Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Directory of all posts on Blogger

After much thought and conversation with my Web guru, Doreen Hulsey, we are making to long overdue move to WordPress. My blog will still have the same name—The Writing Life—but a whole new look, many more capabilities, and enhanced ease of use. There is a link to the Blogger version, so you can always get here. In case you are looking for any post since April 2008, they are all here. See you at our new address: The Writing Life.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What Does It Take to Be a Publisher?

Publishers come in all sizes, from huge New York houses to one-man bands who form their own companies to “publish” one or two books. In between are what is called independent or “indy” publishers who cater to certain specialized niches. Assuming the big ones are well versed in their craft and the indy publishers are expanding their education through the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), I am going to focus on small, less experienced publishers.

Just saying you are a publisher is not enough to make you one. Most authors who decide to self-publish often have no idea what is involved in the process or what the requirements of the job are. To clear up any misunderstanding on this issue, the board of directors of IBPA drafted a checklist for publishers, posted it on its Website, and summarized it in an article in the IBPA newsletter. Added to that list are several important tasks suggested by author and self-publishing expert, Dan Poynter. Some are the responsibility of any publisher; others are implemented in concert with the author.

Technical Aspects

  • Have manuscript edited and copy edited by two different editors before it goes into design.
  • When the book is complete, send it out for review to peer reviewers. Take their critiques to heart and make changes.
  • Have page proofs proofread by a different editor.
  • Send out review copies of galleys to appropriate publications and reviewers. Mark them as Reader’s Copies. (Don’t send a printed book.)
  • Secure an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and an EAN bar code from R.R. Bowker.
  • Apply to the U.S. Copyright Office for a copyright.
  • Develop a business plan with a budget,
  • Create a contract that spells out what the author does and what the publisher does.
  • Deal with appropriate, industry-related vendors.

Printing & Distribution

  • Get competitive quotes from printers (Be sure they are all bidding on the same specs), and choose the one that best meets your author’s needs, including, but not limited to, price.
  • Research all options on digital printers, POD companies, and offset printers (for more than 1,000 book).
  • Decide how you want to handle storage and distribution. You can do both if you have room and time, but choosing a professional distributor and fulfillment house may be a better alternative. (LightningSource, which deals only with publishers, is owned by Ingram, which is the largest distributor in the country. Most POD companies print and send books when they are ordered. Larger print orders usually require a distributor and fulfillment services.)
  • Go over the printed books with a fine-tooth comb for appearance, quality, pages, printing—in short, everything. Don’t settle for less than perfect. The author assumes final responsibility by signing the printer’s release form.


  • Write a marketing plan. In its simplest form, a marketing plan starts with an overall goal for what you want to accomplish, strategies for how you plan to do it, and specific tactics or actions you will take, with target dates and estimated costs.
  • Create a promotional piece, bookmark, or brochure.
  • Put together two mailing lists—one for regular mail and one for e-mail. You should already have one, but this is the time to hone and add to it.
  • Develop a Website before the book is published to build an author platform and interest in the book.
  • Create a blog to build interest for the book’s topic and keep readers informed of the author’s progress.
  • Request testimonials to include in the book, on the cover, and in promotional materials.
  • Do a promotional mailing to snail-mail and e-mail lists to announce publication of the book.
  • Set up a “media room” on your Website so that media people can find the information they need in a form they can use.
  • Encourage author to write articles on the book’s subject; submit to print publications and on-line article sites. There are countless such sites, but the undisputed leader of the pack is
  • Explain to author that book promotion as an ongoing, full-time job. The more promotion, the more successful the book will be.
  • Work with author to develop fresh ways to repackage the content; develop “spin-off” products (CD, DVD, reports, mini-books, Podcasts, eBooks, Website content).

There are many books and Websites on publishing and self-publishing. This list covers the basics. As a publisher, you should work closely with your authors to produce a quality book and let the world know it exists.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Turning Lead Into Gold

You’re going along doing whatever it is that you do—in my case, writing—and suddenly your world blows up (or so it seems). You get hit in the head with a chunk of debris and end up on your rear end, wondering what happened. There you sit, trying to make sense of the senseless and becoming more immobilized by the minute.

It could be anything—an illness or accident, a family crisis, or a major loss—but whatever it is, it turns you into a zombie. If you are a writer, you simply stop writing. Words don’t come; what’s worse, you don’t ever care. That’s bad. No doubt about it.

In my own writing life, when this has happened, I have experienced a kind of miracle: I have somehow been able to convert the negative energy of the most stressful circumstances into the creative energy that fuels my writing process. I admit it has not worked 100 percent of the time, but in the past forty-plus years, it has happened. This never ceases to amaze me.

The next paragraph should be how to do it, but that’s the thing about miracles: they defy explanation. No matter how insane the situation in which I found myself, I usually wrote right through it. Sometimes, I cried or coughed or ran a fever or swore a blue streak while I was writing, but those things just seemed to intensify the process.

I have been teaching for many years and have yet to find a way to transmit this bit of alchemy. Perhaps in the beginning it was simply that I had a deadline, and it was unthinkable to miss it; so I sat down at my little Smith-Corona electric portable and just did what I had to do. Later, it was an ingrained habit. I had done it before; I could do it again. Maybe for each of us, there is a different trigger. I found mine by accident; I don’t know how you will find yours.

The important thing to know is that it can be done. You too can turn lead into gold. You just have to unravel the mystery in your own way. Please let me know if you do!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Changing World of Publishing

The publishing world is constantly changing; and as it does, the choices available to new authors change right along with it. Once upon a time, an aspiring nonfiction author had two alternatives: an established, conventional publisher, often in New York; or "vanity press."

Traditional publishing has always been a tough nut to crack for unknown writers, though sometimes a first manuscript miraculously attracts the attention of an editor and becomes a published book. Vanity press, which "publishes" (prints) anything authors are willing to pay for, quickly developed a reputation for poor-quality books. Unfortunately, the reputation attached itself to self-publishing, which is quite different.

Traditional publishers are having their own problems. There are fewer than there used to be, and the ones that have survived are struggling to make a profit, small as it may be. So, they tend to stick with tried-and-true authors. Not only are publishing houses competing with each other, they are also up against the ever-expanding world of ePublishing. According to Amazon, eBooks are now outselling print books. That doesn't even take into account all of the eBooks that are given away. No one is making any money on those.

They say everyone has a book inside. I believe that because many would-be authors take my classes, hoping to defy the odds. One of the first questions I ask my students is how do you plan to publish your book? Most don't know, or if they have a preference, they have no idea what is involved

Two important points

  1. It is possible to have your book published by a traditional publisher; but you must understand the process and be prepared to invest time, effort, and some money.
  2. Self-publishing is not the same as "vanity press." You can produce an excellent book yourself, but you must be aware of the wide array of available methods and make informed decisions about which one is best for you. Again, this requires time, effort, and money.


If you want to produce a quality book, there are prescribed steps to follow. The steps may take a few months or more than a year; they may cost you a modest amount or a large sum. As an author, this is not something you want to leave to chance or other people's whims. My advice: Educate yourself.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Finding Your Voice

There are ten definitions for the word “voice” in Webster’s college dictionary, but none of them explains the word in terms of writers. If your spoken voice is your distinctive sound, your writer’s voice is your singular written style. This is particularly important for nonfiction writers. When people read something you have written—a book, an article, and essay, or a letter—they will recognize you as the writer. Since your voice is so much a part of you, one would think it would be easy to identify. In fact, it takes work to find your voice. Here are seven guidelines to help you find yours.

  1. Be real, natural. Let your individuality shine through. If possible, write the way you speak, even if the grammar is a little shaky on the first couple of drafts.
  2. Start a conversation with your readers. Connect with them; engage them; answer their potential questions.
  3. Concentrate on content, not style. What you say is more important than how you say it. You can’t cover up lack of knowledge with words, words, and more words.
  4. Think with your fingers. Put them on the keys, and keep them there. Let the thoughts pour out, even if they seem jumbled.
  5. Avoid jargon—business, technical, political, academic, medical, any kind. Jargon is like speaking in code; it excludes the reader.
  6. Don’t change your voice for different audiences. All you have to be is clear, conversational, and concise. Don’t pretend to be a CEO to write to business people or a medical expert to write to doctors. Don’t pretend, period.
  7. Don’t try too hard. Some things develop in their own time. Your writer’s voice is one of them.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Tribute to William Zinser

William Zinser is my hero. He is, or should be, every writer’s hero. He is best known for his seminal book, On Writing Well, now in its 30th anniversary edition. That means he wrote it in 1976, and it is not only still relevant, it’s the gold standard. His book on Writing About Your Life should be, required reading for anyone who wants to write a memoir.

I read On Writing Well when it first came out, consulted it many times over the years, and am rereading it, once again with a yellow highlighter. Then, I’m taking notes on the most compelling sentences in each chapter—the essence of good writing. I want to write a dozen blogs filled with Zinsser’s amazing quotes, such as this one: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.” That is so basic, so right! Each time I read that sentence, I am struck by its stripped down wisdom.

William Zinsser knows how to write well. He has spent his life honing his craft and teaching it to others. He is writer, an editor, and a teacher. He was a journalist with the New York Herald Tribune and a contributor to many prestigious magazines. He has written seventeen books, taught at Yale, the New School in New York, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

It is hard to explain how he has influenced my own writing. In this brief blog post, I have cut out words, rewritten whole sentences, hit the thesaurus for better words to make certain points, and played editor to my own prose. Mr. Zinsser has made it impossible for me to dash off a blog post, an e-mail, or any piece of writing. He is always hovering at my shoulder, urging me to do my best writing. I know I am not alone. This man has made more writers than he will ever know.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Every Writer Should Know About Writing

I teach people how to write books. Yet, it’s surprising how little time I spend on the craft of writing. There is so much to say and only one two-hour class in which to say it. I’m afraid it gets short shrift, which is regrettable because it is so important.

I have been a writer all my life but didn’t think about it as “a career” until I was thirty years old. That’s what they all a late start. For a long time I had no idea what I was doing. I was going on pure instinct, not always the best teacher. Stringing sentences together, telling a story, threading in quotes, writing a good first paragraph—these were all mysterious processes I learned over time. I always knew good writing from bad but was pretty oblivious to how that pertained to my own.

In the last twenty-four years, I have come to understand what is most important about writing. I would like you share with you some of what I have learned.

Don’t talk about writing. Don’t explain your story or your article or your book until your listeners are bleary eyed. If you have something to say, write it. Writing is not something you discuss; it is something you do. My favorite quote is by a writer named Hugh Prather in a little book called Notes to Myself. “If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire is not to write.” I have a hand-lettered, six-foot-wide sign in my office that reminds me of that every day.

Know your subject. Most things require research. Don’t skimp on this step. In fact, overdo it if possible. You’ll never know everything there is to know about any topic. The more information you have, the better you can explain it clearly, concisely, and very carefully. If you have ten pages of data, you should be able to compress then into one, maybe two really tight paragraphs. If you can’t, you didn’t understand the material.

Take time to process what you have learned. Your subconscious mind is a computer. Everything you feed into it is churning around in there—organizing itself, coming to conclusions, solving problems, getting ready to bring forth a finished product. All you have to do is translate it into the right words. When I first stumbled on this principle in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, computers filled rooms and the PC was a distant dream. Maltz referred them as servo-mechanism machines. That was a mouthful, but the man was ahead of his time.

Have respect for words. Learn a lot of them. If you don’t know what they mean, look them up. Don’t use the same word twice. Find the perfect synonym. Buy the best dictionary (Webster’s New World College Dictionary) and thesaurus (Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus). Compare what you find to online sources. I grew up with books, so I reach for them first, but there are great tools on the Internet. Look for them and use them. Don’t trust spell check. It will often give you the wrong word—there when you mean they’re, it’s when you want its, apiece when you typed a piece.

Grammar counts. Nothing—absolutely nothing—is worse than a piece of writing filled with inexcusable errors. Of course, you will need an editor at some point, but if you can’t construct a decent sentence with proper punctuation, take a course, buy a book (Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition), hire a tutor. Grammar and punctuation are the foundation of everything you write.

Finally, trust your gut. When your writing is mechanical, awkward, overly wordy, sloppy, or unclear, you’ll know it. Don’t muscle your way through a bad sentence. Don’t keep something because it’s “beautiful” and you love the sound of it; but it doesn’t fit, doesn’t say anything, doesn’t advance your story. It’s hard, I know, but highlight the whole thing and hit the delete button. Your Jury of the Deep (inner voices, for you who don’t know me) is never wrong. Never.