"Special Projects: A Versatile Writer's Dream" with Connie Heckert

Thursday, August 24, 2000

MODERATOR is Mel Boring, substituting this week for Kristi Holl. Mel is the author of numerous books and magazine articles, plus a frequent speaker at conferences and online chat rooms.

Connie is Connie Heckert, author of ten books for adults and children, several video scripts, and many special writing projects.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews begin in the Professional Connection Room at 9 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone! I'm Mel Boring, subbing tonight as moderator for Kristi Holl while she is moving her daughter to college. Tonight I'm happy to introduce to you Connie Heckert, who will talk to us about "Special Projects: A Versatile Writer's Dream." Connie has ten books to her credit, including five corporate pictorial histories, many video scripts, and other special writing projects. Connie will show you how to find these writing opportunities right in your own community. Welcome, Connie!

Connie: Hello, Mel and everyone else. I'm glad to be here, and hope we can have a great chat!

MODERATOR: First, Connie, did you always want to be a writer?

Connie: I wish I could say yes, but I didn't make my debut until 1972. I was working as a medical records librarian at ISU Vet Clinics, and published an article. It was pretty exciting. I like to say I was bit by the byline bug. I was always good in English, however.

MODERATOR: Can you explain in general terms what you mean by "special projects" for writers?

Connie: Special projects are often projects deemed desirable by clients. Companies whose executives want to share the company history, or videos for a specific event. It can be almost anything, any kind of project that lasts from the time it takes to write a brochure, or a much longer project like a history.

MODERATOR: Do you think it's more difficult to work with an editor or a company executive?

Connie: Good question, Mel. It depends on the editor, or the personality of the company executives. I do like that my company executives are nearby, while most editors I've had, with the exception of local newspapers, have been far away. Some I've never met. So one-on-one meetings may be easier.

MODERATOR: Did you go looking for these special writing projects--or did people seek you out?

Connie: A little of both. If I hear of projects, and someone is looking for a writer, I may apply. Like with my first pictorial history. Other times, my reputation has brought people to me. I like that! It's great to answer a call where a person is looking for me to do a special project.

MODERATOR: Knowing you personally, Connie, I know you would work with executives well. I know you've done quite a few pictorial histories. First, what are pictorial histories?

Connie: Pictorial histories are usually corporate histories from conception to present day business and family activities. Organizations sometimes do histories, too. I think they're the ultimate public relations project. Only successful companies do them. Because they're costly, of course, and time-consuming.

MODERATOR: How did you get started doing pictorial histories?

Connie: I think it must have been because I needed money. Seriously, The Lindsay Park Yacht Club was an opportunity to do a book. So I researched, wrote it, ended up doing the layout before the great technology we have today, and chased down the photos and wrote captions for them, as well as the introduction and index materials. It was a great learning experience.

MODERATOR: Did you have to understand a "Lotta 'bout Yachting" to do that book? (-:} What actually did you learn by doing this project, Connie?

Connie: You're good, Mel. To answer your first question: not a thing. But when doing the project, I learned so much, and loved doing it. I'm not a boater, but I did an article for Lakeland Boating and they wanted me to do more. It's amazing what we, as writers, can research if we're willing to do the homework and interview the experts. It takes a good tape recorder and lots of time. But it's enjoyable work, and it can be managed from a home office.

james55clinton: Are company histories completely one sided? Like even dishonest? Do you show only the good side? And not tell about the CEO's girlfriend, for instance?

Connie: Yes, I'd have to agree about being one-sided. There are stories I can't tell. But look who is paying for the book. It's their PR piece, and of course, they have all rights of approval. It's a good question, and one I've struggled with. This is "work for hire," and the client controls the copy. I don't tell about the CEO's girlfriend, if there is one, and most don't have one that I know of. I also think there are stories I don't hear for that very reason. But I wouldn't get to work on another book if I tried the "kiss and tell" stories.

MODERATOR: Is there a generally set fee for most special projects, or do you set your own price, or bid on a project?

Connie: Sometimes, like the recent project, the client has a set budget and won't budge upward. Other times, I can ask for a specific amount and have won those bids. It's the most desirable situation, but it only works with some of the top companies because they're used to playing with big numbers. So my asking price still seems low to them. At least I think so.

MODERATOR: Do you have total control over the design, layout and text on special projects, Connie?

Connie: No, I don't always have total control. But with The Outing Club book, a social organization, they said, "You're the expert, you do it the way you'd like." So I had total control. With the Alcoa Davenport Works book (the name then) I only researched and wrote, turned the manuscript in earlier than first planned, and went on to other projects. So it varies. With the Mel Foster Co., Inc. pictorial history, I researched, wrote, interviewed the executives, wrote bios of company executives (an awful job, as approval is so important) and helped with design and layout. That project was an intensive year long job.

MODERATOR: With a firm like "Alcoa Davenport Works," which seems unknown territory to me, does what they produce make a project more difficult?

Connie: No, because a corporate entity like that has wonderful research archives. They have produced a magazine that allows for organization of research. And they have had professional photographs for all fifty years of its existence. Most of their early employees from the late 1940s are still living, so they were great interviews. It was an incredible project, and I know very little about aluminum. So I've learned a lot. I interviewed more than 50 retirees, plus employees including young, new hires. Also women engineers, and how the female employee market has changed. It was so interesting.

MODERATOR: Are their "special tricks" to get employees to relax and talk?

Connie: I smile a lot, I guess. I'm not there to do a hostile interview. We chat about their work, their careers, so many tell me great stories. I don't think it's hard.

MODERATOR: Do you have a printing budget you had to abide by, and do you deal with the printer yourself?

Connie: I consult and advise on the printing budget, but mostly I try to stay away from it. If you bid the entire project, sometimes it scares off a client. If they can worry about the writer's salary, then look at the printing project down the road, it's sometimes too late to turn back, and the commitment to the project is stronger than before. The excitement builds. So I help, but I don't quote printing costs up front. There are so many variables: paper stock, color, black and white, trade paper, a split printing with hardcover and trade paperback. Those are seldom questions that can all be answered up front, anyway. The number of copies to be ordered frequently changes, too. One client wavers from a small number of copies, to "we'll need more than that just for the copies we're giving away." So I always recommend that writers avoid the printing part of the project.

MODERATOR: What kind of usual length are we talking about for a special project/pictorial history?

Connie: I've done everything from a four-page, table decorative brochure with two photos to books that exceed 200 pages. The number of photos varies from one on a two page spread to multiple photos or graphics per page. It depends so much on what is available, and what the clients wish to see. Many use a lot of personal, family photos that include many corporate members. Still it's not uncommon to see the infant grandchildren in a family photo; they're the next generation or more. Length depends on the budget and the client.

MODERATOR: Exactly who does the company give their projects/histories out to? Clients? Employees?

Connie: Anyone and everyone they want to. Family members, corporate past clients, corporate future clients, the press, the libraries. Alcoa sent copies to every school library and public library in a 50-mile radius. It's a full-color gorgeous book, printed in hardcover, paper cover, and some with leather box jackets. It's amazing the cost that can be involved. Alcoa also did a corresponding video, but I didn't write that script. I turned over the manuscript, and another company produced that product.

Blue Phantom: I had an opportunity last spring to write about a popular garden technique, but after talking with the owner of the company, I found I would have to do a lot of traveling, which is not bad, except I have a day job and very few vacation days. The question is: Do you find this scenario to be a problem?

Connie: Hi, Blue Phantom. I don't travel all that much for projects. I've tried to stay in my own community, and it hasn't been a problem. I've written children's books, two for children, two for teens, so I'm asked to do school visits occasionally, but an out-of-town project hasn't been my market. You need, I would think, to make the money worth your while, and try to do it on an intensive schedule. Say, a few days for interviewing, research, make copies to take home where you could read and do in-depth research. Did you do the project?

Blue Phantom: Not yet. Do you write for community entities, such as the chamber of commerce?

Connie: If you decide not to take that project, call me the next time you turn it down! (Ha!) No, I haven't written for the Chambers, although their employees have been great resources. I have written for Quad City Development Group, profiles of new companies, that sort of thing. My passion is children's picture books, and children's writing, including coordinating for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. We have a conference in September, and I've been busy with registrations and organizing the program. I also teach a class at the community college. It seems everything I do is a special project. But I love the variety.

Blue Phantom: Is using specialized terminology in your work difficult when you know little or nothing about the subject?

Connie: No, because I can read, and when we're good readers we can learn anything. I find that because I don't know anything about a subject it's often easier to make it more understandable to someone like me. Besides, there are always experts who are willing to serve as technical readers so that mistakes can be avoided.

james55clinton: I agree! These projects make great gifts for customers. This is a personal contract, right? Can you just be fired without compensation?

Connie: No, I've never been fired without compensation. I ask for upfront money. If the project is a big one, most vendors or contractors ask for "earnest money." So if a client pays say, $2,000 upfront, they aren't anxious to lose that money. Although I had a $20,000 contract to do a business biography once, and the poor man died from cancer before we could start the project. They didn't ask for a return on the money. My attorney told me to keep it. And then the client's widow told me to keep it, so I felt both sad and happy at the same time.

MODERATOR: While I'm doing the moderator upkeeping here, CONGRATULATIONS to Blue Phantom for a second manuscript acceptance!!! With Lighthouse Story Collections. WRITE ON!

Connie: Wow, I agree, Blue Phantom. Congrats! We need those great moments to keep us motivated. And hungry. I've always heard that you should stay hungry!

MODERATOR: Connie, did these special projects all come to you, or did you send queries to these community groups, or how did the projects come about?

Connie: I sent a query to Lindsay Park Boat Club, but the owner of a printing company recommended me to a committee, the Lyons Business & Professional Association in the northern part of Clinton, to do a project. They were celebrating 150 Years North of the Big Tree, and didn't have a writer. I researched, wrote, proofed, everything, from May until October. The book came out in November. That's intense work; it was 13 hours a day, and I couldn't do it now. But again, I find those projects so rewarding.

DebO: How do you find out about these opportunities? What type of marketing do you do to get something like that going?

Connie: I have a writer's brochure, materials like a resume, but word of mouth is so important. I've also used my social associations to earn income. One came from serving on a Friends Board at the Davenport Public Library, another through a recommendation from the Director of the library. Each book leads to major features in the newspapers, so my name comes up when someone has a special project in mind. I've been lucky that way, and I'm grateful.

MODERATOR: Besides histories like these, what kinds of other special projects might companies want done for them?

Connie: Every two years, our Junior Achievement organization puts together its Business Hall of Fame. They need profiles on top business executives, which they discuss and vote on. Then they need interviews and video scripts. I wrote five video scripts, with very little background or expertise, and they had to be done simultaneously, with all the same deadlines. It was plenty of pressure, but I made my deadlines. "Cross the line, and you're dead," if you don't. People know I usually make deadlines. To do that project, I researched at the Border's bookstore here, and bought a book called (are you ready for this?) Video Scriptwriting by Barry Hampe (Penguin Books. 1993.) It was very helpful. I've always found when I needed information, it's out there. For the pictorial histories, I interviewed two male pictorial history writers in non-competing markets, and asked them how much they charge, and how they go about it. One fellow recommended another book. I immediately ordered it via the telephone with a credit card. It was called How to Write Biographies and Company Histories by Richard Sawyer (Mt. Press, 1989). When we have questions, writers are the best people to find answers through research.

MODERATOR: How do you know what to charge in all these widely differing special project circumstances, Connie? Or do they give you a budget? How can you tell what a fair price is for a project? And can you determine how many hours it will take?

Connie: Writer's Market has a section called How much should I charge? that I've referred to frequently. And the two experts I interviewed who do similar kinds of projects offered some guidelines for minimums on the larger projects. So I ask, especially when the project will take a year or more to complete.

MODERATOR: Do you sometimes charge by the hour for a particular project, say for one of the "table decorations" I believe you mentioned earlier?

Connie: Yes, that's a good example of charging by the hour. Right now, I'm working on my first ever obituary for a CEO who wants control over what's published. Writer's Market suggested a set price, but I'm going to ask for more that their suggestion because the client can afford it, and I have a working relationship with him. It's still very reasonable. So charging hourly is okay, but it doesn't work with the big projects. Everyone knows how much time it takes to produce a book, so they don't want to work with estimated hours. They want a set price. But if the parameters change during the course of the project, we need to go back to the drawing board and ask for more money. A building contractor would, so why shouldn't we?

MODERATOR: Are the books and videos yours to market, or do they belong to the companies you worked for?

Connie: They're work for hire projects, so the answer is another yes and no. The videos, no, but the books I've taken to book fairs, yes, and I give them to prospective clients. The Putnam Museum sells these books in their gift shop, and I've taken them to Salute to Authors and the Children's Literature Festival, for show and tell, if nothing else. I have been surprised by a sale of a $25 book when I least expected it, so that's always nice.

MODERATOR: What about your work in the children's literature field? How does that "mix" with these special adult writing projects?

Connie: I have a literary agent who is marketing children's picture books and wants me to work on longer projects. I think it's a lovely mix, overall. I love the children's books, but the sales are less frequent than when I can work on special projects and do my own billing.

MODERATOR: While we're on the subject of children's literature, tell us about your children's writing projects, Connie.

Connie: Miss Rochelle and the Lost Bell was published by a local publisher; my graduate essay at the University of Iowa for an MA in Expository Writing was published by a regional publisher. I've co-authored a book, To Keera With Love: Abortion, Adoption, or Keeping the Baby, with a teen who went through these issues, making decisions, before she eventually chose adoption. It was published by Sheed and Ward, an arm of the National Catholic Reporter, and at the time, St. Ambrose University gave me a faculty development grant to support the project. It was interesting interviewing, and taping teens for that one. Another book, Dribbles, my top award winner, was published by Clarion Books, a New York house, and imprint of Houghton Mifflin. It's my favorite and has beautiful watercolors of my cat characters by Elizabeth Sayles.

MODERATOR: Are there special projects of a kind that haven't been mentioned tonight? What if, for instance, a family wants a biography of a family member, or their family history? Do you ever consider special projects like that?

Connie: I consider everything, and then try to decide. One of the men I interviewed told me he had a $35,000 contract to do a biography for a woman who wanted to do her husband's story. I would love a contract like that! Who wouldn't?

MODERATOR: Special projects sound like a LOT of work to me. It's easy to tell you really enjoy them. What do you especially like about doing them?

Connie: I love the variety. I love the idea that it's a short-term commitment and not looking at the next 30 years in the same kind of work. I like working with different people, and learning about new projects and companies. But I've been fortunate. I've only had projects that are led by people of good character. I haven't found myself in a situation that made me uncomfortable. Perhaps that's one reason I like the projects I've been fortunate to pursue. It's a blessing to work with, for example, the people on the Kahl Legacy project, going to press by September 18. The foundation people have been terrific and I've enjoyed so much working with the woman Ph.D. who is in charge of the project. It's going to be so much fun to do the press and promotion for it.

MODERATOR: For writers interested in this type of writing, can you give us some "nuts and bolts" suggestions for breaking in?

Connie: Send query letters to top businesses in your area, and ask who they are. I researched a list of companies that hadn't done histories, and those people would like to see, and contacted the CEOs. Some work out, others don't. But I must admit, I don't do heavy marketing. I keep busy most of the time with my current life, and consider opportunities when they arise.

MODERATOR: Should a new writer send a query letter to the businesses in their community, asking for work?

Connie: It's worth a try. I think we need to apply more often. It's amazing that many speaking engagements come about because writers apply for them. So it never hurts, and it can help, especially if your letter is passed along to someone who is looking for a good writer.

MODERATOR: Can you contact the businesses you find in your Yellow Pages, or is there a better reference book to use?

Connie: If a writer has a special area of expertise or interest, I think the Yellow Pages are a great resource. It depends so much on the writer's need for work, and the kind of work he or she is looking for. A good way is to call people who know companies, such as the Chamber of Commerce, who can suggest contacts.

MODERATOR: When writing a letter to businesses--who don't usually have editors--to whom should the query be addressed?

Connie: I always address my correspondence to the top--the President or CEOs, someone who is in a decision-making position. Editors wouldn't be helpful because you're competing with them. So go to the people who have the family and company history.

MODERATOR: You said that you didn't know about writing for videos, for example, but learned how when you needed to. Is this learning on a "I-need-to-know-now" basis okay for most projects?

Connie: Yes, I think we always need to keep reading how-to books and learning all we can. I do get serious about learning "how to" when a client expects me to know what I'm doing, and do it well. So need-to-know is sometimes necessary.

ChatRoomer: Do you ever find that a company does not have its special project clearly defined and specified, so that you have to "coach them"?

Connie: Yes, of course. Lots of times, these projects bend on the way to publication. That's why it's important to work with the client closely and be willing to satisfy their needs for the project, and make them proud of it when it's finished. That's also true when the parameters change, and you may need to ask for more money. And that's fair to both the client and the writer.

MODERATOR: You must've gotten some very supportive verbal feedback from company people on your projects. Remember any special feedback?

Connie: The Kahl Legacy is about Henry C. Kahl, a good Catholic man who lived in the early 1900s and built a skyscraper in Davenport in 1920. We're all patting each other on the back for the super job we've done. We've kept all the footnotes and the index, bibliography and materials are academically acceptable to the president of the college and dean of students, as well as the foundation president. And every time the vice president from Alcoa sees me, I get a friendly, but not too friendly, kiss on the cheek. The people I've been fortunate to work with are very special to me.

MODERATOR: Here's one pulled out of the hat. What if a child asked for, and could pay for, a special picture book for just himself--or a grandparent asked you to write it? Would it be feasible as a special project?

Connie: Great question. Let's see. How long would it take to write an excellent picture book manuscript? Some I've worked on for years and years. Some could be cranked out in a short time, but might not be great quality. And how would you charge for such a creative project? I'd have to think about it for quite a while, I'm afraid.

MODERATOR: Tell us about your absolute "Dream Project," Connie, for a special project. Would it be near home or in Tahiti? Would the payment be in company stock options? Would you wish for lots of employees with great anecdotes? What do you hope for in special projects, in other words?

Connie: Ha! The perfect Dream Project. I guess I'd love for any national publisher to commission me to write a book. I love my own projects, but there's something about having all the parameters defined, instead of trying to decide what the client wants, or what will be successful. I once thought I'd like to do Scott, the Olympic ice skater's story, but it's been done.

MODERATOR: I'm sorry to interrupt my good friend Connie now, but we're out of time. Thank you so MUCH for coming, Connie, and sharing your expertise on special projects with us tonight! You've enRICHed all of us writers, including this one!

Connie: Thank you for having me, and for everyone, keep on pursuing those special projects! They help pay those important bills!

MODERATOR: Do come back and join Moderator Kristi Holl again here on September 7 to hear Connie Laux discuss "Writing for the Romance Genre." Connie Laux has published nine historical romances and two contemporary romances. Romances comprise over 50% of the mass market sales made every year in this country, so come and learn from Connie how to get published in this huge market! She will discuss writing techniques as well as marketing. You won't want to miss this! Until then, good night, everyone, and thanks for coming tonight!

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