Archive for February, 2008

Writing and Selling the Personal Essay: Hard-Working Rats and the Universal Truth

Kristin Bair O’KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

This year, Chinese New Year falls on February 7, and according to the Chinese zodiac, 2008 is the Year of the Rat. (I know, I know, the rat? But believe it or not, there are some pretty cute little rodents being sold in Shanghai. Many are stuffed. Some are carved. Others are gilded in gold. Thankfully, none are alive—at least as far as I’ve seen.)

Luckily for us writers, the Rat symbolizes hard work and renewal. (It is, after all, the first sign in the Chinese 12-animal zodiac cycle.) This year is a great time for thinking and planning, digging in and getting the work done. Opportunities abound!

So how do you get the work done when writing a personal essay? One thing you must do is to offer a universal truth.

Huh?

Yep, every good personal essay offers a universal truth. Remember when your elementary school teacher told you to write down the main idea of a passage? Well, a universal truth is a similar concept, with a little more soul. It’s the feeling readers are left with that makes them say, “Mmmm hhhhmmm, I know exactly what you mean.”

For example, in the September 2007 issue of Food & Wine, four writers share travel memories in a collection of short personal essays called “Passages to Italy.” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, is one of them. In her fewer-than-500-word essay, she plunges us into a moment in Italy in which she is eating artichokes, suffering sidewalk rage, and learning a lesson about slowing down and enjoying the ride.

Okay, so what’s the universal truth?

No, it’s not about eating artichokes. Try again.

Got it! Slowing down and enjoying the ride. Something we all need to do a little more of.

Bingo!

A few years ago, I wrote a personal essay about catching my first fish (titled, “My First Fish”) that was published in The Larcom Review. And yes, it was all about my private, personal fishing experience—the rust-colored woolly bugger with which I caught the fish, the fact that really I should have stopped fishing because it was almost dark and I had a long walk back to the truck, the very special rock on which I was standing when I caught him, and so on. It was a very personal story, BUT it also offered two universal truths, to which all (or hopefully most) readers could relate: 1) good things take time, and 2) humans need to nurture their deep connection to nature.

In other words, in a personal essay, you tell YOUR story, but readers also get a truth that speaks to their lives as well. If you’re just telling a story for the sake of telling a story, it’s probably not a good choice for a personal essay. Be sure you choose your subject matter carefully and thoughtfully.

Get it?

Good.

Now pull out that personal essay you’ve been working on, give yourself a pat on the back for having written a good story, reread it and then ask yourself, “What’s the universal truth?”

Marketplace: Skirt! publishes 8-14 personal essays every month. Wow, so many opportunities to place your essay! Guidelines are available at “About Us.”

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Kristin Bair O’Keeffe moved to Shanghai, China, in April 2006 and has been writing about this incredible country ever since. Her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse,” chronicles her adventures (and misadventures) in Shanghai and garners the attention of readers all around the world. Her essays about the China experience can be found in The Baltimore Review and To Shanghai With Love (forthcoming). As a respected writing instructor, she has taught hundreds of writers over the past fourteen years and is currently teaching both fiction and nonfiction writing in Shanghai.

Fund Your Writing Projects: How to Make Grant Writing Work for You

Gigi RosenbergBy Gigi Rosenberg

If you’re wondering whether it’s worth it to write grants, you have good reason to do so.  The amount of money awarded in a writer’s grant is usually small and grant writing can be time-consuming. You have to research the granting agency, study the application and spend hours crafting your responses to hard questions about what you want, why you want it and how you are going to realize your project.

Wouldn’t it be better to spend this time actually writing?

Sometimes yes. Before I decide to apply for a grant, I ask two questions: Is this the best use of my time right now? Are there benefits to the process of researching, writing and submitting this grant regardless of the outcome? These benefits might include:

  1. Getting Out There: Your grant application will be reviewed by at least one but usually several writers who will look seriously at your writing, your project and your aspirations. They will know more about you, the writer, than most of your friends. Even if you don’t get the grant, you may well run into these possibly influential people again if they publish or promote your writing.
  2. A Deadline for Your Plan: The grant application deadline forces you to get your idea down on paper, which transforms it from a daydream into tangible reality. Even if you don’t get the money, you now have a plan.
  3. Testing the Water: Not all daydreams are meant to be realized. Sometimes an idea is better left on the cocktail napkin. The process of grant writing lets you test an idea to see if it is really something to invest time and money into.
  4. Practice Asking for Help: Most human beings hate asking for help. The 2-year-old inside us still likes to say, “I did it myself.” The truth is no successful person is ever an island. We need other people to help us realize our artistic aspirations and they need us to help them. Writing a grant says to the world “I want this, my idea is worth supporting and I need help.” This can be scary and humbling but it is good practice for all the other asking your career will demand of you.

This month’s assignment? Make a list of all the grants you might apply for and rate each grant based on four factors: how much money you could receive, how easy the application is, how prestigious the award is and how useful the grant is to your writing career. A worthwhile grant should get a high rating in at least 2 of these categories. If it won’t help you significantly, is low paying, has little prestige and has a time-consuming application, you’d probably be better off writing, instead.

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Gigi Rosenberg is a writer, teacher and occasional performer of edgy, comic monologues on motherhood, relationships and the existential nature of being. Her essays and how-to articles have been published in Writer’s Digest, The Oregonian, The Jewish Review, Cycle California! Magazine and Parenting (forthcoming).  “The Hanukkah Bush,” her radio commentary, was featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting. She coaches writers on how to read in public and teaches regional and national workshops on “Grant Writing for Success.”

Freelancing for Newspapers Challenge: Plan and conduct a practice interview

Sue Fagalde LickBy Sue Lick

No matter what kind of writing you do, you need information. Websites, books and articles are great sources for background material, but interviews will make your story come alive. Look at published articles and nonfiction books and note how often people are quoted. In fact, many newspaper editors require quotes from at least three sources. Even if you’re writing fiction, screenplays or poetry, the personal touch that comes from talking to someone who knows the subject inside out adds insight, information and color to your writing.

An interview is an orchestrated conversation. You ask questions and record the answers, guiding the discussion to gather the information you need. Some people are natural talkers while others on both sides of the notebook struggle with shyness. Here are some suggestions for successful interviews:

  • Find people to interview through doing research, asking around, looking through the phone book and checking online sources such as Profnet and Ask an Expert. Large organizations have press officers who will connect you with people to interview. You can also find spokespeople through the Encyclopedia of Associations in the reference section at your library.
  • Set up the interview well in advance of your deadline. Meeting in person is ideal, but telephone interviews work, and sometimes, if all you need is a few facts, email interviews can be effective.
  • Find out everything you can about the interviewee before you meet and confirm your appointment the day before the interview.
  • Prepare a list of questions and pack a notebook and several pens, a tape or digital recorder, directions and background material.
  • Explain what you’re writing about and ask permission to tape the interview. Most people don’t mind. Take notes, too, just in case the machine fails for some reason.Pin down necessary details, such as the spelling of their name and contact information, then start with the easy questions, working your way to the more controversial ones. Guide the discussion, bringing them back to the subject if they stray—unless what they’re saying is even better than what you were looking for.
  • Thank them for their help. Ask if there’s anything you forgot to ask and whether they know other people you should contact.
  • Type up your notes as soon as possible, adding details about the setting, sights, sounds and smells you observed, as well as how the person looked and acted.
  • Send your subject a thank you note with a copy of the published article.

Your challenge this month is to plan and conduct a practice interview—or a real one if you can use it for a writing project. If you don’t know whom to interview, how about an elderly family member? Ask him about his life when he was your age. Type up your notes and see if you’ve gotten all your questions answered. How did it go? Did you come away with a story to write? We’d love to hear about it.

You are welcome to share your results or discuss the challenge here, as well as at my Freelancing for Newspapers blog. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.

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Sue Fagalde Lick, author of Freelancing for Newspapers, worked as a staff writer, photographer and editor for newspapers in California and Oregon for many years before moving into full-time freelancing. In addition to countless newspaper and magazine articles, she has published three books on Portuguese Americans. She has taught workshops at Oregon Coast Community College, online for Writing-world.com and for Willamette Writers and California Writers Club. She offers an online course on reviews as well as individual coaching. See her website and visit her blog.

Writerpreneur: Social Networking

gregorywotr_002.gifBy Gregory A. Kompes

Social networking is a great way to build your readership, expand your fan base, and sell your products and services. You’ve probably already heard of some of the more popular networks like myspace and facebook.

So, what are social networks? They’re online spaces where virtual communities are created. You join (usually for free), create a “space” or profile page, invite your friends to join and then link to each other. Most sites allow you to create text profiles, and upload photos, images and sound files. All the social networking sites are searchable, so people looking for you, your books or services you offer are likely to find them. Some of the larger networks boast millions of users; that’s a lot of potential buyers. With the “trusted friends” function, everyone you invite or who requests to be one of your network friends must be approved. This built-in trust is essential in online marketing.

In the most basic form, social networks are like billboards that allow us to constantly promote our books and services. Yet, many networks have advanced features like calendars, invitation services, blogging and forums. For example, on John Kremer’s BookMarket.ning.com, a writer’s networking community, you can blog and create profile-linked forums. Some of the networks also have built in messaging, so you can contact your group of network friends with news and announcements. As we get to know our readers, buyers and fans, we’re better able to answer their questions. And, as a recent Live Journal poll pointed out, 99% of book buyers buy books because they know or feel they have a connection to the author.

There’s another advantage to social networking: it can be fun. The writing life can be solitary and social networks are a way to step out of your office without leaving it. I join all the social networking sites that I come across. While I admit I don’t spend a lot of time socializing on these sites, they have helped build my fan base and allowed me to connect with some old friends.

Are you ready to take advantage of social networking? Once you get started with the social networking sites below send me an invitation, I’ll be happy to be your social network friend.

Myspace.com
Facebook.com
LinkedIn
BookMarket.ning.com
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Gregory A. Kompes, author of the bestseller 50 Fabulous Gay-Friendly Places to Live and the Writer’s Series, speaks at conferences and teaches Internet self-promotion courses online. Gregory is editor of Queer Collection: Prose & Poetry, Patchwork Path, The Fabulist Flash, and Eighteen Questions, a Q&A series that collects published authors experiences (chosen a “101 Best Websiteby Writer’s Digest ). In Las Vegas, he hosts the Writerpreneur Workshops and co-host’s the Writer’s Pen & Grill. Gregory holds a BA in English Literature from Columbia University, New York, and a certificate in Online Teaching and Learning and an MS Ed. from California State University, East Bay.

Writing Roots: Learning to Listen

Christina Katz By Christina Katz

My father’s mother was “Granny” to me. She stands out in my memory as the wise elder who invited me into the sacred circle of storytellers. How did she invite me in? By asking me to listen. And she was such a great storyteller that she never had to ask twice.

My Granny was a substantial woman, a sturdy, first-generation American with Polish and Austrian heritage. She was strong-willed, opinionated, and fiercely loving. Intermittently throughout my fairly typical middle-class childhood, my substantial Granny and her slight sidekick, Gramps, would arrive at our home, usually for a holiday or family milestone. The trunk of their boat-like Buick would be stuffed with dime-store toys from a Woolworth’s in Orange, New Jersey. I would squirm with giddiness and jostle my older brother waiting for our invitation to “help bring in the luggage.”

Later on in the evenings, after the excitement of company arriving, a home-cooked meal, and gluttonous gift consumption had exhausted us (and we’d come down from the last kick of sugared soda we weren’t usually allowed to drink), my brother and I would collapse at Granny’s feet in front of the fire to listen to her stories. I realize that this sounds like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, but the difference is that Granny didn’t censor or discriminate when it came to storytelling. She told dramatic tales about her own childhood, as well as everyone else’s in our extended clan, including my own business-suit-wearing, briefcase-toting father.

“Well…” Granny would always begin, her mouth opening wider than most folks’ would in conversation—so wide you could see all of her perfectly capped molars. She’d lean forward with the intention of delivering a story and then rock back with the pleasure of her own tales.

“Well” was the equivalent of “once upon a time” for her. “Well” was also used to punctuate a story with Granny’s “Can you believe that?” commentary as she went along. And when she popped out a “Well!” with lots of air behind it, you knew a climax in the story was coming, sometimes accompanied by both her hands flying up in the air.

No matter how many times I heard the same stories, I never tired of them. There was the time Granny’s older sister threw the butcher knife at her head and she heard it whizzing by her ear, and the time she and her two siblings raised such a ruckus that they knocked over the china cabinet just before their mother (my Nana) returned home from shopping. There was the story of my young father who, despite being dragged across the gravel lot by the school bully, came home mysteriously smiling.

No doubt about it. My grandmother had a quicksilver tongue and she knew how to use it. Telling us stories and showing us how to engage an audience like a pro was my grandmother’s gift to me. She left those behind like an inheritance that money could never rival. When I landed in graduate school for fiction writing back in 1992, I knew that I was simply picking up with my own stories where Granny’s had left off.

Thanks, Granny.

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Christina Katz, author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids, is working on her second book for Writer’s Digest Books, Get Known Before the Book Deal, Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. She has also written over two hundred articles for magazines, newspapers, and online publications and has appeared on “Good Morning America.” Christina is a popular writing instructor who has taught hundreds of writers over the past seven years. She blogs daily at The Writer Mama Riffs and is publisher and editor of two zines, Writers on the Rise and The Writer Mama. More at http://www.thewritermama.com/.

Time Management Mastery: The Layman’s Version of Income Tax Management

hope_000.gifBy C. Hope Clark

An accountant I’m not. However, my parents are, and I’ve heard the horror stories about their tax clients who don’t know a receipt from a pizza menu or have thrown away tax benefits by forgetting to maintain records. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) loves people who can’t keep records. That way when audits occur, the benefit falls on the side of the government. You and I can avoid that and keep more of our hard earned writing pay in our pockets. Here’s how:

  • Set up files with clearly marked labels like “income,” “meetings/ conferences,” “travel,” “supplies,” “bank statements” and “postage.” You may have other categories in mind, but the easiest way to determine which files you need is to look at a tax form and note the categories the IRS likes to see for a self-employed individual with a freelance business.
  • Keep files at your side––and use them. If your files are not handy, you won’t maintain them. Mine are to my right in a file drawer. I don’t leave my desk chair to toss receipts in them; deposit slips, mileage records and sales tickets are all filed properly.
  • Keep a calendar. You may lose a receipt, but if you consistently maintain a calendar of your comings, goings, submissions, payments, interviews and mileage, then the IRS will give you some latitude.
  • Keep a mileage log in your car. Or, do like I do and make mileage notes in your writing notebook; then transfer the information to your calendar when you return home. You’d be amazed at how many miles you travel for business that you forget to record. When you’re headed to the grocery store, if you stop by the office supply for printer ink, you can claim the round trip mileage. I try to organize my business trips alongside my personal needs so I don’t make duplicate trips.

You don’t need an elaborate system. Just introducing these few simple steps to your recordkeeping regimen can make tax time easier and less stressful––and will help you claim all expenses that are rightfully yours.

TIP: The Internal Revenue Service website has great resources. Freelance writer Cyndi Seidler, an author and professional organizer, has written a great article on organizing for income taxes.

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C. Hope Clark is founder and editor of FundsforWriters.com, annually recognized by Writer’s Digest in its poll of 101 Best Web Sites for Writers. She delivers four newsletters each week to thousands with her specialty being grants and income opportunities for writers of all sizes. She’s published over 200 articles on paper and online. Those reluctant to promote their writing cherish her trade paperback The Shy Writer: An Introvert’s Guide to Writing Success. Find more hope for your writing career at www.fundsforwriters.com & www.theshywriter.com.

In the Spotlight: Mary Elizabeth Braun, acquisitions editor at Oregon State University Press

Interview By Lori Russell

Mary Elizabeth BraunChanges in the publishing industry over the past several years have led many commercial houses to focus on book proposals and manuscripts that offer wide reader appeal and a potentially large financial payoff. Where does that leave authors with more regional or specialized projects? An increasing number are finding publication success with a university press.

Once home almost exclusively to academic monographs and scholarly texts, many university presses are expanding their lists of books for general audiences as well. Oregon State University Press, established in 1961, publishes about 15 works of nonfiction each year. As acquisitions editor, Mary Elizabeth Braun is responsible for evaluating both solicited and unsolicited proposals and manuscripts for possible publication. She also maintains a network of qualified outside manuscript reviewers who participate in the peer review process for each project.

Here, Ms. Braun explains the role of the university press, how it differs from a commercial publisher and what writers need to know before submitting a book proposal.

What is the role of the university press in the larger world of publishing?

University presses play a larger role than ever in the publishing world, as their lists expand to include titles of a more popular nature, in addition to the academic monographs that have always been their staples. University presses often take risks on books that a large commercial press would reject. We publish books written by new or little-known authors, or books that might sell “only” several thousand copies––low sales for a large commercial press, but not a university press. Do check out the following summary from the Association of American University Presses about the value of university presses.

How does it function differently than a commercial New York publisher or a small independent press?

Perhaps the largest single difference in how we function is that each manuscript we consider seriously for publication must go through peer review and be approved by the Press Editorial Board before it is published. Also, we copyedit each and every book we publish.

What types of projects are the best fit for a university press?

Years ago, academic monographs were the most appropriate projects for publication by a university press. Nowadays, most any intelligent, well-written project is suitable for publication by a university press. The key factor is identifying a university press that has a strong established list in the subject matter of your manuscript, e.g., regional nonfiction, history, poetry, art history, memoir, etc. This ensures that your publisher will have an established marketing network to best place, promote and sell your book. To identify a potential university press as your publisher, consult the annual directory of the Association of American University Presses.

Does a writer need to have an advanced academic degree or teach at the college- level to write for a university press?

An author need not have an advanced academic degree, or a position teaching at the college level, to be a university press author. In fact, many of our authors are freelance writers or journalists. Nor does an author have to be affiliated with the parent institution of the university press to which they submit a manuscript.

Does a writer need to contact you through an agent or can he/she send a query directly?

I prefer receiving queries directly from the author.

What is the peer review process?

If I review a manuscript or proposal and think it has solid potential as an OSU Press book, I will send it to two outside readers for review. These are usually individuals who are published authors themselves, who are knowledgeable about the subject matter of the manuscript and experienced in evaluating a project’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its sales potential. This helps Press staff ensure the integrity of each title we publish.

What specific types of projects are you looking for now?

I am interested in intelligent, well-written, compelling books written for an educated general reader that address topics of Pacific Northwest history, natural history, culture, art and literature, as well as books of environmental history and natural resource management. First-person narratives and creative nonfiction are welcome. Do visit the OSU Press website to see firsthand what sort of books we publish and to access the submission guidelines for authors.

Feel free to contact me at 541-737-3873, or mary.braun@oregonstate.edu with any comments or questions. I look forward to hearing from you all.

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Lori RusselLori Russell is an award-winning writer who has had the pleasure to work with several great editors in her 17 years as a freelancer. She is a contributing editor to Columbia Gorge Magazine and has been a regular contributor to Ruralite for more than a decade. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country and her short fiction and poetry has been published in several journals and anthologies. Lori recently completed her first novel, Light on Windy River.


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  • This Blog Moving to ChristinaKatz.com as of December 30, 2009… December 27, 2009
    We’re moving! Writers on the Rise archives have been here for years. I hope that WordPress will let the archive live on for a good long time. However, it’s time to move on, bittersweet as change may be. Please come and find me at my new digs: http://christinakatz.com. And while we’re both thinking of it, […]
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