Don’t Lose Your Stuff! July 8, 2014 No Comments

dlysSooner or later–for most of us, sooner–it will happen. You’ll be typing away, thoughts deep into the pending action, when digital reality rears its ugly head. Maybe the screen will fade to black, along with all the lights in your house; maybe you’ll be informed that the “Application Unknown has unexpectedly quit”; maybe you’ll see the message, “The disk in Drive C is not formatted. Do you want to format it now?”

All computing disasters have a startlingly final feel to them, but the single most important thing to remember is that most of the time, they are not fatal. Most can be prevented and recovered from, as long as you don’t give up and do something desperate–such as agree to let the operating system format drive C.

Thus the first rule of computer disaster recovery: Do nothing. It’s not as if prompt CPR will save your computer’s life. Think of your computer as resting, waiting for the magic password that will bring it back from suspended animation.

Rule #2 follows: It’s seldom as serious as it seems. At the very worst, you’ll be forced to restore material from the backup you learned to make in my March column. (You were paying attention, weren’t you?)

Power Protection

Electric utilities are fond of claiming that their service is 99.9% reliable. Unfortunately, it takes only a few milli-seconds of interruption for your computer’s memory banks to develop amnesia, so that 0.1% allows plenty of time for lost data.

There’s only one way to be absolutely protected from power interruptions–an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Equipped with rechargeable batteries, a UPS will keep your system operating for ten to thirty minutes after the wall plug goes stone cold. Its purpose is not to let you work through a mayor power outage, but to give you time to save your work and shut down normally. In the past few years, UPS systems have become much less expensive. You can get a 250-watt unit–enough to keep the system unit and an external drive, but not the monitor, going–for not much more than $150. (As long as you know the keyboard commands for Save and Shut Down, you don’t need the monitor.)

Sometimes excess power can be the source of problems. Lightning, for example, seems to have an affinity for silicon, to which I can personally attest Although there is no absolute protection short of unplugging the system, surge protectors can help, and they’re inexpensive enough that everyone should have one. Look for a unit that not only handles the power cords for your system’s components but also accepts the phone wires for your modem. Lightning is indiscriminate in how it gains access to its meal of silicon. A good surge protector will cost at least $25, and this is not a piece of equipment to skimp on. (If you decide on a UPS, a surge protector isn’t necessary–except to protect the UPS.)

Crashes Happen

Perhaps it’s just a gloss brushed on by optimistic memory, but I seem to recall a time when computers didn’t routinely develop “terminal system errors”–what we know as crashes–where the screen freezes, the system reports a fatal error or the computer simply restarts. Those were the days. With the intense loads imposed by today’s fancy operating systems and programs, crashes have come to be a normal part of modern computing. If I spend eight hours at the keyboard, one or two crashes are just part of the territory.

If you’re experiencing more than a couple of crashes during a day’s work, it’s worth seeking expert help to determine whether there’s a hardware problem or software conflict. Otherwise, your best defense is to save frequently so you can restart more or less where you left off.

In previous columns I’ve discussed how to establish good saving habits and how to develop “hot-key” shortcuts for saving. Since then, many word-processing programs have added Autosave features, which you should use. Microsoft Word for Windows, for example, hides its Automatic Save option under the Tools menu, in Options, Save. I set mine to save every five minutes.

Word for Macintosh (version 5.1) is a bit different. Under the Tools menu, in Preferences, Open and Save, you may choose to be notified of the need to save. WordPerfect for Windows does not offer an automatic document-save feature per se, but it does have Timed Automatic Backup, which creates a copy of the document. You can find this feature under File, Preferences, File. Nisus Writer for the Macintosh offers the most elegant set of solutions. Under File, Preferences, Saving Files, Nisus allows you to set Automatic Save according to the number of keystrokes, the length of time or both.

Working with the latest operating systems, which often don’t have the kinks entirely worked out, I find it worthwhile to restart the machine from time to time. This allows available memory to be put back in proper order, making crashes less likely. If I break for lunch, for example, I’ll often reset the system for what’s called a “cold boot.” This involves pressing the reset button on an MS-DOS/Windows machine or the restart button (not the menu item) on a Macintosh. A cold boot gives the memory banks a thorough flushing and reloads the entire operating system–a more effective approach than just pressing Control-Alt-Delete on an MS-DOS machine or using the menu reset or Control-Command-Power-On keystroke combination on a Macintosh.

Disk Difficulties

More serious than system crashes are disk-drive failures. Disks may become unreadable or simply disappear from the system. Too often, users panic and reformat the offending drive, obliterating all information on it. Most of the time, that’s entirely unnecessary.

Most disk problems stem from damage to the disk’s directory structure, rather than loss of the actual data. In other words, your prose is still there, but the disk has lost track of how to find it. Fortunately, operating systems keep two copies of the directory structure, and there are several programs able to capitalize on this redundancy. Every computer user should have such a program on hand.

The Macintosh operating system includes Disk FirstAid, which will restore order in some situations. After-market solutions, however, are more universally effective. Norton Utilities (for MSDOS/ Windows and the Macintosh) is one of the most popular, but there are many other good choices. A few clicks of the mouse button–to diagnose and repair problems–will have your disk feeling fit again. (These programs usually include other features, such as Unerase, a valuable utility that recovers files that you accidentally erased, and disk optimizers, or defragmenters.).

Quite often, however, the disk that has been damaged is the one that loads the operating system–the hard drive. Without it, you’ve effectively lost your computer’s ignition key. That’s why every computer user should also have an emergency start-up disk prepared in advance. Norton Utilities will automate this process for you, including installing a copy of its disk recovery program, Disk Doctor, onto the disk, but you can also build one yourself On MS-DOS systems, place a blank floppy disk into the A: drive and from the C: prompt (or whatever you call your startup harddisk drive that contains the operating system), type FORMAT A: /S. The disk will be prepared with the system so that it can be used to start your computer. (Your system setup–usually accessed during start-up–must also be set to start from the A: drive if there is a disk in the drive.)

Macintosh systems before system 7.5 can also start from a floppy disk. All that’s necessary is to create a System Folder on the disk and copy from the hard drive’s System Folder the System and Finder files along with any file with the word “Enabler” in it. If you start up and (quickly) insert this disk, the computer will automatically look around for a friendly System and start from it. Newer Macintosh operating systems are too large to fit on a floppy disk. There are two alternatives: If you have an external removable drive, such as a Zip Drive, you can prepare a disk for startup. Because this removable disk will likely have plenty of storage space, you can just copy your internal start-up drive’s entire System Folder to the removable disk. (You might toss on your disk-repair software, as well.) Lacking that, you can start up from a CD-ROM drive by using the System CD-ROM that came with your machine. I would be very nervous if I had a Macintosh running System 7.5.n without one of these alternatives on hand. (It is worth noting here that keeping a spare System Folder on a second internal or an external hard drive is not a good idea; your Macintosh is apt to become confused if it finds more than one System Folder.)

When 10 Holler for Help

When you run into a problem that’s beyond your ken, don’t give up. Look for outside expertise or take your system to a technician before you start over from scratch.

Recently I did enough damage to a Macintosh hard disk that not even Norton Utilities Disk Doctor could restore the poor thing. After a half hour or so of rummaging around on the Internet though, I found step-by-step instructions for a repair. I ended up making changes in hexadecimal code to a part of the drive’s directory structure that I only vaguely understand. Lucky for me, someone who does understand had been there before me. Likewise, whatever your problem, there’s almost certainly someone who beat you to it.

The Interview: A Source For Endless Information No Comments

eniA single interview can make all the difference.

That’s tip #1 for the researching writer (and that, at some point, includes all of us). Of course, no writer can ever tell in advance which interview will be the crucial one.

When I set out to co-write a revisionist biography of Howard Hughes (Howard Hughes: The Untold Story, with Peter Harry Brown), I had no idea how pivotal an interview with actress Jane Russell would be to our book. Sure, she got her start as the star of Hughes’s notorious, bosom-enshrining ’40s-era western, The Outlaw. Still, I never dreamed that Russell would prove to be such a significant player in a book that ultimately drew on some 600 interviews.

Brown and I decided to focus our Hughes book on the tycoon’s personal life, including his love affairs, with his aviation daredevilry, movie moguldom and business achievements serving as a backdrop. We also set out to restore Hughes’s image. After his death the public came to know him as a creepy old recluse with long fingernails, unkempt hair and beard, and bedsores. And previous biographers had concentrated on those bizarre final years or on his business dealings. But what about the matinee-idol handsome Hughes who blew into Hollywood in the ’20s, became a major film force in the ’30s, and romanced and bedded Hollywood’s greatest beauties in the ’40s? Where was that Hughes? And what was the real story of his dark descent?

Our search for this misportrayed and misunderstood man naturally led us to Jane Russell. As Hughes’s most famous discovery, we knew that her participation could prove enormously helpful. But how to persuade her to cooperate? You see, Russell carefully picks and chooses her interviews.

Before we could contact her, a lurid, scandalous Hughes biography came out–one that claimed Hughes was a homosexual, a cross-dresser, a woman-beater and more.

Based on the research and interviews we’d already completed, this was not a Hughes we recognized. We wondered if Russell shared our thoughts. So we photocopied certain passages from that book–including an account of Hughes dressing in women’s clothes (and even modeling them in front of his then-girlfriend Ava Gardnet). We highlighted the lines we thought were especially scandalous. Then, with an accompanying letter, we sent them to Russell. Was this the Howard Hughes she re membered? If not, would she help us tell the public about the real Hughes?

We wound up with an invitation to Russell’s Southern California home. “And pack a couple of bags. I want you to stay for several days,” Russell told us over the phone.

Russell proved a wonderful hostess and gave us hours of interview time (in which, among other things, she refuted any talk about Hughes being gay). She made available to us some extraordinary, never-before-seen footage–and filmed interviews–about Hughes. (We discovered that Russell’s brother, Jamie Russell, is working on a documentary about Hughes. His interviews included some Hughes associates who had since passed away.) Russell also called one of her closest friends and former co-stars, and Hughes’s favorite actor. “I want you to meet with these people–they’re doing a book about Howard, and finally, someone’s telling the truth.” Then, handing me the receiver, she said, “Here, set up a lunch with Bob Mitchum.”

Afterward, in our letters to Hollywood figures who had never before discussed their relationships with Hughes, we were able to say that Russell and Mitchum had already participated in our book. Many others followed suit. Sometimes, a single interview can make all the difference.

Here are 11 other techniques for finding the gold in your research.

* Don’t overlook the obvious source. I burned up a dozen or more calls in my pursuit of a retired real-estate agent (and former Hollywood agent) whose three-decade friendship with Hughes began in the late ’20s. When I finally located Johnny Maschio, I began to relate my quest. But Maschio wasn’t impressed. “Why the hell didn’t you just look me up in the white pages? I’m listed.”

Dennis McDougal, author of true crime books including Angel of Darkness (Warner), calls phone books “one of the richest, most overlooked sources” of personal/biographical information. As McDougal notes, by doing a year-by-year search of directories “you can often develop a portrait of your subject.” After all, many of the older directories (and even some current ones) list occupation, others who live in the household and even the number of years they have lived at the same address. There are also cross-directories, which can tell you who your subject’s neighbors are.

* Don’t make assumptions. During my pursuit of the elderly Maschio, the thought crossed my mind that he might not even be around anymore. Nevertheless, we located him and many of Hughes’s contemporaries who were in such fine spirits that my attitudes toward aging were turned around. My favorite was a former Hughes physician, age 103, who was able to talk only briefly, “because I’m working in my office right now.”

As for Maschio, we interviewed the nattily dressed 91-year-old over a lei surely lunch at a chic West Los Angeles eatery–where he appeared to be a regular. Along with telling us about Hughes’s brief fling with Jean Harlow, Maschio recalled Hughes’s evolution into one of Hollywood’s hottest young studs of the ’30s.

* Corroborate information gleaned in an interview. Maschio wasn’t the only one who remembered Hughes during his hot-to-trot days. We got the same story from octogenarian Alex D’Arcy, a Hughes pal and a leading man of the ’30s. When Jordan R. Young interviewed Peter O’Toole for his biography, The Beckett Actor: Jack MacGowran, Beginning to End (Moonstone Press), the irascible O’Toole delivered a rousing four-hour one-man show, so to speak. Young was elated–until he ran the quotes by a longtime friend of O’Toole’s, “and found out much of it was fiction.”

* Streamline your topic. John M. Wilson, author of The Complete Guide to Magazine Article Writing (WD Books), suggests that writers rein in their projects. “Otherwise, you waste enormous time and resources searching out all kinds of information you can’t use. Honing your angle first focuses and streamlines your research.” For example, says Wilson, consider the difference between tackling the general topic of “The Importance of Earthquake Preparedness” and the angle “10 Things Homeowners Can Do Right Now to Prepare for the Next Big One.” Brown’s and my research would have been far more difficult if we’d tackled Howard Hughes’s entire life (which could encompass a half-dozen volumes) instead of zeroing in on his personal life.

* Look beyond the obvious. Within the territory you stake out, “Cast your net as widely as you can,” says Lawrence S. Dietz, whose upcoming The Creation of Paradise (Time Books) will explore Los Angeles’s powerful Chandler family (of the Los Angeles Times) and its relationship to the city. In the case of founding family member Harrison Gray Otis, who has a reputation for being anti-union, Dietz discovered that after being mustered out of the Union Army, Col. Otis repeatedly tried to rejoin the military. “His antipathy toward unions should properly be seen in the context of his reverence for the military–you follow orders. And officers, the equivalent of business owners, take care of their men,” relates Dietz.

* Ask your interview subjects who else they think you should talk to. While on a research trip to Greenville, Mississippi, author Kay Mills took a tip from a source and phoned a lawyer whose name hadn’t come up in her previous research of the grassroots civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. It turned out the attorney had once used Hamer as an expert witness in a case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Furthermore, he still had the transcript–which revealed Hamer’s philosophies of activism. “I might never have heard of the case otherwise, because it was out of Hamer’s normal realm,” admits Mills, author of This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Plume).

* Let others know what you’re working on. You never know where you might find sources. When he was delivering a writing seminar, Jordan R. Young mentioned he was at work on a biography of band leader Spike Jones. Coincidentally, one of his students provided an introduction to Jones’s drummer. The resulting interview proved pivotal to Young’s Spike Jones Off the Record: The Man Who Murdered Music (Past Times Publishing).

* Don’t overlook anything you might have in common with your subject. When Lucy Chase Williams was researching the life of Vincent Price for her The Complete Films of Vincent Price (Citadel), she found one of her best sources based on something as rudimentary as old school ties. Price had attended Yale; many decades later, so did Williams. That tie sent her to Yale Alumni magazine for news on the class of 1933. As a result, she located Price’s college roommate, who provided colorful anecdotes, as well as never-before-published personal snapshots.

* If your story involves conflict, put yourself in the midst of it. Your goal is to pull information from both sides. Dan E. Moldea regularly uses the tactic for his exposes of the Mafia and organized crime, including Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football (Morrow). “When I want to interview a Mafia guy,” says Moldea, “I don’t walk up to him and ask, `Hey, Vito, how did you knock off Rocco?, I go up to him and say that I want to talk about how his civil rights are being violated.” Moldea acknowledges that working both sides can prove tricky. But, it can also lead to information. “And that is what we are in this business to do.”

This advice extends to those with an ax to grind. “Talk to ex-spouses, players on opposing teams, business rivals, anyone with a grudge,” says John M. Wilson. Remember, though, their information comes with a bias. Verify their claims.

* Take advantage of technology. In the 11 years he’s spent researching Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (NAL) and a forthcoming biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, David S. Lifton has followed a paper trail–as well as an electronic one. “For me, e-mail is a crucial tool,” says Lifton. For instance, to figure how Oswald was able to arrange a nonstop flight from London to Helsinki in 1959, Lifton contacted an Amsterdam source–”and within days he had an answer for me, by e-mail. That’s the kind of thing that, in another era, would have taken a month or longer to track.” To study Oswald’s life in Russia, Lifton is able to send queries to a contact in Minsk “within minutes.” As Lifton notes, “The world is now a little global village.”

* Read before you interview. When she set out to write From Pocahontas to PowerSuits: Everything You need to Know About Women’s History in America (Plume), Kay Mills admits she “shamelessly” called female historians–”some of whom I knew and some I didn’t”–to obtain reading lists and suggestions of top women in their fields. And Dennis McDougal (Fatal Subtraction: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount, Doubleday) first puts in hours of time at the library. “I would never start out at the police department or the DA’s office or even the courthouse,” say McDougall “I start where any writer should start–the library.” And don’t confine your quest to the public library. There are also specialized libraries. For instance, entertainment reporters will find no better collection pertaining to the motion picture industry than the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

“Clear the public record,” stresses Dan E. Moldea. “I check the Reader’s Guide, newspaper indexes, the Freedom of Information Act and, most important, I do public records searches. I actually have a checklist of public places where I can obtain information on just about any subject or person under investigation.”

Granted, combing through the shelves and record books is shirtsleeves work–Moldea calls it “the most unglamorous part of investigative journalism”–but it also helps to lay the foundation for your project. And lead you to the interview that makes all the difference.

Using Strong Emotions In Your Writing June 12, 2014 No Comments

useiwYou have an idea for a story. Or you have a character. Or an interesting setting. Or maybe just an intense image. Ursula K. LeGuin began her novel The Left Hand of Darkness with no more than that. So did William Faulkner, with The Sound and the Fury. The image that had grabbed LeGuin’s imagination was two figures hauling a sledge across a remote sheet of ice. Faulkner’s was a little girl, with muddy underpants, up in a pear tree.

But now what? How do you go from image–or character or setting or idea–to an actual story?

You can help along this sometimes sluggish progress by using two strong human emotions: fear and love. Psychologists tell us that these drives, in direct or indirect expression, motivate much human behavior. Not coincidentally, they’re also the engines that power most fiction. And you can put yourself at the throttle of these engines, using them to move your story forward.

Let’s look at how both fear and love can do that.

Fear: The Bogeyman Will Get You

Human infants come with a few fears built in: fear of falling, fear of very loud noises. During the first year of life, the number of fears grows: fear of separation from Mommy, fear of strangers, fear of dogs or vacuum cleaners or elevators or lightning or dozens of other possibilities. But babies differ–a few aren’t afraid of anything, which makes their parents afraid. In coming years, children will add fear of failing, fear of “looking dumb,” fear of being different, fear of not being unique, fear of being unlovable, fear of death.

Over time, rather than face fear directly, we’ll also learn to fear symbols of our real anxieties. Thus, by the time we’re adults, we’re capable of fearing almost anything, for buried and twisted reasons of self-protection. And I mean anything. There are people who feel anxiety about speaking in public, driving a car, leaving their house, comets in the sky, kitchen knives or asphyxiating constriction by their own underwear.

What does all this have to do with your fiction?

Knowing what your characters fear is a wonderful way to generate plot ideas and story resolutions. To do that, you sit down and think about two things: What your character fears, and how that fear is likely to make her react. You do this on not one but two levels: the immediate situation and her subconscious terrors. The latter drives the former.

Let’s look at some examples.

Fear and Reaction in the Maternity Ward

Suppose you’re writing a story about a couple searching for a name for their new baby. This doesn’t sound like a very dramatic or fearful situation–certainly not the equivalent of, say, a detective face to face with a serial murderer. Yet even in the quiet setting of a hospital maternity ward, fear can help you both understand your characters and develop your plot. Use the following two questions.

First, what is the wife afraid of, deep down? Perhaps she’s the kind of person who has always been afraid of being abandoned. She reacts to this fear, which she doesn’t even know she has, by constantly trying to please others. Do you know anybody like this? I certainly do. They’re accommodating to the point of being doormats. People take advantage of them all the time, yet they just cling harder.

Second, how is this likely to make her react to the search for baby’s name? On the surface, such people react by saying, “Oh, I don’t care. You choose.” But perhaps the new mother is clinging to more than one person (this is common). She doesn’t want to displease any of them. And her father wants his grandson to carry his name, since he has no sons to bear it; his only son was killed during Desert Storm.

The husband, meanwhile, has his own deep fears. He’s afraid of not being in control. This is, in fact, why he married such an accommodating wife. His fear leads him to react by insisting on his own choice of names–first name and middle name.

Do you see a story shaping up here full of conflict over issues of family, identity and power? It could in fact be quite a good story. And all generated by fear.

Note that it doesn’t really matter why the wife is afraid of being abandoned or the husband is afraid of being not in control. If you want to, you could probably invent elaborate childhoods for each to account for the people they became. But you don’t need to do this. You only need to understand what buried fears drive them, not how they acquired these fears. Nor do you ever need to name the fears–in fact, you probably shouldn’t. A story isn’t the same as a psychological case study. It’s enough that you yourself understand your character’s way of reacting to fear, and that you show it to us in convincing action and dialogue.

“But,” you may say, “that’s all right for quiet, subtle, character-driven fiction. But I write mysteries. Or science fiction. Or techno-thrillers. Or romance. Deeply buried fears aren’t necessary for my characters. What I need is exciting plots.”

Deeply buried fears can help generate exciting plots.

Fear and Reaction in Scotland Yard

Consider a few examples from the best-seller list. Granted, I don’t know how Michael Crichton or Terry MacMillan or P.D. James think up their plots. But I can easily imagine arriving at the plots of Jurassic Park, Waiting to Exhale or Devices and Desires through thinking about what the characters fear and what they do to quell those fears.

Start with John Hammond, Jurassic Park’s billionaire founder. What might he fear? Aging, dying. How does he react? By building a monument to himself, a stupendous theme park in which he, like God, has (re-)created an entire species. And nothing can convince him to limit the park, this proof of his God-like immortality–not warnings from scientists or technical danger signs or even an escaped Tyrannosaurus Rex. From Hammond’s megalomaniac drive spring all the plot events of the novel.

MacMillan’s Waiting to Exhale reflects its characters, fears in the very title. All four protagonists are holding their breath until they can find someone to love. They’re afraid of being unloved, alone–even though some of them do learn during the course of the novel how to do that.

Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James’s detective in Devices and Desires, at first glance doesn’t seem like a very fearful man. But consider: Detectives are driven–some of them maniacally–to solve crimes and catch criminals. Why? Many of them fear not being in control. Others fear authority, and so deal with it by becoming the authority (this is especially true of those detectives who are in constant conflict with their superiors). Others fear failure, and so are driven to test themselves against a problem–a juicy murder–over and over. How would such a character react to frustration by a wily killer? With a sense of personal anger, maybe carefully controlled, maybe not.

What does your character fear, in the deepest level of his soul? How does he deal with his fear–through avoidance, compulsion, acting out, anger, depression, desire to cling to someone stronger? Is his way of dealing with deep fears constructive (catching criminals, fighting disease, raising children) or destructive (beating his wife, shoplifting things he doesn’t need, spending money he doesn’t have to impress others)? And can his or her characteristic way of handling fear be used to generate plot ideas?

I’m betting it can.

Love: I’d Do Anything for You

And I’m betting love can, too.

The reasoning here is the same as for fear. Human beings are a social species. We’re hard-wired to form attachments to others. This can be expressed constructively: loving a partner, being loyal to a friend, sacrificing gladly for your children. Furthermore, the attachment drive can be elaborated in labyrinthine ways. We can love a country, an idea, a pet, a stamp collection, an object that, to us, symbolizes something else we love. Just yesterday, for example, I saw a newspaper article about a man who ran back into a burning house to try to save his grandmother’s Bible. In fact, said essayist Charles Lamb 200 years ago, the human mind is capable of falling in love with anything at all.

And what we love, we act to gain or keep. (You’ve seen those newspaper ads: “Lost: School Ring. Great Sentimental Value. Reward.”) This can generate all kinds of plot ideas.

Who, or what, does your character love? What is she willing to do to gain or keep him, or it? What are the limits–if any–to how far she’ll go? How does she react if something interferes with her gaining or keeping what she loves? (Consider the movie Fatal Attraction or the book Not Without My Daughter.) Plot galore.

And don’t forget the characterization that touches readers in a vulnerable spot–their attachment to whatever they love.

Fear and Love: The Twisted Skein

Finally, these two emotions can be tightly intertwined. When you love something, you fear you’ll lose it. A mother, for instance, may go to enormous lengths to safeguard her children–lengths that ultimately may interfere with their ability to function well in the world without her. Is the mother driven by love of the kids, or by fear of being left alone?

Another example: A doctor goes to tremendous, heroic lengths to save a patient’s life, expending great amounts of time, energy and ingenuity. Is the doctor driven by love of humanity, or by fear of personal failure if he can’t save a life? Or both?

Some truly complex characterization–and some very interesting fiction–can come from these kinds of questions. So the next time you’re trying to turn an idea into a plot or are stuck in the middle of a story, ask yourself some questions. What does this character really fear, deep down? What does he love? In what ways, direct or indirect, does he behave to assuage his fear, express his love? Do these habitual behaviors intensify under stress? How? What kind of stress can you give him? What is he likely to do then?

“When I have fears that I may cease to be,” wrote John Keats, “then on the shore/ Of the wide world I stand alone, and think.” That’s one way of reacting to fear. What does your character do?

Motivating Yourself Through The Rejection June 2, 2014 No Comments

mytThere’s an unopened envelope sitting on my desk. It’s of the self-addressed, stamped variety. I sent it off a while back with an unsolicited piece I’d written. Recently it returned home.

I have a pretty good idea what’s inside. It’s far too thick for a letter of acceptance or a check–even a big, fat check. It’s almost certainly my original manuscript with a rejection slip clipped to it.

For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to opening that envelope just yet. Even though I’ve received my share of rejection slips in my years as a free-lancer–and given other writers some of their share in my years as a magazine editor–I still don’t find rejection easy to take. It hurts, and I expect it always will.

I have, however, learned a few tricks to keep myself going, despite the occasional indignities of our otherwise happy trade. And unless you’re some kind of armadillo-skinned writer who thrives on adversity, maybe they’ll be of use to you, too.

Reject Rejection

It helps to remind myself now and then that rejection isn’t unique to the writing business. Ask any actor, any politician, anybody who sells anything for a living. Rejection is part of life. If you aren’t rejected occasionally, you must be awful good or awfully lucky or Warren Beatty. Or, more likely, you simply aren’t trying hard enough.

Every writer I know, every writer I’ve ever read about, has had work rejected. James Thurber, to choose a writer almost at random, had 20 pieces rejected by The New Yorker before the magazine finally bought one. Once, when a piece didn’t come back as quickly as usual, he went to the magazine’s offices, hoping for good news. The piece, it turned out, had been temporarily buried on an editor’s desk. The editor rejected that one in person. Somehow Thurber kept his sense of humor–a valuable trait not only for humorists but for writers of every stripe.

So what’s the difference between the Thurbers of this world and the writers we’ve never heard of? For one thing, the Thurbers don’t give up. They keep writing, and they keep submitting. Who knows how many talented writers have quit just one story shy of acceptance.

That isn’t to say you should lose sight of the odds against acceptance at certain publications. But never let those odds discourage you. A major magazine may receive 200 queries or unsolicited manuscripts for every piece it publishes. Of the other 199, some undoubtedly come close to acceptance, whether or not their authors ever realize it. If you have a piece rejected, assume it just missed; that may not be true, but it will certainly do more for your morale than dwelling on alternate scenarios that involve laughing editors. And if you have an idea you think is right for a certain publication, ignore the odds. Send it in. You have nothing to lose but some stamps.

One of the most prolific writers I’ve worked with told me that when he started freelancing, he set a query quota for himself. Whatever else was going on in his life, he put five fresh queries into the mail each week. Not only did the sheer number of queries he sent boost his odds of success, but having a quota to fill took some of the sting out of rejection. Even an unsuccessful query had done its bit in helping meet his weekly quota. Two suggestions if you want to try this technique yourself: Don’t send all those queries to the same editor or you’ll wear out your welcome (and the editor); and don’t worry about how you’ll handle the work if, through some quirk of fate, every single query results in an assignment. Nobody is that lucky.

Now and again, rejection can even be a positive experience. Really. You may learn something that will make your next piece better or easier to sell. Or you may simply learn that the editor you sent it to is a pigheaded philistine you’ll want to avoid in the future. When all else fails, consider the old saying, common among salespeople: “Every no brings you that much closer to a yes.” So keep trying. Somewhere out there, a yes awaits you.

Get Unstuck

Forget everything you have ever heard or read about writer’s block. There is no such thing as writer’s block. Period. Well, maybe there is, but we’re all better off if we pretend it doesn’t exist. The freelancers I know simply don’t have the luxury of waiting for their muse. They schedule the time to write a piece, then they sit down and write it, whether they’re in the mood or not.

When writing doesn’t come easily, the trick sometimes is simply to get started. You can always pitch those pages if they aren’t up to your usual standards. And don’t feel you must begin at the beginning. Some writers like to start with the lead of their story and work down from there. But leads can be elusive and even harder to get “just right.” So other writers simply start with whatever section comes most easily. They can always add the top of the piece later on. Do whatever works for you, and when that doesn’t work, try something else. There are no rules, except the ones you make for yourself. You are your own boss.

Don’t let the blank page–or a ream of them–overwhelm you. When I signed my first book contract, I gulped at the prospect of owing the publisher 50,000 words. Now, 50,000 words isn’t exactly Moby Dick, but it was about 40,000 words longer than the longest piece I’d sold in my magazine career. The job seemed a lot more manageable after I’d done one very simple thing: I took ten file folders and wrote a chapter title on each of them. When I finished, I still had those ten empty files to fill, but now I believed I could do it–one 5,000-word chapter at a time.

If you’re ever hopelessly stuck, take a walk, make a cup of tea, play with the dog, call a friend. Or call a fellow writer for inspiration. In the course of writing this piece I phoned my old friend Skip Cypert, the author of such motivational books as Believe and Achieve and The Power of Self-Esteem. I asked him how a motivational writer stays motivated.

“I have a system,” he told me with a laugh. “First, sign the contract. Then, get the advance. Then, squander the advance. After that I know I have to write the book or they’ll want their money back.”

Savor Your Successes

You can’t always control the way the world is going to treat you, but you can at least be gracious to yourself. Make time in your life to write. Create an environment that allows you to focus fully on your work. Look on the act of writing as its own reward, because sometimes it’s the only reward we writers get.

Author and activist Saul Alinsky observed that little victories along the way will help keep groups of people working toward a major goal. So, however big your goals as a writer may be, make sure you have some small successes to celebrate in the meantime. If, for example, you aren’t ready to sell to any of the big-league magazines–or if they don’t have the good sense to recognize your readiness–offer to do a piece for your local weekly. Or write something gratis for your church newsletter. You’ll have some fun, you’ll sharpen your skills, and you’ll add another writing sample to your portfolio.

Before I sit down to write something new, I’ll often reread a published piece of my own. It reminds me that whatever false starts and other difficulties lie ahead with the new piece, it, too, will probably see print one day.

If your own words don’t inspire you, try a motivational book. Some classics are The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale; Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill; How I Raised Myself From Failure to Success in Selling, by Frank Bettger; and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, by you-know-who. To get the most out of these books and others of their kind, you need to approach them like a Stephen King novel–by suspending all disbelief. Forgive their occasionally hokey tone. Ignore the fact that many of the people they hold out as shining examples are now seen as scoundrels. Just let the warm waves of inspiration wash over you. And then get back to work.

When you finish a manuscript and you’re satisfied with it, buy yourself a candy bar. Pat yourself on the back. Go to the nearest mirror and admire your reflection. Ultimately, the piece may be accepted somewhere, or it may never be. But whatever its fate in the marketplace, if it’s the best work you’re capable of, you have every right to take pride in it. Rejected pieces aren’t failures; unwritten pieces are.

Getting More Money For Your Writing May 1, 2014 No Comments

gmmWant to earn more money for your writing? Try negotiating better terms, Sounds simple, but it takes guts, self-confidence, a little luck and lots of tact.

Since I began negotiating, my writing income has increased 25-50% per assignment. Not bad considering my output hasn’t changed. But there was a time I simply accepted what was offered.

I recognized the importance of negotiating after an editor from Redbook called me about a proposal I’d submitted for the magazine’s A Mother’s Story series. When she called, I was 20 weeks pregnant and had just returned home from the doctor’s office after undergoing a test that mandated I not eat for the previous 12 hours. I was starved.

As I talked, a perfectly delicious turkey sandwich sat on the table before me. “We usually pay $750,” the Redbook editor told me as I salivated. “But this is different, since you’ll be writing the story in the first person,” she continued. I listened intently to her words, my excitement about Redbook phoning overshadowed only by my hunger.

We went on to discuss word count, due date and other particulars, but never again mentioned money–that is, until the close of our conversation. “Okay, so it’s $750 for 2,000 words,” I repeated into the receiver as I was about to hang up.

The piece I’d agreed to write would focus on a dramatic experience involving my husband and me, which occurred shortly after we married. Of course, I was familiar with the rate of pay for stories appearing in “A Mother’s Story.” Both the publication and Writer’s Market state that Redbook pays $750. But, as the editor noted, usually the stories published in that column are “as told to” pieces. A writer has interviewed an individual and is retelling that person’s story. This was different. It was my story, to be written by me, in my own words.

I’d missed a golden opportunity. The editor had left it wide open for me to come back with better terms. instead, I’d simply agreed to the rate mentioned. If I’d played my cards right, who knows? Perhaps I could have doubled or tripled my fee. The point is, I never tried. Every time an editor calls with an assignment, a writer must be prepared to negotiate. I’d made a costly error.

You might say that phone call from Redbook changed my life–or at least empowered me to negotiate. Ever since, I’ve countered every offer. I soon discovered that pay isn’t the only bargaining chip. Rights, deadlines, expenses–even word count–can be negotiated.

Preparing for Negotiations

The secret to effective negotiating is preparation. Long before you reach the bargaining table, you must do your homework. Here’s how:

* Gather information. For starters, find out what the magazine pays and the rights it generally purchases. Both the magazine’s guidelines and Writer’s Market should provide this information. Use current sources. Pay rates change. You don’t want to negotiate your fee based on last year’s rates, especially if the magazine now pays more.

Magazines generally list a range of pay. For instance, the guidelines might state “1,500-2,500 words pays $400 to $1,000.” In that case, if you’ve been offered $400 for a 2,000-word article, there’s room for negotiating. Asking $800, for example, wouldn’t be out of line. However, if a publication pays “up to $400,” asking $800 would be unrealistic. The editor might decide not to deal with you at all. So it’s important to do your homework to determine a reasonable fee.

Keep in mind, however, that magazines sometimes pay more than their stated rates. While you don’t want to overprice your work, you also don’t want to ignore cues that an editor will pay more.

* Set goals. Based on the information you’ve gathered, determine a clear set of goals, such as your desired fee, rights you’d prefer to sell, amount of time you need to write the article, and so on. Aim high, but be realistic.

Recognize that there are other methods of payment besides cash. For instance, some magazines will agree to a free subscription in addition to your fee. Those affiliated with book publishers may allow a credit toward the purchase of books. Still others might grant free membership to an associated organization. Or you could ask for additional contributor copies of the publication containing your work. These alternate methods of payment are often easier to obtain because the cost to the magazine is practically nothing.

* List why you deserve more. To convince an editor you deserve more, you must sell yourself. Jot down anything that makes you uniquely qualified to write an article. Include your writing accomplishments and your familiarity with the subject. Have you written about the topic before? That makes you an authority. Mention it. Also note if you’ve ever written for this magazine before. Check the date and title of the piece, and how much you earned then Arm yourself with anything that might convince an editor that you’re entitled to more.

* Plan ahead. Negotiations can proceed in a number of ways. The editor might simply agree to your terms (not likely, but possible). He or she might counter your offer (more likely). Or, the editor might turn down your terms flat. That’s why it’s important to plan a strategy.

For instance if you were offered $400 but ask for $800, how will you respond if the editor counters with $600? Or what if he refuses to budge from his initial offer? Will you agree to the fee or would you rather not sell the piece? What if he counters at $500 but wants all rights?

The point is, the success of any negotiation depends on how you react to your counterpart’s response. Prepare yourself by trying to imagine every possible scenario, then decide which you would be willing to accept and which you would not. You must expect to compromise, however; give and take is what negotiating is all about.

Asking for More

It’s time to negotiate. Take a deep breath. And remember these pointers:

* Review your notes. Before you begin, take a minute to review your notes on the magazine’s current pay rates and rights generally purchased, as well as your goals and the reasons you deserve to be satisfied. Keep this information handy and refer to it when negotiating.

* Be confident. This is easier said than done; I still get butterflies in my stomach before negotiating. But try to sound upbeat and confident, despite any inner turmoil. Keep in mind that the magazine responded to your query. Obviously, the editors are interested in your idea and believe you’re qualified to write about it. That alone should boost your confidence. So focus on your goals and go for it.

* Maintain a cooperative attitude. Negotiations are only successful if both parties are satisfied. It doesn’t pay to be demanding. You may walk away a winner, but if an editor feels she gave too much, you may never again sell to that publication. So aim high, but don’t overlook the interests of the magazine. Be friendly and relaxed. Remain courteous under all circumstances and be willing to accept reasonable alternatives.

* Be a good listener. The best negotiators are good listeners. They don’t miss opportunities in their counterpart’s words. They concentrate on what is being said, not on what they will say next. If I had been a better listener, for example, I would have heard the Redbook editor imply that I could earn more than the magazine’s standard fee. I then would have attempted to negotiate a higher fee. But I didn’t pick up on her cue until I’d hung up.

Conducting the Negotiations

The logical issue to begin a negotiating session with is pay. If you can’t come to terms on how much you’ll earn, there’s no sale.