Tips for Writers
Tra-la, it’s May, the lusty month of May, the time when yearly royalty checks, merrily they pay…
There is exactly only one reason for anyone to be a writer, and it’s because you can’t not write. You can’t make a living at it either. My book Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Buddhism is one of the most popular books about Buddhism on the market, and sales remain strong. But the money I make off of it doesn’t even cover my yearly weed bill.
Getting into writing for publication was like a loose Vegas slot machine for me. My first published article, the first one I submitted, appeared in 1975. It was about motorcycles. The same magazine bought my second article. It was about autism. I hit the jackpot early, and couldn’t walk away.
I became a part-time, and occasionally full-time, journeyman magazine writer. I’ve written about a lot of different stuff, most under the aegis of professional organizations wanting to look their best for the public. I was big in housing trade journals for a number of years, that’s where I made the most money. I was one of the first in the trades to write about radon abatement, and got nominated for a journalism award for it. There are no dull subjects, only dull writers. One of my favorite assignments in the late Eighties was an article describing the use of lateral lines to replace septic tanks in sandy barrier island environments.
One of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done was to teach “Writing for Publication” for eight years in the adult and continuing education program of my city’s school system. That’s when I really got into mentoring writers. Five of my students published books, two of them World War II memoirs. I’m always mentoring writers.
Then came 9-11 and my resolve to do something to address terrorist violence. Somehow my plans to go to Pakistan turned into six months in Sri Lanka during their civil war. That is where I studied Buddhism, and since 2002, that is all I write about. Fifteen years in this particular trench, three books written, and the last one got published. Now I’m the talk of the town.
Here are a few tips I’d like to lay on you.
Write outside your comfort zone. Most writers I run into are way too introspective when they ought to be out interviewing people, and traveling, and trying new things. Don’t turn your nose up writing helpful hints pieces for the weekly newspaper. It all counts.
If you write in the first person you’re not supposed to be writing about yourself.
Edit ruthlessly. It’s not called “killing your babies” for nothing. If it’s not pertinent, lose it, especially unnecessary personal references. Write in the active voice.
Expect to be edited ruthlessly. It may be your piece, but it’s their masthead, and they can do whatever they want to your work without your permission, though editing is usually a “give and take” process. There are incompetent editors out there and some who are on power trips. Don’t work for them. I once told an editor that if she was a man, I’d drag her out into the middle of the street and horse-whip her. Another editor was so capricious with her ordered changes that I yanked the piece just before it was to be published.
A really good editor, especially if you’re working on a book-length project, is so valuable you end up in a surprisingly intimate relationship. Your baby is now your-and-your-editor’s baby, and it takes months to get your “perfect” book to press. Expect lots more changes to your manuscript than you expect.
Don’t submit a manuscript full of errors and grammatical mistakes. You can always pay a freelance writer or editor to line-edit your book before you send it to a publisher. Really, with spell-check and grammar-check software built into your word processor, there is no excuse.
Do not be obsequious in your cover letters. Tell the publisher why your work can stand out in a sea of other books or articles that are about the same thing you’re writing about.
E-publish. Buddhism for Dudes was a Kindle book for three years before I submitted it anywhere. It would still be a Kindle book if my friends had not encouraged me to find a publisher for it. The book I’m marketing now is on Kindle, and as I submit it around for publication, I can tell publishers that a thousand people have already read it, and take a look at those reviews!
No one is interested in your personal tribulations and traumas. Writing isn’t therapeutic. Writing is hard work. Pay your dues.
It’s important to “write about what you know,” so if you’re not constantly researching and studying, you’re not going to get published. I’m working with a guy right now who researched the book he’s writing for 25 years. And it’s going to be one helluva read when he gets done with it.
You don’t need an agent if you’re not writing fiction. I’ve had three agents. None of them ever did me a bit of good.
Two things that never get old: seeing your byline, and signing your books. But it is an enormously satisfying thing to hear from someone who says they actually benefited from something you wrote. Soldiers have e-mailed me from Iraq and Afghanistan saying how my book “kept them centered” during their deployments, and one Scandinavian woman said it jarred her out of her depression and “gave me my happiness back.”
That’s strong shit. Usually when I tell people about the Scandinavian woman, I choke up and start to cry.
Readers expect to become informed, and possibly even enlightened, by the things they read. Better yet, they like to be entertained. That’s the secret to my success: I’m writing about stuff people have been writing about since the Third Century BC, but my stuff gets read because I’m funny. Humor is a tool. Use it. Any teacher will tell you how effective it is to get a point across using humor.
You don’t have to beat your readers over the head with humor – you’re not Erma Bombeck. But turns-of-phrases, interesting word choices, surprising metaphors, and short stories used as illustrative examples can get readers to return to your work. Subliminally, it’s “I learned something from your piece, and it also made me smile.”