In Bed with Jill Hamilton by Amanda Wayne

When I started researching Jill Hamilton for this interview, I ran into a rather unique problem. Every site I visited had her essays and tips. I kept getting sucked into them and forgetting that I was there to do actual work. I wasn’t there to learn about the weirdest sex inventions, seminars for vagina meditation, or octopus fetishes. I just wanted to find out about her degree from the University of Michigan and any random tidbits on her personal life that I could. I used every millennial surfing trick I possessed. I was all over social media, scouring website “about me” blurbs, and lurking on professional networking sites. I was this close to paying one of those stalker sites to get some good info on her. I knew super intimate details about her, but not the boring surface stuff that I knew about my neighbor’s sister. Jill manages to make it feel perfectly ordinary to read about things I only talk about with my best friend after we split one of the really big bottles of cheap wine.  It turns out that reading all of Jill’s entire anthology of essays was all the research I needed on this enigmatic lady. Jill has written for major magazines such as Rolling Stone and Cosmo and Entertainment Weekly. Her blog, www.inbedwithmarriedwomen.com, is hilarious and full of useful information. She agreed to answer a few questions for me and it was every bit as entertaining as I had hoped.

You have built this persona as a sexpert, writing for Cosmo, Salon, Alternet, Jezebel and many others. How did you fall into this crazy line of work where you make money talking about sex? 

My first Cosmo story was about 10 Weirdest Sex Devices or something like that. One of the things was a 70s-era bra with built-in nipples. The joke was about would happen if your actual nipples decided to make an appearance.  That is, 2 nipples = sexy, yet 4 nipples = not so much.

It mutated into me doing a stint as a sexual guinea pig, testing out Ye Olde Cosmo Tips–Use a scrunchie during a BJ! Smear food all over yourselves!  I have literally taken money for having sex (with my husband, for a Cosmo story, but still.) Whorish? Best job ever? Answer unclear.

What was the first big break you got as a writer?

I found out (long story) that there was a concert at a local nudist park in Michigan featuring Foreigner, Eric Burdon and others of that ilk. I sent a query to the delightful Jancee Dunn at Rolling Stone and she sent me to cover it. In case you were wondering, no one in Foreigner got naked, but everyone around me–who were exactly the age and demographic you could expect of older, not especially-toned nudists in Michigan– were butt naked, but for, incongruously, shoes and socks.

At what point did you decide to just embrace the baser side of humanity and write about the kinds of things people read in an incognito window?

Short answer:  Why bother with anything else?

Longer answer: I was sitting at the friggin’ Chuck E. Cheese with my friend, and we were discussing our moribund sex lives. What were the other preschool mothers doing about this? Was that one lady who looked like a grandma still banging her grandpa-looking husband? Were people having affairs? Did people just let their sex lives die, chalking it up to “maturity” and focusing really really hard on something like scrap booking?

I decided to start a blog In Bed With Married Women to ask people just this. (I am alarmingly nosy.) The idea was going to be a sociology study, with women just telling their stories. Like Studs Terkel but with more nudity.  The thing was, stories about marital sex are about as interesting as actual marital sex.

About the same time I saw an ad for something called Anal Ring Toss and I kind of veered in a whole different direction. This is still the central tension in the blog today–between a serious look at sex and what the hell it even is vs. the immature joy of finding a Japanese sex spray that smells like “secretary.”

What advice do you have for moms trying to live both lives?

My kids are kind of like Stepford children and are bizarrely good and smart. Advice for others:  just do the parts you want. Like I don’t really fold clothes as much as bend them into smaller shapes.

Do you ever have trouble making those pieces work together? “Lift your left leg on to your partner’s right shoulder and- Hey! Don’t eat with scissors!”

I actually have said “Don’t eat with scissors.”  They were safety scissors, but still.  My kids are older now and they know way too much about what I do. I think it’s good though. Knowledge is power and all that. My sixteen-year-old, Maddie, is cheeky as hell and makes up fake positions that I should be sending to Cosmo.  I think the most recent one was the New Year’s themed “The Ball Drop” for the older gentleman.

What advice would you give to someone trying to get their first set of words in print? 

Write something. If you don’t, maybe you aren’t actually a writer. Maybe you’re a chef or something.

Do you ever get tired of writing about sex? 

Positions, yes. So yes. But sex, not yet.

Does anyone ever recognize you and ask for sex advice?

People ask me about sex toys. If you’re asking, I am currently going steady with an iRock by Doc Johnson.

You have a very intimate writing style. It is unapologetically frank and quite charismatic. Did this come naturally to you or did you develop it over time?

This sounds so ick and pretentious, but if you’re not talking about something real, what’s the point?

You seem to go to a lot of sex seminars and workshops, is it usually a sausage fest? Or are the sexes equally represented?

Both; people are generally earnest.  They want to be decent lovers, have good sex lives and are open to learning something new.

In the 60s, America had a sexual revolution and women came out of the kitchen burning bras and marching for rights. Women have started to march again. What do you think the future generations will have to say about what women accomplished now?

I think they will think it’s ridiculous that we were so backwards.

Do you think we have gone too far? America’s modern mother is a bread winner, bacon cooker, house maid, PTA president, soccer mom, 5k runner who also is forward thinking enough to want to be on top when the lights go down. Is this equality?

Equality is when we all can feel comfortable and able to be whoever we are. Men women, black, white, whatever.

If you could have a one minute Superbowl ad to impart your wisdom to the masses of men and women in America, what would you say?

Science is real, you fucking morons.  Hmmm, maybe should tone that down a little. (Nah!)

You interact with your readers a lot. Are you ever afraid an overzealous fan will use internet skills to find you and show up at your door? 

Eighty-five percent of my readers are exactly who I hoped–super smart, funny and curious. I adore them. The weirdest people were a group of Nazis on Twitter who got all roused/riled up by a piece on pegging I did. They were super furious, yet oddly obsessed. They were like “Are you a Jew? Cause you write like one.” I said “No, but thank you!” and they got even madder.

What’s next for Jill Hamilton? Your own sex toy line? Lingerie? A book? Directing female friendly adult films? Parenting books? Cooking show?

I’m eternally working on a book, though by “working” I mean thinking about it, then playing Words With Friends.

The Big Book Proposal Post (part 3) by Catherine Foster

Welcome to the final edition of the Book Proposal post. In part one, we defined a book proposal and clarified the differences between a proposal and a summary of your book. In part two, we broke down the first ten headers that a successful proposal might include and discussed them in detail. In this post, we’ll tackle the remaining twelve sections that comprise a thorough proposal. Let’s get started!

Competing Books/Competitive Title Analysis
It may seem counterintuitive to list your competition, but it would be a mistake to omit this category. A common refrain from a new author is “There’s nothing like my book out there! This is the only thing out there of its kind!” First of all, that is simply not true. There are more books in print now than are able to be read by a person in their lifetime, even if they spent every moment doing nothing except reading. You are now trying to add to that enormous stack of published works. Given that fact, agents have seen, read and have been exposed to an astonishing variety of ideas. This need not distress you, however; the savvy author should view this as an opportunity. Your agent needs assurance that there is a market for your book. If your book is, indeed, so niche that there is truly “nothing else like it” out there, then agents typically have no interest in pursuing it. As an author, you are conditioned to think of originality as something positive, but agents/publishers tend to shy away from the unproven and untested ideas. It would be better to come forward with a list of competitors in your field and show how you can improve on what they have done, list how you differ, or point out in what ways you are better. The key is to angle yourself into a trend that will be a safe bet for your agent, but to also show how your book differs from what is currently available on the market. You do not want to skimp on this research; a list of five to ten titles would be necessary to establish a strong foothold in your genre. In each case, list your competitors’ title, subtitle, author, publisher, year of publication, page count, price, format, and the ISBN. Then take the time to write a 100-200 summary of their book and how yours differs, fills a gap, offers more, etc. It is imperative that 1) you remain respectful of their work and resist the urge to criticize it and 2) always have in mind the need to reveal that evidence of need we first discussed in section one. This is critical for the success of your acceptance, and if you can prove that your book provides a need for readers or society, it will make it easier and easier for your agent to say yes to you. Every opportunity you have to provide evidence of need is valuable, and this section is one of the most important ones to help your case.

Proposed Back Cover Copy
Your imagination gets a workout in this section as you get to visualize the ideal back cover for your book. What is the layout that showcases your book to its best advantage? This can vary quite a bit from genre to genre: nonfiction covers may ask a few questions and follow up with a list of bullet-points that are covered inside. This style breaks up some heavier topics that will snag the reader’s interest without bogging them down in technicalities. Short fiction or anthologies may provide a list of titles on the back. Novels might prefer to summarize the plot with a blurb. This is a chance to have fun and be creative. The more you take interest in your own book and every part of it, the less the agent will have to do. They will see you as an active participant in your own product, and they will want to have you for a client.

Marketing and Promotion
Perhaps the most crucial section of the entire proposal, this relies on your careful preparation of facts and figures. Your agent/publisher is going to be looking for you to provide a history of connections. It is imperative that you do not use words like “hope”, “would like to” or “goal” here. Your agent is seeking someone who is strong, confident and determined—a person who is going to follow through on their plans, with or without [an agent’s] help. They are not only looking for sings that you have what it takes, without hesitation, but that you have a history of this kind of behavior. You are going to need to provide clear statements here, such as:

-I have blogged every week for the past year, and every post receives [insert page views]. I have current invitations to guest blog [here] and [here], and those sites each reach [give stats].

-Do not say: I plan to reach out to different sites and try to guest blog in the future.

-Say: Within six months of launch, my website reaches [insert statistic].

-Do not say: I am going to try to register for a website and start blogging soon to increase hits.

The more concrete evidence you can give that you are reaching an established audience and that you bring fans with you that are eager to read your work, the easier it will be for your agent to say yes. If you sound unsure, unmotivated and uneducated, they will pass. Fast. Do your research beforehand and make it impossible for them to say no. Now is the time to bring it all home and provide that evidence that you have connections and readers that are ready and waiting for this book. All this agent has to do is sign on the line and it’s a go. Make it sound so easy. Now is the section to persuade them that you have done all the work, there is a readership waiting … just sign it into being. Provide the facts, and it will happen.

Potential Endorsers
Not a strictly necessary section, it is just an extra. It helps to have a list of important, relevant or famous people who are willing to vouch for you. Of course, not everyone has a list of celebrities who are willing to sign for them, and that’s all right. If you are writing a book about gynecology, and you have a colleague or two who is willing to put their name and credentials in, it helps to lend legitimacy to your material. If you don’t have an endorser, though—and many of us don’t—it is perfectly fine to skip this section. If you add it in, just list your names in any order you feel shows to your best advantage. It is usually best to include how they are relevant in parentheses or with a comma after their name. This list may be as long or as short as you like.

Other Details
This includes miscellanea such as the format (hard or soft cover, dustjacket or none), the wordcount, page count and deadline. You may choose to include some or all of these details—or perhaps none—depending on how close you are to completion of the book. This is optional, of course, and merely a guideline.

About the Author
Somewhat self explanatory, you can make this section as long or short and as personal as is your preference.

Sales History of Previously Published Books By Author
If you have a great track record, now’s the time to shine. Show ’em off here!!!

Proposed Outline
Break it all down here. You have some leeway—you can propose the number of pages you want to spend. Dedication: 1 page. Acknowledgements: 1 page, Title page: 1 page. Table of Contents: 2 pages, Introduction: 9 pages. Etc. You can also give a more in-depth summary of your book here. It would be appropriate for the agent to finally get to the meat of what they are trying to say “yes” to: here is where that starts to happen.

Table of Contents
If you are including a Table of Contents in your book, you may choose to list that here.

List of Chapters/Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
If you have chapters in your book, particularly if they have names, you may want to give a list of those and include the number of pages within each chapter. I would be a good idea to give a brief thirty-fifty word description of each individual chapter.

Sample Chapters
Choose one or two sample chapters to copy here, or include a portion of your book. Make sure you note for the agent which chapters or sections your are attaching. Make it your best work! This is what your agent is going to be judging you on, so be sure to select carefully.

It is important to remember that this is merely a template for a book proposal. You may want to select different sections that meet your individual needs. Of course, you may highlight, add, rearrange or completely omit sections that do not work for your needs. The most important aspect to remember is to elevate the evidence of need for your manuscript when you are crafting your proposal; there are many ways to do that. Agents and publishers are difficult to secure, but they are not above wanting to profit. If you can successfully highlight evidence of need, you are sure to be in print someday. It may not be the first or the second proposal you submit, but someone will be able to see the worth, and you will be a (monetarily) successful author before you know it. But this post shows that this is a side to writing that may not appeal to everyone, and if you find that dealing with proposals and agents and writing business plans is crushing your creative spirit, that’s important to recognize, too. Whatever path you choose as an author, I wish you much luck and success. If you have any questions or concerns, I’m here to help! Please e-mail me at catherine@theletterworks.com. Happy writing!

The Big Book Proposal Post (part 2) by Catherine Foster

Welcome to the second edition of the Book Proposal post. In the previous post, we defined a book proposal and clarified the differences between a proposal and a summary of your book. In this post, we’ll begin to detail some of the sections you may want to include in a thorough proposal. Let’s get started!

Information

            This belongs at the top of the document and contains your identifying information, such as name, address, phone number and e-mail address.

Proposed Title

            This is self-explanatory. You need to provide a title here, and this is the title you will use throughout the rest of the document when you refer to your manuscript. Don’t worry, however, if you haven’t quite settled on a name for your story yet. This is not a legal document and it doesn’t bind you to a commitment to name your book. It is exactly what it says it is: a proposed title. You can change it later at any time. The purpose here is to show your investor that you have a vision and an understanding of your finished product.

Author

            You only need to put your name (or pseudonym) in here.

Once Sentence Description

            While this might seem self-explanatory, it can be tricky. It is often difficult for authors to boil down their novels to a single thesis, and sometimes the sentence that they might choose is not the idea that is most advantageous to them in terms of marketing. Think carefully when you construct this sentence: it is, in essence your “elevator speech” for your book: it is your one chance to distill the idea for what you’ve written into one, single clear and cohesive sentence. You are trying to aim for clarity and totality. It is a bit of a tall order, so you need to take some care to craft this part. Try to stay general and less focused on details or plot here. It can be done, but it will take some careful thought.

Category

            This is simply the category under which you might label your book, such as: science fiction, psychology, romance, etc.

Audience

            In this section, it is necessary to identify an audience for your book. This is where it is pivotal to  focus on who you are specifically targeting and avoid general statements about readership. This section is where you will begin to implement evidence of need to your investor. It is of dire consequence that you are able to demonstrate who this book is for and why they need this book. In this section, a savvy author would begin to provide a clear portrait of exactly who will be purchasing this book. Do not think that terming groups as “book buyers” and “readers” will suffice as an identifier. Including statistics that are meaningless or irrelevant would also be a mistake—make sure to include hard facts in this section, but make them consistent to your book or topic:

People who read [your genre] account for 30% of book sales last year.

Recent polls of [your genre] indicate that people want more books in this genre.

[Your genre] has the fastest-growing number of readers in the young-adult demographic.

Readers Say

            This is a nice place to include reviews and blurbs from friends, family or beta readers, if you have any. If you are an author with a larger following, you may also include anything of note that includes statements about you and your website or blog or possibly other books and articles. This is your time to promote yourself and your writing through the words of your fans! A few statements are sufficient—between thee to five individual testimonies are enough. Make sure each statement is a few sentences long at most.

Purpose and Need

            This is another important section. It can be a paragraph or two, and it should illustrate exactly what it asks in the header: the purpose and need it brings. What are the bigger questions it addresses or answers? Why do people want to read this? What it is style in which it is written: conversational, humorous, serious, academic? This is the time to discuss the current climate, how your book fits into that, why it is timely and what it has to offer. While this section need not be overly lengthy, it should offer some thoughtful insight on why it is necessary and highlight that evidence of need that will make it ever-more-difficult for your agent to turn down your proposal.

Unique Angles

            While similar in some ways to “purpose and need”, this section can be skipped for some shorter novels or some genres that do not lend themselves to exhaustive categorization. If you have a firm grasp on the concept and you feel you have something to add, however, or if the subject is applicable to it, this is a chance to shine. A nice choice for this section might be the bullet-point format.  You may choose several points to highlight in a list. This will break up the tedium and allow the agent to see some items of interest that stand out about your writing. A list of between five and eight items is acceptable here, and you can include anything that you deem noteworthy about your book or writing style.

Current Interest

            As with the previous sections, this may seem like more of the same. This difference between this section and the “purpose and need” one is that you are defining the current climate and why the time is not just right but perfect for your particular book to be released. There may be many books out there on your topic, but sometimes current events, political or religious developments can change the landscape for authors. This can and should be used to your advantage. Every time you submit your proposal you should update this section. It may not need to be rewritten at all, but you should have this section in mind and keep it fresh.

            We’re about halfway through! In my next post we’ll wrap up how to write a successful book proposal with the final eleven headers. Thank you for sticking with me, and as always, if you have any questions about this topic or any other writing questions, please address them to me at catherine@theletterworks.com. Thank you, and happy writing!

 

Author Spotlight: Nelson Lauver by Amanda Wayne

Nelson Lauver is a man of extensive talents. An advocate for dyslexics, author, motivational speaker, and syndicated radio storyteller, he has made his life about words. As a child with undiagnosed dyslexia, he struggled with words. Nelson is a successful businessman, having learned outside the classroom how to work the world around him.  He hired people to handle the reading and writing aspects of his various businesses. He didn’t become literate until his late twenties, and then he made up for lost time by making words his life, his living, and his calling. He speaks to audiences around the globe, even to NASA! His acclaimed book is given away for free to parents and teachers in the hope that his personal story of successes and failures can help adults engage with dyslexic children and spare them some of the hardships he overcame. You can find your free copy of his memoir at https://www.nelsonsbook.com.

 

You have written extensively about your life with dyslexia and how you overcame those challenges to become a successful author. To what do you attribute your success in moving past those obstacles? 

N — Constant curiosity, especially about people and the desire to learn something new from them, and then share what I have learned.

 

What advice do you have for other authors struggling with learning disabilities?

N — I don’t think of myself as having a learning disability.  I certainly respect the opinions of others who feel they have a learning disability.  I think of myself as having a learning difference (I learn differently from others).  With that said, there are upsides and downsides regardless of what label one puts on it. Tech has changed everything!  There are many tech options for every individual reading and writing style. For instance, I prefer to read with my ears and write with my voice.

 

You have made a name for yourself doing motivational and comedic performances in front of audiences across the country. Is there any venue or audience that really stood out for you? 

N — Yes, those who know my story know that I was an academic failure.  I just couldn’t learn in the traditional brick and mortar schoolhouse, and the punishments at school were brutal, archaic, and downright criminal.  My local school district couldn’t wait to purge me from the system. Eventually, new administrators replaced retiring ones, and things slowly started to change. Imagine my delight when I received the invitation to appear at my old school to discuss achievement and success with the students.

 

You have said that you believe dyslexics make excellent problem solvers because they learn to read society as a way around learning to read and write. Do you think this unique learning experience aided you in being a successful businessman and entrepreneur? 

N — A study by the Cass School of Business found that 35% of American Entrepreneurs identify as dyslexic.  This fact plays out over and over again in discussions as researchers try to discern why.

The “why” is pretty simple; by the time we finish with all things educational, we’ve had our bellies full of people telling us how to do things that don’t work for us.  It’s good to be king — It’s better to be your own boss.

 

What do you think non-dyslexics can learn from the dyslexic way of learning? 

N— That everyone learns best when they learn in the style that is best for them.

 

You have an impressive online presence. Do you have any marketing tips for writers looking to improve their sales or recognition?

N– It’s a business and nothing happens in business until someone sells something.  My dad always said, “Selling is like shaving, you have to do it every day.”  Sell!

 

You provide your memoir free to parents and teachers. What do you most hope your book teaches those interacting with struggling dyslexics? 

N– That the only reason people with the dyslexic mind struggle to learn is because society struggles to teach them. After I broke even on my Memoir (10,000 or so copies), I simply started giving books away (at cost) in service of the true mission of the book.  The e-book is 100% free.  I owned a broadcast media company and because of the similarities, it was very easy and suited my needs better than using an outside source for publishing.

To date, I have sold, provided at cost, and given away somewhere north of 250,000 copies of my original book.

 

As an author of a memoir, is it difficult to put your private life out into the world? Do you ever find it unsettling to run into someone you have never met who knows such personal things about you?

N– What I find unsettling is not what I have shared, and always happy to discuss with a stranger, but what questions a reader may have but finds themselves afraid to ask… and moreover, why are they afraid to ask.

 

What was the moment when you decided that your life was interesting enough that other people would actually want to read about it? Were you just brushing your teeth one day and thought, “Wow, I am just a really fascinating person. I should write a book about my life”?

N– I never wrote a book thinking my life was interesting.  I knew for a dozen or so years that I needed to write a book regarding my early life.  Finally, I could no longer turn away; I had a duty to tell my story as a way of helping others. I gave it a great deal of thought and decided that if I were to undertake a book, It would be necessary do it right. If you want to write a book to become famous or because you are famous and you just want to hear yourself talk; best of luck to you.  If you need to write a book because you feel compelled to help others, it will be necessary to cut yourself open and bleed onto every page of every chapter.  Your blood must saturate your book if you truly wish for change.  As hard as it is you must relive the experience to tell your story; best of luck to this type of author, as well.

 

What accomplishment or accolade makes you proudest?

I have a lot of plaques, awards, and citations for my “achievements.”

What I don’t have is even one award for any of my many miserable “failures.” Almost everything I do well is a direct result of learning by screwing up. I would be so happy to hang an award for “failure” as it has been my greatest teacher.

 

What can you tell us about speaking for NASA? Did you do any special research before that performance?

N– I have been a keynoter for NASA twice. They are lovely people, as I find all my audiences to be.  The thing that struck me most about the folks at NASA came during my tour of the space station assembly area.  I got to walk through a space station unit that had returned to earth, AND it had the same identical $39 microwave in it that I had at home.  I figured the rocket scientist at NASA were either as down to earth as I am OR I’M AS SMART AS A ROCKET SCIENTIST!

 

Your book is ironically entitled “Most Unlikely to Succeed.” Why did you decide on this title versus others you may have considered? 

N– The raw honesty that comes with adversity and the fact that we should never negatively speculate on the outcome of anyone’s life.

 

Do you have any advice for new authors hoping to become published?

N– Your best chance to become published is to become a publisher. It’s never been easier.  Read “The Well-Fed Self Publisher.”  As I said earlier, it’s good to be king; It’s better to be your own boss.

 

What’s your latest or next project? 

N– I’m wrapping up another book about dyslexia and then moving on to a highly curious subject: the female soul.  Stay tuned!

 

Advice From My Publisher: Being a Better Writer by Amanda Wayne

Being a writer is easy. You just sit down and write. Being a good writer is much harder. For a time, I worked at The Indiana Review, and I was always eavesdropping on the editors, trying to find that one little nugget of truth that made a “yes” piece. Was it something about the language? The characters? The plot? What was missing from my work that would take it from mediocre to good? So, I asked one of the editors, Tessa Yang, what she sought. She replied, “Freshness and risk will capture my attention. I’m looking for something that dares in the first few pages. It needs to have difficult and new language, character, or concept. At the same time, what keeps me reading to the end—and what ultimately convinces me to vote for a piece—is earnestness and vulnerability. I’ve become less and less interested in emotional withholding. If you’re brave enough to reach for honesty and feeling, no matter concerns about sentimentality or mawkishness, I’ll want to take the plunge with you.”

Freshness? Risk? I tried to square this idea with “write what you know.” It’s that adage that every author knows. What I knew was everyone else’s work. I had decades of reading other people’s words. Everything I wrote read like my favorite authors. When I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I wrote a short story about a man trying to find his son in a post-apocalyptic world. It wasn’t half bad, but there was nothing new in it. During my Stephen King phase, I wrote macabre pieces about the baser side of mankind. They were mediocre at best. My poems had bits of Frost and Dickinson, slapped together with a touch of Whitman and a dash of Poe. It was only later that I found a place where my work was my own. Somewhere along the way, I found a voice that was only mine. Sure, it echoes with reverberations of the millions of words I have read. It stands on the shoulders of the authors whose work I relished. That doesn’t make it less mine.  Writing what you know doesn’t have to be boring. It just starts emotionally, physically, or aesthetically in a place you are familiar.

The other half of the advice concerned emotional vulnerability. That process of letting your characters show your own emotion. This is even harder. Modern society doesn’t have much place for emotional vulnerability. We love it in our romantic comedies. We love that moment when the plucky but underappreciated woman convinces the emotionally absent male lead to open his heart to a chance at love. We like to see a hint of it in politicians because it makes them seem like real people. We wait for that moment when they swear, or slip up, or stumble. In everyday life, though, no one wants to see the innermost emotions of your local barista, the man walking his dog, or the neighbor you barely know. However, it is important to your character because without seeing their emotional vulnerability, the reader cannot grasp why they behave the way they do. A story needs this in order to engage the reader. Each piece of emotion lays bare a piece of the author’s soul. Not every character is like me or does what I would do, but each character is a part of me. To send those little pieces out into the world, to allow someone else to see them, is to put those vulnerable Horcruxes of my soul in danger of discovery and critique.  It was my own vulnerability that is needed, my own willingness to be open and available.

In short, what I learned was that the easiest way to get an answer is to ask the question. And being a better writer is hard. It takes writing more, reading more, and editing more. It requires that I be willing to part with pieces of my soul and be vulnerable. It is this last piece that I have struggled to overcome. I have the language, the vocabulary, even the imagination. Letting a stranger, let alone a multitude of them, into the private recesses of your being is what a writer does. Anything short of that isn’t worth my time or my reader’s time. Good writing begins with emotion and is propelled by prose and plot. Whether we like or dislike a character is immaterial; we must believe in their humanity in order to care what happens to them. A writer puts a piece of her own humanity into her characters, breathing life in where before there only existed form. Becoming a better writer is a lifelong journey, not a destination. At no point does the learning and editing stop. I can try every day to improve my craft and so, too, can you. It requires taking risks and creating emotional vulnerability. Both of those are tasks which even seasoned and published authors struggle to accomplish. By writing every day and actively seeking to better ourselves as artists, we become better each day.

They Said WHAT about My Piece?! Navigating the Critical World by Josh Smith

Criticism is inescapable in the Internet age. In addition to the myriad news outlets, magazines, blogs, and personal pages that feature reviews, the distance and anonymity afforded by the web has turned criticizing one another on social media into some kind of national pastime. This, combined with so many websites requesting reviews and ratings for everything we purchase, see, eat, and experience, “everyone’s a critic” has transitioned from an old adage to an element of modern life.

While this “review everything” landscape has mostly been curated as a customer service tool, people often get caught up in the rush of trashing something publicly, which is usually less a result of something actually being bad and more related to a particular perception, bias, or trend. Full disclosure: I dabbled in album reviews that were predominantly snarky and negative from the outset, but I eventually realized that cracking jokes at the expense of someone’s creations was a lazy approach that did nothing for an art form that I truly love. It turns out that it’s so much more rewarding to sit down with something, whether it’s initially appealing or not, and give it a chance to affect you on the artist’s terms. Unfortunately, there’s still an audience for those scathing “cheap thrill” reviews, and anything we create that winds up in a public space is a potential target for some hack with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a difficult task, but it’s important not to let this permeating negativity crush you, especially when it comes to your creative endeavors. That’s not to say that all unfavorable criticism of your work will be inherently wrong, but identifying the difference between trolling and actual critique will save you a lot of sleepless nights.

No matter the source, intent, or validity, nearly all criticism is accompanied by the sting of failure. That sting never disappears completely, but you can learn to temper it. It becomes a challenge in this age of constant commenting, and there is a real threat that you can become so callous that you are unable to find merit in insightful critiques when they do arrive. The opposite can also occur—when your work is so close to you, you may feel personally attacked by every bit of judgment coming your way, making it next to impossible to get anything positive out of even the most gentle and constructive criticism. Both of these responses develop over time if left unchecked, so be mindful of your emotional response to critiques, whether they come from friends, family, writing groups, or randos on Twitter.

For many writers, the worst form of criticism is also the most common: indifference. Indifference in a review can be devastating, but when your work doesn’t even reach a platform upon which it can be judged, you start asking dreaded questions like, “should I even be doing this?” and “what if no one ever cares?” These crossroads are the ones that define you, and when you approach them, you must do so with complete honesty. If you can see a way onward without requisite praise or even much acknowledgement, hang in there, put in the work and pave your own roads. If critical reception, fame, and wealth are your primary writing goals, maybe it’s time to take some time off and consider a career path with a more realistic pathway to grand success. If you can’t help but work through the debilitating indifference that most writers experience early on, then you will develop the fortitude to handle any criticism that comes your way, and the poise to  allow it to improve your work.

One of the most important lessons in receiving criticism is giving it time to sink in. Quick reactions to tough observations can increase anxiety, causing you to overlook any helpful elements populating the critique. In writing groups, editor’s reviews, or other professional situations, this can lead to overreactions or outbursts that won’t advance your writing or your career. When you feel that sting, slow down, take a step back and ask yourself why it hurt and what comment struck the hardest. Oftentimes, it is because something has hit close to home. Specific pieces of advice might suggest things about your work or even your personality that are tough to face, but hard truths are often the ones we need to hear the most. Do your best to not be dismissive in these situations, as difficult as that may be. Sometimes you’ll learn important life lessons, and other times you’ll discover that the reader merely missed the point. That said, if you find that people frequently misunderstand what you are trying to do, you may need to reconfigure your approach. Use the results of past critiques, reviews, and comments to zero in on where you’re losing people and find a way to clarify what you want them to see. The subjective nature of art and perception will ensure that someone, somewhere will certainly receive different signals than you intended to send, but if you have made yourself as clear as possible without insulting the intelligence of your core readers, then you can rest easy.

You may not think much of every opinion about your work, but you can learn something from almost any critique. Even a cheap jab can train you to shake off thin attacks and can show you how to more thoughtfully respond if you are asked to chime in on the works of your peers. Take your time, keep an open mind, and prepare to get a bit uncomfortable. Being under the microscope is a stressful endeavor, but the quality of your work is sure to improve if you can allow yourself to see it from new perspectives.

The Smallest Winner Contest

At the LetterWorks, we believe writing is a very personal and important matter, and sharing it with the world is the one of best ways to hone your craft.  Many of our customers are submitting their writings to publications and even contests.

Winning a contest isn’t always about having the best story, format or editing.  Sometimes your work just doesn’t mesh with the publisher’s theme.  It could also be that your competition is very strong.

We think you should be rewarded for your efforts, even if you don’t come in first place.  So the LetterWorks is holding our own contest!

In the spirit of being positive, we are calling it “The Smallest Winner!” contest.  We will have multiple prizes:

  • First place will be awarded to a contest winner with the smallest monetary amount won that wasn’t a first place win.  First prize will be a $25 Visa gift card!
  • Second place will be awarded to a contest winner for the largest monetary amount won that wasn’t a first place win.  Second prize will be a free edit from theletterworks.com, up to 2500 words!
  • We will have up to three honorable mentions.  These will win a 50% discount off any edit up to 2500 words.

Winners will also have the option to have their publication link posted on the LetterWorks homepage!

To enter you can choose one of the following options:

  • Like Us” on Facebook and make a quick post on your page including the hashtag #theletterworks and mention the amount you won and where you submitted your work.
  • Follow Us” on Twitter @theletterworks for the amount you won, where you submitted your work, and include the hashtag: #theletterworks.
  • Send an email to contest@theletterworks.com letting us know the amount you won and where you submitted your work.  Please include “The Smallest Winner” in the email subject.

Submissions should be received by November 10th, 2017.  We will have the results of the contest by November 17th, 2017.

We will tally up the results, and if you win we will contact you in the same way entered the contest.  You may enter as many times as you like, but your odds of winning depend upon the number of total entries and the value of those winnings.  If we contact you, we will ask you for evidence of your winning (a published link or forwarded email, for example).

That’s it!  Get writing and submitting.  Good Luck!

Making the Most of NaNoWriMo by Melissa Heiselt

Nothing gets a fire burning under you like a tight deadline. Ah, that alarming shock to your system that says you’ve got to move now or you will suffer humiliation at the hands of your friends, family, or coworkers! Which brings us to National Novel Writing Month, A.k.a. NaNoWriMo, where hundreds of writers dash in, determined to finish that novel! Or start that novel! Or crank out any novel! All in just those scant thirty days of November. Sound crazy? Well, yeah, it pretty much is, but it’s also a really fun way to make some serious headway on that one project that you love/fear the most, if you approach it the right way. Here are five steps to use this October to prepare for the greatest writer’s holiday ever this November:

        Get Your Head in the Game

Many authors decide to join the NaNoWriMo hype on a whim. I should do something amazing this month! I’m totally going to write a novel! There is nothing wrong with that if it’s just for kicks and you see no serious goals of publication in the future for your work, but it’s very hard to cross that finish line without a concrete goal. Get clear about your purpose here. Why are you doing it? Is this an intense writing exercise to get you over the mental hang-up of writing something as massive as a full novel? Is this to get your ideas fleshed out fully? Is this the major push to get your concept on the road to publication? Know where you want to go when you board the NaNoWriMo train, and you will reach your destination. At the same time, know this: thirty days isn’t enough time to complete a great novel. It can be enough time to complete a rough draft if you are committed. Don’t demand perfection in every word here. Revisions will be necessary, and that is okay. Even a draft that takes years to assemble will need many revisions and editing work. Just get it all on the page so you can see it take shape.

        Don’t Fly By the Seat of Your Pants.

I know, I know, I just quashed the creativity right out of you. Just hear me out. If you are using NaNoWriMo as a catalyst with a goal of publication, you will want to use this month wisely. If you want to actually write a novel instead of 50,000 random words, you will still need to plan. Before you write a novel you MUST KNOW your main characters. What drives them? What stands in their way? What scares them? You MUST KNOW the beginning, middle, and end of your plot. If you doubt this, just binge watch the TV series LOST. You guys, it could have been so good. Know your ending. That’s what enables you to foreshadow and create meaningful connections throughout that create that brilliant/ shocking/ satisfying ending. You MUST KNOW your landscape. Your readers will be as confused as you are about where things are happening. Make sure you aren’t disorganized. Strategies for outlining, storyboarding or however you like to organize your world are myriad, and I’m not going to delve into that here, but spend October planning for November. If you have a vague story idea you’ve never had time to really flesh out, this is a great time to give yourself a kick-start on bringing it to life!

         Create Space to Create.

Perhaps the greatest value of NanoWriMo for aspiring authors is that it forces you to commit deeply to your writing and to schedule fiercely guarded, uninterrupted writing time. After all, it’s only for a month! At least that’s what we tell our loved ones as we closet ourselves away for hours at a time writing hundreds or thousands of words each day. If you find your roommates cannot resist coming in during that sacred writing time, pick a different venue. The library. A coffee shop. Wherever will allow you to focus and stay on target. That act of carving out time and space for your creative work has the potential to become a deliciously self-perpetuating habit. Maybe you can’t keep that break-neck speed forever. Maybe you have bills to pay and actually like the people with whom you cohabitate. But that habit carries momentum that you just have to renegotiate to keep rolling at the pace that’s right for you. Begin now to set aside time each day to prepare for NaNoWriMo. Word count doesn’t matter. It doesn’t need to be hours. However, it needs to be consistent every day.  Use that time to get plot details hammered out. Get acquainted with your characters. Research relevant professions. Draw maps. It doesn’t even have to be writing, it just needs to be relevant to the project.

        Embrace the Cloud

Create a safe place to store your work. Nothing is worse than losing your nearly finished masterpiece-in-progress.  It’s sheer devastation. Plan ahead to find the place to save that’s right for you. Dropbox (unless you are incredibly prolific or use it for photos) and Googledocs both offer cloud services for free. Create some accountability for your writing with a word count widget, or commit to consistently updating your word count on the NaNoWriMo site once you begin. Find some way to see your progress visually. It will keep you motivated to keep driving this crazy train.

          Find a Writing Buddy

As antisocial as some of us may be, at our core we are social creatures. We perform better when there is accountability involved. Whether it’s your best friend you’ve roped into joining you on this ride or your local writer’s group or an online forum for NaNoWriMo inductees, find someone with whom you can commiserate. Writing fifty thousand words in thirty days is a huge undertaking; it’s the marathon of the writing world. Connecting with a writing buddy will give you a place to share strategies, encourage, and receive encouragement! Once you begin the race, you won’t want to waste your precious writing time trying to locate someone who really gets it and who understands your insatiable need for hot drinks and validation. Seek out connections beforehand and you will find yourself ahead of the game.

National Novel Writing Month is both a celebration of writing and a beastly challenge. Take some of the fire out of this dragon by preparing now, and you will be much more pleased with your completed novel on November 30th at 11:59pm.

 

An Author’s Guide to Dealing with Rejection by Amanda Wayne

You snap the mail box door closed and push up the red flag. There goes your baby. All those words you painstakingly wrote, rewrote, and revised are officially off to be judged by a complete stranger. As you turn away, you feel relief and anguish. Did you put on enough stamps? Did you fill out the address exactly right? What if they hate it and they talk about how awful it is over their morning coffee? What if they love it and you finally get that letter validating your hours, weeks, and years of hard work? What if you never hear anything at all? Days pass, then weeks, then a month. Finally, there it is waiting in your mailbox. A letter. THE letter. The one you have been waiting for. You tear it open. “Dear you, thank you for sending your story to us, however … blah blah blah.”

All authors experience rejection. The greatest and most prolific authors have all had stacks of rejections letters taunting them with their form words and empty reassurances to try again. Issac Asimov, who some call the father of science fiction, had this to say: “Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” He went on to write or edit 500 books. Stephen King wrote, By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” Later, he would send the same rejected work back to the same publisher who would jump at the chance to publish his work. J.K. Rowling has even submitted works for publication under a pseudonym and had them rejected. One publisher even told her to take a writing class. A writing class? For the woman who gave us Harry Potter? Really?!

So you see, rejection is as much a part of the writing process as the writing itself. Rejection hones your skills, motivates you and even inspires you.  Each rejection gives you the chance to stop writing or continue. You can allow a one page form letter to derail your dreams or you can use it to fuel the next story and the next submission. Someone sitting at a desk with a stack of manuscripts or stories in front of them decided that your work wasn’t right for their publication. They sent out hundreds or thousands of those letters to authors just like you. Somewhere, another author is opening their mailbox and reading the exact words that you just read. Tomorrow, they may delete their work in progress and decide that this writing thing just isn’t for them. Make sure that author isn’t you. As Chuck Wendig said, “Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?”

Use the rejections as a chance to edit your work and to learn from what worked or didn’t work. Move the dialogue around, delete a scene that wasn’t working or maybe add in a plane crash. You can set aside that work and begin again on another day with another work in progress. One day, after you’ve published a few stories, you might happen across that old document, change a few things, and submit it anew only to realize that suddenly it does find a home.

So what should you do with that rejection letter? Keep it for posterity? Burn it in revenge? Post it proudly as proof that you put yourself out there and allowed a piece of your soul to be vulnerable? That’s really up to you. All of these are valid options to the soul-crushing rejection letter. Whichever you choose, remember that it was just a piece of paper. Don’t allow yourself to permit a sheet of paper to have power over you. You control your destiny. A piece of paper can’t stand up to that, right? After all, you invented a whole world and populated it with characters. You made those characters dance on puppet strings while you dictated what they said and how they lived their lives. A little piece of paper can hardly compare to that.

 

7 Tips to Avoiding Freelance Writing Scams by Melissa Heiselt

Whether you’re looking to earn some freelance writing cash on the side or just ready to switch gears from more creative endeavors, make the most of your opportunities by ensuring the jobs you take really will pay. Here are a few tips from the freelance writing pros who have been there and been scammed. Here is what we’ve learned:

Don’t pay to find work.

The more reputable freelance hub sites might take a percentage of your paycheck, charge the companies looking for reputable freelancers or both, but generally a monthly subscription fee to have access to the opportunity to find work is a red flag that you’re opening yourself up to a potential floodgate of scams. If you’re paying so your potential clients don’t have to, it generally means more of them will be, shall we say, underfunded. Many of these purported “databases” are actually pulling from other free sites you should be checking out yourself, including Craigslist. Upwork, Toptal, Freelancer, Fiverr, Guru, and Freelance Writing Gigs all have methods for attempting to screen out scammers, but some will still inevitably get through. Keep a wary eye out for potential clients who prefer to communicate through private email or Google Hangouts rather than the platform you’re using

Never agree to work for free.

NEVER complete the entire writing job before you have a contract. “Submit your best work and we might hire you” actually means, “Thank you for the free article, sucker!” NEVER accept “experience” or prestige points or whatever they’re selling as a substitute. NEVER accept terms that essentially say, “work now, we’ll pay when we get the money.” Be sure there is at least a solid contract in place you could use to take legal action before completing the work and expecting to be paid. And READ that contract. Some will substitute a far smaller amount in the contract for the one verbally agreed upon and hope you won’t notice.

Don’t undersell your talent.

Check the terms of your contract and ensure that you will wind up with a reasonable hourly wage. Don’t get caught up in the bidding war that is Fiverr by offering the most work for the least pay. You aren’t winning there, friend. Strategically offering a minimal bargain offer with the aim of enticing bigger job offers once they’ve had a taste of your phenomenal talent is one thing. Consistently underselling yourself undercuts not just yourself but the market as a whole. You have a skill many others lack. That is why they’re willing to pay someone else to write for them! Just because they’re hoping to pay the least amount for the best writing they can get does not obligate you to lower your standards to accommodate. You deserve to make a living with your skills. There is work out there for you. Name your price and stand firm.

Make sure the company is legit.

Can the representative clearly explain what the company is and does? Do they have a functioning email address? A working phone contact? Can you locate a physical address on Googlemaps? Is there some kind of web presence? Do they have reviews for their company online? Be aware: some companies are becoming more savvy and will put up a website to keep up appearances. Poke around and click through to be sure it’s functional and makes sense. If anything “feels” off, it probably is. There are so many real clients out there waiting for you to apply; don’t waste your time with anything sketchy.

 Poor grammar is a red flag.

If there are repeated, glaring errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, you are probably not dealing with a professional. There are certainly exceptions, such as when you’re being asked to edit or write for a non-native English speaker, and that is clear in the job description. But by and large, if you are being approached by a “hiring manager” who seems to have abysmally poor communication skills, think twice and take a closer look at the company they claim to represent.

 Be wary of the unsolicited job offer.

There may be the odd headhunter looking for a contractor or a freelance hit on LinkedIn that is linked to a very real potential client. For the most part, however, an email from XYZ Corporation looking for someone with your exact writing talents really is too good to be true. When something like this comes through your inbox, at least do your due diligence in checking out all the above before responding. Scammers like to hit newbies, so if you’ve recently signed up with a freelance job hub, you will likely be a target for the first few weeks.

Don’t cash an overpaid check.

One of the oldest scams out there is another of those “too good to be true” scenarios. All seems to go well with Joe Client, contract looks good, communication is clear, all seems to be in order. Work is completed and they send you a check for $2,000 more than agreed upon. Do NOT attempt to cash that check believing it’s some kind of bonus for your stellar prose. Typically you’ll get an email noting the error and asking you to go ahead and cash the check, then write them a new check for the overage amount. In reality, the check is no good and will bounce and you will have paid them the two grand for your work. Instead, offer to tear up the check and wait for them to send a new one for the correct amount. Then take it to the bank to verify. If you’ve connected with them through Upwork or a similar site, just stick with the program and have them pay electronically so this can’t happen. You should also report them to the higher ups so they can help you handle the situation if the payment is still no good. If you came by the client on your own, you can threaten legal action, contract in hand. Worst case scenario, you will have lost your work, not the money.

These are just some of the methods to help avoid being scammed. There are always more, so be on the lookout for anything that doesn’t seem right. Remember to trust your instincts. Not everyone out there is a bad guy, and once you get a few true and honest jobs under your belt, the incidences of dealing with these scam artists will minimize. As you gain confidence in your reputation, you will flourish. If you do happen to fall prey to a scam, don’t feel bad; it happens to the best of us. Try to learn from it and move forward. Better days are ahead if you just keep trying. Good luck and happy writing!