Saturday, March 20, 2010

Molly Cochran on the art of writing and the science of finishing, part 2

Taking a cue from Molly Cochran, whose Write Stuff session is “Finishing Your Novel,” I thought, what the heck? We should finish our interview. To that end…

Kathryn Craft: During the brainstorming process for your presentation topic, you put forth that selfishness can be an important attribute for attaining success in today’s publishing world. Why is that?

Molly Cochran: Correction. Not today’s world, and not the publishing world. Just the WORLD. Artists are SELFISH Yes, yes, yes! Oh, how women hate that word!

Actually, my original topic was “The Selfish Writer,” but you asked me to modify the title, since you feared the session's marketability; no one wants to think of him/and especially herself as selfish. But here’s the truth: Artists have to be selfish. We must be, because otherwise we would not be permitted to create art (and yes, your unimportant little novel which is constantly pre-empted by Junior’s Little League practice IS ART). Every one of us is told sooner or later to go get a real job. The fact is, writers have to respect their work enough to give it the attention it deserves. If you only write when there’s nothing better to do, then your work doesn’t mean enough to you. I hate to say it, but you really don’t deserve success.

What is success, anyway? Only an idiot would think it has to do with how much money you make, and if that’s all you care about, then I’m not even talking to you. This isn’t a job; it’s a lot more than that. I don’t even think of my work as coming from me, particularly. It’s bigger than me. It’s demanding. It’s hungry. It’s harsh. My choice to live as an artist constantly breaks my heart, wanting so much from me and sometimes giving me so little in return. But I’ve learned that I can’t be happy without writing. I don’t even think I can live without it.

So I don’t think that serving one’s talent — one’s art, or whatever you want to call it — is selfish. And if it is, I don’t care.

K: Your published works represent a range of genres, from nonfiction (DRESSING THIN) to fantasy (THE FOREVER KING trilogy, WORLD WITHOUT END) to spy novels such as the Amelia Pierce books written under the pseudonym Dev Stryker. What are you working on these days?

M: I have a book with my editor at Tor titled THE PAGAN TRAILER PARK, about a 50-year-old writer who, in an attempt to survive a divorce and the death of her only child, allows the main character in the book she’s writing to take over her life, with some surprising results.

I’ve also written something entirely new, a paranormal YA novel I call WONDERLAND, about a bright, articulate 16-year-old girl who finds herself in a town filled with witches who have all sorts of special abilities that both help and hinder her as she seeks to unravel the mystery of her mother’s suicide.

I use the term “YA” like I know what I’m talking about, but actually, I didn’t write WONDERLAND as anything except a story with a young narrator. The whole YA genre is weird and new to me. Different editors, different agents. I’ve written outlines for two sequels. I figure that after they’re completed, I’ll know whether or not I want to stay on this track.

As for the future, I’ve been working for some time — years, really, there’s so much research involved — on a novel based on the life of my Japanese grandfather. Every event in his life was shaped by women: his Samurai mother and grandmother, his affair with an Australian free-thinker, his first marriage, arranged by his parents and doomed to misery, the daughter that his mother gave away to a geisha house, his beautiful, aristocratic second wife who dies tragically, his housekeeper, who keeps his large family alive through WWII by using her wit and peasant resources, and his daughters, who have all sorts of adventures of their own. Lots of material there.

And as for the past: Some of you may know that I took rather a long hiatus from writing. I don’t know why. Instead of writing, I traveled, ruminated, wrote a lot of notes for projects I didn’t begin, felt bad about getting divorced, cooked, moved around a lot… wasted time.

I regret it. I can’t get that time back. But then, maybe I needed to take the time, too. I don’t know anything anymore, except that I missed writing. It kept me — I don’t want to say sane — connected. Connected to something beyond myself. I’m not religious. It wasn’t God. But it was something that I needed, and need every day.

So I’m writing again. Starting over, sort of. But don’t we all, always, with every book, start over from the beginning? That’s the nature of art, I think, and artists: Constantly reinventing the world and ourselves through this lonely, terrifying, fascinating journey of the mind. Our books are the notes we take. Sometimes people want to read them, to share our journey.

That is the whole point.

Thank you to Molly, all of our presenters, this year's blog contributors, and to the more than 2500 of you who made the inaugural year of ALL THE WRITE STUFF a success! This is the last planned pre-conference post. Not a bad idea to check in here before you leave for the conference for any last-minute announcements, but barring those, please return after the conference—I'll write one last wrap-up post. And, since our experiences will differ, please leave comments, lessons learned, and interesting vignettes about the conference to share with others!

James Frey "How to Plot Like the Pros" workshop starts in 5 days!
Write Stuff 2010 starts in 6 days—see you there!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Speaker change: Meet Bonnie J. Doerr!

Due to a family emergency, Kitty Keswick will not be able to participate in our conference session, "A Conversation with an Editor." Her co-presenter, editor/publisher Laurie Edwards of Leap Books, did not want to leave us in the lurch, however, and has arranged to sub in another of her authors, Bonnie J. Doerr. Bonnie will be flying to Allentown straight from the Virgina Festival of the Book—ask her about it! Here's a little more about Bonnie. There's even more at her blog.

Bonnie has always played with words, ideas, and nature. To be separated from nature—to be containerized—would slowly suck the breath from her. For years this therapeutic pursuit manifested itself in poetry. In recent years her play resulted in stories and novels for young adults. A lifetime educator, Bonnie J. Doerr has taught students from kindergarten to college in eight states. Degrees in reading education, combined with a brief post as a science teacher, led her to write ecological mysteries. Years of teaching and living in the Florida Keys provided irresistible material. Her novels celebrate caring, involved “green” teens who take action with attitude and a touch of romance. When not at home with her heart in the Florida Keys, she lives in a log cabin in North Carolina.

Kenzie didn’t expect her first summer in the Florida Keys to be murder. Cute guys, awesome boats, endangered species, gun-toting thugs...
When city girl Kenzie Ryan moves to a Florida wildlife refuge, she plunges straight into an eco-mystery. Kenzie trades New York streets for Keys pollution cleanup, and now, instead of hailing cabs, she’s tracking down a poacher of endangered Key deer. Her new home does have some benefits—mainly Angelo, an island native, who teams up with her to nab the culprit. But will they both survive when the killer turns from stalking deer to hunting humans?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Molly Cochran on the art of writing and the science of finishing, Part 1

With thirty books to her name, including a number of bestselling and award-winning novels, Molly Cochran is a veteran writer. Yet after a recent break from her writing, she found that while starting a new novel may be like riding a bike—you can always remember how to get back on and point your nose in the right direction—she is ready to allow that finishing the journey takes some serious dedication, grit, and know-how. Kathryn Craft interviewed her about the genesis of her upcoming Write Stuff session. Here’s part one.

Kathryn Craft: Why did you decide on the topic “Finishing Your Novel”?

Molly Cochran:  I believe that novel writing is one of the most difficult things anyone can attempt. The ironic thing is, everyone except writers thinks it’s easy. Several dozen people have made this proposal to me: “Hey, I’ve got this GREAT idea for a book. I just need someone (me, presumably) to write down the words!”

Two facts: one, everybody has ideas. Two, it takes about three thousand ideas (give or take a thousand) to make a novel, and they all have to be relevant to the plot, intrinsically sensible, fit into the belief system of the work as a whole, grow out of a previous event or reaction, and lead to the next idea (which can be a plot point, character revelation, thematic element, or something else). What you end up with is a giant macramé of ideas that you have to construct solidly enough so that no holes show. The further along you go, the harder it gets to keep all the ideas working together, developing, growing, evolving into new, increasingly complex patterns.

This is why finishing a novel is so hard. When most people say they have an idea for a book, what they really have is an idea for the BEGINNNING of a book. Or a hook or twist for the END of a story. But it’s the MIDDLE where you meet the dragons. That’s the part that eats you.

But there are ways past the dragons. Most of them are technical, things you can do just by working hard, planning ahead, or being willing to try. Some are psychological, like the idea of embracing selfishness.

K: Why is it hard for writers — or people in general — to finish what they’ve started?

1.     Lack of preparation.
2.     Lack of confidence.
Part of what I mean by “preparation” is knowing for sure that you want to do what you’re planning to do. At one conference where I held a workshop, someone presented an idea that was just too small for a novel. Remember, a novel is leisurely, exploratory, organic. It grows, so it needs room to grow. (Incidentally, I told the prospective author about my reservations regarding her story. She got angry and stomped out of the workshop. I don’t know if she ever finished her book, but I haven’t seen her name on the Times bestseller list).

Also, a novel takes a lot of time. I was astonished to read that Daphne du Maurier wrote the iconic Rebecca (voted Best Novel of the Century by the Mystery Writers of America) in “three or four months” (her words). Usually it takes a year or more, but even three months is a long time to spend doing something you really don’t want to do, or writing about something about which you’re not tremendously interested.

Another part of preparation is knowing what you’re going to write before you write it. I’m really tired of arguing in defense of outlines. All I can say is that I use them. Religiously. When I’m stuck, I outline. Outlines do not deter or lessen my creativity. Au contraire, I find I’m much freer intellectually and creatively if I’m not always worrying about what the next story point is going to be.

Lack of confidence is more amorphous, and therefore more difficult to alter. I don’t think I’m being a rabid feminist by saying that women suffer more in general from lack of confidence than men. I’m not going to posit all the reasons why that’s true, but one of them is the idea we have that women are born to serve. Our families, our elders, our husbands, and particularly our children. We live in a society in which children rule. Johnny needs to go to Little League, so of course Mom will take him. The novel she’s (secretly) working on can wait. It’s not important, anyway.

All I’ve got to say about that is that James Joyce made his family (wife, two kids) live in abject penury for 17 years while he wrote (and finished) Finnegans Wake.

But I’ve got a lot to say about selfishness.

…and Molly will continue dispensing her invaluable wisdom on this topic in our next blog post!

Days until the conference: 9!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Conference FAQs

For every one person who picks up the phone to ask a question there are usually several others who'd like to know the same thing but didn't ask. So for your information as you prepare for the conference, here are the answers to this year's Most Frequently Asked Questions. Even if you didn't think you had a question, read on—we have a few surprises in store!

1. I’m coming into town early for the James Frey workshop. Anything going on Thursday night?

Yes. From 7:30–9:30 pm GLVWG Writers Café chair Bart Palamaro will lead a “Writer’s Café: Conference Edition” at the hotel in Salon C. This event is free and open to any pre-conference workshopper, GLVWG member, or conferee, so if you’re in the hotel or live locally, come on over! Bart will start off the conversation but the event is informal by design. If you want to meet some fellow conferees for stimulating discussion, join us. And if you want to practice your pitch, bring it along and we’ll provide feedback.

2. Last year, getting Friday dinner at the hotel restaurant between the pre-conference workshop and Page Cuts was a nightmare. Do you have any new plans?

We complained and the new Four Points chef has responded: she will offer a buffet meal in the restaurant that night so people who must fit in their meal between James Frey’s workshop (which ends at 5 pm) and Page Cuts (which begins at 6:30) should have no trouble serving themselves, eating, and paying the fixed price of $16.96 (includes tax and gratuity) before their next event. Here’s the menu:

Garden Salad
Pasta Salad
Almond Crusted Chicken with Honey Dijon Cream Sauce
Herb Roasted Loin of Pork with Demi Glace
Broiled Tilapia with Citrus Chive Sauce
Fresh Seasonal Veggies
Roasted Potatoes
Assorted Dessert Display
Soda, Iced Tea, Coffee & Hot Tea

3. I have special food needs. Can the conference accommodate them?

The conference can’t, but the hotel will. We know because a few people have already done this: just call 610-266-1000 as soon as possible and ask to speak to the chef; she will try to accommodate your needs. Our hot lunch on Saturday will be the “Taste of Italy” buffet, so you can be pretty sure that tomato and gluten allergies will need a work-around. We will have vegetarian choices.

4. I am so disappointed I didn’t get into a Page Cuts session. Is anything else going on Friday evening for those of us left out in the cold?

Yes there is! Agent Kim Lionetti will be sharing from her long experience as agent and editor in “Pitching Do’s and Don’ts,” which will be held from 7-8 pm in Salon B. This is an open session.

But there's more! After that, while we wait for the Page Cuts sessions to conclude and the welcome reception to be set up, there is no longer a reason to stand wedged like sardines in the back hallway. Instead, stretch your legs—we’re going to have a literary scavenger hunt throughout the hotel! You can thank co-chair Tammy Burke for this fun idea (but not during the event, because she'll be stuck in a Page Cuts room). Those who complete the tasks will throw their names into a hat for the grand prize: a set of James Frey books—signed, of course! If you can’t make Kim’s session but get to the hotel by 8 pm, stop into Salon B, where President Tori Bond will explain the rules and send you on your way!

We hope that eases the sting of that Page Cut. Next year, sign up earlier! Early registration is key to gaining entry to limited registration events.

5. I want to enter the flash contest. Where do I send my submission?

Please review the Flash Contest rules. Do not mail in your submission—just bring it along and hand it in between 6-8:30 pm at the Friday registration desk, or any time between 7:30-8:30 am Saturday at the Flash Contest table in the back hallway. Don't forget: large font as per the guidelines; names and genre (F, NF, Poetry) on the back.

6. How will I know when my agent appointment will be?

You'll get your specific appointment time in your registration packet. Plan to arrive at the Four Points Sheraton early enough to look these materials over.

7. If extra agent/editor appointments remain, can I sign up for more than the one I already have?

Yes. Beginning at 7:30 am Saturday morning—please, not before—check with Oli at the registration desk to see what opportunity exists.

8. My appointment with agent Evan Goldfried was rescheduled to Friday. Will conference registration be open before my appointment time?

Possibly not. If your appointment time precedes the opening of registration at 6 pm Friday, don’t worry about it. Check the location of Evan’s meetings on the flyer at the registration desk and go straight to that room a good five minutes early. Check in with usher Dave Craft and he’ll let you in. All you need is a valid driver’s license, social security card, two credit cards, a personal reference… (hope you know we’re kidding!).

Another word about registration: conference registration opens at 6 pm Friday night and runs through 8:30 pm. If you are attending Friday evening activities (Page Cuts, Pitching Do’s and Don’ts, the welcome reception) please register first and get your packet. Inside you’ll find your nametag, which must be worn throughout the conference. If you don’t plan to arrive until Saturday, pick up your registration packet between 7:30-8:30 am.

Pre-conference workshoppers will use a sticky name tag, which you’ll receive when you check in each morning at the table inside Salon C.

9. I volunteered for the conference but I can’t remember what I signed up for—help!

If you signed up to volunteer at this year’s conference, THANK YOU! It takes a large team to put on a conference, and we appreciate your help. A green volunteer sheet with your assignment on it can be found in your registration packet. Any questions, now or on the day of the conference, call Kathryn’s cell 610-653-5037.

10. This will be my first time at the conference. Do I have to sign up for the Saturday sessions?

Any Saturday advanced registration sessions (“Start a Fire on Page One,” agent/publisher appointments, David Wilk appointments) to which you have successfully attained access will be reflected on a sheet included in your registration packet. These sessions are full and will be grayed out on the room map you’ll find in your registration packet. All other sessions are open, and you may pick and choose as you see fit.

11. This may sound dumb, but what should I wear?

This is actually a very good question, since conference dressing is more art than science. If you are pitching your manuscript or proposal to an agent or publisher, you can’t go wrong with “business casual.” Clean and pressed—yes; over-eager—no; professional yet confidently relaxed and "I too could be on Oprah" is the image you might seek. That said, if your book requires you to project a certain image, go ahead and do it (it might be hard to evoke confidence in your platform if you pitch your proposal on the hardcore rock scene in an Izod shirt and pleated khakis).

We also suggest dressing in layers, since heating a large ballroom space is also an art, and one that does not readily respond to our desires to change it. Over the course of the conference day you might experience anything from blazing heat to arctic frost, so be prepared.

12. I've never pitched to an agent or editor before. Should I bring the manuscript with me?

You wouldn't be the first person to do so, but it's not considered proper. Think of it this way:

Let's say you are an agent who has worked a long day in NYC and then hopped a bus for the two-hour ride to Allentown, PA. You are scheduled to meet with 15 people the next day, and the projects are so intriguing you've asked to see a dozen of them. Then there are those six extras you requested after informal pitches at the party. After your last appointment you have only fifteen minutes to grab your luggage and catch a hotel shuttle bus back to the Trans-Bridge terminal for the ride back to New York, where you must then catch a cab or the subway to your apartment. DO YOU WANT TO BE LUGGING 18 MANUSCRIPTS?

Etiquette says you should not bring your manuscript to the conference. It would be rare for an agent to request the whole thing anyway; for his or her convenience you should mail or e-mail any requested sample pages/chapters after the conference. (Tip: Always mark snail-mailed submissions as "REQUESTED MATERIALS" so they get a quicker reading.) If you would like to send the agent home with a memento of your meeting, a business card with the name of your project on it (with a two-or three sentence synopsis on the back as a reminder, if you like) is enough.

Have further questions? Leave them here as a comment and we’ll address them.

The Write Stuff 2010 conference is now fully sold out and registration is closed. We can accept no walk-in registrations. Thank you all for your interest! 

Our final pre-conference blog posts, a two-part interview with veteran novelist Molly Cochran, will run later this week. 

Days to conference: 12. Can’t wait to see you!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hey, Pitch to Us!: Two publishers’ top five reasons

by Kathryn Craft

Pitch appointments fill quickly at The Write Stuff, and for more than two weeks now, all 75 of the available agent appointments have been filled. Appointments with our two publishers have filled more slowly. This always happens. My guess as to why: If you can sign with an agent, all windows of opportunity are still open; if you sign with a publisher—especially a small press—you’ll never know "what might have been."

But in today’s economy, here’s another way of looking at it: an agent may or may not be able to sell your book. A publisher, on the other hand, has the power to put your project into print.

To stimulate submissions, I asked our publishers—Renee Rocco from Lyrical Press and Laurie Edwards of Leap Books—to give me the top five reasons conferees should consider pitching to them at The Write Stuff. Here are their responses.

The top five reasons to pitch commercial fiction to Lyrical Press, as written by publisher Renee Rocco:

1. Lyrical Press offers its authors a solid marketing plan, professional and dedicated staff, as well as publishers who guide their authors throughout the publication process. From acquisition through to the expiration of a book's contract, Lyrical remains by an author's side for the life of the relationship.

2. The company is always evolving, experimenting with new ways to expand and reach a wider audience—offering readers three platforms in which to enjoy a Lyrical book: ebook, print and audio.

3. Comprehensive content and line editing cycles and a talented cover design staff assure authors their manuscripts will be in the best shape possible when presented to readers.

4. Although Lyrical Press has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, the house never takes for granted that publishing is a competitive business.

5. Lyrical's motto is, "If you dare to write it, we dare to consider it". That's right, we dare you to write something amazing!

The top five reasons to pitch young adult fiction to Leap Books, as written by publisher Laurie Edwards:

So why should you pitch to Leap Books? Many reasons spring to mind, but I’m limited to five, so here they are (although I must admit math isn’t my strong point, so I may have miscounted):

• Because you’re a workaholic, driven to succeed, and love to work long hours on revising your books to make them the best they can be (Notice I said books. We’re looking for authors who are interested in a writing career.) and you want an editor who understands your vision and voice, and will work with you to shape your masterpieces for the marketplace.

• Because you love YA with your whole heart and would rather write for a teen readership, even though most people ask when you plan to write a REAL book. And because you know that teens deserve top quality literature.

• Because you’re a unique individual with a special story to tell—one that touches hearts, souls, minds, and one that lingers in the imagination long after the covers are closed.

• Because you want the time and attention a small press can give you and would like to have more input in the finished project.

• Because you’ve checked out our website and/or read our books and you believe your book would be the perfect fit. And you believe in our mission to encourage reluctant readers to pick up an enticing book.

• Because you love a family atmosphere, including all the craziness and dysfunction it entails—the laughing, crying, cheering, encouraging, arguing (no, no, it’s called discussion)—and you want the support and caring that goes with it.

And if that’s not enough to entice you, I’ll throw in a few bonus reasons:

• Because I promise not to bite your head off. I’m not scary or intimidating. I understand the knee-knocking, trembling hands, and sweaty palms. Been there, done that. As an author myself, I know the agony and anxiety behind every pitch session. So you can come in expecting to relax and have fun.

• But the main and most important reason is that you like Leap Books and what we stand for. You’re impressed with what we’ve put out so far and would like to see your book on our website and in our catalog.

If you’ve read the brochure, you know Leap Books is a teen and tween fiction publisher with a passion for getting teens to read. If you’ve checked out the website, you can tell we’re seeking to be cool and edgy. If you’ve read our latest releases, you know we place a lot of emphasis on voice and we love discovering new talent. If you’ve talked to our authors, you’ve heard we care—about each and every one of them. If you’ve talked to our readers, you’ve discovered they love what we’re doing.

If after all that, you believe your book is right for us, then please pitch it to me. It’ll make my day. And best of all, I might just say yes.

If appointments with these two publishers remain open on conference day, we will open up their appointments to authors who already have an agent appointment. Check with the conference registration table at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, March 27, to see if this opportunity exists.

Thank you for your interest in The Write Stuff! Registration closes with a March 12 postmark.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spencer Soper: "You've got to connect with an audience"

At this year’s Write Stuff conference, Morning Call “On the Cheap” columnist Spencer Soper, pictured here after a recent makeover, will talk to us about the all-important notion of developing a niche. Lisa Tomarelli recently interviewed Spencer about his own niche as a journalist, and how its development has helped him connect with a readership.

Lisa Tomarelli: In what ways has your newspaper experience helped you in today’s online world of publishing?

Spencer Soper: My first daily newspaper job was with a PM paper in San Diego. We got in at around 6 or 7 a.m. and had to jam to get all copy in by 9 a.m. I left that place to work at some morning dailies. But that PM paper training came in handy when newspapers shifted to posting news on the web and a 24-hour news cycle. I knew how to file stories quickly.

L: What is your favorite and least favorite aspect of today’s publishing environment?

S: Least favorite would be the instability. No one is sure where the revenue will come from or the best ways to collect it, which has created a lot of turmoil. Favorite, which kind of ties in with the least favorite, is the industry is willing to take risks to find its footing. That part is exciting. Being able to try new things that would have been dismissed in a healthier climate when publishers were more conservative.

L: Your “On the Cheap” pieces are such fun; can you describe the evolution of this niche for the Morning Call?

S: Gee. Thanks. I pitched the column in the summer of 2008. Newspapers have been hurting for a while, and they were looking for new ways to engage readers. I have some PA Dutch heritage myself and became more exposed to the frugal nature of many folks in the Lehigh Valley after moving here. I thought it was something that people would enjoy. We started with one column, which basically asked for tips, and it took off from there. We added videos to enhance it as a web product, and social media came next to get the stuff in front of eyeballs in cyberspace and beyond the Morning Call's print circulation reach.

L: What steps did you take to fine-tune your own niche with such a broad range of reporting experience?

S: My background is largely municipal and political reporting, mostly in California. I switched to business a few years back to specialize in an area that I thought was healthier. But I've always been able to find stories, no matter the beat. A good story is a good story, whether it's about housing prices or a good political dust-up.

L: Are you still finding your niche today?

S: I think so. The big thing now, at least I think, is marketing. Reporters can't just file stories and hope people read them. They have to cultivate their own audiences and engage with them. There is a lot more interaction now than there used to be. And I think that's a good thing. It's easy to get detached from the public if you're too close to a beat and the same old sources.

L: Have you ever successfully re-sold published material to a different market?

S: No. Did freelance work when I was first getting started, about 15 years ago. But that was just to get a foot in the door to some places and see if something permanent opened up. One paper paid me by the inch. The editor would whip out a ruler and measure the copy in the paper before cutting me a check, and I watched him to make sure he didn't skimp.

L: As writers, we are aware that we need to build a platform using the social media tools, but there are so many options: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites. We need to take the time to simply work on our projects, too. How have you effectively used social media tools to build your platform?

S: So far, I've had the most luck with Facebook. It's highly interactive and has tools you can use to find a targeted audience, folks who are interested in what you are writing about. Twitter has been a dud for me. Lots of folks swear by it. I have 1,000 followers, but it's mostly get-rich-quick scammers and web cam girls. If I tweet a link to an On The Cheap video, I might get a handful of hits. So it's like direct mail in cyberspace. I have a much better capture rate with Facebook. I also like good old-fashioned e-mail. That's still the best. If people give you their e-mail, they are interested in what you are doing.

L: What is the best use of our writing time combined with the time using the social media tools?

S: I can't give some magic proportion, but you have to do both. And you can't only use social media to promote yourself. You have to interact with people and be involved. It's a give-and-take. It's also a great way to figure out if there is any interest in what you are doing. If you're not engaging an audience, it's time to change things up.

Write Stuff registration will remain open until March 12. Days until the conference begins: 20!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Shrinking magazine market requires expanded skills

Write Stuff presenter Maureen Sangiorgio, veteran writer of consumer health articles, says the shrinking periodicals market requires that today’s magazine writers be at the top of their game. She’ll help us sharpen our skills at her conference session, “Writing Magazine Articles that Sell.” Here, in an interview with Melba Tolliver, she cautions that the Internet’s growing influence, combined with the tight economy, is forcing magazines to cut back on feature articles. Even so, she offers some tips on how to get published.

Melba Tolliver: Can you give our writers a snapshot of the state of the magazine industry?

Maureen Sangiorgio: Advertising is down, magazines are folding, and it’s much more difficult to get an article published in any genre, in any type of magazine. Even the women’s service magazines, which used to be the bedrock--Women’s Day, Ladies Home Journal-- have changed some. No one is immune from it.

People are reading a lot of articles on line, buying Kindles. One way to sell magazine articles today is to pitch more ideas than ever before and maybe even step out of your genre. Instead of just business, maybe write business and health. Instead of just health, write health and automotive.

MT: Describe the changes brought about by the new technology and the Internet.

MS: The proliferation of the Internet, and its popularity, has had a detrimental effect on the magazine industry. People have more outlets to get their information from. Everyone has a computer. My genre is consumer health and there are a lot of really good high quality sites out there like WebMD and the large university hospital websites. It’s good health information. Whether they’re interested in cooking, housekeeping, health articles, business articles, they can get it online, free, 24 /7. That has hit the magazine industry very, very hard. And it’s reeling from it. I have written for newspapers, I have written chapters in books. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and have never seen it this slow before. When I first became a free-lance writer, when I left Rodale over 10 years ago, I was turning down work. Now I have fewer assignments throughout the year. I’ve lost clients. Child magazine folded. McCall’s folded. These are magazines that I worked for for quite awhile. Lifestyle magazines, a few of them on the West Coast I used to write for, they’re all gone.

MT: If someone is still interested in writing for magazines, despite the gloomy forecast, what is often their biggest mistake?

MS: I don’t think they send enough queries out. Try to come up with as many ideas as possible, and don’t limit yourself. For more than 20 years I’ve written mainly consumer health and medical articles. But for about the last 2 years, I’ve been writing for the automotive industry. I was the executive editor of the Porsche Club magazine. You know what? It keeps me busy and it keeps my name out there. I’ve also written a few articles for Pocono Business Journal. I’m pitching right now to Eastern PA Business Journal, just to broaden my horizons so that I keep getting published.

MT: So you would say keep getting published, if you can?

MS: Yes, Try to accept anything that comes your way. A local magazine, for example, that doesn’t pay their contributors, or pays very little, can give you the experience so you have those clips, those examples to show someone in a better market.

MT: I’ve heard that if you are writing a full-length book---say, a memoir—it could be helpful to get a chapter published first as a magazine article.

MS: Sure, sure, that’s a possibility. Maybe as you’re writing the book chapter, think of article ideas that you could pitch to magazines. You would have to tease away a little part of the chapter. Book chapters are long and detailed, where with magazine articles you don’t have space for all that.

MT: The old adage “write what you know.” Good advice? 

MS: I never agreed with that because if you want to be a writer—if that’s your business and how you make a living—you can’t just write about what you know. You have to write about what people are willing to buy. If it’s Architectural Digest, people may now want to read about building a green home. You may know nothing about it but you will once you do the research. Train yourself how to do high-quality, in-depth research to learn what’s marketable, and to please your editor. That’s how you get published.

MT: How is the Internet for doing high quality research?

MS: As a consumer health writer, the Internet is a terrific source of health information as long as you know where to look. Federal government sites and university hospital sites generally offer consumers quality information. As for other genres, the Internet could provide you with background information, but you have to interview knowledgeable, live sources.

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