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Saturday, December 4, 2010

How to Get Started

Whenever I speak at a conference I tell attendees they have the lifetime privilege (I remind them that it's my lifetime, not theirs, so hurry!) of e-mailing me any question, and I'll answer it, as long as it can be answered in a simple e-mail. If the answer is too complicated, I might refer the person to a book or Web site that could help. I am also one of the experts on a Web site that lists experts on many subjects. My subject is "writing books," so I get questions from readers of that Web site, as well. As a result of opening myself up to many questions, I get to help other writers while I also gather material for my "Ask the Book Doctor" column and my Ask the Book Doctor books. Writers get answers; I get material. Everybody wins.

One frequent question that I get, though, comes from those who want to start writing but don't know where to begin. I want to be encouraging, so I give them many tips, but in truth, writers--real writers--never ask that question. They dive in and write. Later they may learn much more and revise their writing during the rewrites and future drafts, but writers simply write, and in my opinion, when you have to ask how to get started, you don't yet have the soul of a writer.

I have a similar attitude toward women in their late thirties who say, "I haven't decided yet whether I want children." Hello? Sometimes doing nothing is a decision in itself. If you have a partner, have your health, and haven't had children by age thirty-eight or thirty-nine, it's probably because you never had the innate urge to be a mother. I say this boldly, because I do know there will probably be an exception here and there, but for me, I knew that I wanted to be a mother from the time I was a young child, just as I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. As a result, I wrote articles for my high school and college newspapers, became the newsletter editor for almost every organization I belonged to, and volunteered to write newsletters for nonprofit organizations. By the time I left college, I already had a substantial portfolio of published works that helped me get other writing jobs.

Along the same lines, I knew I wanted to be a mother, and in my era no decent woman had a child outside of wedlock, so I married young, got pregnant right away, and gave birth to a perfect baby boy. Life didn't see fit to give me any other children who survived, but at least I have a son; I am a mother.

This whole post, then, is simply about deciding what you want and going for it, in whatever way you must. If you want to be a writer, write! Learn, yes, but write. Edit, yes, but later. First, write.

Unlike movies, which can be pitched without the screenplay having been written, I know of no novel that sold on an idea alone. It must first be written. Yes, if you write nonfiction, you can sell a book that isn't written yet, but you do have to write a full book proposal, along with sample chapters. In other words, you still have to write.

Oh, dear, I sound as if I'm lecturing, and I guess I am. I'm feeling adamant about writing, right now, because I'm guilty of not putting enough time into writing, now that my editing workload is heavy and the holidays are looming. I was probably lecturing myself. As a result, I put myself in my chair in front of my computer and wrote this blog entry.

At least I wrote!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rejection Is Part of the Job


I’m still trying to find a publisher for my first book of memoirs, a series of personal experience essays about my dating experiences. I had high hopes for a publisher that specialized in nonfiction with a strong female voice, but I received a personal rejection letter from the publisher saying it found my project “very compelling” and said, “we were impressed with your candid, and often humorous, descriptions…” and yet it went on to say “our most recent titles include quite a few memoirs, which means we’ll have to hold off on acquiring any more projects in that genre for the next several seasons.”

A personal rejection letter is rare these days, but rejection still sucks. I still have several other queries still out, and I know that even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by most major publishers before a small house took a risk and published 1,000 copies, half of which went to libraries. The rest is history. See http://io9.com/5668053/15-classic-science-fiction-and-fantasy-novels-that-publishers-rejected for other great books that were rejected so many times they almost didn’t get published, like War of the Worlds and Animal Farm. We writers must never give up. Success could be right around the corner.

For those who asked, the latest figure on my weight loss is 37 pounds. I’m not calling it a diet, but a healthy food plan, instead. Follow my weight-loss blog, full of my experiences and tips you might like at http://dontyoudarecallitadiet.blogspot.com/.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stop Procrastinating


In mid July, I said, “If not now, when?” I felt determined to stop procrastinating and start work on a few major projects. My first task was to lose weight, because my obesity had led to painful knees and feet, and I was diagnosed with arthritis in my knees and back. The orthopedic doctor suggested I take massive doses of painkillers, which I didn’t want to do. His only other advice was to lose weight. My heart fell, because I love food. To eat, I never have to be hungry; I merely have to find my mouth.

I started a plan similar to one used by diabetics, although I’m not diabetic. It calls for more vegetables, fewer starches, fewer sweets, and small amounts of protein. Living alone, though, it was going to be easy to slip up or cheat, so I did what writers do: I wrote. I wrote my intentions, created a blog, and took it public. Many people read the blog and send me e-mails to encourage me. Most folks not only support me but also join me in the food plan, after reading about my success. The response to my “Don’t You Dare Call It a Diet!” blog has been tremendous, and the food plan works. I’ve lost 30 pounds, my knees are pain-free, I feel younger and healthier, and I’m on the path to my goal weight. The easy plan allows me to eat real food, not expensive fad food. I hope you’ll read my blog and even sign up as a follower. See it at http://dontyoudarecallitadiet.blogspot.com/.

Once I stopped procrastinating, I started looking for a publisher for my book of memoirs. I wrote the proposal more than a year ago, but have only sporadically sent out queries. I decided to take any and all steps to get the book published, and by golly, within weeks I had a nibble from a California publisher. We were too far apart in our concept of a decent advance, but bolstered by the knowledge that at least one publisher loved my book, I sent out more queries and proposals. I eagerly await the responses.

I also put a bunch of stuff on CraigsList.org and sold it, things that were collecting dust and taking up space. What a good feeling to see things go to good use and turn into cash in my pocket! In a few weeks I pocketed about $1,300.00 for my used things.

Speaking of used things, I’m shocked to see that used copies of Write In Style, my book on creative writing, are selling for upwards of $90 on Amazon.com, when I still have a few new copies at the original price. After they’re gone, though, you’ll have to pay the inflated used-copy prices on Amazon, so be sure to order your copy today at the original cover price of $12.95. To order go to http://zebraeditor.com/book_write_in_style.shtml.

What will you tackle when you stop procrastinating? Will you start a food plan to get healthier? Will you submit your manuscript for publication? Will you clear your clutter and donate it or turn it into cash? Will you order my book before the prices soar sky high? I hope you’ll do all those things and more.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Giving Birth to a Book

Yesterday a client came to my office to discuss her pain over writing her book. Like many writers before her, she described her experience to be similar to giving birth.

Women often use that analogy, and no one questions that it's true. The time spent writing, revising, editing, and clarifying a book is as tedious as gestation and often takes about the same length of time, although for some it's more like an elephant's pregnancy, which lasts much longer than human pregnancy. The act of letting the book go at some point is equally as painful as childbirth. We have to face our fears. What if it isn't really finished yet? What if no one likes it? What if everyone rejects it? What if a publisher buys it, and then the public doesn't?

When I was pregnant with my son Sandy more than forty years ago, we did not have the privilege of knowing the sex of our babies. As many did before me, I chose yellow for the nursery walls, because it was gender neutral and cheerful. I often entered that brightly painted room, though, with nothing but fears: "It's my job to complete this room with a baby. What if I fail? What if there's something wrong with the baby? What if I can't endure childbirth?"

I faced those agonizing fears every day, until one day my perfect son rested in his crib, complete with all his fingers and toes. Everyone said he was beautiful, too. Ah.

As writers, though, how do we face our fears when we are writing a book? In the same way we face them in pregnancy. We keep going forward; writers and pregnant women have no choice. We have to reach the end of the journey to see what happens, whether our book or our baby is beautiful and perfect or whether it needs special attention to make it fully functional. We do whatever it takes.

As a writer, whenever you feel like quitting your book project, recall the excitement when you first concocted the idea. Remember the results you want from that book, whether it be fame, helping others, entertaining others, making money, or simply capturing your family history. Keep drawing on that excitement, and follow through to see what, in the end, you create. Unlike with human babies, at least we can keep working on our book babies until they are perfect--or near enough to perfect that someone will like it and want to read it.

Go forth and birth your book babies!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Who Has Your Backup?

We’ve all heard nightmares about lost manuscripts.

In the days of paper and typewriters, writers worried about fire. We bought fireproof safes or rented safe deposit boxes for our precious manuscripts, lest they burn up before they got published.

Today writers face even more concerns than fire. We can also lose our files through a technological breakdown. I’ve met authors who wore flash drives around their necks, carrying their words with them wherever they traveled. Flash drives make odd jewelry, but they do offer a sense of comfort.

Years ago I bought an external hard drive. After relying on it for a while, I discovered it had a mind of its own and chose which folders to copy and which to ignore. For certainty, I backed up my important documents manually, provided I remembered to do so.

I felt comfortable with my external hard drive backup system. Yes, in a fire my computer, processor, external hard drive, and all my backup information would melt beyond repair, but such a disaster would never happen to me, right? Wrong. Instead of fire, water shook my world. In September 2009 much of Woodstock, Georgia, experienced a flood, and water seeped in through my walls. Even though the flood did not, thank heavens, affect my computers, it messed up my floor, walls, books, photos, and anything else stored within a few inches of the floor.

Since then I’ve been collecting information from others about how they back up their files, and it came as a surprise that most writers “plan to do something” about backup but rarely take action. After eight months of information collecting, I experienced a revelation: with my procrastination, I had joined the ranks of folks who had no safe backup system.

Finally I joined a service that automatically backs up my documents and holds them on the Internet for me. If my entire home fills with water or goes up in flames, all my documents and digital photographs are safe. I will scan my most important printed photographs and back them up, too, to ensure they survive the next flood, even though we were told it was a 500-year event. At last I have peace of mind.

Will our current technology last? No one can say, but it’s all we have to work with, so I took the plunge. (Whoops! No intentional reference to my prior flood.)

What have you done to protect your precious files? Don’t merely think about it. Don’t procrastinate any longer. The creek’s rising. Do something!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writers Conference Makes Waves

I just returned from tropical St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I spoke at the Scribbler’s Writers’ Retreat. I could not ask for a more inspirational setting. Behind the speaker’s lectern a wall of windows revealed the ocean breaking on the rocks a few feet away. Dolphins rolled in the waves, swimmers walked past on their way to the beach, and sailboats and ocean liners floated by. Inside we heard talks from the trenches, writers who wrote through serious hardships, who bucked the odds, and who spoke from years of writing experience.

The Scribbler’s Writers’ Retreat awards quite a few scholarships to young college students, plus it attracts people of all ages. How reassuring it felt to scan the room and see a wide variety of ages, origins, and interests, yet everyone shared one important trait: we all loved words.

In my talk, “Yes, You Can Make a Living with Words,” I told of my high school English teacher, Martha DuBose, who selected me among only twelve students to take a creative writing course in our senior year. Being picked for that class gave me validation as well as information. Because of her I believed in my ability to communicate with words and so set out to make a career of writing and editing. The day after I told that story, one of the other speakers struck me as having an uncanny resemblance to that same teacher, although Mrs. DuBose would be considerably older, if she is even still alive. How eerie a coincidence, I thought, that I should mention someone one day and see her doppelganger the next. Think about it, though. If such a juxtaposition appeared in a novel, it would constitute too much of a coincidence to be believable, right? I’d have to tone down my life, my coincidences, my ups and downs, to turn them into a believable novel.

I liked the setup of this latest conference, because all speakers spoke to all participants, with no breakout sessions and no need to choose between speakers or topics. It meant I also could sit in on all the other speakers and glean information to pass along to readers.

The keynote speaker, John DeDakis of CNN and author of Fast Track and other novels, revealed that I had earlier inspired him when he attended the Harriette Austin Writers Conference in Athens, Georgia, and heard me speak years ago. What an honor!

As a bonus, writer and artist Charlotte Harrell sketched each speaker. If you want to see the sketch she made of me, visit my Facebook page (become my friend at Bobbie Rothberg Christmas), where I have posted the image.

I believe in attending conferences, no matter what skill level you possess. You never know what you might see, learn, or experience, and the networking is priceless.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who needs technology? Oh, I do.

My old cell phone grew erratic. It shut itself off, even when the battery was fully charged. Sometimes it refused to shut off. At time it would not hang up after a call. I heard the technology gods whispering that it was time to buy an iPhone.

I bowed to the altar of technology, bought an iPhone, and taught myself what I could about it. I didn’t get it going strong, though, until a (much younger) friend gave me a tutorial. Soon I was up and running, downloading apps, searching Google, adding ring tones, making videos, taking photos, adding contacts, identifying birds with an electronic field guide, answering e-mails, and oh, occasionally answering a phone call. Within two days I was mad about the device, totally hooked. I was in technology heaven--for four days.

On day four, the iPhone froze, crashed, and would not start back up. How could I call anyone? I had all my phone numbers stored on it. What if someone sent an e-mail while I was away from my computer? What kind of bird was sitting on the branch near me while I walked my dog? How could I live?

After going online with my desk computer and reading how to reboot a dead iPhone, I got the contraption going again, but it made me think. Do we own technology or does it have a hold over us? I already know the answer. Will I give up my iPhone, my computer, my electronic thermostat, my digital camera, DVR, the Internet, or even my microwave, though? No way! I can vent, but I won’t relent and go back to carbon paper, mimeographs, party lines, or any of that ancient stuff. I’m a modern woman, darn it. Meanwhile, if you need to reach me, call my office; don’t rely on reaching me on my high-tech iPhone.