Friday, May 28, 2010

Ode to the Electronic Age of Publishing

Earlier this week, the Baltimore Sun ran an article by Garrison Keeler bemoaning the Decline and Fall of the Book Industry.

"Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea," Keeler warns.

Though we live in a literate society, says Mr. Woebegon, the demise of the book is due to an overabundance of electronic options that make things too easy.  Too readily available.  This, Keeler posits, encourages wanton writing. He foresees an immediate future where the Hack Writer flourishes.  It is a future devoid of literary content and entirely lacking in commitment.  His rationale:
  • No commitment to craft is needed on the writer's part because we now write with numerals in the place of words (as in "I <3 2 read what U write.") 
  • No commitment from a publisher is required because anyone who wishes can publish an e-book. 
  • No commitment to content is needed, so editors will vanish. (In Keeler's words: Poof!).
  • No commitment to readers is needed, so each writer will sell only a few books -- most to blood relatives.  And -- like dinosaurs, arrowheads, buggy whips, and walkmans -- the New York Times bestseller list will become a thing of the past.
  • Perhaps most concerning of all: no commitment to established writers is needed.  Because if upstart newcomers are allowed to just publish their stuff for all the world to read it, " will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries."
Ah, there's the rub, isn't it?

The electronic age of publishing no longer makes getting one's words into print a matter of wooing, bribing, or making an end-run past the gate keepers.  If no real expense is involved -- if no trees are killed and made into pulp, if no deals are made with foreign printers for cut-rate printing, if no warehouses are needed to store unsold copies, and if no wages must be paid to employees for "stripping" (the unconscionable bookseller practice of ripping the cover off a perfectly good book, sending the cover back to the publisher, and destroying the rest of the book) -- then the only people who have a real vested interest in the writing become... the writers and the readers.

Now, I like Mr. Keeler's radio show. My family (including my 7 year-old daughter, who calls him "the Funny Guy") listens to it whenever we're in the car and can find an NPR station broadcasting it. I like his Writer's Almanac series, and enjoy articles when I see them in magazines.

I've tried to read his books, though, and never end up finishing them. They're OK. But they never make a good enough case for me to put my life on hold to read them.

I'm just one reader.  I know he has many loyal fans out there who eagerly await his next novel.

But if, as he suggests, the demise of the book opens the floodgates to a slew of new writers, I'm inclined to rejoice.  That means new, untried writers who would previously have their work rejected so a publisher could publish the 96th Lake Woebegon novel will have the opportunity to find an outlet for their voice somewhere else.

The landscape of the publishing industry is changing so rapidly that even insiders require a GPS for navigation. 

For every established author who wails about the changes that are sweeping the World of Words, who see the new opportunities for writers as cause for alarm rather than cause for elation, I propose this:

Take your current novel.  Strip out everything that marks it as a sequel, that feeds upon past successes.  Change character and place names.  Make the manuscript able to stand on its own.

Then, write a synopsis of it.  Boil down the essence of the thing into a page or two.

Then, write a query.  Follow all the rules of getting the attention of an agent -- the one person who stands between you and a publisher. 

Submit that query to 10 agents under a pseudonym as if you were a first-time novelist.

Let me know how it goes.

Some writers with well-established fans might say, "I don't need to do that.  I've already paid my dues." 

I submit that the future of publishing -- with readily available new names and content -- will make "dues paying" less of an factor in a writer's success.  That may terrify the establishment.  I, however, find it an exhilarating thought.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Life Lessons I've Learned from Twitter

For the longest time, I was one of those “I don’t understand the point of Twitter” people. It all seemed so pointless – the online equivalent of thousands of people congregating on a street corner and yelling "Hey! Hey! Hey!" and “Listen to me!”

But then my friend, the social media-savvy @QuiltinRedhead set me up with a Twitter account while I was visiting at her house. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up: a world where literary agents bemoaned getting sick & housebound while on a family vacation, where editors from respectable publishing houses confessed their weakness for cute baby animal pictures, and where struggling writers have exactly the same opportunity as literary luminaries.

I have her to thank for all the connections I have made. (I could also make a case for blaming her for the time I have wasted tweeting when I should be working.)

And I have Twitter to thank for several life lessons I have learned in the few months that I’ve been a tweetin’. For instance:

LESSON #1: You Can Never Have Too Many Friends

Some of my favorite Twitter voices are of a scathingly funny acquisitions editor in Chicago, a rabid “Chuck” fan in New Jersey, an aspiring writer in Sweden, and two relentlessly acerbic literary agents – one in New York, the other in London. I call these, and a good portion of the over 200 people I follow “friends.” I like to believe that if I met these folks in Real Life, we would, indeed, hit it off.

I choose to follow these people – quirks and all. Some are more talkative than others. Some rarely speak up. Some share intimate personal details: wardrobe malfunctions, bodily effluvia, childhood trauma… Some are unfailingly optimistic. Others are incorrigible pessimists.

These people allow me glimpses into their lives on a regular basis. Whenever I choose to check in, several of them are already there. Instead of a big, noisy streetcorner, it’s more like the student center in University: someone’s always hanging out, willing to talk. I can listen in to a multitude of conversations, introduce one interesting person to another, and contribute if I have something of note.

Those who stay on my follow list are those who are interesting and who have something relevant to say. I believe that I can never have too many people like that in my life.

LESSON #2: You Don’t Owe Nobody Nuthin’

I am not an auto-follower. If someone follows me, I find out who they are. I read their recent tweets. I visit their website. More often than not, I follow them back. (I’m a dyed-in-the-wool people watcher and love hearing what others have to say. LESSON #1 is one of my life’s governing principles.)

I don’t have to believe what someone else does in order to find that person interesting. I follow atheists, Jews, agnostics, and Christians, male & female, right- and left-wingers, gay & straight, published & unpublished.

However, I don’t automatically add a new follower to my list. In fact, I actively block people from following me if they appear to be spammers (1500 tweets, all on “How To Make $$ On Twitter In Just 5 Minutes a Day!”) or shameless self-promoters (1500 tweets all linking to a single website: theirs).

My time is mine. And I admit to a certain penchant for spending too much time as it is reading the tweets of people I actually like. I don’t want tweets from bots, spammers, or egotists clogging my Twitter stream. I don’t owe anyone a follow-back. Furthermore, if I follow someone and decide that I’m no longer interested in what they have to say, I don’t have to remain a follower. In Twitter, as in life, sometimes things are better if we just part ways and move on.

LESSON #3: Time Is Currency

I charge an hourly rate for my professional services. I am not inclined to alter that rate downward or (God forbid) to begin giving away my work for free.

Time is a finite commodity. Every day, I am given a specific amount and forced to spend it all. I cannot make more of it. I cannot save what I have not spent and bank it. I cannot have poor time decisions refunded or credited to my account.

Twitter, like all activities, takes time. It is up to me to determine how much of my time is well-spent interacting with my “tweeps.” It is also my responsibility to impose limits to the time I spend online so I remain both professionally productive and actively engaged in my Real Life.

LESSON #4: Everybody Thinks You’re Talking to Them

An incident last week in which an innocent tweet about one thing nearly lost me a client and – more importantly – a friend illustrated a significant thing about Twitter that had previously been lost to me: I must assume that every person who reads my tweets will think he or she is the subject of what I have to say.

Let’s say, for instance, that my beta reader takes me to task for a lack of detailed research in my historical novel. I might then post something like: If you’re going to write about the past, take the trouble to actually learn about the time period! Readers aren't idiots.

If, however, at the same time I am working with a writer who is also working on a historical, it stands to reason that this writer might read the angry words directed at my own shortcomings and think I was publicly flogging his work.

I have been guilty of this “they’re-talking-about-me” mentality, too. If I submit something to an agent I follow, who then tweets scathing comments about stupid writer mistakes on #queryfail, I sometimes have a moment of panic. Likewise, when an editor I follow tweets about discovering a wonderful new author, and I know that a manuscript of mine is in her slushpile, I want to sacrifice a chicken or dance naked on the lawn in the hopes that she’s talking about me.

The point (aside from dead poultry and a flagrant violation of our township’s lawn decoration ordinances) is that because of the nature of Twitter, the tweets we read can feel much more personal than feeds we get from other sources. I learned a great deal from my almost-disastrous encounter and have since altered the tone of several tweets for fear of inadvertently offending others who thought I was talking about them.

What about you? Have you caught the Twitter bug? If so, what has it taught you lately?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Things to Do Instead of Watching the Last Episode of "Lost"

Yes, it’s true that significant portions of the civilized world will be glued to their televisions tonight to watch the final installment of Lost. The world is all atwitter. The last episode will be an extra 30 minutes long! It will air in the UK at 5 AM Monday, so fans on both sides of the Atlantic can experience it at the same time! Show closing parties full of rabid fans abound!

I have missed the Lost boat.

I suppose it should shame me to admit this, but – truth be told – it doesn’t even cause me the least twinge of social embarrassment.

I’m not a Lost fan. I tried. I really did. A friend loaned me the entire first season and I gave it my best shot. Couldn’t even make it through the first DVD.

In the words of most form rejection letters: It just wasn’t right for me.

I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t love it. Writing was OK. Acting was OK. Weird camera work didn’t bother me. I simply… couldn’t convince myself that watching the show was the best use of my time on the planet at the moment.

(If you’re a Lost-oid, or a Lost-bot, or whatever uberfans wish to be called, please don’t hold my apathy for the show against me. Can we agree to disagree here & remain friends? Please?)

Anyway, a few moments on the Twitter stream was enough for me to realize that while most people are restructuring their lives to clear their calendar for this evening, there is a healthy minority out there who will bravely soldier on with our regularly scheduled programming.

We will be engaging in all manner of non-Lost-watching activities. These include, but are not limited to:

The Useful
  • Washing stuff.  This might mean doing laundry, bathing the dog, bathing the cat, washing & waxing the car, scrubbing the toilet, squeegee-ing the windows, scouring the sink, cleaning the ceiling fans, de-fuzzing the blinds, steam-cleaning the carpet, or washing a potty-mouthed toddler's mouth out with soap.  Anything -- as long as it gets squeaky clean.
  • Organizing stuff.  Face it, it's a safe bet that the garage, junk drawer, dungeon, arsenal, root cellar, tool box, closet, scrapbook materials, Girl Scout badges, bookcases, in-box, and spice rack could all use a bit of straightening up.
  • Catching up on correspondence.  Write letters or e-mail.  Just don't call to chat -- chances are you'll get a Lost fan and they'll strike you from their will.
  • Study.  You know how you've been wanting to learn to play the guitar, speak Swahili, cook authentic French food, crochet, do the foxtrot, or juggle? There's no time like the present to put a new wrinkle in your brain.  Find an online how-to video and get started!
The Indulgent 
  • Take a bath.
  • Color your hair.
  • Do your nails.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Make a pie (and eat it).
  • Read a cheap, trashy, melt-your-earwax-with-sweaty-smut novel.
  • Play a game: video, board, or card... Take your pick.  Bet you can find someone to play with you... On Mars.
  • Go to a playground, slide on the slide, then swing till your head spins and your hips hurt.
  • Brush your pet.
  • Listen to an entire CD, start to finish, that reminds you of high school.
All Else Failing...
  • Tweet fake Lost spoilers.
Never fear, my fearless legion of the un-Lost.  After tonight, this madness will all be over.  This. Too. Shall. End.

How are you planning to spend your time during the final episode? Glued to the TV? Or doing your own thing?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Critique Etiquette

or, The Care & Feeding of Good Criticism

"Tell me what you really think. Don't sugar coat it. I need to know if it's any good."

I've often heard such sentiments from writers who want me to be a beta reader for them, either as a writing coach or critique partner. They believe they mean what they say. But they lie. What they really mean is:

"Tell me it's brilliant. Tell me you couldn't put it down, that you lost sleep over it, and that you can recommend an agent or publisher who can get it into print by the end of the year."

Writing is, after all, the practice of indulging one's dreams.

When I critique others' work and when I facilitate critique groups, I stress that criticism is essential to improving one's craft. That means that suggestions for perceived improvement are made by the Critiquer and said suggestions are thoughtfully considered by the Critiquee.

It is the Critiquer's responsibility to look for ways to make the work better. It is the Critiquee's responsibility to handle such suggestions with grace and diplomacy.

Honest criticism provides proof that someone was willing to take the time to read and respond to your writing. Though critique methods vary according to personal preference, time, knowledge base, and the level of manuscript completion, a useful critique has three major hallmarks:

1.) It appraises the work instead of the writer. All critique comments should focus on improving the readability of the work. Personal forays questioning the writer's psyche, motivation, or competence are inappropriate. Writers have a difficult enough time separating themselves from their work. A critique should help -- rather than hinder -- that separation.

2.) It indicates how the written work affects the reader. A reader's views on how the words affect him or her without authorial intrusion provide invaluable feedback for how well the writer has executed a scene.

If the author feels compelled to explain away something that crops up in a critique comment, such explanation is usually better served in the source material, instead of in a face-to-face diatribe.

3.) It highlights strengths and points out weaknesses. Too often, people confuse "critique" with the most negative definition of "criticize." A critique does not merely identify problem areas. It also indicates those sections that work well and engage the reader. Knowing what works can be as useful to the writer as knowing what needs fixing.

What To Do With A Critique (Once You’ve Got It):

Upon receipt of a critique, the writer has several responsibilities. Chief among these is to not pitch a diva-esque fit.


It is imperative that you take the critique graciously. Say "thank you for your time." Say "I really appreciate this."

Do not say, "clearly you are an imbecile for failing to recognize my genius and suggesting that I make changes to this obviously perfect work of art."


Realize that a critique represents only one person’s opinion, BUT:

  • Look for trends. If several beta readers find fault with the same thing, it behooves you to re-examine it.
  • Consider the source. Criticism from a beta reader who reads or publishes widely within this genre holds more weight than comments from someone unfamiliar or dismissive of the category.
  • If you choose to reject a suggestion, be able to articulate why. People rarely take the time to comment on something with the intention of making it suck worse. This does not mean that all comments must be acted upon. However, if you disregard specific comments within a critique, be sure ego is not involved, and ignore the suggestions advisedly.


Remember, the original draft will not self-destruct if you do a re-write. So, do a re-write. Stretch yourself. Try new things. See if addressing the critiquer's improves the work. You can always revert to the Starter Draft, if the muse chooses.


A critique is not an exercise in hand-holding. It is not Story Crafting 101. It is not Remedial Grammar and Punctuation. It is not free proofreading for lazy gits.

Critiques will often identify weaknesses that pervade a writer's work. These weaknesses may be in sentence construction, character-crafting, story structure, pacing, or general execution. If a weakness is mentioned once or twice near the beginning of a critique, it stands to reason that the weakness probably exists throughout the manuscript. (Often, such a weakness may be a shortcoming of the author's that bleeds into other projects.) The critiquer should not be expected to point out every instance of a weakness. Once the weakness is identified, it is the writer's responsibility to apply this new awareness and strengthen the entire text.

If a suggestion for improvement makes sound sense, apply it to the rest of your work.


When reviewing critique notes, avoid the temptation to say, “What I meant here was.” It you have to explain your work, it needs work.

Tips (For Beta Readers) on Dishing It Out:

1.) Critique with benevolence. Be kind. This doesn't mean that you need to use kid-gloves, or sugar-coat your criticism. However, bear in mind that sarcasm rarely translates well in print. And always remember that no matter what we say, we writers are terribly thin-skinned. It's sad, really.

2.) Look for GENERAL areas of both excellence and weakness. If a writer routinely punctuates incorrectly or exhibits redundant word use, by all means point it out. However, saying things like, "I think you used the wrong word here. And you missed a comma here," is not a critique. That's a copy edit.

Some general things to consider include:
• Paragraph clarity, construction and appropriate breaks
• Dialogue – flow, understandability, use of idioms, believability, speaker ID
• Use (or overuse) of description – tighter prose keeps the reader turning pages. If something appeals to you, mention it. If you start skipping entire sections of description, mention that, too.
• Tense / time consistency
• Consistent voice
• Consistency in chronology
• Attention to details – historical happenings, facts, characters & settings

3.) If you mark an area that you feel needs work, be willing to offer concrete suggestions for improvement. Saying, "the second act falls apart," is not terribly useful. Saying where the writer lost you and articulating ways in which you would like to recapture the magic of the narrative can be invaluable.

4.) Realize that nothing is perfect. Labeling a work “wonderful” or “piece-o-junque” does little to help the author grow. Look for individual sections that are outstanding either in their brilliance or in their need for re-writing.

Ever received (or given) great criticism? What's been your experience as you wrestle your words into shape?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Stuff That Would Be Cool if it Happened

I have a deeply rooted, recurring fantasy that both Robert Pattinson and James McAvoy will fall in love with one of my screenplays and engage in an all-out effort to win my affections so I will choose one over the other for the coveted part.

Hey, a girl can dream...

While such a thing would categorically prove to me the power of prayer (and go a long way toward undoing the scars inflicted upon my psyche the year I was 7 and Santa Claus "took a tumble"), my life will, somehow, still be complete if it never happens.

So instead of stalking yummy, uber-talented A-listers, I shall put my desire for their attentions on my list of Stuff That Would Be Cool if it Happened.

At the end of March, writer Cherie Burbach posted her list of such Stuff on her blog.

In Cherie's words, this is a list of really cool things... that if they happened would be just so great you’d pinch yourself. These aren’t goals, and they aren’t part of your bucket list, rather, they are things that you really don’t have any control over. Kind of like winning the lottery. You may buy a ticket, but the rest is up to the universe. Even if you buy a ticket every week, it’s not like “win the lottery” is something you can do. It has to happen to you.

(Now, one of the things on Cherie's list is "Write a Song." I might argue that writing a song rarely just happens. It takes conscious work, much like writing anything else. But she knows that, and she refutes my argument before I even make it. Her song-writing "cool stuff" involves collaborating with one of her favorite songwriters. She also recognizes that though she likes the idea of writing a song, she's not going to put her life on the line to make it happen.)

This gives me the courage to post my own STWBCiiH list. It's stuff that I'd love for the universe to smile upon me and allow to happen, that would grace my time on this planet and put a bounce in my step. Serendipitous stuff like, for instance:

Being Cast as an Extra Movie Rider. I have no delusions of acting ability. I have no desire to ever be in front of a camera and be required to emote on any level. But I would jump at the chance to put my entire life on hold and ride a horse as an extra in a film. Heck, I'd even pay my own way for the privilege. 'Cause it looks like it would be a blast. ("There's Mommy, dear. In the twentieth row, seventh from the left, on the big bay." How cool would that be?)

Skydiving. I know I could just open the Yellow Pages, make a call, and go for a free-fall. But flinging myself out of a plane is not something I want to do by myself. If I die, I want to die with friends around to mourn my passing. My friend, movie director, pilot, and fearless sky-diver Paul Martin swears he'll take me diving whenever we actually begin shooting a feature we have collaborated on. I keep telling him that this event should happen sooner, rather than later, because with age comes wisdom -- and wisdom suggests that jumping from perfectly good planes is something someone of my age should not do. But he's older than I am and he keeps getting up after hitting the ground. So this remains on the list.

Voicing an Animated Character. Too many of my friends say I remind them of an escaped Muppet. Though the recurring theme of my life is looking for ways to avoid being in front of a camera, I would love to play around with voice options for helping pixels come to life.

Seeing Earth from Space. When I was a kid, for the longest time I wanted to be an astronaut. I would be willing to live on ramen noodles and water for a year in order to save up enough $$ to go into orbit. But even that probably wouldn't be enough for a down payment on a waiting list. Maybe there'll be a space-travel-for-starving-writers option before I die and become the stuff of stars... (Photo from NASA. Wish it was from my own camera...)

Riding the Pan-American Trail. How cool would it be to take a horse all 15,000 miles from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego? This clearly falls under something that I would have to make happen. And with my responsibilities as mom, spouse, bread-winner, etc., heading west to go for a lengthy ride seems the teensiest bit self-indulgent. ("At 50 miles a day, it should take me just under a year! You guys have enough mac & cheese to last? Ok. ::kiss. kiss:: Be good. Listen to Daddy. Say your prayers. Brush your teeth. I'll see you when you're 8.")

Having a Personal Tour of the Vatican Archives. I'd love the opportunity to just -- inhale -- all that history.

Swimming in an Antarctic Hot Spring. I almost didn't put this on here, because it's technically on my Life List. Someday, I swear, I'll sit in the hot springs on Deception Island. Just so I can say I did it.

Hearing Bon Jovi or Loreena McKennitt Sing One of My Songs. Or provide the soundtrack for a movie I wrote. That would be good, too.

Start a Global Goals-for-Charity Movement. My friend Kelly Smith and I are developing My Goal Posts, a site that encourages people to articulate a major goal, break it into bite-sized parts, and support their favorite charitable cause as they strive to make their goal reality.

It would be beyond cool if the idea would take off. It would be a painless way for people to make their dreams make a difference. I would like to be a part of that.

I could go on. Maybe another time I'll add to the list.

How about you? What's on your STWBCiiH list? Dreams, as you know, are free for the taking... Here's hoping that the best of yours come true.

Monday, May 10, 2010

How to Write a Foreword

Several times a week, I receive a note from someone thanking me for helping them to write a foreword. It all dates back to a couple of blog posts I wrote several years ago after I was forced (forced, mind you!) to write a foreword for someone Veddy Veddy Important, sign Mr. VVI's name to it, and watch it help sell a ton o' books.

I thought it might be useful to revisit the Foreword posts and streamline them into an updated version. So, without further ado, I present Foreword Writing 101:

What the Heck is a Foreword?

The foreword is a strange literary beast. It introduces the larger work and / or the author – much as an emcee introduces a keynote speaker. It doesn’t contribute any additional information about the book’s subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book’s existence.

Often, the foreword of a book is written by someone that the general public recognizes more readily than the actual author. A foreword may be only a few paragraphs long – yet the foreword’s writer may share byline space on the cover. (“With foreword by Mr. Veddy Veddy Important.”)

A foreword’s primary purpose is to boost sales by establishing credibility. It’s a means of introducing someone who may not be well-known via an expert in the field or a celebrity -- who, by dint of being famous, is an expert on everything.

Forewords often have a personal, chatty feel to them. The foreword writer may reminisce about how he or she met the author of the main project, thus adding weight to the author’s credentials (“Oooh! He knows Mr. VVI! He must know what he’s writing about…”).

Forewords also tend to involve anecdotes that – ideally – have something to do with the work at hand. These generally serve as a practical or real-world example of whatever themes or ideas may be expressed later in the book itself. Again, they serve to simply reinforce that the writer knows his or her stuff.

Why Me, O Lord? Why Me?

If you’ve been asked to write a foreword to a book, kudos and congratulations are in order. Forewords aren’t written by just anyone, you know. Generally, the only people who are asked to write such things are Those Who Matter.

You have been asked to write a foreword because you have paid your dues in some manner. Maybe you are a recognizable name within a certain field. Perhaps you have distinguished yourself in a way that is relevant to the book’s subject. Perchance you’re just the most famous person the author knows and he or she is calling in a favor.

So Why Should I Write a Foreword?

A foreword isn’t all about the book it introduces. If done correctly, the foreword can be as valuable a tool for the person writing it as for the author of the actual book.

To begin with, writing a foreword keeps the writer’s name in front of the public. This can be especially useful if there is significant lag time before another major project (book, album, movie…) that features the foreword’s writer is to be released. It is also a plus if the person writing the foreword is not known primarily as a writer. It can broaden the writer’s audience and, perhaps, appeal to a whole new segment of the population.

The foreword writer has the opportunity to remind people of why he or she is well-known – or at least qualified to write a foreword to a work – in the first place. A simple “author of 100 Secrets of the Super Stars” after the writer’s name at the end of the foreword serves as a frame of reference and solidifies credibility.

And that, in a nutshell, is all you ever wanted to know about a foreword. It’s a means of introducing an author and a new work to the world, while keeping the foreword writer in the public eye.

Yay you! Now what do you do?

Step 1: What Am I Endorsing Anyway?

If possible, get your hands on the manuscript you’ll be writing the foreword to. Since a foreword is the print equivalent of a permanent endorsement, it behooves you to know what sort of thing you're giving a big Thumbs Up.

If you are the conscientious sort, and if it interests you, read it. If you’re not (or it doesn’t), at least skim the Table of Contents or read a random chapter on something you find worthwhile.

Step 2: Find Something -- Anything -- Remotely Relevant to the Topic

Write out a short anecdote about something that happened in your life that has some bearing – no matter how far-fetched – on what the book is about. If you’re not sure of the book’s purpose, write about something that relates to the chapter you just read.

Step 2.5: Brag

Feel free to name-drop shamelessly throughout the foreword. If you won an Olympic medal, reference an Olympic event. If you defended a famous celebrity in a murder trial, mention it. Don’t hesitate to remind people why you are well-known in the first place – just in case they can’t remember why they know you. (The public is notoriously dim-witted, with a frighteningly short attention span.)

Step 3: Make Introductions

Now, say something about the author. Have you met? How long have you known each other (or known OF each other)? Can you relate a personal, non-humiliating anecdote about the author? What about telling of something the author did that affected you?

Remember, part of your job is to introduce the author to the world. Do your job as well as possible.

If you don’t know the author, rather than admitting that you’re writing for a total stranger, talk about the relevance of the project and rave about how much you believe in its validity. If you can’t do that, perhaps you’re not the one to be writing this particular piece of prose…

Step 4: Circular Reasoning

Finally, you will appear tres literary and oh-so-clever if you can reference an idea from your opening paragraph again at the end. Think of it as bringing the whole foreword full circle.

If, for instance, you related a story that involves your mother, something as simple as “I know Mom would approve” will do the trick. If you talked about a particularly odious elementary school teacher, you might try something like “If you see Mrs. Schaffer, tell her I know who put the tack on her chair… and I ain’t telling!”

Remember, a foreword is like a letter of introduction from one friend to another. It’s best if it’s a bit chatty, engaging, and personal. Tell tales. Spin a yarn or two. Open a tiny little window into a personal moment. The more readable you make it, the more people will read it, rather than skipping it entirely and diving straight into the book. And that, of course, is the whole point!

Monday, May 03, 2010

It’s Not About Me

I once listened in on a teleseminar that talked about how to increase your chances of getting booked as a guest on national TV.

Now, it’s not that I think I belong on Oprah or Ellen, mind you -- but several of the people I write for would make good, knowledgeable, articulate, mediagenic guests. It’s not inconceivable that they could be on such a show. So it makes sense for me to know something about the process. Then, when the time comes, I may be able to offer some useful advice.

The guest speakers included a Fox News producer and former producers for both Oprah and Montel. Without exception, they all agreed that people seeking to get on their shows made several key errors.

Mistake #1: "Hi! I'm a Scary Stalker Egomaniac..."

A common mistake they all cited was simply poor professionalism.

For reasons that continue to escape me, the hallmarks of many writers who contact members of the media tend to be overwhelmingly... ooky. There really is no better term for the practice of harassing the producers with e-mails, phone calls, & text messages, stalking them in parking lots and at their homes, sending inappropriate (highly unprofessional) "gifts," and getting huffy when told “thanks, but no.”

In other words: if the behavior you inflict upon a member of the media would frighten the bejeebers out of you if it were exhibited by a job hunter you were interviewing, then STOP. Just stop. Slap yourself, if necessary. But consider their bejeebers and proceed with professionalism.

Mistake #2: "No One Watches TV Anymore..."

Another mistake people commonly made when trying to get booked on a show was having no idea what the show was about!

Many authors evidently try to get on a show without ever having watched it, and without having any concept of the show’s format or audience. That’s just inexcusable stupidity or laziness on the writer’s part.

An variation of this mistake happens when writers submit material to agents or publishers that even the most rudimentary search would have shown to be inappropriate. Another variation occurs when writers send articles or stories to magazines without first reading the publication.

In these cases, the writer does not merely deserve a form rejection. Some would argue that the lazy git merits a bill from the professional whose time was wasted in responding.

Mistake #3: "Let's Talk About Me!"

But the mistake that the pros really focused on had to do with an author’s approach. Too many people, they said, try to get on national TV because they have written a book and they know that sales will increase if Oprah puts them on as a guest.

While this may be true, the reason that sales increase is because the watching audience sees something of value or interest in what the guest author has to say. And that, more than anything else, is often overlooked when trying to get booked.

If you want TV exposure, keep the viewing audience in mind. Be aware of the producer’s busy job, with its many responsibilities and deadlines. Realize that most TV segments are no longer than 5 minutes long. Then ask yourself: what can I say in 5 minutes that will pique the audience’s interest enough to keep them from clicking the remote?

When you are a guest on TV (or on the radio, or on a blog), your purpose is not to sell your book. Don’t keep mentioning your website or contact information every 10 seconds. Instead, have a clear, easily identifiable reason for being there. Know why total strangers would want to have you in their living rooms or bedrooms. Know what you have to offer them. Rest assured that at the end of your segment, the show will mention your name and your book.

The important thing is to realize it’s not about you – it’s about the viewer. Ratings mean everything. If you can appear on a show and not lose viewers – if you know the demographics and can offer the target audience something new, something of value, or something fascinating, you will be giving the producers what they want. And that, in turn, gives you the exposure you want for your project.