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.