Monday, November 17, 2008

It Was Funny the First Time...

We've all known people in the real world who come up with a line that gets a laugh, and the next thing you know, they're using it everywhere. Their spouses start to roll their eyes, and then the neighbors do, too. I suppose it shouldn't come as any surprise, then, that writers can fall victim to the same trap, enamored of their own cleverness or the response they once got...but what about editors?

For illustration, I'm going to pick on Janet Evanovich--but before I do, I have to say that I REALLY enjoy Evanovich's work. I particularly enjoy the Stephanie Plum series, but I'm partial to Alex Barnaby as well. In fact, I like Janet Evanovich's books well enough that I recently took the outrageous risk of checking out Fearless Fourteen from the "Quick Picks" shelf at my local library--a shelf full of books that are due in SEVEN DAYS and carry a fine of $1 PER DAY if they're not returned on time. Since I haven't returned a library book on time since 1976 unless my mother called me up and reminded me, this was a serious gamble.

So I mean no offense, truly. And, of course, if I did, Evanovich certainly wouldn't care, since she has millions of readers and millions of dollars.

But here's the thing: one day I was reading one of the Stephanie Plum novels and Stephanie took Morelli's dog out for a walk and walked around "until Bob was empty". I remember the first time Evanovich put it like that--it struck me as mildly amusing, and as a writer myself I have a solid appreciation for a fresh expression of a mundane concept. The second time Stephanie walked Bob until he was empty it clunked a little, but I decided (consciously) that it must just be the way this character thought. Walking a dog until he was empty was just something Stephanie Plum did.

And then...

You know what happened, don't you?

Alex Barnaby took a dog for a walk. It was Hooker's dog, Beans, of course. I was willing to overlook the whole "female lead walks boyfriend's dog, whose name starts with a 'B' thing". I mean, you stick with what works, right? But when Alex walked the dog until Beans was empty, it put me over the edge. If your neighbor's husband had used that line as many times, you'd be wondering why she didn't divorce him.

Now, you're probably thinking (and you're quite right) that Janet Evanovich is doing just fine. You're probably thinking that it's likely the reason her editor didn't point this out is that MILLIONS OF PEOPLE KEEP BUYING HER BOOKS. And you're right. She can get away with it.

But unless you're someone I'd be shocked to find reading my blog, you and I can't. And if a writer as accomplished as Janet Evanovich can become so enamored of her own turn of phrase that she doesn't notice when it starts to clank, imagine what risk the rest of us are at.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dumbledore is Not Gay

I know it's been almost a year since J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay, but that's okay--because this post isn't really about Dumbledore, or even Rowling. Not specifically. It's about the nature of literary characters.

Dumbledore, of course, is a creature of fiction. J.K. Rowling made him up. He exists only in the pages of her novels. While many literary characters touch our hearts and minds and thus weave their way into our cultural consciousness, there is one thing they cannot do: grow outside the pages of the novels in which they are born, live, and die. As a character, he is fully formed within those pages or...he remains incomplete.

I couldn't care less what Dumbledore's sexual history is like, except for one thing: he doesn't have one. At least, not one we know anything about. And Rowling's "revelation" doesn't change that. It's a cheat. The shot at developing a character comes WHILE YOU'RE WRITING THE BOOKS, and you either take it or you don't. But if you don't, you can't make things up later.

Of course, no character's entire history can be revealed, detail by detail, in the course of a single novel--or even in a series. But the pieces that define the character are revealed through his actions, his interactions, his reactions, his backstory, the things other characters say about him. Sometimes that information is subtle and incomplete, and when a "revelation" like Rowling's makes the rounds, we readers say, "Ah, yes...THAT explains why in book three...." or "So THAT was the big secret in his past that he kept alluding to." Even those seem a little cheap to me, a kind of literary easy way out. After all, it's much simpler to announce a new detail about a character in an interview than it is to weave that characteristic or piece of history subtly into the story itself.

But even that didn't happen with Dumbledore. The announcement was "bombshell". Why? In part, perhaps, because some groups had a moral opposition to the idea of a prominent children's character being "outed", but it was more than that--it was because no one had ever suspected. I don't doubt J.K. Rowling's contention that she always thought of Dumbledore as gay, but she didn't convey that notion to her readers. Dumbledore is a man without sexual identity. Kind of rough on the guy, perhaps, but that's the way he was made. And coming back later with an "oh, and by the way..." doesn't change that.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Sometimes our Language is Just So...Apt

I saw a subject line on a discussion board this afternoon about "pet peeves", and it suddenly hit me that I'd never really thought about the phrase before--something that surprised me, because I think about words a lot. Sadly, though, there aren't enough hours in the day to think about all of them, so sometimes I have to wait until something like this hits me out of the blue.

Pet peeves. PET peeves? As in, ones that we choose and like to keep close to us and feed and nurture?

Now why would we do that?

I don't have any pet headaches, or pet car problems, or pet financial problems. I have no foods that I love to hate or television shows that I turn on just to annoy myself. So why would I want to keep those peeves as pets? Why wouldn't I choose to turn them back into the wilds and go on with my life just a little LESS annoyed?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Blogging as Journalism, Part I

I've seen a lot of discussion in online forums (especially blogging forums, of course) recently about whether or not bloggers should be treated as journalists. There are almost as many views on this subject as there are blogs, but mine is pretty straightforward: if you're conducting interviews, finding credible, first-hand sources and generating original news and feature stories, you're a journalist. If you're rehashing what you've found on someone else's news site or in the newspaper or telling us about your experience with the auto mechanic this morning and how much you're dreading your visit to Great Aunt Sarah, you're not acting as a journalist in that moment. That doesn't mean YOU'RE not a journalist, but that particular action isn't journalism.

This is a big topic that I expect to span several posts, but this morning I wanted to focus on someone outside the usual debate. We're accustomed to hearing from bloggers who want (demand?) to be treated as journalists, but it seems that all the while there are bloggers out there quietly acting as journalists without ever thinking to stop and fuss about what they're called.

I ran across a great example this morning, in the form of a recent interview with Lisa Smith-Batchen. This kind of thing is unfortunately relatively uncommon on blogs--the blogger conducted and published an actual interview with a woman who happened to appear this morning on the Today show. She didn't have a media operation or a budget or a press pass...she just went out and found the information, directly, and shared it with her readers. If more bloggers--especially those who purport to be dealing in news--were to take that initiative, maybe the perception of blogging and bloggers would improve on its own and we wouldn't have to spend all this time debating whether or not we should be considered credible.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Tiffany Retrospective

Today is my 42nd birthday. This is a comfortable place for me, because I've always thought of 40 as sort of the last landmark. I'm comfortably past the midpoint now, and no more concerns. I've been blessed with the ability and opportunity to do almost everything I ever aspired to--even the things that once seemed outrageous.

Of all of those amazing opportunities, there are four things that stand as corners of my life: motherhood, social services, teaching and writing. Today, I'm looking back, and since this is a writing blog, I'm thinking about writing here. I'm going to share a few words from my past and present. They're not necessarily the ones that paid the best or were highest profile or anything like that, but just a handful across the spectrum that I'm glad to have as part of my history.

None of them will include my adolescent poetry or college fiction writing. (I know how disappointed you are, but I'm firm on this.)

Who Stole My Phone Booth? I've always been partial to this piece because I wrote it about the phase of my life when I was doing the most high profile (and in some ways, most exciting) writing of my career--and discovered that it didn't change a thing. I think that anyone who has ever tried to wear multiple hats simultaneously can identify with this. It appears in a newsletter, so you have to scroll down to see it.

Math Made Manageable is one of my favorite pieces about my daughter--and about the quick and easy little things we can incorporate into life that make a big difference.

The Most Profitable Thing I Ever Wrote for Free : This was my first in-depth bio of Rick Springfield. I wrote twelve drafts, spent more than fifty hours on it, and obtained photo permissions from numerous people/organizations, including Buena Vista International and Rick himself. If you're a regular reader here, you know where that ended and how profitable it eventually became (which is part of the reason I come down so hard on the case-by-case basis side of the writing for free debate).

The File Folders in Your Mind Are Filled With Information You Can Sell! (As evidenced by the rest of this list) If I've had a thought, chances are that I've written an article about it.

Just a Bunch of Newspaper Articles - But these hold a special place in my heart because after many years of digression into things like practicing law, the editor at the Aurora Beacon News took me on as a stringer when I didn't have a clip that was less than ten years old and not a single one that was relevant. Without that foot in the door, I might still be working in another field. (Thanks, Char!) McGruff the Crime Dog was the first one, and it took me HOURS to write and rewrite.

Why Web Writing is Different: This three part series helped me land my first full-time, salaried writing job. It's several years old, but still useful as a basic primer for print writers making the shift to web writing.

PayDay Loan Stores - In the two years that I worked full time as content manager for a legal internet marketing firm, I wrote hundreds of articles and pages of consumer information about the law and legal issues: collections, bankruptcy, DUI, divorce, consumer protection, personal injury, insurance companies, tort reform, criminal defense, constitutional rights and more. The really great thing about it was that I had the opportunity to get paid to write and promote information that benefitted the public.

Although they're not available online, I wrote a number of articles for Austin Family Magazine, which I wanted to mention purely for personal reasons: my very, very, very, very dear friend Barb Cooper was editor of the magazine at the time, and more than once she wrote one of the lead stories and I the other; I just loved seeing my name and hers side by side in that box, especially given that we'd met in a writer's group back when both of our credentials were quite a bit lighter than they are today.

I'm beginning to think this list could go on forever, because there's some reason that every piece of my writing career holds a special place in my heart, whether because of the subject matter or the relationships or the stepping stone it provided or any of a dozen other associations. Here's the important point, though: very few of those publications were huge and dramatic; very few paid large sums of money. But together, they've added up to a career in words. It can happen to anyone, if you build it piece by piece.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I'm an active member of Blog Catalog. One of the best things about Blog Catalog is that virtually from the moment the current ownership took over, the community has been looking for ways to use blogging to make the world a better place. Part of that effort is the Bloggers Unite campaign.

Today's issue is human rights, and it probably won't surprise you to know that I had a hard time deciding what to write about. There are so many human rights issues around the world--and even at home--today that it's almost impossible to decide where the spotlight should shine most brightly. Some of critical topics my fellow bloggers have hit on already this morning include:

Free Tibet

Capital Punishment by Stoning

The Blocking of Life-Saving Supplies the International Community Would Like to Offer the Citizens of Myanmar

Congolese Women

Sadly, this list could go on indefinitely. We haven't even mentioned Darfur, or the human rights abuses perpetrated by our own government at Guantanamo Bay, or any of a hundred or thousand situations in which people around the world are living in fear, being jailed, murdered, deprived of basic necessities like food and medical care and more for no reason other than that they were born in the wrong place or into the wrong race or practice the wrong religion or have the courage to speak their minds.

But you know all that, don't you?

A month or so ago, I had the opportunity to see Paul Rusesabagina speak at a local college. Rusesabagina is the heroic hotel manager portrayed by Don Cheadle in movie The Hotel Rwanda, and seeing in person this seemingly ordinary man who saved the lives of more than a thousand people by sheer persistance was an amazing reminder of what each and every one of us could do if we were so inclined, and believed that we could make a difference. It was also a troubling reminder of a line from the movie that had always haunted me: after Cheadle's character suggests that once video footage reaches the west, someone will have to do something, the cameraman tells him that people will look up at the television and say, "That's horrible" and then go back to their dinners.

That's the choice we make today. Bloggers around the world are uniting to bring human rights issues to light, but are we then going to go back to our dinners? Regular readers of blogs about parenting and poodles and writing and jewelry-making and making money online and humor and a thousand other topics are seeing, today, a slice of what's real and raw and bleeding in the world...but are you then going to go back to your dinner?

I'm not here to tell you which human rights issue deserves your attention. I'm not here to show you horrific photographs--we all know what's going on out there. I'm simply here to ask you to do something about it. Just something. Tell someone, write an article, send a check, join a group, attend a protest, send a letter to the editor, blog about it, write your Congressman, vote your conscience, sponsor a child...if you're strong and healthy and have the resources, ADOPT a child, go on a mission, rebuild a house. Just something. There are a lot of us, and a million somethings, no matter how small, will make a difference.

UPDATE: Here's a great round-up of just some of the posts from around the world today:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Somewhere in Huntsville, Texas...

an English teacher made an assignment.

That's no surprise, of course.

What is a surprise is that I, a 41-year-old legal editor in Illinois, know this (and only this): a group of students in Huntsville, TX were given an assignment related to the last line of Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

I know this because on this very blog, I have a post about the last line of The Sun Also Rises. Earlier this evening, I got a couple of visits to that post from different IPs in Huntsville, Texas, and both came in on Google searches for strings like "Sun Also Rises last line" and "what is the last line of the sun also rises?"

Those visitors were, undoubtedly, disappointed. My post about the last line of the novel doesn't reveal the line itself, although if--as I suspect--they're high school students, they may have picked up some insights that might sound impressive in the classroom. And, of course, I'm not exactly sure what the assignment is.

I'm pretty sure, though, that it's due tomorrow. As it got on toward ten and eleven o'clock tonight, that search traffic from Huntsville, TX really picked up.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rational Outrage Launches on March 17!

Not long ago, I mentioned in a post that there were just too many projects and not enough hours in the day (a feeling I know is familiar to many of you).

I'm excited to announce that despite all of the competing priorities, my webzine, Rational Outrage, will be launching on March 17.

The March 17 issue is set, but we're still accepting submissions for the March 31 edition until March 24, so check it out and let us know what you're outraged about. This is a paying market, though it's not MUCH pay at this point.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

5000 Words is About 20 Double-Spaced Pages

I suspect that most regular readers of this blog know that. I also suspect that most regular readers of this blog know that things like margins and even fonts can impact that number considerably, and so it's just a very loose guideline.

So do you find yourself wondering, "Just why did Tiffany decide, this morning, to make a gratuitous announcement about what 5000 words amounted to in terms of pages?

I'll tell you (you knew I would, didn't you?)

Some months ago, I found this question in my search traffic: "5000 Words is How Many Pages?"

Because I have another blog dedicated entirely to answering questions I find in my search statistics (though some more seriously than others), I wrote a post with that title.

Now, I get about a dozen visitors a day on related search strings. It's ALWAYS 5000 words. Here are a few of the recent searches that have landed people to that post:

5000 words how many pages
How many pages is 5000 words?
How many pages is 5000 words double-spaced?
5000 words = how many pages
5000 words = ? pages
5000 words in pages
5000 words double spaces
5000 words pages
How many pages in 5000 words?

All of these examples have been pulled from the past three days, and most of them appear multiple times. I found this a bit surprising and a little entertaining when it first started happening, but then I came to a couple of conclusions:

1. There are a lot of people out there who don't know how many pages 5000 words works out to and wish they did; and

2. Those people are much more likely to find other information of interest and use to them on THIS blog than on my search statistics blog.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Evolution of Punctuation

I am not a fan of the evolution of language. The idea that misuse of words ultimately develops into "new meaning" makes my brain explode, and I was dismayed about a year ago to come upon a line in St. Augustine's Confessions that seemed to suggest that this kind of distortion had been going on as early as the third century.

For the past few years, though, an ugly suspicion has been growing in my mind: a suspicion that the language and grammatical structure that I know and love and think should be frozen in time forever is itself the product of evolution. It all started when I noticed that C.S. Lewis used semi-colons in a manner inconsistent with proper usage. Or, I should say, CURRENT proper usage. It seemed unlikely to me that Lewis failed to grasp the appropriate use of a semi-colon, but after a bit of research failed to turn up anything conclusive, I decided to comfort myself with the assumption that the English used semi-colons somewhat differently than we Americans used them. I'd already learned from Lynne Truss that there were minor variations between British and American punctuation.

Sheldon Vanauken was American, and he'd used them in the same way, but he was a disciple of Lewis, and had studied at Oxford as well. It seemed reasonable that he might have adopted the British style; it seemed equally reasonable that he might have adopted Lewis's.

And I was untroubled, later, to discover the same format--the use of the conjunction "and" in combination with a semi-colon--in Jane Austen's work. British. Very British.

But Austen did something else that troubled me deeply: she used apostrophes in her possessive pronouns. "Her's" was disconcerting enough, but just a few pages later to be confronted with "their's"! I nearly swooned, and most certainly should have required attendance had there not been comfortable seating and clean air at ready access.

And, I am afraid, none of my excuses about British custom or emulation could explain the curious use of the semi-colon in the SECOND SENTENCE of the very first of The Federalist Papers . After a period of steadfast resistance in the face of all evidence to the contrary, I find myself forced to consider the possibility that semi-colons have not always been limited to the artful attachment of two otherwise independent sentences, and that they have instead been applied in a variety of circumstances in which their only function seems to have been to keep a sentence from going on too long without division.

I find myself unequal to the circumstances.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Know Your Audience: It's Easier Said Than Done for Bloggers

Last week, after a discussion thread on Blog Catalog about all of the "make money blogging" blogs out there, I wrote something I planned to post here on RockStories. It was a parody of those posts that many of us run across ten times a day on blogs and in forums, titled "I Made $XX Online in January!" and filled with helpful tips on how you could, too. Except that the "XX" was my actual January online income and my helpful tips included things that have helped me earn a living from home, like obtaining an advanced degree from a first-tier school and securing the assistance of a rock star at a critical point in your career development.

Usually I draft my posts right here in blogger and post them immediately, but I had some reservations about whether this one would be recognized for what it was, and so I sent it out to two friends and asked them if the point was clear or if it sounded condescending. Both are mothers with professional backgrounds working in creative fields. One felt strongly that it sounded condesceding and braggy, and that there had to be a better way to make the point. The other said it was funny and not the least bit condescending and I should post it right away.

Naturally, I did nothing. But I did start thinking about an issue that's bigger than whether or not that particular post would be well received: "know your audience" is a standard in the writing profession, but that's not as easy in the blogging world as it is when you're writing for other kinds of publication.

If I'm writing for a parenting magazine, or a humor magazine, or a writing website I have a pretty good idea of who my readers will be. Just as important, they have a pretty good idea of what to expect when they type in that URL or flip open the magazine. And that's true for some bloggers, as well. It's true for bloggers who write within a narrow niche, and for those who have a strong regular readership. But the vast majority of traffic to my blogs comes from search engines, which leaves me with little information about those visitors. And even the regular visitors come, I think, more for something about my writing style or perspective than subject matter--I think that because I have a writing blog, a dog blog, a personal blog, a Catholic blog, a social commentary blog and a search engine humor blog, and a surprising number of those who subscribe to or regularly read one read several (or all) of them.

There are some broad perspectives out there, depending on which blog they started with. Even these two good friends of mine, who know my style and my perspective well, had two very different takes on the same piece. With a little reflection, the reason was obvious: one of them works online and daily encounters the kind of posts I was parodying, so that the format and intent were immediately recognizable to her. The other doesn't frequent the kind of blogs and forums and such where those posts appear.

But what about the rest of the world? I just don't know. I'm certain that if I posted that piece, I'd have readers who thought it was hilarious and dead-on and cheered me on for it. I'm equally sure that I'd have readers who weren't familiar with the format and thought I was bragging about my income and my education and my connections. And I'm suddenly concerned about just how many other topics and approaches and perspectives might trigger exactly this kind of conundrum.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Publishing Pitfalls for Parents

In addition to maintaining six blogs, I've done some writing for parenting magazines and websites and written some essays for writing publications that touch on family life, and I've always been very cautious. I see a lot of articles and blog posts that make me cringe on behalf of children, because having made my living in Internet marketing for a time, I know that those little stories, those vents from mom or dad, those blow-by-blows of the struggle with the school system are with those kids for life.

I took down my website in 2002, and at least three versions of it are still readily available online. I've personally seen situations in which people weren't hired for jobs because of information online, and read numerous news stories of others whose blogs or facebook photographs or any of a dozen other e-media sources cost people jobs--even jobs they already held. And I question whether we have the right to make those decisions for our children.

I'm not talking about those cute little stories that might embarrass your high-schooler but that we all have and ultimately won't impact anyone's life. I'm talking about doing real harm with the best of intentions.

It seems to me that the most seemingly innocuous posts and articles can come back to bite them in ways we'd never anticipate. Twelve-year-old daughter has a learning disability and you're Not Ashamed Of It? Great, but does that mean you should decide for her that her future prospective employers should be able to Google her and find that information? It's easy to do now, and indexing is getting more sophisticated every day.

Even subjective comments with the best of intentions could hurt. Maybe you son goes out and puts on a brave and poised front in public, and you're so very proud of him because you know that in reality he's having major anxiety attacks and he comes home and collapses from the stress of keeping up that together front? Praise him for it online, share your pain as a parent watching him struggle...and then maybe you'll get the chance to do it again five years down the road, when the interviewer who was so impressed with his poise and professionalism reads the archives of your blog and starts to think maybe he wasn't quite as together as it looked, to wonder whether maybe he's STILL putting up a brave front when he's really cracking underneath.

Think I'm paranoid? Maybe. Maybe the cases I've seen and read about in which people who never thought their private profiles or blogs or web pages would be discovered lost jobs and custody and lawsuits are all flukes. Maybe the dizzying advance of technology that's making it easier and easier and easier for the average person to find information on the Internet will come screeching to a halt, and maybe those popular archiving services will stop archiving and delete their files. Maybe.

But is it a chance we want to take on behalf of our kids?

I don't.

And, in fact, this week I got a lesson in just how careful I have to be. I've always thought about the posts and articles that might have a long-term impact and avoided them, but those cute little stories seemed harmless to me. After all, my daughter is in middle school, and the chances that her friends were reading my blogs or parenting magazines or writing newsletters seemed pretty slim. And so far as I know, none of them are.

But the other day, I wrote two posts about buying my daughter tickets to the Jonas Brothers concert for her birthday. There aren't any secrets in least, nothing that would seem like a secret to use grown-ups. And we're the only ones reading my blogs, right?

Well, that was true. That is, until the news aggregator at a Jonas Brothers fan site picked up my posts, and a small flood of click-through traffic from teenyboppers began.

We really do live in a different world, and whatever we put online we're putting out there forever, for the world to do with what it will. For some of us, that's an acceptable risk, but is it one we should take for our kids, our parents and our friends?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Torn Between Two Projects

Okay, for most of us it's usually more than two...a lot more than two. But I couldn't resist the backhanded allusion to some old country song I don't even know who sang--my daughter likes to say that I have a song for everything, and she doesn't seem to mean that in a good way.

I suspect that the story I'm about to tell is a familiar one to many writers out there. I'm in the process of launching a social commentary webzine. I'm taking submissions, but even so I expect to do about half of the writing for launch myself, and I'm very eager to launch.

Which is fine: I'm a fast writer and I'm excited about getting this new venture off the ground.

The only problem is that I have a slightly-more-than-full-time day job, where equally exciting things are going on.

And I have a romance novel that's been done for more than a year that I have to figure out what to do with.

And I have a novella in progress that a friend of mine is eagerly waiting to film.

And I have a novel in progress that I'm personally very invested in.

And...well...six blogs.

And my sister just handed me a new magazine that my work would fit right in with.

I've heard writers talk about starting a lot of projects and then losing interest, but this isn't quite that problem. I'm entirely interested in all of this, and a few more things that I have in the works but aren't quite so pressing. There just aren't enough hours in the day--and then the world seems to want us to interact and pay bills and mop the kitchen and shower and stuff on top of it all.

What's a writer to do? How to prioritize? I haven't quite figured that out yet. Obviously, paid work comes first, but after that? Usually, it's the fun stuff that comes next, which is why I'm starting a new webzine and working on a novel when I've got a finished book sitting around that I can't find time to submit.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Controversial Writer's Meme - at Long Last

About two months ago, Dane Morgan tagged me for a very interesting meme. No, really. It's a unique meme that promises to offer a lot of useful information, particularly if the right people are tagged. The meme originated with Sam Freedom, a blogger I didn't know before Dane tagged me for the meme, but whose blog I've since visited several times.

This is what Dane said when he tagged me: Tiffany Sanders at RockStories is a professional writer, meaning she earns her living from writing. She tells us that anyone can become a writer, and that many of the things we uninitiated see as insurmountable barriers are myths, or at least not as fierce as commonly believed. I’d love to read some secrets from her on writing and getting more from your writing online.

I have to admit that I found the assignment a little intimidating. Dane is definitely correct in suggesting that I think the idea that it's "impossible to break in" as a writer is a bunch of nonsense, but most of the secrets to success aren't secrets at all--or at least, that's how it looks to me. A lot of people seem to hit that wall, though, so I decided that whether or not my tips are "controversial" enough, they'll undoubtedly do someone out there some good. The lines between online and offline writing may be a bit blurry; they're not necessarily two separate animals.

1. Guidelines are critical; job requirements are not. You've undoubtedly heard horror stories about busy editors and agents tossing manuscripts in the trash unread because they're folded incorrectly or sport a colored paperclip. Many of these stories are true. Not every agent or editor screens that way, but enough do that you should take the warnings to heart and follow their guidelines to the letter. But don't confuse submission guidelines with job requirements.

As a writer, you're not selling your background or experience--you're selling your ability to write. Companies, be they magazines or newspapers or corporations building content departments and web development teams, care more about your writing than anything else. They advertise criteria because it helps them screen, and some enforce those requirements. But many people hiring writers skip straight to the writing samples. Excellent writing can overcome a lack of professional experience, so if you're confident of the quality of your writing, take a chance and try to get it in front of the decision-maker.

This is more likely to succeed when the applications are routed straight to an editor or creative director than when they pass through an HR department or agency, so look for that information in job postings and target the people who have the priorities and experience most likely to let them appreciate your abilities before they even see the gaps in your experience.

2. Apply for jobs that don't exist. Many years ago, a mid-size circulation newspaper in my area advertised for a full-time reporter. I didn't have the credentials and I didn't want a full-time job, but I did want to do some newspaper writing. Fortunately, a friend of mine made a very astute observation: if they needed a full-time reporter, they were short-handed at the moment. I called the editor and asked if they needed stringers (newspaper lingo for freelancers) and within a week had kicked off an association that lasted for three years and led to work with three other newspapers.

Around the same time, a writer friend came across submission guidelines for a new magazine that hadn't launched yet. Instead of submitting to one of the listed departments, she took a chance and pitched a monthly column--and became one of the publication's first regular columnists. With Internet publications, the flexibility is even greater because it's much easier and less expensive to add columns and special features without incurring additional production costs or sacrificing ad space.

Make sure, though, that you're taking the time to understand the publication and its needs and not simply trying to sell an existing market on something you'd like to write that doesn't really fit there. Both of the situations described above (and many others like them) worked out because they were targeted to observed gaps.

3. Good content is not enough. Back when the writing profession revolved exclusively around print materials and traditionally-published books, people used to say, "No one is going to knock on your door and ask to see what's in your filing cabinet." There's a popular misconception that this is no longer true now that it's possible to upload your filing cabinet to the web and make it available to anyone who wants to read it. That's entirely backward. What the mass upload of filing cabinets to the web means is that there's a lot of garbage readily available, and you can't possibly expect anyone to plow through it page by page looking for the gold. The Internet has become a slush pile millions of manuscripts deep, and if you want to get yours read, your goal is the same as it's always been--figure out a creative way to get it in front of the right person. And the way to do that is the same as it's always been--work your ass off.

4. Don't let just anyone publish your work. I'll admit that I'm cheating a little with this one, becuase it's not really controversial. Any successful writer will tell you the same. But I felt the need to slip it in anyway because it seems to be something that ONLY successful writers know, whereas aspiring writers have a lot of crazy ideas like "any clips will help".

Some clips will not help. In fact, some clips will hurt. Before you consider submitting to a publication, whether it's online or in print, read it and make an honest assessment of the quality of the work. I don't care how much the publication pays (or even, in some cases, whether it pays at all). But some publications are known for accepting anyone, and that's often simultaneous with being known for bad work. That means mentioning them in a cover letter or submitting clips can be worse than having no publishing history at all; it can create a negative association before an editor ever looks at your work. And I use the word "before" loosely here, because many editors are so busy and so inundated with submissions that they're simply not going to look any further once something has created a negative impression.

The goal is not, and cannot be, simply to "get published". And it's critical that a writer sending out cover letters and clips understands what it means--and what it does not mean--to be published. A cover letter inviting me to look at someone's "published" work on Associated Content, for instance, tells me that person is an amateur. First, I know that there's a lot of garbage on Associated Content. It's not all garbage, but there's enough that having been "published" there doesn't tell me anything about your writing skill. Second, I know that you don't have any more significant publications to mention. And finally, I know that you don't really have a solid understanding of the industry (if you did, you'd know better than to offer Associated Content up as a writing credential).

The bottom line: Don't sell yourself short. For the purposes of breaking into better and better paying markets, one solid clip is better than twenty lousy ones (and when I say "lousy", I'm talking about the source, not your writing). The same concept that keeps you from wanting to link your blog or website to a "bad neighborhood" should keep you from wanting to tie your writing to a bad publication or website.

Now, to pass the torch. I'm going to start with Barb Cooper at So the Thing Is...
Barb wrote an email six years ago or so that turned into a column with hundreds of subscribers, and that led to being invited to write a humor column for a parenting magazine, and before long she was editor of that magazine, so I'm sure that she'll be able to supplement my writing and publishing tips.

Next up, Margo at Margo's Meanderings. Margo will probably kill me for this, because she blogs VERY sporadically, but she has years of marketing and public relations experience in a wide range of contexts and a charming way of waving her hand and saying, "Oh, just..." when the average person thinks it will be difficult to reach the right person or get onto an airplane or whatever the moment requires.

Finally, Don at Don's a developer who does things that not only make my head spin, but have the same effect on people who actually understand technology and coding. He's also an independent filmmaker, and has an uncanny ability to talk his way into almost anything. I'm frankly not sure whether he'll be willing to share his secret(s), but it's worth a try.

Monday, January 14, 2008


A couple of months ago, I posted about a very smooth freelance transaction--I saw a posting about a new magazine, I had a great idea, I wrote it up and sent it off and they accepted...all in the space of a weekend. The sample copy of the inaugural issue of that magazine is now online: TheWAHMMagazine. My article isn't actually included in the sample section, but from what I've been able to read so far it looks like it's going to be a very nice publication for those working from home--especially those relatively new to the special circumstances of working from home and those trying to balance family obligations with an at-home career.

And, of course, new publications usually aren't quite so inundated with submissions and might provide a good opportunity if you've got something relevant to say.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Brand New Blog

You will all undoubtedly be delighted to know that I've started a new blog for al of those things that don't quite fit within any of my niches...which means that readers of this blog will henceforth be spared memes (unless they're directly writing related), rhapsodizing about my child and photographs of my shoes.

The new blog is Tiffany Talks.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Last Day of the Soon-To-Be-Previous Phase of My Life

One of my writers said this week that the old platitude "today is the first day of the rest of your life" was kind of stupid, because it was always true. Of course, in a way that's the point, but it undermines the concept a bit, too. After all, even if you're sitting around eating potato chips and watching reruns, it's the first day of the rest of your life. Sick in bed and unable to do anything? First day of the rest of your life. You get the point.

Tomorrow, I guess, will be the first day of my new phase of life. Today was the last day of the old one. The day when it becomes not-exactly-accurate to use the phrase "one of my writers" in the first paragraph of this post.

For the past two years I've worked in a place that some of my friends have referred to as "the Gulch" after Galt's Gulch. The kind of place that you probably think only exists on television: imagine one huge, open room full of energetic, creative, talented (and mostly gorgeous) young men and women. Add an interesting mission and a healthy dose of ethics and humanity coming from the top, bottomless coffee, the occasional bout of loud music, a dog wandering through from time to time and an invading army of tiny glow-in-the-dark zombies and you either have a very successful sitcom or a utopian work environment.

Unless this is a Truman Show kind of thing and I'm the last to know, my office was the latter.
Sadly, it was inconveniently located. By "inconveniently located" I don't mean that it was in a bad place. On the contrary (of course) it was in a section of the loop surrounded by activity, dining opportunities, parks, convenient banking and a large number of jewelers. It just wasn't anywhere near my kid. If you're a regular reader here, you may have gathered that I'm pretty attached to my kid.

Still, parenting is a balancing act, especially when you're doing it alone. I wanted to see more of my daughter, but (as she told me once when she was four or five) "you have to feed your kid every day. It's a law." So we got by. The days were long for both of us and I ended up in the hospital a time or two, but if you have to work for a living it might as well be in The Perfect Job, right?

And then, out of the blue, another perfect job appeared. (Yes, I'm well aware that my good fortune is far beyond what I could possibly deserve.) Like my current (past) job, this one made use of all of my varied past experiences: editorial, legal, educational. Like my current (past) job, this one involved working with quality people. Unlike my current (past) job, this one allowed me to work from home--and thereby solved every problem in my life.

That sounds absurd, I know, but every identifiable problem in my life related to the time I spent commuting. The days were too long for my daughter. I didn't get to spend enough time with her. She didn't get enough sleep. I didn't get enough sleep. We were both getting sick a lot. My house was getting out of control (okay, had been out of control for a long time). I hadn't seen my friends in months. I'd lived in the same place for a year and a half and not gotten around to hanging curtains.

So really, what choice did I have?

And yet, I don't want to sound like I'm taking a job I don't want just to cut out the commute. No, the new job is very exciting. Exciting enough that when my future (current) boss was describing it to me, I had to get up and pace around the room while I talked to him. I simply couldn't sit still for it. I'm very eager to get started.

So I left behind a cluster of talented young writers that had melded into a team of laughter and moral outrage and mission--that, I might dare to say, I had melded into that team. I left behind the close proximity of friends and the certainty that someone within ten feet would always share my outrage at the metamorphosis of language or the abuse of an apostrophe, traded it for dinner with my daughter and sleep and a brand new mission, for the possibility of vacations and the ability to help with homework and the chance that I might one day host dinners and volunteer again.

But I didn't quite believe it, even over a cake that said I was leaving (a cake dented, ever-so-slightly, on the trip across town, served in a kitchen stocked with everything up to and including a martini shaker, but nothing with which one could serve cake). I didn't believe it because the unity in the room made it seem absurd that separation was possible, let alone already in progress. I'm still waiting to see what it will look like Monday morning.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Self-Publishing Fiction

I've probably said here before that I think self-publishing fiction is a Very Bad Idea. I've certainly said it in forums and writers' groups and publishing workshops and anywhere else I happen to have been that the issue might have arisen.

It's not that I have anything against self-publishing. If fact, I once had great success with a self-publishing venture. But most statistics I've seen suggest that 95+% of self-published books lose money. That doesn't surprise me. They're harder to distribute, you lose a bigger chunk of the revenue when you try to distribute them, you don't have the marketing and network support of a publisher...there are many, many reasons that it's harder to make money with a self-published book.

Another reason is simply that most writers don't know the first thing about marketing their work. Self-publishing a book, setting up a website, listing it at Amazon and expecting people to discover it and buy it in numbers that will make it generate a profit is just an unlikely sequence of events without a lot more push.

That's one of the reasons that self-publishing seems to be an especially bad idea for fiction. If you self-publish a book about money management, you can set up a website and blog with financial tips and links and calculators and budgeting software, and the visitors to your site will learn to trust you on the subject and will be exactly the kind of people who might want to purchase your book. You can go out and do personal finance seminars in bookstores and community centers and park districts and make your book available. You might be able to get interviewed on local television stations or covered in the local newspaper, and all of these things will open up new markets full of people who might buy your book.

Fiction doesn't lend itself quite so well to that kind of thing. Even if you can generate some press you don't have the kind of "hook" you do when you're offering advice in conjunction with your book and the book promises to offer more.

And then there's pricing. The typical paperback novel costs about $8--at some stores they're routinely discounted by 10-20%. But a self-published novel will probably cost you about $7.50 per book to produce. If you sell it through Amazon, they'll keep 55% of the purchase price, which means that you have to price it at $13.64 just to break even...and I'm assuming that you'd like SOME profit.

There have been a couple of notable cases of self-published novels selling so well that they resulted in contracts with major publishing houses, but those authors had both great products and a full-time commitment to selling their books.

Now, having set forth every reason that I firmly believe self-publishing fiction doesn't work, let me get to the point: I'm thinking about self-publishing the romance novel I wrote last year. Thus, I'm very interested in hearing the thoughts of anyone with mainstream and/or self-publishing experience. I'm also interested in hearing from readers about whether or not you purchase self-published novels in places like Amazon, LuLu and others. If not, why not? Does the pricing issue play a bigger role, or simply the fact that a self-published book is more of an unknown quantity?

Here's why I'm thinking about doing something I'm pretty sure doesn't ever work:

  • I have three other novels in progress that I feel more strongly about, and I'd like to focus on those in terms of writing and seeking an agent or publisher;
  • I don't have a lot invested in this book--I wrote it entirely during my commute over a period of one month--and I won't be heartbroken if it goes nowhere;
  • I DO have a background in successful internet marketing, and I'm interested to see how much difference that makes and whether or not I can make it work;
  • I'm asked a lot of questions about self-publishing options, and the one book I self-published was very niche and not representative: I think it might be worthwhile to experiment with the process;
  • Given my tendency to move on to another project once something is written and lose interest in it, the chances that I'm going to persist in looking for an agent / publisher are pretty slim.
So what do you think? Should I try it? Any thoughts on presses or POD publishers or anything that you'd like to share? Would you be interested in a blog or maybe even a short book chronicling the process and what did and didn't work? Anything else you'd like to say?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Family Portrait with Llama

I'm not big on posting pictures, but the holiday season offers such opportunities...

...and, of course, so little time for substantive posts. Next week, I hope to get back on track, starting with the meme that I've owed Dane Morgan for a hundred years or so...the one in which I'm going to tell you how to disregard conventional wisdom and get a writing job regardless of your past experience.

Today, however, all I have to offer is a quick llama on my way out to work.