Know Your Readers

Well, I have been rejected … again. I did get a publisher to take a look at my novel manuscript after sending a query, but it didn’t fit her needs. You would think that rejection might fuel an emotion in me such as anger or depression, or the feeling of “why do I bother?” The first rejections I ever had probably did make me a little depressed, but over the years I’ve had many and while I certainly would prefer an acceptance, I know that rejections are part of the job.

A writer has to trust the editor, whether that person is screening manuscripts for a novel, features for a magazine, or an anthology of selected poems or short stories. Each editor must stay true to the requirements and the character of the writing he or she needs.

Having been an editor myself, I know of what I speak. I wrote for and was editor of a national travel publication for several years. I often received queries and feature articles from writers, and in all that time there was only one writer who ended up with a byline in the magazine and is still doing a regular feature for it after all these years. (Yes, the competition is brutal.)

What set her apart? For starters, she understood our audience, in addition to being a darn good writer. While I often got submissions that were well written and interesting, they didn’t fit or advance our editorial purpose. And knowing the feeling that rejection can bring, I sometimes found it difficult to turn down some of those writers, especially those that showed promise.

I read pieces about “my best vacation” and “the trip from hell” or “the most beautiful waterfall in the world;” you name it, people wrote about it, and submitted it. But those writers did not take the time to discover who our readers were. We did not cater to the armchair travelers, the families taking the kids on a summer trip, or that adventurous couple looking for a place to hike through the mountains.

The magazine is still in publication today and has stayed true to its mission. The readers are not the leisure travelers, but the people who organize trips and conduct group tours for them. Many of those group tours are also made up of senior citizens, so tours must be organized with their abilities and needs in mind. You can see how knowing all that would be important to understanding the needs of the editor.

Writers who want to break into print in any publication must know the readers. This isn’t new news, so why do so many writers ignore it? The magazine writer must study the guidelines and read the publication. The book author needs to read a publisher’s guidelines and some of its previously published books. That’s part of the job; do it! It might cut down on some of those rejections.

Good luck!

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Write What You Know

Write what you know. How many times have you heard that? When I first started writing, I read all the books and articles I could find on the subject of writing and selling (important word) nonfiction articles. No matter how many I read, one piece of advice kept reappearing – “write what you know.”

As a fledgling writer hoping to sell something, anything, I wasn’t having much luck, but I kept trying, and I kept hearing that phrase, “write what you know”.
I thought I didn’t know very much. I was a young wife and mother. My whole world revolved around my home in the country, my husband, children, church, two dogs, a cat and a horse. It was not terribly unusual or exciting. I figured I had nothing of value to offer in the written word. I was wrong.

No matter who we are or what we do in our life, each of us has a passion, a talent, an interest, an insight, knowledge, or an idea that is also held by millions of other people in the world, who are not so different than you and I. The trick is to take your personal passions, talents, interests, insights, knowledge, and ideas and translate them into words on paper – concise, well organized and well written.

It took me awhile to discover that many of my feelings, interests and experiences (limited as they were) did not make me unique. It only made me a part of a larger group with the same feelings, interests and experiences. Once I addressed that, my writing career began to take off.

Look at your life and discover those things that are worth writing about. Look at the people around you…people you know. Look at the activities and events in your community. Look at your experiences. A divorce, death in the family, illness, birth of a child, a child with special needs, a revelation, rebirth of faith, loss of faith, a triumph or victory of some sort….any one of those situations is shared by millions of people.

What you, as a writer, must do is find a way to present the story to them (and the editor) in an exciting way. That’s when you have to get down to the nitty-gritty of bringing those stories alive.

When have a good subject, you might have to delve a bit deeper, talk to people and do some research, but that’s what writers do.

What is your message? If you want to increase the chance of seeing your work in print, it should also contain a message of some kind. Without some kind of help or a message for readers, an article, story or novel will be more difficult to sell.

Whatever subject you choose, ask yourself, “What is the message?” Do I want to entertain, provide instruction, inform, inspire, encourage, motivate, or incite action or reaction? Then do it.

Look to your own personal interests and hobbies. Are you an artist who uses a special technique to make your pictures different than others? Would other artists be interested in it, too?

Are you a parent who has come up with new ways to keep preschoolers occupied? Have you discovered a way to keep them quiet for more than five minutes? Is there any parent who would pass up the chance to hear about that?

What are your interests? Pick a subject on which you have some knowledge, no matter how small; do some research and expand that knowledge.

What would you like to know?…..
Sometimes we find a subject of which we would like to know more. That works for the writer, too. And, you never know where your research is going to take you. Because of my interest in animals, I have experienced what it is like to drive a team of Alaskan sled dogs; gone into the center ring at the circus to watch, close-up, the performance of a magnificent equine act; and ridden a horse over jumps … all to get the personal feel of what these subjects entail.

My enthusiasm and interest on those subjects helped me get the information I needed; it gave my writing real substance; and it resulted in sales.

The George Plimpton syndrome…..
Journalist George Plimpton believed in participatory journalism. He went through training camp with the Detroit Lions football team and played in a professional game to research and write “Paper Lion.” For other articles and books, he trained and pitched in a major league baseball game; and he practiced and performed with a trapeze circus act, among other things.

We can’t all go to the extent of participation that Plimpton enjoyed, but we can expose ourselves to new things. Then, as we write about them, we can be more convincing and authoritative, because we’ve “been there, done that.”

Fiction based on what you know…..
Sometimes an idea just doesn’t seem to translate into an article for a magazine.
I once tried to sell an article about a family Christmas tradition. No one wanted it. So, I took the idea and wove it into a short story, which then sold to Sunday Digest.

When I decided to write a novel, I chose the romance genre, and because I had been a travel writer for about 10 years, I decided to incorporate some of my travel knowledge into the story.

In Caribbean Charade, (written under the pen name of Louise Perry) I combined romance with a cruise and sightseeing activities on several Caribbean islands that I had visited while working for a travel industry publication. The descriptions in the book are accurate and detailed, which gives the setting credibility.

Other fiction that I have written also relies heavily on what I know. Mother Wore Spurs is a novella about an Indiana horse farm and the aging equestrian who is trying to keep it going for her family. I was born in Indian; I love horses; I’m an aging equestrian. I’m also working on a mystery that features characters based loosely on people I have met.

No matter what we write, our feelings, beliefs, and personal experiences are destined to appear in the words. Don’t try to keep them out. They give your writing its style. They are your voice. Use them.

The Indirect Route

One of my favorite TV programs was “Everybody Loves Raymond.” It still is because I watch its reruns whenever I can.

For the benefit of the few of you who may not have a television or like to laugh, it’s a comedy show that revolves around Ray Barone, sports writer and family man, who lives across the street from his brother and parents. Take their picture and they could pose for a dysfunctional family poster.

One episode dealt with Ray showing his wife, Debra, his process for writing each day. The first thing he did after turning on the computer was to click to a game of solitaire and begin to play. Debra was confused, but Ray explained to her that it was the way he started his day; a way to relax as he got ready to write.

Not everyone may find that segment especially funny, but I did, in a couple of ways. First because the characters and the writing for the show are truly funny, but also because that particular situation mirrors my own so closely that it was also a bit weird-funny. Then I realized that maybe I’m fairly normal and not the only one who actually does stuff like that before I get down to the business of writing.

My computer routine goes something like this: first check email and fire off responses to those who need it; call up worldofsolitair.com and find one of my favorite games (there are several); play a couple of rounds and then force myself to get down to business. And I do mean force myself because the card games are a lot more fun and somewhat addictive compared to sometimes sitting here racking my brain for inspiration.

I do eventually get around to writing, and I thank Raymond for showing me that it’s okay to sometimes take the indirect route in getting there. 

Believe in yourself.

 

I have to handle it carefully now, because the cup has been dropped a couple of times and banged around over the years.  Its rim is cracked and the handle has been clued back together.  The picture and the words on its side have faded with time, but when my own words refuse to come, or when I begin to doubt my ability, I have only to look at it for inspiration.

In the 1980s, while struggling to become a published writer, I had a few successes, enough to make me say “I am a writer.”  Then came the periods of drought, when nothing I wrote seemed good enough to attract the attention of an editor.  The ideas that I thought were so excellent and so well written often received the ever-impersonal note of “Thanks, but no thanks” from every publisher that I contacted.

During one of those times, a close friend asked me, “How’s the writing going?”  I had to admit that it was not going well.  I felt discouraged, ready to give up, and was beginning to believe that the writing life wasn’t for me.  What made me think that a few sales gave me the right to call myself a real writer?

A few days after that conversation, she presented this coffee mug to me.  On its side, below the now-faded picture of a unicorn (an image of things impossible) it says, “Believe in the beauty of your dreams.” 

 I’ve had that cup for more than thirty-five years, and there have been many times when I have been at my computer and wondered if I was fighting a losing battle; beating my head against the wall; trying to break into yet another market.

 Whenever that happened and I was within minutes of throwing up my hands and giving up, I’d see that cup and I would pause, read the message again, and take the words to heart.

 I don’t know if my friend had an inkling of what her simple gift would do for me over the years, but it is the words on that cup that helped me remember my dream and follow it, and best of all, to see it come true. 

Writers who attend the local freelance writing workshops and seminars that I’ve presented are always looking for advice, encouragement and the secrets of success.  I can advise and encourage, but I don’t have any magical secret to being successful.  I only know that writing takes knowledge, intelligence, creativity, determination, and often a huge portion of luck in presenting the right manuscript to the right editor at precisely the right time.

I can give encouragement and tell them that it takes a love of the craft and dedication to be a writer.  And I always share the best advice I ever received…believe in yourself…believe in the beauty of your dreams. 

Writer’s block? Look for something new.

I’ve heard some say that there is no such thing as writer’s block. Well, I’m here to tell you that there definitely is such a thing. I should know because it happens to me quite often when the words just don’t or won’t come, no matter how hard I try.

I tend to write first thing in the morning before the daily chores and events of the day crowd in on me. That’s when I think I’m going crank out a few hundred profound and unforgettable words to move my best-selling novel along, and then nothing happens. I stare at the page. I review my character descriptions. I re-read and rewrite what I did the day before. Alas, the characters get lazy and they don’t want to do anything. Like me they just want to lay down and take a nap.

I had such a day not too long ago, so I decided to switch gears and work on an idea that had been stewing in my brain. I and some friends had been bemoaning the near extinction of cursive writing. And if you don’t know what it is, then you need to read my essay, which was picked up for the August issue of The Senior News. If you do know, then you’ll enjoy reading it at http://www.the seniornews.com.

So there I was, agonizing over what my hero and heroine were going to do next, when I stopped and pulled up a new blank page. I didn’t even think too much about what I was writing, but I had been thinking about how I was taught cursive in elementary school and how I still love to write letters to friends, and I simply let those thoughts loose on paper. When I went back and edited the piece, I thought that I had something that the older (we like to call us mature) generation would like, and so did the editor of The Senior News. Thank you very much.

So, the next time your writing comes to a standstill, take a moment and just write about something that you love, or hate, or bothers you, or that you want to change, or even something silly, stupid and off the wall. Even if it doesn’t get published, the break will refresh you, and if it does get published, you couldn’t ask for a better confidence booster. Either way, remember that you are a writer. So write.

 

The consortium

It’s all about networking….

Many years ago, I was a struggling freelance writer. Wait, I’m still a struggling freelance writer. I can prove it by showing you the rejections I just received this the past week.

Years ago I was working in the newsroom of a city newspaper. It was a fast paced, hectic job, and I learned a lot working there, especially in fact checking and editing.  I loved it, but there came a time when I knew I wanted to be more of a writer, less of a gofer.

I’d already had some success in getting published, mostly in equine publications because horses were my passion. But I wanted more bylines, and so I quit the newspaper business and established my own freelance writing and editing company. To say I struggled along is to put it mildly. But with a lot of hard work, research, and perfecting of ideas and articles, I can truthfully say that I made that dream come true, but I was not alone.

I had support from my husband and family, and there were a couple of magazine editors who liked my work, but because writing can often be a lonely business, I needed the companionship of other writers who understood this life.

There are plenty of writer support groups and classes at schools, libraries and community centers. The people who gather for these want help and guidance in writing and publishing. They want to learn. They also want someone to critique their work. That’s all commendable, but it was not what I wanted. I wanted to sit down with a group of working writers and talk about the job of turning words into profit.

I contacted some of my writing friends and the Writer’s Coffee Consortium was born in my town. It has been fifteen years or more, and that group still meets once a month in a local coffee shop to share their successes and failures, and to encourage each other to keep on writing. And every gathering produces a lot of laughter as we share our stories.

In our group, we don’t read each other’s material until it is published, because none of us wants to pass judgement on another’s writing style, but we have always welcomed fledgling writers into the group to support and encourage them. Some don’t come back, but many have stayed with the group and are published today.

There are lots of ways to network. Getting together with a group of people who share a common interest is one way, and an important one. We all need moral support in what we do. So, find a group, club, class that you feel will help you in your endeavors, but make sure it fits your needs and expectations.

Don’t expect too much from a group. Do you want people to read and critique your writing? To be truthful, it’s difficult to find someone who will honestly tell you if they don’t like what you have written. No one wants to discourage you or hurt your feelings. Those in a writing group won’t do it. A writing instructor will. An editor will. The best thing you can hope for in a writers group is to know that you are not alone in the great abyss of the publishing world.