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Sunday, May 29, 2011

5 Tips for Writing about Home and Garden

Homes--in particular, selling them and buying them--have been on my mind of late. After cleaning, decluttering, painting, updating, and staging our little house to perfection, we managed to sell it in just seven days. Then we spent the next five weeks searching for our new home.

We looked at at least twenty houses, and I was amazed by some of what we saw--dirty rooms, cluttered closets, and over-decorated, over-priced monstrosities. We finally found one that will work for us, and in the meantime, I've got a host of story ideas for future articles--and will no doubt have more when we actually move next month.

Whether your home is a showplace or you're simply the king of DIY (do-it-yourself), an interest in décor, gardening, or home repair can net you assignments from the lucrative "shelter" market. In addition to magazines dedicated to the home and garden niche, most general interest publications cover these topics to some degree as well. Articles may explain how to landscape your backyard, remodel a bathroom, or maximize your storage space.

Thanks to the practical appeal and increasing interest in home improvement and maintenance (even as house values continue to drop), these topics are a lucrative area to specialize in, particularly for writers who have experience with decorating, home renovation, or gardening. Use these tips to break into this lucrative area:

• Start with what you know. If you don't have shelter-related clips, begin with subjects you already have hands-on experience with. If you recently remodeled your bathroom, started a container herb garden, or refinanced your condo, look for markets that would be a good match for those ideas--and play them up in your ISG. If you're new to covering shelter-related subjects, start with a relatively simple topic that you have personal experience with. For example, I sold a story on buying your first home to Bridal Guide early in my career; while I didn’t know much about mortgages, I interviewed an experienced Realtor and mortgage broker, and they gave me plenty of information for the story. I also wrote about combining two tastes into one home for Bride's. In both cases, I highlighted my recent experiences of moving in together and buying my first home with my new husband in my query letters.

• Use your background. Consider your work experience as well—if you've sold real estate or are an interior designer, you bring a different perspective to the home topics you'll pitch. Make sure your query includes your relevant qualifications, again in your ISG.

Stay up on trends. Real estate and home design is a constantly changing field. Pay attention to trends--on the local, regional, and national levels. Is there an increased interest in water gardens? Are more people adding on to their homes rather than moving? Have upscale condominiums become increasingly popular? Look for evidence of trends on a local level; this can provide you with story ideas as well as possible anecdotes and sources for the articles themselves.

• Think visuals. Whether you’re writing a piece about interior design or how to prepare your backyard garden for winter, photos, illustrations, and other art may be an integral part of the story. You may use photos to help sell the story idea, and then sell the photos themselves as well. Because of this, it’s worth it to invest in a good-quality digital camera and take a photography class to learn the basics. And, make sure that if you are selling photos, you retain rights to them so that you resell them in the future.

• Go one step at a time. For a how-to piece, which is essentially a service article, break down the story into simple, understandable steps—and describe them so that someone else can follow your instructions. Make sure to point out any safety precautions—such as telling readers to wear goggles while using a soldering iron. If you're not sure whether you've missed something, ask a friend who has no experience in the subject to read the piece and tell you whether it's clear.

Remember, your life is often the richest source of story ideas. Thinking about the challenges you've had with your own home--whether you rent or own--may turn into saleable story ideas.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

8 Tips for Writing True-Life Features

Chances are your day-to-day life isn’t all that exciting. That’s one of the reasons true-life features remain a staple of magazines, newspapers, and websites. We love to read about other people’s lives, especially when they have a fascinating story to tell.

As a writer, however, there’s more to finding, researching, selling and writing true-life features than meets the eye. In addition to excellent reporting skills, you must have the ability to tell a good story, and put your reader in the subject’s Crocs, heels, or sneakers to master the genre.

Here are eight tips for writing true-life features:

1. Separate Stellar from So-so Stories

While everyone has a story to tell, most of those are not saleable stories. In other words, the person herself, the inherent drama of her story, and the market you’re pitching to will all determine whether your pitch will sell. There has to be real drama, and a somewhat unique angle, to sell it.

2. Consider the Market
Often, but not always, the subject of a true-life feature will reflect the readership of the publication. Think about it. Sports Illustrated runs features about athletes who have overcome the odds to stellar careers; college alumni magazines run features about their noteworthy alumni; and parenting publications include stories about parents who have faced some kind of child-rearing challenges.

3. Break the Query Rule
When pitching a true-life feature, include enough details about the story to give the editor a sense of its inherent drama and why readers will be interested in it. In this case, I go beyond my usual four-paragraph template to make the case for the particular story.

4. Get Face-to-Face

If you’re writing a simple service story (e.g. “10 Ways to…”), you can do all of your interviews by phone or email. For true-life features, though, a face-to-face interview is preferable. You want to be able to observe the person's body language, gestures, and environment to provide details that will make the story come alive.

5. Ask Every Question

Don’t be afraid to ask “obvious” questions that remain unanswered. For example, if a young woman was being stalked by a former boyfriend and she didn’t call the police, ask why not. Maybe she’d called them before and they’d said they couldn’t do anything—or maybe his father was chief of police in her small town. The more questions you ask, the more information and detail you’ll have about the story.

6. Record your Interviews
Even if you’re an excellent note-taker, recording your interviews is essential. You may want to videotape to capture even more detail. During your research, let your subject(s) know that you may be back in touch with follow-up questions.

7. Write a Story, not a Report

Before you begin writing the story, review your transcripts, videotapes, and any other information you gathered while researching the piece. Remember that a true-life feature should tell a story that includes a narrative arc, not just report what happened. Details will make the story come alive.

8. Close with Confidence
When it comes to ending the story, use as much care as writing the lead. Don’t just stop—look for a twist, insight or quote showing how this experience changed the person to close the piece. That will give your story—and your readers—a sense of resolution.
Want to know more about true-life features? My popular book, Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, includes a chapter on writing profiles and true-life features as well as chapter on nine other hot nonfiction specialties.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Chick lit" fan with a Kindle? I've got two great reads for you!

My first two novels, Did you Get the Vibe?, and White Bikini Panties, are now available on Kindle. They're fun, entertaining reads (but with a serious message as well) set in Chicago--and each has at least one unhappy female lawyer! I hope you'll check them out and recommend them to friends. :)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

10 Reasons Why Your Book Didn't Sell

I've sold books to traditional publishers, both big and small, under my own byline and as a ghostwriter and coauthor. At the moment, I'm waiting on a contract from a publisher for one of my own titles and my agent is shopping a book for one of my ghosting clients. While my client has a great idea, a compelling proposal (hey, I wrote it!), and a strong platform, the book hasn't sold yet. It's a lesson in how publishing works today.

Here are 10 actual reasons why some of the big publishers have said no to this book--and why they may say no to yours as well:
  • "Great idea but too narrow of a focus for us."
  • "Too much competition in the category."
  • "Despite the need for the book, too hard to reach the target audience."
  • "Not enough of an expansive platform for us to break the book out of a crowded category."
  • "Not right for our house."
  • "With all the books on the market in this category, I don't have the confidence or vision to champion this one."
  • "It sounds great, but we've struggled a great deal with books on this topic. As much as I'd like to consider this, I know it would be very difficult for us."
  • "Too small [audience] for me."
  • "I'm going to pass--I don't feel strongly enough about it."
  • "Overlaps in different ways with other books on our list."

Note the variety of responses, many of which would be impossible for my client and me to predict--at least until we pitched the book. But I'm not discouraged yet--a number of publishers have expressed interest and are considering the proposal now. For every "no" we get, I remind myself that it only takes one "yes" to get a book deal. I think we will get a yes--and I'll let you know when we do so.

Readers, what about you? If you've pitched a book to traditional publishers and it didn't sell, what reason(s) were you given? I'd love to hear them here.

And now for something completely different...

As you know, this blog is aimed at nonfiction freelancers who want to make more money in less time. That's my business plan in a nutshell.

But I have another identity, too--as a published novelist. My first two novels, Did you Get the Vibe?, and White Bikini Panties, were published in 2003 and 2004 by Strapless, the "chick lit" imprint of Kensington Books. They received decent reviews (Panties even got good reviews in Publisher's Weekly and Library Journal!) but came out just as the chick lit genre was glutted with books, got lost among a sea of titles, and eventually went out of print.

No longer. After spending this week getting up to speed on formatting for Smashwords and hiring a talented cover designer, they're back in print. (They should be available through Kindle by week's end.) They're fun, entertaining reads set in Chicago, and I hope you'll check them out--and recommend them to friends who enjoy contemporary women's fiction.

In a future post, I'll describe the ebook process and why I chose this publishing option as opposed to POD. And tomorrow, I'll return to my regular programming and post on 10 reasons your book didn't sell.

Thanks and happy reading!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Coming Next Week: Free Mastermind Class on Six-Figure Freelancing

Quick announcement: I'll be a guest on Rochelle Melander's Mastermind Class, next Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 12:00 noon central time. I'll be talking about one of my favorite topics, Six-Figure Freelancing, so sign up ahead of time and listen in for some timely, practical tips to help you make more money for your work.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Eight Ways to Make More Money as a Freelancer

If you're familiar with my work, you already know that I believe writers fall into two camps: those who write because they simply love to write, and those who want to make money for their work, or who write for money.

There’s nothing wrong with launching a freelance career because you love to write. But that's enough to sustain a successful full-time freelance career. And if you want to succeed as a freelancer, you must think about-and talk about--money.

Yet I find that many writers are afraid to talk money, or (mistakenly) think that you can’t make a good living as a freelancer. That’s simply not true. But if you're a new freelancer and you want to make real money as a writer, you have to start thinking about money—and possibly changing your mindset as well.

Use these eight strategies to start thinking (and acting) like a writer who deserves to and plans on getting paid. To make money as a writer, you should:

• Submit your work to markets that pay. This sounds obvious, but if you want to get paid for your work, you must find someone to buy it. If you only submit to nonpaying markets, you won’t make any cash.

• Actually submit your work! I’m amazed at the number of writers who are diligently committed to their craft, yet are afraid to send in work. Will you be rejected? Yes! Every writer, no matter how talented, has his or her work turned down. But you must overcome that fear to start making money as a freelancer.

• Ask about pay. Most markets, whether print or online, now keep writers’ guidelines online. If you don’t see any, don’t be afraid to send a quick email to the editor or webmaster asking about rates. You won’t know if you don’t ask.

• Present yourself as a writer who gets paid. When I submit work to potential reprint markets, I say something like, “Please let me know if you’re interested in purchasing reprint rights to this story.” Note my language—I don’t ask if the editor is interested in reprinting the story (she might think I just want the exposure), but if she’s interested in paying for that right.

• Track your income. If you want to make money, you should be keeping track of how much you’re making, and from what markets. It also means following up on outstanding invoices, if necessary. Don’t forget to keep track of your business expenses as well, so you can deduct them from your gross income at the end of the year.

• Write what sells. This is possibly the most important tip of all. I’m a twice-published novelist and still entertain visions of being able to write fiction fulltime. But I can’t--unless I can figure out how to live on, say $7,500 a year, my advance for each. So instead I write nonfiction articles and books about health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness because there are plenty of markets looking for that kind of work, and those markets pay well. I also ghostwrite and coauthor books for clients in those fields because there's a demand for this kind of work.

• Gather information. To market your work, you must know what markets are buying, and what they're paying. Keep up on markets through sources like Writer's Digest, Writing for Dollars, and PublishersMarketplace, and submit your work to them.

• “Just say no”—to writing for free. It’s one thing if you have a blog to showcase your writing and hopefully attract future clients. But when you write for markets that don’t pay (or pay in “exposure”), you’re devaluing your own work as well as that of other writers. I suggest you say no thanks to writing for free in favor of paying markets. You—and your bank account—will benefit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

To "e" or Not to "e": Before You Opt for an ebook

I've posted before about why I decided to use POD for my book on ghostwriting, Goodbye Byline. I opted to have it available as a Kindle edition, too, and more than 25 percent of my sales so far (the book came out in October, 2010), have been ebooks.

So what's next? For me, it will be a stand-alone ebook. after hearing Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords) speak at ASJA this year, I've realized it's time to sample the Kool-ade, so to speak. My next book(s) (as opposed to those I ghost/cowrite for clients) will be ebooks. First up are my two novels that sold decently but have since gone out of print. I can resurrect them as ebooks (I still get email from readers who loved them!) and continue to build readers for my current novel in progress.

I'm also going to publish an ebook or two on writing-related subjects to see how they do. It will be an experiment (as was my first POD book) but it's worth it to me, in part because it makes me more valuable to ghosting clients who want my advice on the different options.

But here's the thing. Just like many authors went POD without considering potential drawbacks, I already see "authors" (i.e. not professionals, just people who want to get their books out) rushing to take advantage of the new format--without having written, you know, a decent book. There is already a glut of poorly-written (and I'm being kind) POD books and now ebooks will experience the same thing.

One of my biggest concerns with going POD with Goodbye Byline was that I didn't want a book that looked like a POD book. The cover, interior layout, and the actual content of the book looks--and reads--like a book by a traditional publisher. I wrote the book, I edited it, and I hired a proofreader to catch typos (and she caught a lot!). The book is clean. That's important to me not only as its author, but as a fulltime freelancer/ghostwriter as well.

My sales on Goodbye Byline haven't been stellar. It's a niche book aimed at a niche audience, after all. But they're steady and will continue to be, I hope. I also heard a quote from a publishing expert who said that it takes three years for a POD book to build an audience/take off And with the "long tail" theory of marketing, I'm hopeful that I'll continue to sell the book without a lot of specific marketing on my part. (As a freelancer, I'm always marketing myself, but I'm talking about the time I take to promote Goodbye in particular.)

My point? Ebooks may be the latest thing, but that doesn't mean you should publish an ebook just because everyone else is doing it. Consider the pros and cons for you, and know what you want to accomplish before you invest your time in the new platform.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Why I've Never Missed a Deadline--and How You Can do the Same

I am nothing if not reliable. I never missed a deadline as an attorney, and I’ve never missed one as a freelancer either. And you better believe I use that as a selling point with clients I haven't worked with before.

So why haven't I missed a deadline? It's not because I'm a compulsive. (I admit it.) It's not because I'm a "type-A" personality. (I admit it.) It's for one simple reason: I’ve never taken a deadline I couldn't meet.

Before I accept an assignment, whether it's an article or a book, I estimate how long that story or project will take—not just the writing of it, but the research of it as well. A 1500-word piece that requires several expert interviews, for example, is likely to take less time to research than a shorter article that relies heavily on “real people” sources. (I’ve said before that I hate “real people.” Well, not real people in general, but real people sources. See, real people—aka anecdotal sources—take much more time to locate and identify than experts.)

I learned this lesson early on. When I accepted an article on the sexual problems newlyweds might face and how to address them, finding experts was a no-brainer. Then I had to find the dreaded “real people”—in this instance, newlyweds who had experienced some kind of sexual challenges and who had sought outside assistance for them. And who would, you know, talk to me about it! Can you think of anyone? Me neither.

While I had lined up sexual therapists to interview, privacy law prevents them from sharing their patients’ names. So I was stuck beating the proverbial bushes for possible sources—and spent weeks making calls, sending emails, and begging everyone I could think of to help me with the piece. I did eventually come up with some usable anecdotal sources--they did get to use pseudonyms--but it still took far longer than I expected. Six weeks, in fact. (My new rule: no more writing about sex.)

Back to deadlines. As I said, I’ve never missed a deadline because I always make sure I have plenty of time to research, report, and write the piece. Then I build in a bumper. If I think the assignment will take four days, I’ll ask for six. If I know I can bang it out in two weeks, I’ll try to get two and a half.

Get the idea? I know, considering my current assignments, that I’ll be able to meet my deadline before I say yes. Then I start the background research immediately—because after all, I can’t interview my sources until I’ve identified and located those sources. And I can’t ask them intelligent questions until I’ve done enough background so I’m conversant in the subject. I try to get my research, including completed interviews, done at least a week before the story is due.

That gives me plenty of time to write, and to do any additional research to address questions that crop up as I write the piece—before the deadline is huffing its fetid breath on the back of my neck.

I also use the “double-diary” system to make sure I don’t blow a deadline. I write down the assignment in my assignment notebook and then I make a note of it on my calendar. (Yes, you can use Outlook instead. I still like having a paper calendar that I can flip through and see what’s approaching in the days to come.)

So, before you say yes, make sure you can meet the deadline. If it’s going to be tight, ask for more time. And if you know you can’t take it on, turn it down and let your client know why. Better to turn down to work than to accept it--and then fail to deliver.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Secret to Getting your First Magazine Assignment

I'll be traveling to Oklahoma City tomorrow for OWFI's annual writer's conference. (Please come up and say hi if you're there!) My first pre-conference session is on "Breaking In: The Basics of Writing for Magazines," which is one of my most popular writing-related programs.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that I advise new freelancers to break in by pitching a story they're uniquely qualified to write. You demonstrate this in your ISG, or "I'm-so-great" paragraph of your query where you highlight your relevant knowledge of/experience with the subject.

And that is a wonderful start. Just don't make the rookie mistake of thinking that your experience is enough to write the piece. I see inexperienced writers do that all the time, and that's a major reason their queries don't sell. This isn't an essay you're writing--it's an article. That means that 95 percent of the time, you're going to do research and conduct interviews to write your piece.

Your personal experience is a great starting point, but it's only the starting point. Let your editor know you "get" it with a killer query that not only highlights your ISG but the types of sources you plan to interview/use to write the piece. Trust me--this strategy lets you avoid a common rookie mistake and boosts your chances of getting your first assignment.


Readers, what do you think? If you're new to the biz and in pursuit of your first clip, you'll find 20 queries that sold (including those from newbie freelancers!) in Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (Kindle edition).

Sunday, May 1, 2011

More Straight Talk on Book Sales: The Power of Author Central

So, I've been talking about book sales and sharing real numbers. (Check out my earlier posts on what my latest royalty statement looked like--and what that means--and on how much I've made in the first six months on my new POD book on ghostwriting.

Here's the thing. In the past, you had to wait at least six months to receive your royalty statement to have some idea of how your traditionally-published books were selling. You didn't know how you were faring week to week.

That's no longer true with's Author Central. When you sign up for it (it's free), you get an inside look to how your books are doing, at least in brick-and-mortar stores. Every Thursday, the latest numbers are posted; you can see how many books sold in various markets throughout the U.S.

That's how I know that I'm selling about 60 books each week in bookstores. (While these numbers aren't huge, several of my books have earned out, which means these sales represent royalties--good news for me.) However, I was recently reminded that I do have the power to impact those numbers for the better.

Two weeks ago, I spoke at the Annual Writer's Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. A week later, I saw a huge spike in book sales. The week before, I'd sold 60 copies, including 48 of Small Changes, Big Results, 9 copies of Six-Figure Freelancing, and 3 of Goodbye Byline. That week, I sold 174 copies, including 34 of Small Changes, 58 copies of Six-Figure Freelancing, 36 copies of Goodbye Byline--and 43 copies of my book for new magazine freelancers, Ready, Aim, Specialize. That's a dramatic difference.

Of course not every event I do will produce similar sales, but these sales numbers were a reminder that:
1. One of the best ways to sell more books is to connect face-to-face with your readers.
2. Keeping tabs on your sales will help reveal what works for you as an author, and what doesn't.

Authors, what do you think? Are you tracking your traditionally-published books on Author Central--and why or why not?