"Making the Most of Your Creativity: How to Sell Multiple Articles From One Idea" with Karen O'Connor.

Thursday, November 2, 2000

MODERATOR is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l00+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Karen is Karen O'Connor, a respected writing instructor, professional speaker, and award-winning author of more than 35 books, hundreds of magazines articles and educational films. For more about this extremely versatile writer, check out her web site at

Names in blue are viewers who had questions.

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

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Welcome to tonight's interview with Karen O'Connor on the subject of "Making the Most of Your Creativity: How to Sell Multiple Articles From One Idea." I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Karen O'Connor is an award-winning author of more than 35 books, hundreds of magazines articles and educational films. Karen's personal journey has made her particularly sensitive to the challenges people face in business and in life. Welcome, Karen!

Karen: Thank you. Great to be here.

Moderator: Karen, first of all, what do you mean by creativity?

Karen: To me creativity is that part of us that imagines, dreams, and plans.

Moderator: How does one know if he/she is creative?

Karen: I believe everyone is creative. We were created by a creator and we have certain traits, gifts, and abilities that are inherent and that we long to use.

Moderator: If we all have this creative ability within, then how can one get over self-doubt?

Karen: Good question. It's a process that takes time and thought and practice and being willing to try fail and try again and make some progress. We keep learning by our experience and responses from others.

Kevin: What kinds of writers' fears are normal?

Karen: Not feeling worthy or talented or good enough. But much of our fear is rooted in our past--from things people have said in school, at home, among our friends. It's hard to let go of those voices that keep us stuck in doubt.

Moderator: How do you handle days when you feel sluggish?

Karen: I keep a daily journal. I do that before anything else. I got this idea from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way. She believes that we can use a journal to dump our fears and worries and concerns because these are the very things that keep us from doing what we wish to do. So I use that as a place to let go of my morning phobia. I also pray and exercise and breathe deeply to clear away the fog!!

Moderator: Good ideas! Karen, does reading stimulate creativity? Some fear that by reading a lot, they'll copy other writers.

Karen: I understand the fear of copying. It's normal. But I love to read. It stimulates my creativity, promotes creative thinking, shows me that other people have ideas that are like mine. In other words, I'm not alone in wanting to share my voice and my ideas with the world.

Kevin: Specifically, what kind of reading do you do (and recommend)?

Karen: I love to read books by Julia Cameron (available in any bookstore) and by Anne Lamott. Both of these women write for writers about the internal process. And I appreciate that because the process starts inside. We can learn about HOW to write but that won't matter if our fears have a hold of us. Such authors encourage us by letting us know that we are not alone, that creativity is something that one must work with daily. It's never a done deal.

Moderator: Does having a college degree help or hinder one's creativity?

Karen: I'm not sure it matters. I have a college degree but I know creatives who do not have a higher education. Classes aren't the only thing necessary, though they help broaden our approach to life. On the other hand practical experience is also very valuable. A good mix is ideal. One should never let lack in any form stand in the way of writing because if it is your dream, you won't be truly fulfilled until you express it.

SaraJ: Even without a college degree, should we be taking a few writing courses or classes at least?

Karen: Yes! I took a lot of classes because I wanted to learn about the professional way to do things. Why reinvent something that has already been invented?!!

Moderator: Here's a loaded question! Writers need discipline; can the undisciplined person change?

Karen: That's a great question. I can't speak for anyone else but I can say that in the years of my teaching I found that the people who succeeded were those who were willing to learn, to accept critiques, to practice, and to keep going. That takes discipline. Those who had raw talent, but were unable to apply the discipline necessary to get their words on paper, never progressed.

Lite9899: What are your personal discipline struggles and how have you overcome them (if you have!)?

Karen: My biggest struggle has been going for the bigger opportunities, greater sums of money and more recognition. Let me explain. I have not been as organized about planning my income over the long haul as I want to be. It has been quite an eye-opener! I am now working on that area of discipline in my life at this time. And it's about time!!

bernie: I have had a terrible year personally. Sick parents, deaths, plus regular mom duties. I am still writing but only get to do about half an hour a day. Would you say that is good right now in my situation?

Karen: I think it's wonderful that you are able to get anything done. I congratulate you for doing what is right for you and for your family. I remember when I was going through a divorce and my daughter noticed that my writing had slowed down and I was about to miss an important book deadline. She encouraged me to keep going despite the dreadful situation in my life, reminding me that I should do what nourished me so I'd have energy to take care of my life and children.

james55clinton: Is your creativity character-based or plot-based?

Karen: I write nonfiction primarily. So I can't speak to fiction with any great authority.

Kevin: I saw on your web site that you've published some Christian books and been on the 700 Club. To sell to other markets, do you have to water down the religious part?

Karen: I write for a variety of markets--some religious and many secular. I simply look at my target magazine and see what the editor wants, and then deliver that.

Moderator: How does organizing one's files and work space contribute to creativity?

Karen: Funny you should ask about organizing. I just finished interviewing a professional organizer before coming into the chat room. She talked about how people lose up to one hour a day looking for paper and information they can't find because it is not stored properly. I took a full week last year to bring my office into an almost paperless state, and it has paid off big time. I now have computer files for almost everything you can name. I love this new streamlined way of doing business. No more raggedy files to riffle through and no more piles of paper covering my desk. If you're not naturally organized, I recommend hiring a professional to help you set up a system that works for you. She recommended a web site for finding an organizer. It's

SaraJ: What do you mean by "an almost paperless state"? How is that possible exactly? Can you explain more?

Karen: It isn't entirely possible. It's just that I have less and less paper, and I achieve this by reading the paper that comes in--letters, information, brochures--deciding if I need it or not, then transferring info I want to save to my computer and then tossing the paper itself so I don't have the clutter.

bernie: What software programs do you use for your writing and files? Do you have hard copies of your files?

Karen: I keep some hard copies but very few. I save most of my stuff on a separate disc in case my computer crashes. For example, suppose someone sends me a newspaper clipping or a 'forward' e-mail with a cute quotation or a letter they want me to read. I read the info on these papers or e-mail and if I think it's worth saving, I put it into the computer and if it's not worth saving, I toss it out. I do this daily. And when I write an article I save a hard copy only until I receive the copy of the printed article in the magazine. Then I shred the hard copy, and put the published article (one copy only) into a 3-ring binder that is organized in alphabetical order, so I can keep track of what I have published. It's a good show case of my published writing and a quick and easy way for me to see which articles I want to sell as reprints.

Katherine McLaird: I am a new student of the Long Ridge Writers Group, and while I am constantly writing something, I find I frequently can only get assignments done when under pressure. I keep a fairly tidy desk by the way. Do you think my method of working is wrong?

Karen: No method is wrong. What works for the individual is what is right. We are all different and we must respect our own personality, style, and pacing.

Moderator: Your topic is making the most of one's creativity by selling multiple articles from one idea. That sounds difficult. What exactly do you mean by that?

Karen: I'll give you an example. I got an idea to write an article about what teens really need from their parents. I thought of four basic things: comfort, communication, consistency and care. That sold. Then I wondered what else I could do with the four 'c' words. I thought of my mother in a nursing home. That sparked another idea. What our aging parents really need from their adult children, and that led to what our coworkers really need from us. All three articles focused on these basic needs--human needs--but I had fun putting them into different formats for different audiences and thereby saving time and making money from one basic idea.

bernie: Do you find that while writing one piece you may get any number of ideas for others?

Karen: YES! And if you do, be super happy about it. Jot down whatever comes to mind. That means your creativity is in high gear.

book 1: Do you keep just one basic "ideas file" or do you break it down into categories or alphabetize?

Karen: I have a notebook in my purse and I jot ideas there as they come to me on the run. When I'm in my home office, I put them on the computer in an idea file. Yes, I categorize the ideas according to markets--juvenile, business, etc.

bernie: How many spin-offs have you gotten from one idea/article/story?

Karen: Not sure how many spin-offs I've written, since I have several hundred articles published at this point.

Moderator: When you talk about writing something from a "different slant" or "focus," what does that mean?

Karen: Similar to what I said before about the three articles using the 'c' words. I might write about step-parenting, for example, from three different angles: how to become friends with one's step-children, how to nurture step-children's relationships with their birth parent, and how to blend the two families.

Moderator: How do you narrow, widen, or change your audience?

Karen: I like to write for a narrow audience. For example, if I'm writing for young people, I focus on teens or youth, not both. When I write for adults I choose an area of their life--spiritual, financial, marriage--and then write an article that is well-focused on a topic of interest to that group.

Moderator: What about how to narrow or widen your topic in order to write spin-offs?

Karen: One can spin off or broaden an idea. For example, I wrote a lot about money in the early days of my career: "How to Make Money" (for junior highers), "A Woman's Guide to Family Finances" (for homemakers), and "How to Earn Your Summer Fun" (for youth.)

Moderator: How can you stick with your topic, but change the structure for a spin-off?

Karen: One example would be my article on horse careers for teens. I wrote the article after reading about the need for more men and women in equestrian services. That led me to look at various careers, one of them blacksmithing. I lived near an equestrian community at the time and one of my daughters owned a horse so I talked with a blacksmith about what his career entailed, then a woman in the same field. All this led to specialty articles on becoming a blacksmith. And all the material I gathered on horse careers later led to a book for young adults called Working With Horses: A Round-up of Careers.

Moderator: Okay, let's flip-flop that and ask: How can you stick with your structure this time, but change your topic?

Karen: Okay, I'll take a go at that. Let's take the classic how-to article. Editors love this bread-and-butter item. How-to's are meant to deliver solid, practical info on a given topic that readers can apply to their lives almost right away. I specialized in how-to writing for years. I used the how-to style, which is an introductory paragraph and then a list of tips for taking some kind of action, and then a concluding paragraph or short summary. Here are some of the diverse how-to's I wrote--same structure--different material: How to earn your summer fun, how to make pretzels, how to enjoy your step-children, how to make money, how to put humor into your marriage, how to have a backyard camp-out, how to talk to your children about death, etc.

Moderator: What diversity! It seems so obvious when you explain it, but I think we writers really overlook these multiple possibilities! Could a sequel be a spin-off? Can you think of an example of that?

Karen: Yes, but more in the book field. I recently published a book called Basket of Blessings: 31 Days to a More Grateful Heart (a devotional). When I finished that the editor wanted me to do a sequel or follow-up book. I looked at my life and realized that what follows a heart full of gratitude is a heart full of joy. So my next book is titled Squeeze the Moment: 31 Days to a More Joyful Heart. Will be doing something similar with two new books that are about to be contracted.

Katherine McLaird: Has an article you've written ever led you to write a story in a similar vein?

Karen: If by using the word story you are referring to fiction, then my answer is "no" since I don't write fiction, but if you mean did one article lead to another article, yes. In fact, right now a friend and I are collaborating on several articles for the parenting market on the topic of how to organize one's kids. "The Two-Minute Pick-up," "Never Say 'Go Clean Your Room,'" "Time Management Tips for Busy Parents and Children," etc.

Moderator: Is each spin-off considered a new piece? [Do you sell first rights to each new variation on your basic theme? Can you then sell reprints to each new piece?]

Karen: I sell reprints to an exact same article, yes, and we've already done that. But when I'm writing on a specific topic about organizing under the general subject heading of organization, then no. Each one stands on its own.

Kevin: Just how much changing do you have to do to be considered a new article? Is there a percentage of the words? Or a rule that you must change the opening and the ending for it to be a "new" article?

Karen: There is no rule that I know of. I don't try to be scientific about it. I simply look at the magazine I'm targeting and see how I can focus on those readers. For example I can use some of my friend's quotes in several articles for a business audience, for parents, and for seniors, since eliminating clutter applies to all three groups. But the articles would each be original because I focus on the specific needs of each one. For example, parents teaching kids to clean up their room in an organized manner would be different advice than I'd give to seniors who are down-sizing after retirement or to business people who need help getting rid of the clutter in their office cubicle. I hope this is clear. There are some similarities, of course, but enough differences to show that each article is original and written with a particular readership in mind.

Kevin: I guess what I'm asking is this: if an editor saw another article by you on a similar topic, how much different would his have to be so that he didn't think he'd paid an "original" price for something that was mostly a "reprint"?

Karen: It's never a reprint unless it's the exact same article. Reprint means you are reprinting what has been published. A spin-off is closer to what you are asking about and the examples I gave are spin-offs. There is no problem with a spin-off. However, I sense you are trying to make a formula out of this and it can't be done. It's a matter of your own integrity. If you approach your writing with wisdom and good intentions and a desire to serve your readers you won't go wrong. If you are trying to measure how much work you have to do to make it under the wire of what's legal, then I believe you or anyone else would be writing with one eye over your shoulder. Keep in mind your purpose for writing--to inform, help, entertain and inspire--and do so with your target reader in mind.

Kevin: Thank you for making that clear. We were discussing this in a writing group and everyone had a different opinion, and I wasn't understanding the difference.

Karen: You're welcome, Kevin. Thanks for asking.

Moderator: I guess my own creativity is asleep, Karen. Let's throw you a curve a minute! :) Just how can an idea for a religious magazine also work for a business publication?

Karen: I believe one of my earlier examples is best, the one about the four 'c' words. I wrote the article about what our aging parents really need for The Lookout, a Christian magazine, and I included scripture and other spiritual encouragement. But when I wrote the article on what our coworkers really need, for Office Hours, I used examples from the workplace to illustrate the four 'c' words and of course I did not include scripture or any spiritual insights.

Moderator: How can writers broaden their markets? What did you do to expand into so MANY different fields?

Karen: I look through Writer's Market regularly and make a list of the magazines that appeal to me and those that challenge me a bit. It is essential to continue to do marketing surveys. I also look at web sites and read some of the articles posted online so I can get a feel for the kind of writing the editor wants. I have decided against some magazines based on this survey. And that has been a crucial learning experience for me and has helped me make better use of my time.

Moderator: I know from checking out your web site that you've branched out in many directions. Can you take one idea and go into magazines, books, video, radio and TV? How?

Karen: YES!! I am doing a lot of speaking these days. Book publishing companies require it. Editors want authors to be part of the sales force, so to speak, so I have fashioned several talks based on the topics I've written about. For example, my most requested presentation is called "The Secret of a Grateful Heart". The talk is based on my book, Basket of Blessings. I also do a talk on personalities and how we can influence and inspire people with our positive power. That was an easy one to put together because I have been trained as a Personality Plus Trainer and I have written in both the Christian and business field on personalities.

Moderator: I've been published for 20 years, and I never thought of basing a talk on my books! (I do feel dense here!) Karen, do you read or subscribe to all the magazines you write for?

Karen: No!! I probably should, but I don't. I use the web sites and the sample issues and the writers' guidelines to help me know where to send my work.

Moderator: How do you keep track of your sales so you don't repeat your ideas?

Karen: Great question! And I'm happy to respond since I have an answer I'm proud of. I have a self-made system in a computer file. One is called Circulating Articles. The other is called Query Records. I post the date of submission--be it full manuscript or query letter. I add the name of the article, the magazine, the editor's contact info. When a response arrives, I go to the file and make a note of whether the article sold and for how much or if it's a reply to a query, then I note that. If the editor says yes, send the article, I write it up, and then enter the title and date in the Circulating Articles file. If I want to send a reprint, for example, I scan the list to see where I first sold it and to whom I have already sold a reprint--so I don't do it twice. I did have one embarrassing experience a few months ago. I sent a short 'filler' type article to an editor who takes only complete manuscripts (no queries) and she wrote back saying she had already purchased that article from me and then cited the date and issue where it appeared. I couldn't believe I had made such an error. When I checked my records I realized that I had sold her the same piece with a different title. That led me to making an extra notation on future files. If I used more than one title, I'm now sure to list each one and clarify the record here that the articles I'm referring to are the kind that can be sent simultaneously to various magazines.

Moderator: Oh dear! How embarrassing. I did that once too! Karen, I wish we could all just come visit your organized office and look around!

Kevin: Some topics for certain magazines seem to repeat after a while. If you wait (how long?) can you send the same magazine a spin-off type article?

Karen: Perhaps, especially if there is a new editor. But to be honest there are so many markets, it's not necessary to wait around. Just keep writing and challenging yourself to do new things for editors new to you. That's what keeps our creativity fresh.

Moderator: Do you mention in your cover letters where your previous pieces on the same topic have been published? Why or why not?

Karen: I don't mention them unless I'm selling a reprint. No need to otherwise because I'm selling fresh material.

Moderator: I often hear that organizing one's work is a major threat to creativity. Some people like the writing but they don't want the discipline or the marketing. Any comments?

Karen: You are so right. And I must confess that is my biggest pet peeve. Many new writers want the sale, but not the grunt work. But I maintain that part of being creative is taking responsibility for the entire process: the part we love and the part we don't like as much. It all adds up to a full career. I feel that it is actually disrespectful to one's self, one's reader and the buying editor not to know what is wanted and needed and then to do our best to give it. Sorry if I sound like a preacher but it does bug me when people complain about not getting published and when I ask about their habits or marketing plans, they have none. I'm not saying any of this behind-the-scenes work is easy, but it's part of being a mature and responsible adult in the marketplace. A famous marketer once said that 75% is marketing and 25% is the work itself.

seabeewife: How is organizing one's work a major threat to creativity? Just curious.

Karen: I don't see it as a major threat. Perhaps Kristi meant that some new writers view the 'chore' part of being a writer as a disruption to being creative, but to me being orderly helps me to think in an orderly manner and when I have orderly thoughts I can create more easily.

Moderator: Yes, the comment was just "tongue in cheek." Sorry! Karen, selling is distasteful to some. They don't like the thought of peddling their writing. Have you ever felt that way?

Karen: Peddling apples and peddling writing is actually very similar. We are sales people after all, even though many creatives do not like to think of themselves in that way. We have a product to sell--our writing--and the editors have the money to pay us for our 'wares.' It needn't be a distasteful process. It can actually be fun! A man in a national writing group I belong to makes over $200,000 per year writing technical and business pieces. Works 65 hours a week. Now doesn't that sound like fun? Great money to be made at home doing what he loves and all because he has applied himself to learning how to do what it takes to achieve the goals he set for himself. Each of us can make of our career what we want, as well. One of my students who is an engineer says he loves his work, but he also loves to write, so he's a weekend writer, so to speak. And the money he makes from articles he sets aside for family vacations and for his daughters' future education.

Moderator: Have you built any ongoing relationships with editors? How did this come about? Does that insure future sales?

Karen: I have an ongoing relationship with the editor of The Lookout. I now write each year on assignment. He sends the theme sheet for the next year and I write query letters on the topics of interest to me. He then chooses the ones he wants and assigns them, including word count and deadline. It's great. I also am building relationships with a few online editors now that I've sold to them. Speaking of relationships with editors, I recently heard that it is important to keep them going by writing a note once in awhile or dropping an e-mail just to say hi. They're people like us and they appreciate being thought of. I like that idea.

Moderator: Karen, can you use ideas from a magazine piece in a book or vice versa? Can you plagiarize yourself?

Karen: I don't think of it as plagiarizing, though you are probably speaking in a tongue-in-cheek manner here. But yes, I use my material both ways. Some things from magazines have been used in books, though not in the exact format since the book is likely quite different. But if I have a good anecdote or an interview with an expert from my files, I will use it. For example, I wrote a couple of short 'fillers' (800 words or less) for magazines and when I began writing my devotional on gratitude I realized they'd be a perfect addition. So I reworked them and included them. Book and magazine rights are separate. I also used only that material that I had the rights to, in other words, material that I had only sold first rights to.

Kevin: If you published something in a magazine, and it bought all rights, can you use it in a book of your own then? Or is that stealing then? What about just using parts of it?

Karen: Good question, Kevin. Here's an example from my files. I sold all rights to an article to Reader's Digest in 1987. I loved that piece and knew it would make a great reprint so I called the permissions department and asked if I could rescue it after so many years. The editor say yes on the spot and sent a follow-up letter of confirmation that week. I have sold it several times since then as a reprint and also incorporated parts of it in one of my books. The lesson here? Ask and you may very well receive!!

Moderator: Now THAT'S good marketing! Karen, I hate to interrupt here, but I'm afraid we've run out of time. Thank you so much for sharing such practical insights into ways we can actually make this writing life work--and pay!

Karen: You are most welcome. Thanks to all of you for great questions and for hanging in there for two hours. Blessings to all!

Moderator: Do come back to the Long Ridge site in two weeks when we'll be hearing from Cheryl Zach and her daughter, Michelle Place, on the subject of "When Writing is a Two-Way Street: Writing with a Partner." Cheryl has published over thirty juvenile novels herself. With her daughter Michelle she also writes historical romance for adults as "Nicole Byrd." Robert's Lady (Jove) was out in May, and Dear Imposter is an August, 2001 release. You won't want to miss this unique interview on collaboration. And now, good night, everyone!

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