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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Out of Pocket for a Few Days...

So, after 13 years (eeek!), the family and I are moving from our "starter" house to a bigger place, and I'll be out of pocket for a few days. Tune in after July 5 for new posts on what freelancers are making today, whether you should accept a small advance, and on why I'm still hooking up with experts to write books.

Thanks and happy 4th of July to my American readers! :)

Monday, June 27, 2011

8 Ways to *Not* Make a Freelance Friend

Last post, I talked about the benefits of having freelance friends--which made me realize I should talk about how to make them. Or better yet, talk about how not to make them.

I've found the easiest way to connect with another writer is face-to-face, whether it's attending a writer's conference, a workshop, or other freelance-oriented event. You either "click," or you don't, and it's the fastest way to get to know someone. But what about connecting through the virtual world? Emailing another freelancer is the easiest way to connect, as long as you avoid these eight mistakes:

Don't ramble. Don’t get into your life story, or even recap the highlights from the last decade. Include a line or two about what you're doing now; long, wordy paragraphs about your entire history or attempts at freelancing overwhelm your recipient and aren’t likely to be read.

Don't email "cold." Don't contact someone without explaining why you're getting in touch. If you have an "in," use it. Do you follow the person on Twitter? Did you just read her new novel and enjoyed it? Are you familiar with the person's byline?

When I get an email from a stranger that starts with something like, "I read Goodbye Byline (Kindle edition) and loved it,” I’m definitely going to continue reading. (If the person is really smart, he writes, "I bought Goodbye Byline and love it." See the difference?) You want to make the best impression possible.

Don't ask for too much. I'm always happy to answer a quick question, like "What kind of headset do you use?" or "If I haven’t received a contract from an editor who assigned a story, what should I do?" or "How much do you charge for reprints?" But when I don't know you from Eve, asking me to read through your book proposal or suggest names of agents for your project or write a book with you is over-reaching.

Don’t ask to meet. I just got an email from a writer who wanted to take me to lunch today or tomorrow to "talk about some writing projects." Um, no thanks. Number one, I’m booked today and tomorrow. In fact, I'm booked all week. Number two, you're not offering me a free lunch. You're actually asking me to give up something valuable--several hours of my most productive (and extremely limited) work time. If you email someone and he wants to meet in person, he’ll suggest it, believe me. Otherwise, assume that your relationship will be through email.

Don’t pester. I recently got an email from a freelancer who had contacted me back in September with a question about today's freelance market. She wanted to let me know what had happened with her career in the meantime, and I was delighted to hear from her. But if she was emailing me every few days, I'd get annoyed real fast.

Don’t assume. Like I said, I get lots of emails, and I reply to all of them...eventually. Don’t assume that just because you haven’t heard from someone, you've blown it--she’s probably just behind on her email. Email her again, please. (I just found an email from four weeks ago I forgot to respond to, which inspired this point.) At the same time, if you’ve attempted to make contact several times (let's say three or four), and have received no response, it's time to cut bait. Further attempts at contact are akin to stalking.

Don't get mad. I send a personal reply to every personal email I get, even if it takes me a few days (or longer) to get it. But the "spoon-feed-me-please" notes (i.e., "I know you're a freelancer and I want to freelance too--how do I get started?") get a polite, "general" response suggesting some excellent freelance resources. I can't send a detailed response to every email I get, or I'd have no time left over to actually work! So don't take it personally if you don't get an answer. It's not you--it's them.

Don't be selfish. When you contact someone, even with a quick question, you're asking for something valuable--their time. So offer something in return, even if it's only to say, "I'd really appreciate your help and will be happy to return the favor." That makes a good impression, and makes it more likely for you to get the response you seek. Plus, it's just the right thing to do.

Readers, what do you think? Do you reply to emails from strangers seeking advice? What's your take on connecting with other freelancers?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

5 Good Reasons For Freelancing Friends

Forget the cliché of the writer toiling away in his or her garret. Writers need other writers. And if you freelance, writing buddies aren’t a bonus--they’re a necessity.

While I love my non-writer friends (they’re great for serving as sources as stories!), my freelancing friends offer me something special. And you when you connect with other freelancers, you receive more than friendship in return:

Business advice. If I’m struggling to decide whether to take my career in a new direction or take on a particular book project, for example, it helps to bounce it off another freelancer. Many of my freelance friends have been self-employed for as long as I have, or even longer--and they may provide insight that I don’t have—or help me see that while a particular gig may pay well, it’s not moving me toward my long-term goals.

A keen editorial eye. Most of the work I do is relatively easy to write, and I don’t have other writers read my stuff before I turn it in. When I write an essay, however, I welcome feedback from a friend like Sharon Cindrich, who is a talented essayist. She’ll give my piece a read-through and an honest critique--something I can’t always get from a non-writer friend. Her opinion improves my work.

New markets. When I was going through a work drought several years ago, my friend Sam Greengard gave me the name of an editor at msnbc.com. I dropped the editor a quick note introducing myself, and a month later, he called to assign me a 700-word piece. I wound up writing several dozen pieces for him. And when my friend Kris Rattini moved to Shanghai years ago, she quit working for her trade magazine clients. I asked if I could contact one of the publications and use her name, and snagged an assignment within a week.

Commiseration. As both a freelancer and a mom, it seems like I’m always juggling both roles. I’m fortunate to have not only fellow “mom friends” whose kids know mine, but fellow freelancing parents as well. No one understands the dual role I play--or the guilt I sometimes experience as a working mom--like another freelancer going through the same thing. My closest freelancing friends don’t live nearby, but we stay in touch through email and phone calls.

Connections. When my editor at Random House called to tell me about a new parenting book project she needed a writer for, I suggested two good friends of mine, Sharon and Kathy Sena. Both happened to be fantastic parenting writers, and out of all of the possible choices, they wound up as the finalists for the book. Neither had written a book before, but Sharon got the contract and has written three other books since then. Being able to help a friend—and my editor—is a wonderful high and helps good things go around.

Developing true friendships takes time and a true connection--it doesn't happen just by commenting on their Facebook status or following them on Twitter. But it's more than worth the time and emotional effort. My freelance friends have done more than introduce me to new markets and helped improve my writing--they’ve helped me celebrate the ups of my career and negotiate the valleys as well.

Bottom line? Don’t try to go it alone--make an effort to make connections that can turn into lifelong relationships. You--and your career--will benefit.

Readers, do you agree? Do you find freelancing friends critical to your success and happiness? And if so (and I bet the answer is yes!), how so?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why you Must Close Business--and How to do it

One of the things I underestimated when I started freelancing full-time fourteen years ago was the amount of time I’d spend marketing. I’d thought most of my day would be devoted to writing, but quickly discovered that I needed to actually sell myself in order to get work.

If you start freelancing like I did—with no contacts or connections—editors and other clients aren’t going to come knocking. You have to go after them. In my case, that meant writing query letters, contacting potential business clients, sending letters of introduction to custom publishers, and responding to online posts seeking freelancers. At the beginning of your career, expect to spend 90 to 100 percent of your time marketing your business. As you start getting assignments, that percentage will drop but you could still plan to spend about 20 percent of your time marketing yourself.

Marketing starts with sending queries and letters of introduction, and making cold calls. But it doesn’t stop there. People in sales talk about the importance of “closing” business, and freelancers must understand that as well. You need to be able to close the sale and compel the editor or client to hire you.

That’s why sending a query isn’t enough. Queries get lost, misplaced, and wind up on the wrong editor’s desk. Too many writers give up if they don’t hear back. Take a proactive stance instead. If you haven’t heard from an editor within a reasonable amount of time, send a follow-up letter or email.

I like to use language like “I’m writing to follow up on a query about the health benefits of fiber I sent you several weeks ago; for your convenience, a copy is enclosed. Would you let me know if you’re interested in the idea? If I don’t hear from you within two weeks, I’ll assume you’re not interested in it at this time and may market it elsewhere.” This kind of follow-up usually prompts a response, and if I don’t get one, I resubmit the query to the next market on my list.

I also follow up by phone when I contact a potential business client or reprint market. That gives me a chance to touch base, ostensibly to see if the person has any questions about my background. Sometimes I still hear “no thanks,” but following up often closes the deal.

What if an editor likes an idea, but says she needs more time to decide whether to assign it? I give her a deadline and then email or call her if I haven’t heard from her. Of course I want her to buy the idea, but if not, I don’t want to her to sit on the query for months only to decide it’s not timely enough—which alas, does happen.

The same is true with a potential ghostwriting client. A client who’s thinking about hiring me isn’t an actual client, after all. I can’t waste my time with people who may or may not hire me. I will push a potential client to sign a contract, and if he won’t do it, I’ll “cut bait” and move on.

The bottom line is that marketing starts with contacting potential clients, but you most close business for it to be pay off. If you’re not doing that now, start—it will net you more work, and ultimately more money, in the long run.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Latest Articles in The Writer and Writer's Digest

I have several new freelancing articles out in The Writer and Writer's Digest. The July/August, 2011 issue of Writer's Digest includes my piece on four of freelancer's pet peeves, and how to handle them.

In the June issue of The Writer, you'll find my feature on time management for writers. (My ten proven tips include Keep a Stash of Templates, Develop Regulars, Use your Down Time, and my favorite, Eliminate the Ugliest.)

The July issue includes my feature on small advances, and how to determine whether one is worth it. (For the record, my first book advance was $2,500. I'll talk more about why I accepted such a small advance in a future post.)

**As always, if you're looking for more smart, proven freelancing advice, please check out my books for writers:
* Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (Kindle version)
* Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money (Kindle version)
* Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer's Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (Kindle version)

And stay tuned for a big announcement about another book aimed to freelancers...to help them, not surprisingly, make more money. :)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

6 Ways to Make the Most of your Workday

As writers, we’re all given the same 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. How you spend that time, however, will determine how productive you are—and how much income you can generate. Learn to maximize your time, and you’ll see a difference in both the amount of work you produce and what you collect from it. Here are six proven ways to get more out of your workday:

Make Lists
OK, I know you creative right-brain types are chafing at this request. But writing down what you need to do will make you more efficient. After you’ve got your list, prioritize your top three tasks for the day (or week, if appropriate.) I usually do this before I knock off work for the day. I figure out what the three biggest priorities for the next day are and then determine which is the "ugliest"--the one I most do not want to do--and do that first. Then I tackle the next two.

In addition to your "must-do" list, maintain a record of your ongoing projects. Some of these may not have firm deadlines, but you don’t want to forget about them because you’re distracted by what must be done today.

Protect your Work Time
Are you a morning person or a night owl? I’ve found that I write more quickly in the morning—in fact, the first few hours in the day are by far my most productive. So I devote my earliest morning hours for hard-core writing and save phone interviews, transcribing notes, researching and other tasks for later. If you know you fire up at night, on the other hand, plan to do your most demanding then.

Delete Distractions
Let me just say…no one needs to check their email every five minutes. But I'm guilty of doing that much of the time. If I have a deadline, I close my email program and keep it closed. Otherwise, I waste time reading email. Even if I don't reply to them right then, it's still a distraction that impacts my productivity.

Take Breaks
Research shows that the average person can only listen for forty-five to fifty minutes before his attention begins to flag. Take frequent breaks throughout your work day, and you’ll get more done. Even five or ten minutes away from the computer will help refresh you. I take a break every hour at the minimum, even if it’s just to toss in a load of laundry or check on my kids and their sitter.

Stay Focused
This is my biggest battle—I’m easily distracted. But if you get sidetracked easily, you’ll eat up time without producing any work. Say you’re researching a story, using Google to hunt for potential sources. You look up to discover 20 minutes have disappeared--and you still haven't identified who you need to interview. I’ll set my watch or use a timer and give myself a specific amount of time to research a topic so I don’t wind up spending my morning reading celebrity blogs.

Check your Head
While there are loads of tools out there to help you manage your time, the most important aspect is your mindset. You have to make it your goal to be more focused and accomplish more during your writing time. Once you do so, you’ll become aware of your biggest time traps—and happily, discover that many of them are easily overcome with some practice.

***Like my new blog header? Thanks to Nicole (nickiheart16@aim.com) for designing it. Get in touch with her if you're looking for an eye-catching design.

And special thanks to those of you who are buying my novels, now available as e-books! I received not one, but two fan emails in the past 24 hours, and am remembering why I love writing fiction. If you enjoy contemporary women's fiction (or know someone who does), I hope you'll check out Did you get the Vibe?, and White Bikini Panties--and please let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Have a Backup Plan: Five Tips Especially for Freelancing Parents


I hope you enjoyed my five-part "Blast from The Past" series last week. I'll repeat it in the future so you can see what hasn't worked and why. Today's post is especially for freelancing parents, and was inspired by a sick sitter crisis last week:

Sure, I believe in planning my day. But often those plans go awry. Then what?
Link
Say you get an urgent call from a client who needs edits on a piece you finished weeks ago--and he needs it today. Or you were supposed to conduct a critical interview for a profile you’re writing, and now your source has gone AWOL. Or my favorite (not really)--you’re a parent with a sick kid, or a sick babysitter.

As a working parent, I’ve faced the sick kid/sick babysitter scenario multiple times--including three days a week where my sitter was home with the flu. I may not have been quite as productive those days, but I’ve tried multiple techniques to parent and work simultaneously--and have never missed a deadline as a result. I have:

Let my son watch TV. As in, as many episodes of Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer, or Top Gear (depending on his age) as he wants. A day or two of Ryan gazing open-mouthed at the “magic box” isn’t going to kill him.

Allowed my toddler-aged daughter play with forbidden "toys." Unlike her brother, Haley isn’t interested in TV yet. She loves, however, playing with anything she’s not supposed to have. So I get out my office supplies (padded envelopes are a fave of hers), an outdated cell phone, an old remote control--anything that looks like a "no-no" and is therefore fascinating--and let her go nuts. It’s good for ten to fifteen minutes of work time before I find something else for her.

Made the most of nap time. While it’s a lot harder to entertain a toddler than an older kid, toddlers still nap. So when she goes down, I use that 90 minutes or so to write as much as I can after a quick check of my email. An encroaching deadline makes me write even faster.

Gotten out of the house. Haley is still too young to run around the park without me keeping a close eye on her, but before she was born, I would take Ryan to the park or to a McDonald’s play land and tuned out the screaming children while I worked. I actually wrote the draft of this post at the YMCA while my kids played in the Strong Kids Zone, the Y’s babysitting room.

Called on a friend. When I’m truly desperate, I will call one of my fellow moms and ask to dump my kids on them for a few hours. This is a last resort, but I know I can if I must. (And I’m willing to return the favor. I can watch my friends’ kids whether I’m working or not. Normally when I’m working, my sitter is here. So she does the child-tending. Otherwise, I’m in mommy-mode anyway so a few additional children doesn’t make a difference to me. Any mom of more than one child will tell you the same thing.)

Get the idea? Crises will arise, and the more children or family responsibilities you have, the more of them you’ll encounter. Be a Boy Scout, and be prepared to make your day work, however you can. You can make up for your lost productivity tomorrow.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Blast from the Past, Take 5: An Essay That *Did* Sell--and Why


So, last post, I shared an awful "essay" that didn't sell--and I think it's easy to see why. Now here's one that did sell--and got a lot of positive feedback as well. It's also been reprinted four times--it's an evergreen subject for parenting magazines as you'll see.

One of the keys to writing a success essay is to take something specific (i.e. an experience that you've had) and making it universal. You can't just write about what's happened to you (see my candy essay); you have to address a larger topic that will make readers relate to the piece. See what you think of this essay; again, my comments are in green:

I'm Having a Baby (Really!)

I’m having a baby.

Not that you would know it to look at me. My stomach, while not exactly flat, lacks that telltale baby bulge. But I am having a baby. I just don’t know when. [Attention-getting lead. I still like this one a lot.]

My husband and I are adopting, and while the physical symptoms of pregnancy may be absent, the reality that we’re going to be parents is beginning to set in. We’re talking names, looking at cribs, and admiring tiny little onesies in gender-neutral shades.

But as we examine car seats and strollers and changing tables, I find I feel like an imposter. I don’t have the burgeoning belly or giveaway glow that the other future mommies do. Our child isn’t growing inside me. We don’t even know when to expect her—or him. We just know a baby is coming. [Note the specific details in the foregoing paragraphs. Specifics are always better than generalities.]

Erik and I have endured years of well-meaning questions about whether we want kids. Well, yeah. A couple of years of trying the old-fashioned way led to fertility drugs, surgeries, and interventions that eventually culminated in five rounds of in vitro. I got pregnant several times, only to miscarry.

During that six years, we withdrew from the world. Only our closest friends knew what we were going through, but even they couldn’t understand the pain we were experiencing. Why I couldn’t go to a baby shower. Why I pointedly ignored pregnant women anywhere I saw them. Why I couldn’t bear to even look at a baby. [The previous two paragraphs do more than give our history; they talk about the grief we were going through. And even people who haven't gone through infertility will have experienced something similar in their lives--striving for something you truly want and failing.]

Over time, my hope to carry a biological child begin to dim. But my desire to be a mommy was growing stronger. For most people, pregnancy and parenthood are irretrievably linked. Others realize that giving up one needn’t negate the other. I’ll never carry a child or see my belly swell or feed my baby at my breast. But is that really what being a parent is about? [This paragraph actually contains the seed for at least one more essay, maybe more--what it means to be a parent. I actually wrote and sold a later piece on the traits Ryan has "inherited" from me, even though he's not my biological child.]

I gave up my pregnancy fantasy and focused on becoming a mom. My husband and I met with social workers, filled out reams of paperwork, and took a ten-week parenting class. We were fingerprinted, our backgrounds checked, our mental and physical health examined, our house inspected. [Again, specific details!]

We spent hours writing a “dear birth parents” letter, trying to put into words our desire to be parents, choosing photos that reflect our responsible yet fun-loving selves, promising love, time and attention along with baby swim classes and homemade chocolate chip cookies. We started advertising. We received our license to adopt. And we waited. [Details...and another essay here, too.]

Our baby could be born any day! We knew it could happen that fast. But I couldn’t share our excitement with the world. There was no swollen abdomen, no due date to circle on the calendar. Sure, we’d tried to have a baby for years. But now we really were! And yet our baby felt like a secret.

At a conference out of town, I realized people wouldn’t know—unless we told them. So I started spreading the news. I announced to long-distance friends I saw only once a year, “I have big news. I’m going to be a mom!” Then I started telling business colleagues at the conference. Then I told anyone who would listen. [It's human to want to share excitement with our friends and family, whether it's about having a baby, falling in love, or getting a much-wanted job or award. Again, it's a universal emotion even if you haven't been in the shoes of a prospective adoptive parent.]

And people were thrilled. I was congratulated, hugged, blessed. I met moms, dads, aunts, and grandpas who had adopted children. I met adopted adults who told me how happy they were for me. With each good wish, each kind word, my baby become more real. I didn’t realize how healing the joy I had experienced was until I got on the plane to return home. [Demonstrating the specific is also the universal--and showing how many people are impacted by adoption.]

The man sitting directly behind me was holding a newborn—six weeks, I overheard him say. When I got up, I saw him, and for the first time in years, I could look at a baby. I could admire the tiny body, the feathery eyelashes, the loosely clenched perfect fingers without feeling that awful mix of desire, jealousy, and sorrow. I gazed at this little tiny little person, utterly and completely asleep, and for the first time, I wasn’t reminded of what I had lost or would never have. Instead I saw hope, and joy—and certainty. [Lots of details and I think I did a good job of describing emotions without being melodramatic.]

And I thought, I’m getting one of those! [I set this off as its own paragraph to make it "pop." I think it does.]

“He’s beautiful,” I told the baby’s father, who looked up at me and smiled. And ours will be too. [I like this close--goes back to the beginning of the essay and gives the piece of sense of closure.]

Readers, what do you think? Can you see how much stronger this piece than the earlier essay--and why it sold?

**And by the way, Ryan was born just a few weeks after this piece was first written. And he was just as beautiful as I expected. His little sister, Haley, who came along four and half years later, is too. :)

Blast from the Past, Take 4: An "Essay" That Didn't Sell

Oh boy. I cannot believe I'm going to post this piece--this is one of my earliest essays. It didn't sell, though I sent it out several dozen times. And here's the reason why: it's not an essay!

Sure, as a newbie freelancer, I thought it was an essay. It's not. It's more of a free-writing exercise or a journal entry recording my sugar obsession than an actual piece. (Don't worry, next up I'll post an essay that did sell--so you can compare the two.) In the meantime, my comments are in green:

A Sweet Secret

I have a confession to make: I’m not as virtuous as I appear. [Not a very compelling lead. And with an essay, you've got to work twice as hard to get your reader's attention.]

Sure, I run twenty miles a week and lift weights once regularly. I eat healthy and always try to get my five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I gave up red meat a long time ago and cook low-fat meals with beans, pasta and chicken. To my friends, I’m somewhat of a health freak, but watching what I eat and exercising helped me lose the fifty pounds I gained years ago.
I’m careful now because I know it’s easier to maintain weight than to lose it. But there’s one thing my friends don’t know about me…I’ve got a sweet tooth that won’t be denied. [Okay, this is actually an interesting idea--that I look healthy on the outside but I have a secret. But as you'll see, I don't really pursue it.]

When you’re born with a sweet tooth, it affects your whole life. You remember vacations in terms of desserts; you buy the kind of Halloween candy you like so you can share it with the trick-or-treaters; you know the cost per ounce of Fannie May turtles. Holidays take on a new significance—Valentine’s Day means conversation hearts, Halloween ushers in the little green and orange mallowcreme pumpkins, and everyone knows that the Cadbury bunny only comes out at Easter. [Again, not a bad idea here, but there has to be more than an essay than listing the candy/holiday connections.]

Of course not all candy stands the test of time. When I was seven, my absolute favorite food in the world was something that consisted of “Lik-M-Aid”, which was basically colored sugar and white “dipping sticks”, called “Lik-M-Stix”. You sucked on the stick, dipped it into the Lik-M-Aid, and then dipped it into your mouth. It would have been easier (but not as much fun) to just drain sugar packets into my mouth. After I grew weary of the time-intensive task of consuming Lik-M-Ade, I discovered Three Musketeers. Three Musketeers were great because they could be mashed between my hands (while still safely in the wrapper) until the bar was a soft, squishy paste. Then I’d tear off one end of the wrapper and squeeze the candy into my mouth—astronaut food! [Okay, so I liked these candies as a kid. So what?]

By the age of ten, I was allowed to ride my bike with a friend to the local K-Mart, where I discovered Whoppers, malted milk balls which were packaged in a carton. (To remind you how healthy they are.) The way to eat a malted milk ball was to bite in half and then suck on it until the malt dissolved and only the chocolate coating was left in your mouth. [Again, so what?]

And the movies meant one thing—Twizzlers. Our movie theaters had grown-up candy like Jordan Almonds and chocolate covered raisins. I may have flirted with Jujube’s occasionally, but I always came back to the strawberry licorice. Plus, if you bit both the ends of a Twizzler, it doubled as a straw for your soda. [And?]

In high school, my friends and I all loved M & Ms. M & Ms had it all over regular candy bars—they were neat and easy to slip into your mouth during class if you were so inclined. You could let the candy shell melt slowly away, savoring the chocolate inside, and no one would ever notice. It was considered quite scandalous to offer a boy you liked a green M & M (the rumor was that green ones made you, in the teen speak of the day, “horny”). [Cringing here...again, so what?]

As the seasons come and go, so do the candies. Just as mallowcreme pumpkins hit the stores in time for Halloween, Easter to me means one thing: Cadbury Creme Eggs. You either love them or you think they’re the most disgusting candy you’ve ever seen. An Egg is consists of a chocolate shell approximately the size of a small chicken egg, filled with white and yellow “Creme” (the yolk and white of the egg, naturally). The only way to eat an Egg it to bite the top of the egg off, eat it, and then dip your finger into the shell to savor the Creme. Last, you finish off the shell of the Egg. There is no better candy experience in the world. [Fifteen years later, I still agree with this statement...but again, so what? What is my point?]

After all, life is short. A little candy along the way just makes it a little sweeter. [Ugh. Horrible!]

Again, this is not an essay. This is just a list of candy I've enjoyed over the years, nothing more. That's why it didn't sell. Next up will be an essay that did.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blast from the Past, Take 3--An Early Article that Sold (and Why)

This has been an interesting, cringe-inducing couple of days as I've scoured my hard drive for some of the queries, articles, and essays I wrote early in my freelance career. I'm amazed that I got anywhere in my freelance career. Even some of the queries that sold aren't all that great...but looking back, I can see why they did sell.

Here's the thing--I'm a much stronger writer now, fourteen years later. I've also learned what to do (and not do) when writing for editors. So let's take a look at a piece I wrote for Bride's at the beginning of my career--my comments are in green.

COMBINING POSSESSIONS:
FROM TWO HOMES TO ONE [Hmm, I'm still capping titles. Remember, that reads like I'm YELLING. Not good. And title could be a little catchier.]


By

Kelly James-Enger

When Deanne and Steve got married, they found they had very different ideas about how they’d decorate their new home. Deanne wanted to hang the Hummel plates she’d been collecting for years; Steve planned to display his cherished autographed baseballs on the mantel. Neither was thrilled about the other’s plans. [This anecdote actually isn't bad. But I should have included their last name, ages, and city and state--typical stuff for a national magazine. A direct quote from one of them would have made it much stronger as well. In fact, my editor came back and asked me for one.]

“Creating your new home is symbolic because it represents the balance between your needs and your husband’s needs,” says Susan Page, author of How One of You Can Bring the Two of You Together (Broadway Books, 1997). But what happens when you and your husband already have your own furniture and your own ideas about how your new home should look? Whose stuff do you pitch and whose do you keep? To blend your households with a minimum of conflict, follow these tips… [Not a bad quote but I'd like to see more from Page here. Plus I should have italicized her book title. This what editors call a "nut graf," or nut paragraph, which sums up the article's purpose. And no, I had no idea what a nut graf was the first time an editor used the term with me.]

Communicate with your husband. What kind of look do you have in mind for your home? What does your husband want? Sit down with your husband and draw up “must-keep”, “maybe”, and “donate” lists for your belongings. Consider ways to combine your favorite pieces in your new home. If your place is small, it may be worth the cost to rent storage space for items that you simply can’t part with. [Not bad, actually, but writing for a bridal magazine I should have said "fiance or husband" instead of husband.]

Plan to compromise. Dr. Willard Harley, psychologist and author of Give and Take: The Secret to Marital Compatibility suggests that couples bargain over the way they’ll furnish and decorate their home. “Don’t select anything unless you both enthusiastically agree about your choice,” he says. “That way you won’t make sacrifices that you’ll regret later.” Page suggests that couples look at compromising over these decisions as “making a trade-off, not a sacrifice. With a trade-off, you give up something you value for something else—your spouse’s happiness—that you value more.” [Nice quotes here--and notice I've brought in another expert for his opinion.]

Make joint decisions. Don’t make purchases or other decorating decisions (like getting rid of that horrible plaid recliner) without talking it over with him first. When Michelle found the perfect four-poster bed while shopping one afternoon, she called her husband, who told her to go ahead and buy it. After Brad saw the new bed and the pink and cream comforter set Michelle had bought, he complained that their bedroom was “too feminine-looking”! To avoid these conflicts, make your decisions and purchases as a team. If your husband claims not to care, remind him that you’ll both live with these decisions for years. [Again, I should have included last names, ages, and city and state. And I could have had a longer quote from Michelle. However, I'd interviewed her and her quotes we're that compelling, which is why I wrote it like this.]

Choose wisely. Some decisions may be easy—keeping the bigger microwave, for instance, or donating the saggy futon you’ve had for years to Goodwill. But what if you have still need furniture? If money’s tight, spend your dollars carefully. Cindy and Matt agreed not to spend more than $200 on their apartment without consulting each other, and she says that made their decisions easier. It’s also better to spend more on quality furniture that will last for years than to buy cheaply made pieces just because they’re inexpensive. [Same comment re: last names, ages, and city/states. And notice that even in a short article, I've got three different couples' experience and two experts. Editors love quotes and "real people" sources.]

Make it “our place”. When one of you moves into the other’s house, the newcomer may not feel “at home” right away. It’s up to the original owner to make room for the new spouse. Newlyweds Kathleen and Erik live in the townhouse Erik bought several years ago, but Kathleen says this isn’t the ideal situation. “Erik already had this place the way he liked it,” she explains. “I had to tell him it was important for it to look like my home, too.” Even though she likes their house, she admits to looking forward “to buying a home together when we can both pick it out.” [Guess what? This is actually me and my husband, which I explained to my editor. However, I should have asked her if I could have included a first-person anecdote disguised as a third-person one before I wrote the piece. And my quotes could have been much stronger...I could have gone in much more detail about the sculpted wolf head on the mantle and the wild animal paintings that hung throughout my husband's home!]

Making decisions together is the key to blending two homes into one. Work as a team, and you’ll find that your new home reflects both of your interests and tastes. Now, about that recliner… [Not bad, actually, but I could have written a stronger close.]

Readers, I hope you're finding this series instructive. Let me know! And if you're a new freelancer who's looking for more practical advice, I recommend Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money. It includes a chapter that walks you through the process of coming up with an idea, pitching it, and writing it for an editor as well as 20 real queries that worked.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Blast from the Past, Take 2--or How *Not* to Write an Article

Okay, I am being extra-brave today. Not only have I posted one of my early queries to show how bad they used to be, I'm posting an article that didn't sell, too.

Remember that I rarely queried as a newbie freelancer; I wrote articles, sent them in, and crossed my fingers. That is not the way to successfully freelance; professional freelancers query. I did sell a few articles using this haphazard method, but most fell flat--and looking back, it's easy to see why.

Here's a piece I sent to a national women's magazine that didn't sell...with some of my comments in green:


HOW TO GET YOUR HONEY OFF THE COUCH (AND OUT OF THE HOUSE!)
[You don't capitalize all of the words in the title. Duh.]

by

Kelly K. James
[I was still single...]

Remember how it was when you first met? The two of you did lots of fun things together. You went to the movies, to dinner, to the beach. You spent a whole day at the water park and spent long weekends together. Lately, though, it seems that your guy would rather lie on the couch and watch football (or basketball, or hockey) than spend “quality time” with you. [This is such a boring, general lead...even a first-person lead is more compelling than the general "you."]

Getting tired of it? Here are seven tips on how to make your man want to spend more time with you—without him even realizing what you’re up to! [I like the list format but the writing could be stronger.]

1. Ask him what he wants. Is he happy the way things are? Does he miss getting out of the house? (Try not to make snide comments about how the couch has a big man-shaped dent in it now.) Assume the best--maybe he’d like to spend more time with you, but he’s too busy to arrange it. Offer to make the plans for you—he may jump at the chance. [I actually don't mind this paragraph--and I do like the tone.]

2. Tell him you’re going to set aside one night a week to spend apart. This may seem to be the opposite of what you want—for him to spend more time with you. But you may have been making yourself too available to him. Men don’t appreciate someone who’s always accessible. Time apart will make him appreciate your time together more. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, remember? [A quote from an expert would make this much stronger. Noticing that I haven't relied on any sources except myself? That's a big reason it didn't sell.]

3. Don’t expect him to share all your interests. No man wants to spend his entire Saturday at the mall shopping for bargains. And he probably doesn’t want to see any chick movies like “Sense and Sensibility”. Don’t expect him too, and don’t force him to participate in things you know he detests. He’ll just be resentful anyway, and you won’t enjoy yourself when he’s sitting there moping the whole time. [Rather general, and, um, sexist! And a movie title should be italicized, not in quotes.]

4. Don’t expect him to fulfill all your needs. My mom gave me this piece of advice when I got married: don’t give up your women friends. We tend to expect our husbands and boyfriends to listen endlessly to all our problems. But guys don’t want to empathize—they want to problem-solve. Do you really want your boyfriend to agree with you when you say you’re getting too fat and suggest a diet? Of course not. Don’t treat him like he’s your personal therapist. If you need to rehash something for the third or fourth time, call a girlfriend. [Not a bad tip from my mom--of course--but again, a quote from a relationship expert or a recent study on how men and women communicate would pump up this tip.]

5. Try something different. If the two of you always go to dinner and a movie on Saturday nights, go bowling or miniature golfing instead. Take him line dancing. Talk him into a sky-diving class. Sharing new experiences together is guaranteed to enhance your relationship—and you may find a hobby that you can both share. [Again, now I know that there is research to prove this point--that doing new experiences strengthens a couple's bond. So why didn't I include some here?]

6. Give him his space (see #2). Get out of the house once in a while and just leave him alone, without a list of chores for him to do in the meantime. He’ll love the time to himself, but rest assured that after a couple of hours, he’ll start missing you and want you home. [Gee, I already wrote this tip. Simply giving it a different name doesn't make it new material.]

7. Make it fun. Don’t take out your crabbiness on him or complain about your PMS when you go out together. Remember how you felt about him when you first met? You looked forward to seeing him and he could tell. Recall that feeling and act that way again--remind him of the woman he fell in love with. He may have forgotten how good things can be between the two of you. But when the two of you have a wonderful time together, he’s going to want more of it in the future. Who knows—he may even drag you off the couch one night! [I think I'm rehashing tip 3 again here. Which doesn't make this a new tip, remember? The writing isn't horrible but it's not particularly interesting or colorful either. And the ending--well, it makes me cringe.]

Readers, are you impressed by my bravery? :) Next up, I'll share an early article that did get published so you can see the difference.

Blast from the Past--or How *Not* to Query

Yesterday's guest blog post by Sage Cohen on the importance of practice made me think back to early in my freelance career. I thought it would be fun (and maybe a little humiliating) to post one of my first queries so you can see how far I've come (and how you can improve your own query-writing skills with practice as well). For comparison, here's a template that includes one of my recent, much better queries.

My comments are in green.

***

August 8, 1996


Ms. Amy Nebens
Assistant Articles Editor
Bridal Guide
3 East 54th Street
15th Floor
New York, New York 10022-3108 [Yup, I sent it by snail mail...that was what we did back then!]

Dear Ms. Nebens:

Today, more prospective brides and grooms are signing prenuptial agreements. A prenuptial agreement can spell out exactly what will happen to a couple’s property in the event of divorce. With today’s divorce rates and second marriages on the rise, a prenuptial agreement is often worth consideration. [Nothing like bringing up today's divorce rates in a query to a bridal mag. Eeek! But notice my lack of statistics...how many couples are signing prenups? What percentage of the couples getting married consider them? An anecdotal lead here would have been much more effective.]

I am interested in writing a short article for your magazine on the use, legal effect, and advantages and disadvantage of using them. As an attorney and free-lance writer, I am uniquely qualified to present this topic to your readers. I have enclosed a copy of an article on avoiding legal problems during wedding planning which I recently sold to a national bridal magazine to give you an idea of my writing style. [So many things wrong here, or missing. First, my language sounds dorky and stilted. I have said what I plan to cover, but should provide more specifics--like list some of the pros and cons, not just say that I'll address them. I have played up my unique qualifications--see, I was thinking of an ISG even before I knew what it was! But I could have done better, as you'll see below. More importantly, I should not have sent that article to this editor--it was written for one of her competitors! Major rookie mistake that could have gotten me into major trouble with the magazine I wrote it for, plus it shows the editor that I'm a clueless newbie. Not the impression I want to make! I'm cringing reading this.]

I am familiar with the tone and format of Bridal Guide, and believe this article would be a timely addition to your magazine. Please call me to discuss this query at your convenience. [Much better would have been to suggest the appropriate section of the magazine, or to mention a recent article. And asking her to call me? Well, that's not going to happen unless she's interested in the idea. Again, I look like a rookie. And you know what I'm missing here? The fact that I was engaged! Hello, I'm a soon-to-be bride so in addition to my legal experience, I'm uniquely qualified to write this piece...or be considered for others.]

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon. [Bleah. Nothing special here.]

Very truly yours,

Kelly K. James


**Readers, what do you think? Can you see why this query didn't sell? Stay tuned...I think we're going to do some more blasts from the past! :) And if you're a new freelancer who's thinking, "hmm, I think my queries probably stink," check out Ready, Aim, Specialize! which includes a whole chapters of actual first queries from a variety of writers that sold--and why.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Guest Post from Sage Cohen, Author of The Productive Writer


Readers of my blog know that I'm all about making more money in less time--selling as much work to clients and working as efficiently as I can. I'm always trolling for new ideas to boost my productivity, and that means keeping up on the latest writing- and freelancing-related books.

Last year, Sage Cohen asked me to write a blurb for her book, The Productive Writer, and I was happy to do so. The Productive Writer is aimed at writers of all stripes--not just freelancers--but Cohen has plenty of great tips, strategies, and suggestions for boosting your output regardless of what kind of work you do.

She also graciously provided this guest post:

Practice Deliberately (And Hit Your Target)
A guest post by author Sage Cohen

“The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call ‘deliberate practice.’ It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron three hundred times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day—that’s deliberate practice.”—Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large, Fortune Magazine

Have you ever gotten halfway through a piece of writing and found yourself floundering about what you were actually trying to accomplish in the first place? This is where the concept of deliberate practice comes in. When you set your sights on specific goals for a piece of writing, then you’ll know exactly how close you come to achieving your goal.

Try writing out as many of these details at the top of your piece, or on a Post-It note that you attach to your computer screen or your working file folder. For example, I wrote this at the top of a recent piece I’d been contracted to write:

• Target word count: 1,500
• To appear in: Poet’s Market 2012
• Audience: Aspiring poets with varying levels of publishing experience
• Topic: Why Poets Need Platforms and How to Create One

I challenge you to name and claim the key objectives of every piece of writing, even a blog post, short story, essay, or poem, regardless of whether you’ve been hired to write it or if you ever intend to share it. Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Choose a listener When you know the audience you are writing for, you can start to imagine their needs, questions, objections, and level of interest. The simplest way to define this audience is by choosing a single person who is representative of this group, and write it “for them.” Maybe this person can even be available to read and give feedback about your work, to help you learn if it was received as you intended.

2. Name the objective of what you are writing If you are writing on assignment or for a client, this is where you’d articulate exactly what goals you’ve been hired to accomplish. If you are writing something for a themed contest or publication, define the topic or parameters within which you must perform. And if you are writing creative nonfiction, poetry, or fiction that is not driven by particular submission requirements, try setting your own standard for what you expect this piece to do/be/accomplish and then observe if this makes a difference in your writing and revising experience.

3. Write! You know everything you need to know about this, already! [This is the sound of me shaking my pom-poms.]

4. Revise! Anyone who’s ever spent years revising a single piece of writing knows all too well what hitting an eight-iron three hundred times might be like. Now, get out there and start swinging.

5. Evaluate whether you have achieved your objective When your piece feels finished, revisit the goals articulated in numbers one and two, and see how your writing measures up. If there are discrepancies, return to number four, and then repeat. If you didn’t hit the mark the first time, don’t worry. Remember, this is all practice. And the only way we improve is through repetition. Practice shapes us, so we can most effectively give shape to our writing.

[Excerpted from The Productive Writer by Sage Cohen]

About Sage Cohen
Sage Cohen is the author of two nonfiction books, The Productive Writer and Writing the Life Poetic, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. She blogs at pathofpossibility.com, where you can download a free "Productivity Power Tools" workbook companion to The Productive Writer and sign up for the free, 10-week email series, "10 Ways to Boost Writing Productivity."

**Thanks so much to Sage for this blog post. I agree that practice makes, if not perfect, at least a lot better. My early queries were tragic and rarely sold, but with time I mastered the form and started getting more assignments. Same goes for articles, book proposals, essays, even novels--the more you write, and the more practice you accumulate, the stronger your work becomes. Readers, do you agree?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

10 Reasons to Publish an ebook


Last year, I published my first book with a POD company, CreateSpace. While I'd only worked with traditional publishers before, I had good reasons for choosing POD for Goodbye Byline. (Just remember that POD isn't the right option for every author.)

Last month, after considering the pros and cons, I published my first two ebooks using Smashwords. (I also formatted them specifically for Kindle.) Here are 10 reasons it was a worthwhile endeavor:

1. No rights hassles. My first two novels, Did you Get the Vibe?, and White Bikini Panties, were published in 2003 and 2004, but went out of print a few years ago. The rights have reverted back to me, so I can do with the books what I wish.
2. The books are camera-ready, so to speak. The manuscripts have already been professionally edited and proofread, so there was additional work for me to do other than format them as ebooks.
3. They're good! I reread both novels as I was formatting them. I'd forgotten that they're entertaining and relateable--yet tackle some serious topics women in their 20s face. I know readers will enjoy them.
4. They represent potential income. They're not making any money sitting on my hard drive, after all. And while my focus is on writing nonfiction, my novels have produced income for me in the past (and will hopefully continue to do so).
5. There's a growing demand for ebooks. I heard Mark Coker, founder and president of Smashwords, speak at ASJA in April. The company published several dozen books its first year and more than 48,000 last year, its third in business. I want to make my books available to eager ereaders.
6. They'll build my platform. You already know that publishing is all about platform, and the books will continue to build mine, not only as a ghostwriter/writing expert, but as a writer of contemporary women's fiction as well. And as I'm currently working on another novel, that's important.
7. It increases my expertise. Learning how to format and publish ebooks gives me a skill that I can market to potential ghostwriting/coauthoring clients. I'm always trying to build my value to clients and now I can advise them not only about traditional versus POD publishing options but ebooks as well.
8. It's gratifying. You know what? I just like having my formerly OOP, or out-of-print, back "out there." And I love hearing from readers, and connecting with them in a different way than I do than I do with those who read and enjoy my nonfiction.
9. There was no upfront cost. Okay, I did spend $100 to hire a cover designer (my artistic skills are lacking), but the only other "cost" was the time I spent learning how to format the books--and of course, to promote them, which is an ongoing task.
10. Royalties are my favorite kind of money. I love making royalties and selling reprints because both are a kind of "passive" income-money that comes in with little or no effort on my part. As a self-employed businessperson who's trying to make more money in less time, that's something I cannot ignore.

I'm sure I'll come up with other reasons to publish additional ebooks, and will report on sales just as I have before (compare traditional to POD).

Readers, what about you? If you've taken the ebook option, what are some of your reasons why?