Hey—I’m Usually the One Asking the Questions

As a freelance writer, I’m usually the one asking the questions and scribbling down the answers in a form of shorthand only I can decipher.

But every now and then, someone asks to interview me about writing, publishing, marketing books, or putting together a magazine. I hold a firm belief that we writers have a duty and obligation to help young and emerging writers, so I agree to the interview, if time allows.

That’s how it happened late last year. I was contacted by Deyse Bravo, a librarian at McKee Library on the campus of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. She asked me to answer just four questions related to my writing journey, and I obliged. I came across our correspondence this morning, and after reading over my answers, I thought, perhaps, her questions paired with my answers may be of some benefit to my blog readers. I’ve pasted the text of the interview below. Enjoy!

Deyse: What are you working on now?

Amber: As a freelance writer, I have piles of works in progress on my desk throughout the year. Even though it is the end of summer, I am working on articles for the fall and winter issues of magazines. For example, I just completed “The Great Pumpkin,” for Sea Island Life Magazine’s fall issue. I’m almost finished with “Oh Christmas Tree,” an article GEORGIA Magazine will publish in December about the experience of going to a Christmas tree farm to find and cut a tree. And I’m trying to find a magazine editor interested in an article I wrote about growing pecan trees, harvesting pecans, and creating Southern pecan-based delicacies like pecan pie and pecan divinity (Note: I sold the pecan article to GRIT Magazine shortly after the interview. It will appear in their November/December 2016 issue). I pitch ideas to editors several times a month, so that type of work (idea development and sending out query letters) is always ongoing.

At the computer...

At the computer…

I still promote Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), and because I sincerely believe everyone has a keepsake and every keepsake has a story to tell, I continue my quest to help people write and share stories about keepsakes. I haven’t decided whether I will publish a second volume of keepsake stories yet, however, I still continue sharing these magical stories on my blog and through social media.

I facilitate workshops on freelance writing, writing family stories, writing about keepsakes, and other topics. I’m in the process of making my workshops available via podcasts and through interactive web conferencing. Writing is a business, and you have to constantly strive to be relevant and reach readers and paying clients. It’s the only way to make money in the business, unless you are a Rick Bragg, Stephen King, or Anne Lamont, who I am not.

I am also working on a novel with the working title, Daylily. I’ve reached into my background as an engineer for inspiration. My story begins with a horrific industrial accident that takes a man’s life. My main character, a female engineer working in the facility, is blamed for the accident. My story drifts through its arc as the main character runs away to a daylily farm to regain her sanity and figure out how to clear her name. I’ve always been a nonfiction writer, and writing fiction has been somewhat of a challenge for me. I’ve joined a critique group to help me progress through the writing process and get feedback. I hope to have a first draft of Daylily completed by spring next year (Note: I didn’t make my deadline. I’m still working on the novel).

Deyse: How have libraries been a part of your life?

Amber: I credit the public library in Warner Robins, Georgia with planting the “book fever” seed in my soul. Growing-up, I was drawn to books, especially picture books with their whimsical words and illustrations. I loved the way books felt in my little-girl hands and the way the pages smelled. I loved my hometown’s public library, which was connected to our local gym and recreation department. A trip to basketball practice was always followed by a quick visit to the adjoining library. I remember browsing the shelves, collapsing onto the floor to flip through the first pages of books, the mechanical stamping sound the librarian’s machine made that transferred the due dates to the the library card, the hush-hush silence of the library that contrasted with the loudness of the basketball gym and the recreation department’s pool room, and most of all, I remember the euphoria of skipping to the car with an armful of books.

I wanted to share the joy of the reading experience with others, so as a little girl, I often crawled under my family’s dining room table with my stash of library books and read them to a captive audience of disheveled dolls and thread bare stuffed animals.

As a teenager, I spent after-school hours at the library with friends. I grew up in a time before personal computers and the Internet, so the library was my lifeline for research. I also enjoyed plucking novels from the shelves and reading great works such as A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Catcher in the Rye. I feasted on the quirky tales of Flannery O’Connor and felt a special bond with her.

At some point during my childhood and teen years, my attraction to stories and my appetite for reading evolved into the desire to write, but I did not pursue a career in writing—not then. I was a child who possessed strong math skills and an insatiable love of science, so I was herded toward a career in engineering. I tucked my dreams of writing away for several years. But again, it all started at the library.

After my book, Project Keepsake was released in 2014, several libraries around Georgia and Alabama invited me to speak at their “Friends of the Library” meetings and events about the book, storytelling, writing, and keepsakes. I’ve really enjoyed discovering new libraries tucked away on the backroads of Georgia. I was in Hazlehurst, Georgia last week for a book signing, and when I stepped into the Jeff Davis Public Library, the familiar aroma of books greeted me like an old friend.

Deyse: What is your favorite book and why?

Amber: My favorite book is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As a child of the South, so much of Lee’s novel resonates with me—the sultry summer days of the South, the curiosity and mischief of children, the dialogue, the lovable, charismatic members of the community, the unfathomable cruelty of racial injustice, etc. I had never seen myself and my life portrayed in literature until I read Ms. Lee’s masterpiece as a young adult, and it shook me to my core. She so eloquently defined my dilemma—my struggle of loving and admiring my homeland and my beloved family, even though the ugliness of racism whirls around me every day. Just as Scout tries to make sense of it all, I’ve spent an entire lifetime trying to reconcile the differences in my head. Strong writing. Strong story. Strong message. I still cry when I read it, and yes, I read it every few years and savor it like a glass of fine muscadine wine.

Deyse: Any advice for today’s college students?

Amber: I have lots of advice for aspiring writers. I’ve written lots of motivational and informational posts for writers on my blog at www.ambernagle.com. For beginning writers, I recommend “The Reality of Writing” and “Hook, Line, and Sinker”.

Here are a few of my general tips:

  1. Read. Read volumes. Read all sorts of material. Reading will make you a better writer.
  2. Write. Write a lot. Put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys) and write fearlessly. Make time to write and write!
  3. Find a tribe of writers and contribute—ask for help from those with experience and offer assistance to those you can help.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by rejection or failure. Just smile and know that it is part of the journey and all writers go through it. I often tell students in my workshops that they will never hit a home run if they don’t step up to the plate and swing.
  5. If you fail at something (and you will), learn the lessons from the experience, put the experience behind you, and move forward.

The Art of the Interview

I should sit down one day and calculate how many people I’ve interviewed in the last nine years. It would be a large number.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Raymond King before he died. From the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner, he talked to me for thirty minutes about his life and his philosophy of giving back to the community. After the interview was over, he pushed himself up with a groan, grabbed his cane, and asked me to follow him into the back yard. He struggled to raise a garage door revealing an antique car—his pride and joy. He told me all about it. I have a soft place in my heart for sweet, old men, and so that day stands out in my mind.

Interviewing

I also think back to an interview with US Senator Lamar Alexander. He and I talked about nuclear power. I forgot I was working. I was so interested in the topic and in what Senator Alexander had to say, that I entered into a personal conversation with him. I wrote that article in record time.

I love those moments when I make an instant connection with the person I am interviewing. I love to see the world through their eyes, if even for just a moment. I had that experience when I interviewed the History Channel’s survivor superstar, Alan Kay, two weeks ago. I lobbed a beautiful question for Kay, and he knocked it out of the park.

I said, “I’ve heard that servicemen returning from combat often find it difficult to assimilate back into their routine lives when they return from a combat zone. After your fifty-six days alone on Vancouver Island, did you find it difficult to return home?”

There was a pause, and then Kay gave me what I was looking for. He talked about how his experience had deepened his awareness of life and purpose, and how he wanted to scream warnings to humanity when he returned. I can’t share his specific answer because the article won’t be published until October (Get Out Chattanooga Magazine), but Kay’s response was writer’s gold.

Here are some general tips for getting the most out of an interview.

  1. Do Your Research. Before you talk to the person you are interviewing, do some general research and draft a few warm up questions from your research.
  2. Minimize Yes or No Questions. I always try to form my questions so that the person will give me lots of meat on the bone. For example, instead of asking, “Did you enjoy your experience on Vancouver Island?” I asked, “What were two of the most memorable moments during your time on Vancouver Island?” Asking more open-ended questions will allow the person to elaborate beyond a simple yes or no answer.
  3. Make a Connection. Find common ground with the person you are interviewing and build from that common ground. For example, I recently interviewed volunteers who rescue dogs from a local shelter. After the introductions, I said, “I’m excited about writing this article. I love dogs, and in the past, I, too, have been involved with animal rescue.” Their faces lit up, and they opened up to me.
  4. Ask for the Story. Depending on who I am interviewing, I often have a lot of success asking the person, “So what’s the story here? Why should readers care?” I get lots of interesting responses to this question. I also ask them to tell me about a particular event or experience that can lead into the story—an anecdote—that will draw my readers in.
  5. Ask Followup Questions. Sometimes when a person has a really great answer to a question, I say, “Tell me a little more about that. Give me more detail.”
  6. Send Questions in Advance. Sometimes, I send my questions in advance. This allows people to check details and think about what they want to say and how they want to say it. I never send them all of my questions, but I send a few so that they won’t feel anxious about talking to me.
  7. Mine for Different Angles. I don’t want my article to sound like other articles, and so I often look for different approaches. As I was preparing to interview survivalist Alan Kay, I read many articles that other writers had already published. I was determined to present “a different story,” and so I focused on Kay’s survival tips and the psychological toll that living off the land in total isolation for fifty-six days took on him, and how he kept his sanity. My article is different than the other content, and that’s a good thing.

There are other tips writers use to get the most out of interviews. I invite you to leave a comment telling me what works best for you. As always, I appreciate your stopping by my website.

Join Me in Celebrating Pi Day


Pi Day is this coming Saturday.

I first learned of Pi when I was in middle school. Math, up to that point, had been pretty straight forward—adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, calculating hypotenuses of triangles, etc. But then one day, the teacher drew a circle on the chalkboard and started labeling certain points around the circle. At the 3 o’clock position, she wrote “0.” At the 9 o’clock position, she wrote, “π“. When she reached 3 o’clock again, she wrote “2π.” She called it the Unit Circle and explained radians to us, as about half of my classmates began to have what best can be described as math seizures. Hands shot up left and right with questions. Eyes rolled back into heads. I heard the “thuds” of a dozen or more heads slamming into desktops. Friends gave other friends puzzled looks as if they were telepathically communicating the message, “WTF” to one another.

Pi Day is Saturday, march 14, 2015. Let's write Pi stories.

Pi Day is Saturday, march 14, 2015. Let’s write Pi stories.

I, too, was a little confused at first, but my young mind knew that math was about to get really interesting, and it did. Pi and I became fast friends that day.

Pi (π) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which happens to be just a little over 3—3.14159265359 and it goes on and on and on. It’s a constant, meaning that for all circles of any size, Pi will always be the same.

Pi Day is celebrated on March 14th, because the date is often annotated as 3-14 or 3/14. Get it?

So here’s my Pi Day challenge for my writer friends. This week, I challenge you to write a story in exactly 314 words and post your story in my comments. Can you do it? And if you are feeling really bold, post a longer Pi story with exactly 3,141 words and post to my comments.

Come on! Let’s join the math nerds this year and celebrate Pi.

I’ll post my Pi story on Saturday, March 14, 2015. Stay tuned.

And as always, I invite you to venture over to my other website at www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

The Reality of Writing

Think you can’t learn anything from watching reality television? Think again. These six reality television shows offer lots of lessons for professional and aspiring writers.

In 2009, the ever-so-uncoordinated Steve Wozniak appeared on Dancing with the Stars, proving that with a little practice, anyone can learn to dance. With practice, anyone can learn to write.

DANCING WITH THE STARS
Airs on ABC
I’ve only watched ABC’s Dancing with the Stars once or twice, but the lesson is simple: With practice and determination, even the most uncoordinated among us can learn to do the Tango. The same is true of writing. Few of us are born with the knowledge and natural ability to sit down and compose the next bestselling novel. However, writing can be learned and improved through the simple acts of writing and revising. Want to be a better writer? Practice, just like the celebrities do on Dancing with the Stars. Work on the elements of good writing. Study great writers and their works. Never give up. And always give it your best shot.
—Lesson from Dancing with the Stars: Practice, practice, practice!

SHARK TANK
Airs on ABC
During ABC’s Shark Tank, entrepreneurs and inventors stand in front of a panel of five millionaire sharks and offer them opportunities to invest in their budding companies. Though brief, these entertaining presentations are designed to wow the sharks and entice a few of them to make strong partnership offers. Each entrepreneur’s pitch covers what their product is, how they’ve sold it to customers, their profit margins, their sales volume, and their plans for future growth.

Shark Tank pitches are similar to the pitches I send to magazine editors each and every day through query letters. I start my letters with a strong hook paragraph designed to grab an editor’s attention. I outline why my idea is a perfect fit for their magazine. I define the word count of my article, what I will include in the piece, and when I can send them the finished product. I also include a little about myself and why I am the perfect writer to write the article. My letters are both professional and entertaining.

Want to amp up your pitches to editors, agents, and publishers? Watch an episode or two of Shark Tank and pay special attention to how each entrepreneur engages the sharks. Notice all the idioms they include in their presentations.
—Lesson from Shark Tank: Make your pitches both professional and entertaining.

AMERICAN IDOL
Airs on Fox

William Hung? Not the greatest singer on the American Idol stage, but it didn't matter to him.

Remember William Hung? Not the greatest singer to perform on the American Idol stage, but it didn’t matter to him. Write because you love to write, and focus less on how well you write.

Actually, writers can learn two lessons from American Idol. We’ve all seen those contestants—those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, yet they stand in front of the judges and belt out their favorite ballad as if they have a voice like Taylor Swift or Glen Campbell. Being tone deaf doesn’t stop these contestants from singing. They love to sing, so they sing. So the first lesson from American Idol is this: If you love to write, then write. You don’t have to be the next Harper Lee or Stephen King to find immense pleasure in writing.

The second lesson from the show comes from a phrase that is batted around on almost every episode: Make it your own. Some of the contestants have a knack for taking a common song and singing it in a way that makes it sound fresh, artsy, and relevant. In writing, so many of us have similar thoughts and opinions, but we have different ways of expressing our points. The key to interesting writing is to find and unleash your unique writer’s voice. Think about what you want to say and make it your own. But remember, when you put yourself, or your writing, out there for the public to read, some people will offer up judgement, and it won’t always be positive.
—Lessons from American Idol: Write because you love to write, make your writing your own, and learn to accept criticism.

ALASKAN BUSH PEOPLE
Airs on the Discovery Channel
A film crew follows the daily lives of Billy and Ami Brown and their seven mostly-grown children, as the family lives off the land in a remote region of Alaska. For the most part, they live without the luxuries of electricity and running water. They barter. They build things. They hunt, fish, and forage for food.

The Browns work together to survive. They’re a cohesive tribe, and everyone seems to have a specialty. For example, Noah is the inventor of the backwoods bunch, and the other family members rave about his intelligence and creativity. Gabe is the powerhouse, and when the Browns face a task that calls for brute strength, Gabe is elected to take the lead. Bear climbs trees. Snowbird, the oldest daughter, is the sharp shooter of the family. They support one another and celebrate each other’s strengths.

Like the Browns, I, too, have found a tribe—a tribe of other writers. Some are authors and have books they actively promote, while others write poetry, daily Christian devotions, fan fiction, etc. A few of my friends are editors. And I even have a few writers in my tribe that freelance for magazines, like I do. We are all different with different goals, but we stick together, encourage one another, and help promote each other’s work.

If you don’t already have writer friends, I encourage you to find a tribe. Get out there and meet other writers. Join a local writers group or guild. Attend a writers conference. Network. Share experiences. Encourage one another. Offer your help. Ask for advice. You’ll find great joy and satisfaction in sharing, collaborating, and forming friendships with people who love and appreciate writing the way you do.
—Lesson from Alaskan Bush People: Find a tribe of writers and participate.

GOLD RUSH
Airs on the Discovery Channel
Each episode of Gold Rush follows three crews as they mine for gold. One of the crews is led by Todd Hoffman, a character known for his poor decision-making skills. He’s big, hairy, dirty, and broke, but still, I find Todd appealing. I’ve pondered this appeal for weeks, and I think I finally know why I love Todd: He’s an eternal optimist. In the second season, he missed a lease payment on Porcupine Creek and lost his claim to Dakota Fred. But instead of declaring defeat and heading home, Todd scurried and found another claim—Quartz Creek—and mined a respectable ninety-three ounces of gold from the ground. In the fourth season, Todd led his guys to Guyana, and after mining barely two ounces of gold and a dozen minuscule diamonds, he was forced to pick up and go home in shame. Still, Todd and his crew regrouped and returned this past season, more determined than ever.

Like God Rush's Todd Hoffman, good writers learn to "shake it off" when things are going to Hell in a handbasket

Like Gold Rush’s Todd Hoffman, good writers learn to “shake it off” when things are going to Hell in a hand basket.

My point is this—Todd Hoffman may find himself battered and exhausted at the bottom of a deep hole without a ladder,a rope, or a friend, but the following day, he picks himself up, makes one of his trademark motivational speeches, and claws his way back to the surface for the next round.

As a freelance writer, I encounter lots of setbacks and frustration. I go for days without a “yes,” a decent assignment, or a book sale. This rejection, along with the constant criticism and the low pay writers receive for their work, can be downright demoralizing at times. As I fall asleep some nights, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” But the following day, I channel Todd Hoffman. I get out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and face the day with new resolve.
—Lesson from Gold Rush: Learn to shake off disappointments and keep moving toward your goal.

SURVIVOR
Airs on CBS
For fifteen years, Survivor has captivated viewers with its recipe for certain disaster—throw a bunch of strangers from all walks of life on an island far away from civilization, starve them, make them compete in bizarre challenges, and watch as one man or woman outlasts the others. Many times, the strongest and the most competent of the contestants are voted off before the end. Sometimes, sane contestants have melt downs while the camera is running. It takes a lot to be a contender on Survivor. You have to outwit, outplay, outlast.

In my freelancing experience, I’m not always the best writer or the most experienced writer, but I am one of the hungriest and most determined. I keep pitching ideas. I continuously look for opportunities to work, promote my books, and sell my writing. Like the sole survivor, I outlast my competition. I stay in the game without letting the game break me, and you should, too.
—Lesson from Survivor: Outlast your competition and do what you have to do to stay in the game of writing.

Thanks for visiting my writers blog. I invite you to leave me comment. If you are interested in more of my creative endeavors, check out www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

Taking Care of Business

Many people jump into the freelance writing world without realizing that it is 60 percent business and marketing and only 40 percent writing and creativity. Many writers hate the business side of writing. So, if business bores you, you may want to consider an occupation other than freelance writing. In my “Freelance Writing” class, I cover some aspects of the business side of writing. I’ve listed a few relevant business topics below for aspiring freelancers who wish to work with magazines, newspapers, and businesses.

—BUSINESS CARDS—yes, you need business cards to hand out. VistaPrint allows you to go online, design your own cards, and order large quantities cheaply. They can be delivered to your door in a few days.

—WEBSITE—not absolutely necessary, but good to have. I post writing clips on my site and direct editors to the site to view a variety of topics I’ve written about. Try to keep it up to date. And consider blogging—it’s a form of “giving back” to other writers and readers.

—EMAIL SIGNATURE BLOCK—under your name, add your phone number, an email address, your website, and other items of interest that you want the public to know (awards, books coming out, scheduled appearances, etc.) You would be surprised to know how many people actually click the link to my websites from my signature block. It’s a great marketing tool.

—WHAT TO EXPECT—think in terms of your time, expertise, and payment. Typically, smaller magazines pay less than larger circulation magazines. Online writing usually pays less than hard copy. For an idea of what your writing is worth, check out the Writer’s Market. As a freelancer, you probably won’t make much at first, but your pay will increase with time. Plus, you will get faster at turning projects around and will be able to write more and more each month, thus, earning more money. You will also form relationships with editors who will give you more work. Finally, you can resell old ideas and articles by reprocessing and updating them a bit.

—AGREEMENTS AND CONTRACTS—an email message from an editor agreeing to pay you for your work is contractually binding. Make sure that the editor tells you when the article is due, how much he or she will pay you for your work, and any specifics, before you reply saying that you will take the assignment.

-GETTING PAID—there is typically a lag time between the time that you turn in an article and your payment. It varies. Some magazines send you a check upon acceptance of an adequate article. Others send a check to writers during the month the article appears in their magazine. In freelancing, it isn’t uncommon to go for a couple of weeks (or more) without seeing a check.

—REPEAT BUSINESS—write a great article and turn it in on time and with few or zero mistakes. Then, immediately pitch another idea to that editor while your name and performance are still fresh on his or her mind.

—WORK OUT PROBLEMS—a few months ago, I wrote an article for a national magazine comparing mobile phone apps. A few weeks after I turned in the piece, the editor asked me to contact each of the app owners and get a release from them. It took a lot of time, but I did it. The article turned out great! And who knows? Maybe I’ll write for them again one day.

—INVOICING—some magazines pay automatically while others require you send an invoice. An invoice is a dated document that outlines what you delivered, the terms of the agreement, your address, your contact, and your fee. Make sure that your invoice is professional and attractive. Save the document as a pdf and email it after the editor accepts your work.

—INCOME AND EXPENSES—remember, earnings are taxed—quite significantly. You are required by law to report any income to the IRS. Get organized early and use a folder in your office to keep all receipts and pay stubs. You may include expenses such as paper, computers, books, magazines, office supplies, gas, cell phone, internet, business cards, office chair, professional memberships, fees for workshops, etc., but you must establish that you are in the business of writing. Also, some magazines will send you a Form 1099 and some will not. Always include all of your income on your tax returns—even if you don’t get 1099s for your work. Finally, if the word “taxes” makes you uncomfortable, hire an accountant.

Pitch Perfect

Aspiring writers often ask me how I land work as a freelancer. The answer is simple: I ask. I look for opportunities to write articles that interest me, and then I ask editors of related magazines if I can write a particular piece for their readers. I get a lot of rejections, but I also get a lot of assignments by pitching.

The query letter is the heart of the pitch. The query letter outlines the topic I want to write, what I will include, and why I am qualified to write it. My queries have three main parts: the hook, details and specifics, and the final push.

To illustrate my method, I’ve pasted a very, very old query letter below I sent to Vim & Vigor. I loved my idea. The editor did not.

SALUTATION
Dear Ms. Conner:

THE HOOK
According to the American Red Cross, someone in America needs blood every two minutes. Do you know your blood type? Most people don’t, and blood transfusion error is still one of the most feared mistakes in medicine today—a mistake that can be fatal.

But a miracle machine on the technology horizon promises to eliminate the risk of transfusion errors. ZymeQuest is testing a device that converts all blood types into type-O, the universal blood type that can be safely transfused into most patients.

DETAILS AND SPECIFICS
In my 700-word article titled, “Error-Proofing Blood,” I’ll examine ZymeQuest’s latest enzymatic conversion system. I’ll include:

  • How the technology works.
  • A brief description about blood types and the consequences of transfusing incompatible blood into a patient.
  • How the machine will advance care given in trauma units across the globe.
  • Quotes from researchers or representatives of ZymeQuest.

THE FINAL PUSH
I not only have a strong background in Environmental Health, but I am also the author of over fifty nonfiction articles including pieces published in American Fitness Magazine, GRIT, Mother Earth News, Atlanta Life Magazine, The Leading Edge and local newspapers. My writing samples are posted on my website at http://www.ambernagle.com.

I could have this piece drafted for you in three weeks.

Thank you for considering “Error-Proofing Blood” for an upcoming issue of Vim & Vigor. You can reach me by phone or email.

Sincerely,

Amber Lanier Nagle
Phone number
Email address

Next, I email my query letter to the editor of the magazine or publication using the word “query” in the subject line and pasting my letter’s content in the body of the message. And then I wait patiently. Sometimes I don’t hear anything for a few weeks. And sometimes, I never hear from the editor, and that’s okay—I just send my query letter to another editor at another magazine.

In my two-hour “Writer for Hire” workshop, I show aspiring writers how to sell their work. I cover how to shape ideas into strong pitches, how to find clients, how to write queries, how to format work, and the business side of freelancing (contracts, negotiating rates, invoices, tax preparation, resolving conflicts, etc.) If you or your writing group is interested in learning more about freelancing, send me a message.

Six Tips for Writing Killer Titles

A reader opens a magazine and flips through the pages looking for something interesting—something that hooks his or her attention. Most readers pause at intriguing photographs, relevant graphics, and strong titles. I’ve crafted a few clever titles throughout my career. I once wrote an article for Atlanta Life Magazine about dog agility competitions and titled it “Dog Day Afternoons.” On another occasion, I wrote an article for Natural Awakenings that summarized the health benefits of consuming honey. I titled it, “Honey Almighty.” Calhoun Magazine recently published a piece I wrote about the Tennessee Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium. I titled it, “One Fish, Two Fish.”

A strong title can capture a reader’s attention and prompt him to read your work. Here are six tips for creating killer titles.

1. A Numbers Game
Readers love to browse lists, so you can draw a reader in by incorporating a number in your title. For example, “Six Tips for Writing Strong Titles,” “Ten New Year’s Resolutions,” “The Top Ten Weather Apps,” or “A Baker’s Dozen.”

2. Sticky Words
Incorporate sticky words in your title. Easy, great, cheap, inexpensive, tips, solutions, and quick are attention-grabbing words. Examples include, “Three Easy Meals for Under Ten Dollars,” “Quick Ways to Save Money,” and “Your Guide to Cheap Vacations.”

3. Pose a Question
Prescriptive nonfiction (also known as, how-to) articles are popular these days, so a reader may pause if they see a title with “How to” or “What is” in the title. For example, “How to Snake-Proof your Yard,” “How to Train for a Marathon,” or “What is Divining?”

4. Idioms
Consider using an idiom in your title. For example, “High on the Hog” might describe an article about luxurious living, riding motorcycles, or eating pork. “Knock on Wood” could be the title for an article about a master woodworker. And sometimes, I replace one word in a common idiom with a rhyming word. For example, a fitness article about ab workouts could be called, “Roll with the Crunches.”

5. Singing in the Rain
Consider using a popular song title or lyric for your title. For example, “Blue Moon Rising” could be used to title an article about lunar anomalies, “Crocodile Rock” could title an article about crocodiles, or “Living in a Material World,” could title an article about the decline of fabric stores in America.

6. Alliteration
Use alliteration in your title. Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words. Examples include, “Seaside Splendor,” “Facebook Frenzy,” and “Fearless and Female.”

eBooklet

On the eve of 2013, I vowed to release three or four more eBook titles in 2013. So last week, I got busy and uploaded another project to the Kindle storefront. It’s not long enough to call an eBook, so I’m calling it an eBooklet or eInstructional Guide. Have a Seat

My newest eProject is titled, Have a Seat—Chair Caning Using Split Reed. Years ago, I interviewed my friend, Marvin Garner, and he taught me how to weave the seat of a ladderback chair using split reed. It didn’t take long to find a home for the article at Grit Magazine, but I had to cut so much content to get it to fit in Grit’s space. Last week, I expanded the introduction, added more photos, and added supplemental information. I uploaded it on Thursday night and sold my first copy on Friday.

I need to do more of this type of work. I have hundreds of articles in my computer’s folders just waiting to be revisited, updated, and published. As the magazine world continues to decline, I will have to put my work out there using other venues.

Will publishing eBooks and eBooklets make me a wealthy writer? Probably not. But it does keep me current, relevant, and helps me market my other writing projects. If you are interested in publishing an eBook but don’t know how to get started, I offer a three-hour workshop designed to help writers get their projects off the ground. Contact me if you are interested, and I’ll send you my rate sheet.

Websites That Help Writers—Really!

The web is brimming with them—thousands of websites that lure writers to their domains with the promise of helping them become stronger, more productive writers. But most of the sites targeting writers don’t help at all. In fact, most of these sites are black holes—sucking us into their dark abyss several times a week when we should be writing.

But there are some really great websites for writers. Here are a few sites that I find are very helpful to me, without being too distracting.

Grammar Book (GrammarBook.com)
Sure, like most writers, I have copies of Simon and Schuster’s Handbook for Writers and Kirszner and Mandell’s The Holt Handbook in the bookcase next to my desk. But it is rather time consuming to search for answers to odd grammatical questions in these handbooks. The beauty of Grammar Book is that it is has a search window that is easy to use and delivers search results quickly. The site is also thorough and easy to navigate.

Thesaurus.com (Thesaurus.com)
I was recently writing an article about a wedding dress designer. As I described her elaborate wedding gown designs, I noticed that I was overusing the words, lovely, and beautiful, so I navigated over to Thesaurus.com and browsed for some appropriate synonyms. I prefer this site to other synonym sites simply because it is so extensive. It delivers dozens of synonyms for every definition of the root word. My only complaint is that sometimes the site is a little slow.

Writer’s Digest Writing Prompts (WritersDigest.com/Prompts)
Looking for an interesting topic to write about? Try a prompt from the brain of Brian A. Klems at Writer’s Digest. I write a lot of nonfiction—I repeat, a lot of nonfiction—so I use his prompts to exercise different muscle groups in my writer’s brain. Afterwards, I enjoy reading what other writers composed with his idea. Klems’ prompts are fresh and interesting.

Six-Word Memoirs (SmithMag.net/SixWords/)
This project offers an interesting experience for writers—write about a topic using just six words. I navigate over to the site sometimes to try my hand at one of the topics or simply read the posts and laugh at their clever content. For example, “Kissed him to test our friendship,” “Self esteem forever lost in fitting room,” “I failed flawlessly, it was perfect,” and “Vultures circling, but I’m still kicking.” The six-word memoirs are categorized by love, dad, teens, Jewish, food, work, etc.

750 Words (750Words.com)
I’m a newcomer to this site, and already, it is one of my favorites. It’s a simple site—a blank piece of virtual paper that writers can use to write 750 words each day. There are no distractions. The site tracks your word count and actually congratulates you when you’ve reached 750 words, which incidentally is approximately three pages of writing. You get points for your progress—two points for reaching your 750-word goal. You can see how other participants are doing, and you can compare how you are doing to the other participants and track your progress over time. For example, this morning, I pecked out an average of nineteen words each minute and other participants wrote twelve words per minute. It took me thirty-eight minutes to reach my goal, compared to the site’s average of one hour. The site also evaluates the compositions and offers some interesting graphics that show themes and frequently used words.

Dictionary.com (Dictionary.com)
Sometimes I just type a word into the google search field to check its definition. Other times, I use Dictionary.com, which is a sister site to Thesaurus.com. Once upon a time, I used Merriam-Webster.com, but I stopped using it when it asked me to register to use the site—major fail. I like Dictionary.com because the definitions are very thorough, it shows me sentences using the word, and it gives me the origin of the word, which is very satisfying to word nerds like me.

Googling 101

In a recent workshop titled, Writing Family Stories, I touched on the topic of Googling to find information and documents pertaining to family members. From my podium, I noticed puzzled expressions on many of the attendees’ faces, so I backed up, slowed down, and gave the audience a few useful tips about Googling I have learned since I started my freelance writing career.

1. Use Quotation Marks
If you want to search on Ona Jarrard, surround her name with quotation marks and type “Ona Jarrard” in the search bar. If you don’t surround her name with quotation marks, Google will look for all Onas and all Jarrards. Using the quotation marks will help you narrow your search results. In this example, using quotation marks narrowed my search from 615,000 results to a more manageable 74 hits.

2. Be Specific
Add detail to your Google searches to narrow your results even more. If you know that Ona Jarrard lived in Lumpkin County, Georgia, type “Ona Jarrard” Lumpkin Georgia in the search bar. If you are trying to find a birth date, try typing “Ona Jarrard” birth or “Ona Jarrard” born. If you are looking for the lifespan of a dragonfly, type dragonfly lifespan into your search bar. Googling dragonfly yields 64 million results, but googling both words—dragonfly and lifespan—yields just over 35,000 hits. And by the way, adult dragonflies only live a few weeks to a few months. How sad!

3. Use Minus Signs
Typing a minus sign just before a search term will cue Google to remove any site with that term from its results. Suppose you have an ancestor named Tom Hanks (not the actor) who you want to learn more about. You could type in “Tom Hanks” -actor -film -television -Forrest -Gump -Philadelphia, and Google will remove some references to the famous and wildly talented actor, Tom Hanks. Or maybe not. Hopefully, your ancestor doesn’t share a name with an uber superstar. If you are trying to find information about impalas (the animal), you should type impala -car -auto -chevrolet -chevy into your search bar. Typing salsa recipe -cilantro will yield recipes for salsa that don’t use cilantro. My husband hates cilantro.

4. Use a tilde sign
Typing a tilde sign just before a search term will return results for the word’s synonyms and other related terms. For example, typing ~nutrition returns a list pertaining to nutrition, health, wellness, and food.

5. Search Specific Websites
If you type in CDC zombies, you’ll get every site and newspaper that mentioned the CDC’s instruction pertaining to the zombie apocalypse. If you want to see exactly what was on the CDC’s site, type zombie site:cdc.gov in the search bar. Google will only return references to zombies from the CDC’s website. If you remembered that I had once posted information about verb usage on my website and wanted to read it again, you could type verbs site:ambernagle.com , and it would show you pages on my site containing references to verbs. Finally, if you only want to view information returned from government sites or educational institutions try adding site:.gov or site:.edu to your search terms.

6. Use Google’s Advanced Search
Finally, don’t forget about Google’s Advance Search features (www.google.com/advanced_search?). The form-driven page will allow you to narrow your search by language, filetype, update dates, etc.