So, you want to be a writer …

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Write is a verb book cover
But writer is a noun and written can be an adjective as in “The written word.”

Timely WriterWith over 800 articles, seven editions of a successful thoroughbred racing guide, and 40 years in the freelance tank, it’s a good time to impart my keyboard and publishing knowledge to wannabee James Pattersons.

The New York Times pointed out last year that the average freelance writer makes $8,200 annually, down from $9,400 a decade ago. Their article some years back “Almond Knocking, Bass Breeding and Other Literary Pursuits,” makes it clear that few can live by writing alone.

But who cares about money? Fame and fortune await. Not quite. Dave Litfin, the handicapper for the industry bible, Daily Racing Form, sat just in front of me in the Saratoga Race Course press box for seven summers. His standard line is still, “I have three fans and two of them write to me in crayon.” There are generally two kinds of reader response: Here’s what you got wrong, or the same thing happened to me and here is a 28-page manuscript illuminating the similarities.

I sold a trifecta of destination pieces to New England Senior Citizen some years ago. They paid me $50 for the first one, $35 a year later, and $25 for the third one. I had to beg off a fourth as I could see where this was heading.

Beware magazines that pay on publication instead of acceptance. Do you pay for your groceries when you eat them or at the checkout?

Only bad things can happen from a magazine that pays on publication. The magazine can go out of business. Editors come and go like flies on a carcass. The editor may slyly have someone on staff rewrite your piece just enough so that it’s no longer your piece. Typically, an accepted piece can sit six months or longer until it sees print.

All writers have horror stories and here’s one of mine: At the top of the popularity market for Silhouette and Harlequin romances, I submitted a short romantic parody to National Lampoon. My protagonist was a plumber looking for love. I never heard back but was surprised and pissed off to see a library of love parody involving a furniture repairman several issues later. Again, they changed it just enough… sleazy but legal.

Keep in mind that your work is automatically copyrighted. What you want to be sure of is to sell “first North American serial rights.” Magazines understand this. The rights go back to the author. A case in point is the short story that appeared in Playboy titled “Little Enis Pursues His Muse.” Had the author sold all rights, he would have missed out on the mucho dinero for the play version, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” still generates.

Recognize spell check as a useful tool but not a replacement for further research. Saratoga Race Course has a grass course named the Mellon Turf Course, so named after scion of the turf Paul Mellon. You can guess what happened. The name appeared in the newspaper as the Melon Turf Course. A horseplaying friend delighted in this, telling me, “I pictured a field of runners gently jumping over honeydews and cantaloupes.”

Dog eat dog world, dog with books
Freelancing is a “doggy-dog” world (Spellcheck: dog-eat-dog).

Do your research. I was reading a book on the battle of Stalingrad one Saratoga summer and noted the fighting at the Mayakovsky metro station. Lo and behold, the next day’s track entries had a first-time starter named Mayakovsky. I told my readers and the fans at the seminar that the horse was named after a Stalingrad metro station. Well, that was only half right. The metro station was named after the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Oops!

Should you join a writer’s group? It’s invaluable to get feedback instead of keeping your writing in your sock drawer but know what you are getting into. Nineteen out of 20 people who write, write fiction. Nineteen out of 20 entries published in magazines are non-fiction. There are numerous prestigious university press paperbacks that publish exclusively fiction. An acceptance here is impressive, but pay is generally three copies of the magazine. Judging by the writer’s groups I’ve belonged to, 17 of the 19 people writing fiction are writing science fiction. A group is no place to be a flute snoot. Be candid without being demeaning.

Is it okay to fib a little? Who’s going to catch you? Probably no one, but getting caught severely lowers your credibility. In Donald Hall’s delightful first book “String Too Short to Be Saved,” he details an abandoned locomotive atop a hill near Eagle Pond. It added to the antiquity of the place, but his friends razzed him for months over the phantom locomotive.

John Steinbeck said, “I don’t lie. I just remember big.” Pithy saying but he lied big on several occasions. He described a crew of six men searching for marine specimens in “Log from the Sea of Cortez.”

His count came up one short as he wrote his first wife Carol, who he wasn’t getting along with, out of the book. Hardly fair to the person who was the first reader for “The Grapes of Wrath” manuscript.
“Travels with Charley” was much worse. Steinbeck sallied forth with a poodle and camper to see America in 1960-1961. The trip was planned for 85 days but Charley and Steinbeck spent only 25 nights sleeping in the camper. More often, they stayed in motels and with friends. Entire dialogues with characters encountered were not only made up, but the characters themselves were pulled out of thin air.

John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years later proving I don’t know what.

Finally, and I learned this the hard way, no one is going to care about your work more than you. Publisher publicity departments are notoriously short-staffed and are generally peopled by newbies. Selling a book to a publisher is the starting point for when you take on the real work of selling your book.


About this Author

John Angelo

John Angelo’s humor has appeared in “Publisher’s Weekly,” “Writer’s Digest,” and “American Bookseller.” He is a frequent contributor to the “New Hampshire Business Review.” For a Christmas concert at his Catholic grammar school, the nuns told him to mouth the words and that he’d better not make a sound under any circumstances.