July 27, 2009

The Publishing Business Outside-In

Before I took the plunge into self-employment, I worked for a leading children’s book publisher. My first position was Associate Editor, and in time I was promoted to Senior Editor and then Manager of Editorial Services. After almost twenty years of working in-house, I wondered what it would be like to experience the publishing industry from the other side of the desk. I didn’t have to wonder for long. When the company moved its editorial offices to another state, I was left without a job. Freelancing was a predictable next step. This August will mark my twelfth year as a freelance writer. I’ve managed to support myself from my writing, and I’ve also learned what it’s like to experience the publishing industry from the outside in.

Plotting the course. I understood that freelancing would be risky. As an editor, I had weeded through enough slush piles to know that only a small fraction of manuscripts make it to publication. I didn’t have the financial resources to write and wait. So, with that in mind, I decided to write work-for-hire.

Setting up shop. In my publishing job, I had the task of hiring freelance writers. The most successful ones were those who considered the business of writing as much as writing itself. I had learned from them. I created a marketing plan and a unified “look” for my promotional materials, and then I set out to find publishers who routinely hired freelancers. I specifically targeted children’s publishers, and the foundation of my marketing plan was experience.

Experience counts. I was fortunate to have a strong résumé and also contacts in the industry. Much of my prior experience was with licensed properties: Sesame Street, Disney, Warner Bros., and others. I had written for a wide variety of formats, everything from activity books to audio scripts; I clearly understood the need to revise and revise again without taking criticism personally; and I was well aware of the importance of deadlines. All of this helped to land my first freelance writing gigs; however, I still had to prove myself. I was naïve to think that experience alone would lead to an abundance of work. Soon, I realized that the other side of the desk was crowded with competitive freelance writers, and somehow I had to set myself apart.

Exploring new territory. In the beginning, most of my freelance writing assignments were to create various children’s activity books. That was where the bulk of my experience was. I enjoyed the work, but I worried about being labeled. In my editorial jobs, I often chose freelance writers for one specific kind of writing. Joe is great with crossword puzzle books; Kate does an awesome job concepting text for workbooks. I knew that I had to break into other genres. If I was to be a successful freelancer, I needed to demonstrate that I could write beyond my proven experience. The next step was to explore a number of possible markets and identify those that best fit my background and writing skills; I decided to shift my attention to educational and Christian publishers.

Persistence pays off. My undergraduate degree is in elementary education, and I’d spent several in-house years helping to develop a line of children’s educational products. I gathered writing samples from those years, created a portfolio and then contacted as many educational publishers as I could find. I was reasonably persistent, without being a pest, and before long I was hired as a contributing freelance writer for a series of K–6 ELA textbooks. That assignment led to others, and soon I was not only an expert at writing kids’ activity books, but I was an educational writer as well. The same thing happened when I sought work with Christian publishers. I had strong knowledge of Biblical principles and a writing style that fit the genre. Thomas Nelson Publishing took a chance and hired me to co-write / ghost write children’s books with leading Christian teachers and authors: John Maxwell, John MacArthur and Thomas Kinkade. Those publications opened the doors to writing assignments from other Christian publishers. I had broadened my diversity by persistence; yet I wasn’t content to sit back and coast.

Leaving my comfort zone. I love writing for children, and that will always be my core business; however, writing text for sales promotions also interests me. I’d been successful marketing myself as a work-for-hire writer, and I was curious to know if I could succeed at writing marketing copy. To qualify I needed further education, so I enrolled in a local technical college and took enough classes to earn an advanced certificate in Technical Communication. Since then, I’ve done sales promotion writing for several small graphic design firms. It has been an interesting sideline business and one that I hadn’t given any thought to when I was working in-house.

Looking to the future. I never stop thinking about the business of writing. I’m always tweaking my marketing plan to fit industry treads and my own interests. Earlier this year, I finished four preteen mystery novels for Barbour Publishing. (I’ll be writing more about them in future blog posts.) Mystery was a new genre for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing the books. I’d like to do more of them. I also want to write devotional books for the adult Christian market. (Heads up to any publishers who might be reading this!) I’ve created another blog called In the Compost Pile where I’ve been writing about the ways God enters into the little things in everyday life. Maybe someday that will lead to a book.

I always think of freelance writing as an adventure, but it also has its drawbacks: It's hard work, and the work is sometimes sporadic. Paychecks don’t arrive on a regular schedule, and I miss the camaraderie of being on a team. Still, exploring publishing from the outside in presents me with an ongoing challenge. It makes me stretch, and I like that.

July 20, 2009

How is Writing Like a Flash Mob?

Let’s have a little fun this week.

Have you ever seen a flash mob in action? A flash mob is a large group of people who show up in a public place, perform an unusual act for a short period of time and then disappear—sort of like a 21st Century Chinese Fire Drill. They often dress to blend into the crowd adding to the element of surprise.

Take a look at this flash mob video, and then guess how it’s similar to writing.

Did you answer “writer’s block”? Think about it. You’re working on a novel, short story, or whatever, and suddenly—BAM!—there you are frozen in space unable to think of the next sentence. You stay that way for a while and then, just as fast, an idea comes and you’re on your way. See? Writing is like a flash mob.

Here’s another one:

How often have you been doing something ordinary when an awesome story idea pops into your head? It starts with a single voice. Before long, the voice becomes a choir. Words swirl and dance in your head. You rush to get them down on paper, and then— only then—can you go back to whatever you were doing. See? Writing is like a flash mob.

And then there’s this:

All writers, more often than not, feel like Waldo, lost in a sea of other writers, all hoping that a publisher finds them and singles them out. See? Writing is just like a flash mob!

So, here’s your writing prompt for the week: Imagine that you were chosen to organize a flash mob of writers. Where would your mob go, and what would they do?

Don’t be shy. Tell us what you think.

July 5, 2009

Book Review Week: The Recess Queen

Last week, I reread one of my favorite picture books The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill. It’s not one of my favorites because it’s well written and fun (although it is). Instead, I love it because everyone has known a Mean Jean like the protagonist in the story. She’s the kid who always swings first, kicks first, and bounces first -- and nobody says any different. If they do, Mean Jean will push ‘em and smoosh ‘em, lollapaloosh ‘em, hammer ‘em and slammer ‘em, and even kitz and kajammer ‘em!

So, here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it: The original recess queen was a girl named Martha Ann who lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I’m leaving out her last name because she might have grown up to be a very nice person. But, back then (And I’ll leave out exactly when), Martha Ann was not very nice.

Flash back to Jefferson Elementary School, third grade: Martha Ann and I were waiting to perform in the school Christmas concert along with the rest of our class. We sat on the hard stage floor until it was our turn to get up and sing “The Friendly Beasts.” (At least the beasts were friendly that day.) Back then (And I’m still not telling when), girls wore skirts to school and moms sometimes pinned handkerchiefs to the waistbands. (No! I’m not a hundred years old, and for those of you who have never heard the word “handkerchief,” it’s a piece of cloth used to sneeze or blow your nose into. Think ancient Kleenex.) Anyhow, after what seemed like forever, it was finally our turn to sing. I stood up. Martha Ann didn’t. Whether or not she knew that her chubby behind was firmly seated on my floppy, white handkerchief remains a mystery. RIPPPPPPP!!!! There I stood in front of the world and everybody with the left side of my skirt torn clean away. Martha Ann sat there, cross-legged, grinning as she looked down at the long strip of purple cloth spread on the floor beside her. I can still remember the laughter as our teacher led me offstage.

From that day on, I was Martha Ann’s target. When we went out for recess, she hid behind the playground door waiting to hammer or slammer me. (Of course she did it when no one was watching.) She pushed me and smooshed me. I’m not sure what it means to lollapaloosh or to kitz and kajammer someone, but I’m sure that Martha Ann did that to me, too. She was as mean as (if not meaner than) Mean Jean the Recess Queen. What I really needed was for a brave little kid like Katie Sue to show up.

Katie Sue is the antagonist in The Recess Queen. She’s the new kid in school, and she’s not afraid of Mean Jean. Although she’s a teeny tiny thing, Katie Sue swings before Mean Jean swings, kicks before she kicks, and bounces before she bounces. When Mean Jean grabs her by the collar to set her straight, Katie Sue gets in her face and says, “How DID you get to be so bossy?” Then she skips off and does her own thing, leaving Martha Ann (I mean, Mean Jean) in her dust. Oh, how I love that kid! After all that, Katie Sue says to Mean Jean, “Hey Jeanie Beanie, (which is too weird, because that was my nickname in elementary school) let’s try this jump rope out… I like ice cream, I like tea, I want Jean to jump with me!”

The Recess Queen ends happily when Katie Sue wins Jean over and gets her to play nice with all of the kids. Thankfully, Mean Jean is history.

I guess my story had a happy ending, too. Martha Ann moved away, and I found peace and acceptance at Jefferson Elementary School. Looking back though, I wish I had been even a little bit like Katie Sue. I’d have stood up to Martha Ann, talked right back to her, and not let her push me, smoosh me, lollapaloosh, hammer and slammer, or kitz and kajammer me....but, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

The Recess Queen is a great read and a must read for elementary-age Mean Jeans and potential Katie Sues. Most recess queens (and kings) are looking for acceptance from their peers. Thank goodness for the Katie Sues of the world who see through their tough exteriors and for authors like Alexis O'Neill who bring them to life.

Read about Alexis O’Neill on the Scholastic web site.

Visit Laura Huliska-Beth’s web page.

The Recess Queen
Written by Alexis O’Neill, Illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beth
© Scholastic Press 2002,
32 pages, ISBN 0439206375