Archive for February, 2009

Reasons to Write: Writing for Love

Christina KatzBy Christina Katz

Romantic means fanciful, impractical, and unrealistic. As writers, our responsibility is to cultivate passion while not letting it cloud our better judgment when we need it. We need to fall in love with words and sustain that love affair over time, while not letting our fanciful relationship spill over into our perceptions of real, live people, not to mention business negotiations. We must be a hopeless romantic in love with the act of writing, while protecting our sense of self from the arrows and slings of critics and other careless individuals.

Lest this sound easy, it’s not. I spent half a decade in my twenties cultivating the romantic side of the writing life without due respect for the more practical side. I sat in cafés in Chicago, journal on the table, favorite pen in hand, staring out the window, or reading accounts of other writer’s lives and dreaming of how my writer’s life would compare some day. In retrospect, I realize how my imagination was actually limited by these accounts rather than being liberated or sparked by them. Very much the way a person might become hooked on soap operas to fulfill a missing sense of having a life, so too my writing life was kept a fantasy.

I wasn’t spurred to creating my writer’s life by reading these books, rather I was becoming more entrenched in the observer’s seat. Like The Little Match Girl, staring through the glass at the bakery sweets, but doing nothing to actually feed herself, I was killing my dream through inaction.

Okay, maybe I’m being a bit dramatic. But this is a column about romance, after all. Therefore, let’s get straight to the recovery portion of our tale. If you identify with my former plight, and feel that you would rather sit back and read about other people’s writing successes rather than make sound progress towards your own, there are steps you can take that will offer immediate relief:

Step 1. Don’t get stuck as the observer.
Take all of your books, magazines, movies and other materials that elevate other people’s writing lives and put them away for a time. Or only read them as a reward for actual productivity. For example, if you’d rather read a writing magazine than write a personal essay, then don’t allow yourself to read the magazine until you’ve written draft one of your story. Then read the magazine as a reward.

Step 2. Identify a specific heart’s desire.
Where is your romance of being a writer going? It’s difficult to succeed in this craft if you have multiple destinations. Too many writers overwhelm themselves with many goals, ultimately accomplishing none. So, choose the one goal you really want. If that’s publishing personal essays, so be it. If it’s writing features for national magazines, okay. If you dream of becoming a published novelist, great (it’s a long road, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embark on it). Don’t judge your goal, it’s not better or worse than anyone else’s. Just figure yours out.

Step 3. Make a list of appropriate action steps.
Now take your ultimate goal, even if it’s many years away, and break it down into steps. Go ahead and number one to twenty on the page and then fill in the steps from the end backwards that will accomplish your goal to the best of your ability. If you have gaps, consult how-to materials that deal in very specific terms with your goal. There are so many more how-to guides than there ever were before. Hooray! Get your hands on those you need.

Step 4. Choose the steps that will create results.
If you are a romantic, the time has come to compartmentalize what you read. Once you realize that inspiration is entertainment and not how-to, you are free to enjoy a healthy relationship with inspirational authors without imagining that your life is theirs. Once you choose even one step on your journey toward writing success and take it, you transform your story from a fantasy…to a reality.

When you are done with these steps, you will be so much closer to your goal than you were after reading ten inspirational books. What could be more idyllic than that?

Christina Katz is the author of Get Known Before the Book Deal, Use Your Personal Strengths to Build an Author Platform and Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (both for Writer’s Digest Books). A platform development coach and consultant, she teaches writing career development, hosts the Northwest Author Series, and is the publisher of several e-zines including Writers on the Rise. Christina blogs at The Writer Mama Riffs and Get Known Before the Book Deal, and speaks at MFA programs, literary events, and conferences around the country.

The Scoop On Writing Profile Articles: From Idea to Query

Lori RussellBy Lori Russell

A great profile begins with an idea. It can be a topic (renewable energy, women traveling solo) or a person’s occupation (glass blower, female pilot in World War II) or an experience in someone’s life (walking the Pacific Crest Trail, recovering from a life-threatening accident or illness).

Here are three ways to take a general idea and shape it into one you can write about:

1. Narrow your focus. Profiles can put a face on a larger issue. By selecting one person who has built a “green home,” you can address how that person sees the issue of renewable and sustainable energy.

2. Turn your ignorance about a subject to your advantage. Act as the interested observer rather than the expert, and use what you find out when you write the story. But don’t forget to keep the audience in mind. For instance, readers of a general interest magazine do not need to know the chemical composition of the glaze a potter uses. The story and the potter is more interesting when you explain that she knows because she holds doctorates in both mathematics and chemistry.

3. Change your intended audience. How is a topic of national interest being handled by someone locally? Does a business in your region have national interest? Changing your intended audience changes the way you write the story.

For ideas, look at your daily newspaper, national publications, and those of your local college, hospital, and businesses. If you have a platform already, don’t limit yourself to just the publications in your area of interest. Listen to the stories of your friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and members of your professional organizations. What are their life experiences, previous jobs, hobbies?

Once you have narrowed your idea to a story that you can write, don’t write it yet. Editors rarely, if ever, buy a completed and unsolicited profile article. Most assign a writer an article after receiving a well-written, well thought-out query letter that explains why the idea is perfect for the publication at the time, and why the writer is the perfect person to write it.

In preparation for writing your query, look at the profiles in the publications you would like to write for. What type of hook do they use? Is the writing style formal or casual? If your profile idea looks like a good fit, review the writer’s guidelines and editorial calendar. Focus on the ideas that you can turn into profiles that someone else will publish. Return the rest to your file until the right time/publication comes along.

This month, review some publications that print profiles you like to read. Pick two. Jot down anything you notice about the articles’ length, style, and format. Pick two topics or subjects you might profile for this publication. Then get ready to query.

Lori Russell has written profiles about people, their passions and their places for more than a decade. Her nonfiction articles have been published online and in magazines and newspapers around the country. She is a contributing editor for Columbia Gorge Magazine, a regular contributor to Ruralite magazine and has co-written the “In the Spotlight’ column for WOTR for the past two years. She is currently enjoying a writing residency teaching memoir writing to high school students through Columbia Gorge Arts in Education, an organization that brings professional writers and artists to the public schools.

Writing for Radio: How to Meet and Marry a Genre

Laura BridgwaterBy Laura Bridgwater

When I was a new writer, I flirted with many kinds of writing before I met the genre of my dreams. Unfortunately, there was no online dating service to match me with compatible writing, so I went on a number of blind dates.

First I dated children’s books. I figured that since I dragged a diaper bag and a book bag to the library three times a week, I could write stories that appealed to the Sesame Street crowd. Plus, I had years of experience reading aloud to first graders as a teacher. Despite these qualifications, I learned that it is surprisingly hard to write a bad children’s book and even harder to write a good one. It wasn’t a match made in heaven and we broke up.

Next, I dated poetry, mostly because I fancy Shel Silverstein. My best poem started like this:  Hurray! Hurray!/ The flowers are dead/ No more pollen/ Cloggin’ up my head. After I combed through Poet’s Market and discovered that many small publishers had folded or were on vacation indefinitely, I settled for reciting Silverstein to my children instead of publishing my own verse.

Then I had an affair with a 1,500-words-or-fewer short story and entered The Writer’s Digest Annual Short Short Story Competition. My wonderfully supportive and encouraging writing group giggled at what were supposed to be my serious passages. Short short story writing was a short short fling.

I was starting to tire of these courtships. I now had a history of serial monogamy with bad children’s books, embarrassing poetry, and laughable fiction. Was there a genre out there for me, or would I die a spinster alone with my orphan words?

Naturally, when I was poised to throw in the pen and join a cloister, I met my first published clip: a humorous personal essay about what happens when you combine a cranky two year old and a cheap tent in the middle of nowhere. We went on a second date that was quickly followed by spending all of our time together. I started writing articles for newspapers and magazines and won awards from the Colorado Press Women. It was a labor of love.

The dating game was over! I entered a long-term relationship with nonfiction. I announced our engagement with business cards printed with the title freelance writer.

After I married nonfiction, I shopped for a home for my writing. In my search for more markets, I submitted essays to my local public radio station KUNC. I broke into radio because I was in the right place at the right time after being in the wrong place for a long time.

My advice to writers who want to break into any genre, including radio, is to keep dating. After all, even J.K. Rowling had to kiss a lot of frogs before she found her prince.

Laura Bridgwater is an award-winning writer, teacher, and radio commentator who loves to pen funny essays, bad poetry, and grocery lists. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, with her husband and Tax Deduction #1 and #2. When she isn’t busy driving Mom’s Yellow Taxi Service, she freelances for newspapers, magazines, blogs, and online publications. Laura can be found as an active member of Northern Colorado Writers and commentating at KUNC. In 2008, she won first place for humorous personal essay writing from the National Federation of Press Women.

Getting Your Poems on the Page: Talking Your Walk

Sage Cohen

By Sage Cohen

In poetry, what you say is important. How you say it is equally important. Word choice can dramatically impact the tone and experience of a poem. The poet’s job is to choose language that best expresses the feeling and context of the poem.

For example, you might choose “endure” to describe a cancer patient making it through a rough day, and use “wait” to describe someone stopped at a traffic light. “Abide” feels a bit formal to me and has a flair of romance. I picture a young man at the feed shop a century ago. He knows instantly that he loves the young woman at the cash register, goes home to change into his Sunday suit, and returns to the store to propose marriage to her. As the woman blushes and fumbles in surprise, the man abides, awaiting an answer. What does “abide” conjure for you?

When selecting language in a poem, you may want to ask yourself:

Where and in what time period is the poem set? How do people speak? Are there any cultural or geographical influences on the way language is used there? (Language spoken on the street in L.A. in the 1980s is different than that used in a Victorian parlor.)

What is the natural world doing? Are there seasonal, lighting, or weather influences on the poem that affect its language? (How might smog words differ from thunderstorm words? What language would sunrise conjure compared to sunset?)

What is the emotional tone of the poem? Is it angry? Peaceful? Excited? Remorseful?

What happens in the poem, and how might language best buoy this action?

Using language that is typically associated with a certain place, time, or emotion can viscerally evoke a subject or theme. Other times, predictably appropriate language can feel uninspired or clichéd. In this case, it could be interesting to play against expectations by finding surprising language that is out of sync with the typical associations. The best way to find the language that will be most successful in any poem is to experiment, and then experiment some more.

When you become conscious of the words you are choosing, you are likely to discover fresh new ways of using language that surprise and delight you and your readers.

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.

The Fiction Writing Workshop: The “S” Word

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Every story needs a setting. A place where characters can hunker down, figure out what’s bugging them, and struggle their way to resolution. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife wouldn’t be the love story it is if Clare and Henry didn’t hang out at the Aragon in Chicago.

And Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage would be flat and lifeless if the Burmese jail cell in which Teza is imprisoned wasn’t described in such intimate, excruciating detail.

Yet whenever I ask students to write a scene from a story, their first drafts often feature characters floating around in a strange, airy vacuum.

The problem?

No setting. The characters may be talking, walking around, having great sex, drinking beer, and throwing vases at their mothers. They may even be having the most kick-ass, fur-flying tussle in literary history, but they’re not doing it in a place. People in the “real world” live, work, get screwed up, get unscrewed up, walk dogs, buy groceries, and go to school, in PLACES.

So do people in stories.

When I point this out, I usually get one of two reactions: 1) “Ooohhhh, I see” (and suddenly characters are traveling to Winnipeg in an ’82 Nissan 280ZX or eating dumplings in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco), or 2) “I don’t know where it takes place.”

But you do know. Really, you do. The thing is, before you even write the first draft, you see in your own beautiful, imaginative noggin where a story takes place. Maybe your first sight of the story-what I call the dominant image-is not a place, but a conversation between a couple about to break up and the thing that grabs you is the way the man’s lips quiver as his girlfriend puts the kibosh on their engagement. But wait! If you sit with that image, and look a little longer, you’ll see that the couple is in a booth in a coffee shop. And if you look even longer, letting things come into focus, you’ll discover that the coffee shop is in a small college town in Illinois. Setting grows from there.

See what I mean? Writing a story is your chance to travel anywhere in the world. Grab that opportunity, and whether your setting is a bathroom in a Phoenix gas station or a steamy kitchen in Tokyo, make it your own.

Reporting from the Tools of Change Conference in New York

I’m reporting live from the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York City:

You will find photos on The Writer Mama Riffs.

Off to lunch with the Rock and Roll Mama!

Understanding Personal Essays: Funny Business

Abigail Green

By Abigail Green

So you think you’re funny, do you? For essay writers, funny is good. Humor can spice up nearly any topic, from parenting to cooking to travel.

As we all know, however, there are vastly different kinds of humor. There’s David Sedaris funny, and there’s Erma Bombeck funny. There’s Dave Barry funny, and there’s Jon Stewart funny. There’s Christian humor and feminist humor and political humor and nearly any other niche you can think of.

You will have the best luck selling your humor essays if you find a market (or several) that fits your natural voice. That is, if you write in a jokey, “bad-da-boom” style, you’ll probably find markets like Reader’s Digest more receptive to your work than, say, The Atlantic. If you write feel-good, G-rated parenting humor, Family Circle’s a better bet than The Onion. If you’re not already, you should be reading the type of humor essays you like to write. Check out these markets, or Google “humor writers” and start surfing.

Now let’s look at a specific market. Each issue, Smithsonian magazine publishes an approximately 500-word humor essay called “The Last Page.” You can read writer’s guidelines and samples online or in back issues at the library. That will give you an idea of the range of topics and general voice of the department. In targeting any publication, tweak your essay to fit. Are there a lot of punchy one-liners? Or is it a more cerebral type of humor? (BTW, humor essays are always submitted in their entirety. How can you judge funny without reading the whole thing?)

As you might guess, Smithsonian is geared towards a more high-brow audience than, say, Mad magazine. Sometimes a publication’s tastes are obvious, and sometimes they’re a bit more subtle. I only learned through experience, for example, that Washingtonian magazine would never, ever publish an essay about seeing one’s boss naked. Their loss; the Boston Globe had no such qualms. The Christian Science Monitor may balk at an essay about drunken exploits, but Maxim magazine might snap it up.

Sadly, I can’t give you many specifics on HOW to be funny in your essays. I’m afraid funny is either something you are, or you aren’t. However, I CAN tell you that specifics, hyperbole, and the unexpected are keys to “funnying” up an already humorous essay. For example, “This new mom is exhausted” is not nearly as funny as “My new baby keeps me busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.” Anyone can be hungry enough to eat a horse, but only the truly funny are so starved they could eat their weight in hot wings. See what I’m saying?

If you want to write funny, start by reading the greats-whether to you that means Woody Allen or Stephen Colbert-and note where you laugh out loud. Personally, I find inspiration from a celebrity fashion blog. Read it! Those gals are masters at crafting witty retorts, I tell you. Then read your own work out loud, preferably to an audience, and note where people laugh. From there, it’s just a matter of time before you tickle the right editor’s funny bone.

Abigail Green is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Over the past 12 years, she has written for national, regional and online publications including AOL, Bride’s, Baltimore Magazine, Cooking Light and Health. She blogs about the lighter side of pregnancy, parenthood and potty training at Diary of a New Mom. She teaches Personal Essays that Get Published, a six-week e-mail class.

Ask Wendy: “I haven’t heard back from the editor about my query…”

Wendy BurtBy Wendy Burt-Thomas

Q: I mailed a query out a couple of weeks ago but haven’t heard back from the magazine. How long do I wait before following up or moving on?

A: Many magazines that have writer’s guidelines (or at least a listing in the “Writer’s Market”) will tell you how long they take to respond. I would first see if you can find this. Also, you can assume that the larger a publication, the longer it will take to get a response, because they’ll generally have more writers querying and/or sending submissions. And finally, since you sent your query by mail, it will likely take longer to respond than if you had sent it by email due to the dreaded ‘slush pile.’ (I’m not suggesting you send queries by email. Only do so if the guidelines say e-queries are acceptable.)

With that said, I recommend that you give it a couple more weeks (unless your piece is super-timely) and then follow-up with a short email. Phone calls are ok with smaller publications. If you still don’t hear back within, say, a week, go ahead and query another publication for that idea.

Wendy Burt-Thomas is a full-time freelance writer, editor and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her work has appeared in such varied publications as,, Family Circle and American Fitness. She is the author of three books: Oh, Solo Mia! The Hip Chick’s Guide to Fun for One (McGraw-Hill, 2001); Work It, Girl! 101 Tips for the Hip Working Chick (McGraw-Hill, 2003); and The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters (Writer’s Digest, 2008). Visit her at or her blog,

Dear Fellow Writers, (February 2009)

Fall in love with writing again is this month’s slogan. You might think that I mean stare out the window, or take a nice long walk and think about writing, or imagine lots of people reading your words.

I don’t.

Show me a writer hunched over the notebook or the laptop writing. Working. Crossing out lines. Finding the thread. Balling up paper and throwing it across the room. Pacing. Even staring out the window, if that’s what it takes to get the job done. And I’ll show you what I love.

I’ve become a lot more practical about writing over the years and in this month’s column, I discuss the difference between how I used to think about writing and how I think today.

And on this Valentine’s Day, I am pleased that I have not only been able to turn my dream of authorhood into reality, but I have played a small part in helping other writers’ dreams come true, too.

The dreams, I’m referring to, of course, require a heck of a lot of focus, determination, and hard work. This is something I could not fully comprehend in my twenties. (It’s okay, my ideas about romance were pretty off-base back then as well.)

And since we are talking about writing for love this month, let me just say what I love best: I love writers who are willing to work, preferably hard and consistently (insert sound of cracking whip here).

After eight years of working with writers, I want to send a Valentine to those who have been willing to make a real commitment to their writing careers and then follow through. Writing success is, after all, really about what you do with your abilities, not about the abilities you have when you set out on the path.

I guess you could say that I’m in love with the dream that you will be holding your own published work in your hands in the near future. But I love the dream even more when I see it become a reality.

And this Valentine’s Day, I hope you too fall in love. And I hope what you fall in love with is your work.

Make good things happen!

Christina Katz
Publisher and Editor

Announcement: The next round of classes begins on March 11th. We are offering a new class this Spring on writing for online markets with Jen Applin. Check it out! Also Sage Cohen’s Poetry for the People class is back! Registration and the full year’s calendar has moved to

How Are Your Sales Skills? Good, I hope.

Writing professionals utilize four skills at all times: honing our writing craft, selling/pitching our words, building our platforms, and continually updating our professional development. When one of these four aspects is missing or week, the wheels of success wobble!

Perhaps this explains Pitching Practice has always been one of my most instrumental classes for writers. Selling is typically NOT what writers are naturally good at. Therefore, a class that focuses specifically on pitching can make the difference between selling your words and not selling them.

Which kind of writer do you aim to become?

If you aim to become the kind of writer who sells her words, then Pitching Practice is the class for you.

And remember, I did not raise my class prices between ’08 and ’09, in sympathy with the slumping economy. But as soon as things start looking up, my class prices will also bump up. So get this class while it’s cheap. It’s a career-changer!

Pitching Practice: Write Six Queries in Six Weeks
Next Class Begins on March 11th
Prerequisites: Permission from the Instructor
In this class, pitching is all we do. Over the course of six weeks, we crank out six queries. Exactly the kind of practice you need if you want to get in the habit of landing better-paying assignments. After you write and send six queries, you will never again ask, “What makes a strong query?” You will have developed your own and style into prototypes that you can use over and over to obtain future assignments. And that’s what query writing is about. Not someone else’s formula, but finding your own.

New in 2009: At the end of class, we also discuss all of the possible ways to pitch your words, so once you get the hang of pitching, you can pick and choose the method that works best for you.

For more info and to register, please visit:

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