Monday, August 29, 2005

Write Right, Write Well

In the past week, I've read two articles by editors bemoaning the lack of respect for language exhibited by would-be writers in their query letters and other correspondence. Their opinions echo my own, but I'll go one step further. I don't like to see language abused by writers in any format, including email and discussion boards.

Good writing, on the other hand, so enthralls me that I can become drunk with the words. I'm serious. When I come upon finely crafted literature or journalism, I can't get enough. Like an alcoholic with drink, I continue reading until I pass out, book in hand or lap. When I awake, I usually have to backtrack a few pages to refresh my memory of what I read previously because I push myself to continue long past my ability to retain the information.

Last week I had my first experience "listening" to a novel. I've listened to countless nonfiction audio books, but never fiction. We borrowed Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" from the library for entertainment on a recent trip to Sarasota. The drive there and back to Fort Lauderdale wasn't long enough to hear the complete story, so we listened to the balance while Hurricane Katrina tore across South Florida.

"The Lovely Bones" is a compelling story, riveting the reader from the opening paragraph to the conclusion. Sebold's careful, precise use of language is brilliant. The story is told in the first person by a 14-year-old murdered girl who watches her family and murderer from heaven as they progress through their lives after her death. Because she is dead and watching the action from above, she also enjoys the advantage of the omniscient voice; she knows everything about everyone she sees below. Yet, there is little narrative description. Almost everything the reader needs to know is revealed through the characters' actions and dialogue.

The following is an excerpt from an author interview done for in July 2002.

Sebold: Voice is really key to me, so when I drift away from voice, that's when the writing begins to sound tinny or dry; it will start to sound wrong to me.

I'm compelled by language, so there are days for instance where if it sounds flat and dry I try to find something else to do that will help the book. That often means going to poets and reading poetry. That's my fuel tank. Voice and language is primary, and everything comes out of that.

(The entire interview can be read here.)

How powerful is good writing? "The Lovely Bones" enjoyed American hardcover sales of nearly three million copies and became an unprecedented international bestseller, with translations in 36 languages.

Writing is an art. Producing a masterpiece takes discipline and practice.
Even if you never intend to publish your work, words are all you have to communicate your message. Cherish your words. Take care to punctuate your thoughts properly. And practice the elements of good writing in everything you write so you can be proud to sign your name at the bottom of the page.

Monday, August 22, 2005


"Rejection is a gift from God."—Melinda

I don't know who Melinda is; I don't know her last name. This quote was related to me by a friend of Melinda some years ago when I was interviewing women for a book I was writing about re-entering the dating world after divorce. After her husband left her, Melinda had little luck finding a new mate and was disappointed many times in what she thought were potentially good relationships. When she finally found a man she could call her soul mate, she realized that the earlier rejections were necessary so that she would be available when their paths crossed.

I employed the same philosophy with my children. Once, when my then-teenage daughter was devastated after a summer dance program accepted her friend while placing her on a wait list, I consoled her by assuring her that this simply meant something better was on its way. Sure enough, one month later she was accepted by a more prestigious program and awarded a scholarship as well.

I have to remind myself of my own words and Melinda's story as I receive rejections from prospective agents. It doesn't matter how long you've been in the business, it still stings. But it doesn't hurt enough to keep me from revising and re-submitting.

The agents who turned me down are not the right people to represent me (at least that's what they say in their letters). I'm pleased because that means they are enabling me to be available when the right agent accepts my work. So, I am thankful for the many gifts of rejection bestowed upon me. Although, I must admit, the gift of acceptance would be appreciated, too. But, just like the right mate, the right agent is worth waiting for. I'm going to keep sending those letters out there until the magic happens.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fellow Writers

I am posting a letter I wrote last week. The editor of a magazine that I write for had sent an email to all the contributors during the production of the latest issue, and all our email addresses were ganged along the top of the "To:" line. When the "payment upon publication" was late in arriving, one of the writers took it upon herself to start a dialogue among the contributors, using the the email list from the editor's earlier email. The emails went from inquisitive (did you get paid?), to complaining (I heard this magazine is going out of business), to "this is the way it is." At first, I didn't get involved in the conversation, mostly because I didn't want to converse with email identities such as "" But I did jump in at the end, and this is the letter I wrote.

Fellow writers and contributors,

I've read the past few days of emails with interest but did not participate because I felt discussing private information about pay, etc was inappropriate with a group of people I did not know and couldn't identify by their email monikers. But now the conversation has turned to the philosophical--and I need a break from the assignment I'm currently working on.

The amount of compensation is not the point in wanting to be paid in a timely (and promised) manner. Regardless of the amount, you did the research, wrote the article and met your deadline. It's not too much to expect that the client (or publisher) shows you the same professionalism and respect.

I have been in the publishing industry for 30 years and freelancing for almost 20 years. In that time, not much has changed, including the rate of pay for editorial or commercial (copy writing) material. Like most writers, I stay with it because it's what I do, and what I love. However, I'm tired of chasing my money. The next time you call a magazine or client's office about a past-due account, ask the person on the other end how he or she would feel if his or her weekly paycheck was withheld until the advertiser paid. Ask that person if she could wait 30, 60 or 90 days for compensation. Or, how about never being paid? That's happened to me on several occasions when a "pay on publication" magazine went out of business before my article ran.

Yes, these are the accepted rules. But what if writers stopped acting like doormats? What if we asked for fair and timely compensation? Radical! Do you know how much photographers and designers (advertising, not editorial) in our industry get paid in relation to our rates? Why accept being starving artists? Perhaps it is for love or need to communicate. But whatever the reason, we do not have to just shut up and take it. We can expect to be treated like professionals and extended the courtesy of timely payment. Good manners alone require a business person to return a phone call and follow up on promises made.

So, don't feel sorry about wanting your money--$9, $90 or $900--you earned it.

I don't advocate whining or complaining. Take action and don't be afraid to speak your mind to the people who can change things--your editors, publishers and clients. Writing one another won't change anything at all--unless you want to form a group that works together for better treatment of freelance writers. But, for goodness sakes, don't just accept the status quo. Keep writing and improve your skills so you can work for larger publications, many of which pay on submission and at a much higher rate. Keep writing and submitting so that you have enough work out there that you won't starve or miss a payment because one or two checks are late.

You may have to or choose to work for small amounts, but you do not have to accept being treated unprofessionally. Respect for our talent and professionalism is worth more than any compensation--so don't settle for less than that.

Well, back to work. My next deadline looms.

Best regards,

Shelley Lieber

P.S. I wish more of you would include your real names and be proud of what you write.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Guru, Schmuru

"I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me."—Anna Quindlen

I am not a guru. Unlike many of the self-proclaimed gurus, I do not claim to be in possession of some secret formula that you need to get from me. The more I read the outrageous statements made by these "professionals," the more they all sound alike. And they are alike, because contrary to what they tell you, their thoughts are not original. They have merely read the Masters, rephrased the concepts, and now claim to be the originators of a “new” philosophy leading to self-awareness and riches. They say they have discovered the secret of success and if they did it, you can too. They even offer to sell their secrets to you if you attend their seminars or buy their books and audio programs.

I have studied the same books they have, and most of the gurus do a poor job imitating the great Masters. The real great philosophers of past and present did not take to the streets proclaiming their greatness and selling “answers” to the public. The great philosophers revealed their insight so that others could share their vision and benefit from it.

The “secrets” revealed are not the property of anyone to pass on to you. What I have discovered after years of study is that no one can give you anything at all. In fact, I’m suggesting it’s quite the opposite.

You have all the riches inside you.

The best another person can do is to help you find and mine your treasure within. The only way I can help you is to share the tools I’ve learned to use and show you how you can build your own life to order.