Interview Transcripts

Alexis Glynn Latner: From Fiction to Nonfiction, Making the Transition 6/24/04

Event start time:

Thu Jun 24 13:17:00 2004

Event end time:

Thu Jun 24 21:05:43 2004



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all.

 

Welcome to our regular Professional Connection interview.

 

Tonight, I'll be chatting with Alexis Glynn Latner, back by popular demand!

 

Alexis Glynn Latner writes magazine articles and speculative fiction, does creative and technical editing, and teaches creative writing. Fourteen of her stories have been published, and she has made a successful transition into Nonfiction. Her articles on academic, aviation-related, and science and technology topics have appeared in national, regional and online magazines. She is a sailplane pilot, and her latest story Blu 97-032D is available now in the June issue of Analog Magazine.  Check out her website at:   http://www.sff.net/people/alexis-latner/

 

Alexis, welcome! It's great to see you back here!

Alexis Glynn Latner

It's great to be here-!

Mary Rosenblum

I've been looking forward to our chat tonight, because quite a few of my students

 

begin with fiction, but find that nonfiction is easier to sell and pays better.

 

Why did you begin with nonfiction?

Alexis Glynn Latner

It’s very true for very many writers, that NF is easier and pays better

 

and I actually began with an article coauthored with a physicist

 

that appeared in a reference book.

Mary Rosenblum

Cool! Great start!

Alexis Glynn Latner

I have a Xerox of the check framed on my wall.

Mary Rosenblum

I bet. And this was after you had established yourself as a fiction writer, yes?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Actually.... no! That first little work was nonfiction.

 

Then I plunged into science fiction

 

and it was a long time before I saw any more money for writing!

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, we've all been THERE, that's for sure! LOL

Alexis Glynn Latner

Fiction has its rewards

 

but it's best not to calculate your hourly rate,

 

especially not for carefully crafted short stories.

Mary Rosenblum

Uh...it's even wiser not to calculate your hourly rate for novels....Just you wait!

Alexis Glynn Latner

Ah. Yes.

Mary Rosenblum

So when did you transition back into nonfiction?

Alexis Glynn Latner

After a few years of science fiction, after a few sales, after writing a first novel (it took MANY hours)

 

I began to feel burned out. It wasn't fun. My back hurt at the thought of my word processor.

 

A friend who's a nonfiction freelancer suggested I try it. And that was one of the best pieces of advice ever.

Mary Rosenblum

Where did you begin?

Alexis Glynn Latner

First, she handed off some work to me as co-author and researcher.

 

Then I asked around and got a referral to a university magazine looking for good article writers to cover science pieces.

 

I like science writing.

 

It fits hand in glove with science fiction, after all!

Mary Rosenblum

I know you have a science background, but how much actual expertise do you need

 

in order to do science writing?

Alexis Glynn Latner

I'd say a lifelong interest, a lot of reading science writing, a few college courses or some continuing education classes, and trusted friends in the sciences to bounce stuff off.

Mary Rosenblum

So essentially, it's a good idea to start your nonfiction career in an area with which you are familiar? Say gardening, or woodworking, or finance...or whatever?

Alexis Glynn Latner

You bet, absolutely. Editors can tell you won't blunder around and embarrass the magazine or newspaper.

Mary Rosenblum

How did you go about 'asking around' for work when you decided to try writing nonfiction?

Alexis Glynn Latner

In my writers' group (an in-person group here in Houston). It turned out another fiction writer was doing articles on the side

 

at the new university magazine, and she knew they needed writers, and she knew I could write, from the stories I brought to the group.

 

So she recommended me to the editor.

Mary Rosenblum

So networking with other writers is a good way to find new work.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Always! There are good nonfiction online listservs and bulletin boards too.

 

So it's not just networking in person.  Markets, and advice from more experienced writers as well as help when you have problems. All can be found online.

Mary Rosenblum

Yes. The internet is a great place to look for markets!

timtassinari

So one doesn't necessarily need a degree to write about nonfiction subjects to be accepted?

Alexis Glynn Latner

No, timtassinari, you don't need the degree,

 

especially if you look at regional magazines, local magazines, small newspapers and the like.

 

You don't usually start by approaching Discover Magazine or Astronomy Magazine.

 

Good example:

 

The freelance writer friend who got me into this has a degree in physics, an MA in Physics,

 

so she did have the degree like you're asking about.

 

But she's worked her way around into writing for high tech magazines, telecom and such.

 

It pays well

 

and she doesn't have the electrical engineering or computer science degree that might be expected.

hedwig

Do magazines hire you to write "on assignment" now, meaning that now that you are established you no longer have to query for each piece you write? Did the editor at the university magazine need to see your clips before hiring you?

Alexis Glynn Latner

As I recall, I showed that editor the old piece I co-authored with the physicist!

 

Ever since, I've taken a number of assignments from that magazine.

 

But when I look at a market that has never heard of me

 

I send queries and clips.

timtassinari

Not having a degree (traded college for 4 kids), would you suggest I present research material with any article I may write?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Hmmm. Pretty much, yes.

 

I've done that and I know it's not unheard of. Editors want to know your sources....

 

For one thing, if it's a big magazine with deep pockets, the mag may check facts in every article before they publish it.

 

Other magazines

 

might want to know if you're covering all the bases. For example

 

I've had a Fact article in Analog and I'm working on another.

 

I'm letting the editor know my technical sources.

imhopeful

What's the best way to look for markets online?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Did you know, imhopeful, that good old Writer's Market has an online companion reference?

 

That tech writer friend of mine uses it heavily.

 

A lot of what she does is for online publications.

Mary Rosenblum

Writers Market online

 

This is the website for Writers Market online.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Cool!

 

Thanks!

Mary Rosenblum

And it does cost $29.99 per year.

janp

Do you present you sources as a formal bibliography?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Haven't had to yet. It all depends on the magazine, and the magazine's writers' guidelines, janp. The Golden Rule,

 

or at least, the rule if you want to gain any gold in the writing business, fiction or nonfiction

 

is always check the guidelines early and often.

speckledorf

I have WritersMarket Online and use it all the time....it is great!

Alexis Glynn Latner

Glad to hear it!

t green

Is there a big difference between science writing and technical writing? Is technical writing more to do with computers and mechanicals than natural science?

Alexis Glynn Latner

You can make that distinction.

 

Note that science writing is harder to break into.

 

These days, people who can write intelligibly about technology and engineering are ALWAYS needed SOMEWHERE.

 

Science is a bit less pragmatic, a bit more rarefied.

Mary Rosenblum

A lot of the tech writers I know are doing manuals for the most part,

 

sometimes for professional users, but they are still 'manuals' more or less.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Same here. Gainful employment for many. Some of whom write fiction at night.

hedwig

If a writer has written several pieces for, say, a local hometown newspaper or magazine and now wants to move up to writing for a magazine with a larger audience (say a national magazine), how would one go about doing that?

Alexis Glynn Latner

1. Research the market, get the guidelines, study a few issues.

 

2. Have an article idea that really fits and write the best possible query to the exact right editor there.

 

3. Enclose xeroxes (nice clean ones) of your published pieces at about the same length

 

or the closest you have. That's the basic recipe. Oh, and

 

4. Check the national magazine for their easiest-to-break-into department, usually one with shorter pieces, not features. And

 

5. Start thinking about photos. A lot of high-end magazines want very, very high quality photos and illustrations. It doesn't hurt to network around

 

for an up-and-coming pro photographer. Or if you're already semipro in photographic skills, you're in great shape.

 

But some magazines use their staff photographers. Read guidelines.

Mary Rosenblum

And write a strong query letter: There's a how to article on the website: Writing the Strong Query Letter

 

I can't ditto you loudly enough, Alexis,

 

on the pitch 'an article idea that really fits' part of your advice.

 

That, from what I see, is the biggest reason new writers fail to sell ideas.

Alexis Glynn Latner

For those who might not have heard, the query is the hard part, pitching it just right. Very often

 

the meat of your query is the hook of the article. It can take days to get THAT right.

 

But the good part is you're not doing the whole thing on spec. Unlike fiction.

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding! We also have an article about submitting photos with your nonfiction, courtesy of the professional photographer

 

Jeff Colburn who was my guest recently. I'll put the link in for that, too. He is VERY specific about how to submit photos with your work.    Submitting Photos with your work

timtassinari

Don't you need to be established or have some sort of credentials to be taken seriously though?

Alexis Glynn Latner

If you look at smaller but self-respecting magazines (or newspapers)

 

you will find that they desperately need competent writers and appreciate one turning up. And that is how you get established.

tkat_2

Don't you use problem solving skills in technical writing?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Hmm. tkat_2, I'd say you use logic. What you write about what someone told you in an interview has to be logical, it has to hang together. Beyond that

 

in working for the University of Houston's Collegium Magazine and a other magazines, when doing highly technical topics

 

and trying to make the technicalities comprehensible to myself and readers,

 

I often run the article by the person I interviewed. They are motivated to help me get it right.

Mary Rosenblum

Good idea for something technical!

Alexis Glynn Latner

Always. Nonexperts just can't always grab the jist of it.

Mary Rosenblum

I’m curious. How different do you find nonfiction writing from fiction -- technique-wise, I mean?

Alexis Glynn Latner

In my case the basic difference is dialog. My nonfiction doesn't tend to have it.

 

Big difference.

 

Also

 

a lot of the nonfiction I've done has had pragmatic reasons behind it. Conveying information. Technical writing more or less.

 

For that kind of thing

 

you think in terms of the reader thinking "what that I need is in this for me?"

 

So it doesn’t beguile the reader like fiction does.

Mary Rosenblum

These are informative articles, right?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Exactly. They still need to be well crafted, with good prose and excellent editing. So much of the craft is the same, and some different.

Mary Rosenblum

Have you found that any 'habits of fiction' have been liabilities at times?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Ahem. Confession time? It is such a temptation

 

when somebody has said something klunky

 

to improve their utterances. Needless to say this is Not Done, past the point of simply improving somebody's verbal grammar discretely.

 

I do not make up what people have said. Just sometimes the tendency is there and it really wants to have its way.

Mary Rosenblum

I'm laughing. Remember, I edit an interview transcript every other week...spelling only. But at times, it is indeed tempting!

Alexis Glynn Latner

There are a few best selling books, however

 

where the writer went with this and invented a LOT of very colorful dialog he wasn't there to hear.

 

The book _Perfect Storm_ for example. It's quite dramatic reading

 

and I believe the writer got sued.

Mary Rosenblum

And there are a couple of journalists who have lost careers recently for a bit of overly creative nonfiction.

Alexis Glynn Latner

And how.

 

I think the challenge is to play fair

 

and still make it gripping and beautiful and true.

 

Fine writers at all levels of experience do it all the time.

Mary Rosenblum

Now creative nonfiction uses more fictional techniques. Have you done much of that?

Alexis Glynn Latner

. o O ( YOU BETCHA. Especially )

 

Scene-setting is a big one. If it's all about somebody's lab, set the scene in the lab.

 

Introduction of character, i.e., interviewee, is another.

 

Let the reader know what they look like, or if you're working with a superb photographer, and readers are seeing what this person looks like.

 

Let the reader know how they move or the timbre of their voice of how they have this restless energy.

Mary Rosenblum

So this interview...nonfiction though it is...is essentially Story.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Most pieces I've done are either informative, or story, or a blend.

 

Blending story into information helps make it more interesting

 

and story is probably the main underpinning of fiction and creative nonfiction.

Mary Rosenblum

And I would assume that this is where you must read a couple of issues of your target magazine...in order to determine just how much 'story' is desired?

Alexis Glynn Latner

How much story, how dramatically (or histrionically, or sarcastically) told. That and subject matter preferred.

roe

So basically to break into non fiction for a newbie is to look to the smaller markets? Study the market and write a fantastic query?

Alexis Glynn Latner

That's the right direction, roe! Note that

 

a query can be for an article. Or if there is a newspaper or magazine where you would be the ideal columnist, the query could be about a regular column. Ask the editor why not?

Mary Rosenblum

I think the key here is finding something that the editor will go for, yes?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Exactly. And it's an art not a science as far as I know.

 

But it helps to locate a desperate editor.

Mary Rosenblum

What about editing, Alexis? How does it differ between fiction and nonfiction?

Alexis Glynn Latner

My experience has been that it was nonfiction - articles - where I absolutely had to get below 3,000 words.

 

I thought it was IMPOSSIBLE. I tend to run long! But I learned some things there.

 

If you gotta cut, you can cut, nonfiction more readily than fiction, in my experience.

 

Newspaper articles and press releases are even written to cut.

 

You put the most important stuff at the very top and trail down from there....

 

so the editor can go SNIP.

Mary Rosenblum

Have you found that learning to REALLY write tight like this has affected your fiction writing?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Yes, and in a very positive way!! Last year I write my first story ever under 4,000 words. And now

 

I intend to bring my new knack for distilled writing to novels.

Mary Rosenblum

Good for you! :-) Want to give us a brief description of what the editing process is like ...how does it compare to fiction editing?

Alexis Glynn Latner

I think nonfiction editing is more logical, because fiction is more organic. Especially when doing a piece on assignment,

 

the first edit is to edit out the bits that aren't what the editor wanted the story to be about in the first place! Then

 

if still running a bit long, you edit the less compelling bits of what the story really is supposed to be about, and, sorrowfully

 

you identify which absolutely great parts of the interview the article can do without. Gack, I hate cutting brilliant but off-topic quotes.

 

Fiction, though, is more organic.

 

In my experience you develop an intuition for what parts may be superfluous, and also, Lord willing

 

you work with a good editor who can help you shape it.

Mary Rosenblum

This is a crash course in learning to distinguish what matters from what we merely like, yes?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Oh boy, it sure is. I think the eureka moment is after you bristle at what the editor wants, then in your heart of hearts you realize she's right.

 

What she wants to cut will make it a more vivid story. This is one of those experience

 

that can be described, but are not understood, until it happens to you.

 

BTW, I have had that happen with nonfiction too,

 

when this sharp editor made really good cuts, everybody liked the article, and when I read it in the magazine,

 

not even I could identify what wasn't there, because what was there was so apt.

Mary Rosenblum

Hear, hear. I have learned quite a lot from some good editors.

roe

Would you recommend everyone at least try non fiction so we can write tighter? I didn't think I'd like non fiction when I first started the course, but I tried it and find I love it.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Roe, there's a famous quote out there in the literary world. I haven't looked it up recently and don't remember who said it.

 

Somerset Maugham, maybe? Anyway the quote is this more or less: a good writer should be able to write anything from

 

an Easter Sunday sermon to the insert in a package of sheep dip. The point, I think, is that it's your birthright as a writer -

 

to write all kinds of stuff, both for your own purposes (earning money doing nonfiction, for example) and also to

 

get into the mind of your characters and the soul of your story. And it's so true that we don't know what we'll like writing

 

until we give it a whirl. I thought I'd hate business-oriented writing, because it's all WIIFM (what's in it for me, get the information out...)

 

but I kind of like it for it's certain logic.

roe

LOL can't picture me writing an Easter Sunday sermon, but I get your point

Mary Rosenblum

I love that quote. The sheep dip insert I could handle.

timtassinari

Do NF editors frown on humorous or dramatic flair in your pieces?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Not at all unless it warps the piece and becomes something the piece is wrapped around when it shouldn't be, timtassinari.

speckledorf

When you write an article, how many different slants do you get out of it? Or do you just write one for a specific assignment?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Depends! If I'm fishing around for a market

 

I can generate 2-6 slants on a good enough article idea. Then I pitch queries accordingly. One slant per prospective market,

 

making sure not to send a queries to competing markets on something where both would want the same slant.

roe

For the newbies here would you explain slants?

Mary Rosenblum

Thank, you, roe. :-)

Alexis Glynn Latner

For any given subject matter, there's more than one take on it. For example

 

say you went backpacking in Nepal and took lots of notes.

 

A backpacking magazine, a birding magazine, and a conservation magazine would want different parts of your account.

Mary Rosenblum

And since each market is getting a different topic, you are not selling the same thing more than once.

 

That's very concise, thank you, Alexis!

timtassinari

Very encouraging, thank you.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Sure! And if the first birding magazine rejects the idea, then it goes to the next birding magazine.

Mary Rosenblum

Alexis, can you tell us about your class: Shaping Your Story?

Alexis Glynn Latner

It's about the basics of writing a story whether it's creative nonfiction or fiction. So it REALLY has to stick to the basics.

 

But that's OK since I'm convinced that basic story craft is where most writers foul up, or to put it more positively

 

the basics are where all writers need to keep a lot of their attention, and not just when starting out but always. So

 

my Shaping Your Story class has a mixture of aspiring writers. Usually a few genre and children's fiction people,

 

one or three who want to write their life story,

 

maybe somebody who has a bang-up good idea for a nonfiction book, and some mainstream writers.

Mary Rosenblum

Nice mix!

Alexis Glynn Latner

Always fascinating.

timtassinari

Is this class something we can take?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Only if you live in Houston, Texas.  It's at the Rice University School of Continuing Studies. One way maybe I too shall write the great American Writing Book.

Mary Rosenblum

Good ones are always welcome!

doodledorry

How interesting about the different slants--I had not thought logically about that.

Alexis Glynn Latner

Hmmm. I think we always think everything has just one slant

 

but not so, and when you write articles you learn to slant.

doodledorry

So it’s possible to take one article if broad enough and write several from different viewpoints depending on the audience right?

Alexis Glynn Latner

You can work with different perspectives on the material, or different subsets (if you need to stay short and concise, which you usually do.)

Mary Rosenblum

Aha...one thing that is rarely mentioned in nonfiction is length. What are your average word counts

 

for the types of articles you do?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Much of what I've done is 1k-3k (1,000 to 3,000) words. In a print magazine, certainly, real estate is precious and editors

 

don't want to commit more than 3k to one feature. I've also had to do 500 word pieces and found it very doable

 

as long as I stuck to the subject matter. Then it’s a challenge, to write down the facts

 

but use strong verbs and clean prose, so the factual description was also interesting. There isn’t enough spare wordage

 

to create an elaborate fringe.

 

Want to know my absolute shortest word count on anything?

Mary Rosenblum

Of course!

Alexis Glynn Latner

I've written some radio spots for public radio. The whole spot has to be spoken in 30 seconds. Try explaining something mildly complicated

 

in thirty seconds of an announcers intoned baritone!

 

So it's 50 words, maybe less.

Mary Rosenblum

That's so cool! And how did you get that job? And how long did it take you to get the right 50 words, LOL?

Alexis Glynn Latner

The shorter the piece, the longer it takes! Actually this opens up a dimension of nonfiction writing that I really do want to mention.

 

Very important too. If you learn to do press releases and publicity stuff

 

you stand to serve your own career well. Writers have to do a lot of self promotion! So, what I did

 

was to find an opportunity to write a club newsletter, and do publicity for my church. It's been great practice

 

for very appreciative people, and I've just about built up enough gall (and experience) to pull off writing a press release for

 

my own career, such as a newly published novel.

Mary Rosenblum

Good advice, Alexis!!

Alexis Glynn Latner

It's easier to practice on a cause you really believe in but that isn't you.

Mary Rosenblum

I want to be sure to give you time to talk about your own writing, too. You just had a piece out in the June Analog...what's next?

Alexis Glynn Latner

I'm working on a far future science fiction adventure novel, set in several rotating artificial habitats.

 

And boy am I having fun with it.

 

So are the physicists I'm bouncing my ideas off.

Mary Rosenblum

Alexis and I are working with similar universes a century or more apart. We have had some fun conversations.

Alexis Glynn Latner

I can't recommend networking enough.

 

You build each other up when you have ideas that resonate

 

and you can bet the finished products will be very different. It's marvelous how that works out for writers.

timtassinari

Are scientists open to newbie writers contacting them?

Alexis Glynn Latner

Generally, yes! E-mail is a wonderful thing. If you keep it short and winsome, many scientists are absolutely wonderful about

 

either explaining something, or referring you to somebody else in their field who can. Just do enough research to know enough

 

to phrase your questions with respect for their work.

timtassinari

Being in Houston and JPL must be a great resource. Maybe packing up for Texas will help my MARS book

Mary Rosenblum

Ha. Your local SF convention is a good place to start, tim!

Alexis Glynn Latner

Exactly! Lots of scientists are SF readers and they LOVE it when writers ask for their perspective!

Mary Rosenblum

Alexis, I've had someone waiting patiently with a SF plot question for you.

tkat_2

I'm writing a story in which the main character has to travel back in time. My problem is finding a way that is unique in getting there. What I mean is I don't want it to sound typical. How would you handle that?

Alexis Glynn Latner

First of all, read the SF that's already been done about time travel. OR: here is my favorite short cut for things like that:

 

Locate a longtime SF reader or maybe even a whole book club of them, or go to conventions

 

and ask these folks what all they remember about SF time travel stories.

 

You'll probably get a rundown of what has been done at least once. But also

 

keep an eye on Scientific American or Science News and anytime they mention some quirky avenue of physics research

 

that might have to do with time, take note!

 

If you give your science fictional time travel a new flavor, that'll probably do it,

 

without having to spend half a book explaining it if you'd rather just use it as a plot device and not get way into it.

Mary Rosenblum

Alexis, as usual, you have been great.

 

I always enjoy talking with you!

Alexis Glynn Latner

It's been my pleasure, Mary. I enjoy your interviews and your participants.

 

Good night all! -AGL

Mary Rosenblum

Thanks for coming, all.

 

Return to Interview Transcripts


Home | Writing Course | Short Story | Full Story Writing Test 
 
Send Me Full Info | Enroll | Our Instructors | Our CredentialsSample Lesson 
College Credits | Tax Deductibility | From Overseas  | Writer's Bookstore  
Free Writer's News | Life Support for Writers | Chat Room  | Live Forum | Writing Craft
Calendar of Events | Professional Connection | Transcripts | Post a Note | Surviving & Thriving
 
Student Center | Privacy Policy | Web EditorComments | Writing for Children 

LongRidge Writers Group
91 Long Ridge Road, West Redding, Connecticut 06896
Telephone: 1-800-624-1476 ~ Fax: 203-792-8406
Email:
InformationService@LongRidgeWritersGroup.com

Copyright Writer's Institute, Inc., 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006
No part of the electronic transmission to which this notice is appended may be reproduced or redistributed in any form or manner without the express written permission of Writer's Institute, Inc.