Monday, May 28, 2012

Digging Deep

It always surprises me when a writer uses an encyclopedia or Wikipedia as a source when researching a nonfiction article.  As the nonfiction editor for Stories for Children Magazine, I occasionally see these sources cited in a submission.  I also wonder why a writer would ever consider using an out-date source.  Once I received a submission that cited a book published over 50 years ago. 

Your goal as a nonfiction writer is to find reliable sources of information.  Aim for primary sources. For instance, consider interviewing experts.  They may clarify information or divulge amusing anecdotes.  They may even offer facts not yet published.   

Think about using journals, newspapers, diaries, or letters.  The information from these sources will provide firsthand accounts with rich details.  

Once while I was researching a female American Civil War soldier (disguised as a male), I was able to locate and purchase photocopies of her letters.  Talk about holding history in my hands!  What an amazing primary source—the letters dated back to the 1860s!  Her handwritten letters not only  unveiled  her  spunky  personality, but revealed her lack of schooling:  "I dont belve thare is eny rebels bullet maid for me yet."

When trying to publish outstanding nonfiction, you need to dig deep when resesarching.  Put time and effort into finding reliable sources.  Library databases are a good place to begin to find these sources.  And if you plan to interview an expert for your article, politely ask her to review it after it's written.  That way, you'll know that the facts in your article are accurate.  Having impressive sources and an expert review are two ways to catch an editor's eye.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Word Count

As most of you know, magazine editors have word count limits.  Literary agents or editors may impose word limits when critiquing your work.  You job is easy:  keep your submission within the limits.

Recently, I received an 1800-word nonfiction submission for the educational website Viatouch,  where I'm an associate editor.  The guidelines state that we accept pieces that are 500 words.  The writer had read our guidelines and politely asked if I’d take a look at this longer piece.  But the article was much too long.  If it had been 600 words, I would have considered it.  The writer also suggested that the piece could be broken into 3 shorter pieces.  Perhaps, this is what she should have done in the first place.

Magazine editors establish word counts based on the needs of their audience.  The editor of the writers' e-newsletter Extra Innings likes the articles to run about 300 -500 words.  He believes that his readers like shorter pieces.  For Stories for Children Magazine, the word count varies for each of our three age group categories.  The younger kids like the shorter pieces and the older kids are more interested in the longer pieces. 

Editors and literary agents set fairly strick word counts when doing critiques.  They have stacks of submissions to read; so, the word count gives them just enough of a manuscript to get a feel for the story.        

If you are writing a magazine article or sending in a critique to a literary agent or editor, be mindful of the word limit.  Should your piece exceed the limit just a tad, it’s generally okay to submit it.  When in doubt, ask.  But it you’ve written an article that is grossly over the limit, an acceptance or a favorable critique may fail to come your way.   

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Satisfying Ending

Courtesy of Clipart

Recently, I had the opportunity to have my picture book story Rootin’ Tootin’ Cowboy critiqued by a literary agent Mary Kole.  Before I emailed the manuscript, I felt confident that this story would wow her.  In fact, I felt it was one of the best stories I had ever written.

Several months later, I received the critique.  She wrote that she liked the voice of the story.  And that’s a good thing, because voice sells picture books.  But what she didn’t like was the resolution.  She wrote that it was “a bit unsatisfying.”

That comment shook my confidence.  However after a week or so after feeling dejected, I realized it was only one opinion.  Nonetheless, it was an opinion that I valued and trusted.  Luckily, Mary suggested that I read Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse.  This book was similar to mine in plot, but it had a stronger resolution.  After reading it again, I found hope—I wouldn't give up on my story.  I just needed to rework the ending.    

First, I had to analyze what was wrong with the resolution.  To do so, I had to get inside my main character’s head to figure out how he really wanted to conclude the story.  When I “listened” he “told” me that he’d do things differently than originally written. 

So, I modified his actions toward the end of the story so that it was more true to his character.  This change caused him to reflect on his situation.  It prompted him to set things right, which in turn led to the growth of his character.  The ending became more heart-warming, and I believe more satisfying.  Thanks to Mary’s comments, I feel that my book is even better than before.  I like to imagine that if she read it again, she might even say “wow.”       

Monday, May 7, 2012

Getting Paid

Last year, one of my articles was published by a prestigious children’s magazine.  The good news:  I had a great clip.  The bad news:  I wasn’t paid. 

I called the publishing company several months after publication and was told that payment would be mailed nine months following publication.  Accepting this as standard procedure, I decided to wait (although deep inside it didn’t feel right).

Meanwhile, I wrote about publishing for this children’s market and submitted my articles to writers' magazines.  However, one editor passed on my article.  She informed me that she could not publish a piece that centered on this publisher.  Many writers had not been paid, including herself.  I was not alone. 

To make a long story short, I had to call the publisher’s accounting department several times to get results.  I was told that someone would call me back.  I was told that my check had been cut.  I was told that my check would be mailed.  But none of that happened.  After additional phone calls, I was told that I needed to send a W9 form to accounts payable.  So I did, still having doubts; however, I received my check a week later.

What does this little story tell us?  Before submitting to a market, look into when you’ll be paid.  For me, this publisher guaranteed payment “sometime after publication" (which translated to:  over a year following publication).  These terms are too vague.  If you should find yourself in a similar situation, call the publisher to find out exactly when payment will be made.  If it exceeds your expectations, negotiate and then get it in writing that you want to be paid in a shorter amount of time.  That’s what I should’ve done.   It would have saved me time and trouble.  But live and learn.  Now I know, and so do you.