Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Fun! Part II: Trying to Find a Fiancé

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Recap: A few months ago, when I finished up with Part I of this topic, Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!, I was gung-ho and ready to go, on the verge of fleshing out my straw-man idea for a non-fiction book. After preliminary research and careful consideration, I had selected a promising book idea of mine as my pet project.

My Unique Selling Proposition (USP) was compelling and concise: The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method.

I settled on using guidelines and templates from two different reference books to create a proposal and the initial query letters. With my “presearch” now done, I was set to move on to the crafting phase: pull the query and a proposal outline together. I was lookin’ to get hitched. Who were my prospects and what would they want from me?

The Pre-Proposal Period

Before I could query, I needed to research the market-at-large, identify possible selling statistics, and be able to provide my prospects with factual information on the audience for my title. The next step was to develop a list of potential publishers with similar titles or similar categories of books. The idea at this stage is to be able to speak knowledgably of publishers’ lists and specifically appeal to the readers of the queries. Finally, I needed to learn exactly what each of my publishing targets wanted to hear or see from me. Did they want sample chapters or just a query letter? Did I meet their stated criteria for authors?

Here what I learned as I made my way through these three steps of the pre-proposal period:

1. Selling statistics, my audience, and the market at large. A sound approach to finding out what sells is to go to a place where they are selling items similar to yours, and snoop around. There’s a reason the average grocery store carries a lot of flavored coffees and teas, but very few limburger-flavored coffees or eye-of-newt teas. The same applies to the books stocked on the shelves on a big chain book store, and what’s being sold on Amazon.com. Since I’m a Pilates instructor, I also have an extra level of information at my fingertips among my professional references. I learned a lot by looking at my own office shelves and internet bookmarks, as well as at bookstores and online.

What I learned: Big chain stores stock one or two perennial favorites in the Pilates subsection of the Fitness and Exercise subsection of the Sports and Fitness aisle. They are written by well-known or well-respected instructors—trainers to the stars, or Pilates elders (original teachers). They are published by imprints of large publishing houses. Expanding my search to the yoga and other fitness categories, I found a similar pattern. The fitness books sold in stores and frequently bought online by consumers are “how to do” books, not “how to teach” books. This is the lay of the land at the point of sale.

Among my professional references are a few self-published books, and a few more published by specialty houses on behalf of large professional organizations. For example, certification exam study guides have been published by every reputable Pilates certifying body. A few illustrated guidebooks for Pilates anatomy, or books for teaching special populations (pre-natal Pilates, Pilates for seniors, and the like), also exist. You buy them through proprietary companies that also sell Pilates equipment and host national conventions. Joe Pilates’ original Return to Life through Contrology has been republished and is selling again, but mostly to instructors. I know Joe Pilates himself had quite a bit of trouble getting his book published; in 1998 it was updated and edited with the copyright assigned to Presentation Dynamics. Duly noted in my notebook of pre-proposal possibilities.

My takeaways: My title is not going to make it on consumer shelves. It’s a “how to teach” not a “how to do” book. It won’t be a public library staple, either. Its salability is going to be tied to either professional organizations’ interests (like the educational arms of large certifying bodies) or Pilates-related corporate interests (like how Weight Watchers and Yoga Journal added to their empires, which now include cookbooks and yoga kits respectively). This is not the greatest of realizations. What I need is the Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.

I already had the specifics on my audience—I am part of my audience—and I remain prepared with numbers on new instructors in training, how many certified in the last x amount of years, etc. These figures are published in trade journals with some regularity. The good news is Pilates is still popular and the number of teachers and participants continues to grow.

I also found something out about my market that seems positive —there really are no other books out there quite like mine. I’d be filling a hole.

Your takeaways: If you want to craft a non-fiction book proposal, determine what books your book would be next to on store and library shelves, then see how your book fits in. Look at your favorite books in your category to find out who published them, and when. Keep notes on every publisher of several books related to or comparable to yours. This list will later help you connect positives for your queries to editors (they’ve published three books about coffee beans but never one on tea leaves; hole in the market I will fill) or negatives for your own notes (dozens of comments and reviews on the coffee-related books online but no one ever comments on the tea books). Finally, pour through your trade journals. Look for books being advertised in the back pages, read book reviews, and find out if the journal publishers also publish books.

2. Potential publishers. First I looked up the most promising potential publishers from my master list of books and their publishers from Step 1 above. I found two possibilities with actual websites and guidelines for authors. Both are smaller presses that might be interested in a Pilates title, but have none so far. I ran into several dead ends on the web as well. Dead ends, because the publishers were either too big to post submission guidelines on their websites, or they no longer seemed to exist. A few were swallowed up by big guys, and some others were just not findable on the internet.

Next, I went back to the bookstore and pulled the most recent Writer’s Market off the shelf and spent time cross-referencing the potential publishers I had left on my list. Yes, I did that at the bookstore. I bought an overpriced latte so I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I must say, the market for writers has changed since I last looked in “The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published” ten years ago. I learned a lot flipping through it.

What I learned: 2011 Writer’s Market features a chart of seven publishers that are masters of the domains of dozens of others they have merged into their own universes. It’s just a list of names really, so you don’t get specifics in Writer’s Market about submitting to, say, Random House or any of its 70+ imprints. I learned a few trainers-to-the-stars had books published by bigger houses. How did they do that? I’ll guess: an agent. That, and/or a reputation with a recognizable celebrity or sports name as a testimonial. I looked up several of the smaller publishers I had searched for on the internet, and found most of them not to be present in Writer’s Market, either.

My takeaways: I was left with the couple of maybes I found online and in Writer’s Market, and a protruding pout. Back to the drawing board to figure how I can get hooked up with my “Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.”

Your takeaways: You can pout, but you have to keep trying till you’ve exhausted your avenues. (The latte does help.) A few months ago, I thought that non-fiction book writing seemed like “fun!” but I’m here to tell you it feels a lot more like “work!” at this stage. Keep your trusted notebook of possibilities at hand. There’s more to do.

2.5. More Potential Publishers. Since I only found three promising potential publishers, instead of the eight that was my goal, I decided to travel a little farther down the professional trade road. I began with a couple of magazines and online publications I myself read and refer to. PilatesStyle magazine has a readership that overlaps my book’s market—niche consumer along with a lot of instructors, as it is the only Pilates-specific magazine out there. I found some articles on the path to teaching, and featuring other teachers. Nothing much new as far as book publishing goes, though. Next I went to IDEA, the world’s largest association of fitness professionals, of which I am a member. Their collection of articles on mind-body fitness pursuits is hard to beat. I search through the giant Inner IDEA website for anything related to my book proposal, and guess what comes up? An article: “The Art of Cuing” by Rael Ishowitz. He’s pretty famous in the modern Pilates world.

What I learned: It’s a lovely article. No, it doesn’t do what I say my book is going to do, exactly. Phew. Instead, it’s a more general article on why cuing is important and it discusses how one can improve one’s instruction with attention to the art of cuing. So yeah, there’s some overlap for sure. But not a lot of specifics. (This is all me talking to myself after reading the article.) My book has specifics. As my USP says, it’s a handbook. For people to refer to when trying to develop better cues for exercises, or to get ideas on new ways to help people visualize exercises—

—Uh-ohhh. A revelation. I think I know why there’s a hole and it hasn’t been filled with a book. It’s not the market, and it’s not the audience, and it’s not even the subject—it’s the function of the book. The function of the book (I repeat to myself, nodding for emphasis) in relation to the subject and the audience. How will this book be used, and when? I can answer that question myself (I am my audience, after all) in two words. It won’t. Instructors will take an illustrated guide to pre-natal exercises off their shelf and use them to plan such classes ahead of time. They will take down their anatomy book to look up a muscle group that is giving someone trouble. They will read their study guides before testing or retesting and they will read Joe Pilates’ book to understand the historical context of the method.

They won’t pull out a little book that lists several effective and creative ways to talk about the shoulders while teaching The Rollup. They can’t refer to this book during class and they won’t think of consulting something like that in between classes when they’re researching anatomy or prenatal exercises. It’s a reference book that can’t be referenced when you need it. They won’t be going about their business thinking “If only I could think of something different than ‘string of pearls’ when cuing the spine.” They won’t.

My takeaways: I’m okay, I’m okay. Even though I’ve come this far only to realize I cannot propose my book because I, as my own audience, know that I won’t read my book of lists of ways to cue the body in Pilates classes. I will however go to a workshop or seminar and have an engaging expert speak to me on the topic for an hour or so… and I will read an article or a series of articles on this topic to spark some ideas and give me a few new cues to try out. I will even save the article or series of articles and use it to help inspire other teachers who I might be training… but (wah!) I won’t read my own book. Time to outline my workshop idea. Time to research magazines and online sources that will publish my article (IDEA and PilatesStyle come to mind!).

Your takeaways: When developing your non-fiction book idea, aside from considering your expertise as the author, the market for your topic, your audience’s needs, trends in publishing for your genre, the potential for selling this book, and your USP, also consider the function of your book. How and when will this book be used in the format you’re suggesting? An encyclopedia of tea leaves is one thing, but The Tourist’s Pictorial Guide to Selecting Teas at any Market in Asia better be a slim little thing—like maybe a brochure that an Asian tea company gives away.

Afterward: I still want to write a non-fiction book—a book that sells. I’ve got a new idea, the best one yet (I think), and I’m applying everything I’ve learned so far to develop it through to the official proposal period. So, there just might be a Part III on this topic, if all goes well and I find that “special someone” (a publisher willing to commit).

Final Poll Results

Please and Thank You: The Purpose of a Cover Letter

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Recently, Toasted Cheese received a submission in which the writer asked in her cover letter whether such a letter was really necessary. After all, she reasoned, shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Indeed it should. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include a cover letter with your submission. Here’s why.

The purpose of a cover letter isn’t to sell your story. It’s not a query, i.e. “May I please send you my work?” A cover letter is a letter included with a submission. Since you’ve already sent your work, the editors don’t need a synopsis or a pitch. They have your work. They’ll read it. You also don’t need to bombard the editors with pages of credits, credentials, and accolades (though, of course, a few are fine). Again, they already have your work. It’ll either stand up on its own merits or it won’t.

A cover letter is, first and foremost, a friendly way to introduce your submission. It’s like saying please and thank you rather than making a demand. Editors read many submissions at a time, and frankly, it’s just more pleasant to open one with a brief introductory note than one with the work and nothing else. It’s not so much what you say. It’s that you said something.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa).

No, a cover letter won’t convince editors to select your work if it’s not what they’re looking for. But a concise, courteous letter will put the persons reading your work in the best possible frame of mind to read it. It may even make them more inclined to encourage you to submit again. And, after all, short of the coveted acceptance letter, that’s what you want.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some real cover letters Toasted Cheese has received in the past year to see what they got right—and wrong. We’ll start with the letter that inspired this article:

To Whom It May Concern:1

This isn’t the first time I’ve submitted to Toasted Cheese. This is, however, the first time that I’ve included more than just my work in the submission email. I never bothered2 with a cover letter before because I felt that it was unnecessary. I thought that if you (the editors of Toasted Cheese) liked my work, then you would accept it and publish it without needing to know anything more of me. In other words, I wanted my work to speak for itself.3 Please let me know if I have been mistaken.

If you do want to know more about me, then please read on. I am, perhaps like many of your contributors, a writer in my spare time only. I do wish that I could claim writing as my profession; only the reality of my abilities has hindered me, but I believe that practice makes perfect. And perhaps by the time I retire I would have mastered my craft.4

What follows are two poems inspired by a couple of Toasted Cheese writing prompts. The first is an interpretation of _____, and the second is on the theme _____.5

Sincerely,
Name6
A Would-be Writer7

P.S. Please let me know if a cover letter is required for all subsequent submissions.8

Here are my thoughts on this letter:

  1. “To Whom It May Concern” implies the writer doesn’t know whom she is addressing. It seems out of place here because (as shown in the first paragraph) she does indeed know. “Dear Editors of Toasted Cheese” would have been a better greeting.
  2. Using a phrase like “I never bothered” is a red flag. If you can’t be “bothered” to write a couple lines introducing yourself and your work and thanking the editors for their time, why should they be “bothered” to read your work?
  3. As noted above, a cover letter isn’t a pitch; it’s a courtesy.
  4. A little self-deprecating humor is fine, but don’t over-do. This essentially says, “my writing isn’t ready for publication yet.” If that’s the case, why are you submitting it? If it’s not the case, say something more positive about yourself/your work. Most creative writers have day jobs that pay the bills. What’s important is that you’re a doer rather than a dreamer.
  5. This brief introduction to the submitted pieces is more than sufficient. One tweak: including the title(s) of the piece(s) you’ve submitted in your cover letter is always appreciated.
  6. This is perfect.
  7. This is not. If there’s an outright don’t for cover letters, this would be it. If you can’t take yourself seriously, why should we?
  8. This is a valid question and I’m glad the writer asked it, but I’d have preferred to see it asked at our forums or on Twitter. By asking at the end of her letter, the writer has reminded the editors what a “bother” it was for her to write it, thus distracting them from her submission.

Here’s an example of a short cover letter that leaves the editors with a favorable impression of the writer:

Editorial Staff
Toasted Cheese
Date

Dear Editors:1

Pasted below is a short story titled _____. It is approximately _____ words in length.2 In the past few years I have published freelance articles in magazines relating to _____ and have an essay entitled “_____” to be published in the book ____ in spring or fall of 20__. I have not yet published a work of fiction.3 I would appreciate your time and consideration of this manuscript for publication.4

Best,
First M. Last

  1. As far as TC is concerned, this opening is ideal. Since we have several editors, a joint greeting such as “Dear Editors” is appropriate. For a publication with a single editor or one that has divided responsibilities (e.g. fiction editor, poetry editor), it would be better to use the editor’s name.
  2. This writer begins by telling us two things we want to know: the submission’s title and word count. By adding that the story is pasted in the email (the format we request), she indicates that she has read our submission guidelines.
  3. Including a few details about your writing credits, relevant degrees, or writing-related work or volunteer experience is one way to show editors that you’re serious about writing.
  4. Letting the editors know you appreciate the time they’re taking to read your work is arguably the most important part of your cover letter.

This is a good letter that hits all the major points. Two suggestions:

  • Toasted Cheese publishes a short bio with each piece, so it’s helpful if writers include a paragraph that is easily convertible into a bio, or a separate third-person bio that can be used as-is.
  • Make sure there is no ambiguity with respect to your byline by clearly stating how you would like your name to appear if your work is published.

Here’s another letter that does both those things:

Dear Flash Fiction Editor:1

Toasted Cheese first came to my attention through the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market; after more research I determined that some of my writing might be a good fit for your publication.2 I am submitting a ____-word flash fiction story entitled “_____.”3 If accepted this would be my first published work.4

Brief Biography:
First Middle Last is a writer and _____ living in _____. She watches films and writes poetry, fiction and screenplays. She is happily married and learning about parenting through experience.5

Thank you for taking the time to consider my writing and I look forward to hearing from you.6

Sincerely,
First Middle Last7
Email
Phone Number8

  1. This isn’t a perfect opening for TC; we edit as a collective and as such we don’t have a “flash fiction editor” per se.
  2. Letting the editors know you’re familiar with their publication and/or have done your research is never a bad idea.
  3. Like the letter above, this writer clearly states the submission’s word count and title.
  4. If you’d like to share that you’re unpublished or haven’t published before in the genre you’re submitting, this is a good way to do it—it comes off as optimistic. Don’t be an Eeyore by bemoaning that you’ve never been published (or “only” been published in a venue you clearly don’t value) .
  5. This format is nice because it leaves no ambiguity as to a) what information you want included in your published bio, and b) how you would like your name to appear.
  6. A thank you is always appreciated.
  7. This writer is consistent with the version of her name used in the letter, which we appreciate. When your name appears several different ways in your letter—e.g. Elizabeth Smith, Lizzie Smith, E. Zillah Smith—it can be unclear which version you want to be published under (or even be addressed as).
  8. By including her contact information, the writer appears confident and professional. One tip: writers often include their email, phone number, and/or mailing address. Not so often included, but perhaps more relevant to an online publication: a link to your website/blog and/or the social networking site you’re most active at. We are happy to include a link in your published bio, so please include this information.

Keep in mind these are just examples; there are of course countless other ways you could include the pertinent information in your letter. When in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Here is a very short letter that is perfectly acceptable:

Dear Editor,

Here are my bio and short story, ______ (approximately _____ words). Thank you for considering my work.

Sincerely,
First Middle Last

First Middle Last is a writer and _____living in ______. Most recently, she has been published in _____, the literary journal of ______ University. You can read more of her work at firstmiddlelast.com.

As I hope these examples have shown, your letter needn’t be flawless to fulfill its purpose. Writing a cover letter shouldn’t be an onerous task. Save the multiple drafts for your creative work; a utilitarian cover letter works just as well as a clever one. And once you’ve written a letter you like, you can use it as a template for future submissions.

To summarize, in a cover letter you want to:

  • Greet the person(s) you’re writing to.
  • Introduce the work you are submitting.
  • Tell the editors a little about yourself.
  • Thank the editors for reading your work.
  • Close the letter with your name and contact information.

A few tips:

  • Rejection and re-submitting is part of being a writer. By all means, keep sending out your work until it finds a home. But please, freshen up your submission before submitting to a new publication! No editor wants to be able to count how many times your email has been forwarded.
  • Avoid generic openings. If there is a single editor, use the editor’s name. If there are multiple editors as at Toasted Cheese, you can address your letter to the editors as group (e.g. Dear Editors; Dear Toasted Cheese Editors). Alternatively, if you have a rationale for doing so, you can address it to one of the editors. For example, if you particularly like my Editor’s Picks, you could address your letter to me. This would signal to us that you’ve gone above and beyond in researching the journal and its editors.
  • Make sure to “sign” your letter. A good rule of thumb with email is to start formal. First contact should always include a greeting and closing/signature. You can drop the formalities as the conversation progresses.
  • Save the area below your signature for your contact information. Other personal information can be included in your bio, if you wish. “Jane E. Jones is a 38-year-old arctic researcher who lives with her husband and children in Iqaluit, Nunavut” sounds personable, whereas the same information in a list after your signature comes off a bit psychotic.
  • Before sending, read the submission guidelines one more time to ensure that nothing in your letter conflicts with them. In particular, make sure a publication accepts simultaneous submissions before sending a piece to more than one journal.

Ideally, the person reading your cover letter should come away with the impression that you’re polite, professional, and would be easy to work with. Do we toss submissions without cover letters? No, of course not. They’re a nicety, not a necessity. But the goodwill you generate by including one makes the few minutes it takes to write one more than worthwhile.

Final Poll Results

Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Boy, was I jealous of Julie Powell when I saw the movie Julie & Julia. Writer on the side, loves to cook and eat, in the right place at the right time for her first little blog to become a popular blog, then become a book offer, then a bestseller, then a movie deal. Starring the greatest actress of our time.

I’ll take one of those, please. Yes, the one-hit wonder. That’s fine with me. Non-fiction you say? Mmmm. Even better, maybe. There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for my poetry after all, and I do have a couple of great ideas for non-fiction already brewing. One is handbook for Pilates instruction and the other is a self-help guidebook to personal health and wellness.

I also have this article brewing, the first of at least two to go along with the process of me aiming to become a published author of a non-fiction book. Make that a non-fiction book that sells.

Yes, I absolutely want to write a book in order to sell it; that’s my first established goal. I know making money off my book might be a premature idea. It sure was with all my past creative writing projects. I haven’t seen a cent from those pursuits, but I’m done questioning the desire to make money as a writer now. It seems like non-fiction is calling me to this task so I am going for it.

So, how does one go about writing a non-fiction book that sells?

Step 1: Research to learn that answer.

Let me tell you what I did, and where I’m at. First, I thought about non-fiction book markets that I’m familiar with and feel I could sell in. Just gut feelings here. I want it to be somewhat easy to write my book. That’s right, I just said I want to make money and I want it to be somewhat easy. I am a businesswoman who works long hours at a physically and mentally demanding job as a fitness studio owner. I’m also writing on the side as a service journalist for an online content provider, delivering simple articles on health and fitness topics for extra money—my fledgling studio hasn’t put me in the black yet. I don’t want my book project to be the death of me. I want it to pay off. I want to be good at writing it, so I can maximize the return on my time investment. These are my demands.

Turns out, being good at writing non-fiction is one of the first conditions of writing a non-fiction book that sells. Lucky me! Intuitively, I’m on the right track. Research tells me I need to have loads of experience, or a special unique perspective, or clear expertise, to write this book and sell it. I believe I do.

My second step was to learn about what makes for a successful journey to non-fiction book publication from the three non-fiction books I bought on the subject. But first,

Step 1.5: Decide to go for it.

In between thinking about what I might write and buying my reference books, I stumbled upon this nugget of information that sent my vision into warp speed: In non-fiction, you don’t write the book first. You write a proposal, and that sells the book. It’s no joke—you sell the book before you write it!

Basically, I’ll have to create a marketing plan in order to sell my book. Woo hoo! It so happens I have a marketing background. I developed brand strategies for large clients and the communications that would support them. So my heart went aflutter. Perfect.

Step 2: Secure reference books to guide the process.

I looked at reviews and picked three highly-rated guides to help me understand winning ways to approach the non-fiction book market. After that it was full speed ahead, consulting the three books, comparing advice and taking notes. Here are the titles:

Wow! Non-fiction seems like fun!

There are a few different approaches and actual proposal outlines offered among these books. In Camenson’s book, she recommends crafting a stellar query letter and sending it simultaneously to several editors or agents at once. The query offers up the full proposal to those interested. Before all that, of course, comes the research that will show up in your proposal, and be used to beef up your query: competitive and similar titles, what makes your book unique in the market, who the target audience is, and more. This is the approach I already imagined.

In Lyon’s book, the same is recommended but with a few more caveats. There’s a lot to be said for the writer who can devote a lot of time to the business of being a writer. For example, going to conferences each year, to hopefully meet editors or agents, knowing other established writers, or being able to talk with someone who can give you a referral to an agent or editor. But for me, this book is pretty much my fourth job. Industry networking isn’t happening. I’m on my own, a little minnow in the Unsolicited Sea.

The idea of finding an agent always sets me back, I must admit. It seems just as hard to get an audience with an agent as with an editor. To me, it looks like an extra set of locked doors to break through. There’s other good stuff in Lyon’s book, but maybe this mindset isn’t the right match for me.

In Whalin’s book, a really strong case is made for finding an agent. I pout. But, at least he provides some direct resources for doing so, even if it is only a listing or association to scour for possibilities. Again, it’s like a double door—do I want to bother with a whole extra layer of researching agents and their clients so I can select which ones to query? No, but maybe I have to. I thought this process seemed more fun than all that.

Finally, I go back and find a better answer in Lyon’s book. She recommends trying to snag an agent only if your market is medium to large. Many non-fiction markets are small, and if your book is a specialty book best suited for a small publisher, an agent isn’t the way to go. This offers me clearer direction.

At the moment, I haven’t yet decided which of my two ideas for non-fiction books I’m talking about here. Both are a great start to being able to craft a solid proposal, but the Pilates instructors’ handbook is suited for a smaller specialty publisher while the self-help wellness guidebook would have more of a mass market appeal. I have to decide which one to work with.

Step 3: Decide on the approach.

For me, this means first picking the book idea I will work with, since I have more than one. They lend themselves to different approaches so I really can’t move forward until I commit to a path. Here’s what I’m choosing from:

  • A) The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method. Cuing is vital to the success and enjoyment of mind-body exercise and Pilates in particular, which features core principles of concentration, precision, flow, and more.
  • B) Project Pick One Thing: Rediscovering, Caring For and Honoring Every Bit of Your Beautiful Self is an engaging, accessible health-and-wellness guidebook in an easy-to-reference format that encourages positive lifestyle changes among busy adults interested in self-improvement. It is the first book to offer a customizable approach to taking care of various aspects of body, mind and life in an informal encyclopedic style that is informative but never dry; credible, but not clinical.

I have chosen, for my first attempt to take place this year, to go with A.

I’m just a little deflated by my choice because I’m pretty sure B is the real money-maker of the two, and I’m not going to get on Oprah with choice A. Plus, Project Pick One Thing is the most developed of my ideas, as I have been blogging in that very format for months now, and could clearly demonstrate its direction and my writing style with samples from my posts. However, my blog doesn’t have that many readers at this point, and while I love it and believe in it, I feel that it’s a harder sell.

Remember, I not only want to write a non-fiction book that sells; first, I have to sell the proposal. I have strong credentials and experience as a Pilates instructor and my cuing is bar none (if I do say so myself), which is why I came up with the book idea in the first place. Every other instructor or advanced student I meet confirms my gift in this area. It will be easy to define the size of my potential market and I can personally back up book promotion with published articles, my award-winning Pilates studio, and testimonials.

After perusing my guidebooks and considering the approaches they recommend, I’ve decided to go straight for smaller or specialty publishers. I’ll use Camenson’s and Lyon’s approach to query first, simultaneously (in small batches), and get requests for my proposal. I’ll use a sample query from Lyon’s book (Page 211, Sidebar 14-1) as my template. It works well with my topic, although it is aimed at getting agent representation, so I’ll need to change that aim to getting a request for proposal from an editor.

I want to find eight potential publishers to query, two or three at a time. I’ll query my leading contender within the first batch I send out, with the goal of landing it, or learning from the ‘no.’

The format I’ll use for my proposal will be the one from Whalin’s book (Page 154, Figure 1). Its marketing-esque slant, including the call for a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), which I have already started to do in my overviews of A and B above, feel like the right fit for me.

Step 4: Find Publishers, Query the Editors.

Check back in October for a progress update!

Final Poll Results

What Do We Look For
In Submissions? Q&A
with the Toasted Cheese Editors

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Q: Of the four genres that Toasted Cheese accepts (poetry, flash fiction, fiction, and creative nonfiction), which do you most look forward to reading? Is there a genre you dread (or skip)?

Ana George: I usually start with the less populated genres (flash, poetry, CNF), and try to read the longer fiction a few pieces at a time, so I’m not too overwhelmed, and not too likely to get the various stories confused with each other.

Stephanie Lenz (Baker): When we get a poem that’s exactly what I like, it’s my favorite find. For me, there’s no middle of the road with poetry submissions. I love it or I hate it on first read.

For first cut, I go through submissions very quickly. If I fall in love with something, which is rare, I give it a “yes” on first cut. Sometimes my mood can tip the scales; I try not to read if I’m giving almost all “yes” or “no” votes. I read everything that’s submitted (except for Three Cheers and Midsummer Tale entries). I save fiction for last because it takes longest to read and sometimes I don’t have the fortitude.

Lisa Olson (Boots): I look forward to reading the strange and unusual stories. It could be fantasy and science fiction or romance and horror. What appeals to me is something that isn’t ordinary, or that is ordinary but in an unusual way. My most favorite is any kind of genre fiction. Guess I like to be pigeonholed.

I don’t really ‘skip’ reading much, but I usually bow out of poetry. I’m not schooled in what’s good or bad when it comes to poetry. I’m most familiar with free-form and kind of think of all it as ‘free’. I do like it, but I’m not confident in my opinion so I usually opt out.

Theryn Fleming (Beaver): I can’t choose a favorite. I also find it hard to skip anything, which is why I volunteered to be one of the shortlist readers. Like Baker, I read all the regular submissions we receive. I generally read the poetry, flash, and cnf together, and then read the fiction separately. Because we get more submissions in this category than the others, more pieces fall into the “good” range than in the other genres (which tend be more polarized). So decisions are more difficult and take more time.

Q: What are you looking for in poetry? …flash? …fiction? …CNF? What do you not like to see?

AG: In poetry, I like a single unifying metaphor, something striking and original, or at least an original twist on something I’ve seen before. Flash needs to be very concise, but hint at a larger world; it needs echoes of a larger space than you actually see on the page.

For fiction, and perhaps for CNF, I don’t really have criteria. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said (of pornography), “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Thrill me.

SL: Poetry and prose need a good structure and strong, active word choice. I want a moment (or moments) with specificity, not broad brushstrokes. I don’t like moral judgments or preachy-religious overtones (although morality and religion are very welcome themes).

For poetry, I like free verse, concrete, grounded, and detailed as well as active. Think Mark Strand, Marge Piercy, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, etc.

Flash should be flash fiction, which has a certain style and feel. It’s not 500 words of fiction. Flash is tightly written with deliberate word choice and a density that short fiction doesn’t have (and shouldn’t have).

In fiction, characters should be flawed, interesting people who change over the course of the story. I’m easy to please in fiction. Write well and give me someone interesting to follow. Setting also holds weight with me. Show me a familiar place in a way I recognize or an unfamiliar place I can practically smell from what you present. I tend to like 20th century or contemporary stories set in the US but I’m not prejudiced against other settings.

For CNF I like a strong sense of place and I like a believable story but I don’t mind when a writer bends the truth to make the story compelling. For example, if you went to the market six times before the Interesting Event, I don’t mind if you let me assume it happened on your first visit.

LO: As I mentioned, I look for something new. I don’t like to see thirty stories on the same topic that all say the same thing. Take your story a little farther than where you thought it could go. You can always back up if you go too far, but see where ‘too far’ might be before you back off.

I find I favor character-driven stories rather than story-driven characters. If the ending doesn’t match the character or negates all the character’s work and strife, I usually don’t like the story. I follow characters that take stories into places I’ve never gone.

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman): I look forward to reading the fiction submissions the most. While I enjoy the other genres as well, I find the poetry and flash tend to feel less complete and more confusing than the fiction pieces. This, however, makes it all the more exciting when I find one of the shorter pieces that I really like. I like things that hang together as a coherent whole. Flash and poetry need to be connected to a larger whole, like glimpses through a window. I tend to struggle with ones that feel more like fragments of a broken window, or that are symbolic simply for the sake of being symbolic.

TF: With poetry, the most important thing for me initially is how it sounds; I’m not keen on prose masquerading as poetry. Sometimes you can win me over with one strong image or phrase. Similarly, I’m looking for flash that captures a moment or a scene that lingers and from which a story can be extrapolated. Think of something partway between poetry and prose.

For fiction, I value character and setting over plot. I love stories that can make me see/smell/taste/hear/touch places I’ve never been or that evoke familiar places in a way that makes me nod in recognition. That said, there has to be a reason for telling the story. I am most disappointed by stories that are otherwise well-written but that don’t seem to have a point.

Voice is especially important in creative nonfiction; it’s not what happened that matters so much as how you write about it. I’m looking for a nonfiction story, not an essay or a rant. Think fiction or flash, only with real people and real events.

Q: For fiction, what genres do you prefer? Are there any genres you aren’t interested in?

AG: I tend to be less interested in supernatural phenomena, though a good creepy ghost story will make my hair stand on end. Stories of things I’ve experienced, whether endless team meetings leading to something cool (or not quite…); or just dinner and a movie with some interesting twist… these things are interesting to me.

SL: I absolutely adore gothic, which in my opinion we don’t get nearly enough of for Dead of Winter. I’m pretty sure that gothic (horror with romance elements) would appeal to Erin as well as to me so that would be a big plus for future DOW entrants.

I also like literary (character-driven) fiction: the story could only happen to this character.

I’m not a big spec fic reader. I don’t seek it but if a well-written piece lands in my inbox, I’m happy to read it.

While TC doesn’t accept it, I’m a big fan of literary erotica. So don’t fear that your piece will be too sexually explicit for me (although TC might not be able to accept it). Just please don’t use euphemisms like “manhood” or “throbbing member.” TC has “members” and I believe that very few of them actually throb.

LO: There are no fiction genres I’m not interested in. I’ll read just about anything that doesn’t get out of the way. In movies, I don’t like horror but that’s not the case with fiction. If it’s a good story, I’ll read it.

AM: I like most genres. I tend to prefer SF/F and mystery for casual reading, which I why I like to judge our Spring Three Cheers mystery contest. But I enjoy the variety of submissions we get here at Toasted Cheese. It’s funny how some sort of theme tends to take over each reading period.

TF: While I’ll read anything, my preference is for literary or mainstream fiction. I also enjoy mysteries, and I’m open to experimental fiction. I’m not big on science fiction or fantasy, but I’m okay with some SF/F elements in story mostly grounded in the real world.

Q: Is there anything (e.g. topic, style, grammar peeve) that will earn a piece an automatic no from you?

AG: So-called ‘smart quotes’ look really dumb on the page if they’re resolved into question marks or some other glyph. Spelling errors: a few are forgivable, but wrong-word “but it passed my spell checker!” usages turn me right off.

SL: Flash submissions that are not flash style (these are usually excerpts or stories that happen to be under 500 words). Characters referred to by their first and last name followed by a police blotter description. All-caps. Multiple exclamation points. “Alright” “alot” and similar popularly-accepted words that grate on me, even in dialogue. Caricatures in lieu of characters. Telling instead of showing. A religious or moral message (i.e.: the “aren’t we all better people now?” ending). The “he doesn’t know he’s dead” twist. Gore for gore’s sake. Stilted dialogue. Poems that spell something down the first letters/words. Poems that make a shape just for the sake of making a shape. Rhyming poetry. Song lyrics the poet insists are also a poem. Contest entries that don’t follow the genre and/or theme.

LO: A lack of dialog will send the piece to the pile for me. I think any story is better and stronger when there are characters and action and dialog brings it forward better than long stretches of dissertation.

I also tend to avoid the without-purpose swearing. If swearing and cursing are not serving the character or the story, I’m out. Writers are all about words and choosing shock value over quality doesn’t work for me.

I suppose my biggest pet peeve is the non-ending ending. Not all stories need an end, but there should be a sense of closure. If a story just stops without resolving an issue or reaching a conclusion on some level I’m usually passing it by.

AM: It’s often not so much one specific thing than it is a combination of things. One thing, however, that makes me put down a piece really fast is eye fatigue. Long paragraphs of text make my eyes water, especially when I am reading on the screen. We get some paragraphs that would easily be two pages in a printed book. Often these are the opening paragraphs, too. While there are exceptions, people who use long paragraphs usually do it give us a very “tell-y” section of exposition, so that’s kind of a double strike. Show me, make me feel it, don’t tell me about it. Grab my attention in the first paragraph, and don’t let it go. If I read the first paragraph, then skip to the end to see “if things improve” before reading further, well, that’s not a good sign.

TF: First to go are pieces that are clearly inappropriate for TC: stories aimed at children, morality tales, men’s sexual fantasies. A multitude of grammar/spelling errors will also send work to my No folder. Everyone makes the occasional typo, but not bothering to proofread at all is sloppy and disrespectful. Next would be work submitted in the wrong genre: fiction submitted as nonfiction, prose submitted as poetry. Stories with scenarios that are overly familiar also go. I won’t generally reject just for bad formatting, but by now (2010) writers should have a grasp on how to copy & paste and format an email.

Q: Please share something from Toasted Cheese‘s archives that is a good illustration of what you like.

AG: I used my Editor’s Pick on Chris Yodice’s “One Last Storm” in part because of the wealth of small detail, which made the actual reading a pleasure, and the larger story: the ambiguity of intentions between the characters, amplified by adversity (in this case, the weather).

SL: For poetry, “Pause” and “4 Short Poems about Sex” (favorite published selection… so far) by C.L. Bledsoe, and for fiction, Kate Gibalerio’s “Malicious Acts.”

LO: Richard Wolkomir’s “Do Not Go Gentle.”

AM:Foolish Creatures” by Frank O’Connor is a good example of the sort of flash I like. There’s a whole story there, and and even larger one beyond what is there. The imagery works well, and the piece is grounded in details instead of generalities.

TF: Fatima M. Noronha’s “Abbey Road and Mister Maniappa” has a lot of things I’d like to see more of: a tangible setting that’s new to me, distinctive characters, and strong dialogue that drives the story forward.

Final Poll Results

Finding Your Fairy Godmother:
A Guide to Acquiring a Literary Agent

Absolute Blank

By Seanan McGuire

ELEVATOR PITCH: “Can you sell this in the time it takes to ride the elevator?”

It’s time to talk about something that’s near and dear to every writer’s heart. Something that many of us regard as falling somewhere between “fairy godmother” and “the monster in the closet.” Something that can legitimately make the difference between success and success that takes a whole lot longer to accomplish. No, I’m not talking about talent.

I’m talking about literary agents.

QUERY: “Dear Mr. Agent, I have written…”

As a writer, if you want to become a professional, it’s your job to write something that’s good enough to sell. Not “have an idea that’s good enough to sell.” Not “have enough talent to change the literary world forever.” The first thing you need to do is write something that’s good enough to be worth an agent’s time. How will you know when you’ve done that? Well, that’s very personal, but I recommend finding someone who’s equipped to give you an honest opinion—a creative writing professor, a writer’s group, or just a really blunt friend—and asking them.

For purposes of today’s discussion, we’re going to assume that you’ve got a finished, salable product. Awesome! At this point, the potential for a literary agent comes in. Now, a literary agent’s job is to take that something that you’ve written… and sell it. Sounds simple, right? It both is and isn’t. The literary agent will understand business protocols, the current state of the market, reasonable expectations, and what a good contract should include. A good literary agent protects the interests of his or her client, prepares them for the realities of the publishing world, and generally frees the writer’s time up for, I don’t know, writing.

I’ll be frank: many authors don’t have agents when they first start out. The agent-to-author ratio is scary, especially since you don’t need any training to stick “author” onto your name. Most agents are already representing several clients, and there’s no magic number for how many they can handle. I, for example, am relatively self-starting: point me at something, tell me it has a candy center, and I’ll see you next month. In contrast, Olga here needs daily contact or she starts freaking out, and when she’s freaking out, she’s not getting anything done. An agent who could handle four of me may be hard-pressed to handle me and Olga.

Look at it this way: being an agent is something like trying to plan a dinner party, only instead of dietary restrictions and seating plans, you have amount of hand-holding and sanity exams. I can’t tell you how to get invited to that party. You’re going to have to do that on your own. What I can do is tell you how to, hopefully, improve your chances of using the correct fork once you get there.

Also look: many authors who have written good, salable books manage to sell their first book, or even their first several, without the aid of an agent. It’s true that the number of major houses willing to consider unrepresented authors is down. It’s also true that the number of accessible small press houses willing to consider those same authors is up. It can be difficult to tell the genuine small houses from the predators, but if you want to be a professional author, you’re going to spend hours in the research trenches. Researching publishing houses is the least you’re going to be expected to do.

OUTLINE: “Make sure you cover the major points quickly and cleanly.”

I want to be clear: I am not the girl to ask if you want to know how to write the perfect cover letter, the perfect agency query, or the perfect book pitch. The idea of writing a synopsis makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I regularly beg my Siamese to write my book pitches for me (she always refuses). Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you with that. I recommend starting with the annual Guide to Literary Agents. There’s a new one every year, and it’s always packed with reference material, advice from real literary agents, samples of good queries, and more. So yes, you need to do your homework.

The homework doesn’t stop with learning the basics. You can’t query every literary agent in the world at once—in fact, that would be a really bad idea, since every agent has his or her own areas of specialization. If you query an agent who only does science fiction with your non-fiction book about the history of pandemic flu, you’re not going to make a very good impression.

First steps:

  1. Figure out what genre or genres your work fits in. All work fits somewhere, even if that somewhere is a blend of more standard genres. Your zombie western is “horror” and “western.” If you can, find an agent who does both. If you can’t, pick which genre represents your baby better, and try agents from that side of the dividing line.
  2. Make a list of agents who sound like they could be a good fit for you and your work. You can do this by going through the Guide to Literary Agents, by researching which agents represented books in your genre, and by looking for agent web sites. (A small bit of etiquette advice: if you have friends who are published authors, feel free to ask them “who represents you?,” but don’t follow that up with “will you introduce me?” This puts them in a very bad position. If they think you’d be a good fit for their agent, they’ll offer that introduction on their own.)
  3. Now that you have a short list of possible agents, it’s time to read any and all agency documentation you can find. If the agent has a web site, read the web site. If the agent has a Twitter feed, read the Twitter feed. If the agent has a blog, read the blog. Many agents have embraced the Internet age, and will make their desires in clients (and their client dos and don’ts) very clear.

Now that you’ve taken your first steps—you’ve found the agent or agents you want to query, and you’ve read enough to start to feel vaguely like a stalker—it’s time to prepare your pitch. Which brings us to our next major point. Major enough that it needs to be presented all in capital letters:

READ THE AGENCY SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.

I mean it. I really, really, really mean it. Agents are people who read and sell books for a living, and that means that reading comprehension really, really matters. Agency guidelines are sort of like airport security: if you set off the metal detector after you’ve been told to empty your pockets eight times, you may miss your flight. If you ignore submission guidelines, you may find yourself in the same situation. Metaphorically speaking.

SYNOPSIS: “Twitter and Facebook are the face of the enemy.”

So you’ve found an agent who’s potentially right for you. You’ve managed to compose a letter that doesn’t make you want to put your own eyes out with a pencil, and a synopsis/outline that doesn’t make your book read like a non-pharmaceutical sleep aid. You’ve opened the lines of communication. You’re done, right?

Wrong.

You know how job interview advice has started to include “be careful what you post on the Internet, because your potential boss can see it?” Well, this also applies with literary agents. They expect us to be a little bit insane—we’re writers, after all—so you probably don’t need to worry about those pictures of you in full costume at last year’s San Diego Comic Convention. They even understand that many up-and-coming writers will have Secret HistoriesTM in the fanfic mines. That’s all good. So what do you need to avoid?

You need to avoid running straight to your Facebook and posting “OMG I GOT AN AGENT!” when they haven’t actually signed you. You need to avoid running straight to your blog and posting “Jane Doe of Doe-Ray-Mi Agency is SUCH A BITCH she didn’t LOVE MY BOOK.” You absolutely need to avoid Twittering during telephone conversations with potential agents (not kidding here).

As I noted before, many literary agents have learned to take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer, and that includes checking on potential clients to see whether they can be professional. Seeing nasty slams at agents who didn’t sign you, or comments about ongoing negotiations, just make you look like you’re not ready to take the business of writing seriously. That’s not something that all agents are going to want to be associated with.

CONCLUSION: “Thank you for taking the time to consider…”

Literary agents are good. They make your job, as a writer, infinitely easier. They are not, however, door prizes handed out for reaching a certain level of skill. If you’re good, and you’re willing to work to find the agent that’s right for you, I have faith that you’ll be able to take that step. Do your homework, do your research, and bring something awesome to the table.

Believe me, the work is worth it.

Final Poll Results

Twitter, Tweet, Twits:
How the Hottest Social Media Platform Helps Writers

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

By now, if you haven’t at least heard of Twitter, you should probably just get back to dusting your cave paintings and chasing away those pesky pterodactyls.

What you may not know, however, is exactly what Twitter is and how it can help you as a writer. And no matter what the media says about Internet geeks discussing what they had for breakfast or how annoyed they are at their boss, Twitter can help you. As with everything on the Internet, it’s simply a matter of filtering out the useless information to get to the good stuff.

What the Heck is a Twitter?

Twitter is a microblogging platform. Twitterers—also known as tweeple, tweeps, or twits, the latter of which we’ll use for this article’s purposes—post messages up to 140 characters in length.

Twitter homepage

What you’ll see when you go to http://www.twitter.com.

These messages, or tweets, appear on a twit’s page and are seen by their followers. Followers are people who choose to add you to their list of people whose tweets they watch.

If a twit doesn’t have followers, they’re essentially talking to themselves. And while much of the Internet can consist of people talking to themselves, Twitter is a waste without followers. And if you’re not following anyone, you won’t receive an ounce of information. Once you’ve begun following people, your Twitter “feed”—what you see when you first log in—will show the most recent tweets posted by your friends.

kristophrenia's Twitter page

My Twitter page. At the top is the text entry box, where I answer the question,”What are you doing?” Below that are the most recent tweets from people I follow. In the right sidebar are my statistics: number of people I follow, number who follow me, and how many tweets I’ve made. Below that are links to my replies, direct messages sent to me, and any tweets I’ve favorited.

Feeling silly yet? Well, yes, it does sound silly. What’s not silly, though, is how much it can help you weed through the overwhelming mass of resources on the web.

If you’re not yet convinced, I’ll offer an example from my own experience. A few months ago, I woke up one day, made my usual oversized pot of coffee, and began my morning Internet surfing. Checked my sixteen email accounts, my Facebook, my RSS feeds. And then I hopped onto Twitter. One of the writers I follow had just posted a link to the blog of literary agent Caren Johnson, of Caren Johnson Literary Agency; Ms. Johnson was offering writers the chance to post a short pitch for their novel in the comments of her blog. For each pitch, Ms. Johnson either requested a partial from the writer or offered her reasons for passing.

If you’ve done the query route, you know how very rare this is.

The catch: writers had 24 hours from the initial blog post to enter their pitch. I discovered the opportunity a scant two hours before the deadline. I hurried to tweak my pitch to her requirements, watching the seconds slip away as I did. Then I took a shower, as I knew that otherwise I’d spend the next twenty minutes hitting the refresh button. By the time I was dressed and blow-dried, Ms. Johnson had requested a partial from me. While she eventually rejected my novel, she offered her reasons—something that was a huge help in fixing a flaw in my voice.

If it weren’t for Twitter, I’d never have seen the post, or at least not in time to take advantage of it. Now that’s a resource.

No more rummaging through page after page of blogs by agents, editors, and fellow writers. No more searching through the many online publications that follow the publishing industry’s movements. No more wondering what articles and announcements you’re missing. Once you’ve found and followed a good selection of writers, agents, and editors, you can go to your Twitter page and find out all the latest.

Twitter vs. Facebook, MySpace, and Blogs: The Big Difference

So you have accounts with Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, a few dozen other social networking accounts, and a blog, all of which you use with varying frequencies. Why add one more to the pile?

Facebook and all its buddies help you connect with the people you know. Twitter, on the other hand, is the perfect place to connect with people you don’t know, but want or need to agents, editors, and other writers. Follow them, and they might follow you back. Even if they don’t, you’ll have immediate access to what they have to say.

The sparse amount of information required for an account—name and email address—adds to the privacy level. Controlling the information you release on Twitter involves nothing more complex than evaluating your own words. Rather than worrying what old, embarrassing, and perhaps incriminating picture a friend might post and tag with your name—one of the scariest parts of Facebook now that everyone’s boss, mother, and grandma has an account—you just have to watch what you say. That’s all Twitter is: words and links.

The Basics

Once you’ve created an account, you can begin following people. To make it easy for you, click here and log in, if you aren’t already. Then simply click the Follow button under my picture (yes, that’s me). Congratulations! You just followed your first twit.[1]

There are a few ways to find more people worth following.

Every twitter user’s page shows their friends in the right sidebar.

kristophrenia's Twitter friends

A selection of people I follow.

Click the View All link under the block of pictures, hover your mouse over each twit’s username, and see if their personal description catches your interest. If it does, just click the Follow button under their username. Or go straight to their Twitter feed by clicking on their picture. See some interesting tweets there? Click the Follow button under their picture.
kristophrenia's Twitter profile

Following a user is as easy as clicking a button.

Another useful method is through @replies. When you want to reply directly to someone’s tweet, simply place the @ sign and the person’s username before your tweet.

A real life example:

20orsomething: I love books and I love publishing, and Twitter is a fantastic resource for both. Reveling in words and soaking up the knowledge…

kristophrenia: @20orsomething I know! I’m continually amazed by how useful this is, once you’re following the right people.

If someone following me were curious to know more about Susan Pogorzelski, a.k.a 20orsomething, they can simply click the link to her profile in my reply. I’ve followed many people after seeing the interesting conversations they had with my friends; conversely, I’ve gained several followers after they saw my own conversations with their friends. You can keep up with @replies directed at you by clicking the @username link on your homepage, or by using the many applications designed to bring your Twitter feed to your desktop or your iPhone.

Once you’ve built a decent base of friends, you can start using the information they post—and disseminating information you find by tweeting links to interesting articles and blog posts. Twitter automatically shortens any URL under 30 characters; other ways to convert links include TinyURL, bit.ly, and Snipr. Copy and paste the URL you want to shorten into any of these websites, then copy and paste the resulting shorter URL into your update box. For example, the URL for http://www.toasted-cheese.com/ becomes http://bit.ly/p3fn. Posting URLs is a great way to connect others to interesting articles, making you an important resource in their world; it can also be wonderful self-promotion. The number of unique visitors who came to my blog last month was twice the number that found me the month I joined Twitter.

Did someone post an update that you find interesting, something that you want to share with your friends? Give credit by placing the letters RT (which stands for “re-tweet”) at the beginning of your update, followed by an @reply for the original twit, then paste their update. Just a few days ago, my friend strugglngwriter posted a comic cracked me up. I showed it to my followers and gave him credit by tweeting:

RT @strugglngwriter As a writer, this comic from Wondermark made me laugh: http://wondermark.com/519/.

Certain subjects tend to blow up quickly on Twitter as everyone tweets on a trending topic; Twitter keeps these organized using hashtags (#topic). A great example is “Follow Friday”. Every Friday, many twits post an update listing their favorite, funniest, or most useful friends using the @reply feature. With the addition of the tag #followfriday to the update, users can easily search for Follow Friday posts without having to weed through every update that includes the word “follow” or “Friday”.

How to Maximize Your Time

If you intend to use Twitter as a professional resource, it’s important to streamline your list of followers. This greatly reduces the amount of useless or inane information that will appear in your feed, and we all know there’s a massive amount of inanity out there. Feel free to follow your friends, but don’t feel obligated to follow every “social media expert” that follows you.

But how can you find all the people you should follow? One great resource, aside from the methods mentioned above, is WeFollow. Here, users can add themselves to a database with up to three descriptive tags; for example, I chose #fantasy, #youngadult, and #writer. Add yourself to the database, then skim through the listings for writers, agents, editors, and the genres in which you write.

The first site that helped me find compatible twits to follow was Mr. Tweet. Simply follow Mr. Tweet on Twitter, and he’ll Direct Message (DM) you back. Once he’s analyzed your followers, he’ll DM you a link to a personalized site, where you can find a list of recommended twits based on who you already follow. Mr. Tweet updates bi-weekly, so you can find more great people to follow every other week. The more writers and publishing people you follow, the more information you have access to.

To get you started, here’s a list of agents and editors who tweet:

With the increasingly fast pace of news on the Internet, our ever-decreasing attention spans, and the rising ubiquity of the agent or editor blog, something like Twitter is desperately needed if you want to keep up. So come on out of the cave, dodge that pterodactyl, and follow me.

I promise I’ll follow you back.

Tips

  • Make sure you have the option “E-mail when someone starts following me” turned on (Settings ? Notices). This ensures that, when someone follows you, you can follow them back if you wish.
  • Like so many other useful tools, Twitter can be addictive and distracting if you allow it to be. To avoid getting irrevocably sucked into the information black hole, give yourself time limits. Use Twitter as a reward for writing. And by all mean, keep that browser closed while you’re writing.
  • Be a part of the conversation. Don’t be afraid to reply to tweets you find appealing or funny. Just make sure that what you have to say is interesting, informative, or at least entertaining. As with everything on the Internet, think before you tweet.

Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

[1] I’ll freely admit I’m not the most useful twit; I aim more to entertain myself and my followers, and I enjoy having moderately wacky conversations. I’ve met a lot of hilarious, interesting twits that way. But I also post interesting links to industry articles, and I follow every agent, editor, and writer I can find.

Final Poll Results

What Brand of Writer Are You?
Part II: Building a Strong, Successful Brand

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Part One of this article (August 2008) introduced the concept of branding yourself and your writing. The benefits of building a brand from your writing were discussed in the same terms as consumer brand marketing. We defined a brand as occupying a position representing the solid aspects of the relationship it offers to prospects (potential readers and editors) by demonstrating consistent characteristics, and standing for something of value to its users (readers and publishers).

Whether it’s business marketing or creative writing terms, a brand is both a strategy and a result. It includes the attributes its creator has decided to promote and the benefits of capitalizing on them. From the customer perspective, a brand stands for something, so it is selected with a certain favorable bias.

In the August installment, writers were asked to inventory their writing brand and arrive at a clear statement of their brand essence to develop a general platform. This platform is used to both guide and measure the work of a writer who is interested in owning a propriety brand for their work. Here in Part II, we are going to use two sample brand platforms to explain how writers can build and strengthen their writing brands over time.

In other words, let’s learn how we can make the branding idea work for you.

Expand on Your Essence

Sure, branding sounds like all boring business, but there is also some fun to be had along the way if you are a creative person looking to grow your potential with writing. Looking at two sample writing brand platforms from Part I, we can use them to demonstrate how the basics of brand-building apply to writing for pleasure and profit:

Gabby: I craft travel stories that always end with a connection to the universal qualities of the human condition. My audience enjoys up close and personal tales of little known and exotic places, and the everyday stories of the people who inhabit them.

Luke: Sickeningly realistic slasher novels with a hard drinkin’, no holds barred, in your face attitude. Favorite short stories for reading while waiting for new dagger tattoo.

The first brand building tactic you should use is surveillance. It’s important for you to know what’s out there in all the places you’d like to be a force. You should regularly survey the markets and the competition for your writing.

In Gabby’s case, she should keep an eye on travel magazines worldwide, including in-flight and cruise cabin publications. Direct source publications such as city cultural organizations or chambers of commerce shouldn’t be overlooked. Who is writing all the articles on small towns in the US costal states these days? Is photography a key element?

For Luke, it’s important that he look for new openings in his already well-defined market. If he has direct access to readers with similar interests, he can take advantage of that and survey them directly. What are they reading? Can he lurk on their favorite online forums?

The second tactic falls in line right after the first. Writers should take stock of their ammunition. Repair it, polish it, load it and distribute it accordingly. If you have come this far and actually have a notion of the type of brand you’re pushing, then surely you have some writing and knowledge to collect and use, right? Put it in play!

Luke may have three notebooks filled with scary, gory stories, just like the ones he likes to read. Now is the time for him to type them up, get some feedback and hit those target markets which he identified during surveillance. If he’s farther along than that, say, with a pile of rejection slips, it’s time for him to retool and rearm. How can he hone his work according to his aspirations for his brand, as well as his competition?

Gabby may have sold several stories over the last few years, but feel her pay scale is lacking as well as her prestige. Perfect opportunity for a branding approach! How can she inflate her perceived value? Is it the locations she is writing about, or the interests of the readers she is targeting? Fine dining and elite travel markets can be cracked, but perhaps not by a simple story following an island coconut. Unless the coconut was enjoyed by a popular celebrity chef, or compared to a coconut costing five times as much on another island more favored by rich tourists. In the world of brands, perception is everything.

More experienced writers will also want to consider if it’s time to expand their brands.

Sometimes print markets dry up, but in today’s webscape, there are always new doors opening as well. Many of them rely on the niche. Gabby can create an all-coconut blog or pitch a book of her reviews and photos of famous sunsets around the world. Luke can self-publish and invest in enough copies for every tattoo parlor in a 100-mile radius, for starters. (And, he might even be able to write off his expenses for that distribution road trip!) Niches work vertically. But writers can also expand horizontally.

For instance, topical trends pop up all the time. Writers can grow their brands in new directions by maintaining a simple awareness to widening interests in their general field of specialty.

When Bridges of Madison County became a novel, and then later film, phenomenon (I’m not commenting on quality here, just popularity) a few smart writers expanded their brands horizontally to ride on the county’s and bridges’ new fame. Non-fiction books featuring covered bridges popped up on bookstands and so did stories resembling the tale’s aloof roving photographer and the immigrant country housewife. Gabby might have run into a similar tale or two during her travels, and if she were trying to expand her brand, might have sold them under the umbrella of her travel expertise as well as her platform’s promise to speak of the human condition in little known places.

Another horizontal expansion for a growing writer’s brand can be found in audience. Look at the warm circle of people around Luke’s original audience. A little bit of research might prove that there’s a similar mindset ready to read angry tales of horror and mayhem among users of other kinds of brands. What about motorcycle riders, cigarette smokers, extreme sports enthusiasts or heavy metal musicians? If Luke tries to market his work horizontally, he might find an incredibly receptive audience in other arenas, or better still, a publisher from another genre who wants to expand into fiction like Luke’s.

Keep Your Promises

All things considered, the most important thing any brand of writer can do is keep their promises. An audience or market is like your faithful guard dog at home. When you arrive, you want it to recognize that hand on the doorknob as yours. The best writing will begin with what is in your heart, include real understanding of the topic or characters by the author, and end with something unique and enjoyed by its audience. A brand of writing will help guide you along your path toward achieving all that and more.

I once went to a very looong seminar on branding. I expected to be bored out of my mind but was instead impressed and moved by the possibilities of this mindset and approach. I remember one theory above all that stuck with me regarding our brands, what good they do, and how we relate them:

The quality of your life depends on the quality of your relationships.

The quality of your relationships depends on the quality of your communication.

The quality of your communication (noun) depends on the quality of your communication (verb).

To communicate with truth, style, understanding and conviction is the key to… everything.

In short, writing and trying to sell what you’ve written is just like developing a product and trying to sell that product. Your approach should be to say what you mean, mean what you say, and do what you said you were going to do.

It’s really quite simple… but it’s definitely not easy. Still, it’s worth it! The most successful writers in the world (and not all names you recognize, either) have arrived at their success by defining and maximizing the essence and attributes of their brands. Not always deliberately, but you can have that extra advantage now that you know what brand of writer you are.

Final Poll Results

What Brand of Writer Are You?
Part I: Branding Yourself
(It might hurt a little, but it’s for your own good.)

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

McDonald’s®, Pepsi®, Marlboro®, Lexus®, Nike®, Oprah, Britney Spears, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. All of these are brand names. Strong brand names, in fact. However, a marketing specialist will be quick to point out that a brand is much more than just a name. After years as a business branding strategist, I can convey all I know about being a giant in one’s field with this simple concept: a strong brand is a promise kept. As a writer, I can go one better: a successful writer is a strong brand.

Yes, Mark Twain is a brand, and you can be one, too. Knowing what promises you’re making, to whom, and keeping them, is the way to define and build your own writing success. With a bit of introspection, honesty and accountability, writers can benefit from the same strategies used to build leading brands in the marketplace. Twain might have done it by chance; you can start branding yourself right now. Let’s start with the basics:

What is a brand?

A brand occupies a position in the mind. Ideally, the brand owns a singular space that serves as “mental shorthand” for a much larger set of attributes and associations within a broader class or category.

Far more than its name, logo, or product features, a brand represents all aspects of the relationship it offers to prospects. A strong brand offers a strong relationship by keeping its promises and consistently demonstrating its character.

In sum, a brand stands for something; and a great brand stands for something great, making it uniquely valued within its users’ experiences over time.

Test out any of the brand names in the first paragraph against the definition above. Americans, at least, will have an equally clear, automatic impression of Marlboro, as they will of Oprah. The Marlboro man represents ruggedness. Oprah is the supreme example of offering a strong relationship to her prospects and consistently demonstrating her brand character.

But what about Britney? Well, cringe as we might, brands stand for something, which makes Britney is a very strong brand, but not necessarily a positive one. Brands both profit and suffer from the consequences of the image they build in people’s minds. Still—Britney sells tabloids like no other, and many a rich paparazzi has her image to thank. Her brand is money in the bank.

Now try comparing your writing, and yourself as a writer, against the same brand criteria. Wouldn’t it be incredible to own a singular space in your market? Sure, that’s a dream, but all dream brands have to start somewhere. For writers Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, the starting point was literally a collaborative fantasy that has branched off to become an extended brand family. They originally wrote “Dragonlance” together, a series of dragon books. Since then, they’ve succeeded as individual writers, and have also been brought back together on a number of products, including role-playing games. If you say these names to a fantasy fan, they know dragons are afoot.

Weis and Hickman are well branded. They provide a great example of how a path to success can arise from positive associations with specific product features. They enjoy an instant bias in their market, and show us the tangible value of a strong brand attribute. They have a platform for their work that began with a creation that was true to their identities. Now, all their prospects know what to expect from them. They’ve offered a relationship with readers, and delivered on their promises. All this keeps their names at the head of their pack, and their image sterling with their fans. So, now we see how your brand as a writer is far more than your name or your features. It is your ability to deliver on the promise of a rewarding relationship with readers… and editors! In this way, it is the future of your writing career. Better still, when you arrive at and stick to a well-defined brand, you’ll have more focus and a clear, enjoyable path for your projects and submissions.

Defining Your Brand

Brand Identity: Branding yourself begins with identifying yourself. Kind of like cattle. Who are you and where does your writing belong? Take inventory. “Know thyself” remains among the greatest advice of all time, so apropos for writers building brands.

What drives your identity as a writer? Some of parts of your identity are internally driven, meaning they come from you. They are either facts about you and your writing, or claims and representations that you make. Nike used the slogan “Just Do It” to provide an instant message about its brand of athletic shoes. Lexus is an expensive luxury car. If you’re Pepsi, you are a sweet brown cola. You are also an affordable beverage found worldwide, associated with youth and pop culture.

What about you? Perhaps you have a very clear defining genre for your work, like Shakespearian sonnets or lesbian pirate erotica, and thus genre is an important identity driver. You might eschew punctuation, or have a famous parent, or write in a style reminiscent of Poe. In all cases, you can only build a successful brand if you know the components you’re working with

Your actual human identity begins the process of defining all the elements of your writing brand. This includes any number of facts about you. If you’re Mark Twain, the Mississippi River matters to your identity. Living in a slave state as a young man matters. Your birth name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, matters to the point that you choose a pen name. Oprah, being black, being a female from the south, being from a poor family, being a spiritual person: it all matters. These traits didn’t have to be focal points of identity, but for a unique brand to build on a reliable promise, this type of authenticity is a good thing.

Then there’s Tom Wolfe. One stroll down the “Alphabetical by Author W” shelf shows how he CAPITALIZES on his NAME as a part of his brand identity relationship with prospective readers. We know who we’re reading when we read one of his books. Just like you know you’re eating in a McDonald’s when you’re under those golden arches.

Maybe your name on a manuscript is not going to pull in as much attention as Tom Wolfe’s does, at least not yet. But one day it could be just as recognizable, if that is what you aspire to. Your intentions for your brand, though, can only take you so far. Your identity might be a thing of beauty, but rest is in the eye of the marketplace beholder.

Brand Image: The fuel of your brand strategy will be leveraging what it is about you as a writer that makes you, you, and makes your writing stand apart from anyone else’s. In the end, perception is everything. What already exists in the mind of your readers is key.

The other half of what drives your writing identity is externally driven, meaning they are factors which exist outside of you. Your image actually resides with others who encounter you and your work. You contribute to your image via the messages you send about your self and your work, so it is crucial that you define your identity and send messages according to the image you want to create. Impressions received from an unsolicited query, and the editor’s feelings about unauthorized biographies, would both be a part of a biography writer’s image. Thus, they would also be part of that writer’s brand.

How you think about what you have to offer can be vastly different from what is received by others. This is why the submissions/rejections process can be so valuable to an aspiring writer. It serves as research on your image. Writers’ groups, online critiquing communities, writing classes and even informal family reads are also windows to your image. Any effort at branding yourself must include feedback, and you’ll do well to take notes on reoccurring criticisms, compliments and questions as part of your market and audience research. Is your writing brand what you think it is? Are you the writer you are intending to be? Only others can answer these image questions. The answers, good and bad, can all be used to your benefit.

For example, some creative writers complicate their identity (what they control) at the expense of their own image (what others experience). Perhaps they try to create an air of mystery or veiled meanings in an effort to keep their audience guessing, and presumably intrigued. But seasoned veterans know it’s hard enough just to get your work read, without adding any unnecessary questions or confusion to the mix.

You might think you are different and that’s a good thing, but not always so if you’re making the reader work hard to “get” your messages. When that happens, your image isn’t at all what you set out to convey with your identity. Furthermore, having a writing brand actually is about being able to be pinned down, in a way. From the marketability perspective, recognizable and understood are not dirty words. There should be an element of predictability in a brand. That’s why people return to it again and again. However, it needs to be predictably good. Stay away from predictable plots, dialogue and imagery!

To help you get started on branding yourself now, take this brief inventory of your own brand identity, then work on creating a concise brand statement you can tape to your computer screen and use to guide all your work.

Your Writing Brand: Take Inventory

  • The physical facts about you (i.e. gender, location, age, background)
  • The technical facts about your writing (genre, specialties, style)
  • The look and sound of your writing
  • The intended audience for your work
  • The type of people who favor your work
  • The markets for your work
  • The benefits for those who read your work
  • The formula or approaches you use for your writing
  • What/who your brand of writing reminds people of
  • In what environments or under what circumstances your readers would be found
  • The competition for your writing in your markets
  • The comparisons to your writing in your markets
  • The challenges and predicted future of your markets
  • What your brand stands for in your opinion

Your Writing Brand: Core Identity Statement

  • What is at the hub, or is the essential, unchanging part of your writing brand identity, around which all other components rotate?

Your brand essence, or core identity, doesn’t need to be fancy. You don’t need a political platform to refer to as you write; rather, you need an easy to use navigation system. Your writing brand can be as simple as the following examples:

I craft travel stories that always end with a connection to the universal qualities of the human condition. My audience enjoys up close and personal tales of little known and exotic places, and the every day stories of the people who inhabit them.

Sensitive, psychologically driven literary fiction featuring prominent female characters and their children, submitted in grammatically and cosmetically perfect form to editors at small local presses.

Sickeningly realistic slasher novels with a hard drinkin’, no holds barred, in your face attitude. Favorite short stories for reading while waiting for new dagger tattoo.

I only write rhyming, long form poetry. I do not strive for anything other than an honorable approach to the traditional poem.

Next month, we’ll address the more specific tactics for building your brand image in Part II of this article.

Final Poll Results

Your First Writers Conference:
A Guided Tour

Absolute Blank

By Kristin Baxter

I didn’t get to go to my first writers conference.

In late 2006, I joined Pennwriters, Inc., a Pennsylvania writers group. My reasons for joining were threefold: I wanted to go to their conference, which in most cases is cheaper as a member; I wanted a critique partner who wrote in my genre; and I wanted to network.

I got the critique partner. I’m still working on the networking—breaking into established groups always makes me shy. And the conference? Well, I even submitted the first ten pages of my two young adult novels to the group’s annual writing contest, the results of which are announced at the conference. I was that dead-set on going. As I told my husband, I didn’t hope to actually win (a blatant lie); I wanted the judges’ critiques that came after the contest.

Life doesn’t always agree with our plans, though. In May 2007, when they announced the contest winners at the conference’s Saturday luncheon, I was in my car on I-495, probably having a panic attack as I dealt with D.C.-area traffic for the first time. Somewhere between entering the contest and the actual conference, my husband and I agreed to a temporary move to Virginia for his job. Our moving weekend just happened to coincide with the conference.

I’ll admit I thought of the contest once or twice, on the drive down, but once we got to Virginia everything was so chaotic that I didn’t think of it again until Wednesday. Since we were still without Internet access, I called my mom and helped her access my email. I paced our still furniture-less apartment as she scanned the messages, looking for the right one. You probably didn’t win, I told myself. Don’t expect to win.

“Oh, my God,” Mom said from five hundred miles away. I heard the excitement in her voice, but I couldn’t have guessed what came next. My breath caught in my throat as she read the winners’ list. “‘Novel Beginnings’ Contest: First place, The Malloy Legacy, Kristin Baxter. Third place, Battle of the Hexes, Kristin Baxter.”

It was the first time I ever won anything. And, technically, the second. In retrospect, not attending the conference was probably a boon, since my jumping-screaming-crying reaction may not have made the most professional impression on my peers. It made a lasting impression on the cat, though.

That particular bittersweet experience inspired a singular goal in my mind: I would go to the 2008 conference, and I would take advantage of every second.

So, in May 2008, I drove to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to attend what should’ve been my second writers conference but was really my first. Throughout that weekend, my heart rose in my throat and plummeted to my stomach, I got several serious cases of jelly knees, and I was exhausted to my very marrow and yet utterly unable to sleep.

This is the mark of a good conference.

I listened raptly to a keynote speech by Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite writers. I nearly had a heart attack when an editor from Avon read the first two pages of my novel to an editor from Berkley and another from Tor, as well as a room full of writers, and then all three editors critiqued it. I pitched my novel to an editor from HarperCollins and received a request for the full manuscript.

I came away from the weekend inspired and invigorated, and ready for another year of lonely work. I also arrived home brimming with advice for first-timers.

There are several features to consider when choosing a writers conference. Conferences can be prohibitively expensive once you add everything up. This may be the only time this year, or for several years, that you get to gather with other writers of all genres and areas, at all levels of experience, and learn about the one thing that brings you together. You want the event to be worth every last penny.

Here’s how to figure out which conference is right for you, which features are important and which aren’t, and how to take advantage of every second.

Costs

A full conference can cost anywhere from $200 to $1000, and that’s just the base cost. Once you add hotel rates, food, drinks, transportation costs, and extras such as keynote dinners and parties, you’ve shelled out enough for a nice vacation. And if you’re just starting out in this business, you probably aren’t making nearly enough money to nullify the hole this trip will put in your bank account—if you’re making any money from your writing at all.

If you’re not sure whether a conference is right for you, or if you can only invest a limited amount of time and money, some conferences allow a single-day attendance option. If the conference is located within a few hours’ drive, you not only decrease the total cost of the conference, you also eliminate the need for an expensive hotel stay.

A full writers conference, though, is like an investment. You must be confident that you’ll get a return on it, whether it be financial in the long run, or mental and emotional in the short. So the most important consideration is whether it’s worth your money.

Here’s a basic list of what to look for:

  • Location: Is the conference close enough that you won’t go broke paying for gas or plane fares? Does a friend or family member live nearby, providing free accommodations?
  • Classes and seminars: Does the class list pique your interest? Does it strike a good balance, with offerings for both beginners and more advanced writers?
  • Editors and agents in attendance: Will editors from well-known publishing houses or magazines be there? Will agents who represent authors you read and admire be making the trip?
  • Critiques: Does the conference offer in-person critiques of attendees’ work, whether by fellow writers or by publishing professionals?
  • Pitch sessions: Will you have the opportunity to pitch your work to an established editor or agent?
  • Keynote Speaker/Guest of Honor: Is it someone you admire? Someone you’ve been dying to meet?

Classes and Seminars: Striking a Balance

Writers are like snowflakes—no two are exactly alike. Some of them are seasoned pros, and some of them make clichéd comparisons to snowflakes.

In all seriousness, every writer is at a different level of experience and skill, and if they’re steadily working, their level of experience is in constant flux. No conference can possibly cater to every writer in attendance. And even when a conference and the classes attended are chosen with utmost care, every class a writer attends isn’t going to enlighten and inspire. Think of the class offerings, then, in terms of which level of writer they’ll attract. Do most of the classes focus on the basics like manuscript format, or are they geared more toward multi-published authors who need to brush up on copyright law?

Find a conference that offers a balanced selection of both. This both increases your chances of learning as much as possible, and almost guarantees a diverse attendance of writers. I firmly believe that we can learn something from every writer, from the starry-eyed neophyte to the wizened professional, if we keep an open mind.

Do yourself a favor and attend at least one class that seems beyond your current reach. Do yourself a second favor: buy a fellow attendee a drink in the bar. Be brave, and you’ll learn more than you thought possible.

Editors and Agents: New York Comes to Podunk

Most writers, contrary to popular belief, do not live in New York and hobnob with the literary elite every day. We live in the suburbs, in the country, and in the woods, and we spend our evenings at the computer or the kitchen table. For many of us, this is our one chance to connect and network with the people who decide what’s on the bookshelves each season.

To make the trip worth your while, do your research. Go beyond the conference’s guest bios and look up the agents and editors slated to attend on sites like AgentQuery and Preditors and Editors. Are they currently active in publishing? Do they have a solid history of sales or acquisitions? Most importantly, ensure that at least one editor and one agent will be attending that represents or acquires in your genre. A good conference will have a wide variety of publishing professionals with diverse areas of interest. This is especially imperative if you write in multiple genres—or if you haven’t quite settled in a genre yet.

Pitches and Critiques: Get Gutsy

While you could easily pitch your work from home with a well-polished query letter, this may be your only chance to meet one-on-one with a publishing professional. Some might scoff at pitch sessions as a worthless hook used to lure writers in, but they can be more than just an in-person query. Pitch sessions can last anywhere from two to fifteen minutes, and that face time can be valuable if used correctly.

Frequently, when registering for a conference, you can indicate your first and second choices for pitch appointments. I chose to spread mine out—I picked a children’s book editor as well as a fantasy editor, since my novels fall under both headings. Do your research, though; you’ll be wasting your time and the agent’s or editor’s if you pitch something they don’t represent or buy.

Once you’re at the conference, as terrified thoughts of your upcoming pitch dance through your head, try to attend a class led by the agent or editor you’ll be pitching to prior to your appointment. They’ll most likely be discussing your genre of choice, anyway, but this will also give you the opportunity to gauge their personality. Are they personable and lively, or subdued and curt? These cues can help you tailor your pitch to the individual who will be hearing it.

Most advice columns regarding pitch sessions tell readers not to be nervous. This is the most pointless advice I’ve ever heard. You’re risking face-to-face rejection—of course you’re going to be nervous. Better advice would be: Be yourself. Remember the passion that drove you to complete your project (don’t waste their time by pitching an unfinished book), and let that passion shine through. Once your pitch is completed, if you have time remaining, ask the agent or editor questions about their work, how they ended up doing it, and what they like best about it. Ask them about their most recent favorite book. Be friendly and open, but be professional. They’ll remember you for it.

On that note, a word of advice you’ll find everywhere else, but that too few writers heed: Don’t pitch your book to an agent or editor while they’re leading a class or seminar. There’s a fine line between bravery and rudeness, and this crosses right over it. Remember that everyone else in the class has paid to be there, just as you did. Classes are for learning; pitch sessions are for pitching.

Many conferences also offer read-and-critique sessions. In most cases, either an agent or editor, or other writers in your genre, will read your first few pages and offer their thoughts. These usually fill up quickly, so reserve a spot while you can. I didn’t register in time for the group critique sessions, but I got lucky enough that my first two pages landed near the top of the pile in a class on writing better beginnings led by three editors. When they read my first two pages aloud, I was busy searching the room for a portable defibrillator—but once I calmed down and listened, I got some phenomenal advice that helped punch up those first few pages, and that I carried through the rest of my writing. As terrifying as those few moments were, they were also invaluable to my writing.

So, while nerve wracking, these sessions can be extraordinarily helpful for your writing. Again, be brave and don’t let your fear get the best of you: you’ve paid for this opportunity, so use it.

Keynote Speakers/Guests of Honor: Bonus or Waste of Money?

Joyce Carol Oates, creative writing professor at Princeton, three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and bestselling author, delivered the keynote address at the 2008 Pennwriters conference. I’ve admired her writing for years and consider her one of my favorite writers of all time, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered she would be the featured speaker at my first conference. I emitted a very loud squealing noise, terrifying both my husband and my cat.

Ms. Oates’ speech focused on writers and rejection, a theme with which we can all identify. While such a speech could easily turn depressing, it seemed to uplift everyone in the room. She related anecdotes about legendary writers from Emily Dickinson to Samuel Beckett to Norman Mailer, and the rejections, both personal and professional, that they suffered. She then connected these rejections to each writer’s life and work, showing the profound effect rejection can have on a writer.

To know that the greats have endured such stinging rebuffs and refusals, and yet continued on to become legends and permanent members of the literary canon, should inspire even the most disheartened writer.
After her speech, Ms. Oates signed books and graciously posed for pictures. I now have a treasured, personalized memento from that weekend, one I would be unlikely to procure anywhere else.

While the keynote speaker shouldn’t be your central consideration when selecting a conference—especially since keynote dinners are not usually included in the base cost—he or she can certainly add yet another transcendent moment to the event, if the speaker is someone you admire.

Final Advice

On clothes: Most conference organizers recommend business casual wear for classes and seminars. This is a professional event, so leave the jeans at home and look your best. Plan for varying temperatures, though, and dress in layers. Many hotels and conference centers air condition their meeting rooms, but the bar and luncheon areas may be warmer. And for the ladies, don’t wear your highest high heels. You may be making several circuits from your hotel room to the classrooms, and your feet will thank you for your thoughtfulness.

On roommates: One way to cut your hotel costs in half is to bunk with another attendee. Most conferences offer a roommate-matching service. In addition to the financial considerations, this is a great way to get to know another writer.

On your fellow writers: Writers are not the most social lot; we spend a great deal of time alone, with only our characters and thoughts for company. This is your chance to spend a few days with a few hundred other writers, and the crackling energy in the air will sustain you until your next chance. Be brave. Break out of your shell. Forget your mother’s advice and talk to strangers. At the end of the weekend, you’ll be glad you did.

Resources

Below are some websites that can help you sort through the plethora of conferences out there and find the right one for you:

The Shaw Guides to Writers Conferences and Workshops: Allows sorting by genre/specialty, month, country/state.

AgentQuery: The popular resource for agent hunting tackles conferences.

Writers’ Conferences and Centers (WC & C): A division of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Includes both conference dates and registration deadlines.

Preditors and Editors: Alphabetical listing of conferences, conventions, and festivals.

Guide to Literary Agents: Small conference listing by state. Not all states listed.


Kristin Baxter lives in Johnstown, PA, a city full of characters. She’s been a reporter, a technical writer, and an assembler of travel mugs. Presently, she drinks too much coffee and stays up far too late while writing young adult novels.

Final Poll Results

All in a Day’s Work:
Should Writing be a Job?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In On Writing, Stephen King calls writing “just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Some writers balk at that statement. Writing? A job? But isn’t writing supposed to be about the joy of creation? Following your muse? I think the answer is yes. And no.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with writing. We want to create, but it can be tough to find the time/energy/persistence to actually do it. And whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a little or a lot, it’s a matter of deciding where you want to go with your writing. There’s nothing wrong with treating writing as a hobby, but if your goal is to make money as a writer, it takes discipline.

We interviewed three authors—two established, and one working hard to get there—to get their take on writing as a job.

Author John Scalzi has been a full-time writer since he left college, first writing for a newspaper, then as an in-house editor and writer for America Online. He’s been a freelance writer since 1998 and has published a dozen books. Two of those books, Old Man’s War and The Last Colony, have been nominated for the Hugo Award.

YA author Laurie Halse Anderson has been writing full-time since 2002. Her books, including Speak, Catalyst,and Twisted, have won numerous awards. Prior to being a full-time writer, she wrote early in the morning while working freelance jobs and other part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I made the transition the first time I got an advance that (with much penny-pinching) could support me for a year,” she says.

Seanan McGuire, a mid-level manager in a non-profit customer service center, is working toward becoming a full-time writer and recently signed with an agent. McGuire has been published, although “not, as yet, in my chosen genres (or that I’ll admit to).” She writes primarily horror and urban fantasy.

TC: Do you keep a regular writing schedule?

JS: Theoretically I write long-form work in the morning while my daughter is at school and short-form work after she comes home and wants attention. In reality, it all sort of mixes in together. I am trying to become more scheduled, however.

LHA: I write minimum of six hours (this can increase to 16 when the deadline pressure is turned up) a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

SM: During the work-week, I write from seven to nine every day except for Thursday, when I have my weekly “girl’s night out.” On the weekends, I do two four-hour blocks, split between the two days. Sometimes more, if I have edits to process.

TC: How much time do you spend on the “business” of writing?

JS: I spend about an hour a day on it. It mostly consists of e-mailing my agent or editor or clients. Sometimes I have to travel for work, which of course takes up more time. but when I’m at home, and hour a day usually does it. It helps that my wife handles a lot of the financial end of things, because that’s what she’s good at and has training in.

LHA: At least 25 hours a week, often more. Correspondence with readers takes up the bulk of it. Preparing for travel to conferences (tons of email, plane and hotel reservations, correspondence with committee members, speech and presentation preparation) takes up a lot, too. I have cut way back on my travel, but still spend about 60 days a year on the road. Website updates, interviews, and research for new books also happen every week.

SM: Currently, about two to five hours per week are spent contacting agents, formatting submissions, and pursuing representation. It’s a small amount of time, but it’s a tiring one.

TC: Should would-be writers treat writing as a job?

JS: If people feel it’s best to pursue writing as a hobby or a part-time thing, who am I to try to convince them otherwise? Lots of very excellent writers held down other jobs or wrote primarily for recreation and enjoyment. Also, you know. Writing for a living is hard, and generally it doesn’t pay well.

LHA: A career in the arts is not for everyone. It’s more demanding and less financially rewarding than most people realize. If you love the work, you’ll get a lot out of committing yourself body and soul. But there is nothing wrong with making your writing into a piece of your life, instead of the whole thing.

SM: I find that writing is always work, if you want to get it right; it takes time, effort, dedication, and focus. I work harder at writing than I do at almost anything else, and I’d rather have the time I currently spend on other people’s projects to devote to my own.

TC: What advice would you offer to would-be writers?

JS: 1) Be aware of your audience. The vast majority of the time, when you’re writing professionally, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience—specifically (most of the time) an editor who is looking for writing of a certain nature or function, and in a more general sense to a larger readership that is looking for something specific… 2) You have time. So long as you don’t intentionally step out in front of a bus, chances are pretty good you’ll make it to 70 or 80 or some bone-deteriorated age like that. That being the case, what are you worried about? Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the process of writing. and 3) You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

LHA: Do it for the love, not the money. But if you decide to make it into your career, structure your life frugally, so the ups and downs of the unpredictable market won’t hurt as much.

SM: Learn to take critique, even when it’s hard. Learn to focus. Trust your story. Follow the market. Read. Write. Adapt. Also, you’re not as good as you think you are… but you could be, if you work hard enough to get there.

King’s On Writing has even more advice for any writer trying to make it. He says that all writers should have a private writing space, with the ability to shut out all distractions. He recommends sticking to a schedule, and setting concrete goals.

“The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse,” says King. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”

And ultimately, figure out how you define success. Are you happy writing fanfiction to share with your friends, or do you aspire to the New York Times Bestseller List? Set goals that make sense for you, and stick to them.

Final Poll Results