Thursday, March 06, 2008

Working Without a Net

Or a contract that is...

Question of the week: Do you always ask for a contract if the publisher doesn't mention it in your initial contacts? What if they say 'no!' Update to this question: I haven't received the contract despite an impending deadline...what should I do?

Truth told, in recent years, I've never worked for a magazine or client who hasn't offered a contract, but yes, if one isn't mentioned in the initial email or phone exchange, I would simply ask, "When can I expect the contract, as I'd like to get started on this right away." This implies that a) you have the expectation of establishing proof of assignment and terms of said assignment and b) you're still eager to tackle it but won't tackle it without documentation.

If they say "no?" I'd walk away. Because if someone firmly refuses to give you contract, even something loose like putting the terms in an email, then I'd think the publication or editor was dodgy.

That said, I certainly have started working on assignments before I'd received the actual contract, but only for clients with whom I have an established relationship. For example, I write often for a certain magazine that has very tight turn-around times and requires hard-to-nab interviews. I've been writing for this client for years: there is no doubt that they'll pay me and pay me promptly. By the time the editor gets the contract request into whomever processes the contract, I'd have long missed my chance to nail down my sources. SO. In this case, I move ahead, knowing full-well that everything is on the up-and-up. Some writers won't do this. Some insist on waiting for the written contract, and I understand why they do this, but for me, it works best to be flexible and make certain exceptions.

In your case, however, this is a first-time client (as elaborated on in the email), so I'd never proceed until something materialized. Now, with a looming deadline, I'd send her another note or better yet, pick up the phone and say something sweet yet pointed, along the lines of, "You know how excited I am about this project but I simply can't proceed without a contract. As you may know, my deadline is imminent, so in order to complete this on time, please let me know when I can expect the contract." If your editor still hedges, I'd take it as a much bigger sign of problems to come with this publication, and I'd walk.

Readers, what say you? Do you work without contracts, and if so, have you ever gotten burned?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

BTDT (Been There, Done That)

Someone recently asked me what my best advice is for newbie writers, and I wanted to inhale and ask her how long she had. I've been doing this for a long time, or at least what feels like a long time, and the truth is that there's no better experience than on-the-job training. I mean, there is no doubt that some of my lessons have been learned the hard way and frankly, that sort of lesson is invaluable...sort of like how I believe that kids have to pull themselves up from their bootstraps to really grow into themselves...but that doesn't mean that I can't pass on what I believe is my best advice. So here goes.

1) Develop a THICK - we're talking industrial-grade - skin. I was born with too much self-confidence. This, at times, has proven disastrous when I refused to acknowledge that a boyfriend (or two) might be trying to break up with me or other such scenarios. However, it has proven to be among my best assets in this industry. I honestly couldn't give two figs if a pitch or an article gets rejected. Their loss, I think. No matter how brilliant you are, you will get rejected and often in this line of work. If you don't have the stomach for it - and there's no shame in that at all (in fact, you'd be a lot wiser than I am), find something else to do.

2) Be aggressive. I'm reminded of that old cheer from summer camp: "BE AGGRESSIVE, Be, Be, aggressive. B-e-a-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e. Aggressive!" You get the point. No one gets ahead in the freelance world by lobbing off on email to an editor and hoping that he/she will respond. Follow up. Follow up again. If you get a nibble, even if it's not a bite, keep pursuing it. Too many writers, in my opinion, treat editors as if they are Gods, so don't use common sense when it comes to establishing themselves. In any other line of work, you'd go after that promotion or that new job. The same is true here.

3) Be Impeccable. Too many freelancers make mistakes and their editors are there to fill in the gaps. They notice. They notice misspellings, fact errors, missed deadlines. There are too many others writers who are willing to slide into your place, and if an editor thinks you're second rate, you're also history.

4) Don't Be Afraid to Suck. Yes, this is a complete contradiction to #3. But in this case, I'm referring to fiction, not magazines. With fiction, it's entirely okay to explore your capabilities because often, you're only writing for yourself. Experiment with different voices, different points-of-view, different characters. Some will work, some won't. Nothing's wrong with abandoning your manuscript if it's crap. Chances are you learned something along the way and you'll be better for it the next time out.

5) Listen to Criticism With Open Ears (and an Open Mind). Nothing irritates me more than writers who don't think that they can get better. (Okay, that's not true, a lot of things irritate me more, but you get my point.) If you're lucky enough to have someone take enough interest in your work to offer constructive criticism, you'd be wise to shrug off your ego (get over it already!), digest the advice and then apply it to your work. Being pig-headed about it might soothe that ego, but it won't land you a book deal.

So I think those are my top tips. There are dozens of others, of course, but that's a starting point. Now it's your chance to chime in. What is your best advice to pass along to other writers?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Climbing the Platform

So I posted something last week about whether or not you should have your agent land you magazine pieces, and my answer to said question was no, almost universally. But it was mentioned in the comments section that one reader was told by a perspective agent to wait to pitch magazines until she'd sold her book, the thinking being that as a soon-to-be published writer, she'd have an easier time landing gigs.

I wanted to take a second to talk about why I think this is terrible advice and why having a platform is so critical to selling a book these days. (Courtney - please note that this post totally isn't aimed at you! I just think it raised an interesting topic that I wanted to elaborate on!)

To begin with: platform: defined as a presence, ideally national, at which you are recognized in your area of expertise (maybe you're an master florist or more likely, a famous doctor) or your work (maybe your byline is in every magazine known to man).

Establishing a platform certainly raises the chicken or the egg conundrum: how on earth are you supposed to get famous if you need to be famous to get famous in the first place? Follow? In simpler terms - a lot of aspiring writers worry (partially justifiably) that they need some name recognition to get published but getting published in the first place is what will give them the name recognition. Chicken. Egg.

And that's the problem I have with the advice that sparked this whole post. These days, like it or not, it is incredibly hard to land a book deal. That's just the truth. If you're aiming to publish non-fiction (self-help, etc), you'll have almost an impossible time of it without a platform or without a co-author who has a platform. So to wait to aim for magazines until after you've landed a book deal...well, you might be waiting until you're old and withered because it likely won't happen. While a platform isn't as critical for nabbing a fiction deal (and maybe a memoir deal, though it certainly helps to be famous), it can still help immeasurably. Did the fact that I am relatively well-known in the magazine world land me my first deal? No. The manuscript did. Did it help boost my advance significantly? Without a doubt. My publisher was paying me for my connections and for the fact that I might gain more national exposure than someone who hadn't written for all of these magazines.

Building a platform isn't easy. But I think that's a discussion for another day. And one worth having. But to wait until your platform comes to you...well, foot meet trigger, and pull.

What say you readers? Has your platform (or lack thereof) helped or hindered you in your quest for publication?