluged by worthy material. I like knowing theres so much good stuff
out there, so many wordsmiths crafting diligently away, quite a few of them eager to
be published in our magazine. Im also glad Ive had to become a better editor. When
you can print only a few of many deserving submissions, you have to refine your critical
sensitivity and establish your aesthetic priorities beyond the simple toggle level. You
have to knowwell enough to explain and justify it to fellow editorswhy you value
one publishable work over another.

Special Affects
You ask: What are the standards literary magazine fiction editors try to apply to the
steady, welcome stream of unsolicited manuscripts? As a fairly representative literary
editor, I can explain. But before getting down to criteria, a disclaimer: No matter how
hard I, or any other editor, may try to make purely objective judgments, there are always
X-factors muddying our objectivity. This doesnt make our decisions less fair, only more

154

The Craft & Business of Writing

human. When the late John Gardner judged KQs fiction awards for 1977, he admitted
candidly: My fifth standard is pure blind prejudice. Meaning that he, like the rest of
us, had his quirks. I know we editors sometimes seem to behave like soulless robots,
handing down death sentences with icy indifference. But were really pretty normal humans with a full set of personal passions and phobias, and a fair measure of fallibility.
These X-factors are the main reason magazines need editorial boards. Without Xfactors, we could simply codify selection guidelines and hire a technician to screen submissions. A few magazines do operate with a single editor as judge-jury-executioner.
This eliminates all the weary wrangling sessions and speeds the waiting authors trial.
But editors are too scrupulous a lot, generally, to like one-man shows. Consensus judgment rather than individual taste holds sway. That means more hurdles for your manuscripts to leap, but less chance youll be rejected (or accepted) because of X-factors.
One other thing to keep in mind: a publications special interests. Of course, some
of them are obvious enough. Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine, not surprisingly, accepts
only mystery, crime, and detective fiction. The Twilight Zone is interested in experimental,
fantasy, horror, psychic/supernatural. A waste of time and postage to send mainstream
fiction to either of them. But most general-interest magazines have a slant, too, and youll
have to dig beneath their names to find it. Reading a magazine before you submit to it is
the only way to know for sure what its editors want. But descriptions of objectives and
needs, like those in Novel & Short Story Writers Market, can help narrow your list. Youd
think Road King magazine, for instance, might be every bit as macho as Hustler, but its editors warn: Remember that our magazine gets into the home and that some truckers tend
to be Bible Belt types. No erotica or violence. Seniority Magazine, whose audience is the
fifty-five and over group, offers this caution: No stories about coping with retirement,
entering nursing homes, dealing with tired marriages, etc. So be sure you really know the
special needs of any magazine before you ship your work off to it.
Some magazines also strive for some kind of thematic unity in each of their issues,
so that unless your story has the particular focus theyre featuring, it will be returned
unconsidered. But keep your eyes open and you can also take advantage of such special
topics. Ive heard of magazines doing issues that featured epistolary fiction, Edgar Allan Poe spoofs and parodies, stories about children, rural fiction. The best thing about
submitting to such specials is that theres just not as much competition. It wont
mean a better chance of getting shoddy work published, but good work wont have so
far to rise to the top. Invitations to submit to features are normally found in the magazines themselves. But most editors seek variety rather than unity of effect, so that once
theyve taken several stories with a similar theme (like marital infidelity), tone (brightly
comic, steely grim), or even setting (shopping mall, darkest Africa) theyre unlikely to
want another until theyve seen the accepted one into print.

Baited Breadth
Still, after all the X-factors and special interests, its the literary excellence of your work
more than anything else that brings acceptances. Regardless of our individual whims

The Business of Fiction 155

and cranks, we editors are all looking for the same thingfiction masterpieces. No wonder the most common piece of advice to writers about how to break in is: Send us
your best. Now we know, given the choice, youd rather have your story appear in, say,
The New Yorker than in Boondocks Review; you get more visibility and the pays better. But
dont suppose the editors of Boondocks will be any easier to satisfy than The New Yorkers.
Rumor has it that name writers send out their junk to Boondocks, whose editors snap it
up because theyll do anything for a little status. But of course name writers dont want
trash published under their name, in Boondocks or elsewhere, and Boondocks doesnt
want condescension from anyone. So send only your best to any magazine and hope the
editors are discriminating enough to appreciate it.
And keep sending it. Even if your work deserves print, given the odds against you on
any one submission, it probably wont make the grade if you dont persist. Youve heard
of shrinking violet geniuses who never showed their stuff to anyone and left a trunkful
of masterpieces in the attic of posthumous publication. Such pathological modesty is
no virtue for you to imitate. Better model yourself on the old fisherman who baited up
a dozen poles along the bank, and when he was accused of taking unfair advantage of
the fish, replied, Hell, Im just giving myself a fighting chance! Use your own poles
and bait, but keep as many hooks baited as you can to keep yourself in circulation.
Your best stuff, and only your best stuff. But that really presents the tough questionwhat is your best stuff? And how do you know when its good enough? Maybe
thats not even something a writer should ponder much. You can start brooding about
actualizing your creative potential and wind up spooking yourself right out of the
game. But you do need to have a firm grip on just who you are and what you know that
merits a readers attention. If you dont know your own mission, vision, habits, scruples,
and quirks, youre not on familiar enough terms with yourself to self-criticize. Only if
youre a conscious artist, working from technique rather than inspiration, can you
use any advice about how to improve.

Playing God
Now to those criteria. Mine work like a system of screens, from coarsest to finest, or, in
another sense, most basic to most refined. To be acceptable, stories need to pass the first
two screenings. To be actually accepted, probably three or four. The first, most fundamental screening must be for the most essential virtue:

Honesty
What, honesty in a craft dedicated to artifice? Yes, because only sincere lies will do.
Your imaginary details must come from an alternative environment so real that youre
not alibiing when you talk about it. Building air-castles is fine, but unless you create
the ground they stand on and the beings that live in them as well, youre not going
to convince anybody that they exist. Your first duty as a fiction writer is to know that
other place like a native, not just an occasional visitor. Anthony Trollope was so well
acquainted with Barsetshire that he knew what its people were doing even when they

156

The Craft & Business of Writing

werent in the story. William Faulkner lived in Yoknapatawpha County as surely as he


did in Jackson, Mississippi. Youve got to do the same. Being familiar with the setting
is the only way to cover the doings and sayings, goings and comings of your imagined
worlds residents accurately and thoroughly enough to take us there with you. Thats
the essence of honestygiving the reader a direct view of the lives of people who exist
only in your unique mindland.
How does an editor know when a story is dishonest? The same way youd spot any
con jobit smells fishy. As an example, let me recap my first attempt at fiction writing. Twenty-five years ago I knew little of fictional honesty. What I did know was that I
could give Good Housekeepings readers a better story than they were used to getting. Id
have to sacrifice some seriousness and subtlety, but with just a little scaling down of my
lofty standards, Id treat them to a real gem of a yarn. So I went and wrote a slanderously false account of a gawky high school intellectuals helpless infatuation with a
glamorous cheerleader. The story bore no resemblance to life as it is lived. Worse, it was
insufferably patronizing, strutting and swaggering, casting snide glances at a presumed
throng of enchanted admirers. The sad moral of this bad fable: Dont write out of pride
or greed, and dont write about what you cant believe in. In short, be honest.

Efficiency
By this, I mean the principle that in fiction, nothings there for nothing. Fiction may
look like straight life, but the resemblance is superficial. Scratch a story and you get,
not blood, but contrivance: structure, logic, symbolism, all sorts of synthetic goodies.
Events happen only because some author-god makes them happen. In the real world, we
seem to enjoy a measure of free will, but the world of fiction is driven entirely by the will
of author-gods. Authors can literally make anything happen. They can say, Let there
be light, and there will be light. Because they are all-powerful, author-gods have an
absolute responsibility to play fair with both their puppet characters and their shows
spectators. And the basic rule of fair play is: Give readers as much as, but no more than,
they need to know to get the point of the story. So the presentation of evidence in fiction is highly selectivewhat helps the reader get it belongs; what doesnt, doesnt.
Ive returned hundreds of potentially strong stories that failed mainly because of inefficiency. Every year I read dozens of narratives that seem to be nothing but records of
actual experience. The raw data cant be doubted, but I always have to wonder why a reader should be curious about the random episodes of somebodys personal life he doesnt
know from Adam or Eve. Such a confessional ego trip is a waste of editorial time. We try
to pretend its really fiction and so to make sense of the authorial personas spiritual journey, only to find in the end the jokes on the reader, theres no real point after all.
Efficient stories never quit pushing ahead, never relax their search for answers to
the questions they raise. The result is a rich, dense illusion of life that manages to pack
large meaning into a few pages.
Few, but not necessarily very few. Efficiency isnt simply brevity. Some of the classical masterpieces of efficiency like James Joyces The Dead and Anton Chekhovs
The Lady With the Dog would take thirty or more pages. Efficiency isnt pure velocity

The Business of Fiction 157

either. For sheer speed Ian Flemings spy novels are hard to top, but for real pacethat
feeling of powerful purpose unfolding, surging inevitably on like a great river to spill
finally into a vast resolving seagive me Joseph Conrads The Secret Agent any day. Pace
is set by the rate a storys central idea develops, not by the noise level of the plot. So if
youre tempted to introduce some sex or violence just to liven things up, ask yourself
instead why your storys so dull. If its not going anywhere anyway, no amount of gratuitous hype will save it.

Complexity
Eudora Welty says a good story is a continuing mystery. That means, no matter how
often you read it, a story worth reading will always be larger than your comprehension
of it. You cant wear it out because its central question is the question life itself asks.
Life gets more profound the more we know of it, and so does the expanding universe
of serious fiction. What gives a story this quality of complexity is its authors determination to accept no easy fixes, to settle for no less than the depth and range of actual
experience. Specifically, this means 3-D characters involved in 3-D predicaments.
Its so tempting to sell out. Human nature yearns for simplicity, because lifes so
complicated. We want fairy tale solutionsand they lived happily ever after. Its tough
enough to live problems, we feel. Why should we have to face them in our stories, too?
Because stories, the best stories, are the finest life-problem decoders and life-crisis stabilizers available. Of course therell always be escapist fiction, too, for those times when we
really need to run rather than cope. Nobodys up to fighting trim every day. But nobody
with any gumption wants to spend more time running than coping. Hence, the mission
of serious fiction: to see life steadily and see it whole (thank you, Matthew Arnold).
When I was trying to work myself up to read J.R.R. Tolkiens The Lord of the Rings, I
asked those whod read and liked it what there was to get interested in. Fan after fan told
me, without hesitation, Id be fascinated by Gollum. When I got into it, I saw why: Gollum is Tolkeins little go at Dostoevsky. No Raskolnikov, but still a truly tormented soul
that makes us ponder Faulkners everlasting problem of the human heart in conflict with
itself. Stories that fail the Complexity test do so because they try to deny human nature,
to tell us life is a bowl of pitless cherries. Good fiction gives us the cherries, pits and all.
The essence of complexity is quality workmanship throughout, uniformly top-ofthe-line components, and no skimping on characters or theme or plot or setting. Henry
James recommended that you try to be one on whom nothing is wasted. If you practice
that kind of sensitivity, and add honesty, youve got complexity.

Authority
Hard to define, but easy to feel. The honest story that lacks authority may well be the
single biggest category of rejected fiction. Because poor authority is so tough to describe, writers often think editors capricious, arbitrary, or evasive when they report,
Your story didnt quite come off, or Interesting, but not quite compelling. Such remarks usually mean, Close but no cigara compliment. If youre new to the craft, be
encouraged. A little more experience should bring the authority you need.

158

The Craft & Business of Writing

But what is this mysterious authority and where does it come from? Id call it a
wise and easy authorial confidence that both guides a readers attitude and spurs his
thinking. How to get it? Exercise. Practice. I mentioned earlier that you had to be able
to live in the elsewhere of your story. The air of that elsewhere is words, and youve got
to breathe words. When youve made and remade enough sentences that the scribal
act is the most natural and familiar routine of your life, you ought to feel comfortable
enough with words to write with authority. Not that the verbal flow ever turns smooth
or steady, but its trickle/gush can become as mundane as heartbeats.
The common name for authority is, of course, style. But style is really authority in
action, authority showing itself verbally. Or concealing itself: The best style is usually
invisible. When writing calls attention to itself, ordinarily its a case of words upstaging
ideas, which puts cart before horse. Poor style of any kindfrom purple to sloppyis
a distraction, and so an enemy of concentration, and so an enemy of good writing, fiction or otherwise. Of course there are exceptions to this rule. H.E. Franciss stories, several of which KQ has had the good fortune to publish, are always very gaudy stylistically.
But only because they reflect the tortured minds of their main characters. Rodney Nelson used poetic diction in John Root Is Gone to capture the aura of his Roethke-like
central figure. Stephen Dixons Cy cant very well keep his strangeness from showing
itself in his narrative voice. But the rule stands: Good style is normally a colorless, odorless, textureless medium of conveyance. Whats conveyed may have color, odor, texture,
but style shouldnt be a distorting lens the reader has to correct for. When a readers
under the influence of style/authority, its like following the Pied Piper.

Originality
Nothing is rarer than genuine originality, nothing artistically finer. Of course its easy
to be different. Anyone can perform a weird masquerade and get folks to point at him.
Whats hard is to be different and still get folks to hear and believe. That takes genius.
Meaning its out of reach for most of us? On a daily basis, probably yes. Beethoven,
Shakespeare, Michelangeloa handful of creative giants seem to have enjoyed steady
runs of original vision. But for most of us garden-variety specimens its a case of nowand-then, off-and-on flashes of inspiration.
The most important thing to remember about originality is that it absolutely cant
be forced. Try to force it and youll get nothing but oddity. The most you can actively do
is to cultivate your eccentricity. Dont let your natural uniqueness die of neglect. If you
spend your life imitating others, socially or artistically, you cant expect to turn out very
original. Its not even necessary to be a recluse in some isolated garret. Just dont lose
your identity in the crowds. Hold fast to your observer status, to that perspective that
sets you apart. You neednt look down on people or think youre a privileged character.
But you cant hop on the bandwagon and also march to a different drumbeat.
Some young fiction writers worry about a lack of freshness in their plots or unusualness in their characters or novelty in their style or format. Remind yourself that Shakespeares plots were all derivative and his dramatic technique was conventional, and quit
worrying. If you have the potential of originality, be yourself and it will show through.

The Business of Fiction 159

Cool the Coffee


From originality you can only go back to honesty and start over. Originality is simply the highest avatar of honesty, the ultimate expression of authority. True complexity is possible only within a context of full efficiency, which must be practiced upon
a groundwork of honesty. And so it goes, up and downand aroundthe scale. Five
benchmarks of quality, five gradations. You must be honest to pass. Honest and efficient gets you a C. Add complexity for a B. And authority for an A. Originality is that
exceptional A+ thats really off the scale.
In closing, let me give you an affective criterion that sums up all the descriptive
ones. One final bit of personal history. I recall the Sunday afternoon I finished reading
the submitted manuscript of Steven Allabacks Its Never Bad in the Mountains and
turned to find a full cup of cold coffee beside me. The neglected cup of coffee: not too
bad a figure for the subjugating mesmerism of strong fiction. The intensity of this experience that a powerful story inflicts on us comes, I am convinced, from our being forced
to face its issues so directly we adopt them as our own. We are, in a word, implicated in
the depicted action. In the Allaback story, I was caught up superficially on the level of
adventure, wondering if anyone was going to fall to his death, and if so, who. But I was
more surely held by the battle of wills, the moves and countermoves of its three conflicting quests. I was made to care so deeply about the lives of these imaginary beings that I
forgot they were only performers on a stage and took their case to heart.
Thats always the way with working fiction. No wandering idly through a zoo, noting with detached amusement the alien oddities of some other species. Rather, listening for dear life to crucial news about humanitys struggle for high ground. We dont
so much escape into great fiction as come home to it. We dont lose ourselves in some
exotic adventure, we find ourselves challenged by our own uncertainties, disturbed by
our own cussedness, supported by our own determination. And when were all done,
our coffees gone cold. Make an editor forget his coffee and youre a long way toward
making him take your story.

160

The Craft & Business of Writing

superior bambini
and other samples
from the slush
by

David Groff

ts late Friday afternoon. I have written jacket copy for three novels, calmed two anxious authors, discussed a pending contract with an agent in need of Valium, dickered
with the production department for a rush job on a blurry author photograph, and
consumed four cups of coffee. Now I turn to the stack of manuscripts beside my desk
and plan my weekend.
Before me are four piles of novels, each pile eighteen inches high. That makes six
feet of fiction. Novels from Nashville, novels from Nome, novels from 95th Street. I
should be able to read two feet this weekend, and, if Im lucky, still be able to finish
Milan Kunderas The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which work forced me to put aside two
weeks ago. For me, its a rare pleasure to read a book with a spine.
From Louisville, Kentucky, a novel about two competing intelligence bureaus, the
international bond market, and the call of mankind to God. Heavens. That one I can
put off for a swift browse on Monday morning.
From Rochester, New York, the story of a young woman psychotherapist and her
eccentric patients, including a lawyer who wears a boa constrictor wrapped around his
shoulders. Its badly typed, but not in a while have I read about a snake in court. Will see.
An MD in Florida has sent a medical thriller about a gastroenterologist who uncovers a hospital scandal while hes resectioning bowels. Ick. But the writer has been published in small magazines and colon quarterlies, so its worth a look. The novel might
well be too genre for my publishing house, but maybe it could be a paperback original,
assuming the writing is decent.
From another doctorwhen do all these MDs find time to play golf?comes the
story of his Texas boyhood, a fictional novel. Uh-oh. Thats another one for early
Monday morning.
A former screen actress Ive never heard of submits a romance concerning a young
nurse who goes to Hollywood and ends up ministering to an alcoholic film star, with
whom she falls in love just as she lands a role in a famous directors new musical movie.
The drunk actor grows suitably jealous. The story sounds suspiciously like A Star Is
Born. Still, everybody loves to read about Hollywood, including me.

The Business of Fiction 161

A top literary agent has sent me a novel about the first Irish princess to visit the
Ottoman Empire. I flip to page 23: Mohammed let his robe fall to the tiled floor as
Elaine lay breathless beneath him like an octopus out of water, panting. Come to me,
she cried, even as she knew her lover could barely understand her English. He fell willingly against her, centuries of desire visible in his shortening breaths. Ah, Mohammed
cried as he licked her seashell-like ear, his voice as piercing as a rapier. You shall today
become one of my wives. Together we shall sire a race of superior bambini!
The agent says she wants big money for this one. Like a good boy I put Mohammed,
the nurse, the Rochester therapist, and the crusading gastroenterologist into my backpack. After taking an hour to work off my frustrations on the Nautilus machines at my
gym, I go home and read until Sunday evening.

On Watch for the Rolex


I shouldnt leave the impression that most editors hate their jobs and would prefer to
live on Fiji surrounded by charming islanders who dont know a book from a brick.
While the Fiji part sounds nice, editors on the whole adore their jobs, work long hours
for relatively low pay, and enjoy a pleasure rare among working people: They get to see
the product of their labors. They assist in a kind of birth, watching a novel evolve from
a jumbled stack of pages to an ordered stack of pages, then to a copyedited manuscript,
proofs, and finally a booka book they can hold in their hands, a book that a few and
sometimes many people will enjoy and benefit from.
Nor is reading manuscripts, either solicited or unsolicited, an onerous task. Certainly its often frustrating, not because so many are bad but because so many are mediocredecent ideas for novels that lack wit, spark, singularity, authority. Nevertheless,
reading manuscripts in search of the one thats dazzlingly publishable isnt like looking
for a needle in a haystack. Its more like burrowing through a haystack in search of
something slightly larger and much more valuablea Rolex watch, say, that needs only
a once-over or twice-over before it ticks like a charm. I like that analogy because a novel,
like a watch, is useful.

Useful? How Can Fiction Be Useful?


There once was a cartoon by William Hamilton in The New Yorker; two well-to-do young
women are in a bookstore doing some serious browsing, when one says to the other,
Fictions nice, but it doesnt get you anywhere.
That cartoon hit home for me. As a young editor involved in publishing both fiction
and nonfiction while trying to stay in tune with the readership out there, Im constantly
amazed at the difficulty inherent in getting even the most commercial fiction across to
a larger audience. Few novels sell as well as The Secret, Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, or
Who Moved My Cheese? Often, a publishers leading fiction titlesespecially from new
authorswill sell no better than so-called midlist nonfiction dealing with women alcoholics, say, or jet lag, or how to get a corner office, thin thighs, or loving mate in thirty

162

The Craft & Business of Writing

days. Fiction is always a hard sell. People want to spend $24.95 on a book that tells
them something they can use.
Booksellers are saying that fiction sales have begun to improve, not just for blockbusters like Stephen King and Jean M. Auel, but also for modest commercial and literary fiction. Still, editors remain very cautious in choosing fiction to take on. A novel has
to be truly extraordinary to garner much attention. Thats probably a good thing. What
is also a good thing is that editors of fiction have taken a leaf from nonfiction. They
know now that people read fiction not only to be entertained but also to learn something useful that gets them somewhere.
The pundits say this is the age of information. Every day were engulfed by facts
about new software, yuppie eating habits, Shiites, and Elizabeth Taylors love life. Sure,
we can sometimes drown in fact, but most of the time we wallow happily in our trivial
and not-so-trivial pursuits.

For Peats Sake


Readers want a good story, fascinating characters, and some refreshing sex; but they
also want to know about polo ponies in Palm Beach; the lives of the natives of Egypt,
Maine; the revolutions in the record industry; the strained routine of Marines in Iraq;
and the drugs of choice among Hollywood wives.
I believe that if a writer can weave a whole world with drama, immediacy, and authority, then she is halfway along to competing with Dr. Atkins. If theres one thing editors are looking for, its a vivid, authoritative engagement with the world. Editors dont
want much; they just want the world.
The fatal flaw in most manuscripts I read is a lack of engagement and intimacy in
describing and evoking a very particular world. Few novels I read are vivid enough in
their physical detailing to create a physical response in me. Few are full of information,
engaging, and useful enough for me to remember.
As a positive example, consider that First Lady of popular fiction, Judith Krantz.
Ms. Krantz is not only a glamorous jet-setter who wakes in Beverly Hills and dines in
Paris. She is a hard worker and a dogged researcher. Most of Mistrals Daughter is a romp
between three passionate generations; its also a carefully plotted (and most important)
convincing portrait of avant-garde twentieth-century worlds of art and fashion. Writers
tend to believe they can reel off a Judith Krantz sort of novel, but it takes that one thing
called talent. Her novels are sweet cream, factual, informative, and fun, with characters you care about because theyre sexy and glamorous and realexisting in a genuine
world genuinely painted.
I once worked on a novel by Morgan Llywelyn, whose novels of Irish history have
won her an enthusiastic following. Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas is the story of a reallife Irish woman pirate, a sort of Queen Elizabeth I with estrogen, who captains a shipping empire, staves off the invading English, and learns how to love a man. Grania is a
terrific character, and I see her so sharply because Morgan Llywelyn knows Ireland inside out. I can smell the peat burning. (Do you know where the phrase keep a straight

The Business of Fiction 163

face comes from? When you dig out peat, you must make the spade thrust perfectly
verticaland so keep a straight face.)
The creation of a convincing, engaging world is a vital ingredient of every kind of
fiction. When I was still an editor at Crown Publishers, the house bravely brought out a
book of short stories: Easy in the Islands by Bob Shacochis. The book succeeded because
Shacochis was able to put across his intimate knowledge of the Caribbean with terrific drama and style. His is not the Club Med Caribbean but the Caribbean of fishing
boats, canny natives, shanties, jazz clubs, and dissolute, scared Americans. After reading Shacochis I felt I could wander the islands without a map. [Editors note: Easy in the
Islands won the American Book Award in 1985.]

Vinyl Imagination
You dont need an exotic locale or esoteric knowledge to succeed in engaging your
reader, however. Michael Cunninghams Golden States, for example, is a magnificently
detailed, quiet novel of a young boy coming of age in southern California. You sympathize with this character and come to love him; and you learn exactly what its like to sip
coffee in a Burger King at dawn.
Few of the novels I read possess this sort of intrigue and detail. Sure, the characters
may feel real, and they may have interesting thoughts, actions, and neuroses. The dialogue may be sharp and the people may not all sound alike (this last is a rare phenomenon). But if the people Im reading about dont startle me into paying attention and
dont exist in an environment that fascinates me intrinsically, then Im going to start
longing for Fiji.
Lets go back to one of the novels I took home for the weekendthe one about the
nurse who comes to Hollywood, mops up after the drunk star, and then hits the big
time. Its a rehash, but thats okay; writers are constantly writing versions of what they
have read, and publishers often publish last weeks pot roast. The dialogue is nice, even
occasionally witty, and the nurse has more guts than Florence Nightingale.
But I do not believe for a second that this author has ever jaywalked across Santa Monica Boulevard. She does mention a Jacuzzi once or twice, but I dont learn a damn thing
about the movies, or how Malibu feels at dusk. I might as well be in Newark, New Jersey.
Her setting, and the overall physical circumstances of her fiction, are utterly generic.
Even when writers think they are stocking their novels with detail, they usually
arent. Ill read all about how our heroine makes love with a Maytag repairman in the
back seat of a 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass parked on a radiant cliff at Big Sur. But, for
example, what kind of sound does our heroines buttocks make as Maytag lifts her off
the sweaty vinyl seat? Beats me. And although Ill hear a lot about the crashing Pacific
surf, nothing in the writing will send the spray into my eyes.
An author may write with what he feels is sharp focus, but usually the camera doesnt
linger long enough or zoom in with any style. Most writers fail to treat their readers with
enough intimacy. They seem to assume that readers can feel exactly what the writers feel
themselves, but most readers really need a strong jump start to ignite their imaginations.

164

The Craft & Business of Writing

To Wit Ironically
In his book After Virtue, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre posits that any ethical position in the twentieth century cannot be the result of theory or abstract reasoning. Ethical
stands must spring out of complicated, real situations seen fully and honestly, in all their
complications. Only with thick description can someone make a virtuous ethical choice.
And only with thick description can a novelist render character and situation with
the virtue that is authority.
All of this comes down, of course, to language. If a writer can zoom in on a scene or
a feeling using language that transcends the simplifications inherent in everyday language, then he will write with that element that is so unteachable, so impalpable, and
so necessary: style.
I have no idea what style is. At the Iowa Writers Workshop I took a course in Prose
Style and while I did learn that Joan Didion writes with an immense number of periodic
sentences, I ended up with even less concept of style. I dont think even Joan Didion
knows for sure what style is.
I did learn enough, though, to encourage all writers (myself as jacket-flap writer included) to master all the forms of classical rhetoric, from periodic sentences to anaphora. Even many of the best writers I know write too sparely, too blandly. Its always best,
I think, to pile on everything in the first draft and then to hone in on dialogue, actions,
and descriptions that truly resonate stylistically and textually. Too many writers, moreover, tend to slap sentences together so as to make their meaning clear and their rhetorical impact nil. Style works much as music does rendering feelings too deep for tears.
Cicero, for one, knew a hell of a lot we dont.
There is one element of style and attitude that is in fact definable, and, while not
always overtly necessary, a big help to any writer: wit.
I have plodded through thousands of manuscripts that are as somber and arid as
Death Valley. Presumably, most are written by people who can make amusing dinner
conversation, but who confuse sobriety with seriousness. These novels, about being
rich, or female, or gay, or American, may reveal earnestness, pain, and sensitivityand
also induce in the reader not only bouts of giggling but narcolepsy as well.
Sure, human life is nasty, brutish, and short. But far too many authors have been
convinced by some Miss Thistlebottom that fiction must be as solemn as an undertakers funeral. This is nonsense. Tragedy is not superior to comedy. Ask Shakespeare.
To our gastroenterologist, there is nothing inherently funny about resectioning a
bullet-ridden bowel. True enough. But it turns out our hero is as single-minded and
aggressive as Caspar Weinberger. Even when he lies beside the fire with his girlfriend
he doesnt crack a smile. Nobody jokes; nobody (including the author, it seems) finds
anything ironic in the story. Since the novel isnt fun, and the plot a little improbable
and icky, Ill decline on this one.
But Gert, our Rochester therapist, is thoroughly human, likable, easier to take. She
has two crazy cats named Boris and Natasha. At the local natural history museum, one
of her patients tails her. Its the mayor; he is dressed like a nun. Gert treats her mayor

The Business of Fiction 165

with all the perplexity, irony, and wit owed to a public official who believes he is Sister
Maria Dolorosa.
Im not in the business of giving prescriptions to writers sensibilities. Part of the
pleasure of editing is the chance to help a writer shed her particular angle of light on
the world. But I do believe in witnot gut-busting jokes necessarily, but wit as John
Donne might define it: the use of all your intellectual, emotional, and creative faculties,
together with a sense of proportion and a modest taste for irony.
Those same pundits who call our era the age of information also declare it the age of
irony. What is irony after all but the recognition that all is not as it appears to be? We receive that message several hundred times a day. And all fiction writers are in the business
of revealing not what seems to be simple and true but what is complicated and true.

Looking For ...


Beyond wit, style, thick description, and characters to care about, what does an editor
look for? Editors dont know what they are looking for. They are basically readers, and
they like to be surprised. They also like neatness, a snappy cover letter (with the manuscript), and an addressed return envelope with the stamps already in place. You should
also keep in mind the following when submitting fiction for publication:
1. Know your publisher. If youve written a romance novel about an eighteen-yearold girl who falls in love with an international photographer and lives happily ever
after, you shouldnt send it to Knopf. Knopf doesnt publish romance. Neither do
most other hardcover houses. Ask yourself what kind of novel you have written,
and write away for the publishers catalogs so that you know exactly what youre
getting into, or check the book racks in your favorite bookstore.
2. Ask yourself if youre really ready to publish a book. Maybe your epic novel of
Greenland could work well initially as a series of short stories. By publishing extensively in magazines, you could garner a bit of cash, some recognition (editors take
notice of an authors credits and they try to keep abreast of magazine fiction), and
possibly an agent.
3. Decide whether you want an agent. Like a dishwasher or a Cuisinart, an agent is
nice to have, but you can do the job yourself. Novels submitted by agents generally
get read first, but most editors pay attention to work from unagented writers as
wellwhere the quality and originality are often just as high.
4. Write a wonderful query letter. It may be difficultit may seem easier to write
another novelbut its worth the effort. A query letter is a great opportunity to
write your own jacket copy. Your letter should be a succinct, entertaining, and informative introduction to your fiction and its author. Spend time on it. Dont be
cute, just human.
5. Sample chapters. I personally dont mind when an author sends along several
sample chapters with an initial query. But Im infuriated when those chapters are
either taken from the middle of a manuscript or are nonconsecutive. Supposedly,
nonconsecutive chapters give an editor the chance to see the writers overall style

166

The Craft & Business of Writing

and plot, but the editor reads your work with no context. Send the first three or
four chapters of your story. If you dont think they represent your entire novel,
rewrite them until they dountil they make an editor quiver from scalp to toenail,
demanding to read more.
6. Manuscript mechanics. If youre sending in hundreds of pages, put them in a box.
Dont ever bind your manuscript; that means I cant take home only a hunk of it at
a time. Dont send loose stamps and please dont enclose a check for return postage; thats a pain. Its fine and dandy to submit a clean photocopy; everybody does
it; and I would feel terrible if I dropped an original typescript in the bathtub. Computer-generated text is fine, too, just as long as its not dot matrix on perforated
paper, in which case I will ruin my eyes and barely resist the temptation to return
the manuscript in dot-sized pieces.
7. Never, ever, send a manuscript addressed to the Editor or Fiction Editor.
There is no such person. Your novel will be read in thirty seconds by an overworked
assistant and not even Henry James could survive that. Check the directories (Literary Market Place, Writers Market, Novel & Short Story Writers Market, Publishers Weekly,
etc.) for the name of an editor whose specialties and previously published books
indicate she might be interested in your work. This is worth the hassle of researching. You still might receive a form rejection slip, but at least youve done everything
you can.
8. Give the editor time to read your manuscript. Im generally about four weeks
behind in my reading. If an editor holds onto your novel for a long time, it may
mean that many editors are reading it. It may also mean your novel has been lost in
the mail. That sometimes happens. Feel free to query a publisher after the stated
time elapsed and hope that the publisher has kept a record of your submission.
9. Dont operate in a vacuum. After three years at Iowa, I dont quite believe a writers conference or creative writing program can create a writer, but contact with
other literary toilers certainly can make the process of writing more professional
and less lonely. Read everything you can and feel free to imitate; everybody does
it (Bad writers borrow and good writers steal, said one of my teachers). And try
your work out on people around you who wont try to keep you happy with pacifying answers. Rewrite and rewrite and then, after five months, rewrite again. Most
of the novels I read would have been much more successful if theyd gone through
the typewriter or word processor once more, or at least had an objective reader
early on. Why do I feel so often that the author and I are the only ones who have
ever read the authors novel?

Super Baby
I cant encourage anyone to be a writer. Writing and publishing are still mannerly
occupations, without the high-stakes viciousness of the movie biz or arms-control
talksand the rewards are concurrently small. Few books make anyone much money;
fewer people buy bestsellers than gyrate to Madonna. Become a rock star or a television

The Business of Fiction 167

evangelistyoull have a better shot at posterity. Writing is a long, lonely, grinding, and
often unsuccessful endeavor.
So is editing. I spend hours reading manuscripts despairing at the amount of mediocrity in circulation. But editing is a craft, not an art, and compared with the toil of writing,
its childs play, requiring just politeness and an ability to see the forest for the trees.
Sometimes, late on a Sunday afternoon when manuscripts sprawl like autumn
leaves on my living room floor, I open to page one of a new novel and realize suddenly,
viscerally, from the first sentence, that Im in the presence of a wonderful, talented, publishable writer: Gert had always hated her name. It rang in her ears like the noise a
duck would make as it froze slowly on the snowy lawn of the Kodak building. Gert. She
sat pinned in her sweaty office chair listening to the unfortunately named Thomas G.
Hardy, a wholesale lingerie salesman, explain why he could no longer sleep with his wife.
He was discussing gardenia perfume with Gert. As he leaned forward, sniffling slightly,
Gert felt a feathery, damp terror tumble into the cavern of her body as soundlessly as
an eyelash.
A little overwritten, maybe. But nice sounds, great imagistic contrasts, and two fascinating characters in one paragraph. I keep on reading, until dusk, past dinner, toward
bedtime, until Gerts story is complete. I go to bed and even dream of Gert.
On Sunday night, Mohammed, the Hollywood nurse, and the crusading gastroenterologist are boxed and replaced in my backpack, all to be politely returned on Monday
morning. Gert stays with me. Ill write a report on the novel, trying to be as savvy as Gerts
creator. Ill walk down the hall to the office of another editor, cradling Gert. If Im lucky,
and other editors love this novel, too, this will be the first of many trips down the hall with
Gert, until at last I am carrying a finished book, ready for the rest of the world.
Now I burst into the editors office, carrying something thats alive. Barbara, I say,
as the editor looks up. A superior bambino!

168

The Craft & Business of Writing

Rejection slips:
a writers guide to
what they mean
by

Will Allison

few years ago at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a talented young writer
approached me with a question about a rejection slip shed received for a short
story. The rejection was a standard preprinted note, but at the bottomin friendly,
loopy scriptsomeone had written, Liked this one! She asked me what to make of
this, and I told her the fact that somebody had taken the time to jot a note, however
brief, was encouraging, and that she should try the magazine again.
Yes, she said, growing a bit impatient, but what does it mean?
As a writer whos received his share of rejections, I could appreciate her frustration.
What exactly did they like about the story? How much did they like it? Did it come close?
What didnt they like about it? And anyway, who liked the story? An editor? An intern?
A mail clerk?
At the same timehaving rejected hundreds of stories myself while working as an
editor at StoryI wanted to tell her to relax. Even the simplest rejection note can, after
too many readings, begin to seem like some daunting Rosetta Stone, a code the beginning writer feels he must decipher in order to get published. Liked this one!
But there is no hidden meaning, and editors who write such notes arent trying
to be cryptic. Theyre simply too busy to write more, their energies being better spent
on stories they do intend to publish. As it is, editors devote an enormous amount
of time to rejecting stories. At Story, for instance, we received about twenty thousand manuscripts a year and rejected all but fifty or sixty of them. It was dispiriting
workespecially for a writerand some days I felt not so much like an editor as a
sort of literary bouncer.
Rejection notes are a fact of life, though, and we writers might as well make the
most of them. After all, they can help us gauge how close were getting to having a story
accepted. Theyre crucial in establishing relationships between writers and editorsrelationships that sometimes lead to publication. And, in some cases, theyre even useful
when revising a manuscript. For the budding story writer, its worthwhile to know how
to use these little notes, when to shrug them off, and when to take them to heart, because sometimes they might be telling you more than just no.

The Business of Fiction 169

The Two Types of Rejections


Rejection slips fall into two basic categories, the personal note and the form rejection.
The lowly form rejectionso named because it contains a preprinted, impersonal messageis often produced on a tiny slip of paper, a practice that saves trees and postage
but also seems to symbolize, quite crushingly, a magazines regard for a rejected story.
The politely worded message contained on form rejections usually expresses a mixture
of gratitude and regret, such as this one we used at Story: We appreciate the opportunity to consider your work. We regret having to return it, but thank you for sending it to
us. Of all form rejections, perhaps none is so familiar to American short story writers
as this tasteful classic from The New Yorker, which manages to be polite without mincing words: We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for
giving us the opportunity to consider it. The Editors.
The wording varies a little from magazine to magazine, but the basic message is
always the same: thanks, but no thanks. Nevertheless, many rejection slips tap dance
around this fact in ways that can be maddening for the beginning writer, offering lame
excuses (Due to our extensive backlog, we regret we will not be able to publish your
story ...) or couching the rejection in temporal terms, saying that a manuscript doesnt
meet the present needs of the magazine, or that the magazine is unable to use it at
this time. The truth, of course, is that the story doesnt meet the past, present, or future needs of the magazine, and the editors will be unable to use it at any time.
It should be noted, however, that some magazines employ more than one form rejection in order to communicate differing levels of interest in an authors work. In-house,
these are often referred to as an A rejection, B rejection, and so forth. For example,
heres a form rejection a friend of mine received from one of my favorite magazines, The
Paris Review, expressing zero interest in her manuscript: Thank you for showing your
manuscript to The Paris Review. We regret we are not able to make use of it at this time.
Sincerely, The Editors. But on a subsequent submission, she received a more encouraging slip: Thank you for showing your manuscript to The Paris Review. We are unable to
accept it for publication, but remain interested in your work and would like to see more
of it. Sincerely, The Editors. This is about as good as it gets with form rejections.
The second type of rejection is the personal note, wherein someone at a magazine
actually takes the time to write you a letteror at least a few words (Liked this one!). Personal notes may be handwritten or typed, signed or not. Sometimes theyre jotted at the
bottom of a form rejection slip, and other times they arrive on the magazines letterhead. In any event, theyre much harder to come by than straight form rejections. During my time at Story, for example, I wrote perhaps one personal note for every twentyfive stories I rejected.

Interpreting the Language of Rejection


Should you ever find yourself poring over a rejection note and asking, But what does
it mean?, its useful to remember that there is really only one reason an editor rejects

170

The Craft & Business of Writing

a storyshe doesnt like it enough to publish it. A rejection note does not mean that
your story is unpublishable. In fact, its not uncommon for a story to be rejected ten
or twenty times before being accepted. A rejection note simply means its time to dust
yourself off and climb back on the horse, to send the manuscript to the next magazine
on your wish list.
Even though all rejections bear the same disappointing news, some are less disappointing than others. I often refer to personal notesnot without a sense of ironyas
good rejections, because they suggest that, even though the editor didnt want the
story, it at least caught her eye. This can be a faulty assumption, though. Sometimes
editors write personal notes for reasons that have little to do with the manuscript itself.
For instance, maybe an editors policy is to write a personal note to anybody enrolled
in an MFA program, or to anybody whos previously published a short story, or to anybody who merits professional courtesy, such as a writing teacher or fellow editor. Other
reasons might be harder to fathom. Maybe the personal note you received was written
by one of those rare editors (usually found at smaller literary magazines) who makes a
point of personalizing every rejection. Maybe you mentioned in your cover letter that
youre a subscriber, and the editor penned the note in gratitude. Maybe the editor felt
some connection to you because your protagonist has the same name as her grandmother, or you share the same alma mater or hometown. In my case, I couldnt help
jotting a brief note to any writer whose submission bore the postmark of Columbia,
South Carolina, where I grew up.
Perhaps the most important thing to look for in a rejection notemore important
than an editors praise for your distinctive voice or her favorable comparison between
your writing style and Alice Munrosis an editors desire to read more of your work.
When an editor sends you a note that says Please send more or Try us again, thats
exactly what she means. Such invitationsespecially signed onesare not doled out
carelessly. My rule of thumb at Story was that I didnt ask to see more work unless I was
willing to enter into a long-term correspondence with that writer, personally responding to all of her subsequent submissions even though, in the end, the odds were still
such that I might never publish one of her stories.

Getting the Most From Rejections


The novelist Karen Joy Fowler saves her rejection slips in a fat envelope so she can show
her students that even award-winning authors must cope with rejection. Some writers
tape rejection slips above their desk for inspiration. Still other writers post theirs on the
Internet. A Google search for the term rejection slips nets close to 6,500 hits, including many sites where published authors post their rejection slips onlineostensibly as
a way to encourage unpublished writers, though one gets the sense that many of these
authors just want to say I told you so to the lame-brained editors who dared reject
them way back when.
In more practical terms, rejection slips are useful in helping you determine how
close youre getting to publication, providing a barometeralbeit a highly imprecise

The Business of Fiction 171

oneof interest in your work. A single form rejection tells you nothing except that a
magazine doesnt want your manuscript. But if you send the manuscript to lots of magazines and it garners lots of form rejections, they might collectively be telling you its
time to revisit the story or start a new one.
On the other hand, if a story accumulates several favorable personalized rejections
preferably signed, preferably offering detailed feedbackyou might reasonably hope
that it will soon find a home (though soon may mean months or years, depending
on the response times of the magazines to which youre submitting). If the notes are
signed by editors rather than by assistant or associate editors, all the better. Check the
masthead to get a sense of how far up the ladder your story climbed, keeping in mind
that, at smaller magazines, there may be only one rung on the ladder.
With some magazines, the turnaround time on a submission also might hint at the
level of editorial interest. If a rejection slip comes back fast, that could mean the editors
quickly determined the story wasnt for them. If the rejection slip is slow coming, that
could mean the story is getting a closer lookpresumably being passed around among
the editors or held back for an editorial board meetingand occasionally a rejection
note will indicate as much. It all depends on the magazines usual response time: a few
are always quick to reply, the majority are chronically slow (mostly due to small staffs),
and others are totally unpredictable.
Rejections are also crucial in establishing relationships with editors. Granted, its
usually not much of a relationshipthe exchange of a few brief sentences every few
months or yearsbut such a correspondence is enough to keep you on an editors radar
screen. If you get a signed note from an editor, its a good idea to send your next submission to that personeven if its a slush pile reader or a lowly assistant editor. Having
shown interest in your work, he is in a better position to push your story up the editorial ladder, and chances are that if you bypass that person and try leapfrogging your way
to the top by sending your manuscript directly to the editor, it will end up in the slush
pile anywayperhaps with a less sympathetic reader this time.
However, dont expect editors to remember you without a little prompting. Use your
cover letter to gently remind them of their interest in your previous work by thanking
them for their comments or suggestions on your last story. And by all means remind
them if they expressed a willingness to see more of your work (Thanks for taking a look
at my last story, and thanks for the invitation to send more. Enclosed is a new one ...).
Rejections can also be useful in revising a story, but writers should exercise caution
in this regard. Often, when an editor perceives merit in a story but doesnt want to
publish it, she offers the writer a criticism or two in her rejection note. Its a generous
impulse, but it can lead to misunderstandings. Im guilty of writing such rejections myself. Many a time, I penned notes that praised a story but expressed dissatisfaction with
one or two of its aspectsthe slack pacing, the weak beginning, or the fact that I felt like
Id read the same story before.
When an editor registers such complaints, she may be right on the money, but she
hasnt necessarily zeroed in on all of the storys faults, or even its biggest faults. Rather,
shes glanced at the manuscript long enough to know that she doesnt want it and to

172

The Craft & Business of Writing

quickly note a problem or two. Chances are that she hasnt even read the whole story.
Unless shes trying to build a strong relationship with the author, she has little incentive to read it more closely and offer a detailed critique. After all, there are tens or even
hundreds of other stories on her desk waiting to be read.
Such notes can be especially puzzling for the beginning writer, who might take the
editors criticisms to be the reasons she didnt accept the story. The beginning writer
might then infer that, were it not for problems X, Y, and Z, the magazine would have
accepted the story. The temptation is to quickly rework the manuscript per the editors
suggestions and resubmit it. This is a bad idea. If an editor wants to see a story again,
shell say so. And besides, if she likes a story enough to publish it, shell probably go
ahead and accept it with the assumption that the problems can be fixed during the
editing process.
But even if the beginning writer resists the urge to resubmit the manuscript, its still
a bad idea to revise a story based on what was likely a cursory reading. Im always grateful for an editors candid reaction to my story, positive or negative, but unless there is
evidence that the editor read the story closelysuch as a detailed critique or particularly
insightful commentsI dont revise the story based solely on his reaction.
In such cases, a writer should be guided by common sense and not swayed by a magazines or editors reputation. A good rule of thumb is that the shorter and less detailed
a rejection note is, the less attention the editor devoted to the story, and therefore the
less weight you should give to her criticisms. On the other hand, if several editors zero
in on the same problem, or if the editors are telling you the same things youre hearing
in your workshop or writing group, they may be on to something.

The Business of Fiction 173

Self-promotion:
Maximizing your
novels visibility
by

W.E. Reinka

ager faces at writers conferences cloud over whenever the editor or agent on the
panel reminds the audience that writing their novel is only half the job. The other
half is selling the novelnot to a publisher but to the book-buying public. But doesnt
the publisher do that?
Sadly, no, except for brand-name authors. In Making a Literary Life, Carolyn See
writes, After you write your book, you must sell it ... Not your publisher or your agent
or anyone else is going to do it for you.
Novelists can get discouraged in their drive to sell their books by reminders from
experts that nonfiction books generally dovetail better with promotional angles, news
hooks, or organizations interested in a particular subject. But, before you scrap your
dreams, stop, close your eyes, and name five best-selling authors.
Chances are all five authors you named are novelistsand every one started their
career as an unknown writer. It could be you havent even read books by a couple of
writers on your list but theyre such brand names, they spring to mind anyway. This
is a fundamental advantage for fiction writersnovelists can build a brand name that
transcends their individual titles.

Building a Brand Name


Robert S. Levinson, award-winning public relations authority whose thrillers include Ask
a Dead Man, says, You stay in the marketplace by serving yourself, not the current title.
In Guerilla Marketing for Writers, authors Jay Conrad Levinson, Rick Frishman, and
Michael Larsen point out an indisputable fact of career building: How well your first
book sells helps determine the fate of succeeding books ... You have more at stake than
royalties. Youre investing in your business. Romance author and literary agent Alice
Orr encourages writers to promote themselves. In No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing
a Manuscript That Sells, she tells writers: You always must be selling numbers, a greater
number with each book published under your name. And numbers are all about name
recognitionnot just title recognition, but name recognition.

174

The Craft & Business of Writing

Its never too early to start positioning yourself in the marketplace. Indeed, some
experts would suggest you write your book to fit a marketing plan vs. writing a marketing plan to fit your book. But most writers dont have a marketing plan when they face
that first terrifyingly blank page of manuscript. Even without a formal marketing plan,
there are steps you can take to begin increasing visibility for your work and start building brand recognition.

Compiling Lists for Buyers and Promoters


Some aspects of marketing should begin even before the manuscript is complete, starting with your mailing lists. Youll have one mailing list of people who may be interested
in buying your book. Carolyn See suggests that the list include your old professors
and schoolmates, your carpet cleaner, the guy who fixed your roof. Before you say, Oh,
I couldnt ask them, think for a minute. If these people arent going to buy your book,
then who on earth is going to buy it? Shes right. Think how your interest would be
piqued by a postcard or e-mail that an old classmate from Central High had just published a new novel.
Your second mailing list consists of people who will help promote your book. That
list is as shameless as the first list and would include contacts from the media, writers
groups, bookstores, and civic or professional organizations. For example, youre sitting
in your dentists waiting room when you notice the Rotary International plaque. Go
home and add your dentist to the promotion list. Rotary International looks for speakers every week, and chances are your dentist will provide you contact information when
youre ready to line up speaking gigs.
Another group of people who can help promote your book are booksellers.
Schmooze the people at bookstores. You want booksellers to think of you when theyre
recommending a book, says Naomi Epel, author of The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for
Writers. By being nice to them and appreciating their store, youll get remembered, and
theyll sell your book. Theyll place it face-out instead of spine-out. Theyll order a few
more copies than they usually would.

Inventing Imaginative News Hooks


and Promotional Angles
You may face a delicate challenge with the publicists at your publisher. On one hand,
publicists usually devote their energy to frontlist books. On the other, you may step on
toes if you run roughshod over them. Linda McFall, publicity manager for St. Martins
Minotaur, recommends authors cultivate publicists favor by saving them time. Promotion plans start months before publication, so months before your books publication,
demonstrate your willingness to cooperate and sensitivity to publicists time by e-mailing them the various mailing lists youve compiled. Note especially if you have any outof-town mailing lists (perhaps from your old hometown) of people likely to come to a
book signing or publishing party if your publisher sends you to that city.

The Business of Fiction 175

Increasingly bookstores are requesting mailing lists, says Marie Coolman, director of publicity (West Coast) for the Random House Publishing Group. An authors
local mailing list may persuade a store to host an event with an author they normally
wouldnt be inclined to host.
Another way to help your publicist is by e-mailing (minimize precious phone time)
talking points on your book or suggestions for news hooks to get you media interviews.
Coolman recalls when historical romance writer Ciji Ware was promoting Midnight on
Julia Street, she and the author used the novels subtext of historical preservation and
Wares personal expertise on preservation to garner more interviews. Those interviews,
though ostensibly focused on historic preservation, gave Ware additional avenues to
promote her novel.
If your novel or background dovetails with a specific angle like gardening, business,
or sports, contact editors of those newspaper sections and editors of trade or special
interest magazines in that field. At the same time, be realistic; dont waste precious
personal time or materials chasing far-fetched connections. No gardening editor cares
about a sports book.
Part of running roughshod over your publicist is being unrealistic. Coolman laughs
as she says, I cant tell you how many authors have asked me about getting them on
Oprah. Take a look at the Today show or Oprah to see what kinds of authors they have on.
Five years ago, Oline H. Cogdill, mystery columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel,
would receive ten or twenty review copies each week. Now shes deluged with up to a
hundred. But since her reviews are syndicated in hundreds of newspapers worldwide,
its important to catch her eye. Guess what? A review copy with a note to please review
your book isnt going to do it. Levinson advises to stand out from the pack. Dont
just say your book is compelling. Everybody says that. Pitch a trend. Give it a news hook.
Look for ways to make things easy for the book reviewer.
One way Cogdill says writers make things easy for reviewers is by putting downloadable color photos and book jackets on the writers Web site. (But dont go ahead and email them to the reviewers; the graphics take forever to download and youll just upset
reviewers by overloading their mailboxes.)
San Francisco literary agent Michael Larsen, one of the Guerilla Marketing authors,
suggests writers construct an online press kit with a news release, author photo, positive reviews, talking points, FAQs, authors bio, book jacket, and information on classes
the author might teach or other promotional information. In other words, the online
press kit should include everything the author compiles for a hard copy press kit. And
youll want a press kit, not just review copies, to get peoples attention.

Creating a Web Site With Personality


The world gets more electronic every day. So does book promotion. Epel declares, Author Web sites are musts these days. But there are Web sites and then there are Web sites.
Larsen points out, Everybody has a book and everybody has a Web site. What makes
creative Web sites unique comes out of personality. He advises authors set up their

176

The Craft & Business of Writing

Web site while theyre still compiling mailing lists, before the book appears in print, so
it can be included on the back of the book. As with everything else related to book promotion, waiting until publication to set up a Web site is too late.
The easiest way to know what you wantand dont wantin a Web site is by examining existing author Web sites. Some are astoundingly clever; others cram too much
on one page and look amateurish. Steal ideas. Adopt the trivia game Jeffrey Deaver
includes on his Web site. Borrow from Danielle Steels Web site and award books or
audiotapes as contest prizes. Think those mailing lists arent important? Then why do
brand names Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and Fannie Flagg all use Web sites to expand
their e-mail lists?

Standing Out From the Crowd


Just as you didnt send off your novel to a publisher or agent until you were convinced it
was absolutely ready to go, dont line up promotional events without being ready to go
yourself. Prepare answers in advance to common questions such as: Why did you write
this book? Whats your book about? What writers have influenced you? If you snagged
the interview by tying your novel to a trend or news hook, know in advance how youll
tie in your book when you face the microphone.
Coolman begs writers, Practice, practice, practice answers before hand. Being on
TV or radio looks and sounds like a normal conversation, but it isnt. In normal conversation we talk our way to our points. In TV, radio, and even print media, we have to get
to our points right off the bat. Likewise, Epel recalls how her media coach encouraged
her to prepare three key points to help sell her book that she would make in every interview no matter what questions were asked.
Try to stand out from the pack at bookstore appearances. Lorna Landvik (Patty
Janes House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons), the comic chronicler of smalltown life, throws a Hersheys Kiss to any audience member who asks a question. One
way that Diane Mott Davidson (Double Shot, Chopping Spree) climbs to the best-seller list
is by giving away fresh-baked cookies at bookstores. (When shes on tour, her husband
sends daily batches of cookies via FedEx to whatever city shes visiting.)
Some bookstores have a full-time events staff. Others dont have a clue how to host
an event. Dont take chances. Two weeks before your appearance, send fliers to the store
advertising your appearance. After the event, autograph leftover stock. It doesnt do
you any good to sign a book unless potential buyers know its signed. Print your own
autographed by author stickers for those stores that dont supply their own. If this
sounds cheesy, consider that Lawrence Block, named a Grand Master by the Mystery
Writers of America, takes a roll of autograph stickers on every tour.
More and more authors participate in what are called drive-by signings. They stop
to sign stock at stores without hosting a formal event. Take your autographed by author stickers along to such signings. It also wouldnt hurt to take a copy of a letter
from your publicist assuring stores that unsold signed stock can be returned in the
normal fashion (if, in fact, this is your publishers policy). A myth has built up over the

The Business of Fiction 177

years that signed books cant be returned. Not only is that not true but its perpetuation discourages stores from letting authors sign. If your book has limited distribution,
phone the store in advance to suggest a future date for a stock signing, thus allowing
the store time to bring in more copies of your book. Dont assume the store knows anything about marketing. Remember, this book is your baby. As such, encourage stores
to sprinkle signed stock on a display table, endcap, or the front window, in addition to
being face-out on the shelf. The more places your book is displayed, the more likely it
is to attract attention.

Handling the Merchandise


Bear in mind Kremers fundamental advice in 1001 Ways to Market Your Books: There are
two fundamental activities in marketing any product or service: 1) promotion and 2)
distribution. In other words you must get the word out and you must make sure that
your product is available.
If you speak before the Rotary, take along a carton of books to sell. Use those
months before publication to arrange to accept Visa and MasterCard. Half of todays
purchases are not paid for by cash or check.
Publicize yourself by offering a copy of your novel for the PTA raffle. Give ten copies to the local PBS station as premiums for their fundraiser provided they repeatedly
describe your book. The next ten people who pledge at the hundred-dollar level will
also get a copy of the compelling new medical thriller, Bloody Scalpel, by Springfields
own Kathy Martin.
Ingratiate yourself with a local bookseller by contracting to buy your author copies through them at a deep discount rather than taking advantage of the 40 percent
authors discount with the publisher. Sales records are based on books sold through
stores. Promotional and giveaway copies you buy directly from the publisher wont
count toward building your sales numbers.
Whether your novel remains half-formed in your mind or has already been bought
by a publisher, its time to start shaping your promotion plans. In the words of Levinson, If you start today, youre already a day late.

178

The Craft & Business of Writing

The Craft of NonFiction


Where to Get Great Article Ideas.............................................................................179
by

Greg Daugherty

The Art of the Interview...........................................................................................184


by

Philip Gerard

The Real Deal: Writing Memoir..............................................................................190


by

David Vann

Take Back the Essay!................................................................................................194


by

Bill Roorbach

Travel Writing: From Journal to First Draft..........................................................197


by

L. Peat ONeil

The Business of NonFiction


The Creative Magazine Query Letter.....................................................................203
by

Art Spikol

Writing an Irresistible Book Proposal.....................................................................208


Michael Larsen

Analyzing a Magazine from the Outside In...........................................................214


by

Lisa Collier Cool

How to Break in to Popular Magazines.................................................................217


by Jenna

Glatzer

Sell It Again, Sam: Reprints & Rewrites................................................................221


by

Gordon Burgett

Make More Money with Sidebars...........................................................................227


by

Gordon Burgett

nonFiction

by

where to get great


article ideas
by

Greg Daugherty

ore than paper, more than ink, more even than those annoying subscription
cards that tumble out at every opportunity, magazines are made of ideas. Behind
every magazine is an idea. Behind every article within the magazine is an idea. Behind
every sentence within an article isor darn well ought to bean idea. And where do all
those ideas come from? Many come from writers.
If you are a new writer, you may worry that youll run out of ideas any day now. By
the time youve been at it for a few years, youll be producing more ideas than youll ever
be able to use. In case you find yourself in the first camp, here are six ways to generate
more ideas.

1. Take a lot of showers


Ask any twenty successful freelance writers where they get their best ideas, and Ill bet
nineteen of them will say, in the shower. Theres even some science to back them up
something about negative ions, as I recall. But who cares, as long as it works? Keep your
brain focused on story ideas rather than letting it wander all over the place. Otherwise
you may waste whole showers making grocery lists or thinking up new ways to clean
the shower curtain.

2. Put your subconscious to work


Remember that one writer in twenty who doesnt get ideas in the shower? Odds are that
he would tell you that the best ideas seem to bubble up out of nowhere. That, some say,
is the subconscious mind at work. You dont have to sit back and wait for your subconscious to start bubbling, either. You can give it an assignment. That, anyhow, was the
claim of Napoleon Hill. Once, when Hill was trying to come up with a title for a new
book, he had a little talk with his subconscious before he went to bed. Ive got to have
a million-dollar title, and Ive got to have it tonight, he said. (And he said it out loud,
yet.) Do you understand that?

The Craft of Nonfiction 179

Apparently his subconscious got the message, because at 2 a.m., Hill woke up,
bounded to his typewriter, and banged out the title. Hills book Think and Grow Rich
went on to sell more than twenty million copies and remains in print to this day.
When Ive tried Hills technique, the results have been mixed. Some mornings Ill
wake up with an idea Ive asked for. Other days Ill wake up with a good idea but on an
entirely different subject. The rest of the time I just wake up.
Since your subconscious mind has a mind of its own and can spit out ideas any
hour of the day or night, keep pen and paper in your pocket, in your car, on your nightstand, and any other place a brainstorm is likely to strike.

3. Read everything you can get your hands on


The best writers I know not only try to keep up with the fields they cover but read just
about anything in sight. Few of the things you read will pay off in an immediate story,
but they all feed that mysterious idea machine in your head.

Books
Poke around the library. Let yourself get lost in unfamiliar aisles. Check out the new
releases at your local bookstore. Many of the freshest ideas these days appear first as
book titles, then make their way to magazines.

Magazines
Read the ones you want to write for, of course, but look at others, too. Youll learn some
new things and maybe discover new ways to tell a story. And you may even surprise
yourself and stumble on a promising market or two. Old magazines are another good
source of idea fodder. Check out some of the great magazines someday when youre in
the library and have nothing else to do: Holiday, Look, Saturday Review, to name a few.

Newspapers
Your local paper can be a terrific source of article ideas, especially if its not a paper that
magazine editors regularly follow like The New York Times. You may see a story in your local paper thats ripe for telling practically as is in a national magazine. More often, though,
youll find hints of a possible national story. It may be a local trend thats yet to be widely
written about or a local person whose tale could be one of several in an article reported
from a national perspective. When you travel, scoop up the local papers there, too.

Online
The Internet may be both the biggest time-saver and the biggest time-waster ever invented. Ive found it an incredibly useful research tool but seldom discover any worthwhile
article ideas, no matter how many hours I spend browsing. One possible exception: Web
sites sponsored by local newspapers; theyre rarely as rich in detail as the papers themselves, but they offer a window into the goings-on in different parts of the country. And
also, unlike the papers themselves, theyre mostly free.

180

The Craft & Business of Writing

4. Listen up
I find some of the best story ideas come from listening to my friends, neighbors, and
co-workers talk about their concerns of the moment. Magazines pay a lot of money to
convene so-called focus groups of everyday people who sit around talking about their
likes, dislikes, and whatever else theyre asked to discuss. You can accomplish much the
same thing for free by paying attention when someone starts griping about X, singing
the praises of Y, or asking why no magazine has ever told the truth about Z.
For example, I once heard one of my neighbors asking another about the best way
to send money to a family member traveling overseas. Until that moment, Id never
given the matter much thought. But I checked it out, and a few months later not only
did I know the answer but several million magazine readers did as well.

5. Tap into your own experience


Forget for a moment that youre a writer. Whats on your mind, just as a human being?
If youve wondered about something, chances are other people have, too. The difference
is youre a writer and can go out, investigate the matter, and maybe even get paid for
coming back with the answer. The beauty of your own personal experience is that its
forever changing. Have a baby, and youll find yourself jotting down child-related story
ideas. Switch jobs, change homes, get a divorce, get a disease, win a trip for two to exotic
Bora Boraall of lifes amazing twists and turns can supply you with fresh ideas.

6. Get to know some PR people


Public relations people often have great ideas for stories before anybody else does. Many
of them are former magazine or newspaper writers themselves. The trouble, of course,
is its their job to put a spin on the idea that benefits their clients. The other trouble is
theyre out to get their clients as much positive publicity as possible, so if you got their
story tip, a few dozen other writers probably did, too. That said, Ive found PR people
worth paying attention to over the years. If nothing else, they can sometimes get you access to key experts and provide background information youd otherwise spend a lot of
time digging up on your own. Just remember their agendas and yours arent identical.

Will Editors Swipe Your Ideas?


Beginning writers often ask if magazines will steal their ideas. The best answer I can
think of: Maybe, but its not worth worrying about.
In more than twenty years as an editor, I have never stolen an idea from a writer
and I dont think Im necessarily a shoo-in for sainthood. And in my twenty years as a
writer, no magazine has ever stolen an idea of mine (as far as I know, anyhow). Yes, Ive
heard a few horror stories along the way, but I dont think idea theft is a crime to lose a
whole lot of sleep over. For one thing, a good writer is always generating ideasfar more
than she can begin to use. And since no two writers given the same idea will generate

The Craft of Nonfiction 181

the same story, its much easier for editors to pay you to write it than to steal it. And
finally, if a magazine wants to steal your idea, there is not much you can do about it.
Ive seen writers try, though. Some are deliberately vague in their queries, hoping to
tease the editor into giving them the assignment. Others practically make editors sign
formal nondisclosure agreements. All a writer really accomplishes by such amateurish
tactics is to insult the editors integritya dumb marketing move if there ever was one.
Occasionally youll see an idea you pitched to a magazine appear in that very magazine a month, a year, or a decade later. Did somebody swipe your idea? Possibly, but
more likely the idea came from another writer with a somewhat different approach.
Few ideas are so unusual that only one writer will think of them. So chalk it up to coincidence and move on. Youll probably have better ideas tomorrow anyway.

What to Do With an Idea Once You Have It


Ideas are the writers raw material. And like any other raw material, theyre far more valuable once theyve been refined. The most common problem that beginning writers seem
to have is grasping the difference between a story idea and whats simply an interesting
subject. Heres an illustration: Undersea exploration is an interesting subject, but its way
too broad for a magazine article. You might, however, be able to sell a piece on how undersea exploration is raising some tough new ethical questions. For example, is the wreck
of the Titanic fair game for souvenir hunters or a sacred resting place for its victims?
One useful test is to try to write a headline for your proposed article. If it sounds
like a book title or a fourteen-part PBS series, you need to bring your idea into sharper
focus. But if it sounds like a headline you might see in a magazineparticularly in the
magazine you want to propose it toyoure probably on the right track.

How Editors Look at Ideas


You can boost your ideas odds of success if you learn to step back and look at them the
way an editor does. Not all editors think alike, but if you could peek inside an editors
head , youd probably see a thought process that works something like this:

1. Does this idea belong in this magazine?


Sometimes the answer is pretty obvious: A magazine about dogs probably wont be interested in a story about cats. Other times, its far more subtle: A dog magazine that last
year ran a story called Rottweilers: Those Gentle Giants is an unlikely market for your
proposed piece on Rottweilers: Four-Legged Psychopaths From Hell.
What can you do? Look up what the magazine has run in the past year or two in the
Readers Guide to Periodical Literature or other computerized magazine database at your
local library. Not all magazines are indexed this way, but some surprisingly obscure
ones are. If you cant find out whether your idea conflicts with one the magazine has
already done, just give it a shot. Theres no shame in approaching a magazine with an
idea thats just slightly off the mark.

182

The Craft & Business of Writing

2. Have we done this story before?


And if so, how recently? Some magazines will return to the same topic month after
month, as long as they can put at least the illusion of a fresh spin on it. Some womens
magazines, for example, run a diet story in every issue, for the simple reason that such
stories, however unbelievable, sell copies. Other magazines wont touch a topic that
theyve covered in the past five or ten years.

3. Have our competitors already done the story?


Even if the magazine itself hasnt touched the topic, an editor may consider the idea old
stuff if one or more of the magazines competitors has. Magazines differ considerably in
what they consider their competition. Some will look only to their specific category (boating magazines, decorating magazines, teen magazines, and so forth), while others will consider newspapers, television, and every other type of media. Generally speaking, you stand
the best chance with ideas that have received no coverage or only very local coverage.

4. Is this the best way to approach this story?


Sometimes a fresh approach can inject life into a tired topic. For example, Six Ways
to Childproof Your Home would be a familiar approach to most editors of parenting magazines. But something like How Professional Childproofers Rip You Off or
Childproof Accessories That Could Injure You Child might get their attention.

5. Is this the best writer for the job?


In some cases, magazines may turn a perfectly fine idea down if you dont seem like the
right writer. In rare instances, they may offer to buy the idea from you and assign it to
another writer.
What may make you inappropriate? Distance is one thing. If you come across a great
story in Australia, but you happen to live in Albuquerque, the magazine may not have
the budget to send you there. Or, if you are obviously a beginning writer, the magazine
may hesitate to assign you whats sure to be a complex, ambitious story. A magazine is
most likely to take a chance on you if an editor there has worked with you elsewhere or
knows your work from other publications. A powerful query and strong clips can also
make a difference.

6. Even if this isnt right, is the writer someone worth encouraging?


Some editors are too busy or too self-important to send personal notes to writers whose
ideas may have just missed the mark. So dont automatically assume the worst if you
receive a terse form letter in reply. Other editors will suggest a way an idea might be
reshaped or urge you to try again with another one. If your query is impressive enough,
an editor may come back to you with a story idea of his own.

The Craft of Nonfiction 183

the art
of the interview
by

Philip Gerard

ne of the instincts that drive the writer who is fascinated with a topic is to find out
what other interesting people have to say about it. Even when were not actively
writing about something, most writers I know are conversation junkies, always asking questions of people who just might know something we dont, eavesdropping on
conversations that intrigue us. We like hanging out with people, enjoy arguments and
speculation, the sound of voices talking for its own sake. So it may seem a short step
between that and a deliberate interview. But in fact most writers I know are just as timid
around strangers as the average nonwritersome even more so.
After all, we writers are used to spending long stretches of solitary time in small, isolated rooms, with only the company of our word machines. We hate to bother people.
If the person in question is famous, we feel a bit like impostors and are reluctant, even
apologetic, about taking up that persons valuable time. You would think that practice
would make it easier to approach complete strangers and ask questions, but in my experience, at least, it never gets easier.
So you wind up sitting by the telephone, pencil tapping, going over the questions
you want to ask, checking your tape recorder again and again to make sure its working,
then taking a deep breath and mashing the numbers, part of you stupidly hoping that
the person youre calling will be out.
Or else standing outside a closed door (the most intimidating thing in the world is
a closed door) and taking that same deep breath.
But its just human nature to be anxious about a first meeting with a stranger. Once
past the awkward introductions, you stop being strangers, and as the interview goes
on youre feeling more and more comfortable with each other, and the questions and
answers become just conversation.
Even when you are about to interview someone you already know, the artificial nature of the planned interview can put you both under a certain tension that would be
unthinkable during an ordinary, spontaneous encounter.
For instance, I first met Ron Powers years ago and have seen him half a dozen times
since then at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. But when we sat down to do a for-

184

The Craft & Business of Writing

mal interview for this book on subjects we had discussed informally in workshops and
dinner conversations, suddenly I felt very nervous. The place we had decided to meet
turned noisy and we left, seeking a quieter venue. As we sat down on a secluded porch to
talk, I realized I had left behind my notebook and pen. My microcassette tape recorder
turned cranky and wouldnt record, despite the fact that I religiously change batteries
before I start any long interview. Powers lent me paper and pen, gave me a patient few
minutes to fix the glitch in my recorder, and we both had a laugh and relaxed. Then he
said wonderful things about writing.
Any initial awkwardness is not a disaster but simply a matter of course, a moment
to get past as gracefully as you can. And if you feel nervousand youve done this beforeimagine how your subject may feel.

A Typical Interview
There is no such thing.
The whole premise of interviewing is that people come in an amazing variety. Just
when you think youve heard it all, youll hear something astonishing.
But as writers we live by our habits, and like many writers I try to follow a template
for interviewing. Naturally, it varies a lot based on the situation and the person, and
other writers do it differently, but its a useful starting point for a formal, set interview.
To prepare for the interview:
1. Ask yourself why you want to interview this person. This is the question to ask
before you ask any others. Is it to get background information? Is this person a main charactermaybe the only characterin my piece? Or am I interviewing him in reaction to
another interview? Am I interviewing this person as a way of getting a chance to interview
the person I really want to talk to? Until you know why youre talking to somebody, you
dont know what you want to take away from the interview. Which means you dont know
what to bring into the interview, or what questions to ask during the interview.
2. Establish basic background factsa resume that includes vital statistics such
as age and nationality, education, occupation and job title; key credentials, achievements, and honors (and dishonorsif the guy is a convicted murderer, I want to know
that, too). Bear in mind that the object of the interview may be to elicit such a resume,
especially in the case of a noncelebrity, so dont take the above too literally. Sometimes
its as simple as reading the authors bio on the back flap of a book jacket. But if theres
background I can reasonably find out before I sit down face-to-face, I want to make the
effort to learn it. I want to have some precise sense of whom Im talking tothat will
partly determine what questions I ask him.
How much should you know about a person before you sit down and ask her questions? That depends. If the person is a celebrityHenry Kissinger or a Nobel laureateit
pays to do your homework beforehand: You dont want to waste precious time, theirs or
yours, on basic background you can find out from Whos Who or Time magazine. Partly
its a question of how much time you can spend with them, and partly its a question of
why you want to talk to them in the first place.

The Craft of Nonfiction 185

Shooting a public television documentary in Hong Kong, I was asked to write interview questions for Sir Jack Caterwho wasnt one of my sources. All I knew about
him was that he was on the board of a nuclear investment company in China. Why in
the world would we want to talk to him for a show about the reversion of the colony to
Chinese rule? The producer said hed been told this fellow was someone we should talk
to, but he didnt know anything about him, either. So I wrote up some boring questions
about investment and atomic energy, figuring the interview would be a throwaway.
Chatting with our narrator while the camera and lights were being set up, Sir Jack
mentioned offhandedly that he had been in Hong Kong since the end of World War
II. It turned out he had helped rebuild the colony after its devastation by the Japanese,
and that he had gone on to become the founding commissioner against corruption in
the civil service. Both foreign occupation and communist corruption were important
themes of the show. So we asked him about the war and about anticorruption, and he
gave us a fascinating and emotionally charged interview, full of living memory and anecdote, not facts and statistics, but vivid stories about a place and a people he loved.
Most interview subjects are flattered when you obviously know their work and accomplishmentsits a measure of your seriousness as a writer and also of how seriously
you take them. Showing that you have done your homework sets a baseline for the interview. The subject does not feel compelled to explain basic background and may feel
freer to move on to more interesting matters.
3. Decide where you want to conduct the interviewyou may or may not have
control over this, but its a factor.
4. Decide how best to record the interviewusing notebook, tape recorder, or
only a good memory.
5. Write a very brief list of the questions you really want to ask. And I mean brief.
I usually go into an interview with three to five absolutely essential questions that I intend to ask no matter what. Sometimes, I have only one question. This does not always
mean I ask them allor ask any of them. But having the list gives me a starting point
that reinforces the connection between this interview and the larger piece, and keeping
it brief allows me to invent other questions on the spot in reaction to something thats
been said in the interview, to follow up, or to repeat a question, if the subject thinks hes
answered it but I dont. It means, even if time runs out, I usually get answers to the most
important questions on my mind.
6. Review your notes on other interviews, on your research in generalso you
can cross-reference, inform your conversation, elicit responses to what others have said
about the same set of facts, and set the stage for a kind of dialogue among your sources.
7. Read whats already been written about your subject, and what she has already said in print. This is not always necessary or possible, but especially with celebrities it can help you avoid triteness. It can also give you qualified (because she may or
may not have been quoted accurately, or may have changed her mind since) access to
her opinions and attitudes.
The writers I quote at length in my articles and books are all writers whose work I
read before I asked them for insights about writing. I didnt want to insult them or em-

186

The Craft & Business of Writing

barrass myself, and I wanted to make sure I admired their art enough to trust what they
had to say about the act of making it.
Its an enlighteningand unsettlingexperience for a writer to be interviewed. Try
it yourself. We are so accustomed to questioning others and then implicitly asking
them to trust what we do with their words, that we are too often surprisingly ignorant
of how it feels to see your own words go in there and come out here. Persuade somebody
to interview you and write his version of itthen see how well it jibes with your recollection of the interview. Even when Ive seen myself interviewed on television, I am always
convinced that I didnt really say all those things; surely Im smarter, more poised, more
articulate than that.
If you cant find anybody willing to interview you, interview yourself with a list of
questions using a tape recorder. The playback will be an eerie reminder of the degree of
trust your subjects are placing in you, the interviewer, and of their vulnerability, of the
power you have over their words.
To conduct the actual interview:
1. Begin the interview with an open mindprepared to listen. You are not the
star of the interview, your subject is. Out of nervousness, or ego, or maybe just because
we like the person were interviewing and feel drawn to confide in him, we can inadvertently dominate the conversation. But when youre talking, youre not listening, and
when youre not listening, youre not learning anything you dont already know.
2. Ease into the interview. Break the ice. Chat. Warm up. You may both be nervous, especially if youre using a tape recorder. Again, if youre interviewing on the fly,
these niceties may be moot. William Howarth says he once interviewed a subject while
clinging to the back of a speeding motorcyclehardly the moment for small talk. And
some interviewers deliberately open with a tough question, just to catch the subject in a
candid momentnot my style. I prefer to begin with questions that help set the subject
at ease, then get more and more pointed as I establish trust. I want the subject to forget
Im an interviewer and just talk to me from the heart.
3. Be prepared for the interview to generate some heat. You dont want your subject to stalk out in a fury thirty seconds into the conversation, but allow some latitude
for emotions. Let him be angry. Let her express her feelings about her critics. One or
both of you may end up in tears. But part of you must always be standing back from the
process, emotionally disengaged, keeping track of the encounter.
4. Pay attention to what your subject is saying. Gratuitous advice, right? Youd be
surprised how your mind can wander. You thought it would be terrific to interview the
Pope, but now all you can think of is your next question, how bright the glare is from
that window, and look at the funky costume on that guard standing next to him. And
what in the world is the right name for that big hat hes wearing? Keep your eye on the
ball. Listen. Even if it means you stop writing for a minute. For the duration of the interview, your job is to make your subject think he is the most fascinating person in the
world. Dont insult him by acting bored or distracted.
5. Pay attention to the physical surroundings, the tone of the conversation,
and other cues. The glare from the window and the funky costume of the Swiss guard

The Craft of Nonfiction 187

may wind up in your story. What are you picking up between the lines? What isnt the
subject saying? And why wont he look you in the eye? Theres a lot going on in an interviewits a complex, dynamic event. Paying attention to the context while listening is an
acquired skillpractice it.
6. If you missed something the subject said, if he spoke too fast for you to
write it down, if youre not sure you heard what you think you heard, ask him to
say it again. Slowly, so you can write it down accurately. Most people Ive interviewed
are pleased to see you making an overt attempt to get their words right on paper. But be
careful not to turn it into a dictation session.
7. After youve asked all your questions, ask him what he would like to say
that you havent asked him. Such open-ended comments can turn out to be the heart
of the interviewyou thought it was winding up, but its just starting. Now you know
what questions to ask. Remember that you may listen for a long time before the subject
says anything worth quoting.
Either the interview will come to an end arbitrarilythe appointments secretary
will arrive on cue and show you the dooror you will decide to end it. You cant think
of any more questions to ask. Theres an awkward pause. Youre losing interest. The
subject keeps looking at his watch. Maybe it just feels over.
That doesnt mean it is over: It may be only the first of several encounters. Or you
may want to follow up with a telephone call, after youve had time to review your notes
either to check a quote for accuracy or to ask that last question that never occurred to
you until you were halfway home. So:
8. Before you leave, make sure you know how to reach your subject for a follow-up interview.

Asking Good Questions


and Listening to the Answers
A good way to learn what not to do in an interview is to watch local TV news reporters at
work. Again and again, youll hear startling admissions, tantalizing hints, clues about
important directions in which to take the interviewand the TV reporter, following a
list of set questions, will merely move on to the next question:
Reporter: So, what brought you to Milwaukee?
Subject: Well, after we kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, things got a little hot in New Jersey.
Reporter: And how do you like living here?

A good interviewer has an interesting mixture of qualities, Bob Reiss explains. Youre
absolutely relentless in driving toward your goal. At the same exact time, youre prepared at any second to abandon your goalbecause what happens if you find out youre
going in the wrong direction?
The key to any interview is to listen.
Good questions open up the discussion, give the subject range to tell you what he
knows. Those local TV reporters always interview children the same wayby asking

188

The Craft & Business of Writing

yes-or-no questions. Unless youre trying to pin down a politician or a crook, a question
that can be answered with one word is probably not a very interesting question. And
questions do not always have to be phrased as interrogatives. Mild, leading statements
can elicit answers, and the interview can flow as a relaxed, enjoyable conversation.
So what makes a good question?
While preparing for the interview, think of all the obvious questions everybody else
would ask, then ask something different, unexpected, something for which the subject
has no canned answer. Some characteristics of a good interview question:

The subject hasnt been asked it beforeat least not the way youre going to ask it.

It cant be answered in one word. (Exception: when you want a specific affirmation

It opens up rather than closes down possibilities for revealing character.


It cant be answered with the same authority, wit, or nuance by anyone else.
The question engages the subjects passionhe cares about the answer, so the an-

It is responsiveto the mood, the setting, the subjects words and actions. If he is

As the subject speaks, he actually discovers what he thinks.


or denial of fact, as in, Did you steal the money?)

swer matters to you.

constantly toying with a small statuette on his desk as you talk, ask him about it.
If he has just volunteered that hell spend next weekend with the National Guard,
ask him where and doing what.

Reiss admires the technique of Oriana Fallaci, who is renowned for her books of direct
interviews with such notable public figures as Golda Meir, Yasser Arafat, and King Hussein of Jordan. The best question I think anyone ever asked she asked Haile Selassie, the
Emperor of Ethiopia, when Ethiopia was in turmoil, he recalls. He was in the waning
days of his rule. It was the 1970s, but the country was still running as if it were medieval
times. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying of famine. ... Students were being
found in the morning in doorways strangled with piano wire by the secret police.
Fallaci was there to learn about the student disturbances. Her question to him was,
Did you ever disobey instructions when you were a kid? Now, she could have asked
about numbers, about students, how long the university is closed this year .... And the
answer, which washe used the royal weWe do not understand the question, pretty
much summed up the whole situation in Ethiopia and the distance between this old
man in a palace and students who were being killed every day.
Very often, no matter which question you ask, a subject will stubbornly get around
to telling you what he wants you to knowor what he thinks you want to know. Your
job is to hear that, but also to coax him beyond what he is prepared to tell you. Often
its not a matter of willful antagonism. Its just that the inexperienced subject will assume you are interested in the cathedrals, when in fact you are interested in those old
women next doorwhich may seem absurdly mundane to his sense of the world.

The Craft of Nonfiction 189

The real deal:


Writing memoir
by

David Vann

memoir, unlike an autobiography, needs to offer a story. You can leave out the
extra sibling or skip over entire decades, but whatevers left needs to read like a
novel. The problem with this is that the protagonist (you!) and dumb luck will both
get in the way. The characters in a novel all push at one another to create what happens.
Each turning point in their conflict creates the next scene. Almost nothing happens
randomly or accidentally or through outside forces. The novel presents a perfectly paranoid universe in which every detail relates to the whole.
But in a memoir, there are many things that just happened because they didthe
minor characters often dont push so insistently; there may not even be a clear antagonist; and the protagonist is in all the scenes, shuffling around and getting in the way
even when he isnt doing any important dramatic work to move the story forward. So
how can you shape a story?

Select and Emphasize


Memory does the first work for you, because you forget thousands of unimportant details and magnify the dramatic moments (moments of conflict). Dont worry if you
didnt keep a journal or take notes.
My memoir, A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea, tells of how my
wife and I sank in a freak storm in the Caribbean on our honeymoon and lost everything. But the story begins years before, in Turkey, where the boat was built. When I
began writing this memoir, I had no notes. I couldnt remember the names of most of
the people Id known in Turkey, and I couldnt remember sequences of events or even
how I thought or felt at the time. But memory had begun to make a story of my dream
of escape. I was also beginning to understand the more important background story of
whether I went to sea out of obedience to my father, whose own adventures at sea were
a last attempt, before his suicide, to reshape his life. And these two stories, of escape and
obedience, were in conflict with each other.

190

The Craft & Business of Writing

Divide Your Protagonist


Escape vs. obedience is the kind of conflict that can drive a book-length work and
hold it together. Its also the core of what characterization is about. Think of Flannery OConnors characters: Julian, for instance, in Everything That Rises Must Converge, who can never speak of the old family mansion without contempt or think of
it without longing.
Building your memoir around this conflict can clear away the jumble of insignificant events. Youre looking for a series of scenes (particular moments in time and place)
that fit together and speak to this divide. You might look for the times you felt fated
or doomed, for instance, because what you were doing didnt make sense but felt inevitable nonetheless. These scenes can organize chapters or even entire sections, usually
appearing at the end (the place of most emphasis is always at the end, whether of a
sentence or paragraph or chapter).

Use Scenes
You really will have to explore important moments in scenes, using all the techniques
of the craft of fiction, even though youre writing a memoir. Narration is fine for background material and for skipping over time and unimportant events, but a scene offers
a particular time and place, a chance for the reader to see and hear and feel what happened, a chance to become convinced that the struggle is real and matters. Im dropped
onto my back naked on a flooded, varnished floor in a hurricane when I question my
fathers influence, not just pondering the void.

Start at the Beginning of the End


Your scenes will have a chronological progression, and this is a fine way to structure a
bookthrough time from beginning to end. But also consider the structure used more
often in books and films, called in medias res, which in Latin means in the middle of
things. The word middle is misleading, because really these works all begin with the
first scene of the final sequence. This is the moment when a decisive shift has happened,
and the end is unavoidable. The story is funneling toward that end. We often begin with
this scene, fill in all the necessary background leading up to that moment, then cross
over the moment and follow the final sequence. You may not always notice this, because
many writers try to keep the background as brief as possible, so that nearly the entire
work is just the final sequence.
In A Mile Down, for instance, I pack all my background material into the first chapter of only seven pages. By the beginning of chapter two, Im already stuck with the boat
and caught up in inevitable disaster. The rest of the book still needs structure and is
organized around the two times we lose everythingthe first time halfway through the
book and the second time at the endbut really the entire book is the final sequence.
How I get into the educational charter business, run charters in other countries, and
find myself in Turkey; how I buy the boat and meet Seref the builder; how the Kosovo

The Craft of Nonfiction 191

War threatens to ruin my businessall of thats compressed into just the first seven
pages, along with the history of my fathers time at sea and suicide and the early history
of bereavement, because none of it is the current story. Its vital that you find the current story, the final sequence, and dont bog it down with background.

Keep Your Narration Active


If you cant limit your background material as much as youd like, you can still make
your narration read like a scene. Tobias Wolff is a master of this. Look at his story The
Liar, half of which is narrated background material. He organizes this material as an
essay on his protagonists parents, but he provides enough visual detail, gesture, and
dialogue in narration that no one would guess theyre reading an essay. In Wolffs first
memoir, This Boys Life, look at the background section that immediately follows his
opening scene. Details like idlers with rotten teeth keep readers from noticing this
isnt really a scene.

The Truth Factor


Because were shaping our stories around important, linked moments told whenever
possible in scenes and using structures such as in medias res that have been used for
thousands of years, what were creating is something other than what happened. No
true story, once told, is true. It loses its truth in the process of telling, and it becomes
far lovelier. As long as you dont make up characters or events, you can call your work a
memoir and call it a true storybut dont be fooled. Youre not recreating your experience and recording it faithfully: Youre shaping a story more cohesive than experience,
something worth reading. Youre countering dumb luck, randomness, clutter, and anything else that doesnt have meaning. Most of truth is clutter.
By selection and emphasis alone, a story loses some of its truth; it becomes a representation, like language itself. Then theres ideologyour beliefs about the world.
These beliefs frame and change the truth of everything we think, say, and write. Were
not capable of thinking even one single true, neutral sentence.
This doesnt pardon inventing characters or events in your memoir. Its a shame
James Frey changed significant details in A Million Little Pieces, because that casts doubt on
an entire genre that relies on the weight of truth for part of its impact. But dont let the
controversy over one writer take away your freedom to tell the stories of your own life.

Dont Leave Your Protagonist Alone


Our moments alone are tremendously important to us, but theyre tremendously boring to everyone else. Whatever great themes of our lives have become clear in these moments alone have also existed in some form in interaction with other people, and these
are the tense scenes that reveal us, push us into the next decision and create meaning
for our readers. So the sequence of important, linked scenes will work best if it involves
conflict with other people. This leads us to antagonists.

192

The Craft & Business of Writing

Find an Antagonist
Antagonists arent bad people. Theyre just people who have desires and wants that are
different than, and in competition with, the desires of protagonists. In the part of your
life that youre writing about, who wanted something different than what you wanted?
This is where I ran into trouble in my own memoir. I struggled against a boat, a dream,
the sea, my dead father, and myself, none of which makes a great antagonist. I have Seref,
the Turkish builder, to struggle against in the first sixty pages, and hes a perfect antagonist because I never know whether hes friend or foe. Hes caught up in the struggle and
suffering, too. But then the story carries on to other seas, and although there are other
antagonists and even villains, such as an unscrupulous German captain, none of these
people is there for the entire dramatic arc. My wife is there, but shes suffering alongside,
not pushing at me in a way that creates the conflict and events. My dead father and my
own ambitions and flaws, mixed with some pure bad luck, create the disasters.
This was a big problem in revision. Readers dont actually believe in bad luck, because theyve been trained by novels not to, and first-person narrators are distrusted
the moment they point out flaws in others. So I couldnt really use even the few minor
antagonists I did have. If you just cant find a suitable antagonist, I think the best bet is
to cleave to the sceneto the detailsof what happened in the world youre describing.
Try to remain as invisible as possible.

Starting Out
Now that Ive finished a novel and a story collection, Im working on a new memoir, which
was originally going to be the prelude to A Mile Down. Im right at the beginning of the
memoir; what it looks like to me now is just a vast, impossible clutter, with no ending or
arc to shape it. The working title is Plundered: Memoirs From a Mexican Drug-Running Port.
A captain abandoned my boat with a destroyed engine, and it took me four months to
replace the engine (which was stolen twice) and sail north. I was visited each day by half
a dozen military and police groups, by the local crime boss, prostitutes, begging children,
and fishermen, and I even ran into pirates. I dont know who I was then or what I thought
or felt. Im not sure why I was there or why I stayed. I sit down at my laptop for an hour
and a half each morning, though, seven days a week, and I work on a scene each day, a
particular moment that stands out in memory as disturbing or important, trying to find
who these people are, including me, and what the story is about.
Lately it seems it may be about culpability, even accidental culpability. It was a drugrunning port in which most lives were headed already toward destruction, but my presence there seemed to upset certain balances and accelerate ruin and despair. Theres a
scene in which a woman is nearly murdered, right at my feet, and that scene holds the
key, I think. The truth, and all its millions of tawdry details, are lost forever, but the
story, the memoir, is just beginning to form.

The Craft of Nonfiction 193

take back the essay!


by

Bill Roorbach

was taught as a schoolkid and in high school that an essay was an argument of a particular kind. It had to have a thesis sentence, clearly stated, and all the stuff you wrote
had to support that thesis. And, of course, I learned that an essay had partsa beginning, a middle, and an endand that these parts had names. This format is the soul of
whats commonly called expository writing, the kind of writing that makes a category
and a term like creative nonfiction necessary. For me as a kid and well into college, one
of the defining characteristics of expository writing was that it was no fun. You couldnt
be yourself but had to be someone else, someone deathly serious, someone formal,
someone who shared the moribund and officious voice of an encyclopedia. A conformist, in other words, someone who wouldnt challenge the overburdened teacher.
There is, ladies and gentlemen, another kind of essay out there, the kind that you
find most often in The Best American Essays, or in the work of writers from E.B. White
to Adrienne Rich, George Orwell to James Baldwin, and contemporaneously in all the
best literary magazines. Its a more wandering sort of essay, an essay in which one gets
the sense of a persona person who is, well, searching. And learning, discovering something that the reader will discover, too.The term Phillip Lopate uses for such work is the
personal essay. (Please see his anthology The Art of the Personal Essay for not only examples of the genre, but for the genres history and for Lopates illuminating and defining
introduction. Read his personal essays, too, for strong examples of the form.)
When I say personal essay I dont mean that the work contained therein is private
or somehow small; I dont mean that its work only ones family should read or that
theres nothing universal there; I dont mean that there is no argument, no thesis; I just
mean that the author speaks as a person rather than as a disembodied voice of knowledge, that the writer speaks from the heart, with no great worries about objectivity or
faked fairness. That is, the writer speaks honestly; he admits that he is there behind the
wordsprejudices, interests, passions, hatredswarts and all. The writer writes something that only he could possibly write.
Objectivity? People pretending to be objects have never interested me much. And
people who think and write of others as objects are aligned with the forces of evil.

194

The Craft & Business of Writing

Friendship and the Essay


The origin of the term essay to mean a particular kind of writing is usually placed in
Renaissance France and attributed to Michel de Montaigne (pronounced in English to
rhyme with Fontaine).
In The Art of the Personal Essay, Lopate lovingly calls Montaigne the fountainhead,
and goes on to say that Montaigne may well have been the greatest essayist who ever
lived. You might want to read Donald Frames wonderful biography of our man, but
heres the way-too-quick version: Michel de Montaigne was born in 1533, son of a patient and doting father (Montaigne himself tells us quite a bit about his father in his
essais), who gave him the best education money could buy and set his son up as a lord.
Montaigne loved the Latin poets and philosophers and statesmen, Seneca and Plutarch
and Virgil, Tertius, Martial, Catullus, Horace. He was a practicing lawyer, a member of
the Parlement of Gascony, and later, mayor of Bordeaux. But it was at Parlement that he
met tienne de La Botie, a poet and thinker and statesman with whom Montaigne
talked endlessly. According to Frame, La Boetie satisfied [Montaignes] deepest need,
for complete communication.
But after five years of a deep friendship, ideal conversation, and constant companionship, La Botie died, aged 32 years, 9 months, and 17 days (in Montaignes tellingly obsessive reckoning), of a sudden intestinal ailment. Frame fills in many details of
La Boties life, but readers of Montaigne already know much of the story from Montaignes essai On Friendship.
Donald Frame: There is much to show that the Essays themselvesare among other
thingsa compensation for the loss of La Botie.
Phillip Lopate: I has been suggested that Montaigne began writing his book so
that he could talk to someone; the reader took the place of La Botie.
So the Essais of Montaigne are an ongoing conversation with tienne de La Botie.
And years and centuries after Montaignes death, a reader feels in Montaignes presence:
His essays separately and in total remain a conversation with readersreaders who become stand-ins for La Botie, one at a time.

The Conversation
What if you were to begin to think of your writing as a conversation with a reader, just
one? Two people intimate over a meal, say, or over a cocktail, head-to-head. What if
your audience was not a huge roomful of frighteningly various souls but one single
person, the king or queen of good listeners, always nodding in interest, always with you,
and a genuine friend, always ready to question your logic? What if you started to think
of your writing as a conversation?
Pick a dear friend with whom you enjoy conversation and argument, and picture
that friend reading over your shoulder as you sit down to revise any of your exercises to
date. What must change? Will your friend admonish you for a certain pomposity? Will
your friend yawn as you repeat old information? Will your friend take issue with some

The Craft of Nonfiction 195

of your facts? Argue your opinions? Where will she laugh? Where will she grow sad?
Where will she nod her head in understanding and agreement? Tailor your sentences to
the needs of one reader, and youll tend to make your work more accessible to all.
If you find it hard to imagine your friend listening, why not bring the work to the actual person and read it aloud to her? What reactions do you get? Why? Again, what needs
to change? And if as yet you are (understandably) too shy to read your stuff aloud to anyone, take heart: Even contemplating such a reading will result in necessary revisions.

You Are an Expert, Too


Montaigne is said (by himself) to have worn a medallion around his neck inscribed with
his motto, which I will render in modern French: Que Sais-Je?What do I know? And indeed, when it came time to write, he would look into himself and report what was there
good or bad, ugly or beautiful. He was an expert on himself (as we all are) and so reported
confidently, as an authority (note the word author lurking in that common word).
Its difficult, these days, to ascribe much value to our own thoughts on, say, friendship. The editors of Newsweek call a psychologist or a sociologist if they wish to report
on friendship. Yet we all are experts on the subject, just as Montaigne was. Even if you
have no friends, you know something about friendship, perhaps more exotic stuff than
the rest of us. So look inside yourself. What do you know?
If I asked you to write on, well, lets say ants, youd have plenty to type: Youve dealt
with ants all your life. And your take on ants would be different from anyone elses. Sure,
someone like Edward O. Wilson, the renowned myrmecologist, knows more about ants
than you do, but you know more about the day the ants carried away your Great-Aunt
Minnie. And you could always study up to add to your knowledge, bolster your authority.
Here are a few titles from Montaignes essays. Note that anyoneeven you, especially youcould write about any of these subjects: On Sadness, On Liars, On Fear,
On the Power of Imagination, On Drunkenness, On Books, On Cruelty, On
Anger, On Smells, On Experience.
Other writers have taken over and made use of this form of title, too, for books as
well as for essays: On Love, by Stendhal; On Shaving a Beard, by Phillip Lopate; On
the Morning After the Sixties, by Joan Didion; On Embalming, by F. Gonzalez-Crussi; On Living Alone, by Vivian Gornick; On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner; On
Coffee-House Politicians, by William Hazlitt; On Failure and Anonymity, by Mira
Schor; On Apprenticeship, by yours truly.

THE TRUE NATURE OF THE ESSAY


Montaigne called his chapters essais. This term, as you may already know, comes from
the French verb essayer, which means to try. So an essay is a try. Thats all. An attempt.
An effort to get some little bit or large chunk of thought into writing.
Doesnt that take some of the pressure off? Think of each days work as a try. And instead
of applying the labels memoir or essay to a piece, say, Try. Just to yourself. Just for now.

196

The Craft & Business of Writing

travel writing:
from journal to
first draft
by

L. Peat Oneil

art of the travel writers judgment is knowing what to write in the journal and what
to leave to memory or later research. This is a personal decision, based on a judicious appraisal of available time. Ive been recording trips in notebooks and honing
visual recall for several decades and here are some tips: Develop an ability to memorize
scenes and experiences. Test yourself. What do you see, what did you hear? Describe
people in a sentence. Capture accents and gestures. Record colors and texture. While it
is tempting to concentrate on writing the facts in your journal, remember to report the
passing scene. If you are confident in the strength of your visual and sensual memory,
you may leave some of the color commentary to memory.
There are writers who need just a word to remind them of an experience. Others save
objects that are encoded with memories. I collect local newspapers, postcards, souvenir
programs, sales receipts, and tickets, even bus transfers. All of them remind me of the trip
unfolding. If there is an opportunity, I save leaves, shells, seeds, and flowers. I sketch, write
down names of people I talk to, jot down street signs, phrases from menus or advertisements. These disparate items serve as precise substance in your article so you can identify
the brand name of the beer or the hot sauce you liked, the street where you encountered
the helpful policeman, or the color of the wildflowers that carpet the pasture.
Processing information before writing can make for a richer construction, but I caution novice travel writers against waiting. Write down as soon as possible what youve
experienced. The habit of writing at least twice a day in the travel journal, perhaps at
lunch and dinner, will yield the quantity and quality of information and anecdotes you
need for a successful path in travel writing. Neglect the journal and you decrease your
options for writing interesting stories that can be sold to several markets.
Over time, your writing will evolve and mature. Phrases and sensations ripening in
the mind for a day or more wont lose their power. When you have a few years of regular
travel writing behind you, experiences can be mulled over before writing, although the
travel journal will always be the primary tool for productivity.
People in the habit of jotting thoughts and observations in a diary have trained
themselves to explore their thoughts. Anyone who is planning on becoming a travel

The Craft of Nonfiction 197

writer and doesnt have the predisposition to journal writing will have to be extra vigilant to write regularly during the trip to ensure that enough material is recorded to
craft a salable travel article.
The writer who already has journals or notebooks from previous journeys is rich
with potential material to mine for the first few travel stories. The writer who hasnt
kept a journal until now can start recording story gold. In writing workshops, people
sometimes ask me whether notes from past trips can he transformed into travel articles
that will sell. Ascertain whether the information is still current. If your notes are from a
trip to a place that has recently undergone significant political, geophysical, or cultural
changes, its a safe bet you couldnt base a travel article on those old notes. However,
if your notes are lively, ripe with engaging people, and include anecdotes and unique
events, and youve checked the facts related to those notes, perhaps you can craft an evergreen travel story based on your experiences at that time, in that place. Your flair as a
writer and ability to focus on a particular theme will determine whether the notes from
past trips can become articles in print.

From Journal to First Draft


Read the written notes taken on-site to recover the dynamic immediacy of the passing scene. The journal on your desk serves as a resource for your brainstorm of travel
memories. Or perhaps youre working with long e-mails sent to family or friends from
the road. For me, the entire diary serves as a first draft, although I may prune parts and
use them in other travel articles with a different market focus. As we shall see in the
examples that follow, some sentences from the travel journal can be directly inserted
in travel articles. Other passages must be substantially rewritten to preserve continuity
and style.
For readers who are itching to get started and already have a travel journal, its time
to make a typed transcription of your journal, upload from your PDA, or collect e-mail
text files from various sources. This will be your first draft. Organize the travel journal
entries on your computer. Skip the personal passages that explore your private moods
and musings. Arrange related entries using the copy, cut, and paste options for your
word processing program. This preliminary phase of typing and organizing material is
easiest on a computer.
If you are using a typewriter, try this organizational technique. Type travel journal
entries onto separate sheets of paper, a paragraph or two per page. Leave lots of blank
space. Sort the sheets of paper or cut and paste paragraphs so related events are together. With this technique, the writer who uses a typewriter should still come away from
the transcription phase with a working draft.
At this point, Id advise against creating a chronological log of your experiences.
Traveloguesplace-by-place inventories of what you did and where you wentare not
travel articles. Read as many published travel articles as you can so youll have an idea
which highlights from your journal or notes will tell the story in the format of contemporary travel journalism.

198

The Craft & Business of Writing

Of course, some readers wont or cant wait to get started shaping the travel piece. If
you are compelled to tinker with the draft of raw travel journal entries now, remember
that memorable travel writing has the same ingredients as any stimulating prose: Descriptions that summon the senses, alert the mind, and trigger memory. Details that
show the place and people. Facts effortlessly woven into the textual fabric. Beyond that,
travel writing strives to put the reader on location. What turns of phrase, bits of dialogue, or remembered experience will evoke the spirit of a place? Consult any writing
book on prose style and the advice is the same: Use simple construction, vivid description, active voice, and mighty verbs.
For insight on how untouched journal entriesor long e-mails sent home during the
journeybecome part of finished travel articles, examine these excerpts from travel journals and the related paragraphs in published travel articles. Freelance writer Chad Neighbor, based in Scotland, jots down the barest of entries in his travel notebook to serve as
memory helpers. His diary entry about a stay in a cottage near a Scottish loch reads:
Tigh-na-Coille. 150 ft from loch on part of promontr set off by burnet. basic but thick walls
up to 2 ft set tapering in rms upstairs. w-to-w carpets, well equipped, modern furniture but
practical, gd dining table. fire already laid (by previous occ) no wood but good coal, many
repeat vis sometimes neg. over 10 years of photos on walls from 1 of them. helpful comments from other occ on, walks, restaurants, attractions, wildlife, etc. bats. post bus goes by
door. black wd of rannach across rd capercaillie. schiehallion. coal fires (no logs) comments
on whats lacking (washmach). fortingall yews.

These notes show a writer who uses a word or two to summon the scene to mind. This
system of note taking probably wouldnt contain enough information for a beginning
travel writer. However, peeking into another writers notebook gives an idea of the many
ways that details can be recorded. While Chad Neighbors notes seem to skim the surface, he does have lots of material. For example, place names that are difficult to spell
were carefully written out, although missing some capital letters because of his hasty
style. Many common words were abbreviated. Scene-setting details were carried directly
from the notebook to the article that ran in The Washington Post Travel Section.
The attractions of these superbly located cottages are only too obvious. The scenery tends
to be first rate and, in our case, the 150-foot stroll to a private beach (even if wind and water
made it far too cold for swimming by non-huskies) was irresistible ...
Another quite different bonus of Forestry Commission and National Trust cottages is
their logbooks, compiled by many years worth of visitors. These are a valuable resource
for new arrivals dying to discover the best local tearoom or spot for spying a kingfisher.
We followed the advice to visit Scotlands smallest distillery at Edradour near Pitlochrya
fascinating detour.
But the diaries also offer an absorbing chronicle. Some people have been spending certain weeks at certain cottages for ten years or more and feel almost as if theyre part owners.
Indeed the excellent photos of Tigh-na-Coille and surroundings were taken, mounted, and
hung by a regular visitor there who thought the walls were a bit bare.

The Craft of Nonfiction 199

One of the most entertaining aspects of the entries was the complaints, visitors being
clearly divided between those who expect all the modern conveniences and then some,
and those who do not. There were complaints about the lack of a television, a microwave, a
washing machine and, poor soul, a double boiler . . .

You may notice that Chad Neighbor writes a line about the logs and coal for the fire
twice in the notes. He saves this information for the end of the article, using it as physical and psychological closure while creating strong internal structure for the story. The
last thing he does during the trip is lay the fire for the next visitors, the scene he found
when he arrived.
One of the tests of a good vacation, of course, is how you feel when you leave your temporary abode. After our week on Loch Rannoch I felt relaxed, refreshed, and more appreciative
of one of Scotlands most spectacular areas.
And, after laying the last fire in the fireplace (a tradition to welcome the next arrivals)
and making our last chug down the driveway, I also felt sad to be leaving.

New York-based travel writer Ann Jones shares her travel journal entry that became
the lead and opening paragraphs for Horse-Packing in Kookaburra Land, which appeared in Diversion, February 1991.
March 18: Drove SydneyTumut (6 hrs) thru central highlands of NSWall rolling brownish grass & sheep & dusty eucalyptusstorm at Guilbournsandstone at BerrimaTumut
in a volley of green willow & poplar along a riverwide streetstin roofed bungalows
dinner at Returned Soldiers League ClubChinese buffet.

This shorthand impression of her entry to Tumut became the opening for the finished piece.
In Tumut the hot place to eat is upstairs at the Returned Soldiers League. The restaurant is
a cavernous hall with all the warmth and ambience of an American Legion post, and the
food is plainthe kind my grandmother called fillingbut the price is right. Saturday
night they lay on something a little special, like a Chinese buffet. That goes over big with
the locals, since theres not a whole lot of Chinese food available, as far as I could tell, in the
hinterlands of New South Wales, Australias southeastern corner
Id left Sydney that morning, heading southeast, for a leisurely six-hour drive to Tumut.
The highway ascended a series of rising valleys to grassy tableland that seemed to belong
only to me and the sheepthousands upon thousands of them.
It was March, the end of Australias summer, and the dry grass, the dusty sheep, and the
road were all the same color, actually no color at all. Then, below me, appeared a big stand
of green poplars along the Tumut River, and the road wound down among tidy tin-roofed
bungalows, steepled churches, and plain-faced business establishments set wide along
broad avenues laid out for the grander city Tumut once intended to become.

Notice the authors effort to relate the faraway place to familiar: ambience of an American Legion post ... the kind my grandmother would call filling. The sketchy notes in
the travel journal expand when Jones uses them to summon memory to embellish the

200

The Craft & Business of Writing

experience for the final rendering in the travel article. The note about brownish grass
& sheep & dusty eucalyptus becomes more refined: the dry grass, the dusty sheep, and
the road were all the same color, actually no color at all.
Ann Jones says she takes notes for her travel articles in three ways: As I go, I jot quick
notes, especially facts and peoples memorable remarks, in a standard reporters notebook that is always with me. At days end or when time permits, I try to make a longer
entry in a journal, summarizing the day, including descriptive details and noting issues
and themes raised by the days events and conversations. (The excerpts included here
are from her days-end travel journals.) I also often carry a pocket tape recorder to make
quick notes to myself, conduct interviews, and record the noises of the place, especially
animal and bird sounds and local music. I rarely listen to the notes or interviews, but I
often replay the noises to bring back the feel of the place Im writing about.
When I started using travel journal entries as the foundation for travel articles, the
writing was rather formal and composed, as the following entries from a trip to Barcelona demonstrate. During the years since then, Ive learned that it is easier to extract a
first draft from travel journal entries that are focused on the details, atmosphere, and
scene. Rather than striving for artful sentence structure in the journal entry, craft specific descriptions that are mated in sensual perception. Here are the highly structured
notes on Barcelona that eventually formed the basis for a destination article with a
special focus on the architecture of Antoni Gaudi.
Today we hunted Gaudis buildings. Beginning with the Holy Family Cathedral, still unfinished, and ending at Park Guell, a marvelous fantasy land high above the city where clean
air is able to be breathed. The cathedral proved a wonder, high towers, a sand castle in
prestressed cement. It may take another fifty years to achieve Gaudis vision, certainly work
is not progressing rapidly.
The candy-colored towers are visible several blocks away. An amusement park perhaps,
or a childrens playground. No, Templo Sagrada Familia, the Holy Family Church between
Calle de Provenza and Calle de Mallorca (north east of the Diagonal) at their intersection
with Calle de Cerde. Still under construction after one hundred years, this cathedral evokes
the gothic spires and buttresses of churches of the Middle Ages, yet it is constructed with
the humorous, even mocking, combination of materials that marks all of Gaudis efforts.
Fantastic/marvelous forms, part nightmare, part joyous fantasy, crawl upwards to the four
spires on each end of the cathedral. There is also harmony, however; the spires may look like
a sandcastle melting under the onslaught of the sea, but the design is wonderfully proportioned, superbly designed, and completely in tune with human sensibility.
The effect of entering a building you do not realize is unfinished is remarkable. You
wonder if this is what a war zone feels like. We pursued his work in downtown area, marching perhaps longer than desirable. Got a bus up to the park, which relieved our legs. There
we bought postcards, attempted a watercolor (stiff, amateurish), and watched schoolchildren play. The pure air was instantly remarkable and cleared my eyes and headache. We
rested up, then walked the Gothic quarter before dinner.

The published piece opened with visual drama and walked the reader through the building:

The Craft of Nonfiction 201

Jutting above Barcelonas skyline, the rosy-colored towers could be the turrets of a transplanted Disneyland castle. Or a fantastic suspension device from a childrens playground.
Or the scaffolding of a movie set. Surely not a cathedral. But the sparkling pink towers do
rise from a cathedralLa Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Sacred Family, architect Antoni
Gaudis unfinished masterpiece.
... Visitors enter the church through a vestibule that resembles many other commercially
successful places of worship: Admission is charged; signs in four languages advertise a multimedia documentary about the building for an additional fee; a sales clerk offers souvenirs
and postcards; the visitors registry has comments in a dozen languages.
But beyond the vestibule, the similarity disappears. The nave, the choir, in fact the entire heart of the cathedral is an open-air construction site. Great blocks of precast concrete,
stacks of tiles, and numbered pieces are laid about, not unlike Lego pieces, waiting to be
fit together. A closer look at the four landmark towers reveals they are not pink but gray
concrete cones that culminate in mosaic glitter. It is the light, filtered through Barcelonas
air pollutants, that makes the towers appear pastel.
An elevator whisked us and other visitors to a bridge connecting the two center towers ... figures from a dream menageriereptiles, amphibians, mammalscrawled up the
cathedrals facade, part nightmare, part hilarious fantasy: A tortoise at the base of a column
stretched its mouth in a gasp, a lizard curled back on itself, dragons stared.

Note how many of my travel journal phrases appear verbatim in the finished piece. The
general statements have sharper focus, showing instead of telling. The detached tone
has become more personal and shows the reader what is unfolding. Comparing the
building materials to Lego blocks continues the playground fantasyland theme established in the opening sentences. The structured journal entry mentions the improved
air quality in the elevated areas of the city as it affects the writer, putting the writer at
the center of attention; the published article describes the colorful effects of the air pollution and focuses the reader on the cathedral while conveying the same information
about bad air in a more interesting way.
Above all, travel writers should strive to communicate elegantly. We are the filters
through which experience passes on a path to the reader. Our job is to describe accurately what we see and feel, not just reprocess factual information that is important to
no one but economists, trade brokers, and the tourism industry.
Its true that at the beginning, the urge to write about everything will propel your
pen. Take a step back, though. You know you cant write about everything you see and
hear. And you certainly wont be able to use all those pages of notes in one story. Focus
on what interests you. Have purpose; your experiences drive the story line. If the information gathering sustains your attention, when the piece is finished, the reader will
stick with the story. Packing in the facts for facts sake wont make a great travel article.

202

The Craft & Business of Writing

the creative
magazine
query letter
by

Art Spikol

ometimes I think that writers tend to view editors as stereotypically hardnosed


people with short attention spans who react to writing as if it were a laxative: that is,
you dont buy it unless you need it. Thats partly trueat least, the first two parts of the
statement sometimes are. But the lastwell, thats whats wrong with stereotypes; since
theyre based on appearances, they often ignore the human equation.

Write to the Human Being


There are two people inside every editor. The human being is the one who says, Gee,
this sounds like a story Id like to read in response to a good query. The professional asks
pertinent questions: Can 1 afford this? Do I need it? Can I justify buying it? The professional
will occasionally overrule the human being, but not as often as the human being will
overrule the professional.
So, it makes sense to write to the human being. This is how the human being in me feels:

He wants an opening sentence strong enough to get him to the next sentence and
the next, until hes read the whole letter.

He wants to care about your subject, and you have to make him care.
He should finish your letter wondering about all the answers you havent provided.
He wants to know specifically what hell be gettingwhat kinds of information,
what point of view. And dont tell him you intend to be objective, because nobody
is. Hell settle for fairness.

He wants to hear any special reasons why you should get the assignment.
He cant tell everything from a letter; if you have samples or clips, send them. If
you dont, youll probably have to offer to write the article on speculationitll
give him a chance to get used to your work, and itll get you a foot in the door. If
you have a gut feeling that what youre offering isnt quite right for his magazine,
youre probably right.

The Business of Nonfiction 203

He has purchased manuscripts with misspelled words, poor punctuation, and occasional bad grammar, but even if youd sold him every one he ever bought, youd
still have starved.

He doesnt want to hear your suggestions about how you could improve his magazine or how you could write an article better than so-and-so did it in a recent issue.
If you dont like the magazine the way it is, you probably shouldnt be attempting
to write for it.

Avoid Common Mistakes


In the nonfiction magazine writing class I teach, I have a few query letters I use as examples of what not to do. Each of them does something, or several things, almost guaranteed to discourage any editor. Im not going to reprint the actual letters here, nor even
the actual words (and, because I removed the names long ago, Ive long since forgotten
who wrote them)but I am going to keep the examples similar enough so you can see
why the no thanks letters went out to the person who wrote:

Such existences I perceive as the skid row life since it is there that one can often
locate a vast panorama of emaciated forms immersed in alcohol seeking warmth
and smelling like damp shoes, for trying too hardwithout punctuation, yet.

Would you be interested in an article entitled, Star on the Rise? Its about John
Smith, who is one of the most promising politicians, at age twenty-six, that our
state has ever seen, because if I want to buy puff pieces, Ill go to a pastry shop or
ask John Smiths mother to write the article.

I have recently done some research on the soft pretzel, and have found roots in
Austrian tradition which relate to it. Knowing of the large number of Austrian
immigrants in the Philadelphia area ..., because not only am I convinced that the
number is smaller than the person thinks, but Im very convinced that the story
would be a bore to most readers, Austrian or not.

As a third-year journalism student who has never had the opportunity or background that is now available to publish an article, Ive been struck with an idea
which seeks recognitionnamely, fathers and daughters in business with lucrative
results. An article of this unprecedented nature would undoubtedly shed new light
on the old saying, chip off the old block, because he sounds like a freshman journalism student.

The courts seem to circumlocute a policy of laissez faire, whereas Congress is evasive, and parents are inordinate, because I wouldnt want to force readers (or myself) through one paragraph like that, let alone an entire article.

And the grand prize: The person who wrote me a handwritten, nearly illegible letter containing a decent story idea, wondering if we could supply someone to keep
him company while he did the story, because the research was going to be boring.
Dont laugh; its true.

204

The Craft & Business of Writing

The Elements of a Successful Query


The query should serve several primary purposes:

Sell your idea through a brief, catchy description.

Tell the editor how you would handle the lead and develop the article.

Show that youre familiar with the publication and how your article would fit with it.

Indicate why youre qualified to write this article.


When applicableand when possible within space constraints (a query letter should be no
more than one page)the query should also:

State the availability of photography or other artwork (if this is a key selling point, you
should definitely include such information; if its not, these details can be discussed
when the editor contacts you about an assignment).

Provide a working title that succinctly and enticingly sums up your idea for the editor.

Estimate the article length (it should be as long as you think necessary to cover the
topic, keeping in mind typical length of pieces in the publicationbut be flexible).

Outline possible sidebars.

Summarize the supporting material, such as anecdotes, interviews, statistics, etc.

State when the article will be available.

Indicate if youre submitting this idea to other publications simultaneously.


Remember that this is a business letter so the format should be as professional as possible.
Use single-spaced block formatting, standard font (12-point Times New Roman is always a
safe bet), and a one-inch margin on all sides. Include your name, address, phone number,
e-mail address, and fax number in the top right corner or on your letterhead. Be sure to
address your letter to a specific editor, include an SASE if youre sending by snail mail, and
thank the editor for considering your query.

Thats kind of an honor roll of queries that didnt quite make it, but Im aware that
some of the letters are rather extreme and some of these people may actually one day be
writers. Their trouble was not knowing how to approach me. They figured that because
I was an editor and they were just beginning writerssomething of which Im certain
they had to write something that was literally beyond themselves so Id be impressed.

Write a Simple, Solid Query


Meanwhile, I was looking for a simple, straightforward, interesting letter. In fact, lets
take a look at what that third-year journalism student could have said:

The Business of Nonfiction 205

The & son that appears after the names of so many area businesses are gradually being
joined by & daughter. In fact, there are now about a dozen father-daughter partnerships in
and around Philadelphiafrom a dental lab to a trucker to an antique shop. And chances
are good that itll be the wave of the future as more women stop thinking primarily of marriage as a career.
Id like to take a look at this new phenomenon, find out how these businesses make out
both in terms of profitability and peaceful coexistence, and see what happens when I toss
out the old sexist standard, Hey, hon, is the boss around? Also, will the logical conclusion
be mother-son and mother-daughter businesses?
Ive never been published, so I dont have any clipsbut Ill work on spec if youre even
mildly interested. Im pretty good with a camera, too, so Ill send along contact sheets of
each pair if you like.

Id have to say, Okay. Its not a great letter, but its readable, the language is clear,
and I have a pretty solid idea as to what Ill be getting. And theres no riskwhich is
probably the best incentive for me to read the work of a writer with whom I havent
previously dealt.
Thats all there is to it. Good thinking and a 41 stamp and you can put your idea in
front of just about any editor in the country. The price is right, anyway.

Ten Ways to Turn Editors Off


What you say (What they think):
1. Have you done a story about ...? (You should know this when you query. There are ways
to find out.)
2. I am writing to give you the opportunity to publish ... (How did we get so lucky?)
3. Would you be interested in the truly hilarious (or tragic) story of ...? (I dont know
if we can survive it.)
4. This is the kind of story you should be doing ... (Dont hold your breath.)
5. Just tell me which approach youd like me to take ... (Just tell us which approach is
appropriate.)
6. The author can ... (Whatre you, an agent?)
7. There would obviously be two sides to the story ... (If its obvious, isnt it a bit patronizing to tell us about it?)
8. I know I can write better than so-and-so did for you some time back ... (Well bet
your mother told you so.)
9. If youre not interested, please let me know, since Im sure I can sell this somewhere ... (Go to it.)
10. Ill be willing to take a little less than your regular fee to get this published ...
(Were not willing to pay less, assuming its worth publishing.)

206

The Craft & Business of Writing

Jack Smith
555 W. Fourth St.
Cincinnati, OH 45200
(513) 555-9000
writer@emailcom
December 10, 2006
Edward Fictitious
Managing Editor
Inc.
77 N. Washington St.
Boston, MA 02114
Dear Mr. Fictitious:
Custom Cleaner Inc.s doom was sealed before the companys first home dry-cleaning kit
reached stores. Procter & Gamble Co. already was preparing a competing product. And
when P&G announced its plans, retailers wouldnt stock Custom Cleaner.
Clean Shower, another upstart cleaning product, seemed headed for a similar fate. After
a promising initial reception in the market, the no-scrub daily cleaner inspired knockoffs
from such well-heeled rivals as Clorox Co. But Automation Inc., maker of Clean Shower,
fought back successfully, increasing sales by boosting advertising even as four competing
brands hit the market.
In a 1,000-word article, I would like to use such case studies to explore how entrepreneurs
respond, and sometimes even prevail, when established competitors invade their turf. I
believe this would strongly appeal to Inc. readers who invest in new productsand usually
harbor deep fears of sudden ruin at the hands of giant foes.
I am a freelance business writer who has published two books on start-up businesses, and
for eight years Ive covered the consumer products industry for Advertising Age and other
national business publications. In this work, Ive encountered numerous start-up companies that have launched novel products only to face potentially fatal competition.
Thanks for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Sincerely,
Jack Smith
Encl.: Reply postcard
Clips

The Business of Nonfiction 207

writing an
irresistible book
proposal
by

Michael Larsen

he Golden Rule of Writing a Book Proposal is that every word in your proposal should
answer one of two questions: Why should a publisher invest in your book, and why are
you the person to write it? If a word doesnt help answer one of those questions, delete it.
There are many reasons why, at least at the beginning of their careers, nonfiction
writers are luckier than novelists:

More agents handle nonfiction.


More publishers publish it.
More book buyers buy it.
Its easier to write, sell, and promote.
Its easier to resell in other media.
Its easier to build a career out of by writing articles, giving talks, and selling CDs
and other products.

Most nonfiction books sell on the basis of a proposal (not finished work).
If you prepare a salable proposal, you can get paid to write your book. And I believe
that what youre about to read is the fastest, easiest way to get the best possible editor,
publisher, and deal for your book.

Putting Together Your Proposal


Proposals have three parts: an introduction, an outline, and one sample chapter. Most
proposals run thirty-five to fifty double-spaced pages. Heres what goes in those pages.

The Introduction
The goals of the introduction are to prove that you have a solid, marketable, practical
idea and that you are the right person to write and promote it. The introduction has
three parts: an Overview, Resources Needed to Complete the Book, and About the Author. These elements give you the opportunity to provide as much ammunition about
you and your book as you can muster. Your introduction may take a lot of time to prepare and may only run five to ten pages, but the fate of most books hinges on it.

208

The Craft & Business of Writing

Overview
The basic elements your overview must contain are:
Your subject hook. This is the most exciting, compelling thing that you can say in
as few words as possible that justifies the existence your book. It can be a quote, event,
fact, trend, anecdote, statistic, idea, or joke. For example, your subject hook could combine an anecdote about someone using your advice to solve a problem that leads to a
statistic about the number of people with the problem. If its a narrative book like a
memoir, it could be a compelling paragraph from your book (but only use it once in
your proposal).
Your book hook includes three pieces of information: your title, your selling handle, and the length of your book. Unless its a serious or reference book, your title must
tell and sell. It must announce what your book is and give browsers an irresistible reason to pick it up, which is said to be half the battle for selling it.
Your books selling handle is a sentence that ideally begins: [The title] will be the
first book to ... You can also use Hollywood shorthand by comparing your book to one
or two successful books, authors, or movies: [Your title] is The Secret meets How to Win
Friends and Influence People.
The length of your book is the number of 250-word, double-spaced pages your
manuscript will have, and the number of illustrations it will have if you will use them.
You can arrive at this magic number by outlining and estimating the length of your
chapters and the number of pages of back matter (glossary, index, bibliography, appendixes, etc.) your manuscript will need.
There are also several things you should include in the overview to strengthen the case
for your book, but consider them optional if they do not apply to your particular project:

Your books special features: tone, humor, structure, anecdotes, checklists, exercis





es, sidebars, and anything you will do to give the text visual appeal. Use competing
books as models.
The
name of a well-known authority who has agreed to write a foreword, giving

your book credibility and salability. If this isnt possible, write: The author will
contact [Famous Authority A, B, and C] for an introduction.
What you have done to answer technical or legal questions. If your books on a
specialized subject, name the expert who has reviewed it. If your book may present
legal problems, name the intellectual property attorney who has reviewed it.
Your back matter: Use comparable books as a guide.
Markets for your book: Starting with the largest ones, list both the groups of people who will buy your book and the channels through which it can be sold.
Your books subsidiary rights possibilities, such as film or foreign rights. Start
with the most commercial one.
Spin-offs:
If your book can be a series or lends itself to sequels, mention up to three

other books.
A mission statement: If you feel a sense of mission about writing and promoting
your book, describe it in one first-person paragraph.

The Business of Nonfiction 209

The authors platform: a list (in descending order of impressiveness) of what you
have done and are doing to give your work and yourself continuing visibility in
your field and with potential book buyers.
If you are doing a book that you will promote with talks around the country and you
want a big house to publish your book, you need to have continuing national visibility
through talks, the media, or both when you sell your book. The promotion plan that
follows must be a believable extension of what you are already doing.

Your promotion plan: In descending order of importance, list what you will do to

promote your book. For books with a large nationwide audience that writers want
to sell to big publishers, this list is at least as important, if not more important,
than the content of the book.
Lists of books that will compete with and complement yours. For competing books,
include the publisher, year of publication, number of pages, and the price. Then
use two sentence fragments that start with verbs to describe the books strengths
and weaknesses. For example, Includes x. Fails to cover y.

End with a list of the ways your book will be different and better than the competition.
You may use information presented earlier in the overview, but reword it. Dont repeat
anything in your proposal. If youre lucky and creative, there may be no competing
books, but you must list complementary books, because these books (on your subject
that dont compete with yours) prove the marketability of your subject.

Resources Needed to Complete the Book


List of out-of-pocket expenses for $500 or more such as permissions, travel, illustrations,
or a foreword with a round figure for how much each will cost. Your agent may prefer
not to include these costs when submitting your proposal, but having them there helps
prove that your idea makes sense and is well planned and that youre professional.
End your resource section with: The author will deliver the manuscript X months
after receiving the advance. If time is the only resource you need, just add this sentence
to the end of your overview.

About the Author


Your bio is your opportunity to prove that you are qualified to write this book. On one
new page (most of us have led one-page lives), tell editors everything you want them to
know about youin order of importance to the sale of your book. Write your bio in the third
person to avoid a page full of Is.
Include any media experience. If you have an audio or videocassette of any appearances youve made, mention them. If you will meet with interested editors at your expense, write, The author will meet with editors interested in the book. These add to
an editors sense of your commitment to your book.

210

The Craft & Business of Writing

At the end of your bio, either scan or affix a photo of you that makes you look media-genic and like a successful author and, if possible, relates to the book. This wont be
necessary if you will be including an article or brochure that includes a photo of you.

The Outline
To prove that theres a books worth of information in your idea and that you have devised the best structure for organizing it, write from a paragraph to a page of prose outlining every chapter. Aim for one line of outline for every page of text you guesstimate, for
example, twenty lines of outline for a twenty-page chapter. This doesnt have to be exact,
but it will help you make the length of your outline relate to the length of your chapter.
The Golden Rule for Writing Outlines is: Write about the chapter, not about the subject.
Start your outline with a page called The Outline, skip a space, then type List of
Chapters, and list the chapters and the page of the proposal that each chapter outline
begins on. Make your chapter titles as effective as the title for your book, like headlines
for ads that compel readers to read what follows them.
At the beginning of each outline, center the number of the chapter at the top of the
page, then give the title on the next line flush left. Flush right on that line, indicate how
many pages the chapter will be, and the number of illustrations it will have if youre
planning to use them.
Give your chapter outlines a sense of structure in one of two ways:
1. The first way is to start an outline like this: This chapter is divided into X parts,
and then provide about a paragraph of copy about each part.
2. The second way is to begin successive paragraphs like this:

a. The chapter opens, starts, or begins with ...

b. The next part, section or segment of the chapter ...

c. The chapter ends, concludes or closes by ...
Use outline verbs like describe, explain, discuss, analyze, examine. (My book How to Write a
Book Proposal lists more than one hundred of them.) Vary the verbs and how you use them
as much as you can to avoid repetition and so the outline doesnt read like a formula.
You will get the knack of doing this. Its not hard, just a new skill, and the examples
in the book will help you.

A Sample Page of Outline


Heres an outline for a chapter for what became my book How to Get a Literary Agent.
Chapter 12
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: How to Handle Agency Agreements

19 Pages
This chapter starts by balancing the pros and cons of agency agreements. Then it covers
eleven essential points that should appear in any agreement, as well as clauses for writers

The Business of Nonfiction 211

to avoid. Four representative agreements follow, including the authors, which appears on
the next two pages.
The discussion of agreements concludes that since no agreement can encompass every potential contingency, the most important basis for any agreement is the good faith of
the people who sign it.
The next part of the chapter presents separate bills of rights for authors and agents
stating their responsibilities to each other whether or not the agents have an agreement.
The chapter ends by analyzing the causes for changing agents and the three-step procedure for doing it:
1. Try to find a satisfactory solution to the problem.
2. If that is not possible, notify the agent in writing of the change.
3. Find another agent.

The Sample Chapter


Choose the strongest representative chapter that will best show how well you write and
what is freshest and most exciting about your idea. Agents and editors usually like to
see about 10 percent of the text, twenty to twenty-five pages. Include the illustrations
for the chapter if you will use them.
A narrative nonfiction book, such as a memoir, that you want to have the impact
of a novel may have the greatest impact if editors see all of it, so be prepared to submit
the entire manuscript, along with the first part of a proposal, and a two-page synopsis
instead of an outline.
The parts of a proposal are listed in the order that you will submit them. But you
can write them in whatever order you wish. You may, for example, find a proposal easier
to write if you start with the easiest part of it to write, perhaps your bio, and then do the
other parts in order of their difficulty.

O Happy Day
If luck is ability meeting opportunity, you are part of the luckiest generation of writers
who ever lived. Information is doubling every eighteen months, and the age of information is also the age of the writer. There are more:

Subjects for you to write about


Ways to get your books written
Options for getting your books published
Ways to promote your books
Ways to profit from them than ever

And technology is a genie on a chip, an amazing tool for writing, researching, selling,
and promoting your books, and for building and maintaining the networks you need
to meet those challenges.
There are also more ways than ever to test-market your book throughout the writing and publishing process. One is writing a blog or one or more articles about the

212

The Craft & Business of Writing

subject. An article that is long enough and strong enough will substitute for a sample
chapter. In fact, the right article in the right magazine at the right time can sell a book.
Agents and editors read media, online and off, to find ideas and writers.
The simplest recipe for happiness I know is to create your perfect bookthe gift
that only you can give, the song that only you can singand send it out into the world.
And its easier than ever for the right book to change the world. So read what you love
to read and write what you love to read. The passion that you want all of the gatekeepers between you and your readers to have starts with you. So make passion illuminate
everything you do.
Susan Taylor, the editor of Essence, once said, What you love to do is exactly what
you were put here to do. I urge you to put your gifts for speaking and writing in the
service of your ideas, your books, and your readers, and dont just do it for yourself, do
it for all of us. Good luck!

The Business of Nonfiction 213

ANALYZING A
MAGAZINE FROM
THE OUTSIDE IN
by

Lisa Collier Cool

he secret to identifying promising markets for your article ideas is knowing how to
size up unfamiliar publications quickly. A reader skims through a magazine reading the articles that strike his fancy and skipping the rest. But a writer analyzes everything in the magazine from the ads to the articles, looking for clues that will show him
how to sell to that magazine. This attitude will give you an edge over the competition,
making points with editors and ultimately paying off in sales.

The Cover
While you can judge a magazine by its cover, youre likely to get a superficial impression.
New York Magazine is obviously a regional publication, but with eight million stories
in the naked city, which one should you pitch? Say that the two article titles on the
cover are: Clinton: Fire Your Lawyer, and Summer Fun: The Hottest Beaches, Sports,
Fashion, Shopping, Books, Food, Movies, Kid Stuff, and More. Since cover stories are
the ones editors see as the most important in that particular issue, right off we know
these editors are interested in politics, current events, recreation, fashion, food, and
trendspossible areas to consider for your submissions to this publication.

The Table of Contents


Often writers are confused by the differing terms used in a table of contents and are unable to distinguish staff-written material from freelance pieces, or they waste time scrutinizing staff-written magazines that are not potential markets. In the table of contents,
staff-written pieces often appear without author bylines, while titles of freelance pieces
are normally credited to their authors. If no bylines appear in the table of contents, the
magazine is almost certainly staff-written; for further confirmation compare bylines of
the actual articles with the list of contributing editors or staff writers in the masthead of the magazine. (If no bylines accompany the articles either, the magazine is definitely staff-written.) Checking for author bios at the end of published articles will also

214

The Craft & Business of Writing

help you identify freelance articles. Joan Smith owns Renovations Unlimited and is
currently writing a book on home renovations implies that the author does not work
for the magazine regularly.
The table of contents is likely to be divided into at least two categories, one containing
articles and features and another listing columns and departments. While some
magazines favor more fanciful terms, or group material by subject, your goal should be to
learn which articles are regular, monthly features (Cosmo Tells All) and which are oneshots (Birth Control Update). While the majority of freelance work will appear in the
articles and features sections, some regular columns and departments also buy freelance
material. Others are completely staff-written. To determine which columns or departments are potential markets for you, compare each bylined name with the mastheadif
the writer works for the magazine, the column isnt open to freelance work. Another test
is to check two or more issues. If a byline appears each month, the column is probably
done by freelancers. Also look for small print at the end of the columnsome magazines
include writing tips and prices paid to encourage submissions.

The Articles
Having several issues on hand is particularly helpful since some article types may not
appear in each issue. Youll want to note length (one printed magazine page with no
ads is usually about a thousand words; or count the number of words in one inch of
columns and measure the article with a ruler to get a more exact count). Then look at
what kind of research is favored: numerous quotes from experts, book references, newsbreaking reportage, popularization of scientific research, personal experience, author
expertise, or intellectual analysis of ideas. Now consider tone: witty, practical, sophisticated, intellectual, sexy, step-by-step how-to, emotional, or chatty. Finally, look for distribution of subject matter: If the last three issues contain ten self-help articles and one
humor piece, youll have some idea of the relative demand for these two article types.

The Columns and Departments


In addition to being possible markets for your writing, these can also indicate what
not to write about. A column may completely satisfy the magazines need for a certain
kind of material, or it may limit submission possibilities for a particular topic. While
some magazines buy freelance book or record reviews, for example, freelance sales are
unlikely if a regular column already covers new releases. Sometimes taking a specialized
angle may overcome this problem: The All-Time Best Love Songs, or Finding Nonsexist Childrens Books. If a column covers a very broad subject area like travel, check
several recent issues before making submissions in the same area. Freelance articles on
the subject, if any, are likely to be either longer or more specialized. Being aware of recent coverage also prevents you from making overlapping submissions.
The regular features can also help you construct a profile of the typical reader. Consider what these departments tell you about the Cosmopolitan reader: Cosmo Body, Cosmo
Health, Style Counsel, Beauty Q and A, Best Gets (fashion update), Inside Hollywood, Cosmo Careers, Agony (self-help advice), Cosmo Cash, Dating and Relating,

The Business of Nonfiction 215

and Bedside Astrologer. You see the Cosmo girl is interested in her looks, her body, and
her mind. Shes upwardly mobile (Cosmo Careers and Cosmo Cash), but immersed
in pop culture (Bedside Astrologer, Inside Hollywood), and probably single (the horoscope is for her man, not her husband). Extrapolating, you can imagine the typical reader
as an upwardly mobile administrative assistant searching for her male counterpart.

The Ads
Since advertisers spend vast sums to pinpoint appropriate markets for their products, put
this research to use by learning all you can about the demographics of the readership: age,
sex, lifestyle, income level, social class, and interests. Lets take a look at Child magazine.
Its name immediately identifies children as the readers most salient interest, but who exactly is that reader? Normal ads that would appear in Child include: Huggies diapers, Ford
Freestar minivan, swimming pool covers, Baby Magic lotions, Claritin antihistamine syrup; this suggests that the main audience is womenmotherswith above-average income
(hence the swimming pool covers and $20,000 minivan). With this in mind, finding suitable angles on articles slated for this publication is much simpler.
Scrutiny of the ads can also suggest topics to write about. Since Child has many ads
for diapers, baby food, infant toys, and childrens medicines, good articles might be:
The Best Over-the-Counter Remedies for Your Child, Starting Your Baby on Solid
Food, and What to Do About Diaper Rash.

The Editors Page and letters to the editor


Though some magazines dont carry one, the editors page is your opportunity to meet
the top editor up close and personal. Often the editor either discusses what interests
her about some of the major articles, or imparts philosophical reflections about the
magazines subject matter. Both give you insights into the editors mental outlook and
interests that can be reflected in your queries.
If the magazine runs reader mail, two helpful nuggets can be gleaned from it. First,
you can infer subject matter of previous articles you might have missed, broadening
your understanding of the magazines emphasis. Second, the readers reactions both
tell you what does and doesnt work in this magazine. The readers comments can
sometimes suggest affiliated article topics to consider for future queries: if reader X
complains that something wasnt covered, your query might focus on that subject.

In the Next Issue Announcements


Like letters to the editor, such announcements clue you in to additional topics that
interest the magazine and emphasizes the editors priorities.
As you sharpen your skill to size up market needs, youll find the process becomes
automaticso even a casual read turns up ideas that can open new markets for your
writing. Once you make reading like a writer a habit, you could soon find that your
favorite magazines next cover story is ... your article!

216

The Craft & Business of Writing

how to break in to
popular magazines
by Jenna

Glatzer

ou get that wistful look in your eyes as you stand at the grocery checkout line. You
sigh a little, fingering the glossy covers of those gloriously popular magazines. A
single tear forms as you realize that, for the thirty-fifth month in a row, your byline
is in none of them.
Sure, you have your little successes. Your work has appeared in smaller magazines.
Maybe your articles even show up regularly in local publications, on Web sites, in trade
magazines, or in those midsized consumer magazines that never quite make the cut at
the supermarket. But you cant deny you ache to finally crack those glossies and feel
like youre a member of the upper echelon of freelance writers. How do I know? Ive
been there. And now that Ive had the exciting experience of casually flipping to my
articles and pointing them out to my friendly supermarket cashiers, I want to help you
do the same.

Aim Big, But Think Small


If you dont have a bio and clips to die for, major magazine editors arent likely to
trust you with a long feature assignment right away. Instead, aim for the short articles in the front of the magazine, and stay on the lookout for appropriate ideas you
can flesh out in a few hundred words or less. For truly short articles, you can skip the
query and just write the whole thing if you preferit usually requires about the same
amount of effort.
Linda Wasmer Andrews has now written seventeen hundred articles for a wide list
of impressive magazines, but says her first big break came in 1985 when she sold several
short pieces to American Health. Back in those prehistoric days, you couldnt just surf
the Internet for leads, so I would go to the local medical library and spend hours combing through the current issues of medical journals looking for quirky ideas that would
make my queries stand out, she says. The first one that sold was a short item about
the air quality in ice-skating rinks. Other successful pitches included seatbelts for dogs
and a curved-bristle toothbrush. Those short clips in a big magazine landed me long

The Business of Nonfiction 217

assignments from small magazines, which landed me long assignments from big magazinesmy ultimate goal, of course.

Find Local Subjects


Savvy freelancers never discount their local newspapers, radio, and television stations.
You never know when youre going to find out about one of your neighbors who has a
story worthy of a national audience. Be especially aware of local volunteers, extraordinary human-interest stories and town projects, and interesting entrepreneursmany
magazines are on the lookout for these subjects. And dont ignore kids accomplishmentsteen magazines use plenty of stories about outstanding youth.
Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt broke into American Profile by paying attention to her surroundings. I pitched the magazine a story on Delaware City, a forgotten town that was
trying to entice tourists so it could regain some of its former grandeur. Bell-Rehwoldt
and her husband had been gallivanting around town and were smart enough to stop by
the visitors center for research material.

Write Your Own Story


Your personal experiences are potential goldmines. Think about the important life lessons youve learned, the challenges youve overcome, the stories that have captivated your
friends and inspired other people. A story that is uniquely yours cannot be assigned to
another writer, so your clips are not as important in this area as your compelling tale.
While working at a public radio station, Andrea Cooper sold a first-person story
about the stations Celtic music program to The Christian Science Monitor. My first major
credit was from Womans World, where I told the story of how my fianc helped me overcome agoraphobia.

Meet Editors
If you have a chance to meet editors at conferences or networking events, do it! Sometimes youll have an opportunity to pitch (sell a magazine idea) on the spot; other
times, its considered poor form to do business at an event, but you can listen to the
editor talk and then pitch by e-mail later. Some freelancers also got their starts by
landing internships or entry-level positions at magazines and using the time, in part,
to make contacts.
At a writers conference many years ago, Veda Eddy listened to a Sports Illustrated
editor speak about her need for quirky pieces on sports-related subjects. Although
Eddy had never read the magazine, she pitched the editor an article about the ways
racehorses are named. She said it sounded promising and asked me to follow up
with a written query, says Veda. That was the first of about six articles I wrote for
Sports Illustrated, and it would never have happened if I hadnt had that personal contact with the editor.

218

The Craft & Business of Writing

Write On Spec
Writing on speculation (on spec) is a controversial issue among writers, but theres no
denying that it can pay off. If you have no clips, or nothing you feel would impress the
editor enough to assign you a particular piece, it may be worth it for you to write the
article and hope itll sell. Study the magazines format to get an idea of the right word
count and style, and then give it your best shot.
Thats what Lisa Marie Beamer and Janine Adams did. Beamer won a writing contest
sponsored by an online writers group, and entrants were encouraged to submit their
work to paying markets after the contest ended. She edited her entry until she thought
it was marketable, and then sent it to FamilyFun. I was shocked beyond belief when,
two months later, a senior editor called to tell me they were interested in using my essay
for their My Good Idea column! Adams queried Good Housekeeping about a profile of
an animal-rescue activist, and they asked for the story on spec. It was published in 1997,
and since then, Adams has written for many other national magazines.

Work Harder Than Everyone Else


If youre trying to break in, be willing to do extra work up front to give the editor confidence in your ability to handle the assignment. Research, nail down experts, perfect
your lead, find anecdotes, and suggest sidebars and visuals where appropriate.
I had been writing for trade publications and smaller magazines for a few years
and unsuccessfully pitching the big womens pubswhen I learned that editors like to
see a lot of research in your queries, says Linda Formichelli, a freelancer who has written for Family Circle, Womans Day, and Redbook.

No Magic Key
Many writers believe if they can just land one article in a well-known magazine, theyll
be set and will never lack assignments again. The truth is most freelancers find that getting a byline in a major magazine helps, but it doesnt guarantee future sales. Jane Louise
Boursaws first major sale was to Womans Day, and she says, I felt like the queen of the
world after getting that byline. That story helped me get my foot in the door and gave me
the confidence to keep going, but I still had to keep chugging forward with queries.

Keep on Querying
It may help if you give yourself a weekly query quota. Boursaw suggests two or three
well-crafted queries per week, whereas Bell-Rehwoldt aims for five.
Rather than shooting the same query letter to dozens of magazines at once, though,
challenge yourself to make your pitch a perfect fit. Think of a magazine as a puzzle;
your article must have all the right grooves, be the right size, and match the overall picture. If you can tell an editor just where your article belongs in the magazine and why
her readers will be interested, your odds greatly improve. And if you dont hear back

The Business of Nonfiction 219

from an editor, Adams says you should always follow up by e-mail or phone: Dont
take silence as a no.

Be Audacious
There are many avenues that can lead you to your first big sale, but you have to be willing to take a risk. Beamer says she didnt have any confidence her first essay would sell.
I could have easily talked myself out of sending it, but I didnt. It sounds clich, but you
have to take what might seem like unrealistic chances if youre going to succeed. You
never know which chance might pay off.
When the odds seem insurmountable, remember: Every successful freelancer once
had a blank list of credits. Keep learning, keep building those clips, and dont be afraid
to shoot for the top. Today might just be your day.

220

The Craft & Business of Writing

Sell it again, sam:


reprints & rewrites
by

Gordon Burgett

elling an article once is a major accomplishment, at least while youre earning


your spurs. Selling the same article again and again, or other articles derived from
the same research, is utter delight. Showing you how that is done is the purpose of
this article.
For clarification, lets distinguish between the two major means of reselling. The
first, called reprints, is in its simplest form the selling of the same article, as is, repeatedly to different markets. The second, called rewrites, is the taking of the same facts,
quotes, and anecdotes and reshuffling, expanding, and rewriting them into new forms,
each a different article using some or much of the same material.

Reprints
A traditional reprint sale follows the original sale of an article to an editor who purchased first rights. That editor bought the right to use your wordsthat articlein
print first. When those words appeared in print, the rights automatically reverted back
to you, and your rights relationship with that editor ended.
What remained were second rights, also called reprint rights. (Second and reprint
rights mean the same thing; the terms are interchangeable.)
Once your article has appeared in print from a first-rights sale, you can immediately
offer that very same article, without change, to any other editor you think might buy it.
It couldnt be more straightforward.
Writers Market tells you what rights editors buy and whether they buy reprints, or
the editor will tell you when you receive a go-ahead to your query. It also tells whether
the magazine pays on acceptance or publication.
Who buys second or reprint rights? Mostly editors who pay on publication, plus a
few whose readers would not likely have read your words in the first publication, who
pay on acceptance.
How much do they pay? What they can get it for, or normally pay, since editors
buying reprints have no idea what you originally received. Alas, those paying on pub-

The Business of Nonfiction 221

lication often arent high rollers, and those paying on acceptance for a piece already
used will recognize that you will sell for less (since youve already been paid for putting
the research and words in final form), so figure a third to one-half of what the original
purchaser paid, then consider it a boon if you make more.
The best thing about reprints is that through diligent and creative marketing, you
can resell the same piece many times. So when the final tally is made, you might have
earned more money for churning the same winning prose repeatedly than you made for
selling the original.
Using dollars to illustrate the point, if the original article took you eight hours to
sell, research, and write and paid you $450, that is a gross profit of $56.25 an hour. If
you resell the same article three times, each paying $200 and taking forty-five minutes
apiece to find the market, prepare a copy of the article, reprint the cover letter and get it
in the mail, that is an additional $600, or $267 an hour. (You can substitute your own
prep time and payment rates.)
Mind you, nobody has ever sold a reprint before he sold the original article, so the
hard workthe idea finding, market picking, querying, editor studying, researching,
writing, editing, rechecking, and submittingis done first. Reprints sold later are the
very tasty dessert to a hard-won meal.
So how do you get editors to buy reprints?

The Reprint Selling Process


Sometimes editors feverishly seek you out, begging you to let them reuse a masterpiece
you already soldyou name the price. (Or so Ive heard from writers whose imaginations vastly exceed their credibility.)
Yet it does happen, on a far lesser scale. Readers Digest and Utne Reader are two wellknown magazines that do seek high-quality reprints to use (sometimes rewritten in a
condensed form) on their pages. You can shorten their searches by sending copies of a
particularly strong article with a cover letter suggesting they may wish to consider that
recently published work for their pages.
There is no choice with the rest of the editors who might consider reusing your
bought prose. You must find them, approach them in a sensible manner through a
reprint cover letter, and include a copy of the article in question and an SASE.

Finding the Most Likely Reprint Buyers


Common sense guides this search. Since you want to sell the reprint without change,
comb Writers Market to find other publications similar to the one that originally printed your article. Check in the same subject category, or those with similar readerships.
Start with the Table of Contents. Read carefully about every publication that might
even be remotely similar or use a topic like yours, as is, or redirected to a different market or from a different setting.
Now create two columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, write the title
of every magazine that might use the article exactly as it is. Note the page number
of the reference next to it, for easy finding later. In the second column, write the

222

The Craft & Business of Writing

title of every magazine that might use the subject if you rewrote or redirected it.
Next to the name write down how you would have to rewrite the article to make it
buyable: for women: change examples, approach from female perspective, wants
history, focus on subject in early 1990s, uses bullets: extract key points, create
bullets, change the setting to France, use French examples. Also include the page
number for reference.
Lets focus on column one here, since the changes needed to rewrite the piece are
obvious in column two. Youll most likely want to contact the editors of all of the publications in column one, whether they pay on publication or acceptance. Once youve
created a master reprint cover letter, computers make it quick to customize the address
and salutation and insert a personalized reference in the text. The potential of a resale,
even slight, outweighs the small amount of time, copying, and postage required to get
your article and letter before a healthy scattering of eyes.
Do not send the reprint cover letter and article copy to those magazine editors paying on acceptance who already rejected your query, or to those major magazines that
never buy second rights. Sometimes there are reprint buyers that are flat-out foes of
each other. Submit to one first (the most likely to use it or pay the most), and the second if the first says no. (Years back I sold to the Air California and PSA magazines, both
fierce competitors. While I was within my rights to simultaneously offer reprints to
both, since reprint sales are nonexclusive, if both had bought the reprint and used it on
their pages, I would have lost two good clients forever!)
Once you have identified your marketing targets, youll need a clear copy of the
article you want to sell as a reprint. If the article is exactly one page long and includes
only your copy, great. Copy and send it as is. But when there is adjacent, nonrelated
copy next to the text or the prose trickles onto later pages, youll want to cut your article
out and paste it up. Include the photos or illustrations you also wish to sell. If the name
of the publication and date of the issue arent in the copy, add them to every page. And
number the pages in consecutive order.
Then head to the quick copy shop to have as many copies reproduced as you will
need, collated, and stapled. Just make certain the final copies you will send to the editors are clear, easy to read, and include everything you want to be seen.

The Reprint Cover Letter


Its not enough just to have names and addresses plus copies of what you want the editor to buy. You must sell the prospective buyer through a one-page cover letter accompanying the reproduced copy of the article. Your cover letter must do five things:




1. It must make the topic come alive before the editor ever reads a word of the article.
2. It must tell what you are offering and the rights involved.
3. It must describe any additional items or services you can provide.
4. It must tell how the manuscript will reach that editor.
5. By far the least important, it might talk a bit about you and your credentials.

Lets look at each of these areas.

The Business of Nonfiction 223

The editor doesnt know you, already gets too much mail, and has too little time to
waste on an unexpected and probably unpromising letter with an article also enclosed.
So your first (and probably second) paragraph has to make the subject of the article
jump off the page. It has to make the editor say, Wow! or, Id be a fool not to want to
read this article, or, at the least, Looks interesting. Id better read that. This is where
you show the editor you can write, discuss the topic on which you have focused your
obvious talents, and why (by inference or statement) that topic would find high favor
with her readers. This gets the editor to pick up the article and read it.
The next paragraph is short and falls after the point where youve stirred the editors interest. It tells what you are offering and what rights are available. You must tell
who bought the first rights, when the piece was in print, and what rights you are selling.
I usually get right to the point, since I dont want to dally here: As you can see by the article attached, first rights were bought by (publication) and appeared in print on (date).
I am offering second rights. (I could say reprint rights as well.)
In the following paragraph you will want to tell of other items beyond the words
that you are also offering.
These could be photos. Since photos are almost always bought on a one-time rights
basis, you can offer the photos the editor sees in the article or any of the rest that werent
bought. You can offer to send slides or prints for the editors selection, if interested.
They could be line drawings, charts, graphs, or other artwork that either appears in
the printed article or that you could prepare to add to the piece.
You could also offer a box or sidebar that you prepared but wasnt bought by the first
editor or one you could produce. (If the text exists, you might send it along with the copy
of the article to expedite the sale and show the reprint editor precisely how it reads.)
Somewhere in the reprint cover letter you must tell the editor what format you will
be sending the manuscript in. If you say nothing, the editor will assume that you expect
the copy of the article to be retyped or scanned, neither exciting prospects. You enhance
the reprint sale by offering either to send the original text double-spaced in manuscript
form or on a computer disk, mailed or sent by e-mail. Electronic submissions are by far
the most appealing.
As for what to say about yourself, the article alone will speak volumes, and the quality
of the reprint cover letter will probably fill in as many gaps as the editor needs. There are
three areas you may wish to expand upon, if it isnt done in the bio slug with the article:

If you have many publishing credits, particularly in this field


If you have a related book in print or are an acknowledged expert in the field
If the work described in the article offers some element of original, unique knowledge or research
In other words, inject more biographical information only if that significantly increases the importance of the article or why the editor should use it. Otherwise, the editor
knows the most important information already: that another editor thought your writing was good enough to buy and use. The rest the editor can probably deduce from
reading the text. If not, supplement.

224

The Craft & Business of Writing

Finally, dont forget to include either an SASE or a self-addressed postcard for a reply.
Otherwise youll never know that the editor didnt want to buy your words for reuse.
The reprint cover letter is a sales letter on one exciting page. Spelling, punctuation,
and grammar all count. Make the topic come alive and shout to be used on the editors
pages. Keep the rest businesslike, forthright, easy to understand, and compelling. Its
a letter from one businessperson to another: one with space fillers to sell, another who
has space to fill.

Modified Reprints
What if an editor wants to use your article but insists upon changes? Fine. But is it a
reprint or a rewrite? That depends upon how much change the editor wants and who
will write it.
If the changes are major, treat it like a rewrite, which will be discussed next. But
sometimes an editor just wants to squeeze the piece a bit, dropping a few words here, an
example later. Or use his own photo. He will make all of the changes.
No problem. You might ask to see the final copy before it is printed, to make sure
the changes make sense.
Or the editor may want you to tie the topic to his locale, adding in a quote or two,
some local examples, or even a sidebar that offers local specifics. He wants to use the
reprint as the core, with modifications by you.
The more labor you put into it, the more you might want to negotiate the price.
Find out what the editor intends to pay for the reprint, then try to get that increased to
compensate you for the additional research and writing.

Rewrites
A rewrite, in the least complicated terms, is an article based on an earlier article and uses
most or all of the first articles information. It is rewritten to create a different article
that has its own sales life.
Lets say you write an article about training in long jumping for the Olympics. You
follow the usual format: complete a feasibility study, query, receive a go-ahead, do the
research, write the text, and edit it. The article is printed. Then you find two other,
smaller magazines that pay on publication that are interested in the same topic, so
you send their editors a reprint cover letter, copy of the published article, and a return
postcard. One buys a reprint.
But why end there? Why not go back to that first article and see how you can reuse
your research to create other solid, salable articles? For example, why not an article for the
high school athlete called, So You Want to Be in the Olympics? From the original, you
develop a long-range focus and training program for any athlete in any field, perhaps using long jumping as the exampleor tying in several examples, including long jumping.
Or an article based on three or four athletes each from a different country showing
the paths they followed to the Olympics, with tips from each for the reading hopeful. If
all four are long jumpers, you have less research but probably less salability as well.

The Business of Nonfiction 225

Or four U.S. Olympians from widely varying fields, including long jumping, to show
their reflections on having competed: Was it worth the effort? What benefits have they
received? In retrospect what would they do differently? What do they advise the readers
thinking of following their Olympic paths?
By now the process is clear: Extract something from the original article and build
on it for a subsequent article. The more you can use from your original research, the less
time you need at the feasibility, querying, and researching stages.
The trick is equally as obvious: You need a clearly different article, one that has its
own angle or slant, reason for being, message, and structure.
Rewrites need their own titles, leads, quotes, and conclusions built around a different frame. You can use the same facts, quotes, and anecdotes but in a different way and
for a different purpose.
Once youve designed a different article, it must pass through the same selling
phases weve described: the feasibility questions, the query, the go-ahead, the additional
research, the new writing, the editing, and publication in a different magazine.
Since rewrites have their own legal existence, you can even sell reprints of rewrites.
You can even rewrite rewrites, then sell reprints of rewrites of rewrites. Thats just a
name game. The editor buying a rewrite calls it an article, an original work created for
that magazine and its readers. He doesnt want to know, and you dont want to reveal,
that its a spin-off of earlier research. Does it have its own legs? Does it stand on its own
merits? If so, the term rewrite has sense only to you, as part of the developmental
chronology and evolution of an idea put to print.
Further discussion of rewrites falls squarely under the general discussion about
how you create and sell copy. Since a rewrite is based on an idea that already sold and
comes from research that has passed the test of acceptability, it simply has an edge on
the competing articles if it is worth using in its own right.

A summary of Reprints and Rewrites


The difference is best seen from the rights perspective.
A reprint is an article sold on a first-rights basis that is being sold again (and again).
The original buyer purchased the right to use that article on his pages first. Once used,
the rights reverted to the writer. Following the protocol described, the writer then contacts other editors offering the resale of that original piece, on a reprint or second-rights,
nonexclusive basis. The copy is the same or includes few changes.
A rewrite is a different article based on a previously written article and all the research that involved. Its a rewrite only in the mind of the writer. To the buyer it must be
completely different from the work sold, since first rights to those words have already
been purchased and it is not being marketed as second or reprint rights.
Reprints and rewrites require attention to publishing proprieties. If they are done
improperly, you can lose more goodwill, and future earnings, than you earn at the outset. The most important element of those proprieties is honestydefining in your own
mind whether the piece is a reprint or a rewrite. If in doubt, discuss it with the interested editors. They dont bite; they just hold their purse strings tightly.

226

The Craft & Business of Writing

make more money


with sidebars
by

Gordon Burgett

idebars arent the meat and potatoes of selling, but tasty side dishes that enhance
the overall flavor of the meal and increase its value.
They do deserve special attention, though, particularly if you want to earn a healthy
income from writing. You must know how they fit into the larger scheme of selling,
when they can make the difference to a sale, and how and when they can or should be
offered or provided.

When Should You Use Sidebars?


Sometimes you need more than a simple, self-contained article to make the sale or to
explain the topic fully. Sidebars accompany perhaps a third of the magazine articles
sold, so you must know what they are and how they enhance your salability to editors.
The good news: They usually earn you more money!
You may hear sidebars referred to as bars or boxes. Theyre the same thing; secondary information linked to an article and contained in a box or sidebar. Time and Newsweek use them frequently, often shaded a different color to set them off. If the main
story is about welfare change, the box will probably contain an in-depth account of how
the changes affect one welfare family or a list of changes in the law.
If youre writing about the tulip festival in Holland, Michigan, your box might be
(1) other town activities this year, (2) other points of interest to see within forty miles
of Holland, (3) a thumbnail history of the town and township, (4) six national figures
born in Holland.
You get the idea: If the main article covers the broad theme (taxation, life on Mars, illegal immigrants), the sidebar zeroes in (a state that lowers taxes annually, how microbes
can exist in hostile environments, one family living in three countries). Macro/micro.
Or the reverse: The article is about type B blood and the difficulty of matching donors in Finland, Spain, and Bolivia; the box tells how the mutant blood type began and
spread. Or the article is a biography of Sandy Koufax; the box tells of Jewish ball players
in the major leagues. Micro/macro.

The Business of Nonfiction 227

Which Editors Use Sidebars?


Most do, but you must study the publication to see if the one you want to buy your
masterpiece is in the majority. Newspaper editors are the most likely buyers, particularly if the box is short and tucks up in an empty hole near the article.
Sidebars create more problems for magazine editors, who are cramped for space. So
they are more likely to break the article into components, the body and a box or two
(before or after) only if they know in advance the total space needed and why the sidebar
adds appreciably to the articles content.

How Do You Sell Sidebars?


You really only have two means to get the additional copy accepted and bought.
The best is probably just to write the box at the same time you write the article,
create and print up each manuscript separately, and on the top of the sidebar, write in
large letters SIDEBAR so the editor knows it is supplementary material. Then the editor has four choices: (1) buy the article alone, (2) buy the article and the sidebar, (3) buy
only the sidebar, or (4) send you packing, sans sale.
You wont sell the article/sidebar package if you dont send in a good sidebar that
adds significantly to the original piece. Often enough, an editor will buy an article and
not the accompanying sidebar. Its a rare day that an editor buys only a sidebar, although not so rare to kindly refuse the article for some reason but ask you to expand
the sidebar into another article with a new slant.
Those are the positives, that sidebars can not only increase your income, sometimes
doubling it, but also offer sales opportunities in addition to the main article.
The negative is the loss of time writing sidebars that are not bought.
An example might help clarify the process. Some years back I became interested
in gray whales and their near extinction in California, where I had recently moved. In
researching the topic, I discovered that one could take a three-hour boat trip from the
San Pedro harbor, near Los Angeles, to see the giant critters up close, or as close as they
want you to be.
I bobbed and exclaimed in awe with other fair-weather gawkers as the whales appeared, blew mist, breathed, and gracefully disappeared. After interviewing the captain
and first mate, I found my land legs and spoke to the founder of the Whale Watch program at the nearby Maritime Museum, which had an excellent exhibit about the oldest
and largest extant mammals. The result was an article about how one could see gray
whales by ship off the southern California coast.
My choice was either to cram another thousand words of details into that magic prose
about precisely which cities had wharves housing ships that took the public on such excursions, where the wharves were, the names of the ships, their whale-watching schedules,
the costs, phone numbers for amplification, and other particularsor set those aside in a
box and let the editors decide if the box, all or part, was wanted for their pages.
As it turned out, six newspaper editors bought the article. All paid extra and bought the
sidebar, too. More often, a few buy it all but most have room only for the main offering.

228

The Craft & Business of Writing

Another way to handle this problem is to suggest, in the cover note accompanying
the finished manuscript, that you could write a sidebar, then explain what it would say
and why it would add significantly to the article. (Savvy editors would ask themselves
why, if its so valuable, you didnt just write and send it.)
There are distinct drawbacks to this method. One, there is too little room as it is in
the cover note, and what there is should be used to sell the article itself and to explain
the availability of photos. Two, the editors must put the article aside, contact you about
the sidebar, wait until it arrives, and then pump up their enthusiasm a second time
about the article, if they can still find it. The newspaper world spins too quickly for that
many variables; too many sales will be lost. Better to take the chance, write a sidebar if
its needed, and get something bought at the first reading.
For magazines, you are far less likely to lose time writing boxes that arent bought.
Mention the possibility of a sidebar in your query letter first, and only if the editor encourages its creation and submission will you invest the extra effort needed.
Thinking about what you can put in a sidebar will also better guide you when you
prepare the article itself. With a sidebar you can focus on one aspect of the topic and
leave the other details or uncovered critical points to the article. Without it, you must
touch every base in the text.
Another cetaceous example, a bit convoluted, shows what I mean. I had just sent
a finished manuscript to Dynamic Years about Whale Watching in the United States
when, in an airplane seat next to mine, I met a sea captain who had been contracted
to capture the only gray whale in existence, Gigi, kept in San Diegos SeaWorld. Since
he too was captive, I interviewed Frank Mason and asked if he minded if I shared his
adventure with the world.
The next morning I called the editor of Dynamic Years, explained my good fortune,
and suggested that the core of the interview might make an interesting sidebar. He
agreed. I wrote it up that afternoon, mailed it (during the era when a fax was presumably a female fox), and the article and sidebar suddenly became the lead piece and required a cover photo to match!
The order was reversed95 percent of the sidebars Ive sold to magazines were suggested in the query letter and developed as a result of the editors interestbut the end
result was the same: a better writing product, more complete with more facts, quotes,
and anecdotes. A subject better developed, balanced between two angles. And a fatter
paycheck for not a whole lot more work.

How and Where Do You Suggest


a Sidebar in a Query Letter?
If at all, I like to do it dead last, after Ive sold the idea. My last paragraph might read:
If interested, I can also provide a sidebar about Frank Mason, the only sea captain who
ever captured a gray whale (Gigi, for San Diegos SeaWorld). Since you required those
interviewed to be over forty-five, Frank, at sixty-three, is fair game. Just let me know.
If you have two possible sidebars, use the same format: I can also provide sidebars
about (A), with a quick explanation, and/or (B), with an explanation, if interested. Just

The Business of Nonfiction 229

let me know. Three is too many. One, if too long, is too many. Keep the focus in a query
on the primary topic, and only suggest a sidebar if its an interesting, valuable addition
that adds a second dimension.

How Much Are Sidebars Worth?


Certainly less than the article itself. Sometimes the editor wont pay a penny extra,
thinking that the text is all part of a larger article, however divided. But thats rare.
Newspapers might pay you from $25 to $100 or more. Magazines often increase the
pay from 10 to 50 percent depending on the amount of work or research required. The
truth is, you are often left to the mercy or charity of the editor.
Often the real payment doesnt become apparent until later. A well-structured article that includes a sidebar, even two, convinces the editor you are the kind of professional who should write often for her pagesmain pieces, usually on assignment, travel
paid. The payback is delayed but will amount to considerably more over the long run
than the few extra bucks earned now from a single sale.

Can Sidebars Be Sold Any Other Way?


Sell your words any way you can. You can break an epic into a hundred short poems and
sell each to a different editor, if you wish. Sidebars can be sold as add-ons to an article,
then rewritten and sold as a short article or a filler to another magazine. If you can find
forty different ways the same facts can be resorted into clearly distinct items, you have
forty different products to sell.
But note the word rewrite. You get hopelessly enmeshed in the rights issue unless
you change the title, the lead, the conclusion, and the orderthat is, decidedly reslant
each version. Once reslanted, go for it. You may even need a sidebar to go alongside your
reformulated sidebar. If so, follow the process above!

230

The Craft & Business of Writing

The Craft of Childrens Writing


Lost in the Woods of Plot? Heres a Way Out.........................................................231
by

Bonny Becker

Picture Books 101: Pay Attention to Structure......................................................238


by

Darcy Pattison

Is It Really a Crime to Write in Rhyme?.................................................................244


by

Barbara J. Odanaka

The New Rules of Teen Lit (Hint: There Are No Rules).......................................248


by

Megan McCafferty

Historical Fiction: Bringing the Past to Life...........................................................254


by

Deborah Hopkinson

Nonfiction: Can Informational Books Be Sexy?....................................................258


by

Kathleen Krull

Getting Back in the Saddle for a Tough Revision...................................................264


by

Christine Kole MacLean

Writing Groups: Succeeding Together.....................................................................270


by

Sara Grant

The Business of Childrens Writing


The Synopsis: Short, But Power-Packed.................................................................275
by

Sue Bradford Edwards

Writing & Promoting Books for Babies & Toddlers.............................................280


by

Hope Vestergaard

Oh, The Places Ive Been!: Promoting Your Childrens Book..............................285


by

Esther Hershenhorn

by JoAnn

Early Macken

Head of the Class: Tips for Successful School Visits................................................296


by

Kelly Milner Halls

License Writing Opens Doors...................................................................................300


by

Sue Bradford Edwards

Surviving the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Review.............................306


by Jeffrey

Lee

Great Expectations: Conferences Can Make a Difference...................................311


by

Darcy Pattison

Childrens
Writing

Writing for the School & Library Market..............................................................290

lost in the woods


of plot?
Heres a way out
by

Bonny Becker

o youre in the forest happily strolling along a faint, but unmistakable, path when
suddenly your path disappears into a tangle of brush and you have no idea where
to step next. Or maybe the path mysteriously sprouts into twenty paths and you cant
decide which one to take. You stand there paralyzed for a day, a month ... years.
Welcome to plotting, one of the hardest parts of storytelling and the place where
manymaybe moststories and their authors get lost, at least for a while.
Is there a way out of the woods other than crashing desperately through the underbrush or mindlessly following path after path only to retrace your footsteps? Yes. Its
called classic story structure. Its the structure that underlies almost all stories from
Tolstoys Anna Karenina to The Cat in the Hat.
The idea that almost all stories have a common structure was expressed by Aristotle
over two thousand years ago. And observers such as Joseph Campbell believe stories follow a mythic pattern as old as storytelling itself because that pattern is built into how
humans perceive and respond to the world.
Story structure is not an exact map or a step-by-step route through the woods. You
will still have to create your own unique path, your own unique story. As Robert McKee
notes in his landmark book Story, Story is about eternal universal forms, not formulas.
But knowing something about story structure can help give you a vision of your
final destination and landmarks along the way to help guide you there.

Common Story Elements


These basic elements are common to almost all stories:

Youll have a main character (hero) with a need or a want.


In an effort to meet this need, your hero will leave the ordinary world and go in

quest of the solution to his problem.


The
story will build through rising actionthe stakes will get higher, the tension

will mount, the tasks will become more difficultuntil the story climaxes in an
ultimate test for your character.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 231

Your hero will return to his ordinary world a changed person.


The Beginning
Think of your story as a circle. In the beginning of the story, your hero is trapped in
what writing instructors such as Christopher Vogler in The Writers Journey call the ordinary world.
Quite simply, your hero is in some current situation that isnt working for one reason or another.
For Harry Potter, its living with a beastly aunt and uncle who treat him cruelly.
For Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz its being stuck in Kansasfar away from a longed-for
rainbow world. For the ant in my own picture book An Ants Day Off, its having to work
every day underground never knowing sky or sun or rain.
Struggling with how to start your story? A good place is to simply start here in the
ordinary world.
In Linda Sue Parks Newbery-winning middle-grade novel A Single Shard, chapter
one deftly shows the reader that the main character, Tree-ear, is an orphan. He lives
with Crane-man under a bridge. They are poor but honest. And we see Tree-ears fascination with making pottery. The stage is set.

The Escape
The next step in the story cycle will be your heros escape from this ordinary world. In
screenwriting this is called the inciting incident. In story structure based on mythology, its known as the call to adventure. The bottom line is something will happen to
upset the balance in the heros current life and bring about change.
For Harry Potter, the inciting incident is when he receives the letter inviting him
to Hogwarts. For Dorothy its the arrival of the tornado and the loss of Toto. Its not
necessarily the moment of change, but its the event that incites changethe event
that makes change seem inevitable. In A Single Shard, Tree-ear, caught sneaking a look
a master potters work, accidentally breaks a pot lid. Clearly life is going to change for
this outcast orphan.
Your hero then leaves the ordinary world. Everyone gets in covered wagons and
heads west. Heidi goes up the mountain. Dorothy gets whisked to Oz. Bart, the sand
ant, climbs out of the nest.
Setting the stage may take several chapters or it might be virtually a single sentence
as in the memorable first sentence of Charlottes Web:
Wheres Papa going with that ax? said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table
for breakfast.

Of course, this one sentence doesnt fully give us Ferns ordinary world. But we already
know were with a family and sense a rural setting in an older time. And we know that
something is going to happen here. Whatever that ax is about, we know its going to
change things.

232

The Craft & Business of Writing

The Quest
So, your hero enters a new world. The world of the quest. In screenwriting, its your second act. In a story or book, its your middle. This is where the hero confronts obstacles
and learns lessons. This is often where stories bog down. This is the middle of the forest.
And it can be a dense, dark place full of dead ends and misleading paths.
Here you may find yourself writing scenes and events just because you have to get
from Big Plot Point A to Big Plot Point B and something has to happen. But oddly, even
though a lot is happening, for some reason, your story feels boring and arbitrary. Or
this may be where you find yourself staring at a blank cliff side. And writers block becomes more than an abstract term.
So what do you do when you realize youre just scribbling marks on paper? You
can try to figure out why it matters. What are you really writing about? What is
your theme?
Without theme, the obstacles and conflict you create in the middle will just be a
series of then this happened and then that happened and, guess what, your hero is
battling giant ants from space and nobody cares.
No matter how big and exciting you make your events, they wont have meaning
unless they tie into a deeper story question. That deeper question isnt the plot. But its
the thing that gives meaning to the plot.

Premise vs. Theme


Figuring out theme can be tricky. Its helpful to distinguish between premise and
theme. Premise is the basic plotthe what happens part.
In the Harry Potter series, for example, the premise (not the theme) driving the plot
is how a boy learns to be a wizard. In The Wizard of Oz, the premise is Dorothys quest to
get home. In An Ants Day Off, the premise is an ant daring to be the first ant ever to take
a day off. But those describe plot, not theme.
Theme is the why it matters that it happens part.
In The Wizard of Oz, the theme seems to be something like: Maturity is achieved
when a person internalizes various values (love, courage, thinking for ones self). Its a
coming-of-age story.
Oz could have easily collapsed into just a series of events. And then Dorothy meets
this funny character and then she meets that funny character. And, in truth, no matter
how clever or interesting the characters were, you would have soon lost interest if the
events didnt add up to something more. The reason this story holds our interest, I
believe, is it answers an unspoken, perhaps unconscious, question in story form: What
does it take to be a whole person?
Theme can be a loaded word. Some writers prefer to think in terms of a story question. Or a unifying principle or controlling idea. Or they focus on character, as Linda
Sue Park does. She believes theme should grow out of the character and the story.
If a writer begins with theme, the story is likely to be heavy-handed and message-y ...
the kind of book kids run away from, she says.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 233

Yet, in a meaningful story, theme is there. For example, to me, the theme underlying A
Single Shard is the idea that craftthe mastering of a skillcan give life value and purpose.
It can be very hard to recognize your own theme. Our writing minds seem to like
to play hide-and-seek with us. And many writers will say that only later did they realize
what they were really writing about. Often our stories are driven by unconscious choices
and decisions. But most writers will at some point take a stab at what they think their
story is about and will make more conscious story decisions based on that.

The Ultimate Test


After your hero has faced various obstacles, developed various skills, observed various
approaches to whatever her problem/issue/need/want is (it can be as passive as observing how others livethats much of what Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbirdor as active
as Frodo with his many battles in The Lord of the Rings), the hero must be tested.
This has been variously described as facing the dragon or the crisis or the ultimate test. Its what your story has been leading up to. Its where we see how and if the
hero has grown from the quest.
In The Wizard of Oz, it might seem at first glance that its when Dorothy faces the
Witch, but actually its when the wizards balloon flies away. Dorothy realizes she has to
turn to herself and all that shes learned to get home and she decides to trust the shoes.
In my own middle-grade book, My Brother, the Robot, its when my boy hero, Chip,
decides to race a robot he knows will almost undoubtedly winbut for a boy whos been
avoiding challenging himself its an important choice.
In A Single Shard, its when Tree-ear decides to continue his journey even though he
has only a single shard from a ceramic pot to show the royal emissary the skill of his
master. He puts his faith in the craft evident in a single piece of the whole work.
The key word here is decide. This is the point at which your hero makes her most important choice in the story. This is the peak moment of your story. Not the battle that
follows, but the decision to battle or the way in which your hero chooses to battle.
What is the peak moment in Star Warsa film in which George Lucas relied heavily on
Joseph Campbells ideas about mythic story structure? Theres a huge emotional charge
when Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, but the peak moment, the most important
moment, is when Luke must choose between trusting in his instruments or in the Force. He
decides to go with the Force and pushes away his navigational tool. Such a tiny gesturehe
merely pushes away a piece of equipment. Such an emotional moment! Because the meaning isnt in the heros actions, it is in the meaning of his actionhis decision to act and why.
If youre trying to figure out where to take your story other than just the next random step down the road, McKee in Story suggests you look at your climax, your ultimate test, and backtrack from there. What value are you putting forward with this test
and does the rest of your story add up to this moment and this choice?

Home Again
The final element to story structure is to bring your hero home a changed person. You
come full circle. Youll need to take the reader back to that ordinary world and let the
reader see how the world has changed for your hero because your hero has changed.

234

The Craft & Business of Writing

Dorothy goes back to the farm and sees it differently because of her experience in
Oz. Tree-ear comes back to a world utterly changed from where he started. Hes adopted by the potter and his wife and has earned the right to make pots himself; this poor
orphan outcast has a home, a valuable skill, and a distinct place in his community.
My boy Chip comes back to a home where hes accepted for who he is, but hes also
more willing to try than when he started.

Putting It All Together


Its fun to see how all this works by taking a look at what may seem an unlikely candidate for classic story structure: Dr. Seusss The Cat in the Hat. But its all there.
The ordinary world and its problems are clearly established: Its a cold, cold wet
day and the two kids in the story have nothing to do. Theyre bored and passiveunable
to do anything but sit.
Theres a distinct inciting incident with a BUMP that makes them jump and the
entrance of the Cat. He changes everything about this boring rainy day.
In fact, he makes life progressively more complicated. More and more is at stake as
he shows off his tricks. And when thats not enough, he introduces two characters even
wilder than heThing One and Thing Two.
Whats the ultimate test? It might seem its the moment when the boy runs and
gets the net to catch Thing One and Thing Two, but actually it comes earlier. Its that
moment of decision when the boy finally decides that its not okay for these creatures
to be in his home. (I do NOT like the way that they play.)
How about theme? For me, the theme is about the power of imagination or creativity. Sounds rather grand for this simple little kids book, but look at the story. A boy
is bored and passively sits waiting for his mothers return. An amazing (imaginative,
creative) creature arrives on his doorstep. What follows is a demonstration that creativity is great fun, but unchecked creativity creates only chaos.
However, controlled creativity (the capture of Thing One and Thing Two) gives excitement and, oddly, responsibility to life. When did the boy act? When Thing One and
Thing Two messed with his mothers things. Creativity is a messy business, but they had
gone too far.
The Cat cleans up the messso isnt he the one solving the problem? Breaking that
old, old rule about your main character solving the problem? No, the boy character
remains the active, main character because hes the character who made the necessary
ultimate test choice. Remember, its that choice around which a story swings. And having taken control of his creativity, the boy can put it to work for himself.
By the end of that story, our boy is no longer bored and no longer passive. He even
dares consider the possibility that he wont tell his mom what happened that day and
this feels okay. Or at least it does to this mom, because he acted responsibly when it
was important.
The boy then invites readers to become more than passive observers themselves. He
fires up the readers own imagination with the ending question, What would you do?

The Craft of Childrens Writing 235

Plot Problems? Ask Yourself the Right Questions


Most writers instinctively use classic story structure. After all, its in our nature as humans.
Check out your own story. Odds are youll find you used many of these elements with no
conscious intent on your part.
But youll probably also find pieces missing or a middle that doesnt add up. Or an ending that isnt as powerful as youd like. When that happens, you might think about these
various points:

Whats my heros cage/trap/problem? Whats his ordinary world?


Whats going to upset the balance of forces in my heros life? Whats going to compel

him to leave the ordinary world and search for an answer? What is the proverbial last
straw?

What do I think my hero is grappling with internally or thematically? And what could

happen on his journey that would help illuminate that for him?
Try to be fair and thorough. The more deeply you explore your issue, the more interesting
it will be to the reader. Dont shy away from the things you have no real answer for or seem
contradictory or too difficult to figure out. Asking honest questions can make the difference
between an interesting story and a didactic series of predictable encounters.
Theme is question youre asking in story form. Your story will add up to an answer, but
let your characters act with free will to arrive at that answer. Dont force your story to an
already concluded answer.


What will be my heros ultimate test?


What is the decision he will have to make and why does he make that decision?
How will he be changed? What will be different in his ordinary world because of what
he has experienced?

To Think or Not to Think


Did Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) have this theme in mind when he wrote The Cat in the
Hat? Probably not on a conscious level. He just wanted to tell a fun story having been
challenged to create an early reader with a vocabulary list limited to 225 words. But he
clearly struggled to make this story add up. In fact, he described the yearlong process of
creating that book as something like being lost with a witch in a tunnel of love.
Was Linda Sue Park thinking about the value of craft when she crafted A Single
Shard? Probably not. But what she did have in mind was a character with a problem.
Actually two problems, she says. An internal quest and external quest. Tree-ears
external quest is to find a way to make celadon pottery. His internal quest is to find a
place where he truly belongs.

236

The Craft & Business of Writing

In writing the story, Park says there is a lot of instinct at play, but for her all scenes
must be tied directly to the queststhis is a completely conscious decision to which I
adhere rigorously.
However, she notes with a smile, I think Anne Lamonts shitty first draft ideajust
get the whole story down and fix it lateris better advice in general.
So if your writing is flowing, dont stop and think! Just get it down. If the path is
clear, just keep walking!
But eventually youll probably find you use both parts of your braininstinct and
conscious choices. And when it comes to the conscious choices part, take a look at classic story structure for some landmarks to guide you on your way.

Recommended Reading
There are a number of excellent books that can give you more ideas about story structure and how to use it in developing your story. Here are a few, including several screenwriting books. Screenplays have a distinct structure that has been analyzed extensively.
Although the structure of a novel isnt exactly the same, the ideas from screenplay writing can be very helpful.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces, second edition, by Joseph Campbell
The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters, by Christopher Vogler
Making a Good Script Great, second edition, by Linda Seger
The Weekend Novelist, by Robert J. Ray
Story, by Robert McKee
The Writers Guide to Crafting Stories for Children, by Nancy Lamb

The Craft of Childrens Writing 237

picture books 101:


pay attention to
structure
by

Darcy Pattison

hort stories and picture books have much in common. Both are short, and both
contain a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. But a short story isnt
necessarily suited for a picture book. Picture books are short stories molded to a specific structure that includes illustrations on each page. Before we put flesh on the story
you want to write, lets look at the skeleton that must hold it up.

Picture Book Structure


Picture books are almost always thirty-two pages. The reasons for this are physical:
When you fold paper, eight pages folds smoothly into whats called a signature, while
any more results in a group of pages too thick to bind nicely. In addition, the thirty-two
pages can all be printed on a single sheet of paper, making it cost-effective. In extremely rare cases, picture books may be sixteen, twenty-four, forty, or forty-eight pages, all
multiples of eight (a signature); but thirty-two pages is industry standard.
Francoise Bui (editor for Delacorte Press), who was a publisher at Doubleday Books,
an imprint of Random House, says, Well do a longer book if the story needs it. The
most likely time is if its a holiday or seasonal book, that we plan to give a bigger marketing push, and it needs those extra pages to tell the story. If Ive acquired a story I
really like, and if it needs extra pages, Ill do it.
In my book, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, the illustrator, Joe Cepeda, took fortyeight pages to tell the story. The text is letters or postcards, written by someone who
gives a lift to Oliver, a wooden man, then writes back to Uncle Ray to report on Olivers
progress across the nation from South Carolina to California. There are fourteen letters
for fourteen spreads. Cepeda adds wordless spreads between each letter to show Oliver
actually traveling.
When talking about the page layout, there are two options. First, you can look at
each page separately. Second, you can talk about double-page spreads; when a picture
book is opened flat, the two facing pages are often illustrated as one. Thus, in a thirtytwo-page book, you would have a single page (the right hand side of the book), fifteen

238

The Craft & Business of Writing

double-page spreads, and a single page (the left hand side of the book). Decorative end
papers, which are glued to the boards, often enclose these.
In those thirty-two pages, there is usually front matter consisting of a title page, a
half-title page, and a copyright page. In single pages, this may take four to five pages. In
double-page spreads, its the first single page and one or two spreads. The text, then, has
twenty-seven or twenty-eight pages or fourteen spreads, plus a last single page.
Concentrating on the skeleton of the picture book may seem boring or unnecessary, but it is one of the two main differences between short stories and picture books.
One mistake made by beginners is to have too many or too few pages to fit into this
format. Why cant the publisher ignore the standard page limits and just print the size
book needed for a particular story? Again, the reasons are physical: the way the paper
folds and standard sizes of paper for printing. Tracey Adams, literary agent with Adams
Literary, says, Its definitely easiest to market a picture book meant to be the standard
thirty-two pages.

Picture Book Illustrations


The second difference between short stories and picture books is the number of illustrations. Magazine stories, for example, may have one or two illustrations for each story.
Picture books have an illustration on each page: you must think visually when writing
for this genre.
Thinking visually doesnt mean adjectives; illustrators can fill in colors, background,
clothing, and other details. Instead, concentrate on verbs; telling your story with pic-

Strong Narrative Arcs


Deborah Halverson, assistant editor, Harcourt, Inc., also suggests studying these books as
examples of strong narrative arcs.
Gleam and Glow, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Peter Sylvada. Traditional prose story: A
family is separated by war, but they reunite with a new perspective thanks to people they
meet during the separation. The ending is brilliant and effective because of the emotional
setupuncertainty turns to fear, then to sadness, then to hope.
That Summer, by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Barry Moser. Poetry: The text and illustrations use a blend of memory and present-day events to carry readers through one summer
with a boy whose brother is sick with a terminal illness. The younger brother starts a quilt,
stitching images of his favorite things. When he can no longer finish the quilt, the older
brother finishes it for him in a tangible expression of the theme of memory.
Whose Shoes?, by Anna Grossnickle Hines, illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Simple text for
young readers: A little mouse tries on the shoes of different family members, making her way
through the entire family until she reaches her favorite pair of shoes: her own! The ending is a
satisfying confirmation of self-identity after imagining what its like to be someone else.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 239

tures requires action. Unless a description is crucial to the story, cut it. Include actions
that move the story along. Thoughts and dialogue may advance the plot, but they cant
be illustrated; talking heads make for boring illustrations. Picture book stories find
ways to make thoughts concrete.
Visual pacing is needed, Bui says. You cant repeat the same scene over and over.
Its too stagnant. The story needs to move to provide the visual variety. Varying the
setting is important. For example, if everything takes place in a bedroom, its hard to
provide fourteen or more interesting actions in that setting. Its also important to vary
the actions. If every character leaps about, page after page, the illustrations become too
repetitive. Of course, you can return to a scene, but add visual variety each time. For example, we see each of the Three Little Pigs building a house, but the building materials
are different: straw, sticks, and brick.
Visual pacing also depends on whether the illustrations are single- or double-spread.
To some extent, the text can set this pace. The amount of text can also speed up or slow
down a story. For example, if you want the pace to pick up near the climax, then cut the
number of words for these later spreads. If you want a sustained pace that slows near
the enda bedtime bookthen word counts should be similar on each page until the
end. To slow the pace at the end, you can either add extra words, or use words with long
vowels and no plosives (p, b, k, g, t, d).
Think about those page turns, too. Some stories interrupt a sentence with a page
turn, which lets the reader anticipate what might be coming next. Rick Waltons book,
Once There was a Bull ... (frog), is an excellent example of this. One page reads, Once there
was a bull ... Page turn. Frog ... Children love this invitation to play with the words
of the story.

Structure Plus Story


With picture book structure and the importance of illustration possibilities firmly in
mind, its time to turn to your story. First, write a story just as you always do. Unless
you are a poet, its best to write in prose. Writers tend to think that rhyming texts are
easy to write and easy to sell, says Bui. They are the hardest to write and I reject almost
all of them. Beginning writers are better off in prose. Adams agrees: One of the most
common errors is when an author thinks she needs to rhyme and isnt very good at it.
Remember the audience for picture books is children, so the story should be of interest to them. Unless it is a folk or fairy tale, characters are usually children. Rarely do
adult characters or inanimate objects as characters make successful picture books. Bui
says, Its preferable to have a young child as protagonist, or an animal. It needs to be
someone the child reader can relate to.
Picture book vocabulary doesnt have to be limited, because usually an adult is reading the story to a child. Likewise, style isnt limited to short, choppy sentences. In fact,
the voice of the story is just as important as in any other writing and playing with language is welcomed. Finally, limit the story to 1,000 words or less. Theres a range, Bui
says, from a very simple sparse text, to a longer, more character-driven story. Shorter

240

The Craft & Business of Writing

stories are better received by book buyers. Successful manuscripts average about four
pages (typed, double-spaced, standard formatting). From an agents point of view, Adams emphasizes, Ive had the most luck by far licensing picture book manuscripts that
are under 1,000 words. Most are actually under 500.
Just like a short story, you must introduce a character and his problem and provide
complications before solving the problem in a satisfying manner that leaves a memorable feeling or thought in the readers mind. Think about the narrative arc of your story.
Deborah Halverson, former associate editor for Harcourt Childrens Books, points
to the narrative arc of Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the Worlds Fastest
Woman, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by David Diaz. Halverson says, We
see Wilma progress from a small girl crippled by polio (she wore a leg brace and was
told shed never walk again) to a record-setting Olympic runner. This is a wonderful
example of how picture book biographies can be riveting stories for kids rather than
dry recountings of chronological facts. I think the key to the power of this book lies in
Krulls decision to let Wilmas growing sense of determination steer the story through
the key events on her road to Olympic glory. This is a story about inner strength as
much as physical accomplishment. (For more examples, see the Strong Narrative
Arcs sidebar.)
In other words, the growing sense of determination creates the narrative arc that
builds suspense and interest from the first conflict through the climax.

The Hard Work Begins


Once I have a story in hand that I think might make a picture book, the real work begins. Now, I must evaluate how well the story fits the structure of picture books and
how illustratable the story is. I usually begin by dividing my story into pages, either
twenty-eight sections for single pages or fourteen for spreads. (This is strictly for myself
to edit the story; when I send the manuscript, I dont include these page breaks.) Right
away, you may discover that your story has too few or too many pages. Revise until you
are at least close to this count. There is some flexibility in layoutthe illustrator may include a wordless spread, or may decide to put two of your sections onto one pagebut
you must be close.
Once the page count is close, its time to evaluate how well the story fits into the
storybook structure. Each page or spread must do the following:
1. Advance the story.
2. Provide an action for the illustrations.
3. Make the reader want to turn the page.
Overall, the story must move from setting to setting, so the illustrations can be varied. Of
course, you can return to a setting, or the rhythm of the story may return to a setting several times. But each repetition must provide a new action or new details for the illustrator.
Inevitably, there are weak pages that need work. Keep reworking the story until it
meets the requirements of picture book structure and the need for illustration possi-

The Craft of Childrens Writing 241

bilities. Authors often use storyboards or book dummies to help refine the story. (See
the Two Tools to Help You Write Picture Books sidebar.)

Common Problems
One common problem is stories that are too wordy. Because each double-page spread
is a scene, you can often eliminate transitions. The page turn works like a scene-cut in
film: the illustrations re-orient the reader and the words arent needed.
Parents read picture books aloud to kids, often repeating the same book over and
over. Read your story out loud. Would you mind reading it fifty times in a row? How
can you adjust the language to make repetitions more satisfying?
One of the most dreaded comments from an editor is this manuscript is too slight.
Slight can mean one of several things:
1. There arent enough illustration possibilities.
2. The theme is universal, but this telling isnt special enough. If you choose a classic
theme for a story, such as a bedtime story, you must make your story stand out in
the crowd. Study your competition and add twists, new conflicts, or wordplay to
make your story unique.
3. There isnt enough story. The conflicts are too minor; the resolution is too easy.
Rethink your story.
4. The series of conflicts dont add up to an overall theme. Rethink the conflicts.
Consider adding an extended metaphor to connect the conflicts.
5. The story lacks universality. What is this story really about? Whats happening on
the surface (going to bed) may not be the real issue (sibling jealousy). When you
identify the real theme, go back and strengthen it.

Submitting
Once you are satisfied, type the story in standard manuscript format without any page
breaks. Dont worry about finding an illustrator and trying to provide artwork with
your submission. Bui says, Sometimes writers feel they need to submit illustrations
with a story. Instead, the publisher finds the appropriate illustrator and its our preference to take care of that.
But what if you love your friends illustrations? You take a chance if you send in a
package submission: What if the editor decides to take only the text? Have you lost a
friend? Adams advises, Even if the author knows or is related to an artist, never include
the illustrations. When you offer a package submission, the editor must love both, so
youve cut your chances in half. Instead, wait until your text is accepted, then ask the
editor if she will look at sample illustrations and a portfolio from your friend.
The creation of a picture book is a collaborative effort between a writer and an illustrator; but once the editor assigns the book to an illustrator, you may have little say
about the style or content of the illustrations. Adams says, Another common error I see
is a manuscript in which many of the details are specified which should be left up to the

242

The Craft & Business of Writing

illustrator. You must trust the illustrator to be a professional and to add his unique
touch to create the best story possible. Theres one last checkpoint. To bring a picture
book to market, the publisher often invests $15,00025,000. Ask yourself if this story is
worth that kind of investment. Have you revised and polished it until it is perfect?
Once youve created the best text possible, consult Childrens Writers & Illustrators
Market for an appropriate publisher, take a deep breath, and send it in.

Two Tools to Help You Write Picture Books


Because the structure of picture books is so important, you may want to use one of two
tools to help you hone your text.
A storyboard consists of a single page with rectangles drawn to indicate the two page
spreads of a picture book. Draw some indication of what action takes place on each page
or spread. Dont be bashful: I use stick figures and no one else would be able to understand
them. Were not looking for great art here, but for a way to see the entire book at a glance.
Look for ways to build in progressions, rhythms, or repetitions, while keeping the illustrations varied and lively.
A dummy book is made by stapling together sixteen pages of paper along the short side.
Sue Alexander, author of over twenty picture books including Behold the Trees and One More
Time, Mama, suggests using colored paper to better simulate the idea of colorful illustrations
with white sections of text. Cut your printed text into sections and glue or tape them into
place in the book. Remember the text will start on either page four or five because of the front
matter. Alexander suggests you ask someone to read it aloud, while you listen for rhythm,
pacing, and voice. Evaluate how well each page advances the action and provides possible
illustrations.
Editors dont want or need to see either of these. They are trained to think in terms of page
divisions and illustrations. These are tools just for writers to use to polish their manuscripts.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 243

is it really a crime
to write in rhyme?
by

Barbara J. Odanaka

old from the get-go that verse is a no-no, the rhyming writer (a misguided creature)
actually believes the rumors swirling around conferences and Internet chats:
Editors despise rhyme. Serious writers write in prose. Writing in verse is a one-way ticket to the
rejection pile ...

Oh, what a bucket of balderdash.


I know because, until recently, I was this misguided creature. When an editor told
me she didnt buy rhyme because children deserve better, I nodded reverently. You
could have plastered a big, scarlet R on my chest. Rhyme = Crime was my mantra.
Trouble was, I could barely write without rhyming. Nearly every line that popped
from my brain did so with a distinctive beata boogie-woogie, a rumba, a cha cha cha
that was impossible to ignore. The heck with the naysayers, I decided. Win or lose, Id
give in to the muse. I sold my first book soon after.
After interviewing more than two dozen editors, agents, and authors, Ive come to
believe the odds of selling a rhyming picture book manuscript increase substantially if
one follows a few simple guidelines:

Rhyme Right
Sure, it sounds obvious, but editors often complain that the bulk of rhyming manuscripts they receive are just plain stinky. Mangled meter, forced rhyme, inverted sentences to accommodate rhyme ... the pet peeves go on and on.
Some of the worst manuscripts Ive ever read have been in rhyme, says Liz Bicknell,
associate publisher/editorial director of Candlewick Press. I dont mean to discourage
serious writers, but anyone who thinks they can dash off a great rhyming picture book
text in a couple of afternoons is either a genius or deluded.
Messy meter is a prime cause for rejection. Learning to scan your verse can certainly
helpprime rhymer Sarah Weeks, author of the popular Mrs. McNosh books, calls herself a scansion maven. Newcomer Lisa Wheeler says while she feels she has a natural
ear for rhythm, she always scans her verse to be sure.

244

The Craft & Business of Writing

Reading your manuscript out loud is a good idea, but dont stop there. Have someone (an objective someone) read it aloud. If you hear glitches in the rhythm, or feel the
urge to coach the reader in any way, you probably have more work to do.
It must flow off the tongue, says Victoria Wells Arms, former editorial director of
Bloomsbury USA. If I have trouble reading it [out loud]or worse, have trouble just
reading it silentlyforget it.
Consider taking a poetry class. A slew of award-winning authorsJanet S. Wong,
Ann Whitford Paul, and Kristine OConnell George among themwere taught and
inspired by the late, great Myra Cohn Livingston. Author Leslea Newman (Cats, Cats,
Cats!) studied under the legendary Allen Ginsberg.
Most importantly, immerse yourself in verse. Great verse, that is.
The advice I would give to aspiring writers, says Christy Ottaviano, executive editor at Henry Holt, is to study the mastersPrelutsky, Silverstein, Kuskin, Seuss, and
Florian, for starters.

Put Story First


As many editors know, a manuscript written in rhyme, even when the rhyme and meter
are perfect, does not guarantee a good story. A bee and a flea can sit by a tree, but if
thats the whole of your plot, well ...
A dull story is a dull story whether its written in rhyme or prose, says Grace Maccarone, executive editor of Scholastics Cartwheel Books, and author of Itchy, Itchy Chicken
Pox, among others.
Maria Modugno, vice president and editorial director of HarperCollins Childrens
Books, agrees: Its important for the book to say somethingeither tell a story or describe an incident or person or place.
In other words, dont let rhyme be your guide. A story must have story. Author Anastasia Suen says her trick is to storyboard her books before she begins writing them.
A line or two comes to mind, says Suen, author of Window Music. If it feels like its a
picture book, then I plot it out. If I have enough story, then I write the rest of the rhyme.
It took me years to learn this: story first, then rhyme. You can have the best rhyme in the
world, but if you dont have a story, why would an editor want to see it?
The challenge, of course, is to blend all the ingredientscaptivating plot, unforgettable characters, etc.with seamless rhythm and rhyme. Susan Middleton Elya, author
of a dozen rhyming picture books including Eight Animals on the Town, does this with an
additional twist. Elya weaves English and Spanish in her verse.
The key, Elya says, is telling a story so effortlessly that the rhyming seems secondary.
Mary Ann Hoberman agrees: The rhyme, she says, should feel inevitable.

Be Extra Creative
Rhyming picture books should introduce children to a few delicious new words and
have some clever, surprising rhymes, says Megan Tingley, editorial director of Megan

The Craft of Childrens Writing 245

Tingley Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Anyone can find a rhyme for
bear or bed. But the true masters, such as David Greenberg, create hilarious rhymes
with more unusual language.
Like this, from Greenbergs Bugs!:

There isnt any question,


Theyre infestin your intestine.

Several editors noted that predictable end rhymescat/bat, frog/log, and so onare a
turn-off. Some resist end rhyme altogether.
I think its extremely difficult to write a book with regular rhyme that doesnt drone
and that isnt exhausting to read, says Kathy Dawson, associate editorial director at Harcourt Childrens Books. For me, the best picture books use rhythm and rhyme but dont
often have end rhymes. I love books that feel great in your mouth when you read them.
Toby Speeds Brave Potatoes, which Dawson edited, is a prime example. The story,
about a squad of spuds evading a malicious chef s soup pot, features an intoxicating
mix of alternating rhythms, alliterationMaldonada mushrooms, Bastaboola beets
and various forms of rhyme, all woven into a raucous read-aloud. An excerpt:

Over at the Fair,


potatoes in the air!
See them flip, flip, flip on the wild and wooly Zip!
See the fearless aviators in their aviating duds
going over, going under in an aerial display.
What a trip, trip, trip! What a perilous ballet
for the mamas and the papas and the wee potato buds.
See the mesmerizing,

death-defying

spuds!

Like Speed, Nancy Van Laan (A Tree for Me, When Winter Comes) emphasizes rhythm over
rhyme, with fabulous results.
The only advice I can offer is this: Dont intentionally set out to write in rhyme,
Van Laan says. If it starts to become overworked as the verse progresses, perhaps it
shouldnt be written in rhyme after all. Settle for a nice, rhythmic prose instead.
Whatever you do, dont aim to be the next Dr. Seuss. (That is something editors
despise.) Develop your own style, perfect it, and strive for the freshest, most wonderful
stories your muse can muster.
As Ottaviano of Holt put it, writing in verse isnt just about turning a rhyme. Its
about developing a poetic voice and taking the form to another level.

Rhyme for a Reason


Ill admit, this one used to drive me batty. There has to be a reason? Cant I rhyme just because it sounds good?

246

The Craft & Business of Writing

Well, no. Most of the editors interviewed said there needs to be a compelling reason
for rhyme, especially for books aimed at children older than four.
Modugno is supportive of picture book verse (she edited Jane Yolens Off We Go!) but
says rhyme schemes ought to become more sophisticated as the target age gets older.
Tingley believes picture books should only be written in rhyme if the use of the
rhyme is integral to the telling of the story.
In One of Each, Tingley says, Mary Ann Hoberman wrote a refrain, One plum and
one apple, one pear and one peach. Just one, only one, simply one, one of each, that carries throughout the book and grows into two of each by the end. This creates tension
and drama and the story wouldnt work without it.
Of course, some authors let the work decide for itself.
The books themselves demand [whether theyll be written in rhyme or prose], Jane
Yolen says. I just listen to what they say.
Author Bonny Becker was listening, too, when she decided to bail on her rhyming
version of The Christmas Crocodile (There once was a Christmas crocodile/A crocka-acrocka-a-crocodile ...). Becker had worked hard on the rhyming text, but when a new
opening line suddenly popped into her brain (The Christmas Crocodile didnt mean
to be bad, not really,) Becker knew it was a telltale sign to switch gears.
It set up a whole different story and different voice for the story, Becker says. And
that voice was in prose, not in rhyme.

Aim for the Bulls-eye


Weve all heard its important to target our submissions. With rhyming manuscripts,
its downright critical.
Comb the shelves of bookstores and libraries; analyze catalogs. Note which publishers support rhymeand which do not. Youll save time, postage, and spare yourself an
insta-ject if you avoid sending verse to publishers who rarely buy it.
If you find books in rhyme you particularly enjoy, or seem somewhat similar to
your style, check the acknowledgments page or call the publishers marketing departments and ask who edited them. At conferences, ask editors to list their favorite picture
books, especially those they enjoyed as a child. If they loved rhyme as a child, chances
are theyre probably still receptive to it. Better yet, ask them (politely) how they feel
about rhyme in general.
Steven Malk of Writers House agrees some editors have an aversion to rhyme. But
when its done well and elevates a story, he says, Its just as marketable as prose.
Just as marketable as prose.
Now theres a mantra I can live with.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 247

the new rules of


teen lit (Hint: There
are no rules)
by

Megan McCafferty

m an imposter. I shouldnt be included in this section because Im not a childrens


book writer. Technically, Im not even a young adult writer. My books (the novels
Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Charmed Thirds, Fourth Comings, and a short story collection I edited, Sixteen: Stories About That Sweet and Bitter Birthday) are published by Crown,
a subsidiary of Random House that doesnt put out childrens books. Though my core
audience consists of teenagers, my books are most often shelved in the regular fiction
section of bookstores.
I always viewed my books as crossovers between the teen and adult markets. I began
the first novel in 1999, and there were numerous examples of the teen-adult pop culture
overlap. TV shows like Dawsons Creek, movies like American Pie, and music by the likes
of Britney, Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC werent exclusively for teenagers. I argued
to my agent that my books could capitalize on a similar multigenerational appeal. It
seemed like a no-brainer to me. One book, two markets, many copies sold. I could retire
to the Caribbean before I was thirty.
Or not.
Most publishers saw it differently. In fact, when my novel was being pitched for
publication, the response was nearly unanimous: Editors loved the book, but had no
idea what to do with it. Was it YA? Adult? Who was the audience? Where would it be
shelved in bookstores? How would it be marketed? I explained how Sloppy Firsts was a
comic coming-of-age novel that could be enjoyed by older teens and adults. Therefore,
it had a better chance of reaching both if it were shelved in Fiction vs. YA, as teen readers tend to read up to adult fiction, but not vice versa. Andhey!maybe it could even
be shelved in both!
I was told by more than one editor that I was dead wrong. Whether its YA, science
fiction, chick lit, or mystery, I was told that my book, like all books, must fit into an easily categorized niche. Otherwise it would get lost on the shelves. And Sloppy Firsts, with
its contemporary voice and ageless appeal, simply didnt fit into a single category. If I
tried to put a book about teens in the adult section of the bookstore, I was warned that
I would confuse and lose everyone. Editors advised me to either make it more literary
so it would be more appropriate for adults, or to dumb it down for teens.

248

The Craft & Business of Writing

Fortunately, Kristin Kiser at Crown loved my book enough to go against this conventional wisdom and publish my book as it wasand as an adult title. Any author who
is lucky enough to find an editor or agent who is passionate about your book should
work with that person regardless of what else she publishes. As I learned, these zealous
insiders are often in the best position to champion your books, and they just might
make the difference between a bestseller and the remainders bin. In my own case, its
now six years, two sequels, ten foreign translations, and nearly 500,000 copies later. I
can definitely say that I was glad to have disregarded the rule dictating that I shouldnt
work with an untraditional publisher.
Of course, I am not advising you to shut out others criticism in favor of your own
grand vision all the time. I appreciate input from my editors and my agent and know
that their hard work has always improved my books. But as authors, were often told
what we can and cant do with our writing. And quite often, that advice is misguided.
Herewith follows other rules for teen lit that were meant to be broken.

Rule #1: Dont write about sex and drugs


I was ecstatic when a very famous editor offered me a generous six-figure deal for my
first novel. Then she dropped the bomb: The title has got to go. Sloppy Firsts is depraved. Warning sirens went off: WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! The title was a joke,
albeit one that plays off a crude bit of sexual slang. If this editor didnt get the joke, that
Sloppy Firsts referred to all the first-time mistakes one makes as a teenager, how could I
be sure that she would approve of other edgier aspects of the novel? What would stop
her from cutting out other depraved things, like when Jessica discusses her confusion about orgasms? Would she also want to edit out when the very underage Jessica
gets drunk at a beach party? In the end, I turned down this editors offer and took less
money from my editor at Crown, who told me she loved the title and everything else.
I dont take sex or drug use lightly. As the daughter of two high school teachers, I
took great pains in depicting this particular slice of suburban life as it really is, and
not, alas, as many people wish it would be. When I was writing Sloppy Firsts I remember
thinking: Okay, I can either tone this down so it wont offend anyone or write the book I want to
write. Ultimately I figured that if this stuff is being talked about in the hallways of my
former high school, I would be doing a disservice by not writing about it, and in the real
language that teens actually use. (More on that later.)
Since my books have been published, Ive been told that if anything Ive toned down
teens frankness about sexual activity and drug use. Thousands of readersteenagers,
librarians, teachers, and yes, even some parents!have told me via e-mail and in person that they appreciate Jessicas candor about controversial subjects and can identify
with her hormonally charged confusion. Jessica makes mistakes and learns from them.
Thats what my fans love about her. Its what I love about her, too.
That doesnt mean everyone has to love it. And so, I understand when more conservative parents keep my books out of their daughters hands because they dont like my
use of four-letter words. (Though I cant help but wonder what would happen if they
tried discussing the content of the books instead of censoring them ...)

The Craft of Childrens Writing 249

Rule-Breaking Lesson
There seems to be societal pressure to be safe and wholesome, and commercial pressure to
be sexy and edgy. While being shocking for the sake of being shocking is never a good idea,
teens do appreciate candid characters and honest portrayals of controversial subjects.

Rule # 2: Dont be too sophisticated


teens wont get it
So much of the material about teenagersespecially girlsis insipid, insulting, or inaccurate (or all three). All too often, writers resort to horrifying plot twists in order to give
their teenage narrators a story worth telling. I have a deep respect for the ordinary
trials and tribulations of teenagerdom and Ive always been disappointed when a promising story gets ruined by over-the-top, soap opera developments. Thats why I kept the
plot of my first novel simple: Youre sixteen years old. Your best friend moves 1,000 miles away.
You hate all your other friends and your parents dont understand you. What happens next?
I was confident that if I wrote honestly, Sloppy Firsts would relate to anyone who survived high school, a time when the tiniest event takes on the hugest significance, and
a best friend moving away is nothing short of catastrophic. Maybe Jessicas troubles
arent earthshaking in the grand scheme of things, but they are to her, which is why so
many teens can relate. By treating these intense issues with the intelligence and respect
they deserve, my work transcends the fluff.
And yet, some critics suggested that Jessica was too intelligent, too insightful. Others were afraid that teen readers would be turned off by her impressive vocabulary. All
fears proved to be unfounded. By refusing to dumb down or overdramatize her plight,
Jessica Darling is both universally identifiable and unique. Since no one in her world
provides the model for the type of person she wants to become, she has to experience
the pain and pleasure of creating herself through trial and error. Who cant relate to
that? And in terms of her SAT-ready vocabulary, Ive had countless fans tell me over the
years that they appreciate Jessicas wordplay, and that mine is the first novel that ever
inspired them to consult a dictionary because they didnt want to miss a joke!
Just because shes a sophomore in high school doesnt mean her wit is sophomoric.
Jessicas biting observations are funny on two levels. First, because they are so true, with
an in-your-face comedic value that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Her insights are
also funny because they often reflect her youthful ignorance, which only more mature
readers will fully appreciate.
Im happy to say that my books arent alone. The quality of writing for teens has improved immensely in the six years since I pitched Sloppy Firsts. The best YA books have
become much more sophisticated and give young readers a lot more credit. Authors
such as Ann Brashares, Rachel Cohn, David Levithan, and Carolyn Mackler have really
elevated the genre to the point that the YA label doesnt do their books justice. They
appeal to teen readers who are turned-off by babyish YA, and charm older readers who
(like me) are suckers for anything in the teen angst genre. In fact, their novels are better
written and more entertaining than many so-called adult books.

250

The Craft & Business of Writing

Rule-Breaking Lesson
Dont underestimate the teen readers capacity for understanding and appreciating
complex storytelling. But dont make it like homework for them, either. The books they
love best are those that enlighten and entertain.

Rule #3: Dont use slang or reference pop culture;


Youll date your book
Rule #4: Dont forget slang or references to pop
culture; Your book will seem dated without them
Obviously, these rules contradict themselves, as many rules do. This is something many
writers for teens struggle withand not without good reason. When I worked at a teen
magazine I observed a focus group of high school students talking about their favorite
(and least favorite) books. Ill never forget the way one sixteen-year-old voiced the most
serious complaint about young adult novels. I hate it when like, old farts try too hard to
sound cool. At the time, I was twenty-three. I already qualified as an old fart. Now, at
thirty-three, Im a relic. How do I avoid embarrassing myself?
I write my books in real time, so whatever happens in the world immediately affects the tone and content of novel. But I dont worry about my books getting outdated
because I go out of my way to set them during very specific periods. That way, all pop
culture details contribute to a time capsule effect: This is how it was then. My inspiration is
J.D. Salingers The Catcher in the Rye, a book written in the mid-1940s that still resonates
today. Do I know all the actors, movies, and songs that Holden refers to in the book?
No. Does anyone say crumby anymore? Nope. Do these throwbacks distract from my
enjoyment of the story? Not one bit.
To mimic the particular patois of a millennial New Jersey teen, I became a chronic
eavesdropper. (Note: This was hardly an invasion of privacy because theyre usually
shouting out their personal, private business as if they want strangers to get involved.)
It helped that my mom was until very recently a high school teacher at my alma mater. I
could learn more about how suburban teens act by sitting in on one of her classes than
I could by poring over every teen magazine on the newsstand. Im lucky enough to live
within one mile of a major university, so virtually any trip outside of my door doubled
as research for Charmed Thirds, the novel about Jessicas college years.
On the surface, many things have changed since I graduated high school. Music, TV,
movies, fashion, and technology are nothing like they were in the late eighties and early
nineties. I mean, back then I was wearing spandex and shoulder pads, listening to MC
Hammer, and typing up papers on a word processor that weighed more than I did. But
what I agonized over in my journals back thenunrequited crushes, catty girl fights,
brain-numbing boredom, too many zits, and too little boobageare the same subjects
many teen bloggers obsess about today. I tap into my feelings from when I was young,
combine that with my eavesdropped observations from now andhopefullycome up
with a realistic depiction of teen life in the aughts.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 251

Im familiar enough with teen culture to write about it without feeling like an old
fart whos faking it. But if you feel like a fraud when you incorporate slang into your
work, find another way to tell your story. Set your book in the era in which you the
author came of age, like Stephen Chboskys The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Or create an
alternate universe in which you invent the slang and trends, as in M.T. Andersons Feed.
Cater to your strengths as a writer, and dont force yourself to conform to the foreign
language of teendom.

Rule-Breaking Lesson
There is nothing more cringeworthy to a teen than a writer who gets it wrong. But take
heart: The three As of adolescenceawkwardness, alienation, and angstare evergreen.
Focus on the emotions, and not the buzzwords of the era, and youll write a book that
teens will enjoy for generations.

Rule #5: Dont write a [blank] novel. It wont sell


Why write another teen angst novel? I was asked. Wasnt the market saturated with
novels about moody teenage girls and the boys who love them? At the time, I was told
that Id be better off if I wrote: (a) an issue book about some traumatizing event like
rape or drug addiction and how the protagonist came of age as a result of it; (b) an
otherwordly book, where a character is blessed (or cursed) with some superhuman
ability; or (c) a gossipy, supertrendy book that is forgotten as soon as its finished.
None of these ideas interested me in the slightest.
Ive accepted that there are a finite number of themes in this literary universe. There
have been a bizillion romantic coming-of-age novels, but that didnt stop me from adding one more to the stacks. I believed I could handle a familiar theme in a refreshing
way. I cared so much about Jessica, and all the characters in her world, and was genuinely excited to find out what would happen to them as I typed away at my laptop. Writing
a novel isnt easy, and you need to be enthusiastic about your idea or youll never make
it through the rough spots. If you dont care about your work, youre just a hack. How
often have you read a novel and gotten the impression that the author was as bored as
you are? I know that I had tried to write one of those other books, my heart wouldnt
have been in it. And it would have suuuuuucked.

Rule-Breaking Lesson
A good if well-tread idea, beautifully and creatively handled, transcends all publishing
trends. Its better to pursue an idea youre passionate about than a marketable idea that
doesnt interest you at all.

Rule #6: Dont write for teensPeriod


Before I was a novelist, I was an editor at the most popular womens magazine on the
planet. Many assumed Id write a novel that would cash in on the lucrative chick lit

252

The Craft & Business of Writing

market. Or that Id write a literary novel for adults that would give me a certain kind
of credibility that magazines couldnt provide. Why waste my time writing for teens?
I couldnt stop thinking about how I, like many teens before me, was blown away
by The Catcher in the Rye when I read it in seventh grade, and how it still amazed me each
time I revisited it. I devoured novels written from a first-person female point of view,
hoping that Id finally find Holden Caulfields female counterpart: a teenage protagonist that is highly observant, hilarious, and wise beyond her years, yet still has a lot to
learn about life. Though I found a few well-written and entertaining books, none came
close to reflecting my high school reality.
Fortunately, I wasnt alone in my longing. Hundreds of thousands of readers have
also found a fictional friend in Jessica Darling, and they care about her almost as much
as I do. Which brings me to the greatest perk of writing for teens: When teens love a
character, they reeeeeeeeeeeeeallly love that character with an unbridled enthusiasm that
simply cannot be matched in adulthood. The best compliment I can get is when a teen
says, I hate to read. But I loved your book! Every time I make one nonreader into a fan,
thats more than enough to silence the criticsreal or imaginedinside my head.

Rule-Breaking Lesson
Regardless of what type of book you write, there will always be naysayers. Writing takes
courage because you put something out there thats very personal, and people will judge
not only the work, but you as an individualeven if they dont know you. Thats scary.
But Ive accepted that no writer can control the audiences reaction. There will always
be people who dont like your writing because its impossible to please everyone, so you
shouldnt bother trying. Instead, write the story that you would have read when you
were a teenor now! Theres sure to be many others out there who have been searching
for the same book.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 253

historical fiction:
bringing the past
to life
by

Deborah Hopkinson

ver the years, Ive kept copies of my (many) unpublished stories in binders on my
closet shelf. Every so often I pull down a binder and peruse its contents, hoping to
discover a forgotten story that somehow, like wine, has improved with age. What I usually find is more like vinegar, or worse. Did I actually writelet alone submita story
called The Girl Who Wouldnt Eat Anything Green, about a child who wouldnt eat
her peas until they danced on her plate and talked her into it?
Looking back, I think it took about two years of (unpublished) submissions before
I found my way to historical fiction, the genre Ive come to love best. Along the way I
dabbled in silly animal stories, badly retold fairy tales, and well, vegetable stories.
Now if youre drawn to fantasy, mysteries, or middle-grade humor, go ahead and
follow your heart. But if youve ever thought about trying your hand at historical fiction, Id like to offer some hints to get you started. Hopefully youll end up with many
published worksand more closet space than I have.

Is Historical Fiction For You?


If youve never considered writing historical fiction because youre not sure if you have
the skills, you might want to think again. You dont have to hold a Ph.D. to write good
historical fiction. Youll know this genre fits your writing personality if you can answer
yes to some of these questions:

Do you love research?


Are you insanely curious about the details of history?
Do you ever find yourself rambling on at cocktail receptions and dinner parties


about obscure historical personages?


Do
you keep a notepad by your side when you watch Antiques Roadshow, in case
there might be some tidbit of history you might want to look up later?
Is
documentary film producer Ken Burns one of your heroes?
Are you willing to spend time reading research books, from scholarly to popular
works, to verify one tiny fact?

254

The Craft & Business of Writing

Do you search the Internet like a hunting dog on the trail, convinced that what
youre looking for just has to be theresomewhere?

Do you have (or can you get) access to excellent libraries or interlibrary loan services?
Are you willing to make phone calls, send e-mails, or go in person to track down
facts, check references, or simply ask questions?
If you find yourself answering in the affirmative, then youre probably curious and persistent, and willing to work hard for your story. Chances are youll love historical fiction.
The next step is to find something to write about.

Finding Stories in History


When I visit schools, students always want to know where I get my ideas. I usually
lob the question back, Well, Im no different from you. Where do you get yours? In
fact, story ideas for historical fiction are all around us: in newspapers, radio, books,
museums, roadside markers, the Internet, and of course, in our personal experiences.
My first picture book, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, was written after hearing a
National Public Radio piece about African-American quilts; Marias Comet grew out of
finding Maria Mitchells name on an Internet calendar of famous women; and Fannie
in the Kitchen evolved after reading about the real Fannie Farmer in an anthology of
women inventors.
But suppose you come across a promising old volume in the town library. How do
you determine whether that tantalizing historical footnote youve found will make a
good story? How do you decide whether it should be a novel, picture book, easy reader,
or a magazine story? Perhaps most important, how do you assess whether something
that fascinates you will be equally interesting to an editor and publisher, let alone a
young reader?
In general, its helpful to ask yourself some questions before you start your research.
Here are some suggestions to start you off:

Do the elements of a good story exist? Is there the potential for conflict? Are there
characters here whose lives have the power to engage us?

Is there a child in the story? If not, is it possible to tell the story from a childs point
of view?

Is the subject of the story suitable, of interest to young children or teens?


How complex is this topic? Do you see it as a thirty-two-page picture book, or does

it seem to cry out for a longer treatment?


Is
this a story that in your heart you feel needs to be told?
Are you the right person to tell this story?

In addition, I often find myself evaluating whether the topic will be of interest to librarians and educators. Could the subject matter be used in the classroom? Are there obvious curriculum connections? Its difficult to research and write a book and equally hard
to sell one. The stronger case you can make for your story, the better the chance that,

The Craft of Childrens Writing 255

instead of languishing on a closet shelf, your manuscript will someday get a binder of
its very own, complete with a contract, reviews, and royalty statements.
But theres another reason to pay attention to the classroom. Since my first picture
book was published in 1993, Ive come to appreciate the role educators and librarians
play as proponents and caretakers of our literary heritage. Teachers and librarians are
often the driving force that keeps many historical fiction books alive. They also embrace titles that can be used in multidisciplinary ways. For example, Sweet Clara and
the Freedom Quilt has been incorporated into social studies units as well as in mathematics activities.
As Ive become more aware of the creative ways my books are used in classrooms,
Ive been careful to include historical notes and background information in my later
books. Marias Comet includes both a historical note on Maria Mitchell, as well as a
glossary of astronomy definitions. A Band of Angels includes a historical note and, on
the endpapers, biographical information on the original Jubilee Singers whose story
inspired the book.

Crafting Your Story


Youve done your research, your idea has all the elements of a good storyyoure ready
to write. Where to start? I wish I had one of Fannie Farmers foolproof recipes to offer,
but when I look at my own books and how they came to be, about the only thing I can
tell you for sure is to keep tryingand never throw away research or a story idea.
Sometimes the biggest challenge is finding the right voice for your story. In my first
draft of A Band of Angels, I told the story from Ella Sheppards point of view, relating her
experiences as one of the founding members of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University.
But my editor felt that it wasnt child-centered enough, and it took several more revisions to create the story-within-a-story format of the final book.
Other times its a matter of finding the right format. Years ago I wrote an (unpublished) Civil War novel. In the course of researching it, I came across a true story of a
deserter in the battle of Gettysburg. When it seemed clear the novel was destined to find
a permanent home in my closet, I tried re-working the deserter incident into a picture
book. That wasnt right, either. But when I had the opportunity to write two easy readers, I pulled out my research once more. At long last, Billy and the Rebel was published as
a Ready-to-Read by Simon & Schuster. So, never throw that research away.
Sometimes a story simply isnt strong enough for an entire book. I got my start
writing stories for Cricket magazine. Magazines offer wonderful opportunities for working with editors, compiling a track record, and reaching young readers.
The best historical fiction helps readers imagine themselves in another time and
place. It should also spark critical thinking as well as emotional connections.
In writing about Ella Sheppard or astronomer Maria Mitchell, my aim was not biography. Rather it was to explore through story an emotional truth or connection I myself
discovered. When I first encountered these womens diaries, I immediately felt the vibrancy of their remarkable spirits across time. I felt connected to these other human be-

256

The Craft & Business of Writing

ings who preceded me and was curious to know more. In crafting my stories for young
readers, I tried to share that connection and curiosity.
Its important to remember that once you put words into the mouth of a historical
person, youre creating fiction. You may find yourself stepping outside your own time,
place, and culture, as well as gender, race, and class. Youll need to grapple with difficult
questions about accuracy, revisionist history, political correctness. Each writer must
come to terms with these on her own.
Its helpful to consult with experts and others who may know about your story. I
was fortunate that Beth Howse, a descendent of Ella Sheppard and a librarian at Fisk,
was willing to read the manuscript of A Band of Angels in draft form. While working
on Marias Comet, illustrator Deborah Lanino faxed the artwork for a small painting
of Polaris to me with a question: Was it correct? Dr. Andrea Dobson, a professor of
astronomy at Whitman College where I work, consulted a program that showed exactly
how Polaris would have looked from a Massachusetts rooftop in January 1828.
Still, errors can happen, and the best you can do is to keep scrupulous notes, take responsibility for accuracy, and, as Im always telling my seventh grader, Check your work!

Why Write Historical Fiction?


In a 1999 article Professor Sam Wineburg of the University of Washington wrote, Coming to know others, whether they live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of
the millennium, requires the education of our sensibilities. This is what history, when
taught well, gives us practice in doing.
When I speak to school groups, historical fiction isnt usually the genre they mention as their favorite. Scary stories, animal stories, and mysteries rank far higher. But by
the end of my presentation, kids cant wait to touch the replica of Sweet Claras quilt,
pointing out the path she took on the Underground Railroad.
History is a lifelong study, a search for truth and meaning, not just of the lives of
others, but of our own. Discovering stories that have the power to inspire is one of the
joys I take in reading about history and in writing historical fiction. I hope you agree.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 257

nonfiction:
can informational
books be sexy?
by

Kathleen Krull

s it possible to esteem informational books, otherwise known as nonfiction, as a


sexy genre? This article will answer in the affirmative, bolstering its case with ten
tips, a list of known voids, a bibliography of role models, and even a little aerobic exercise for desk-bound minds. (At this point, the publisher of this book was to supply
a line of exotic dancers. If they are missing from your copy, the burden is on me to
start off with an explanation of sexy and how in the world this could apply to books
for children.)
Websters dictionary to the rescueStimulating (see erotic), it says. If we skip
the (see erotic) part and leave it at stimulating, were talking about books that turn
people on. Books that grab you and can grab readers. For synonyms, see cool, gripping,
suspenseful, innovative, fascinating, flashy, flamboyant ... We may be childrens book writers,
but I think we know the difference between sexy and unsexy.
My theory is that informational books are way more stimulating than the average
writer, especially the one starting out, gives them credit for. Floating about is a snobbish prejudice toward them that its time to dispel. This genre can be terribly attractive,
and that is what I mean by sexy.
A quick disclaimer: I dont label myself an informational books author and rarely
even use the term nonfictionone of the worlds great ugly words. I do all kinds of
writingchapter books, picture books, mysteriesand hope to continue shaping words
that reflect my passions into formats that seem to match. But Im convinced that books
containing information are the best way to get ones writing foot into the publishing door, and that they can actually support the working writer. Paying bills may not
sound too sexy, but isnt the sound of money worth paying attention to?
I believe that kids dont distinguish as much as we think they do between fiction
and informational books. Not being snobs or literary critics, they arent into labels.
Their attitude toward a book is pretty simple: Do I want to read this? They have high
standards for getting a yes to this question, and those standards dont automatically
exclude genres. Most kidsespecially boys, especially reluctant readersare and will always be hungry for books that present information in an attractive way.

258

The Craft & Business of Writing

By now you might be wondering: Isnt this genre only for those of us who are leftbrainedthe organized, clear, logical ones? If Im right-brainedcreative, wildcan I
stop reading now? Wait. First do this little aerobic exercise. Lace the fingers of both
your hands together as if youre going to recite, Here is the church, here is the steeple
... Now, which of your thumbs rests naturally on top? According to my acupuncturist (I
live in California), if your left thumb comes out on top, then you are dominated by your
left brain. The ideal brain for informational booksyou really should give this field
a try. Conversely, right thumb on top means youre right-brained. Continue reading,
because this too is ideal. Informational books can be one cool way to express creativityand this genre needs you.
This genre is perfect for anyone intrigued by the idea of transforming their areas of
expertise into books. Its just right for the person who believes that life is a continuing
process of self-education, a web of learningand that getting paid at the same time is
a nice bonus.
The first thing to deal with, when contemplating your informational writing, is the
Eyewitness series. Published by Dorling Kindersley (DK), these are mainly illustrated
family reference books, with many photos and a trademark use of white space. Familiarize yourself with them, as they occupy a large corner in this territory. In the lesser
bookstores, Eyewitnesses are the only books on the nonfiction shelf. The point here is
to make your book differ from an Eyewitness. For example, instead of having an anonymous, assembled-by-committee feeling, you will want to turn your book in some more
personal direction. Instead of focusing more on the pictures than the text, you may
want to polish your words into the real grabbers. In any case, this shelf is your first stop
in seeing whats out there (more later).
As you might guess, informational books are published for two basic age groups: picture books for approximately ages five to eight, and middle-grade books for approximately eight to twelve. The topics, writing style, and approach should be appropriate to each.
There is such a thing as young adult (YA) nonfiction, for ages twelve to eighteen, and its a
hungry audience. But there is so little agreement on how to bridge the gap in the marketplace between books and teens that for now this area can be a dead end for a writer.
There are also two markets for informational books. Books for the retail or trade market need to have wide appeal, to catch your eye in a bookstore. The school and library market favors books tied to the curriculum, the topics kids have to do reports on. (This genre
is perfect for ex-teachers, by the way, as familiarity with the curriculum is a major plus.)
Hitting both markets is an ambitious goal, but either one is worth your while. There are
now more children under eighteen than at any time in American history (and that includes the baby boom years). In this respect, the market has never been healthier.

Now, on With the Tips


1. Ignore this genre at your peril! Sorry to sound alarming, but this is the biggest tip:
According to statistics compiled by School Library Journal, some twenty-five hundred of
the five thousand books published for children each year are nonfiction. That is 50 per-

The Craft of Childrens Writing 259

cent of the market for your writing. Can you afford to think of nonfiction as not sexy,
boring, just for drones, too pedestrian to bother with? Everyone wants to do picture
books or novels, and editors desks are glutted with themthe good, the bad, and the
very bad. A well-written, well-thought-out informational book proposal really stands
out. This is the best way to get your foot in the door, and beginning writers seldom
think of it. A few years ago I was asked to teach a class at the University of California,
San Diego. With people always hounding me for how to break into this field, and out
of a sincere desire to help, I decided to focus on writing nonfiction for kids. To my
disappointment, only two people showed up the first night, and the class had to be
canceled. Most disappointing of all, just two weeks earlier I had plugged the class to
a local Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators conferencean audience of
one hundred struggling writers, not one of whom came to the class. (Now you see why
Im resorting to sexy to stress my point.)
2. Know thy competition. The usual tip in any genre, but essential here. Get on
intimate terms with the current years Subject Guide to Books in Print, a reference book
available in most libraries. A convenient substitute, for those with Internet access, is
searching by subject at Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), the online bookstore. As
soon as you get an idea, dash to find out if its been done, and if it has, how you can do it
differently. This is the exact thought process the editor uses, and you need to get there
first. With almost all of my books, I know Im on to something when there is no competitionthis is a moment of real excitement, when the blood starts flowing (sounds sexy,
doesnt it?). For example, when I got the idea for Gonna Sing My Head Off!: American Folk
Songs for Children (Knopf, 1992), I discovered in short order that my nearest competition
was Fireside Book of Folk Songs. This collection, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen,
was lovelybut it had come out in 1947, and it was time for a new one. And that was the
hook I used to sell the book.
3. Invest time in focusing your material. Facts are everywhere, less than a dime
a dozen, really. But kids love facts presented in new ways, and you need to come up
with an approach that will make your material fresh. You must take a point of view
on your factsthis is the only thing people will pay you money for. So think big,
think small, think weird. Try not to think neighbors, as I have already used this
approach in Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought),
and its companion books. Think one child, as in Jim Murphys book subtitled The
American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy. Or invent a fictional character to experience your facts. Linnea in Monets Garden by Christina Bjork brilliantly uses a compelling voice to process information in totally kid-like language. I borrowed this very
technique in my own Wish You Were Here: Emilys Guide to the 50 States, which combines
fiction with nonfiction.
4. Think visual. In fact, this is one way of testing your idea: Does it have strong
graphic appeal? True, the words are primary. But these days, the writer is responsible
to varying degrees for the graphics in an informational book. You may have to do some
photo research, or hire a researcher, or tell the publisher how to proceed. At the very
least, you should have some tentative ideas for how you visualize the book, to prove

260

The Craft & Business of Writing

that it is in fact illustrate-able. With my books, visuals have always factored in early
on. In my Lives of series, the graphics are so crucial that they technically came first: Ever
since the day I saw Kathryn Hewitts gorgeous caricatures, I wanted to do books to
match. With V Is for Victory: America Remembers World War II, the text weaves inextricably
around memorabilia, old letters, and photos from the era.
5. Have passion! (Sexiness again.) This means choosing topics of great meaning to
you. School Library Journal recently did a survey of nonfiction writers and was surprised
to report that personal interest was not the main reason writers chose their topics
40 percent chose on the basis of outside influence or commission request. We all have
to eat, but save part of your brain for what grabs you. An element of passion is in all of
my books. With Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the Worlds Fastest Woman,
I was fascinated by strong women (because I know many) and polio (because I might
have had it). V Is for Victory started with an interest in my own familys history. Lives of
the Musicians was inspired by my love of musicand of nearly equal importancelove
of gossip. They Saw the Future came about because as a teen I was obsessed with Alvin
Tofflers Future Shock and as an adult have been rumored to visit psychics. Psychics are
relevant here, actually, as they could very well help you define your passions; inspiring
messages from fortune cookies give clues, too ... Anyway, the point here, as in life, is to
know yourself.
6. Good writing is just as urgent here as in any other genre. Love of language
will always triumph. It is always the key factor in getting an editor to say yes. Maintain your sense of humor, indulge your sense of play, but be concise, boil things down.
Hone those research skillsthere are many books on this, plus librarians love to assist. In essence, do a ton of research, but present only the tip of its iceberg. Sometimes
writers have told me that this whole idea of research puts them off of trying nonfictionugh, too much work. If you think of it this way, all writing is work, particularly
sweating a picture book text down to those precious few well-chosen words, agonizing
over the umpteenth draft of your noveland suffering through the rejection process
when editors are deluged with picture books and novels.
7. This is cool: You can sometimes make the sale on the basis of an outline and
sample chapter, or occasionally even just the idea. Fiction cant be sold this way;
editors generally wont commit until they know you can pull off the whole thing. Nonfiction is differenteditors will either respond to the basic idea or they wontand the
decisions are quicker. Also, with nonfiction, you can do multiple submissions (sending
to more than one publisher at a time, letting them know what youre doing), something
I ordinarily counsel strongly against.
8. Another cool thing in this genre is something called back matter. Back matter is a bunch of factual material at the back of the book that ties in to your topic, or
extends it in weird and wonderful ways. This means you can choose a topic and treat it
in a light, offbeat, fresh wayand then beef it up with solid info that will thrill teachers
and librarians. What was just a fun idea becomes, with development, suddenly worth
spending $15 on.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 261

9. Cultivate the company of librarians, who will tell you the many subject areas where they cant fill requests. Certain librarians love doing this and can be fanatic.
Here are a few voids Ive been told about:

most subjects for the five-to-eight age group, with the exception of animals
current topics, current political figures, current news stories
serious problems, like child abuse, spousal abuse, addictions, handicaps, stepfamilies (a huge gap), ADD, and ADHD

gross topics done tastefully (this is not my particular forte, but my husband, Paul




Brewer, is starting his illustration career in just this way, with The Grossest Joke Book
Ever and French Fries Up Your Nose: 208 Ways to Annoy People)
any topic that touches Latinos (perhaps the biggest void of all: by 2050, 40 percent
of the U.S. population will be Latino, and in no way does the percentage of books
for them come close)
general immigration issues (according to the Census Bureau, the children of immigrants will account for 88 percent of the increase in the under-eighteen population
in the next fifty years)
gay and lesbian themes
sex (kids are asking the embarrassing questions at a younger and younger age)
spiritual and religious topics

Actually, once you start thinking in terms of informational books, ideas are literally
everywhere. Getting ideas will be the least of your problems. Deciding which ones to
invest your valuable energy in will be the dilemma.
10. Its crucial to pay attention to informational books getting published. The
childrens books of today are not the books we remember from childhood. Subscribe
to Publishers Weekly, Booklist, The Horn Book; become a pest at your nearest bookstore; do
whatever you have to do to keep up.
I did have a Tip 11how to sleep your way to publicationbut there was a very rigid
word count ... So I must wrap up by saying that informational books can be an exciting,
exhilarating way to make a livingand the sound of money can be the sexiest thing of all.

Reading List of Nonfiction Innovators


Younger nonfiction (approximately ages five to eight):
Communication by Aliki
A Is for Asia by Cynthia Chin-Lee
The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses by Joanna Cole
Hands by Lois Ehlert
My Map Book by Sara Fanelli
On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier

262

The Craft & Business of Writing

Roman Numerals I to MM: Numerabilia Romana Uno ad Duo Mila by Arthur Geisert
My First Book of Proverbs: Mi Primer Libro de Dichos by Ralfka Gonzalez
Cactus Hotel by Brenda Z. Guiberson
Seven Brave Women by Betsy Hearne
I Wonder Whats Under There?: A Brief History of Underwear by Deborah Nourse Lattimore
Messages in the Mailbox: How to Write a Letter by Loreen Leedy
Contemplating Your Bellybutton by Jun Nanao
The Seasons Sewn: A Year in Patchwork by Ann Whitford Paul
How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman
The Buck Stops Here: The Presidents of the United States by Alice Provensen
Diego by Jeanette Winter
Older nonfiction (approximately ages eight to twelve):
Linnea in Monets Garden by Christina Bjork
Victoria and Her Times by Jean-Loup Chiflet and Alain Beaulet
Why Cant I Live Forever?: And Other Not Such Dumb Questions About Life by Vicki Cobb
How to Read Your Mothers Mind by James M. Deem
Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman
George Washingtons Mother by Jean Fritz
Period by JoAnn Gardner-Loulan
When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS by James Cross Giblin
Its Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex & Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris
Accidents May Happen and Mistakes That Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones
Shes Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head! by Kathryn Lasky
Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack
A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy by Jim Murphy
One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship by Mary Pope Osborne
Alvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Its Disgusting and We Ate It!: True Food Facts from Around the World and Throughout History by James Solheim
The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr
Gladiator by Richard Watkins
A Drop of Water by Walter Wick

The Craft of Childrens Writing 263

getting back in the


saddle for a tough
revision
by

Christine Kole MacLean

was in the middle of New York City when I fell off my horsemy writing horse, that is. I
had just come from a meeting with my editor, who had given me yet another two-page,
single-spaced editorial letter about my work in progress. I spent the next few months doing precious little writing. I was too busy baying at the moon, feeling sorry for myself.
As far as I was concerned, the time off was justified. By then, I had been on the dusty trail
of revision for almost a year. When I had first submitted the manuscript for what would
become Mary Margaret and the Perfect Pet Plan to Stephanie Owens Lurie at Dutton at the end
of 2001, it had been as a 1,000-word picture book. She had liked the idea, but couldnt use it
as a picture book. Would I like to try it as something longermaybe an early chapter book?
I hadnt ever written a story that long before, but my main character was fun and
the idea of spending a little more time with her appealed to me. I did the work and
resubmitted the 7,000-word manuscript in February 2002. While my editor thought it
was coming along nicely, she expressed some concerns in her editorial letter. Most of
them seemed easy enough to addressuntil the one that recommended I add a major
subplot. But then it will be too long, I said in an e-mail, hoping to deter her. Dont
worry about the length, she replied cheerfully. I think it wants to be a novel.
I thought not. Having never written a novel before, the idea of building the story
into one terrified me. Mary Margaret still amused me, but could I quintuple the number
of words Id already written about her?
It occurred to me that I could quit. The book was not under contract; I felt I could
politely decline (Dear Ms. Lurie, Im sorry but I think you have me confused with another
writer, since I dont actually write novels) and remain on friendly terms. But Ive learned
that if something scares me, its a sign I should at least try it. So I groped and stumbled
and cursed my way through that particular revision and resubmitted the story, now 30,000
words, in May 2002. Pleased with the result, my editor rewarded me with a compliment
about my willingness to revise (a foreshadowing of what was to come, no doubt) and a contract. For one brief moment, I thought that perhaps I could write novels after all.
Then she sent a second editorial letter. Any confidence I had gained was replaced
with raw fear. But the book was under contract, and no matter how badly I was shaking

264

The Craft & Business of Writing

in my boots, turning back was no longer an option. I saddled up for another revision
and set out to make my main character more convincing, give her brother a bigger role
in the story, and temper some of the adult humor.
That fall, weary and saddle sore but satisfied that the story was better as a result of
my editors suggestions and my work, I sent the manuscript to her again. She said she
needed some time to think but her gut reaction was that it was just a matter of pacing.
Still being a greenhorn at writing novels, this sounded a lot like tweaking to me. I
took off my chaps and relaxed in the belief that I was almost finished with the book.

Hold Up There, Little Missy


In December, I joined my husband on a business trip to New York so I could meet my
editor for the first time and discuss final revisions. I knew there was still some work to
be done on the manuscript, but I pictured the two of us jawing about how far the story

Editors on Revision: Caitlyn M. Dlouhy


Caitlyn Dlouhy is the former executive editor for Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
What qualities does a writer need to be good at revision?
A great revisionist is one who will trust her editor, knowing that any suggestion is aimed toward making the text as strong as it can possibly be, and one who will follow changes throughout her entire manuscript. For instance, rather than slicing open the section that needs the
fix, she will look carefully at how that change might resonate throughout the work.
What are the most common revision mistakes that new writers make?
One is rushing! I think especially with new or not-yet-contracted writers, they have a misperception that if they dont get their revision in quickly enough, the editor might lose her enthusiasm for a project, and theyll have lost their moment, so theyll do a fast, perfunctory,
but not necessarily well-thought-through revision that is almost always disappointing.
Another common mistake is, ahem, disregarding the editors suggestions. If your editor
is telling you a character is unrealistic or a scene isnt working, you dont have to take the
editors direction on how to fix these problems, but you do have to fix them in some way.
What dont writers understand about revision that you wish they did?
What I most wish writers understood is that we arent trying to torture them, nor are we
trying to impose our own creative desires into their work. Most often we get a strong sense
of how good a writer can be, and we want to help bring out her very best.Were terrifically
busy, and it would be so much easier to just slip the manuscript into copyediting; writing a
six- or eight-page editorial letter can take days. But we do it because we want your manuscript to shine.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 231

had come. Instead, as we went over the editorial letter she had written (her thirdbut
whos counting?), she gently told me how far it still had to go. The pacing was off. The
ending was pat. Worst of all, I needed to give my character a best friend, which definitely
does not fall into the category of tweaking. I left her office facing the most daunting
revision of all, and I was dog-tired from all the previous revisions.
I took the holiday season off, thinking that Id have a renewed sense of energy after
the New Year. But January came and went, and I still couldnt drag my sorry be-hind out
of the bunkhouse. Then in February, I had several upheavals in my personal lifethe
kind of things that dont get resolved in a week or a month or even six months. My old
lack of energy coupled with this new lack of focus meant that I was in a heap of hurt.

Riding Herd
I wish I could say that this is the part of the story where I took the bull by the horns,
but its not. Instead, it was my editor who inadvertently spurred me into action. In an
e-mail exchange with her I mentioned what was going on in my personal life. Although
she hadnt ever set a firm deadline for the revision (thinking that Id be sending her a
new draft in a few months, as I had with previous revisions), she replied that she could
extend the deadline for the revision, if that would help.
Deadline. The word triggered something in me. In addition to writing fiction, I write
for corporate clientsnice people who dont put much stock in writers block and dont
care about self-doubt or any other writers neuroses I might have. Their expectation is
that Ill deliver quality work on time, and somehow I deliver quality work on time. Having my editor mention the word deadline in that e-mail was an a-ha moment for me in
which I realized it was possible to bring the same discipline to my creative writing that I
had been bringing to my freelance writing for twenty years. Instead of taking my editor up
on her kind offer to be flexible about the deadline, I asked her to set a firm one. I steeled
myself for the journey ahead and hit the trail for what I hoped would be the last time.
Once I had figured out that regardless of whether I was writing fiction or corporate
brochures, I still saddled up the same way, I was able to get back to the chore at hand.
Unfortunately, getting back to it is not the same thing as doing it. As with the previous
revisions, I stumbled my way through. But because by now it was clear to me that I was
going to be spending a lot of time riding the wide-open range of revision, this time I
paid attention to how I got my footing after I stumbled. Here are a few things I learned.

To go the distance, concentrate on the miles


The deadline my editor had set for me was approximately eight weeks out, and my book
was about sixteen chapters long. So I put myself on a strict schedule of revising two
chapters each week. Thats all. Just two chapters. This seemed manageable to me. I knew,
however, that if I didnt complete those two chapters, time would quickly get away from
me and Id be scrambling at the end to make the deadline. So I did what all good fiction
writers do: I raised the stakes. I told my editor that she could expect to see 25 percent
of the book every two weeks. And when I got down to work, I kept my anxiety at bay by
thinking only about the work I had to complete for the next mini-deadline.

232

The Craft & Business of Writing

Editors on Revision: Melanie Kroupa


Melanie Kroupa is publisher of Melanie Kroupa Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
What qualities does a writer need to be good at revision?
A willingness to step back and look at what shes written with a fresh eye.If a writer has a
good grasp on what it is shes set out to doand can express thatand can keep an open
mind as she (and others) look at it toconsider if shes accomplished what she set out to do,
a writers taken a good first step in the revision process.
Its useful if a writer can listen to (and hear) an editors point of viewconsidering questions, specific suggestions, or ideas for change that an editor might suggest. The suggestions
should ring true to the author.If they dont, and they dont work to strengthen the book, the
author should consider whether she wants to make the changes. If they do ring true, then its
important that the author internalize the suggestions, let them lead her to their own solutions
that fit the authorsparticular style and seem integral to the whole of the manuscript.
What are some common revision mistakes?
Listening to too many different criticsother writers, friends, family, even editorsand trying to revise according to the suggestions of everyone.The danger is in losing your own vision and voice, losing your grasp on the story you want to tell. If you try to please everyone
the result is likely to be a mishmash.

Let amigos give you a hand


I dont usually talk about my work in progress, afraid that Ill lose the compulsion to
write a story if I talk about it too much. Furthermore, for a long time, I felt like it would
be cheating somehow if I didnt figure out every element of the revision myself. But
I was so stymied during that last revision by the problem of what kind of person my
main character would choose as a best friend that when a writer friend asked why I had
such a hangdog look on my face, I blurted out everything. By the end of our conversation, I had a good idea of who the best friend was and why my main character would
choose him. Since then, Ive opened up and talked about my works in progress more
often. Theres a difference between talking a problem through and talking the story out,
and you never know when something someone else says will spark that perfect solution
youve been hoping for.
An editor can be the best friend of all during a revision. At a critical point during
that last revision, my editorwho must have a sixth sense that tells her when a writer is
flaggingsent words of encouragement. Take your time and enjoy the ride, she said
in an e-mail. Relax with the knowledge that you have my full confidence. Those words,
which I reread countless times, always took the edge off my anxiety enough so I could
keep going.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 233

It is possible to rope and hog-tie the Muse


I know. I did it every day for eight weeks because I couldnt risk her leaving. I suppose this
is just a variation on the old saying that writing is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. What I discovered was I needed to do my 99 percent first, then the Muse would
sometimes grudginglypitch in her measly percent. Every day I lit the same scented candle
(sandalwood) and played the same classical CD (Bach: The Goldberg Variations), not as a way
of summoning the Muse to do her part but as a way of signaling to myself that it was time
to do mine. This daily routine helped me get into the writing groove quickly.

The right analogy is as valuable as a good cow pony


Two analogies helped steady me during the final revision of my book. The first comes
from Star Wars. The hardships in my personal life were making it difficult to concentrate on the revision even when I was finally ready to tackle it. I began to think of
myself as Luke Skywalker in the scene at the end of the first movie where he is flying
through a trench in the Death Star, at the end of which is the target that he must hit
if he is to destroy the Death Star and accomplish his mission. Meanwhile, Imperial
forcesand Darth Vader himselfare firing lasers at him from all sides. I thought
of all the distractions in my life as those lasers that Luke had to ignore if he were to
have any chance of hitting his target. When I was at my desk, I couldnt worry about
all the other things going on in my life. Like Luke, I had to block them out and focus
on the mission.
The second analogy came from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indianas
father is dying and the only way Indy can save him is by getting water from the Cup of
Life. To get to it, he must leap over a giant crevasse. Intellectually, he knows its impossibleno man can jump that far. But he takes the step of faith required of him and the
bridge appears beneath his feet. He realizes it was an optical illusion; the bridge was
there all along. Whenever I began to doubt myself, I would think of that scene and
remember how Indy had to take the first step before he could know that the bridge was
there. The only difference was that Indy only had to take that first step once for him to
see the whole bridge, while I had to take the step of faith over and over again because I
could only see my own bridge materialize one step at a time.

Dont hang onto the saddle horn


Throughout the revision process I was plagued by the fear that in fixing what was wrong
I might get rid of something that was right. During the last revision, I finally let go of
that. I realized that all editorial letters, no matter how long or how daunting, can be
boiled down to three words: Make it better. After more than a year of working on Mary
Margaret and the Perfect Pet Plan, I was bored with it. I needed to find a way to reconnect
with it, but I wasnt sure how. One night, because I had been doing my 99 percent, the
Muse finally kicked in her 1 percent, and I came up with a new opening. My editor
hadnt told me I needed a new opening, and she may in fact have liked the old opening
better. I dont know. All I know is that the new beginning sparked my interest in the
story again and if I had still been afraid to mess with something that apparently was

234

The Craft & Business of Writing

working for my editor, I might never have found a way to reconnect with my story. And
if I hadnt found a way to reconnect with it, I wouldnt have been able to keep going.

The End of the Trail


Back in June 2002, the day after I got my very first editorial letter, I attended a conference where Kate DiCamillo (author of Newbery Medal-winner The Tale of Despereaux)
and Kara LaReau, her editor at Candlewick, spoke about the revision process. They
were honest and witty and entertaining. DiCamillo said that for her getting an editorial
letter feels like youve baked a cake for your editor and frosted it, and then she looks at
it and says, Its a lovely cake. Now can you go back and add an egg? After the session,
I approached her and asked her what I now realize is an impossible question: But how?
How do you add the egg? She gave me an empathetic look and said, You just do.
While some of what worked for me might work for others who are on that long,
lonely revision trail, in truth I cant offer a satisfying answer to the question of how,
either. What I can offer is hope and encouragement. You may think that youve got
nothing left for it, but you do. Maybe all youve got left is that youre too stubborn to be
licked by it. If so, I tip my ten-gallon hat to you, because thats really all you need. I can
also offer a glimpse of what lies at the end of the trail: a book, yes, but something thats
even bettera bit more confidence than you had before.

Editors on Revision: Stephanie Owens Lurie


Stephanie Owens Lurie is president and publisher of Dutton Childrens Books (and Christine Kole
MacLeans editor).
What qualities does a writer need to be good at revision?
The ability to revise in the true sense of the word, i.e., envision something again, to listen to
constructive feedback without getting upset, and to incorporate suggestions in a way that remains true to your vision, story, and characters. I think the latter is the most important quality.
What are the most common revision mistakes that new writers make?
They refuse to let go of something that isnt working. They take input too literally and cant go
beyond the editors suggestions, which essentially means the editor is doing the rewriting.
What are some revision mistakes that even experienced writers make?
Problems occur less frequently with the veterans, of course, but sometimes it can take several drafts before the author can come up with the perfect solution. Experienced writers
may suffer from the belief that they dont need to do so many drafts.

The Craft of Childrens Writing 235

writing groups:
succeeding together
by

Sara Grant

hree years ago I formed a writing group with three women I met at a writers conference. Since then, we have met once a month and shared moments of insight and
aggravation. When we started, none of us had been published in the childrens market.
Within a year we each had received an acceptance letter, amid a pile of rejections. I credit
this success, in part, to our writing group.
Together we motivate each other and provide support for what can be a lonely and
confusing endeavor. Is your story really good, or are you just delusional after spending
hours staring at a computer screen? Is your main character believable, or is she just the
cardboard cutout that you move through your plot? Is your plot interesting? Are you
targeting the right editors? Writing groups give you the opportunity to struggle and
succeed together.

Benefits of a Group
In Writing Together: How to Transform Your Writing in a Writing Group, authors Dawn Denham Haines, Susan Newcomer, and Jacqueline Raphael note that according to Anne
Ruggles Gere in her book Writing Groups: History, Theory, and Implications, writing groups
are not a new phenomenon. Benjamin Franklin formed one of the first mutual improvement groups in 1728. His group met weekly to share their essays and discuss
current events. They, perhaps, were some of the first individuals to discover the power
of writers joining together.
Writing groups can simply offer an opportunity to share a mutual love for writing,
or they can provide much more tangible results through manuscript critiques and resource sharing. Here are some of the many benefits of belonging to a writing group:

An audience for your work. Many writers create stories, poems, and essays years

before they share them with anyone. A writing group provides a safe place to share
your work.
Objective viewpoint. Your family and friends offer kudos for your effort, but the
accolades are often hollow, because those close to you do not understand the chil-

236

The Craft & Business of Writing

drens market and cannot offer an objective review. A writing groups sole mission
is to help you become the best writer possible, not become best friends.
Constructive criticism. My family rarely feels comfortable critiquing my writing efforts. However, the members of my writing group have invested many hours
helping me improve my writing. They are no longer shy about asking where the
plot is or pointing out where the story is confusing.
Sharing
resources. In a practical sense, writing groups can save you money. Or
dering catalogs and writers guidelines or buying reference books can be expensive.
The writers in my group bring copies of publishers guidelines to each meeting and
share other information or publications.
Problem solving/brainstorming. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, Many ideas grow
better when they are transplanted into another mind than the one where they
sprang up. Writing colleagues can help you overcome plot obstacles by brainstorming possible solutions.
Conference companion. Again, from a practical viewpoint, you now know a
group of people who can share traveling and lodging expenses while attending
writing conferences.
Dedication. Joining a group and agreeing to meet on a regular basis certainly increases your commitment to writing. It demonstrates to you and others that you
are serious about writing.
Motivation. As a member of a writing group, you are accountable to someone else.
You feel obligated to each other to revise manuscripts and produce new material.
You will find you go the extra mile to keep from showing up empty-handed.
Encouragement. It is easy to get discouraged when your favorite manuscript gets
rejected for the fourth or fourteenth time. Your writing pals understand your artistic miseries. Fellow writers can keep you motivated and offer advice on how to revise your story, as well as provide encouragement to send it out again. In addition,
your group can push you to try new styles or to move out of your comfort zone.
Celebration.
I find I am almost more excited to share my successes with my writ
ing group than my friends and family. My fellow writers have struggled through
several drafts and appreciate what each successbig and smallmeans.

Getting Started
Before you can reap the rewards of a writing clique, you must first determine what type
of group will enrich your writing goals. Do you want a structured group that will critique
your work and offer marketing suggestions? Or, do you want, what I call, a writers support groupwriters who meet to share their love of the written word and develop their
craft together? Perhaps you want a combination of both? Before you join or form a group,
set your expectations, then you are more likely to find a group that meets your needs.
I belong to two writing groups. My critique group specifically focuses on marketing stories to the childrens market. Our goal is to prepare each piece for publication.
We critique each others work in detail and offer suggestions as to which publishers or

The Craft of Childrens Writing 237

magazines to target. Each month we set goals for ourselves and are accountable to each
other for meeting these goals.
My other writing group is less structured. We share a love of writing in all formspoetry, drama, songwriting, fiction, and nonfiction. Typically we do a timed writing that may
focus on character development, dialogue, or another aspect of fiction writing. We share
stories, trade books, and leave refreshed and energized for the weeks of writing ahead.
Once you have decided what you want from a writing group, your search begins for
like-minded writers. Finding a group of authors to share and grow with represents a
significant challenge. Odds are you will not have trouble finding writers. It is surprising
how many people have manuscripts tucked in a drawer or books already outlined in
their heads. The trick is to find a group that meets your needs.
I have found that local workshops and conferences are the best places to collect a
roster of interested writers. Other groups have formed by placing advertisements in
small local newspapers or special interest magazines, such as regional magazines written for women, children, or teachers. You may want to consider creating a simple flier to
post in your local library, bookstores, colleges, or coffee shops.
The advisor for your local chapter of the Society of Childrens Book Writers and
Illustrators (SCBWI) has a roster of members. If you are a SCBWI member, the SCBWI
advisor may be able to connect you with other writers in the area. The Web is another
option for writers who are isolated in rural communities. This high-tech option will be
covered later.

Ironing Out the Details


You have decided what you want from a writing group, and now you have a list of potential candidates. Next, you need to set your first meeting. This is a time for some
tough decisions. Your group will need to agree on certain ground rules immediately.
Other decisions can wait or will be sorted out as time goes by. Below is a list of questions to pose at your first meeting.
1. Who will lead the group? The group leader should be responsible for maintaining the group. The leader does not, and probably should not, facilitate every
meeting. But without an identified leader, the group may quickly fade. The leader
should organize the meeting schedule, call members if meeting dates are changed,
and make sure each meeting runs smoothly.
2. How often will we meet? There is no magic cycle for writing groups. Some successful groups gather twice a week; others meet only once a month. Again, decide
what you want from your group, then outline an intense or relaxed schedule that
meets your needs.
3. When and where should we meet? I recommend that you immediately select several meeting dates. Although the dates may change later, you will at least have the
time blocked on your calendar. This minimizes absences and reduces excuses. Find
out where your group members live and select a central meeting location.

238

The Craft & Business of Writing

Also, consider what activities you want to do together. If you plan to read aloud
or do timed writing, you may want to select a quiet spot, such as a members house
or the library. However, if you will discuss writing and review each others manuscripts, a restaurant or bookstore may work fine.
4. How long should each meeting last? Set aside two or three hours initially. If your
group meets weekly, you may reduce the time of each meeting. Overall, let the activities you choose determine how long each meeting runs.
5. What will the group do together? At your first meeting, you may want to ask
each member what she expects from the writing group. The responses should give
you a good feel for the groups expectations. If the groups goal is to get published,
your meetings should be structured to share information on writers markets and
to prepare each others manuscripts for submission. Alternatively, if your group
members have diverse writing interests, you may want to plan writing exercises
and discussions about general writing principles.
6. How many writers should you invite? SCBWI recommends starting with three
to five members, with a maximum of ten to twelve. For initial planning purposes,
having five to six members is ideal. Six is enough to expect a manageable group
at each meeting. Because some writers immediately drop out and others will lose
interest, you may want to make a list of alternates. Ask group members up front
how they want to add new members. Never invite someone to the meeting without
asking the group first. Each new member will add something unique to the group,
so be prepared. Remember to explain the groups objectives and meeting format to
the new members.

Critiquing Tips
If your group decides to critique each others work, you should set expectations for
the way critiques will be conducted. When you have spent hours creating your literary
masterpiece, it is difficult to hear that your characters are not believable or your plot is
rough. The following list of questions drawn from the book Writing Together may help
you establish some ground rules to make sure the critique process runs smoothly.

Will you read the work aloud at the meeting or hand out manuscripts to review



before your next meeting?


How
many manuscripts will you critique at each meeting?

How
will you decide whose manuscript is critiqued?

What type of feedback does the author wantgrammar, flow, character, plot, etc.?
Will the author remain silent through the critique or lead the discussion?

Giving and receiving feedback on each others stories should be a positive experience.
When reviewing someone elses work, you should start by telling the author what you
liked most. No manuscript is without merit. When pointing out both the positive and
negative aspects of someones work, be specific. Do not say, Your main character is weak.
Offer specific examples from the story that have led to your conclusion. If points in the

The Craft of Childrens Writing 239

story are unclear or confusing, ask questions of the author. Everyone in the group needs
to recognize that you are offering an opinion. Offer your suggestion to the author, allow
him to consider your comment, and then either accept, reject, or absorb your criticism.
Although it may be difficult, be honest. You joined the group to help each other improve.
Do not hold back or remain silent if you think a manuscript needs work. The quality of
the entire group will increase with open, honest, and specific feedback.

Web Options
If your location or schedule will not accommodate a writing group, the Web provides
another option for you to share your work. Beyond offering a number of wonderful
resourcesfrom publishers writing guidelines to help from grammar expertsthe Web
can also provide interaction with writers around the world. By surfing the Web, you will
discover bulletin boards where writers post questions and other writers provide answers.
Many of these same Web sites offer electronic mailing lists, such as LISTSERV. These
are basically e-mail newsletters that are primarily made up of messages from members.
If you want to start an online critique group, you can post your want ad on bulletin
boards and in some electronic mailing lists.
Although the Web has become a great tool for writers, it also has many limitations.
How comfortable are you with posting your story on an e-zine (a Web magazine) or
sending it to people you do not know well? If you are looking for a writing group to
share insight and inspiration, a Web group probably will not meet your needs. If you
want to exchange manuscript critiques and get feedback from a variety of writers, the
Web could be your answer. The tough part will be finding a critique partner or group.
Some writing groups have formed from meetings in chat rooms or after meeting someone at a writers conference. The Web can offer isolated writers another avenue for interaction, but it should not replace the multiple benefits of actually meeting face to face
with writers.

Patience and Commitment


Every writing group will have its ups and downs. Each member should commit up front
to attending the meetings regularly and taking this commitment seriously. Your group
may not gel right away. Periodically each group should take a pulse check and discuss
whats working and whats not. If you stick with it and remain flexible, open, and honest with your writing colleagues, you will eventually settle with a productive and supportive core of writers. Whether youre a published author or a novice, the right writing
group can elevate your writing to new heights.

240

The Craft & Business of Writing

the synopsis: short,


but power-packed
by

Sue Bradford Edwards

hen publishers guidelines request a letter and synopsis or a synopsis and sample
chapters instead of a complete manuscript, many writers pass over these publishers.
Some dont know that a synopsis is simply a brief introduction that allows busy editors to
judge whether they want to invest the time needed to read the entire manuscript.
Other writers know what a synopsis is but not what it should include. As explained
by author Kathleen Duey, The trick is to communicate the character essence and
eventlogic of the book, the emotional arc of the protagonist, and a satisfying ending.
Then stop. Anything that can be eliminated without weakening that purpose should be.
Still other writers dont understand why they should write a synopsis. Havent they
already crafted a complete manuscript? They need to realize how a synopsis can diagnose potential problems within their manuscript.
The first step in solving all these problems is learning to write a strong synopsis.

Plot Without Spoilers


When asked to describe their books, many writers launch into a blow-by-blow plot description. They recount every detail, no matter how minute, until their audience nods
off. An overly detailed synopsis has the same affect. A writer should explain the plot,
but a blowbyblow will bore the reader to tearswhoever it is, Delacorte Press editor
Krista Marino says. A general summary of the plot is needed, but I would suggest approaching the plot summary as one would approach writing flap copy for the jacket of
the book. You want the reader to know what the book is about, but you dont want to
tell them the entire story.
Avoid lengthy plot recitation with a narrow outlook. A good synopsis will focus on
overarching themes and character motivation, Candlewick Press executive editor Mary
Lee Donovan says. Duey expands on this. Follow the emotional arc of the protagonist,
she says, and include the plot events needed to make it vivid and easily understood.
What does the main character want? Why? What does he have to do to get it? What
stands in his way?

The Business of Childrens Writing 275

Author Gary Blackwood does so in this excerpt from his The Shakespeare Stealer synopsis:
Widge, the protagonist, is an orphan whos hired by a mysterious (and, yes, sinister) man
named Falconer to copy down, in an early system of shorthand (which really existed), the
whole text of Hamlet as its being performed at the Globe Theatre. Hes caught in the act,
but his facility for lying saves him. He claims hes come there to be an actor and, to his
dismay, the troupe takes him on as an apprentice. At first he sees this as just an opportunity to copy the play more easily. But as he comes to know the members of the company,
he begins to experience a feeling new to himloyalty. For the first time in his life, he has
made some friends. But hes also made a very dangerous enemyFalconer. And as if his life
werent complicated enough, he finds himself having to play the role of Ophelia in a command performance before the Queen herself.

Blackwood doesnt tell how Widge meets Falconer, how he planned to hide long enough
to record the play, or what leads to his capture. Still the reader knows enough of the
plot and can identify the themes.
Highlighting Widges emotional shift gives editors what they seek. An editor will
read and consider the synopsis in much the same way she would a complete manuscript, says Donovan. In other words, she expects a taste of the emotional experience shed get from reading the entire book. Pursue the characters goals, and emotions follow.
But how much detail is enough? A synopsis should give the level of detail youd tell
someone over lunch, some friend, not completely close, who asked you what your new
book was about. Enough of the plot should enter to get across the theme, says author
Vicki Grove. Can you state your theme in one sentence? If not, you may need to give it
some thought and rework your manuscript.
Test your plot summary by actually telling it to someone. If you get halfway
through, says Duey, then hear yourself say something like, Wait, wait, I forgot to tell
you that she follows her father to work one night in the first chapter and ... Whoa. Anything that makes you backtrack in your oral storytelling probably needs to be included
in its proper sequence in the written synopsis. When you can relate the bare facts without backtracking, youve found the details you need.
Doing all of this with brevity takes practice and is incredibly difficult with your own
story. Id advise trying to encapsulate the plot of a favorite book that is similar in scope
and length to their story into one paragraph so as to get a better handle on how it can
be done, says Cecile Goyette, executive editor of Alfred A. Knopf and Crown Books for
Young Readers. Practice this with several books, then try your synopsis again. Cut every
plot element that isnt essential to give your reader the big picture.
If your synopsis feels choppy, fill in a few blanks. A succinct and graceful listing
of some of the plot events that fall between the pivotal scenes you must describe lets
the editor know that the emotional arc is gradual, faceted, but keeps the focus clear,
Duey says. The characters emotional arc is the heart of the book. After all, character
is central to the story.
Characters present the next hurdle in creating a brief synopsis.

276

The Craft & Business of Writing

Which Characters to Include


Just as the entire plot cannot be included, neither can every character. But who do you
drop? Turn again to the main characters emotional arc for the answer. The synopsis should touch upon characters that have primary influence in the main characters
struggle, says Donovan. Duey agrees: It makes sense to name as few characters as possible. Any character who is not key to the plot arc of the protagonist can be left out.
Look again at Blackwoods synopsis excerpt. He lists only three characters: Widge (the
protagonist), Falconer (the antagonist), and the Queen. Though Widge certainly interacts with numerous actors at the Globe Theatre, none of them are named although their
roles are understood. Look at your synopsis. Do you need to name each and every person
in your protagonists sixth-grade class? Cut anyone you can and generalize the rest.
Because of the synopsis brief word count, scant information can be given about any
character. The reader of a synopsis needs a distillation of characters, says Donovan,
rather than a great many specific details about them. When asked how she condenses
characters, Duey gave this example:
Shaken by the apparent suicide of the girl who had been her best friend since third grade,
Trina is facing high school, her first real boyfriend, and her mothers growing attachment to
a man she cant stand, in the worst possible way: alone.

Much more than this comes out within the story. The friends name was Joey. She was
brilliant and funny and beautiful and in despair over her fathers mental illness, Duey
says. This might deserve a lot more ink in the bookbut not in the synopsis.
Still unsure what to include? I pretty much stick to the character trait or traits that
are the basis of the storys conflict, Blackwood says. For example, if the character is lost
in the woods, the fact that he has no wilderness skills whatever is obviously important.
Because so many stories hinge on the characters wants and fears, Groves narrative
focuses on these details:
Jess prefers the glowinthedark stars on her bedroom ceiling to the scary, moving stars
outside. And then she meets Lolly, who works the migrant stream and has never slept anywhere but under those scary, dancing starsshe loves them.

What Jess fears has been shown, not told.


Examine your synopsis line by line. Is each character mentioned involved in the
main characters emotional changes? Do you present only those details that drive the
plot forward? Once you sort out the details, it is time to perfect your framework.

Open Sesame!
While plot, theme, and character form the main body of every fiction synopsis, how to
open the synopsis varies from project to project. I like the unexpected and I love to see
unconventional cover letters and synopses, so for me normal openers and closers arent
really going to get my attention, says Marino. Though its different for everyone, I

The Business of Childrens Writing 277

think most editors are hooked by things that are different, so I would stress individuality, creativity, and confidence in your own written voice.
Dueys opening varies from synopsis to synopsis. I always start with whatever propelled me into the project, she says, usually the characters. It could be a conflictive
plot event, or an unusual setting that begins the synopsisonce in a blue moon some
very clever, very short statement of the theme that fascinates me. A strong hook is as
essential in a synopsis as in a query letter or the manuscript itself.

Enough Is Enough
Perhaps the most difficult part in writing a synopsis is achieving the necessary brevity. Simply stated, you want it to be as short as possible. When asked about length, the editors
gave different answers. Ideally, one page; two at most, Cecile Goyette says. How can this
be enough to judge the merits of a manuscript? We allow our longer submissions (such
as chapter books or novels) to include a synopsis plus ten pages of the text, Goyette says,
and that in concert is usually enough to determine whether or not the manuscript is something we may have an interest in.
Other editors willingly read a bit morebut not much more. Novels for older readers
might require two to four pages, Mary Lee Donovan says.
I wont read through pages of summary, says Krista Marino. If I open a submission
and find a lengthy explanation of what Im about to read, Ill probably just give it a quick
glance. If a writer decides to include a synopsis of her work outside of her cover letter, it
should be brief and punchy.

The opening should also reveal some of what will come. I start it out the same way I
begin most books or stories or articles, says Blackwood, by making a promise of some
sort to the reader, letting him know what to expect. Heres the opening of his synopsis
for The Shakespeare Stealer:
Deceit and disguise, sinister villains and swordplay ... Sound like a classic adventure novel? I
hope so, because thats the tradition Ive tried to emulate in The Shakespeare Stealer.
Widge, the protagonist, is an orphan whos hired by a mysterious (and, yes, sinister)
man named Falconer to copy down, in an early system of shorthand (which really existed),
the whole text of Hamlet as its being performed at the Globe Theatre ...

The editor immediately knows this swashbuckling historic fiction focuses on adventure and mystery.
Dont just tell them. Give them a taste. If this is a humorous piece, make the synopsis make the editor laugh a bit, explains Grove. If its high drama, make their hearts
beat fast. Let the editor sample the romance, science fiction, or humor.
The opening must tell the editor more than what type of book it is. A synopsis
should open in a way that the editor knows immediately who the main character is,

278

The Craft & Business of Writing

says Donovan, what the conflict or problem is, and a bit about the setting. Look at
Blackwoods synopsis and the answers are obviousWidge, stealing a play, Elizabethan
London, all in three sentences.
A strong beginning must be followed by an equally well-crafted ending. A synopsis
should close with a clear explanation of how the main character has changed by the end
of the book, says Donovan. Authors who fail at this should heed Goyettes warning.
Dont be cryptic, dont be cryptic, dont be cryptic, she says. For me, the mission of a
synopsis is not to tease but rather to provide straightforward information, conveying
all major plot elements, especially the ending. It should avoid metaphor and instead favor clarity, simplicity, and precision. Too often authors try to tease by leaving out critical information, such as the ending. If you arent being cryptic and your characters
growth remains unclear, does your manuscript also fail in this regard?

Who, May I Ask, Is Speaking?


As with the manuscript itself, voice in the synopsis is a vital part of grabbing and holding the editors attention. And not only must it be gripping, it must mirror that of the
novel. I use basically the same sort of style I use in all my writing: I try to keep it clear,
concise, and conversational, Blackwood says. As for tone, if its a humorous novel I
try to reflect that in my prose; if theres mystery or adventure, I try to use lots of action
verbs and atmospheric words. A quick glance at The Shakespeare Stealer synopsis reveals
how he does this. Disguise, swordplay, and apprentice reflect suspense, danger, and a bit of
history. What terms can you use to mirror your storys tone?
If youve tried to use specific mood-setting terms and the voice and tone still dont
come across, do a little research. A good warmup to writing the synopsis is to read the
jackets of favorite books, Donovan says. Jacket copy is a selling tool, must tell a lot in
little space, and must capture the tone, spirit, and style of the book. The synopsis, too,
is a selling tool, and must tell the editor what she can expect if she were to request the
entire manuscript. Note how the copy for a dark mystery differs from a lighthearted
fantasy or a touching romance.
Then sit back, relax, and write. Yes, relax. Because once you know what to include,
its just a matter of practicing until you know you have it right.

The Business of Childrens Writing 279

writing & promoting


books for babies
& toddlers
by

Hope Vestergaard

rrive at my house unannounced and you might see something strange through the
picture window. Whats a grown woman doing crawling around the house on her
hands and knees?
Research!
Bookshelves loom like skyscrapers when youre thirty inches tall. Imagine flipping pancakes using a shovel. Think about never getting to see all the interesting
stuff that happens up on the countertop. These are typical experiences for small
children who inhabit a grownup-sized world. In order to write compelling books
for babies and toddlers, you need to meet them at their level: talk with them rather
than at them.
To get a good sense of what makes babies and toddlers tick, spend time observing them: at the park, the store, or a child development center. If youre brave (and
patient), help out in a classroom or childrens library. Take note of interesting situations, phrases, and behaviors. These tidbits may or may not evolve into actual stories,
but paying attention to details will breathe authenticity into your writing. My own
stories Wake Up, Mama and Driving Daddy hatched when I noticed that children would
rather climb on their teachers than on the fancy equipment that graces their classrooms and playgrounds.
The most compelling books for young readers feature children just like them. Infants and toddlers are egocentric, and they look for people and problems that are
familiar. This is why perfect kids are a lot less appealing than imperfect ones like
Maurice Sendaks Max or Ian Falconers Olivia. Much of the conflict in very young
picture books centers on developmental challenges: learning to share; separation
anxiety; feeling powerless. If your main character waltzes through life without stumbling, she wont be compelling to most kids who stumble on a daily, if not hourly,
basis. Toddlers love for the familiar doesnt mean that they dont enjoy books about
new experiences or cultures, but those stories will be more engaging if they speak to
universal themes and struggles.

280

The Craft & Business of Writing

Online Resources
Theres no shortage of wonderful organizations dedicated to promoting literacy in young
children. Bookmark these Web sites to stay in touch with news and conferences about
early literacy:

The International Reading Association (www.reading.org)

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (www.naeyc.org)

The National Education Associations Read Across America initiative (www.nea.org/


readacross)

The National Center for Family Literacy (www.famlit.org)

Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families (www.zerotothree.org)

Arts and Crafts


Well-crafted picture books for babies and toddlers can look deceptively simple, but
great ones have all the elements of a classic story: interesting characters, lively language,
and a satisfying beginning, middle, and end.
Beginnings must be immediate. Toddlers have short attention spans and only vague
concepts of time and place. They live in the here and now, and thats when your story
should begin. Young readers find all the setting information they need in the illustration:
the story happens inside or outside, it happens on a farm, etc. Toddlers also dont need a
lot of descriptive information about charactersthey glean everything they need to know
from the action. We meet Max the Wild Thing in the throes of a tantrum and we immediately know a lot about him. On the first spread of Nancy Shaws Sheep in a Jeep, we meet the
characters and their problem: Beep! Beep! Sheep in a Jeep on a hill thats steep! If you
get to the crux of your story quickly, even little wigglers will tune in.
Another way to immediately draw the reader into the story is to write intimately. Do
You Know New? by Jean Marzollo speaks directly to the reader in a playful, lyrical voice that
is hard to resist: Do you know new?/Oh, my, I do!/Brand new, I do. Books that speak
directly to the child say, This is your story, and you are the important person here.
What about the middle of young picture books? Many young picture books do
have clear plots or themes, but they tend to be much simpler than those in older books.
Slice of life stories often depend on patterns for their structure. Repetition is one popular tool. Repeating phrases, incidents, and refrains let children predict what happens
nextand thereby feel powerful. Call-and-response books are another kind of repetitive
format. In Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr., a narrator asks
each animal (and each reader) what it sees. Children are active learners and active listeners, so stories that require their participation are more likely to hold their interest.
In cumulative stories, each new scene includes a listing of all the events leading up
to it, as in the folktale This Is the House That Jack Built. In Mem Foxs Harriet, Youll Drive

The Business of Childrens Writing 281

Me Wild!, Harriets mother corrects young Harriets missteps with an increasingly impatient refrain. She starts out, Harriet ... youll drive me wild, and adds a line through
each of three scenes until she finally loses her temper. The lengthening refrains underscore Harriets increasingly messy antics and her mothers growing frustration in a
great example of format that truly serves the story. Predictable stories also leave room
for surprise when the established pattern is broken. The cumulative, rhyming refrain
suddenly disappears at the peak of Harriets mischief: There was a terrible silence.
Children love rhyme because its predictable and challenging. Writing in verse provides structure, but it should complement a story rather than prop it up. Rhyme can be
very engaging, if done well: it must have flawless meter and true rhymes, in addition to
telling a great story. Choppy meter makes a story lurch and stall, rather than sing. Rhyming refrains or internal rhymes in prose (as in, please dont squeeze) are fun alternatives to stories written entirely in verse. If you want to rhyme well, read aloud all the
rhyming texts you can get your hands on. Have people read your work to you, to see if
it scans. Even if your story is prose, it should have rhythm. Make sure that the natural
flow of the text suits the story.
Young children enjoy experimenting with speech sounds as they learn to master
them. Jane Yolens Off We Go! is a beautiful example of delicious language: Dig-deep,
diggity deep/Down where day is dark as sleep/Off to Grandmas house I creep/sings
Little Mole. Some very young stories take their entire structure from playful language.
Jamberry by Bruce Degen takes the word berry and runs with it. Theres no particular
conflict or plot, just a series of silly vignettes tied together by language play. Chicka
Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault is another popular book in
this vein. The fact that all of these examples, originally published in hardback, are now
available in board book format indicates their appropriateness for babies and toddlers.
Use language flourishes (see Shoptalk sidebar) judiciously. If they dont enhance
the story, theyll distract from it. When a story really works, readers dont notice the
techniques that make it sparkletheyre integral to the story itself.
So what about endings? Many popular books for babies and toddlers come full circle:
the main character ends in the place where he began. The forward motion of the story
needs to bring the main character all the way to his destination (a safe place, usually)
and not leave the reader wondering if hell make it okay. Even though Mem Foxs Harriet and her mom have had a row, we see they are fixing things. In No, David! by David
Shannon, mischievous David finally hears the word yeswhen his mom says, Yes,
David, I love you. Hopeful endings are comforting. Depending on the mood of your
piece, it may need to wind down or close with a bang, so be sure to choose an ending
that serves your story.

Reaching Your Readers


So your well-crafted story is finally published. Hurrah! Now youre ready to tackle the
p-word: promotion. Ive heard authors of young picture books complain that they have
few opportunities for promotion. Nonsense! Look beyond typical bookstore events

282

The Craft & Business of Writing

and library readings. Your books may not be ideal for elementary school visits, but the
early childhood community is a great place to share your work. When teachers like your
book, theyll use it in the classroom and recommend it to parents. An added bonus is
the contact with your audience, which will enhance your future writing.
Start your tour of the early childhood circuit with a center to which you have personal connectionsthe one your children attended, or a center in your neighborhood.
Many early childhood programs offer special events in conjunction with the Month of
the Young Child (April) or other seasonal events. When a center contacts you to set up
an event, find out who your audience will be. Events for young children generally include an exuberant reading and some related fun: songs, fingerplays, or dances. Parentcentered events tend to be lectures on selecting books for children, reading readiness,
or writing. Since many childcare centers have lean budgets, you may need to lower your
fee for workshops or sell books at the event as a fundraiser. Whenever you present at a
childcare center, be sure they publicize it in their newsletter. Contact a local newspaper
to include your event in the community calendar and perhaps do a write-up.
Authors can also do workshops for childcare staff on literacy topics. Teachers need
information about hands-on activities to extend learning. They like handoutsreading
lists and activity ideasand they love freebies like bookmarks. Stipends for workshops
vary greatly: Ive received between $50 and $250 for a two-hour session. Contact your
local community college or university to let the education and English departments
know that you are available as a guest speaker or lecturer. Register with childcare referral agencies, which provide speaker lists to the early childhood community as well as
put on their own events.
Consider submitting a proposal to present at a National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) or other early childhood conferences. These generally
do not pay presenters, but sessions are short and you can arrange to have book signings
at vendor booths. Your publisher may even be willing to subsidize your tripits worth
asking. Many teachers are aspiring authors and they pack into conference sessions on
becoming an author (I did, too). One big bonus at the national NAEYC conference is
the presence of book and magazine publishers. Ive met editors at exhibitor booths and
conference sessions. Some educational publishers even offer conferees on-the-spot appointments with editors who are seeking submissions.
If youre overwhelmed at the thought of presenting workshops, you can introduce
your book to local children and teachers on a smaller scale. Many communities have literacy groups such as the Family Book Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which donates new
books to low-income families and coordinates reading programs for disadvantaged
children. These organizations welcome author visits and are a great destination for
authors surplus books. Think about adopting a local childcare center or preschool
program. You might donate signed copies of your books and stay in touch with teachers by visiting the classroom for an occasional story hour. Give the center a stack of
your promotional postcards or bookmarks for their reception area, and participate in
annual picnics or fun days. Besides keeping you in touch with your audience, this kind
of relationship is a great way to contribute something meaningful to your community.

The Business of Childrens Writing 283

Staying Dry
Doing a book event with children who drool, crawl, and cry is a special kind of challenge. Before you plan your first book event, its wise to establish some ground rules
with your sponsors:

Children should be accompanied by adults. Make it clear with your host and in

your promotional flyers that parents are expected to sit with their children during
a reading. Otherwise, they may stroll over to another department or the coffee bar
and you will be outnumbered by wigglers.
Before you begin reading, tell the adults what you need from them: Please help
your children participate or remove them if they are overwhelmed.
If you plan to sing songs or do fingerplays in a childcare center, send the songs and
words ahead of time so the teachers can practice with the children.
Limit the group size with young children. In a bookstore, several readings with ten
children are infinitely more manageable than one reading with thirty. The same goes
for community events. If you must do one session, enlist some help for crowd control. Large crowds can be overwhelming for small children (and harried authors).
Sit where all the children can see you. If no chair is provided, stand up or perch on
your knees, or youll be drowned out by a chorus of I cant see! Expect very young
children to fidget, loll, or get up and move around. They are kinetic learners and
kinetic listeners.
Dont read several books at a stretch. Babies and toddlers cant concentrate for
more than five minutes or so. Break up your routine with simple songs or fingerplays. Songs that require kids to get up and move are great, as long as you end on
a sit down note. All told, the performance aspect of an event with babies and toddlers shouldnt last more than fifteen or twenty minutes.
If you use props during your presentation, expect the children to touch them. They
cant resistthey havent learned to delay gratification yet. You can cut simple
shapes out of felt for the children to holdcircles for pretend cookies, for example.
Dont expect to get them back.
If a child comes unglued while youre reading, pause so his parent can remove him
from the group. Recruit another adult to help you if parents dont get the picture.
Young children have a hard time with negative phrases. If you say, No jumping,
they have a hard time figuring out what not jumping is. Its more effective to say
the thing you do want them to do: Put your feet on the floor.
Be flexible. If the children arent interested in your story but they love your songs
and fingerplays, go with the flow. Youll all have more fun, and parents will remember you fondly.

My best advice? Honor babies and toddlers perspective and experiences in your writing
and in the presentation of your stories. Whet childrens appetites for literature by writing rich stories that theyll want to savor again, and again ... and again.

284

The Craft & Business of Writing

oh, the places Ive


been!: promoting
your childrens book
by

Esther Hershenhorn

y authors copy of my first published picture book, There Goes Lowells Party!, arrived at my door January 19, 1998, two months prior to its mid-March publication. Unfortunately, my publisher, Holiday House, didnt enclose readers in the books
padded mailer. No matter how far I gazed, too, through my front door window, not one
lone child appeared on the horizon. I was an author, finally, after years of hard work. Yet
I still had work to do for my book to reach readers.
I held and stroked my book like a first-time mother. Then I packed my bags and
readied for the road. Id been mentally scheduling my promotional tour for years. I
knew places to go and people to see. I knew Id need to show my book to the very same
people whod taught me my craft and introduced me to the industry: booksellers, librarians, teachers, reviewers, fellow writers, and publishing professionals. They were the
folks who would bring my book to children.
Let me tell you: Oh, the places Ive been, traveling about, promoting my book! Let me
tell you: Oh, the places you can go, once youre prepared to promote your book, too!

Two Rules of the Road


Thinking about the trip was scary sometimes. For one thing, the word promote has its
root in the Latin word promotus, to move forward. I preferred the safety of my writing
room and life. For another, my dictionarys first entry for promote stated, to help or
encourage to exist or flourish. Help and encourage were ambiguous verbs. It was the
flourishing part that pushed me out the door.
I put aside my fears, reviewed several colleagues wise words, and sought my publisher to specify my tasks. Actually, my publisher sought me. Diane Foote, who was at
that time Holiday Houses director of marketing, wrote me soon after I signed my contract in 1996two years before my books publication. Thats when I learned the Rules
of the Road: (1) Work with your publisher. Your publisher, too, wants to see your book
flourish. (2) Begin the process early.
It was my job to inform Holiday House of my interest, ability, and availability to
promote my book, to share local resources who could create promotional opportuni-

The Business of Childrens Writing 285

ties, and to notify my publisher of such events. Its often the publisher who supplies
books to sell at such events, if given a lead time of four to six weeks.
I needed to listen to Holiday House, as well. Theyd been publishing childrens
books for over sixty years. Their marketing department would submit my book to review journals, reading professionals, my local media, and various award committees.
Theyd represent my book at trade shows and conferences, publicize it in catalogues
and special outlets, consider it for additional advertising and promotional materials,
and coordinate my school, conference, bookstore, library, and trade show appearances.
True, Holiday House is an independent, relatively small company, publishing fiftyfive books each year. But its also true that most trade childrens book publishers are
committed to promoting new titles and authors. Most publishers encourage new authors who are eager to join the process. Just remember that promotional support varies
from house to house, from author to author, in dollars and substance.

Three Homework Assignments


I welcomed the opportunity to start my preparations early. I seldom left homework
to the eve of its due date. My first written assignment was to create an authors bioa
reusable description to fit all promotional events. I described my book, my life, my
publishing experiencesin under 200 words. I intentionally left room to reshape the

Names to Add to Your Rolodex


American Booksellers Association
200 White Plains Road, Suite 600
Tarrytown, NY 10591
www.ambook.org
American Library Association
50 East Huron Street
Chicago, IL 60611
www.ala.org
Association of Booksellers for Children
ABC National Office
Kristen McLean, Executive Director
62 Wenham Street
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
www.abfc.com
International Reading Association
800 Barksdale Road

286

P.O. Box 8139


Newark, DE 19714-8139
www.reading.org
Modern Postcard
1675 Faraday Avenue
Carlsbad, CA 92008
www.modernpostcard.com
Publishers Weekly
360 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010
www.publishersweekly.com
Society of Childrens Book Writers
and Illustrators
8271 Beverly Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048
www.scbwi.org

The Craft & Business of Writing

material to match my audience. For instance, I underscore my elementary education


degree when speaking to teachers, my Illinois SCBWI Regional Advisor position when
speaking to writers.
My second assignment was to compile a list of resource peoplelocal and state
childrens book community folkswho would welcome a Holiday House courtesy copy,
review copy, or at least, notification of There Goes Lowells Party! I spun my Rolodex, queried colleagues, and fingered through directories. My list included:

my local childrens librarian


the director of my state library
my local bookseller
prominent booksellers in my area
my local and area newspaper editors and book reviewers
the head of my states and districts education departments
the director of my areas local book festival
my local and area childrens museums

Authors should also include resources for their books specialized subject areas. In my case,
I added the names of those experts whod helped me research my picture books Ozark setting. I also added local meteorologists, since my book dealt with weather proverbs.
I abandoned my shyness to complete my third assignment: Tell everyone I know
in both the real and virtual worldsin person, by hand or fax, by word of mouth or
e-mailabout my books scheduled publication. And I do mean everyone, from my
brother-in-laws cousin to my dental hygienist.
I also spread the word via professional newsletters, such as the SCBWI Bulletin and local chapter newsletters, electronic mailing list memberships, alumni magazines, and former hometown newspapers. Networking flourished. Serendipity bloomed. Before I knew
it, Id accepted invitations to speak at many of the places Id planned to visit anyway.

Two Useful Guidebooks


Of course, I still had questions that needed answers. Fortunately, I discovered two
books that, when combined, told me everything I needed to know about promoting
my childrens book: Susan Salzman Raabs An Authors Guide to Childrens Book Promotion
and Evelyn Gallardos How to Promote Your Childrens Book: A Survival Guide.
A publicist, Raab specializes in promoting childrens books and authors. She understands how the various members of the childrens book community work together to
create a books success. Raabs book suggests ways authors can reach the key decision
makers (teachers, librarians, booksellers, and reviewers), with special emphasis on media sources. Her directory gave me organizations to add to my resource list and helped
me brainstorm even more opportunities. The guide is especially helpful to authors who
self-publish or to those whose publishers offer minimal promotional support.
An author herself, Gallardo offers any-time promoters step-by-step instructions
and a user-friendly manual. I consulted her book often, rereading her two-minute

The Business of Childrens Writing 287

bookstore pitch or Web site suggestions or studying her bio, press kit, and brochure
samples. Her overview of school presentations was especially useful once I began my
round of school visits. Gallardos book helps make formidable tasks doable, from conference networking to book fair attendance.

Two Important Promotional Tools


I couldnt wait to have my very own promotional postcarda color reproduction of my
picture books cover. The 46 postcard proved an excellent investment. I used Modern Postcard (www.modernpostcard.com), based on colleagues recommendations. The
California-based company walked and talked me through the ordering process. Thanks
to early conversations with Diane Foote, I knew to obtain my illustrator Jacqueline
Rogerss permission to reuse the art and to include ordering information, such as my
books ISBN number and price. Because my illustrator and I were friends (a rare happening), we shared the production costs and the finished product.
The postcards continue to serve me well. I use the blank reverse side for book signing invitations, publication and bookstore appearance announcements, or handouts
with excerpts from book reviews. The cards are perfect for reader correspondence and
come in handy if my book sells out at signings.
I also couldnt wait to create my very own business card. Id been saving effective
cards for years while eyeballing the work of local SCBWI illustrators, to discover the
perfect graphic designer. Whether memorable in shape, size, color, graphic image, or
wording, all business cards should contain your name, mail, and e-mail addresses and
phone and fax numbers.

Some Last-Minute Instructions


For my promotional travels, the following items proved useful to pack: my smile, my
sense of humor, my business cards, and my book. Luckily, Id also packed reserves of
faith, pluck, and courage. Authors too have hang-ups and bang-ups.
For instance, I found myself noticeably idle for long stretches of time at my first
public book signing at a Midwest childrens literature conference. Id been seated smackdab in the middle of a long row of tables of Newbery-winning authors and Caldecottwinning illustrators. I watched endless lines of attendees gather for hours to have their
books signed by everyone but me.
At my first public speaking engagement to librarians and teachers, I was the last presenter in a long day of programs, scheduled right before dinner and the cocktail hour.
I stood front and center, while stomachs growled and bodies shifted in their seats. My
knees knocked as loudly as my thumping heart.
And pride, I learned, does indeed goeth before a fall. At my first well-publicized story
time at a childrens bookstore, the snaking lines of adults with children in tow, queued
up since sunrise for the stores opening, werent there for me. They were Beanie Baby
collectors awaiting the days delivery.

288

The Craft & Business of Writing

I recommend Oh, the Places Youll Go! by Dr. Seuss for times like the above, when
youre scared right out of your pants or feel all alone. Dr. Seusss words had cheered me
on before. I had to keep moving to meet new folks who would make things happen so
I could happen, too.
At that first Midwest childrens literature conference, I used my free time to help
the events bookseller discover my book and its birthday party tie-ins. She now recommends it for birthday presents. At that second conference, I greeted those shifting bodies enthusiastically and booked a springs worth of school visits and library programs.
And once the children arrived at that first story-time venture, they sparked book-related
birthday party games I now use successfully.
So whatever situation you find yourself in, make the most of it. Have fun, and remember that you and your publisher share the same goal: to sell books!

The Business of Childrens Writing 289

writing for
the school
& library market
by JoAnn

Early Macken

very year, scores of publishers produce thousands of books that never appear on
bookstore shelves. Where do they all go? To schools and libraries, both huge buyers
of childrens books. Educational publishers cater to this monstrous market by publishing books that are linked to the school curriculum. Writing for educational publishers
is one way to break into the childrens book market, satisfy your desire to write for
children, and earn a reliable income. Ive written dozens of these books and edited hundreds more, and Im still tickled to be working on them. You might find your own joy
in the field.

What Is an Educational Publisher?


Educational publishers produce books specifically aimed at the school and library market. The audience for these books ranges from prekindergarten to twelfth grade. The
books are often published in series. They are not textbooks, but many expand on subjects studied in schools. Younger children use them in classrooms to learn how to read.
Older children use them to research and write reports. Subjects include science, social
studies, history, math, and almost anything else you can imagine.
Some of the better-known educational book publishers include Capstone Press,
Enslow Publishers, Heinemann-Raintree Publishers, Lerner Publishing Group, Marshall Cavendish, Rosen Publishing Group, and Scholastic Library Publishing. Many
less familiar book publishers offer equally rewarding opportunities to writers who are
willing to do their homework. Other publishers produce supplemental classroom materials such as teachers guides, activity books, workbooks, reference books, tests and
test preparation materials, flashcards, and software components. Writers with teaching
experience might be especially suited for writing supplemental materials.
A book sale in the educational market can be different from one in the trade market
in several important ways. Payment is one of them. Copyright is another. In a typical
sale to a trade publisher, an author receives an advance against royalties and keeps the
copyright. An educational publisher might pay an advance against royalties, royalties

290

The Craft & Business of Writing

alone, or a flat fee. Fees vary widely according to the publisher and the project. Many
educational publishers only offer work-for-hire contracts. Under such an agreement,
the copyright belongs to the publisher, not the author. The publisher can revise the
material to fit its perception of the market and publish it in any form. The authors
name may or may not appear on the book. As in trade publishing, contracts come with
a wide variety of clauses.
The format of an educational book can also be different from that of a trade book.
It might include extra features at the end known as back matter. Glossaries, indexes,
time lines, and lists of related books and Web sites all fit into this category.

Finding Educational Publishers


Have you already written something you think is appropriate for an educational publisher? Look for one that accepts unsolicited manuscripts. Do you have an idea for a
book or series? Search for a publisher that accepts queries. Are you an established writer
looking for a new assignment? Send a rsum and writing samples to a company that
accepts them. Whatever your situation, you can start by looking at publishers. Research
each company thoroughly before you submit.
A wealth of information is available about educational publishers if you know
where to look. Start with Childrens Writers & Illustrators Market (educational publishers
are marked with an apple symbol). Check the listings in CWIM to locate an educational
publisher and find out what the company accepts. Visit the companys Web site to see
what kinds of work it publishes. See if the catalog is posted, and study it to find out if
the work you want to do fits into a category and age level the publisher already provides.
You may even be able to contribute titles to an existing series.
Write the librarians at your local schools. For the price of a lunch and a thank-you
card, theyre likely to be happy to show you around their school libraries and answer questions about what they look for in the books they buy and which publishers they favor.
Book producers, also known as packagers or book developers, work with publishers
to prepare books for publication. Book producers sometimes suggest topics to publishers and sometimes respond to requests from publishers for books on specific topics.
They often hire freelance writers. They rarely accept unsolicited submissions or queries.
(In Childrens Writers & Illustrators Market, book producers are marked with the symbol
of an open book.)
If you are a member of the Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators
(SCBWI), you can order a copy of the Directory Guide to Educational Markets or
download it from the Web site (www.scbwi.org). It lists educational publishers, their locations and contact information, the kinds of publications they publish, details about
submissions, and company Web sites. SCBWI also offers a list of book producers. Members can order a copy or download it from the Web site. The American Book Producers Association Web site includes a member directory at www.abpaonline.org/directory.
html. The directory includes links to more detailed information about member companies. Many member companies have Web sites, too.

The Business of Childrens Writing 291

You can also find educational publishers through the books they publish. Spend some
time browsing in a school or public library. Check the nonfiction section for books on
topics that appeal to you and find the publishers names inside. After you study enough
books, youll get a feel for the kinds you like and the companies that publish them.
Searching online will reveal more companies. I entered educational publisher
into a search engine and found thousands of results. The first few pages alone included
many names I recognized.
Attend trade shows and pick up publishers catalogs. Study the catalogs for examples of series and titles the company produces.
Network! Other writers can be the best sources of information and might even
know which companies are actively seeking authors. Go to conferences, join electronic
mailing lists, and check writers Web sites.
Some educational publishers avoid controversial subjects. Others specialize in
problem-solving books, biographies, nature, or crafts. Some focus on specific age levels.
One company might have several imprints with different requirements. Look for publishers that accept what you have to offer.

Ideas You Can Sink Your Teeth Into


Youve probably heard the old advice to write what you care about. What do you care
about? What have you always wanted to learn more about? Do you have expert knowledge of a subject you can put into language young readers can understand? Pick a topic
you can live with for the time it takes to investigate it and share what you discover. Explore Web sites intended for kids to see what interests them. Keep a file of topics that
capture your attention. These subjects can be the basis for query letters.
Because many educational books are tied to the school curriculum, it helps to know
what children study in each grade. If you know in what grade students study a certain topic, you can target your writing to that age level. The Education World Web site
lists national education standards for Fine Arts, Language Arts, Mathemati