(COVID) Times, They are A’Changin’… For Writers

Sac free library

Little Free Library, Sacramento, CA

The New Normal

Times are changing, for sure. Life is most certainly different as a result of this pandemic. Same ol, same old isn’t anymore. Everywhere I go, I hear the phrase “this is the new normal.” We all have been changed by this virus, internally and externally, personally and globally. How it affects writers has been nothing short of upheaval, including the sad news of a huge loss to the writing world. Last week we lost Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a prolific writer with an uncommon knack for vivid storytelling. His collection of books, including The Shadow of the Wind, (which I’ve mentioned in a previous blog) excited and intrigued me in a way I’d not experienced since I’d read the Neither Wolf Nor Dog trilogy. I recently re-read that book, devouring every page with gleeful delight; it is now a permanent part of my home collection.

I discovered the slightly ragged copy in a Little Free Library in midtown Sacramento. The box in the pic is where I actually found his book, among many others that have provided me with amazing trips down Imagination Lane. Best idea ever, these Little Free Libraries (littlefreelibrary.org for a location near you). For writers, it’s free advertising!

Welcome to The Digital Life

Where are we headed? Into new territory, for many, but familiar for others. Social distancing has forced writers to find new avenues for marketing their works. Some of the safe-distancing options are digital (eBooks), audio (Audible), podcasting (storytelling and reading to audience), and FB groups (among other popular SM).

For those of us not quite comfortable with the digital life (that would be me), I have to think about how to be creative in this new world. Instead of pushing the book itself, I recently decided to turn it into an online course so I can teach the concepts in the book. What better way to get people excited about their health than to actually have me walk them through the information? Since my book is a non-fiction, it’s a no-brainer. I’m a lively speaker and reader, so I know students will enjoy learning along with me. Better retention and they’ll feel they got their money’s worth; win-win.

Oh, The Choices

Options for fiction works may differ; for example, poets can offer a poetry class. Have you considered whether you could teach someone else how to write something? Do you have a degree in Journalism, English, or Communications? The digital life is now in full swing as millennials and many others take advantage of not only the social distancing aspect but also prices for online classes – they’re greatly reduced and there’s a multitude from which to choose.

Maybe you need to brush up on your MLA style or grammar and syntax in your sentences. Maybe you need help with plots and characters. Or writing a mystery. Or a comedy/farce. Whatever your need as a writer, online classes can surely fill it. Lots of experts out there so find classes taught by people with experience and know-how. Yes, we are smart to learn from our own experiences but it is the wise (wo)man who learns from the experiences of others.

Times are certainly changing; adaptability is key to not getting caught behind. Survival of the fittest, Darwin postulated. Change can be a good thing, if you’re willing to go along for the ride.

One Story, Two Story, Three!

writing graphic

As is usual, I’ve spent part of this afternoon trying to figure out the topic for my next blog post. Needing inspiration, I checked my professional email for ideas because I often send myself links to interesting and/or informative articles from Writers Digest and other literary sources.

Bingo.

Halfway down my professional email list is a link to an article on the art of writing spin-offs. It’s an informative article on how to get more than one angle/story from a particular topic. It’s a way to maximize the information you gather on a story and leads you to other avenues, thereby creating multiple stories and more income.

Of course, you submit these spin-offs to different magazines, depending on the angle of the story. Be careful not overlap the information; keep the angles separate and unique. Make sure to pitch to noncompeting publications. 

“Travel writers often write about the same location from different perspectives. Freelancer Valentina Valentini wrote about The Gravediggers Pub in Dublin for BBC Travel. She traced the history of the pub and its owners, steering clear of the ghost stories associated with it. Later, she pitched the haunted history to Atlas Obscura.”

Dinsha Sachan, The Art of Spin-Offs: Freelance Article Ideas at Writers Digest

This reminds me of two of my previous posts: 1) Bad Choices = Good Stories (if you missed it, read here) written back in 2017, and 2) A Writing Life (On the Road) in 2016 (read here). Travel pieces, for example, can offer a multitude of angles because so many historical places are popular with travelers. You can focus on eco-tourism in one article for a travel magazine; historical context in another article for an historical magazine; food and culture in a foodie magazine. With a little imagination, you can create multiple stories from that one topic and increase your freelance income.

“Sometimes a news piece can sow the seeds for a broader trends feature.” Dinsha Sachan

“One story often leads entirely to another; both are different, and yet intricately linked.” Kamala Thiagarajan, an India-based freelance journalist

Researching a topic will often provide ample opportunities to explore different angles. Even if one avenue seems to go nowhere, don’t be afraid to explore it. You never know where it might lead. Perhaps to that writing life on the road, after all.

Expert Advice

expert advice

Source: Google Images/amazon.com

Listen to The Expert

My professional Inbox contained an interesting article this morning from The Book Designer blog. Written by author and former marketing consultant Brandon Cornett, his article made some good points. While I’ve read most of his how-to advice in other articles, one in particular stuck with me:

“Blog about your genre or niche. If you want to attract the kinds of readers who will buy your books, you should be blogging about those topics.”

Hmmm….

When I started this blog, I figured the focus had to be on writing (genre, research, editing, books, etc.), from an author’s perspective. It didn’t occur to me that I could write posts on a topic in my expertise (which is not necessarily writing). For example, posts regarding my nonfiction book on Chinese nutrition therapy, which I have reserved for my professional FB page (that I’ve ignored much in the past two years). I feel Mestengo Books is not the place to post alternative medicine articles but I certainly can provide some information on where Chinese nutrition therapy is now and where it’s going in the future. After all, I’m an expert (of sorts), right?

“In either scenario, fiction or nonfiction, you’re basically funneling your passion and knowledge into website content that will attract like-minded readers.” 

“But the bulk of your posts should be related to the genre or topic you write about. This will help you boost your book sales over time.” – Brandon Cornett

Some “Experts” are Clueless

In another article, author Anne R. Allen, a satirical writer, posted a vent about “clueless advice givers” – you know, the folks who think they’re experts but aren’t – and who talk like they know when they don’t (and scoff at you when you try to clue them in) . This has always been one of my pet peeves (I’m up against it far too often in any discussion about herbal medicines). I refer to those people as “armchair experts.” It’s a lack of knowledge in a particular area (but a desire to have that knowledge) combined with ignorance, giving the person a false sense of power. There’s actually a name for this: The Dunning-Kruger Effect (1999). (You can look it up but I think it’s ironic that it took so long for two college kids to name a behavior that’s been around for as long as we humans have, probably.)

How Do Others See You?

My business coach routinely refers to me as an expert (in Chinese medicine) though I am hesitant to wear that moniker. A point in my favor is that I have climbed that mountain (five years of didactic and clinical training plus years of clinical work) to reach the top, to become the expert. Many folks dream about being at the top of the mountain without having to first climb, an obviously impossible feat (and looks spectacularly similar to that Dunning-Kruger Effect).

So now I’m thinking about posting an article from time to time that has more to do with nutrition therapy itself and/or the writing of a nonfiction book. Maybe I can write about the research process and how to put it together in a chapter or book. Brandon’s expert advice on blogging about my genre or niche opened my eyes.

Every now and then, everyone needs an expert to do just that.

Writers, What Do You Read?

books and coffee
Source: pexels.com

It’s known in the world of writing that all good writers make time to read. Some voraciously, some in between their own works or when taking a break from their writing. Do you read in the same genre as what you write? Or do you step outside of your knowledge or comfort zone to expand your mind and imagination?

Find Your Faves

Late last year I got hooked on novels by bestselling author Daniel Silva (along with David Baldacci & Carlos Ruiz Zafón). To sum it up, he’s absolutely brilliant. Doesn’t hurt that he has a background in journalism and international relations (talk about ‘write what you know’). He writes the most powerful spy/action novels; better than any Tom Clancy novel, in my opinion (and not the least bit dry as John Le Carré). Last year, I picked up a copy of The English Girl in the “New” section of the local library; ironically, I didn’t feel strongly about the protagonist or the story line. Yet something drew me back. I read a few more of his novels and now I’m hooked. I just finished Prince of Fire and will request another of his books soon. Luckily, there are still at least a half dozen of his books to read. I also just finished the latest by Craig Johnson (famous for the former Netflix show Longmire), Land of Wolves, another can’t-put-it-down kind of book. I’m about to read (again) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón; you simply MUST read it, as it’s unlike any book I’ve read before (and don’t forget to read the other three books in this series!).

Gaining Perspective

Reading these books are mainly for my entertainment (and escape) but somewhere along the way I began looking at them from a writer’s perspective. Then an editor’s. And back to a writer’s. This process has melded with my love of reading and helped me to better understand how to build scenes, create dialogue, and craft suspense in a way that keeps one turning the pages (compelling). I make mental notes of words I’d like to use in my writing, including some I have to look up because either I haven’t used them in a long time or I don’t know what they mean.

Yet all this reading has not affected what I write. What I mean by that is I haven’t changed style or genre simply because I enjoy reading mostly crime novels. I enjoy a variety in my reading; the same goes for my writing. Which probably explains my affinity for both fiction and nonfiction writing, even though I do not tend toward more than the very occasional nonfiction read (I think it’s because I’m reminded of much-despised homework assignments.)

Does what you read affect what or how you write? Have you thought about the relationship between the two, if there is one? Does reading for entertainment enlighten you as a storyteller? Does writing open your reading options? As writers, we can appreciate a good book – whether we’ve written it or read it. So for the sake of  good stories, let’s keep writing and reading.

True Crime: Just the Facts, Ma’am

true crime1

Source: Google Images/kfgo.com

Once again, while perusing notes for a topic for this week’s blog, I came across some interesting information – on writing True Crime novels. As a fan of crime/suspense novels in general – usually fiction but also good nonfiction – I’m curious about what it takes to write a novel about a crime, usually a homicide.

One of my all-time favorite true crime novels is The Stranger Beside Me, the fascinating story of how True Crime author Ann Rule became friends with Ted Bundy, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific serial killers (they met at a suicide hotline office). I read the book while working on my BA in Psychology and Criminal Justice. My focus was the psychopathology and crime scenes of serial killers. I was fascinated by both the why and the how of these killers, which fit in with my major and minor. So I read just about every book there was to read on famous serial killers throughout the twentieth century (Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Randy Kraft, Billy Bonin, etc.) and the definitive book written by Patricia Cornwell on solving the Jack the Ripper cases (with mitochondrial DNA).

9 Tips for Writing True Crime

So how does one get started writing such a story? The late great Ann Rule, known as the queen of True Crime, grew up around it as her grandfather was a sheriff; she frequently visited him at the local jail and became fascinated with the why. Here are nine tips she recommends, in addition to going to the trial, if it’s a current crime you’re researching:

  1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
  2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.
  3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
  4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
  5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.”
  6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
  7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.”
  8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
  9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

Finding the Right Case, Doing the Research

Since not just any case will work out as a good read, it’s important to find a cast of characters that will engage and enthrall your readers. Research is paramount; it can possibly take a year or more of interviews (witnesses, law enforcement, prosecutors, etc.), researching paper and online records, and reviewing forensic evidence, police reports and other facets of evidence that’s public (not all evidence will be made public due to certain restrictions such as classified information, trade secrets, etc.). Access to trial evidence can also be costly, maybe $3-6/page for a 2400 page manuscript! (Check your local courts for printing fees.) And, a current crime may necessitate you attend court; getting a press pass is the surer way to reserve a seat.

Conducting interviews are time-consuming but vital to the storyline. As a way to protect yourself from legal liabilities, it’s best to have the interviewees sign an Interview Release form. Otherwise, you leave yourself open to lawsuits claiming defamation of character or invasion of privacy. Record the interview to ensure you properly quote the person.

FOIA: A Necessary Tool

When you need information that can’t be readily obtained, the next step is to write a Freedom of Information (FOIA) letter. These letters can be sent to any agency to request records but not all records are public. Check your state laws on which records are public. With police records, for example, much of the information is public: cleared suspects, witness interviews, crime scene photos, 911 tapes, and maybe even warrants. You can request paper or digital format (they may or may not comply) but remember there are always fees (find out just how much the records cost up front) and turn around time depends on the length and/or quantity of documents you’re requesting. 

Protect Yourself From Copyright Issues

Copyright issues may collide with your FOIA requests, so be aware. Certain records, like evidence not used at trial (i.e., email or text messages) may have copyright protection. The best way to avoid copyright and other legal issues is to have a lawyer review your manuscript before you submit it to any agency. 

Want to get started writing true crime? Try your hand at true crime articles first; submit to true detective magazines, get a feel for writing nonfiction. Like in the 1950s show, Dragnet, it’s all about “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”