Thursday, February 26, 2009

Still Crap Then!

I just had to report another success with the 'My Crap Holiday' slot in the travel section of The Observer newspaper. Vicky McMillan emailed to say that her submission was used in last Sunday's paper. You can read it by following this link. Well done Vicky.

It's great to see so many people having success with this slot, but I also want to use it to illustrate another point. There is a great demand for words out there. The Crap Holiday slot needs to be filled EVERY week. And that's just one 400-word column. Multiply this by the number of pages in that newspaper section, then the newspaper itself, then all the other Sunday newspapers, daily newspapers, magazines, trade journals, websites ... and so on, and you begin to get an impression of just how many words the publishing industry has an insatiable appetite for.

It can become very disheartening if you send your work out there and you don't hear anything or it gets rejected. But remember this - editors are dealing with a lot of material in order to fill all of those pages - and, more importantly, they're desperate to fill those pages and need good quality material to be supplied. Which is where you come in.

I was at a writer's workshop once, which was being led by Iain Pattison who tutors for the Writer's Bureau from time to time. One of the workshop attendees had asked him the question "how do you deal with writer's block?". (A word of warning - don't ask Iain this question, he gets quite worked up about this point!) I happen to agree with Iain's answer, which was, "There's no such thing as writer's block. Writer's block is a luxury. Writer's block doesn't put food on the table."

Professional writers produce words. They have to because they have deadlines. To illustrate the point, Iain expanded upon his answer by asking the rest of the group a question. "How many times have you bought a magazine or newspaper and opened it up to find a series of blank pages, followed by an apology from the editor saying 'Sorry for the lack of text, but all our writers are suffering from writer's block today?"

It just doesn't happen, because it can't happen. Those pages have to be filled, and they're only filled by writers who write and submit work.

This is why it is important to continue submitting work on a regular basis. Just because one piece wasn't picked by an editor one week, it doesn't mean to say that another of your pieces won't be picked by them on a different week. So keep sending those words out there. Remember, everything that you read was written by somebody!

Incidentally, this submission was Vicky's answer to the 'filler' question in Assignment 4, which she'd written and submitted at the beginning of February. This is one of the fastest turnarounds I've come across, seeing an assignment submission become a published piece!

Hmmm, have I just thrown down a gauntlet by any chance?

Good luck.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gosh, What An Impatient Lot We Are!

Well after last week's posting, so many people have commented about the delays caused by editors! What an impatient lot we are! Anyone would think we wanted publication, fame and fortune NOW!

Penny Legg emailed me to describe two different situations that she'd encountered recently where an editor's lack of speed was resulting in lots of frustration. But her first example demonstrates why it is sensible to be cool headed about this:

"I have recently had two experiences which give examples of the behaviour to expect from some editors. I speak as an editor myself, as I edit The Woman Writer for the Society of Woman Writers and Journalists (SWWJ).

Seven months ago, yes, that is right, seven months, I submitted, to a well known UK magazine, a topical article about a ship's visit to the island I was then living on. It was one of several articles I wrote for magazines in the Caribbean and the UK and it had been commissioned. It was supposed to have appeared in the edition out in November but was not then published.

I had already queried the piece with the editor in November, when it did not appear. I was worried because it was becoming out of date. I queried again at the end of January. No reply.

Out of the blue, last Thursday, the editor contacted me and said he was going to run it in the April edition and could I send him the photographs and get the finished article vetted by the MOD by the 27th February! This was a tall order but I had kept in touch with the ship's personnel and it is being vetted as I type. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the OK arrives by the deadline. My query email obviously jogged the editor's mind about my piece."

So, evidence that politeness is the best policy, even when you want to punch an editor's brains out! Penny's other situation is different and at present, unresolved.

"In the meantime, I am really confused by the signals being sent out by another editor. She has already taken and published one article with photographs from me, but has ignored several article proposals since. To be honest, I found her quite difficult to deal with for the article she has published in her magazine, as she kept asking for more than was originally agreed, and I was in two minds whether to pitch a completed article I had written to her. I did so though and this time, not only did I receive a reply but she has taken the article. She has again been demanding and the original article I sent has been revised three times. Each time she emails she types as if we are having a conversation and are good friends. Whenever I have replied in kind, I have been ignored. This I have found disconcerting and, at times, frustrating. I do not feel I know where I stand with her. I am aware that she is a busy person and I am but a lowly contributor, but without lowly contributors there would be no magazine!

I emailed her last week and asked her politely what her magazine's policy on submissions was. Did she prefer to be approached via email, telephone or by post? Could I have a copy of the advertising guidelines for the magazine so that I could target my proposals to the interests of the magazine better? I pointed out that I did not want to waste a busy editor's time and that I was asking her as one professional woman to another. To date, and it has only been a few days, no reply."

The editor / writer relationship is a strange one. It's best if it is friendly, but you should always remember that it is a professional one too. Even though I'm a regular contributor to Country & Border Life magazine, there are times when my emails go unanswered for a couple of weeks. So don't think that editors are doing it because you're new to the game!

And remember, editors are humans too, believe it or not. They're entitled to a two week break in the sun. They get sick too and don't come into work for a couple of days. Their kids throw a wobbly on the way to school putting them in a bad mood.

Finally, Penny also sees the problem from the other side too.
"As I say, I too am an editor. I admit that the magazine I edit does not have the huge circulation of some of the big boys but it is true to say that it is as time consuming to produce as those further up the circulation ladder. As well as editing the magazine I am a freelance writer and photographer, working on articles and ideas everyday. I have been commissioned to write a book and am researching and putting this together. I have started giving talks to writer's groups too. I sit on the SWWJ's Council and have recently been asked to join another professional group. All of which I tell you because it demonstrates how busy an average editor can be. I do, however, make a point of looking at and replying to all emails that come in about The Woman Writer. It may take me some time, [see?] but everyone gets a reply. I can understand the frustration that your students have about the 'not knowing.' I have experienced it and do not like it any more than they do! This is why I try to reply to all queries I receive.

I think your advice to your students is spot on but I would add that it can be very tricky to understand where an editor is coming from when you correspond by email. Do not fall into the trap (as I have done on occasion) of being 'friendly' with editors. They are too busy. They are not your friends. They are emailing you purely because they think you have something they might like. Therefore, be polite but professional. When you come across an editor, such as the one above who confuses with crossed signals, think very carefully about how you reply."

So remember Penny's first experience where she kept in touch but did not lose her temper. It got her piece published in the end - and ultimately she'll be paid for it - the right result in the end.

Perhaps I should end by using a couple of cliched proverbs. Patience is a virtue and Good things come to those who wait.

Until next time. (which I hope won't be long!)

Good Luck.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Waiting Game

Helen Stafford sent a note along with her latest assignment asking a question that many students ask;

"I've submitted several articles and letters and haven't heard back from many, despite sending a chaser letter too. How long should I wait?"

Welcome to the joys of a buyers market.

The problem is, not every magazine has a huge staff. Yes the Vogues, Cosmopolitans and Country Life magazines may have a long list of staff on their editorial contacts page, but actually, many of them will be working for more than one magazine. The editor may have a PA, but she's probably sharing her with three other editors. Come down the circulation scale and the editorial staff often dwindles to nothing. The editor may be the only member of staff, and whist that means they have the job of editing the magazine, it also means that they are the filing clerk, accounts clerk and chief tea maker too.

Just step into their shoes for a brief moment and answer this question: Do you answer every unsolicited item of mail that comes through your letter box, or email inbox?

I quite agree that common courtesy would suggest that if a writer sends some material and encloses a stamped addressed envelope, then the least an editor can do is return it in the SAE saying 'thanks, but no thanks.' And therein lies the crux of the matter. It isn't really the waiting that is a problem, it's the not knowing, isn't it? I've often said when running workshops at writer's groups and courses that I really wouldn't have a problem if an editor just shoved my work back into my envelope having written **** off! across it. Why? Because at least I know where I stand!

So what's a writer to do? Actually, I believe there's a few steps you can take.

  1. Understand the publication's frequency. Weekly magazines work about 6 to 8 weeks in advance, monthlies can work 3 to 4 months ahead, whilst quarterlies may be working 6 to 9 months ahead. So don't consider chasing a weekly magazine for at least 3 months, a monthly for 6 months and a quarterly for a minimum of 6 months, but preferably 9.
  2. When you're going to send a 'chaser' letter or email, be tactful. Tempting though it may be, don't demand your manuscript back and if you don't hear from them in 48 hours threaten to send round the heavies (much as you'd like to.) It is not unheard of for items to get lost in the post. The first time I 'chase' a submission I write a letter to the editor enquiring whether he/she can advise me if my manuscript arrived safely in their offices, and if not, could I send a duplicate? You'd be surprised the number of times, this elicits a reply. Now don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that an editor saying, "No, we didn't get it," may be lying - my manuscript could have fallen down the back of someone's desk in the office, but at least now I can get back to the editor enclosing the duplicate with a sentence saying "Please find a copy of the article, that you asked for."
  3. If you send a chaser letter - wait a similar amount of time before sending any more, i.e. 6 to 8 weeks for a weekly, 6 months for a monthly, and so on.
  4. If you still hear nothing after a couple of letters, you will understandably be quite frustrated. This is when I issue my final letter - I advise them that according to my records I sent them X article on X date(s) and if I have not heard from them by X date (usually one month), I assume that they are not interested in the piece and I am free to offer it elsewhere. After the date has passed, you can then rewrite it, angled at a different market.
This advice differs slightly, if you are writing something topical. I often state in my feedback to assignments that work with a topical hook can have improved chances of publication. It gives an editor a reason for using such a piece in a particular issue. Now obviously, if you submit a piece of work with a topical hook and the editor fails to respond, you are well within your rights to chase it up sooner than the timescales I've suggested above. Editors quite understand the need for topical material to be considered promptly.

Let's imagine that I've written a piece about Halloween now and I've sent it off to a monthly publication. Monthly magazines will be putting their October issues together around July time. So if I've submitted it now at the end of February, I need to hear back quite quickly. Because of the topicality, an editor would quite understand if I queried whether they were interested in the piece at the end of April. Querying then, gives me time to re-jig it and submit it elsewhere before July when the October magazines are being collated. So consider if your submission had a topical angle.

So, follow some sensible guidelines and always be polite when you chase. Remember, there's no law that says an editor has to respond to every letter that he/she gets, so coming across as annoyed and irritated won't help your cause. Offer the editor a 'saving face' option (i.e. it was lost in the post) and you may just encourage them to reply back to you.

Congratulations go to Helen for her persistence with a piece about the Session Courts in Lancaster which will be published in the local newspaper soon. And I'd also like to say well done to:

  • Dave Cullen - for his articles in Best of British (he's had one published in the November, December and January issues, and the magazine is holding onto 4 more for possible use - and have yet to make their mind up on another 9!), and his success with the 'Rude Jokes' section in That's Life magazine. They may only be small fillers paying £15 a time, but Dave's had £60 from this one slot int he magazine.
  • Rosemary Wells has had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph and an article published in the Methodist Recorder.
Keep up the good work everyone.

Good luck!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And another Tutor and ex-Student joint publication!

After yesterday's posting about an ex-student of mine, John Rooney, getting an article published in the same issue of the same magazine that I had a piece in, I was delighted to see something similar this morning.

The postman battled his way up the icy road to deliver the latest copy of Writer's Forum magazine and flicking through I happened to stumble across the Letters Page. There I saw a letter by Rob Innis from Spain. His letter, was on the same page as my letter! That means that we've both got a Moleskine notebook coming our way - the prize for having a letter published.

If you've never seen these notebooks, they are lovely! Imelda Marcos may be known for her massive shoe collection, well Simon Whaley will be known for his Moleskine notebook collection! The small ones are just perfect for jotting down ideas and thoughts, and I often draft articles, short stories and other bits of writing in the larger ones.

So well done Rob. And I now wonder whether I should be listing all of the other publications that I'm targeting over the next few months so that my other students can have a go at submitting to them at the same time too! But then again, perhaps their pieces may get accepted instead of mine and that would never do! I still have to eat you know!

Good Luck.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Forgot to say ...

I forgot to mention on my last posting that congratulations go to one of my ex-students, John Rooney who's had several of his articles published in Ireland's Own magazine. The last one happened to be published in the same issue that one of my own pieces was published in.

That's what I like to see - a student's and tutor's work in the same issue!

Have Confidence In Yourself.

Lara Haddadin is one of my students based in Jordan and she's just about to start tackling assignment 4. The amazing news is that she's already netted herself 3 columns!

"With Family Flavours magazine, the column has started, 'A Cup of Coffee with a Working Mama' and the first issue was in January. It was a great joy to finally see my name in print. So far I have sent them articles for this up to the May issue. There is another magazine that is published in Arabic (my mother language), in which I have two columns, one that is prose, the other that is a medical article."

This is all brilliant news, and congratulations go to Lara. But next came an interesting comment in her email;

"The same magazine is offering me a job in editing, which I don't feel myself ready for yet."

Wow! Now I quite understand how Lara feels. Having only completed 3 assignments to date, her confidence for doing an editing job is understandably low. But I think most of you know me by now that I like to look on the positive side of things, and I think this sends an amazingly positive message.

What this statement is saying, is that the people in the business believe that Lara has the right skills and abilities to do this role. And remember, these people are professionals. The image that Lara has projected by writing for the market and presenting her work in a professional way makes those magazine staff believe that she's been doing this for years and is capable of the position.

This is why we bang on about presentation and cover sheets, double-spacing and being specific with your targeting. If you do this from the start of your writing career, this is the image that you'll project. The first time an editor comes across your submission in their inbox or post, your professional image will make them think that you've been doing this for years. Your work will be as professional looking as that of one of their regular contributors.

If you do this, an editor doesn't know how long you've been writing for. You know that you're still tackling your coursework, or are just starting out trying to change a hobby into a career, but the editor doesn't. So have confidence in yourself. Just before you pop your submission in the post or click on that 'send' button, stop for a minute and take a look at your work one more time. But this time, look at it from the eyes of an editor. If you're impressed with what you've produced, then hold your head up high and be proud of it. You're playing with the professionals every time you send something off, so be confident that your work can survive out there with the professional's work. And every time you have a success just stop and think about it for a moment. Your work was chosen over that of other professional's work. And that should make you feel super-confident!

Good Luck.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Star for the Month

I would like to say that as a tutor, I get just as big a kick out of the news that one of my students has had a piece of work published, as they do.

I think that many writers who are just starting out, forget that EVERY writer who has had anything published (article, short story, book, novel) has been where they are NOW. I began writing over 20 years ago in my mid-teens and it took me several years to see my first published piece. I know EXACTLY what every new writer goes though. I've been there, done that and got the rejection slips!

This means that I can identify with that moment of elation that a writer experiences when news of publication arrives.

So when I turned the page of my copy of the March issue of Writing Magazine, I was delighted to see a name I recognised. I had arrived at the Letters Page and as I read GEOFFREY ROUTLEDGE's letter, I realised that this was one of his assignment pieces. Not only had Geoffrey got his letter published, but it had been selected by the editor as the issue's Star Letter!

So congratulations to Geoffrey! Proof indeed that assignment work can lead to publication. It's also proof that writing in the English language offers many more opportunities. For whilst Writing Magazine is a British publication, Geoffrey's letter originated from his home town of Taupo in New Zealand.

So my top letter writing tips are:
  1. Write your letter to the appropriate length. If all the letters are shorter than 50 words in your target market then yours needs to be less than 50 words too.
  2. Consider pictures. Pictures are often paid more money than those letters without. Check your target market. If every letter has a picture then your letter MUST have a picture.
  3. If the letters in your target market refer back to an article in a previous issue, then your letter needs to do the same. (Geoffrey's refers back to a previous letter on the letters page.)
  4. You can be controversial. Editors enjoy a good debate, so if you have strong views write in anyway. Your letter could be used to provide 'balance' to other more praising letters.
  5. And finally - if your tutor tells you that your assignment work should be sent out, then do as he says :-)
Good luck!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Are books recession proof?

Considering that the credit crunch first began to nibble about a year ago, before taking a right mouthful after August, you may be surprised to hear that according to official figures just released, a total of 120,947 brand new books were published in the UK in 2008. That's 4% more than in 2007.

Of those 120,000 odd, about 20% were novels. The rest were non-fiction books, clearly demonstrating that non-fiction books are easier to get published than novels.

Students attempting assignment 10 which asks you to devise an outline for a non-fiction book should not be put off from what may seem a large task. Yes, writing a non-fiction book is more involved that writing an article, but the benefits are you only have to write the proposal first and send that to a publisher. Many of my non-fiction books have been accepted based upon the proposal and first chapter only. With a novel, you have to write the whole thing first before you should start approaching agents and publishers.

Above is the proposed front cover to my next book "The Bluffer's Guide to Hiking" which is scheduled for publication later this Spring, when hopefully the weather will have cheered up and people will want to get out into the great outdoors once more!

Will all these new books coming out, it's easy to think that books are recession proof - and you could say that they are. Historically, during a recession, book publishers continue to publish the same number of books. People will cut back on spending £50 for a day out, but they might still treat themselves to a £7.99 book instead which will give them many hours of pleasure. Where publishers tend to cut back, is on the advance payments.

So if you've written several articles about one specific topic, or you've undergone an experience that you think may offer support to others, why not consider writing a non-fiction book? Once it's been published, it will live on for eternity in the 6 largest library collections in the UK, no matter how many more recessions come and go.

Good luck.