Archive for the 'The View' Category

Interview with Jack Hart, Author of The Writer’s Coach

Susan W. ClarkInterview by Susan W. Clark

There is a rich new resource between the covers of The Writer’s Coach (Pantheon, 2006). This book was a delight to read, satisfying my hunger for skill-polishing knowledge. Author Jack Hart starts with how to organize the writing process, finishes with options for writerly career development, and sandwiches between these a wealth of grammar and word-use lessons spiced with real-life stories and examples.

I first heard Hart speak at two book promotion events. Then I read his book and decided I’d like to interview him because I had a serious case of I-want-my-own-writing-coach envy. Hart is a managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian, where he has helped to establish a learning culture so attractive that writers from big Eastern papers have moved here. Maybe they were hoping to join The Oregonian’s four Pulitzer Prize winners.

Hart became an editor when he was tapped to serve as Arts and Leisure editor not long after he came to The Oregonian. He said, “I’m an organized person,” and explained with a chuckle that because organization is highly valued in editors, he was offered increasingly interesting editorial jobs. For Hart the best part was editing the Sunday magazine, which included working with many freelance writers.

Hart said that the concept of “writing coach” emerged when a group of editors were sitting around talking at a Hawaii meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). Someone noted that words were their product and maybe they could do something to improve the writing they sold. It was a time of change, back when the advent of computers was requiring lots of staff training. The group agreed and a national movement was launched. It included the creation of the ASNE Awards that Hart describes as the most prestigious in the newspaper world, and it led to Hart becoming the writing coach at The Oregonian in 1988.

Hart’s approach to coaching “helps you do your best work.” His background gave him a blue-ribbon preparation for improving journalistic skills, including a PhD in Mass Communication and experience teaching writing full-time at several universities. He said, “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been in the perfect situation to find out what helps writers produce good writing.” Describing the early coaching at The Oregonian, Hart said, “We brought in the best people we could find [to coach our journalists] about once a month for about three years. I was taking notes faster than anyone.”

At The Oregonian, Hart often works with a writer and editor. “Today I met with a writer and her editor, and the photographer even sat in.” They talked about the article and the approach she might take. In addition to offering coaching on a specific article, Hart will take on a writer for several months to help him or her develop a new skill. He explained, “We have a learning culture here.”

Asked what he would emphasize as most important for WOTR readers, Hart says, “I’ve learned that your writing process is the most important, and if you want to change the way you write, you need to change that process. Then constantly expand your craft and you’ll write well. A one-step-at-a-time approach to writing that includes good process takes a lot of the pain out of writing.” Referring to a quote in the book, he said, “You don’t have to sit and stare at the keyboard until drops of blood appear on your forehead.”

I plan to look for Hart’s session at the National Writers Workshop that will be held in Portland on June 2-3. It is jointly hosted by The Oregonian and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The workshop hotline is 503-221-8144, or you can go to http://biz.oregonian.com/newsroom and click on National Writers Workshop.

Photographer, editor, and award-winning writer, Susan W. Clark is an ardent advocate for sustainability. The Utne Reader applauded her article “Sustainable Revolution” from In Good Tilth magazine as “world-changing.” She is a regular contributor to In Good Tilth and Touch the Soil. Her work has appeared in the Capitol Press, Portland Tribune, Small Farmer’s Journal, and Permaculture Activist. She edits Salt of the Earth, the quarterly journal of Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust. Her observations about living within our ecological means are posted at http://susanwclark.wordpress.com.

The ‘View: The Exclusive, Inside Scoop on Writer Mama

Writer MamaAn Interview with Christina Katz
Author of Writer Mama, How To Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids
By Sage Cohen

If you have a full-time job as a mom and think you can’t also have a writing career, think again! There’s a new book in town, penned by our very own editor and publisher, teaching mamas how to become professional writers––in addition to everything else they already do. Christina Katz’s Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids inspires and equips mamas to make the most of their limited time, navigate the publishing world, and take their writing careers forward.

As managing editor of this publication, it wasn’t too difficult for me to convince Christina to give me an interview about Writer Mama (and if you ask her, I’m sure she’ll be happy to give you one, too). Read on for the exclusive, inside scoop on the forthcoming Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids.

In your career as a freelance writer, you’ve written about diverse topics for a wide range of audiences. Why did you want to write a book specifically for writer mamas?

Writer Mama was a natural book for me to write because I had a sincere desire to help moms overcome the challenges of writing for publication. Over the past six years teaching writing workshops, I’ve noticed that moms seem to have the most difficulties completing the coursework. As a freelance writer for seven years (and a mother for the past five years), I have had plenty of challenges of my own to learn from. And I have had terrific mentors who are working writer mamas, like Kelly James-Enger and Wendy Burt, who have taught me a lot over the years.

In Writer Mama, you bring together two parallel paths (motherhood and a freelance writing career) and make it seem so POSSIBLE to navigate both successfully. How did you accomplish this in your own life?

I made a ton of, what I would today call, “misjudgments” during the early days of my freelancing career. In Writer Mama I have a chapter in which I use the game CHUTES AND LADDERS as a metaphor for poor career choices and attitudes vs. better ones that can lead to more positive results sooner—just like in the game I loved as a child.

Many of the misjudgments illustrated in the book are ones I made along the way as a freelancer. And many of the positive outcomes are ones I was rewarded with when I started to accept and respond to the way things typically work in the publishing business. Writing success came to me very gradually, but anyone can certainly experience more success sooner if she has a flexible and practical attitude (which is coincidentally the attitude most mothers try to maintain). Motherhood makes us better writers and this book makes that clear without overdoing the message. I think moms will appreciate a little less error for their trials.

How did you make the leap from freelance writer to non-fiction author? Is this a trajectory you’d recommend for others?

An important premise in Writer Mama is that every writer, no matter what particular genre is her favorite, has a non-fiction book (or two or three!) inside of her. Look around at your favorite authors. Chances are very good, unless their books live on the “NYT Bestseller List,” that they have a smattering of books written across several genres or at least in their preferred genre and non-fiction. Since that’s the case, why not go ahead and break into print with non-fiction? Non-fiction pays better, faster, and helps you establish a recognizable platform that leads to more readers for your future books! It just makes good sense and moms are open to writing non-fiction because we simply cannot afford to be “starving artists.” We’ve got mouths to feed.

Just to clarify, I’m not saying, don’t write in other genres. Do! But get established in non-fiction, if you haven’t already, and start bringing in some money and racking up some publishing credits. You can always switch over to another genre down the road or work on more than one genre at the same time.

Let’s say I’m a new mom and a beginning writer. I want to take on my first assignment. I’m sleep deprived. I get maybe five minutes to myself per day, and that’s in the bathroom. The new frontier of writing feels completely overwhelming, as does the rest of my life. Talk me down from the ledge, Christina!

So let’s start at the beginning. New moms are in a very vulnerable place, especially if they are on some kind of maternity leave that will inevitably run out. So don’t delay. Start taking some “baby steps” in the direction of a writing career if that is what you truly want.

Start with the basics—the physical organization you’ll need to write. Get a basket or tote bag or laptop tray organizer and start gathering the materials you are going to need to grab quickly to get work accomplished in the nooks and crannies of time you have. So you need my book or another good how-to-start-a-writing-career book (I list good ones in the back of Writer Mama.). You need lots of pens, pads of paper, possibly glasses, and that’s enough to get started. Work with a book, tackling one assignment at a time. That’s how Writer Mama is set up and that’s how I work with my students in workshops. That’s the best way to find your writing rhythm, by applying what you learn as you go.

What’s the most common mistake writer mamas make that can slow down their progress as freelance writers, and what should they do about it?

This one isn’t spoken about much, so I’ll talk about it. If you want to succeed as a professional writer, you’re going to have to get used to stretching beyond your comfort zone, possibly on a daily basis. That means doing things you’ve never done before and may feel unprepared or unqualified to do, like querying or negotiating a contract. Any task could be the one that strikes terror in your heart, but you really don’t have a choice. The industry is not going to change to appease your needs (although the landscape does shift constantly), so you are going to have to learn how to notice your fears and then act despite them. Hope Clark has said that in Writer Mama I turn stay-at-home moms into dragon-slayers and I think that was well said. I would simply add, dragon-slayers of their own fears because that’s where the dragons live—inside of us.

For many writers, not just moms, the process of writing for publication is not comfortable. It’s supposed to be that way. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably not stretching yourself enough. Just ask me. I do new things every single day. That’s what it takes to become an author. That is one constant for growing writers, in my experience—frequent fear and the resolve to overcome it.

Look for Writer Mama in bookstores near you starting March 1, 2007.
sage.gif

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, a creative companion for poets 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 Oregon Literary Review, Cup of Comfort for Writers, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. For organizations including Writers on the Rise and Willamette Writers, Sage teaches poetry writing and publishing workshops. Visit Sage at www.sagesaidso.com.

The ‘View: Return of the Renegade Writers

Query Letters that Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana BurrellQuery Letters That Rock
By Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
An interview with Christina Katz

Well, the Renegades have done it again. They’ve written a helpful and entertaining page-turner on a topic that is one of the most frustration-provoking for writers: query writing.

But before you zip into cyber-space to order your copy, read this interview first. It’s loaded with helpful, practical advice straight from the mouths of two professionals who have done their due diligence and come back with suggestions for writers who want to turn ideas into queries that get assignments.

Writing query letters that rock has become something of the elusive Holy Grail for writers and, apparently, according to you, for editors as well. What’s all the fuss about querying, anyway?

Linda: I get this question a lot: Why not save a step by writing up the article and sending it in? If the writers’ guidelines say the magazine wants articles on spec (that is, they don’t offer you a contract unless they decide to run the piece) and you really want to write up the article with no guarantees of publication (or pay), go for it.

But most editors want to see query letters so when they assign the piece, they can shape it for their audience: the word count, the style, the packaging, and so on. You may have a great idea that works for the magazine, but the chances that you’ll hit everything dead on, from the word count to the exact slant, are slim.

And writing a query will save you time in the long run: often I end up using my title and lede from the query in my article, and I can use much of my research as well.

Okay, so let’s say I land an assignment…Wahoo! I’m stoked. In my article draft, I have terrific quotes, research, and a winning writing style. Do the details, like title, sidebars, and my lede really matter to my editor? Better yet, do they matter in my query?

Diana: A huge part of my responsibility as a writer is to make my editors’ jobs easier, not more difficult. That’s why I try to get their expectations on the table before I start writing. For example, during the assigning phase I’d ask if they want a sidebar with the story – I wouldn’t just shoot one over for the heck of it. And although 99.9 percent of the time editors write their own heds and deks, I still write them for my queries, just to give them a peek at the idea that follows. (If you stink at writing them though, skip ’em – editors won’t hold it against you.) If they sent me the publication’s style guide, I’ve followed it to the T. A killer lede, however, is crucial. It’s crucial in your query, it’s crucial in your article. What you turn in to your editor should be a clean final draft that meets – nay, exceeds – her expectations.

You two give excellent examples and use entertaining word choices in your Renegade books. Why is this important for writers and how did you get so darn good at it?

Linda: As Diana said, your job is to make editors’ jobs easier, and that includes using a style that fits the magazine. My natural style is edgy and funny, and I can often incorporate that into any type of article, from a health piece to a business profile. Examples that illustrate your point are also important because they help the reader understand what you’re saying, and that’s your number one job: Educate the reader. One tip is to be specific instead of general in your examples and in your wording in general. For example, don’t write, “When something you just bought breaks, write a complaint letter.” Say, “When your brand new iPod fizzles or your just-bought Liz Claiborne blouse loses a button, don’t fume — write a complaint letter.”

Back to that snappy lede (sometimes spelled ‘lead’)…again, I’ve written a good query letter or article. If that’s the case, how killer does my lead have to be?

Diana: Pretty killer. When we were talking to editors for QLTR, the one thing most editors said was that they read these pitches quickly. If the writing sucks or they can’t figure out what you’re pitching, they’re not going to wade through several paragraphs to give you the benefit of the doubt. You can have a great story idea, but if it’s buried under three paragraphs of warm-up material, forget it. They’re going to move on to the next idea in the inbox. But a lede that’s enticing and well-written, and that offers a story that’s perfect for their publication? Most editors will stick with you through the end. What’s sad is that most editors we spoke to see so few of these letters – yeah, it’s depressing, isn’t it? – that they actually get excited when they receive one.

Now that you’ve written three Renegade books (okay, one was a rewrite, but still) and your readers are feeling quite liberated, whatever will you do next? Is there another book in the pipe for the Renegades?

Linda: Diana and I have lots of plans for our Renegade Writer blog (http://www.therenegadewriter.com); for example, next year we’ll be choosing two more winners in our Renegade Writer Makeover and, well, having our experts make them over. I’ll also have a Q&A with the author of a book that inspired me. Diana and I are also working on a couple of e-books, including one where editors of top magazines rant (anonymously) about their writer pet peeves.

One final request: your top three pieces of advice for writing a query today that is guaranteed to grab an editor’s attention for all the right reasons.

Diana/Linda:

1. Let your personality show. A little sense of humor and style is a good thing. I notice that many new writers are so afraid of querying that they write in an uninspired business-like style, but when Diana and I were researching The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock, the queries that editors remembered and loved (and assigned!) showed the writer’s personality. One writer I interviewed often ends his queries with a joke, and another ended his query on a blues DJ with, “If you don’t give me this assignment, I just don’t know what I’ll do.”

2. Don’t give the editor a reason to say no. We both teach classes, and we’re still struck by how many writers write things like, “I’ve never been published” or who pitch Cat Fancy with, “Would you be interested in ‘Cats: Why You Should Own One’?”

3. And there are no guarantees. Even the best query letters get shot down because magazines are over-inventoried or the editor just assigned something similar. A good letter simply increases your chance of getting noticed by an editor – noticed in a good way, of course!

cmkwritermama.gifChristina Katz is the author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids (Writer’s Digest Books, March 2007). She is a featured presenter at the Writer’s Digest/BEA Writer’s Conference, The Whidbey Island Writers Association MFA Residency, and the Willamette Writers Conference. She’s been teaching writing-for-publication classes for six years and has appeared on Good Morning America. She is also publisher and editor of this e-zine and another called The Writer Mama. Christina blogs daily at http://www.thewritermama.wordpress.com/. For more about Writer Mama, visit Christina’s website at http://www.thewritermama.com/.


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