Monday, September 22, 2014

Writer Poll: How Do You Find Community?

Freelancers’ Union recently unveiled a new feature on their site called Hives. The intent is to give freelancers a place to connect, support one another, and discuss every aspect of the freelancing life. Freelancers’ Union encourages members to use the Hives to “talk, form groups, organize events, share videos and photos, and meet up with hundreds of thousands of freelancers.”

This got us thinking. Writing is notoriously a lonely job, and freelance writing can be even more so. So we polled our writers to find out what they do to build community, and we got some ingenious responses.

Unions and Workshops
Robert Woodcox is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, as well as the Writers Guild, a writers’ labor union, which he finds is good for discussing political action, financial issues, and other writer-relevant topics that aren’t about the writing process itself.

Temma Ehrenfeld has run a monthly poetry workshop in her home for ten years, where she, a professional editor, and a grant writer read their own and others' poetry. She also has a friend who texts her most days telling her what creative projects he's worked on that day, and asking what she’s accomplished. She finds it’s good to be kept accountable: “Just having to report on what I've done helps,” she says.

Meet Ups
Sheila Lewis organizes “writing dates” with a buddy or two. “Barnes & Noble cafe is a favorite venue, and we reward ourselves with a break for novel browsing,” she says. Sometimes she’ll connect with others at a “destination writing” spot, like the Atrium near Lincoln Center. “Take it offline when you can—at the gym, the JCC, the Y, a school, church, synagogue, or weird hobby group. When you're with real people, something magical and synchronistic happens.”

Catherine Dold is part of a Colorado group called “Boulder Media Women,” which has been going strong for twenty-four years. The group, which started out as informal meetups of a few freelancers, has grown to more than 500 people who get together for Friday morning coffees, monthly potlucks, and Tuesday evening schmoozes.

Shared Space (Physical or Digital)
The Writers Room popped up several times, with several writers saying that the shared work space is where they go to find community.

Sarah Greesonbach stays in touch with other freelance writers and entrepreneurs through Facebook groups and blogs. “These groups give me a good opportunity to ‘check in’ with others throughout the day when I want to, and to not engage when I'm not in the mood.”

None of the Above
Alex Dwyer finds that he simply doesn’t interact with many other writers—and he’s fine with that. “Perhaps its the millennial work/life balancer in me, but I fully enjoy the four-hour blocks when I write in solitude. In non-writing hours, I do non-writing things and interact with all kinds of folks in other facets of life, but I relish and am protective of my solitary writing time.”

Do you have a different method for creating community? Let us know in the comments!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Seven Books to Inspire Your Writing

Got a bad case of the end of summer blues? Or just feeling stuck in a writing rut? One of the best ways we have found to get re-inspired is to read some of our favorite books on writing. So for all of you laboring to dive into your post-Labor Day work-load , here’s a handy guide to seven of our go-to collections of words of wisdom.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
"Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a land mine. The land mine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces back together. Now, it's your turn. Jump!"

This book, a collection of reflective essays, and is essentially Bradbury’s love letter to writing. It’s exuberant, joyful, and incredibly invigorating.

On Writing by Stephen King
This one is practically obligatory. Not just because it is penned by one of the most prolific and gripping writers of the last half century – but also because of how revealing King is about his own struggles with the craft.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
This book is a little more about the actual mechanics of writing, focusing on grammar and punctuation. Halfway between how-to and humor, this hilarious book will nurture your inner grammar nerd.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' …This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

The witty, insightful, generous Anne Lammott shares many incredibly useful pointers like this one about how to get through the day-to-day process of writing and living.

Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Kleon’s little handbook took off a few years ago – and for good reason. It boils a lot of thought down into some simple, applicable truths about the creative process. If you don’t feel like buying the book, take a look at the Ted Talk, which contains all the same information (and is free!).

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
A classic. Any writer worth his salt will have at least skimmed this beauty – it’s pretty much unavoidable if you’ve received an English degree from any accredited university.

Insert your favorite book here
There’s nothing like reading a piece of writing that you find truly incredible to show you what words can do when used correctly. Reading your favorite book can remind you why you started writing in the first place.

We hope these help! Let us know what books you find inspiring in the comments.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Write Spot: A Survey of NYC’s Best Writing Havens

A recent listicle on the best places to read in New York got us thinking that it would be nice to have a similarly handy guide to the best places to write. Luckily for us, we know a few wordsmiths or two to consult. So we polled our network to find out their favorite fortresses of scribbling solitude.

Here’s a quick travelogue of the top nominees, which we hope will be useful to New York vets and occasional visitors alike. (P.S. Stay tuned this fall for guides to other cities.)

The Writers Room

One of the most popular answers was The Writers Room, a membership-based space created specifically for writers. Located at Astor Place and Broadway, The Writers Room has 42 partitioned desks, a writers’ reference and research library, Internet access, a kitchen/lounge, and panoramic views for inspiration. At the end of every year the covers of all the books published by members are reproduced on a celebratory cake!

Find out more about TWR here. (

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

GG friends Thomas Cook and Carla Jablonski visit the Met when they need to work. Tom visits an exhibit, and then heads to the cafeteria to work (just make sure you avoid the lunch rush). Carla likes to find an exhibit that relates to what she’s working on: “I wrote my adaptation of the Bacchae among the Ancient Greek statues, my master's thesis on 19th Century Circus in several 19th Century Paintings rooms, and a book partially set in ancient Egypt sitting beside the Temple of Dendur!”

Libraries Big and Small

Michael Laser recommends the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library at 40 West 20th Street. “They welcomed me, although I'm not blind, and I was able to write my novel there. Quieter than any cafe, and more peaceful than most other libraries. I miss it.”

Several of our other colleagues – including Michele Hollow, Thomas Cook, and Paul Marks found peace and quiet under the watchful eyes of the librarians at the the NYPL’s fabled Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street (don’t mind the tourists).

The Science, Industry and Business Library is a formula for inspiration for David Kronfeld -- a quiet, clean, convenient branch of the NYPL. Located at 188 Madison Avenue, the building is large and well outfitted with carrels and wi-fi.

Allan Leicht’s office away is the Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It’s the seating as much as the setting, Leicht reports: “It is the only library I know of that has Herman Miller adjustable mesh chairs rather than wooden or plastic. As writers know, the chair is the second most important writing tool, second only to the nap.”

Odds And Really Odds

Josh Nanberg, who does his best work when there’s a buzz around him, visits the Ace Hotel lobby. “Also, they have great coffee,” he adds. “And - for when I'm done - a killer Old Fashioned.

If you need your caffeine fix while writing, Amy Klein recommends the Aroma espresso bar on West 72nd and Broadway. “Great food, free wi-fi, outdoor space and outlets.” They also have locations in Midtown and SoHo.

Lisa Schiffren writes at home, but walks through her words while walking her dog in Palisade Park in Riverdale, along the Hudson.

And the winner for the most unorthodox nominee came from Francis Levy, who said the best place to write in peace was in a coffin show room “in the basement of a prominent NYC funeral parlor.” Words to live by, indeed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book Spotlight: Confessions of a Ghostwriter

Our friend across the pond and ghost extraordinaire Andrew Crofts is generating a lot of well-deserved buzz for his provocative new book, Confessions of a Ghostwriter, which was officially released this past Friday by Harper Collins.

With four decades of ghosting experience, and multiple best-sellers to his credit, Crofts had plenty of beans to spill. We caught up with him last week to get an inside look at his inside look and get his take on some of the tricky questions his professional confessional raises for our traditionally veiled field.

Before you click over to pick up your copy, check out our exclusive Q&A with Andrew Crofts below.

What prompted you to write this book?

Whenever people hear that I am a ghost they always say “you should write a memoir yourself” and I have always resisted, preferring to hide behind other people. Then I realized that I had been in the business for 40 years and had seen a lot of changes in the publishing world, and that I might actually have something of interest to say. At the same time I came up with a formula of “anecdotes as chapters” which I thought worked well. An enthusiastic publisher persuaded me that I was thinking along the right lines.

What sorts of ethical questions did writing this kind of book raise? How did you work through them?

There are of course many stories that I can’t tell due to confidentiality, but there are equally many that can be told as long as I change the names and obscure some of the details so that the subject cannot be identified. If I thought it would be okay to mention someone, (mainly people in the publishing world rather than the authors I wrote for), then I asked them if they were happy about it. The publisher had previously published “Confessions of a GP” (Doctor), where the problems were very similar, so there was a formula in place to deal with it.

I have also talked a lot about ghostwriting in general terms, including jobs that I auditioned for and didn’t get, that sort of thing, where there are no confidentiality conflicts.

Were you concerned that this book might impact your ability to get work in the future? What sort of precautions did you have to take?

Well, I took the precautions that I have mentioned above, but since I get two or three inquiries a day, (about a thousand a year) and seldom take on more than three books a year, I think this will probably not have a significant impact. The fact that more people will have heard of my name because of the book will probably compensate for anyone who might worry that I would write about them, (although if they read the book they would see that they were quite safe and I very much doubt I will write another book on the same lines). If anything, I suspect it will increase the inquiries I receive rather than decrease them, particularly as it is receiving very complimentary reviews in England.

Has there been any blowback from past clients?

None at all.

How did you get into ghostwriting?

I was working as a general freelance writer, straight out of school, when someone I was interviewing for a magazine told me he had been commissioned to write three books but didn’t have the time. He asked me to ghost them for him so that he would benefit from the publicity without the problem of doing the writing. He told me I could have the money from the publisher.

It seemed like such a good idea I advertised, “Ghostwriter for Hire” in the Bookseller Magazine and other people started to approach me. The next book I ghosted was “Sold” by Zana Muhsen, which was her story of being sold as a child bride in the Yemen. It went on to sell more than five million copies. After that more and more people approached me with stories, including publishers and literary agents.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in ghostwriting?

Find people and subjects that interest you and approach them with the suggestion that you help them write a book. Then just read a lot and write as well as you possibly can. Practice is everything. Put your ego on hold, nobody needs to know your thoughts and opinions, at least not in your clients’ books!

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a ghostwriter?

Just staying at the keyboard long enough to get the job done. It can be a long haul some days.

The most rewarding?

Meeting the most interesting people and getting to ask them every question I can think of, traveling to the most interesting places on Earth and being able to earn a good living as a writer.

You end your book with the line “perhaps that uncertainty is one of the reasons that make writing and publishing such interesting professions.” A lot of people seem to be in a panic these days about the future of the writing and publishing industries, you seem to have a very optimistic view of this. What would you say to someone who’s worried about where writing is going?

Don’t panic. Storytellers were around long before publishers and the craft of writing came long before the printing press. People will always need storytellers and scribes, either for education, entertainment or commercial reasons. All we have to do is work out the best way to bridge the gap between us and our audiences, and ensure that we earn a living while we do so – which basically means “business as usual”, except now there are even more options than ever before and more of the world’s population is literate than at any time in history. How can any of that be bad?

Andrew Crofts is a ghostwriter and author who has published more than eighty books, a dozen of which were Sunday Times number one bestsellers. He has also guided a number of international clients successfully through the minefield of independent publishing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Get a Six-Figure Book Deal

By Eric Nelson

Most people think the two most important ingredients are a good idea and good writing. But these are just table stakes. Those two things alone may not even get you a $15,000 deal. A good idea and good writing gets an editor's attention. But then they have to consider this as a business proposition, and they're looking for one of the four following qualities.

BIG FOLLOWING. This is where the vast majority of sixfigure deals come from, including all authors who have published books already. When you read about these people getting a six figure book deal, everyone says, "of course they did." To justify a sixfigure deal, publishers are wondering if you can sell 40,000 or more copies. So they want to see proof that you have 40,000 people or more who might buy your book. That could be an eblast list, Twitter or LinkedIn following, or a list of Facebook friends or YouTube subscribers that's bigger than 40,000 people. Ideally your following is several times that number, as the conversion rate is probably closer to 10% on average. Your following could be speaking to groups that total more than that in a year. It could be that you regularly write for an outlet where you generated three or four times that many pageviews, or appear on a broadcast where you generate ten times that many viewers or listeners. If your proof of a following is a single product--a TED talk, an oped--the audience has to be hundreds of thousands or millions because of the low conversion rate. The best proof of a following is that you've written a book that sold over 40,000 copies.

BIG SUCCESS. By this I mean that while you may not be a household name, your accomplishments are. This means you are a person who has been the subject of lengthy profiles in national publications. Usually that's a celebrity: actor, athlete, musician, or a politician. But it can also be something everyone would recognize as a big deal, even if they don't recognize your name: Google executive, astronaut, Nobel prize winner, life-saving hero, and so forth. If you think you are really important in the world you come from, but you have never had had an article about you in a big circulation publication (Time, Rolling Stone, Gawker, Wall Street Journal) your success is not the kind of success I'm talking about.

BIG BUZZ. This requires a consensus of expert opinion. Think of it like a first round draft pick. He may not be famous yet, but by the time the draft comes around, "everyone" knows he will be. If you fell like you are the next big thing, that's not good enough. If your big deal friend says you are the next big thing, that's not good enough. You need every big deal person in your area to know you're the next big thing. This is the point of getting famous people to blurb the book. But the point isn't to show that you know famous people. It's to lend credibility to the story you're telling about how quickly this consensus is forming around you. This is usually where big fiction deals come from, as by the time the editor presents the book to her team, it feels like the whole in-the-know literary world is buzzing about the book. (It's not uncommon to see the movie rights to a six figure fiction debut were sold before the actual book was sold.) Not only does your proposal need to make you sound like the next Seth Godin, Seth Godin himself has to already be telling people that, too.

BIG PRESTIGE. This is the least likely way to get six figures, but it's still possible. There are certain things that can help you get to a big deal, even if you're not famous, don't have a big following, and have not been on the subject of fawning profiles. Those things are: Pulitzers, academic book prizes, major grants, long fellowship titles, proximity to political power, and so forth. The hope, for the publisher, is that the author's previous accomplishments will turn into excellent media coverage, and a manuscript that makes year end best-of lists and book prize shortlists, and that will provide the following.

If you're not in one of these four categories, is it impossible for you to get a six figure deal? No, but it's far more likely you're going to get a five figure deal (or for fiction, a four figure deal) if you get a deal at all. Most of the six figure deals that don't fit this are because the editor mistakenly THOUGHT the book belonged in one of these categories, but didn't realize this author wasn't as prestigious or successful as they'd hoped.

At least if you want to get a six figure deal, now you know what you need to do to dramatically increase your odds.

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spookage 101: Decoding the CIA Style Guide

By Michael Long

So the world recently learned that the CIA has a style guide, one that leans to simplicity and precision, eschewing the PC-pretzel-making of the AP rules (“Avoid sexist pronouns by twisting the sentence into ambiguous nonsense,”) and the lurid examples one might expect from spooks (“Remember: Blood first pools, then congeals.”). Aside from the whole thing being written in lemon juice and viewable only over a candle flame, the CIA style guide is a model of straightforwardness and propriety—imagine the shading of Strunk & White if Strunk were a political analyst and White were good with the knife.

If the thing is surprising in any way, it is in its common sense: Keep the language crisp and pungent; favor the active voice; let nouns and verbs show their own power. That’s just good advice no matter who you are. Enforce this little powerhouse in high school and four years later you might see college freshmen whose paragraphs look more like paragraphs and less like texts written on the freeway. Love or hate the CIA, it’s clear that someone up in that thing loves words.

What the pamphlet lacks, however, is a true guide to CIA style—you know: styyyyyle. Herewith, proposed additions:

· Never iron your trench coat. Wrinkles make you look mysterious.
· Wear a trilby, not a fedora. And never a cloche—this isn’t Gilligan’s Island.
· When beating a suspect, bruises go below the neckline, not above.
· For interrogations after Labor Day, avoid wearing white.
· The password is never “swordfish.”
· Take August off.
· Traffic around Langley always looks bad. Don’t be intimidated. It is mostly cardboard cars maintained to scare off visitors. Drive around them.
· Although you can’t speak Spanish just by adding –o to every word, it will get you pretty far in Juarez.
· If you need a safe house in LA, call Jimmy Kimmel. He’s one of us.
· Remember: Shoot right-handed, stab left.

Michael Long, a longtime GG friend, is a writer and speechwriter living about eight miles from CIA headquarters.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Emperors Need Not Apply

by David Murray

At the first World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association in May, the notion surfaced of a "speechwriter's code of ethics." The notion struck me as both intellectually intriguing, and a promising concept for an article in The Onion.

I was put in mind of the idea yesterday, when I read writer Amy Westervelt's public vow to stop writing "content" for companies, in part because "I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are. Yeah, I said it."

Westervelt decries the "usual 'let them eat cake' attitude corporate types have toward creative types in general ('I know! Why don’t we hire a journalist to write this think-piece? They’re all desperate for cash, they’d be happy to take this on for way less than we pay anyone else.')"

She continues:

It’s not that I don’t see the value in executives writing about their perspectives and their work. I’ve worked with plenty of really smart CEOs (that’s why I took these gigs in the first place), and their take on things is interesting and well worth a read, especially in business publications. I’d just prefer to see them writing more of it themselves (okay maybe with some help—let’s face it, not everyone can string sentences together convincingly), and sticking to their own areas of expertise. ... These pieces should flow naturally as an outgrowth of a person’s experience and expertise, they should not be a whole additional job for either the executive or, as is the case now, the person they hire to impersonate them. The trouble really begins when marketing departments and PR firms push CEOS for a blog post a week—that’s something no CEO worth his or her corner office has time for, nor should they—and when they get sucked into thinking they need to philosophize on topics well outside their purview.

In theory, she's right. As a writer and just as a citizen, it's bad to live in a media marketplace where underpaid (and under-experienced) writers are inventing brilliant messages for CEOs in compliance with a command that a speechwriter once called, "Write down my ideas as if I had them."

But the reality is, we don't live in such a world. Yet. (Do we?) In the world I live in, anyway, CEOs are frustratingly reluctant pundits who don't hire starving journalists to write their speeches, op/eds and blog posts, but who use speechwriters to do so. When CEOs give the speechwriters access to their calendars and to their minds, they wind up looking as interesting in public as they are in person, and slightly more polished. When they shut their speechwriter out, they wind up spouting platitudes that no one listens to.

What they definitely don't do is mouth compelling or influential ideas conceived by writers out of whole cloth.

I understand Westervelt's decision to "never again pen a 'thought leadership' piece or a corporate blog post." I appreciate the freedom she feels by declaring that she'll "refuse to have even one more conversation in which I explain to a publicist or CEO why I will not connect them with editors I know, or why it would be impossible for their 'contributed content' to appear in The New Yorker. I can’t take it anymore."

Good for Westervelt.

But just because CEOs are often dopey about media and thoughtless about communication ... well, that doesn't mean they don't deserve communication counsel. It means they deserve better, and more assertive counsel. That will come not from journalists taking a content gig to make a buck, but from people—among them ex-journalists—who have given themselves over much more fully to the task of making good leadership communication.

"Maybe if we all jump off the 'content' bandwagon," Westervelt concludes a bit pollyannaishly, "maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought leaders in the media, and actually be thought leaders. You know, in their actual industries, writing one or two really thoughtful, great pieces per year."

Well, that would be totally awesome. But it's probably not going to happen. And if it does, it won't be because one or many struggling journalists stopped ghostwriting for CEOs.

No, an improvement in leadership communication will happen when a few serious speechwriters begin having honest conversations with their CEOs, about thought leadership, which—Wetervelt's right—you don't farm out to a freelancer. —DM

(This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches.)