Thursday, January 31, 2008

Textbook on Writing

I was recently asked to contribute to a college textbook on writing, and I've spent more time on it this past week than I have on writing new fiction. Before I begin writing my section of the textbook, though, I'm trying to complete two tasks:

1) Provide a 75-word bio. This is tough. By cutting a little bit each day I've gotten my bio under 400 words. Only 325 more words to cut.

2) Answer seven questions about myself/my writing that the editors can combine with the responses from other contributors to create call-outs and/or sidebars. The editors have asked some thought-provoking questions, and I've been answering one question each evening as my last project before bed. Reflecting on why I do what I do and how I reached this point in my writing career has involved some unexpected and intense self-discovery. Kudos to the editors for challenging me like this.


I received my fourth acceptance of the year today, this one for another Easter-themed confession story.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Understanding rights

I'm constantly amazed at how few writers--especially beginning writers--comprehend copyright. Earlier today I posted the following simplified explanation as part of a discussion about anthology rights among members of the Short Mystery Fiction Society:

A "work-for-hire" situation means that the author NEVER owned any rights to the created work. All rights belong to the employer. For example, if you are employed by XYZ Corporation and part of your job is to write the company newsletter, the company owns what you wrote.

If you are an independent contractor and XYZ Corporation hires you to write their newsletter you may, or may not, enter into a work-for-hire agreement. If you do, the company owns what you wrote.

In an "all rights" situation, the author owns what she created and chooses, for whatever reason to sell ALL of those rights to another entity. Once the author has sold all rights to something, the new owner of those rights may use them in any way he sees fit without ever consulting the creator.

In many cases, writers sell or lease certain rights to another party. For example, the author might grant another party First North American Serial Rights. In other words, she grants a publishing company the right to be the "first" to publish a particular work in "North America" (that's Canada and the U.S.) in a "serial" publication (that's a usually magazine, but may also be a newspaper). Note that author retains a plethora of other rights, ranging from "second" N.A. rights (the right to reprint in North America), to "first," "second" and subsequent rights in other countries (Brazil, Australia, Japan, etc.) or regions (South
America, Europe, etc.) or languages (Chinese, French, Spanish, etc.) or formats (anthology, electronic, TV, radio, etc.).

Note that nothing in the quoted post mentions what rights are being transferred from the writer to the anthology editor or publisher. To presume that the examples are "work-for- hire" seems a bit extreme given the lack of information provided, and given the wide variety of rights exchanges that may, in fact, happen between a writer and an anthology editor or publisher.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

First steps

I posted this in the comments section of Dennis G. Jerz's blog ( yesterday:

"I suspect one of the hardest things to teach beginning and early career writers is the difference between the 'art' of writing and the 'business' of publishing. I learned long ago--and much to my own dismay--that I was never going to be an 'artist' that other writers hold up as an example of literary brilliance, but I could be a 'businessman' who produces clean copy, meets deadlines, and works well with others. If I do all that on a consistent basis, my primary 'audience'--editors--will ensure that my work is seen by a broader audience."

Jerz teaches "Intro to Literary Study," "a course [...] designed to introduce students to the writerly and scholarly virtues (critical thinking, self-motivation, the writing process) they'll need to develop as English majors and as college students," at Seton Hill, so my comments took the conversation a few steps beyond the intent of his original blog post.

Even so, learning these things are important steps in the development of a writer, and steps that all of us who teach new writers--whether we teach in a formal classroom setting as Jerz does or in informal workshop settings as I do--need to keep in mind.

Good writing begins with clear thinking, or a strong ability and willingness to revise what muddled thinking has created until it becomes clear.

Good writing comes from self-motivation. For many people, writing is a chore that is assigned by others (a theme assigned by a teacher, a term paper assigned by a professor, a report assigned by a supervisor) and it is accomplished in the least amount of time with the least amount of effort. Writers, though, even when working on assigned material, find ways to self-motivate because the writing itself is what provides them with joy.

Good writing comes from established processes. While a million monkeys with a million typewriters working for a million days might accidentally create a work of sheer genius, it is more likely that a single writer who has mastered the processes of writing will do so. While we don't all use the same methods, we all have a process for generating ideas, a process for outlining our ideas, and a process for transforming our outlines into articles, essays, short stories, or novels.

As important as they are and as hard as they are to take, learning these things are only the first steps for someone whose ultimate goal is to become a professional writer.

And these steps cannot be skipped.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


MysteryNet continues to recycle stories, and one I sold them back in 1999--"Peas in a Pod"--recently reappeared as the January "Twist." It holds up pretty good.

Read "Peas in a Pod" at

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Keynote Kudos

Seton Hill University is seeking a keynote speaker for this year's Writing Popular Fiction conference in Greensburg, PA.

The call for potential speakers includes this note: "Last year, Michael Bracken was the speaker and they absolutely LOVED him!"

If you're looking for a good conference to attend, try Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction conference. If you're looking for a good speaker for your conference, well, you know who Seton Hill would recommend...

2 & 3

My second and third acceptances of the year arrived in the same envelope today. One of the acceptances is for the story I wrote last Thursday.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


My story "Perfect Stranger" appears in the February True Love, which should be on newsstands now.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Leading workshop?

I am tentatively scheduled to lead "Writing and Selling Confessions," a 2-3 hour workshop, in Bryan/College Station, Texas, on Saturday, March 8. As soon as all the details are confirmed, I'll post more information.

Monday, January 14, 2008


I received my first acceptance of the year today. Since this is the 14th, it means I'm already a week behind schedule. I should have had two acceptances by now!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rejections are good

I just received my first rejection of the year, and I see it as a good sign.

Early in a writing career, a rejection can mean most anything from "it wasn't right for us" to "your work sucks; quit writing and get a paper route."

But later in a career, a rejection is just as likely to mean "you tried something different and it didn't quite work" or "you're submitting beyond your skill level." And both of these are things we should be doing. We should be trying new things--different genres, different POVs, etc.--and we should be submitting to publications beyond our current level of accomplishment.

If we're consistently placing work with non-paying publications, we should be submitting regularly to the penny-a-word markets. If we've broken into the penny-a-word markets, we should be submitting to the nickel-a-word markets, then the dime-a-word markets, then the half-dollar-a-word markets, then the dollar-a-word markets. We should never be complacent with our status.

Me? I'd tried both at once--a story with a type of protagonist I don't usually write about submitted to a publication that represents the top-end of its genre. And my story was rejected.

In this case, the rejection is a good thing.

Even so, a sale would have been better.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The four-hour story

At 6:05 this evening I received a call for submissions that an editor sent to her regular contributors. She did not have any Easter or spring-themed stories and needs some for her April issue. And she needs them tomorrow.

At 10:17 this evening, I e-mailed a brand-new 2,300 word story to that editor. Deducting the time I spent on a personal phone call, it looks like I wrote the story from start to finish in four hours.

If the editor buys the story and pays the usual rates, I'll receive 3-cents/word. Not so good on a per-word basis. On the other hand, it works out to $17.25/hour, which isn't bad for an evening that I might have otherwise spent watching reruns.

And if she doesn't buy the story, the time spent was still better utilized than watching reruns.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Today I'm a crabby editor

New writers often ask questions about how to format manuscripts, and established writers and editors provide a variety of opinions about the "right" way and the "wrong" way to do it. I happen to prefer the format established post-typewriter/pre-personal computer, but I realize time, technology, and training changes everything.

I'm no Luddite. I worked for a large book and periodical publisher that was accepting electronic manuscripts back in the 1980s before Macintoshes existed and when electronic manuscripts arrived on 8" Wang disks that truly were floppy! I worked with and taught GenCode, a precursor to today's generic mark-up languages (HTML, SGML, etc.)., and today I write, edit, and design printed and electronic publications using a variety of word processing and page layout programs on both Macintoshes and Windows-based PCs.

So allow me a moment to play crabby editor while I bitch about a few of the most common mistakes I see writers make when preparing electronic manuscripts, and my complaints have nothing to do with font or typesize.

1. PUT YOUR NAME AND CONTACT INFORMATION ON THE MANUSCRIPT. Manuscripts submitted via E-mail often get separated from their E-mail cover letters. Manuscripts submitted as hardcopy often get separated from their cover letters. Almost every day I have my hands on manuscripts that have no byline and no author contact information. What happens? If the manuscripts are not suitable, they go into the trash. If the manuscripts might be made suitable with revision, they go into a pile waiting for the day someone has the time to figure out where they came from, but usually go in the trash anyhow. If the manuscripts are truly exceptional, someone will try to track down the author, and may or may not be successful.

My advice: Put your name, address, phone number(s), FAX number, and E-mail address on the first page of every manuscript you submit.

2. SUBMIT CLEAN ELECTRONIC FILES. Many writers are capable of producing manuscripts that look nice when printed, but their electronic files are filled with trash coding and inconsistent coding, coding that an editor has to strip out and clean up before importing your files into a page layout program.

Examples of trash coding and inconsistent coding:

Extra spacebands in the middle of sentences
Extra spacebands at the end of paragraphs
Inconsistent paragraph indenting (using your program's formatting capabilities to automatically indent some paragraphs, using the tab key to indent some paragraphs, and hitting the spaceband multiple times to indent other paragraphs)
Using inch marks for quote marks and foot marks for single quote marks and apostrophes; or, worse, using them Inconsistently throughout a manuscript
Using en-dashes where em-dashes belong
Putting spaces around some dashes but not around others
Hitting the return key multiple times to move material from one page to another

I could go on, but I won't.

My advice: Before you submit your next manuscript, turn on invisibles so that you can see the coding you've inserted into your manuscript, and then clean it up. And if you don't know what's best, then, at the very least, be consistent.

3. NUMBER YOUR PAGES. Better still: Put your name and the title of your article or story on every page with the page number.

Doing these three things won't help you sell bad work, but doing these things will help make your editors happy when you do submit something publishable.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

2007 in review

2007 is history. So, how'd I do?

38 acceptances. 15 rejections and/or non-acceptances. (Non-acceptances include lost ms., non-responses, etc.) This is my worst year since 2001, when I had only 21 acceptances, and it clearly falls short of my goal of one acceptance per week.

On the other hand, my total gross income from freelancing increased 1.38% over the previous year.

Income from
Advertising & Public Relations: up 9.05%
Consulting: down 100%
Editing: up 5.06%
Fiction (not novels): down 31%
Non-fiction (not books): down 15.38%
Royalties (from all books): down 40.59%
Seminars/Teaching: up significantly from $0 the previous year

Of course, percentages don't tell the entire story.

Advertising & Public Relations generated the largest dollar increase, while Editing generated the second largest dollar increase.

Editing generated the largest revenue stream, while Advertising & Public Relations generated the second largest revenue stream.

The majority of my Advertising & Public Relations revenue is generated by a single client. The majority of my Editing revenue is generated by two clients representing three publications.

I sold non-fiction to five publications produced by three publishers. One of the five publications ceased publication during 2007.

I sold fiction to 13 publications produced by seven publishers. One of the 13 publications ceased publication during 2007.

Key concerns:

The bulk of my freelance income comes from three sources. While I think all of my clients are satisfied with my work and we intend to continue our relationships, I wish I had more diversity in my client base.

One of my three key clients has discussed the possibility of putting me on the payroll as a part-time employee rather than continuing the current freelance arrangement. There are advantages and disadvantages to this change and our discussion continues.

I divorced in March of 2007 and was able to continue medical and dental insurance through COBRA. By law, I can continue coverage for 36 months following divorce, but medical/dental insurance now represents my second largest monthly expense (my house payment remains the largest monthly expense). What will I do when my COBRA benefits expire?

That's 2007 in review.

So, how'd I do?

Friday, January 04, 2008

When high productivity is an excuse for low productivity

I always have several dozen works in progress. When I tire of one, or hit a wall or any kind, I stop working on that project and start working on another. I can always write something.

The upside of this method of writing is that I do not experience writer's block (and don't believe it exists, but I've said that too many times already).

The downside is that I can work hard, produce several thousand usable words, and still have no complete manuscripts to show for my effort.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I finished and submitted five new short stories. Since Christmas I've written many more words than I wrote in the weeks prior to Christmas, but I've completed no new manuscripts. I've written a sentence on this story, a paragraph on that story, a few pages on this other story, and have touched at least three dozen stories in the process.

So, even though I've been highly productive in terms of word counts and page counts, I've been quite unproductive in terms of completed manuscripts.

So it goes.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The fortune in my cookie

I ate Chinese food for dinner and the fortune in my cookie told me that "Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness."

I found the fortune apt because I just completed my fourth calendar year as a full-time freelance writer/editor and in a few months--April 1, actually--I will complete my fifth year as a full-time freelancer.

Nearly five years spent doing what I like and liking what I do isn't a bad run. That's 10 percent of my life (or about 16 percent of my adult life), a stretch of time that few people I know can claim to have spent doing what they like and liking what they do.

Now if I can ever get my personal life in the same condition as my professional life, I'll be swimming in gravy.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Grab the reader by the throat

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was to grab the reader by the throat at the beginning of a story and not let go until the end. Over the years I've found a few ways to accomplish this, but I never thought about how many different tricks and techniques writers have at their disposal for writing opening lines and opening scenes.

Les Edgerton has. In Hooked (Writer's Digest Books, 2007), Edgerton describes many different ways writers can effectively "hook" a reader with a strong opening line and/or opening scene. He provides examples of effective story hooks from a variety of genres, and explains why he believes they are effective.

While I don't agree with everything Edgerton says--for example, he doesn't think highly of stories that begin with dialog and I've sold a great many stories that begin with dialog--he did make me aware of a few techniques I haven't used.

I finished reading Hooked a few days ago and I've already written two opening scenes based on what I learned. If I finish and sell even one of the two stories, Hooked will pay for itself many times over.