Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Heifer Update

or, Here's the Buzz...

Thanks so much to all who participated in spreading some Heifer Holiday Cheer by commenting my Let Your Dreams Help Others blog post. Twenty-four people commented here. (Several others commented on the link on my Facebook page, so I'll count them, too.)

Thanks to you (and thanks to the bighearted Mr. Bransford who inspired this adventure), a gift of bees has been made to Heifer International. Think of it: honey, flowers, pollination, increased crop yield, increased income -- all made possible for someone because you took the time to share your goals on my little blog.

So, blessings to those who responded (and you know who you are). Here's hoping that you start the year off with a smile. Know that your writing has been directly responsible for helping out another human being. Wishing you all health, prosperity, and happiness. May you all your dreams for 2010 come true!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let Your Dreams Help Others!

or, Happy Heifer Holidays!

In the spirit of the season (with special thanks to literary agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford for the great idea), I'd love to hear your goals for 2010 while helping someone out at the same time. So -- please post three things below.

1.) Your name.
2.) Where you are writing from.
3.) What your goals for 2010 include. (If you're a writer, be bold and state your writing dreams. If not: be bold anyway! Dream big!)

I'll donate $1.00 to Heifer International (one of my favorite charities) for each of the first 100 comments that get posted before 12:00 p.m. EST tomorrow -- Dec. 24.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

(12 / 24 / 09 9:00 a.m. EST Addendum:

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Blogger won't let me post a comment. I have wrestled with the beast, but it has gotten the better of me -- so in the interest of getting my house ready for Christmas tomorrow, I will do this workaround.

I simply want to thank all who have posted comments. Here's hoping that you find a way to make reality of all your dreams this next year. You're off to a great start. By posting below, your writing has already had a direct, positive impact on someone else's life. It doesn't get much better than that!

Thanks again!


Monday, December 21, 2009

Interviewing Skills

or, Top 10 Reasons to Talk to Cherie Burbach

On Friday, author and blogger Cherie Burbach featured an interview with Yours Truly on her Working Writers and Bloggers blog. (For those truly interested, see "Interview: Ami Hendrickson".)

Cherie is a delightful interviewer. Anyone interested in getting other people to respond to and answer questions would do well to follow her "interview model." This model includes the following 10 Interview Essentials:

1. Know Your Subject -- Cherie and I have never met. To the best of my knowledge, she is not an avid horsewoman. However, she took the time to visit my websites and familiarize herself with what I do. Her questions showed that she had done her homework. Answering them was a joy -- which made it easy for me to put "Respond to Cherie" at the top of my very lengthy To Do list.

2. Find the Joy -- Cherie's enthusiasm for writers and writing shows. It is stamped on every aspect of her blog. She clearly enjoys what she does and it is impossible not to share her enthusiasm.

3. Communicate Clearly -- Cherie's questions were clear, succinct, and to the point. They were topically targeted to keep answers a manageable size and open-ended so as to discourage one-word answers. When the interview was posted, Cherie sent me a personal e-mail letting me know that it was online.

4. Be Prompt -- Not only did Cherie communicate with me clearly, but she did so promptly as well. This promptness kept her well-placed in my in-box and encouraged me to make promptness a virtue on my part, too.

5. Be Personable -- Cherie's communications with me always had a personal touch. I never had the impression that I was just an assignment or a cog in a wheel.

6. Be Professional -- All of Cherie's communications were courteous, concise, and polished. I never felt that I was an also-ran in the mad-dash race of her life.

7. Be Interested -- In all of our correspondence, Cherie appeared genuinely interested in what I was up to and in what I had to say. This is of vital importance in an interview. The interviewer's interest directly affects the interviewee's willingness to open up.

8. Get it Right -- Cherie faithfully posted my responses to her questions. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I can't tell you how rarely it happens. When it does, it makes the interviewee breathe a sigh of relief and consider making you a beneficiary to his or her will...

9. Direct Your Readers -- At the beginning of the posted interview, Cherie singled out a sentence that she particularly favored. This serves the same purpose as a callout in a magazine article -- it directs the reader's attention. However, it also provides feedback of sorts and tells the person interviewed what he or she said that particularly resonated. This can help the person hone or clarify the topic at a later date.

10. Make it Easy -- Everything about working with Cherie was readily accomplished. This not only made it easy to connect with her and respond to her, but it made me happy to do so.

So, for those of you planning an interview with someone in the near future, do yourself and your subject a favor -- take a page from Cherie's playbook and make sure you've got those Top 10 interviewing essentials on your team.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Business of Books

I received an e-mail update from Janet, a writer friend of mine who is in the process of researching her first contracted book while finishing up the proposal for a pet project.

In her update, she commented on a "light bulb moment" she recently had:

I have almost finished my book proposal - that is certainly not an easy task for an unfinished book, is it? It did help me pick up steam, better determine my audience, and examine several others along the way. Published books are really successful business projects, aren't they?

Ah! So they are.

Most books that get in print these days are really businesses. The sooner a writer realizes this, the better! Too many writers treat their books like hobbies, or pets, or illicit affairs, or toys. They don't take the books or themselves seriously. They fail to realize that publishing is a business and are all too often lax about learning how that business operates.

One of the things I encourage writers to do is to set goals for themselves. I encourage writing goals ("I'll write X,000 words a day." "I'll finish X chapter(s) a week."). I encourage business-building goals ("I'll submit to X new markets each week." "I'll research at least one relevant manager this month."). In all things, however, I encourage realistic expectations.

Sometimes, overly ambitious goals can arise from an unfamiliarity with the rigors of the writing profession. As with any job, some days are more productive than others. If an unfamiliarity with the ups and downs of any business venture does not inform our writing goals, we tend to set those goals while dazzled by the glow of an exciting new project. However, if our goals are contingent upon our being brilliant every day, we not only set ourselves up for defeat -- but we also pave the way for burnout.

New York Times bestselling author Marie Bostwick has some excellent advice on how writers can stay motivated without burnout.

One of the things she suggests is that writers build in a certain number of "sick days" and "personal days" when developing their goals. Doing so, Bostwick suggests, allows one the writing equivalent of calling in to the office and taking a day off when necessary for one's life, liberty, and general well-being.

Bostwick's approach to the business of writing is well worth considering.

If you are a writer, I encourage you to come up with a plan that will make this next year the one that develops your Pet Project (you know: The One that's just begging for your attention). As you plan, however, I suggest that you consider the business you are in. You are in the business of creating. Of living your life. Of learning, and loving, and growing, and expanding your horizons. Beware of becoming a workaholic. Treat your writing, and your books, like any other business venture. Build your goals around a schedule that allows you to grow your business and remain "open for business" for many years to come...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Those Tricky Tax Questions

or, "What if I Only make $599?"

I have a post begun that continues last Tuesday's musings on character creation. However, several notes in my in-box this morning have made me momentarily switch gears and start thinking end-of-the-year thoughts.

Namely: "TAXES."

After the banner year that was 2008, thanks to several excellent opportunities (and one or two desperate clients), 2009 has been rather uninspired when it comes to the bottom line. Until recently. Suddenly, business has exploded as clients realize that sometimes it IS best to hire someone (me) who plays at things they work at...

Which means that though the year began with a bang that faded to a whimper over the summer, it will finish with a very strong and lusty yodel. I see a sea of 1099's in my future. My poor tax preparer...

In addition to clients bringing writing jobs, my in-box also featured the following e-mail from a former writing student:

Now that I am starting to get a few more writing credits (two articles accepted on a kid's website paying $35 apiece and an article on a mom's website coming out in Jan. in addition to about 11 book reviews so far)...

(I am SO proud! ::sniff::)

...I am starting to apply for higher paying freelance jobs. Well, these leads come from the web which can be a scary place. I have NEVER been asked nor never given my SSN. Yet, the jobs I have been paid for have paid very little, so I don't think they need it anyway unless it is over $500. I am keeping track of what I am pd. and will declare that for taxes, of course. Anyway, if I ever do get a job that pays more than $500, is there any way around submitting my SSN, in case it's a scam? I have read a little about getting an employee identification number that can be used in place of a SSN, but I know very little about that. Any thoughts or help would be appreciated.

OK - realize first and foremost that I AM NOT A TAX ADVISOR! I am a person who will happily wrestle with words all afternoon, but put me in front of a few numbers, and I quickly cry "uncle" and look for any easy out. It's not that I can't "do" the math. It's just that I HATE it. Which is somehow even more embarrassing.

So, now that I have ascertained that anything I might say on the subject of taxes is completely suspect, here is my response to the question:

If the job is legit, and you make over $600 (I believe that's the magic number now) from a single source -- not from a single job -- in a year, they will require your SSN in order to issue you your 1099. (As you probably know, we freelancers are generally considered contract workers.) Ask your tax preparer about getting an EIN -- I have one and, as I recall, it was relatively painless and involved less than the usual amount of bloodletting.

Generally, you don't need to submit your SSN until the company is issuing 1099's. Many legitimate places will issue you a check for work completed without having your ## on file.

WiseGeek posted this interesting article on the realities of being a 1099 contractor.

If you are worried about the validity of a site, or if a job makes your scam-meter go ::beep::, be very careful. However, by law a respectable employer has to know your SSN (or equivalent) in order to complete the federal requirements on their side...

Always check out Preditors & Editors, Absolute Write, and Writer Beware, if you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a job. It's often helpful to also do a search on the potential publisher's name, paired with the word "fraud" or "scam" and see what crops up.

...Ah, the joys of freelancing! If we have no tax questions, that means we are not working. My goal every year is to make enough money so I am HAPPY that I have to pay my "tax lady" to sort it all out.

Here's hoping that every writer reading experiences the same feeling of joy!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Character Confessions

Even though November is over, I have continued to work on my NaNo novel. As the work progresses, I have discovered (to my great surprise) that I have developed a rather poorly veiled crush on the character who is my principal Bad Guy.

This is quite unlike me. And though I like him -- a lot -- it doesn't stop me from writing down the horrible, despicable things that he has to do in order to move the story forward. It does, however, make me come up with a host of interesting ways to explain his bad behavior.

I must confess, this little obsession of mine has caused me to give the guy far more "screen time" than I had intended. It made me explore his motivations, define his drives, and flesh out his history more than I would have thought necessary had he been content to simply adhere to his original purpose in the story. My liking him has made him more real to me. Which, by necessity, forced me to make him more interesting in print.

It's been a good thing. I'm wondering how to make myself crush on all my major players...

This past week, I have been privy to several writers' "character confessions."

One lamented that the character she had intended for her protagonist ended up rubbing readers the wrong way. Without exception, all thought he was an "arrogant, manipulative, ass." This works well for House, but wasn't exactly what she was going for...

Several writers I've worked with lately have admitted that they don't know enough about their characters to know what they like, don't like, want, or work for. They know their characters' pasts and have plans for their futures -- but they don't know who these people are. Yet...

One writer identifies so strongly with her (fictitious) character, that she blurs pronouns when talks about her. "She" becomes "I," and then critique becomes dicey...

One male writer in the Writer's Practicum I facilitate consistently has difficulty creating real, believable females. He has a good grasp of plot and story, and a decent ear for dialogue -- as long as everyone involved has a "Y" chromosome. As soon as he introduces a female character, he abandons craft and clings to cliche. We're working on it...

Then there was the e-mail exchange with a young writer I coach, in which we discussed the importance of inhabiting the characters we create so they are well-rounded and real to us. He recognized his own shortcomings in being able to write from a female point of view:

"...actually, I always wonder about my female characters until a female reads them, and then I'm... relieved, but also a tiny bit worried about myself -- and what Dad would say if he saw the words "Well, he was really cute" typed by my hand as I was typing them. That sort of thing..."

I told him I was going to steal his confession for a post on the subject of characters.

We can get into trouble in a hundred different ways when we people our prose. Liking our creations too much can be as bad as not liking them.

One of the worst pitfalls is not knowing them. They become thinly veiled, poorly drawn caricatures of us (or people we think we know). Another, equally dangerous, pitfall is projecting ourselves onto them. This only results in our shielding them and not allowing them to grow into fully-realized characters.

The first step, I believe, is in recognizing our shortcomings. Sometimes identifying a fault or a weakness is all it takes to overcome it.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bad Query! No Contract!

or, Tales from the Slush Pile

"The Rejectionist," a pseudonym for a literary agent's assistant who would rather remain namless, recently contributed an Op-Ed piece on the horrors of the slush pile to The Stranger.

If you're even remotely considering sending out a query letter in the near future, the post is worth a read -- not only because it comes from someone whom you are hoping to impress with your storytelling talent, but also because it drives home the fact that reading anything from the slush pile would make most mortals slit their wrists as a viable option to making the pain just... go away.

The assistant's job, as anyone even remotely associated with the publishing industry can tell you, is akin to trying to find a ready-to-eat gourmet meal somewhere within a full-to-overflowing dumpster.

Sure, it's possible. But it ain't probable. It ain't pretty. And sometimes it kinda just makes you want to retch...

The Rejectionist details the all-too-familiar elements of bad query letters. Of course, these include the de rigueur uninspired and unimaginative writing (conspiracy theories, cardboard caricatures instead of characters, aliens, graphic and mechanical sex) of talentless hacks who refuse to take their craft or their career seriously.

However, bad query letters can also afflict those who have a great story to tell. Sometimes, it's not the concept that's at fault. All too often, it's the execution.

The Rejectionist laments:

The bad query's sentence sometimes resembles a battlefield wherein subjects hack it out desperately with adjectives, perennially besieged by legions of unwieldy adverbs. Apostrophes go on suicide missions and commas appear at random.

It goes on from there. Read the whole post of "A Good Author is Hard to Find." Seriously. Then edit your current manuscript or, better yet, find someone you trust to give you an honest opinion about its "publishability."

(A note: the opinions of friends, family, and spouses do not count here. These fine folk serve the excellent and necessary purpose of reading what you write, loving it, loving you, and thinking you are brilliant. They are not the best selections for objective "would you buy this?" critiques and edits.)

Do yourself and your project a favor. Raise the bar -- because the publishing world is hungry for the next great writer. It's up to us to give those poor starving assistants something they can sink their teeth into.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Tales from the Writing Practicum

Last night was the weekly meeting of the Writing Practicum -- a group that I facilitate for writers who are interested in taking their writing to a new level and pushing for publication.

I am so proud of our members. They consistently produce and work at improving their craft. Their experience and styles vary greatly, but they are all improving and making great progress. I couldn't be happier for them.

For instance …

This past week, JoAnn took the plunge and started up a brand-new blog with the intention of developing a “Michigan Coffee Snitch” platform.

JoAnn is following Barbara's lead. Barbara began her Never a Barbie blog in October.

In the past month, Kelly got two new bylines!

In the past month, both Kelly and I wrote over 50,000 words and became NaNoWriMo winners.

In the past month, MaryLou signed up for NaNo and got a great jump on her brand-new novel project.

Bob is developing a series of young-reader chapter books...

Mary and Geri continue to work on their memoirs...

Janey continues to press onward with the first draft of her historical adventure / romance...

And we all are actively cheering each other on.

Writer’s Wish List

This month, Practicum members are encouraged to identify their goals for 2010 – both regular writing goals (word count, chapter completion) AND publication goals (number of new bylines, agent acquisition, platform development, publication acceptance).

Written goals keep us accountable and push us to be productive. I'm a big fan of them...

In addition to our critiques of works in progress, last night's meeting included discussion of the following:

* Harlequin's ejection from the RWA, MWA, and SFWA because of its newly launched vanity press.

* If you can type you can make a movie with your characters. (Kelly made one about Amber and Daniel, her NaNo novel heroine and hero, eating Indian food!)

* More thoughts on developing a writer's platform.

* (Last night was "Hooks and Intros" night.) Reasons why readers stop reading.

* Twitter chats for writers.

* And how to evaluate a Literary Agent.

All of this is accomplished with much laughter, digression, tangential movie and book references, comments on chicken curry, discussion of family moles, and dream casting.

So much to read. So much to write. So little time... I am eternally grateful to the Practicum for providing a much needed anchor / support group / creative outlet in the middle of my busy week.