Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The diversified writer: covering rugby league and politics, with writing and advertising along for the ride

I wrote a column last week about a writer opting to work as a generalist. This morning I realized it probably isn't for everyone, but it really suits me. The first email I opened was a request from Sky News to come up with some commentary about the Florida Primary.

Covering Florida was staring me in the face, a hungry blog begging for a mouthful of content. I remember wishing for 50 visitors a day. Those days were the calm before the storm. There's lots of content there, not only about the primary but also about the Australia Day Challenge.

I just finished my column for Web Savvy at The Writer. Subscribers can read my ideas about 'web-working' and see what others have accomplished by collaborating with other people they may or may not have actually met in person.

Meanwhile, I blogged at Beneath the Brand, explaining why I think rugby league is good for American businesses, large and small.

Each day I've worked on my nonfiction book, with a target of March 31 for manuscript completion. I've set the same deadline for the poetry manuscript--I'm down to nuts and bolts on that one, with the hard part (writing the poems) basically done.

Why am I telling you all this? So you'll know exactly what I mean when I use the term 'generalist.' In looking more closely, I guess it's obvious I'm passionate enough about several subjects to write about them repeatedly. So within that generalist arena, there are some specialized categories.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bookstore moments yield wisdom for authors

A couple days ago I finished up an interview and dropped by a bookstore on my way home. I’ve been visiting bookstores in a purely clinical way lately. Rather than wandering around mindlessly and coming out with a bag of books, I’ve been studying the way books are arranged in stores and especially the way they’re categorized. Either way, I still come out with a bag of books. When I visit stores I talk to people. I’m in the process of formatting my nonfiction manuscript, and this time, I’m doing my homework ahead of time. This will also help me to put together a marketing plan for my publisher.

I asked one bookseller how books with a geographic theme sell—I can’t help but notice all those Florida-related titles in every bookstore I visit. “They sell great,” came the response. I’ve noticed those titles are re-stocked on a regular basis.

I told another bookseller it’s hard for me to understand how some books are such blockbusters. “They’re sort of like a movie of the week, the novels at least,” I told him. His answer was uncomplicated. “A lot of them buy their way onto the shelves.”

I confess for me, the hardest part of the book business is committing to doing the legwork to help promote the book—that’s especially important with a small or regional publisher. I’ve come to learn big publishers also expect effort from an author, but many of them actually prohibit some authors from doing booksignings. That’d be fine by me. Booksignings are a tedious, draining way to sell your book even if you meet really nice people in the process.

Yesterday, I picked up a copy of a new novel, Nelson DeMille’s Wildfire (it's proving to be a good read). As I headed to checkout, I dropped by the regional authors section to see if my own nonfiction book was there. Four copies were on the shelf. I stood there for a few minutes, remembering that when I was young, I dreamed one day I’d have a book with my name on it. Standing there, I took in the measure of that. It was a good moment to savor. I didn’t let myself remember the hard work doing the author jig. I figure there’ll be plenty of time for that when the next one is about to come out.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Can a generalist survive today’s writing market?

Publishing has increasingly become a forum for experts. If you are a weight-loss guru, a financial expert or a spiritual sage and, more importantly, if you have succeeded in making money off your area of expertise, you automatically have an edge in pitching an article or even a book. And this phenomenon isn’t confined to nonfiction—look at Patricia Cornwall who, after working as technical writer and analyst in a medical examiner’s office, parlayed that experience into best-selling crime novels. But there are writers like me who for whatever reason decline to focus on a specialty area.

Part of the reason may lie in necessity. When I first began to freelance, it was necessary to take just about any project that came my way. As my options expanded, I decided I was basically interested in just about everything. Along the way, poetry became a sort of specialty—the study of it, the history of it and the writing of it. But most outlets for poetry are either small lit magazines that don’t pay or magazines like Poets & Writers who either have a steady stable of writers or rely on MFA types for content.

I’ve often thought expertise can be sort of dangerous, at least for the reader. If a writer relies on a single expert for content, you will see only one perspective on a subject. This has become commonplace in media—toss in a quote by a high-profile authority and prove a point. But experts often disagree among themselves, and I think we’d be better off if varying, even conflicting, perspectives are included, especially in informational pieces.

I’ve survived as a generalist, and I don’t foresee changing my tactics anytime soon. I’m having an amazing, diversified journey through the lives of others, shaping their stories into content for readers.

And frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of experts I trust these days anyway.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Message boards useful to writers if you hit ‘delete’ on politics

Message boards are a great resource for writers—you do a story about kumquats you look for a hobby group. Need to know about the effects of a disease or medical treatment? People are inexplicably eager to share. Amazing what grass roots research, a simple search in cyberspace, can do for you.

But I also come across messages that I suspect are placed by political plants. If an individual touts a candidate brazenly, especially if the board isn’t on a political site, I’d say that makes the person’s messages suspect. I came across an example of this at mediabistro.com today. An individual has plastered Mitt Romney all over the board, and all this does is alienate conservatives and of course liberals get all excited and next thing you know you are wading through the political sewer, getting an education in how many creative ways a person can use the ‘F’ bomb or insult someone’s mother. There's no way a politician would encourage this type of posting, but his opponent might.

Do people get paid to write these messages, I wonder? Maybe. Some of the grammar and/or spelling gets too funny to be accidental—spellings like Gullani are par for the course.

Political wags haven’t overlooked Oprah. After Oprah endorsed Barack Obama, the community at oprah.com has been having a chew fest. The title of one discussion: OPRAH IS A TRAITOR! Several threads take the talk show host to task. What’s mind-bending is the attitude of many that Oprah shouldn’t endorse anybody because she’s a journalist. I believe Oprah would agree that journalism isn’t her calling. For those dull of mind, write this down: Oprah is in the entertainment industry. She expresses her preferences on everything from cooking to sex to pop culture literature. So why shouldn’t she tell you who she’s voting for if she feels like it? Sean Penn doesn’t hold anything back. No difference.

The good thing about message boards, at least from a writer’s standpoint, is they present a wide range of opinions and sometimes, a great deal of expert information. Contact information is often included with a post. It's even possible to find sources for interviews.

When it comes to the politics, however, message boards present something really close to what my hound dog deposits in our back yard every morning. (Kay B. Day, 1-21-08)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Networks that pay off for freelance writers

I get email frequently from different people but with the same question. How do I get started in freelancing? I always view these with frustration, because there’s no easy answer and of course because there’s so much information about this on the Web free of charge. But one of the first things I point an aspiring freelancer to is a network. You can do one physically or on the Web. You can do one as part of an organization or a commercial group. You can even start one yourself.

Most states have writing organizations. Some effective organizations—and this is my opinion so do your own research first—are the North Carolina Writers Network, the South Carolina Writers Workshop and the Florida Writers Association. If you’d like a group with a regional slant, take a look at the Southeastern Writers Association. I’ve spoken at conferences for each of these, except for the NC organization. They run top tier programs and the people in charge are very helpful. Do a search for an organization in your own state and see what the group has to offer versus what it will cost you to join.

Web-based networks are also very effective. Most of these communicate by way of message boards and/or email news groups. Online News Association is on the cutting edge of technology that changes this profession on an almost daily basis. ONA has a fantastic conference; I plan to attend this year. Freelance Success (commonly known as FLX) is not non-profit, but the fee is well worth it. I speak from experience and I know many writers who say FLX brought their career to the next level. It certainly helped me. Very nice members; all very helpful.

Finally, there are organizations like the American Society of Journalists and Authors and The Authors Guild. Both of these are pricier because their base comprises professional writers. Once you have national publication credits, you can apply. ASJA does allow non-members to attend the annual conference.

Some writers opt to start a network. This is easily done by way of Yahoo or Google groups. You simply set up a group, solicit members and take it from there.

The writer in the lonely ivory tower is mostly a myth. I won’t say he or she doesn’t exist. I will say most of us need a network, myself included.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Letters from soldier in WWI draw readers to episodes posted on blog

Bill Lamin found letters written by his grandfather Harry Lamin during World War I. Bill created a blog, WW1: Experiences of an English Soldier, posting each letter on the day it was written almost a century ago. The result has amazed him. He’s received so many letters and email messages he had to create another blog just for those. He doesn’t mind the hard work though, noting in a message to readers at the letters blog, “Finally, I do really welcome comments and emails. They have made all the hard work well worthwhile.”

Bill Lamin is creating an incredible resource for writers, students and history buffs. I remember the feeling of awe the first time I read a letter written by my great-uncle who served in France after registering for the draft in South Carolina in 1918. I still have my uncle’s dog tags. If the house caught fire, that would be one of the first inanimate objects I’d grab. That Lamin chose to post the letters free to the public is a phenomenon in the profit-driven publishing world.

The 1917 poster shown here is from a collection featured at the Department of the Army; the artist was Sidney H. Riesenberg.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Great marketing Web sites for writers

The Web is a great resource for writers because so many professionals make information available free. I’ve come across some sites that are useful to me, and hopefully, they’ll be useful to you as well. Most writers focus on process and that’s the way it should be. But if you want to sell your work, or if you want to market your book, information from insiders comes in handy. It's true that I spend time speaking at events like the presentation I did for a civic group here in Florida. But sometimes you can devote an hour or two on the Web and accomplish just as much.

One site that is also a freelance client of mine is Beneath the Brand. This site focuses on the advertising industry and marketing in general. I learn as much as I share there. If you want to know more about branding, marketing and publicity in general, from an industry and tech perspective, this is a great resource.

Marketing Tips for Writers and Book Authors is a fairly deep site—also included are writing and business tips. This is part of the Writers-Editors site, where for a fee, you may join as a member and get listed in a freelance directory. You will also receive access to a continually updated job/markets board, and receive a regular newsletter that is definitely useful. Before I became a member of ASJA, I also obtained a press pass through this group.

Danuta Kean is an expert on publishing in the United Kingdom, and much of what she writes on her site is applicable to publishing in the U.S. All sorts of tidbits and insight, with many links.

If you thought Midwest Book Review was just a place for reviews, you’d be wrong. This site has a whole page of links to resource sites for writers.

Publishing Central is a busily designed commercial site, but there are lots of links and articles, grouped by category.

Finally, don’t forget about Zeitgeist, pages at Google where you can find top search terms for the week and hot trends. Lots to digest in these pages. (photo by Jen Day)

A reminder: read my column Web Savvy at The Writer. It’s premium content, but twice a month I bring writers news and information about Web related developments, practices and opportunities.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Tina Brown does the Clintons (with forthcoming book)


It’s all over the news. Tina Brown, former editor of the New Yorker and another in a long line of authors of books about Princess Di, is writing a book about those darlings of the “intellectuali” The Clintons (the ‘T’ on ‘The’ is capped on purpose). I’m not really sure why we need another book aimed at the populace on a topic as worn as my 10-year-old Birkenstocks, but I suppose the publisher, Broadway Doubleday Publishing Group, thinks it’s a good idea. Plus the Clintons are, like Di, basic royalty I suppose. The book is scheduled for a 2010 release, by which time it is possible Hillary will be Commandress-in-Chief and Bill will be First Spouse.

I tried to read a bio of Hill. After buying the hardcover copy of Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge, I made it through 39 pages. You can only spell ‘boring’ one way. I ranked it right up there with Ian McEwan’s Atonement. If I were placed in solitary confinement and had only those two books on the shelf, I might pick one of them up and try to read them again. Under no other circumstances can I imagine indulging either of these self-indulgent authors’ books. Both of them are just a shade more boring than It Takes a Village, a book that succeeded in convincing some that children are primarily everyone's responsibility instead of the two people who conceived them.

Of course, Brown’s book will be fodder for (1)library orders, (2)book clubs, especially those with female members, and (3)bookstores who hold a Tina Brown event whether she appears in person or on a video screen as so many tony authors do nowadays.

Meanwhile, Clinton fans can take comfort in knowing yet another tome recounting the dandy duo’s interests, pursuits and habits will be served up in glittering prose (Brown always writes glittering descriptives) within two years. The rest of us can go drown our sorrows in the nearest bottle of Scotch and close our eyes when we walk past bookstores in 2010.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Seinfeld may want to apologize to author Lapine

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has been very outspoken about accusations of plagiarism levied against his wife Jessica by author Missy Chase Lapine. During appearances on TV shows, Seinfeld has implied Lapine is a “wacko” and among other things, he called the author “angry” and “hysterical.” An attorney for the Seinfelds said Lapine’s claims were “unfounded and untrue.” Both authors’ books deal with getting children to eat healthy foods, even if they’re picky eaters.

After reading Lapine’s legal complaint, I’d have to say she provides some very persuasive evidence. For one thing, Lapine isn’t a “wacko.” She’s a professional writer, the former publisher of Eating Well. She serves on the Culinary Arts Faculty at The New School. She serves on the Children’s Advisory Council of Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian where her culinary nutrition methods are used in pediatric wards.

After carefully reading the examples Lapine set forth, comparing similarities between her book, published before Jessica Seinfeld’s book, there are one too many similarities. Lapine had submitted her manuscript to Harper Collins, who rejected it. HC later published the Seinfeld book. Lapine’s book is titled The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids Favorite Meals. Seinfeld’s wife’s book is titled, Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Getting Your Kid Eating Good Food. Both books have identical techniques (the use of pureed healthy food items, disguised in favorite recipes) and the logos were eerily similar. Lapine devoted her life’s work to developing her recipes, and it’s hard to imagine that two authors would choose identical ingredients to puree.

If I were a judge hearing this case, Lapine would win hands down. It’s irresistible to theorize there was a crossover with the publisher somehow; after all, Lapine had submitted before Seinfeld. Perseus published Lapine’s book, and even brought to HC attention similarities between the books after Lapine showed her publisher a promo brochure for the Seinfeld book.

Read the list of extensive similarities between Lapine’s book and Seinfeld’s wife’s book at The Smoking Gun where the complaint is published. In my opinion, if what the complaint says is accurate, and the examples are accurate, Seinfeld owes author Lapine a sincere apology. I wonder how the comedian would react if he found someone else marketing one of his routines, with minor alterations.

This is simply another example of what happens when the publishing marketplace is monopolized by a few big houses with a gluttonous appetite for celebrity-written (or ghost-written) content, and the only emphasis is profit. I doubt publishers even worry much about plagiarism, because unless you can spend a lot of money on attorneys, you don’t have a hope in hell of protecting your work. My sympathy goes to Lapine.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Blogging can cause a heart attack?

A story in the New York Times (Jan. 7) reveals the founder of GigaOm, a hot blog in the tech industry, recently had a heart attack. And although associates of Om Malik say the 41-year-old writer also smoked cigars and cigarettes, a friend of his notes the stress created by Malik's successful blog. I have to admit, blogging can be stressful. The Florida blog I write really creates headaches at times because the readership grew so rapidly and this increased not only my email but also many interesting calls about possible stories. (Note: I definitely prefer email). There are also advertising inquiries to keep up with. And if a Florida story breaks, I try to be one of the first to talk about it.

I also do a freelance blog, and it’s a little stressful too. Writing good posts requires quotes, research and locating images. You can’t do it in a flash. And you’re right there in front of the reader multiple times a week. You have to be interesting. Blogging, however, is also wild fun.

It’s exhilarating when you break a big story. One of the most unexpected exhilarating moments for me happened when I broke a story about a federal prosecution of people (one man is from Orlando) using Bit Torrents technology to copy and then sell movies and music. That story has drawn thousands of readers from around the world. I got a release from the FBI, but I had to do research in order to understand what Bit Torrents was. Live and learn because blogging can be a challenge.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal linked to a story about the alternative minimum tax I posted at Covering Florida. I liked the fact they found it useful.

When the writing business can really eat you alive is when you experience success like that achieved by Mr. Malik. His blog grew to a company employing 12 others, including a chief financial officer. A number of Web sites operate under his guidance. Malik was a successful writer, providing content to national and international publications, before he started his blog. His plight reminds me of what my Grandmother used to say, "Be careful what you wish for..."

Friday, January 4, 2008

What is it about publishing a book?

I’ve forced myself to dig into the haphazard manuscripts on my desk, because I know I need to get a book out. My newest book is two years old. I left an agent and a couple publishers hanging. My frustration isn’t over writing the book; I do that almost without trying. It’s the business end of the book that puts me off.

For one thing, dealing with contracts and rights to future works (aka ‘slave clause’). For another, the sheer grunt work in assisting with marketing—that, combined with a busy freelance schedule would challenge anybody. And I don’t want to give up the work I do for newspapers, magazines and Web sites. I don’t want to give up the hours I still, for reasons far beyond any logic on earth can explain, devote to writing poetry. I do like to share writing and talking with audiences, so I suppose I can be grateful I don’t find that aspect of promotion drudge work.

The book biz, as many of you have heard me say, sucks. Publishing is so overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of large companies. I admit I like small presses—those where you can sit down face to face with a person who’s at least somewhere near the top of the chain. But the frustration factor here is over sales—small presses just don’t have the bucks to do a lot of promotion. And they won’t get those library orders that products from big publishers automatically get, in part because libraries are hooked on big publishers as are most bookstores.

Still, I work on the books each day, part of a New Year’s resolution to finish the manuscripts by the end of the first quarter. I think most writers love the writing but hate the biz, one of many reasons I haven't rushed to self-publish.


I contributed to the anthology Letters to the World:Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv (Red Hen Press). The book is a diverse collection of essays and poems from poets, some of whom are famous and some of whom aren’t.

Read my latest column for Beneath the Brand, ‘Santa gets busted and a campaign succeeds.’

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A mating table, hex signs and pet ghosts: what more can you ask from a book?

If you want to really have fun with a book, pick up a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. I first read this book as a girl in my grandmother’s kitchen. It’s become a lifelong habit. If I want to raise a crop of chickens or grow a bunch of herbs, this book has the info I need.

There are weather pages for each section of the U.S., and as far as I can tell, the forecasts are pretty accurate. The forecast missed Florida’s bitter cold weather over the last couple days, but at least it called for “cool” weather. One of my favorite tools lists sky watch events for each month. If I want to test my soil for pH preferences, I can learn the optimum range to bring bliss to my trees, shrubs, veggies and flowers.

There’s poetry too—each month has a verse at the beginning of the listing that also provides the names of Feast Days, exact sunrise and sunset, and all manner of other data.

This year there is a rather strange article about pet ghosts. It never occurred to me my dog might return from the other side. Also included in the book are recipes, trivia and any number of how-to instructions for all things related to homesteading.

I’ve developed a tradition of giving a copy to select loved ones each year. I really can’t assess the number of articles, poems and stories just reading this book has inspired. By the end of this year, my copy will be well-worn, that’s for sure.

So take my completely subjective advice and go pick up a copy and read for yourself. Of the hundreds of thousands of books printed each year, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is one of the most unheralded, un-reviewed, best books on the shelf. I think I'll try to find out if they need freelance writers.

(No financial compensation of any kind is derived from my comments about this product.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

What’s hot for writers in 2008?

Maybe it’s the unusual chill in the Florida air (temp in the 20s tonight), but I had an uncommon amount of spring in my step this morning. I’d left the office early on Christmas Eve in a mess, having run out of time. Normally, I’d have dreaded returning to work. But once I took the hound out about 7 a.m. this morning, I was revved up and ready to go. Nothing like a little icy wind to wake up a Floridian.

Part of the reason I’m excited has to do with projects on the books. I just finished my first blog post, about business buzz words, for a new client, Beneath the Brand. I write about advertising and marketing for this site, so that’s sort of like plunking a bee down in clover. A newspaper editor assigned a story about a church that includes Christian rock in its services. I don’t know beans about Christian rock, so that will definitely be a learning process. And I’m working on a neat feature about writing.

I'm already looking forward to doing poetry at the SC Book Festival, participating in the Pure Poetry exhibit organized each year by South Carolina poet Janet Carr Hull.

Over the holiday, I came up with plans for the coming year. I mandated to myself that I finish both books that have somehow formed within the small confines of my home office.

Lots of topics intrigue me as possibilities for the coming year. These include the U.S. presidential election, the environment, alternative sources of fuel, American toys (courtesy of product recalls), and the omni-present topic of healthcare. Other possibles include stories about families whose loved ones are serving in the military, rugby league (because of the Australia Day match here in Jacksonville, an event that will put rugby league on the minds of many Americans), and the weather, always an ally because there’s always something going on in the sky. I may also write about legal scrapes writers get into; my last two installments of my column Web Savvy for The Writer deal with this subject.

Meanwhile, I opened two weeks of mail and sorted it, wrote and submitted two assigned columns and caught up my own blogs. I actually had a good first day back. That’s a benign sign for the beginning of anyone’s year.

Note: Yep, my laptop is resting on two pieces of scrap lumber left over from all the work we had done to the house. The bottom of the laptop gets so hot I figured elevating it would help. I looked at commercially available products, but a trip to our garage solved my problem and it didn’t cost me anything more.