What’s hiding in your drawers?

Okay, get your minds out of the gutter. I’m talking about the drawers of your desk or file cabinet. Or maybe they’re in a closet or in the garage in cardboard storage box. Do you know what I’m talking about yet?

I’m talking about stories, essays, articles, novels. It’s an all-too-common scenario–you have something that’s finished, or is close to being finished, and you think about sending it out to a magazine or agent, but instead, you file it away for some later date. Maybe somewhere in the back of your mind you think that an editor will come looking for you, that one day you’ll get an e-mail or phone call from an editor asking you what you have hiding in your drawers, pleading with you to let him/her read it.


Until you become a well-published author, there’s an almost 100 percent chance that no one at a paying magazine or respectable publisher will approach you to see what unpublished work you have hiding somewhere. It does happen, but generally you have to be published for that to happen. After I published my first major travel story in Morning Calm (Korean Air’s inflight), I was approached by an Australian magazine to reprint that piece and then a local Southern California publication asked me to write for them, and to give them reprints. Other things have happened as well. But it’s been published writing that has generated that–not just being me, hiding out, waiting.

Other authors I know who have published short pieces or novels or nonfiction books are approached to submit pieces to anthologies or write essays or review books for magazines. The key, though, is that they have something of note that’s already out there.

Pen on Fire would probably still be sitting alone and ignored in my garage if I hadn’t, on my own, taken it out and given it another look.

I’m thinking of that old joke that many of you know, the one where there’s a flood and the town is evacuating all the residents and one guy says, “Nah, I’m not going. I’m waiting for God to rescue me,” so he waits and the floodwaters rise. He goes upstairs and a rowboat comes by with a rescue team aboard, and they try to convince him to join them, but he says, “Nah, I’m waiting for God to rescue me,” so the flood waters keep rising and he climbs up on his roof. A helicopter hovers above him, lowers a rope and he turns it down. “Nah, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” Of course the waters keep rising, the guy drowns and sometime later he’s in heaven and runs into God, whom he berates. “God, I depended on you and you let me down!” God says, “Hey, I sent you an evacuation notice, I sent a rowboat, I sent a helicopter–what more do you want!”

Okay, publishing is a little different than that, but you get my point (hopefully). You have to take action yourself and it may take more energy and cleverness than you think yourself capable of. But your friends and teachers and mentors who encourage you, who give you ideas, who keep you going–those people are, in effect, performing God-like acts, and you can choose to pay attention to them, or not.

Hope and perseverance

Late last night I heard from a student who said coming to class made her feel better, that she sometimes felt so downtrodden because of the need for money–she’s not yet making any money from her writing–and being among writers gave her hope.

Sometimes it seems all you have is hope. Hope can be the rope that stops you from falling.

In Pen on Fire I talk about working as a temp and how much I hated it. It was so time for me to make a living writing, yet it wasn’t happening yet. I didn’t want a career in the corporate world because that’s just not what I wanted for my life. So I kept writing fiction, took classes in nonfiction, learned how to write scripts and other types of writing that could someday bring in cold hard cash, and I maintained hope–hope that it would happen someday.

Crossing over to freelancing took more energy and focus than I ever though I was capable of, but I had to break out of the 9-5 work mode…I just had to. I met a cable TV producer at the Irvine Fine Arts Center darkroom where I developed and printed black and white photos, and he gave me a job writing a documentary on the Orange County homeless situation. It paid peanuts. I took it.

I continued to temp during the day and at night worked on the documentary, sometimes staying up all night. With the eventual tape, I got freelance jobs writing corporate scrips. Then I learned about writing press releases and doing PR and got a few freelance gigs doing that.

It took a while for the income to pick up, but eventually it did. I didn’t have connections. What I did have was perseverance. And hope. My students who begin to publish have those qualities, too. Without them, you might as well forget it.

If you’re desperate to write for publication, articles are the way—esp. business and technical articles. Don’t forget trade magazines. They pay well and need freelancers. They may not be as impressive as mainstream magazines, but they’re a great way to start getting a freelancing income going and the editors are, for the more part, delightful to work with. They appreciate you.

Getting into public relations, too, as a freelancer, where you write press releases, can be your bread and butter for a while. For a long time before I started focusing on writing for magazines, I did PR, and found it quite lucrative. After a while, the PR writing itself–not the people I worked with–became boring. But it was great money while it lasted.

Yes, talent counts, but without hope and perseverance, talent means nothing. Don’t dwell on how hard it is. Instead, write hard, learn hard, and make perseverance your middle name.

Random meanderings on a Sunday

I walked to Starbucks while my son Travis and his friend Eric accompanied me on bikes. Bought a venti chai latte, nonfat. Last week when Brian and I walked to Starbucks and I ordered my chai and he ordered black coffee, he said, “Whatever happened to large or small?”

I bought the New York Times, which I love especially on Sundays, though today I went online and ordered it to be delivered seven days a week, took my chai latte and Travis, Eric and I headed for the cliff over the beach. Eric wanted to look across the harbor at the Wedge, see if anyone was surfing there.

I looked out over the water for a few minutes, then sat and glanced at the Book Review for a minute. Then Travis wanted to go. The boys biked, I walked and thought, yes, it’s a beautiful Southern California day, but I miss the snow. Maybe we’ll have to go to New Zealand this summer to get a bit more of winter. I’m an East Coast goil, what can I say?

Then to another park where the boys rode over hills and through dirt as I read the column “Modern Love,” which made me all teary eyed, about a women meeting her son 21 years after giving him up for adoption when she was 16.

The writing inspired me. Good writing always does. We came home, the boys went out back to the garage studio for their band rehearsal and I sat in front of my iBook, opened up my draft of Starletta’s Kitchen and started futzing with what I’d written yesterday. Knitted a few inches of a sweater I’m making, then futzed some more with my draft and wrote a couple of new lines.

And I thought: It has been way too long since I’ve made an entry in my blog.

So there you have it, a late Sunday afternoon, with the front door open, music–“Dream on” by Aerosmith, sounds like–coming from out back and my work pulling me to it.

How was your Sunday? Get any writing done?

More on men

It’s so interesting, responses by men to my book. I spoke a little about it in my last post. But it continues and as it continues, it continues to baffle.

I heard from another male reader who bought Pen on Fire and book one for a friend. He didn’t mention the subtitle at all.

And I’ve been hearing from women from all over–one email just came in from the UK–who say they love the book. Some of their husbands pick it up and end up reading and using it, too.

My husband thought it was a mistake to use that subtitle. I told him to call my publisher and discuss it with them.

Titles are so very important. It’s a given. I write about titles in the book. But when I wrote that chapter on titles, I didn’t talk about subtitles. Sequel! Sequel!

But men, my book is for you, too.

Thoughts on subtitles

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Ben Yagoda published an essay called “The Subtitle That Changed America.” In the piece, he bemoans the fact that subtitles have become so important to the marketing of a nonfiction book—in publishers’ eyes, anyway.

He says, “Elongated voguish subtitles are harmless enough, but I miss the time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a book to go out into the world with only a strong title followed by a few hundred pages of outstanding writing.”

I thought of my book and its subtitle and how all of the complaints I’ve heard about my book so far have centered around the subtitle: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within.

Pen on Fire was the book’s title long before it sold to Harcourt. But the subtitle has gone through changes. I forget what it was when it sold—something about getting writing done in 15 minutes portions. But the marketing department worked on the subtitle for quite a while, hoping that it would help to draw certain readers, namely women.

I agreed to a great extent with Yagoda who says, “Nobody really notices subtitles. They are a sort of lottery ticket in the economics of nonfiction book marketing.”

Yet, when I began to hear the complaints—mostly from women who felt they couldn’t recommend the book to men because of the subtitle, I started to fret. I don’t want men to avoid the book because they think it’s a book for women.

I talked about this with Chris Baty, author of No Plot? No Problem! He said he was recommending my book all over the place, to men and women because the subtitle to him meant I was the busy woman and it was my guide. I love his take on it.

And so I’m curious: Do you pay attention to subtitles? How important are they? Did my subtitle put off–or attract–anyone, male or female?


In the introduction to a small but fat block-shaped book called, fittingly, The Writer’s Block by Jason Rakulak, the authors talks about all the contradictory advice he offers in the book, and I quite like that, and agree.

It’s so easy to get stuck in the rules or the way that it is. And it’s comforting to know that there’s pretty much not just one way to write or to be a writer.

He says, “Frederick Forsyth says, ‘Write about what you know,’ and Ken Kesey says, ‘Write about what you don’t know.’ Isak Dinesen let her characters run wild and ‘take over’ the story. Vladimir Nabokov refers to his characters as ‘galley slaves.’ Ernest Hemingway says talent is a necessity; Gordeon Lish says talent is irrelevant. The contradictions go on and on and on and on.”

Don’t they, though?

Some writers get up and write first thing, others grab minutes here and there during the day, and yet others write at night.

Some of us do first drafts on computers, others are addicted to–ahem–Moleskines and longhand.

And some need a room of their own while others can write amidst distraction and mayhem.

For all of you starting out, or straying along the way, feel comforted to know there are so many different routes to the same destination.

The main thing–and I must have said this already a zillion times in my lifetime–is to do it. Get the words down.