Wisdom from Ben Franklin

Sexy and I know it.

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Ben Franklin, the only hombre on American currency who wasn’t a president, had it goin’ on. Sure, he came down with syphilis, but who hasn’t?

I read his autobiography a few months back and it’s tough to get through. The edition I have doesn’t have paragraph indentations. Try reading that. There’s no white space. I need a break.

But, Franklin was nothing if not methodical and that’s important for the writer looking to make a living in letters. Franklin had a list of 12 Virtues to follow for self improvement, and maybe I’ll talk about those another time. What I want to talk about is his daily structure. Here it is:

The Morning Question: What Good Shall I do this Day?

5-7: Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness; contrive Day’s Business and take the Resolution of the Day; prosecute the present Study: and breakfast?—

8-11: Work

12-1: Read, or overlook my Accounts, and dine

1-5: Work

6-9: Put Things in their Places, Supper, Musick, or Diversion, or Conversation, Examination of the Day

10-4: Sleep

There’s something simple about this schedule I like. Also, it works in time to decompress and work on other things unrelated to work or craft. There’s time for music, recreation, reflection, etc.

I write well in 45-minute clips. I have some music records that are 45 minutes and I put the headphones on and blast away until the record is done. Then I get up and walk around, do pushups, pet the dogs.

I’d encourage you to adopt a form of structure, something easily digestible. It’s easy to get derailed. All writers know that.

What is your schedule? Is it random? Or do you carve out time each day?

iQuery: The Query Letter, the writer’s fast ball

Written by Brendan O’Meara

Today’s post deals with the ever-important query letter. It is the fundamental document of any freelance writer looking to make a living. It irons out what your pitch is about and who you are and why editors/agents should take a chance on YOU.

Here’s what got me into Vegetarian Times’s Vegging Out blog:

I opt for very quick and easy to read letters. One, editors are short on time. Two, they’re reading on a computer screen and most people want to read short pieces on a screen.

First, I called Vegetarian Times and asked for the name of the editor I should pitch to. Next, my opening paragraph is the hook and why the story will be interesting to Vegetarian Times readers (important, not what’s important to ME, but what’s important to THEM. Sometimes you have to alter—as in cater—your voice. Nothing wrong with this.)

Then I jump into my credentials so the editor doesn’t think I’m some yahoo (which will be totally discredited when they see I wrote a book on horse racing, but that’s neither here nor there). I also tag a page on my website where the editor can click and find clips of my work. If they want hard copies, I’ll send them, but in two clicks, the editor will have a broad sample of my writing capability.

Ultimately, my approach comes down to two things:

1. Get in, get out
2. Take Your Time with the Query (this applies more to book queries)

The letter needs to be read quickly and have some semblance of voice and a tightness of language that will be indicative of a longer piece of work.

With the second point, it’s important not to rush when querying an agent or a publishing house because it’s a painfully long process and sitting on your query for an extra day or week won’t kill it. Rushing will make it sound rushed. Treat it like a piece of art. It needs time. The publishing process is long. I’m as guilty as an when it comes to a trigger finger when sending a query or email. But let the query breathe. Your book won’t be published for at least two years. Hanging out for a few more days will help, not hurt it. Here’s my query for Six Weeks in Saratoga that had a few agents biting and sold SUNY Press.

This is a tad long, but it grabbed the attention of enough people to be moderately effective.

Undoubtedly my queries will get better as I learn more about them. As I learn more and experiment with what works and what doesn’t, I’ll be sure to share that information and samples. I may even try to get a friend or two to write a guest post about the subject.

(This is a great query blog post by the ever-valuable Nathan Bransford. RSS his blog. Just do it.)

How have your query letters been received? Where do you need to improve?

Marketing, marketing, marketing

By Brendan O’Meara

I’ve been reading a lot about marketing lately, books, blogs, and trust me when I say this, it’s more complicated than it sounds, more complicated than it looks, and I guarantee—strike that, Guarantee with a capital G—you’re not doing enough for your book.

Is your book already out? Go back in time at least six months and reevaluate your plan because you didn’t do enough. How do I know? I did a LOT, and when I look back on it, I didn’t do half what I should have done.

Prior to the release of Six Weeks in Saratoga, I contacted all the bookstores I could and set up events. I booked around 30. I had several galleys sent out to newspapers (but only got one review). I did radio and TV, but I didn’t do enough radio and TV.

Know Thy Target: So what can be done to ensure you’re reaching your target audience? The key is target. In the summer of 2011, when the book launched, I thought bookstores would be the best avenue to sell books. The backdrop of my book is horse racing. That’s my audience. If I were smarter in Summer 1, I would have taken heed of this trend:

Barnes and Noble: 2 books

The Book House (Indy Store): 6 books

Monmouth Park (horse track): 62 books

Saratoga Race Course (horse track): 88 books

Perhaps it was because it was my first book and I wanted to be, you know, in bookstores. Bookstores can’t be ignored. I’m glad I did them, but based on the potential to reach the readers who would be interested in my book, my energies would have been better spent at racetracks. Naturally, this summer I went exclusively to racetracks.

Befriend Bloggers: My other mistake? Not taking advantage of bloggers. Bloggers who have 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 followers are your generals in command of an army of like-minded readers. If a blogger gives you an endorsement, a chunk of their followers will buy up your book. It takes one galley. I only got 10 copies in my contract. I have since purchased 400 books (many I have sold by hand, many I have donated to silent auctions [karma], many I have given to reviewers). If $14 can translate into 100 book sales, I think that’s a worthy investment.

What else? Well, I’m voraciously reading marketing books and marketing blogs (I’m a big fan of Tim Ferriss’s 4hourblog. He’s a marketing guru and a wizard of self-promotion.)

I’ll be sharing more as I learn and test out stuff. And you’ll get on TV just like I did.

What are you doing to market your book prior to publication? After publication? Do you find it overwhelming? Let me know!

The Sound Upstairs: a lesson in brevity from a 13 year old

By Brendan O’Meara

I was cleaning out some of my shelves, getting rid of come books I’ll never read again, shredding old bank statements, trying to de-clutter my hoarding of paper ANYTHING, when I came across a short story I wrote when I was 13.

In those days as my body was changing and girls cast this weird spell on me, I was reading a lot of R.L. Stine (I had finally graduated from Roald Dhal). He wrote teen horror books, suspenseful, bloody, I liked them more than girls because these books liked me back!

The story I’m about to re-type below is 315 words. That’s it. I read it and felt stronger about this piece I wrote back in 1993 than I do half the time I write anything these days. Maybe what that means is I shouldn’t think so hard about what I write and just write the damn story. This story is a word-for-word transcription. Any bad grammar or misspelled words must be read with a collective [sic]. Ready? No, that wasn’t good enough! Are YOU F*CKIN’ ready!? I thought so. Let me know what you think.

The Sound Upstairs

The house was near the beach. It was a big old place where nobody had lived for years. From time to time somebody would force open a window or a door and spend the night there. But never longer.

Three fishermen caught in a storm took shelter there one night. With some dry wood they found inside, they made a fire in the fireplace. They laid down on the floor and tried to get some sleep, but none of them slept that night.

First they heard footsteps upstairs. It sounded like there were several people moving back and forth, back and forth. When one of the fishermen called, “Who’s up there?” the footsteps stopped. Then they heard a woman scream. The scream turned into a groan and died away. Blood began to drip from the ceiling into the room where the fishermen huddle. A small red pool formed on the floor and soaked into the wood.

A door upstairs crashed shut, and again the woman screamed. “Not me!” she cried. It sounded as if she was running, her high heels tapped wildly down the hall. “I’ll get you!” a man shouted, and the floor shaked as he chased her.

Then silence. There wasn’t a sound until the man who had shouted began to laugh. Long peals of horrible laughter filled the house. It went on and on until the fishermen think they would go mad.

When finally it stops, the fishermen heard someone coming down the stairs dragging something heavy that bumped on each step. They heard him drag it through the front hall and out the front door. The door opened: then it slammed shut. Again, silence.

Suddenly a flash of lightning filled the house with a green blaze of light. A ghastly face stared at the fishermen from the hallway. Then came a crash of thunder. Terrified, they ran out into the storm.

***

Yeah. I got an A+.

Re-reading this my 13-year-old self taught me a thing or two. This story was only 315 words, which to a seventh grader must’ve felt agonizingly long. I had baseball or soccer practice to tend to. I needed to fantasize about the girls in my grade with their new-fangled boobs. I read this ghost story and realized it doesn’t have to be longer, or more gruesome, or with better character development. To me it’s suspenseful and spooky and, quite honestly, better than anything I’ve written in a long time.

Maybe I’m being too hard on my 32-year-old self, but the next time I feel like I need to write something long, I’m going to pressure the writing to be uber tight, like, Olympian tight, like gymnast tight.