"Tying Up Loose Ends" with Karen Hammond.

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Karen is Karen Hammond, a national speaker and teacher. She has written fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and books, winning several awards for her writing.

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 online discussion. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. Tonight I'm pleased to have Karen Hammond back. She is going to talk about "Tying Up Loose Ends," giving advice and guidance for those writing and publishing questions you still have. Any topic goes! But first, good evening, Karen!

Karen: Hello, Everyone. Thanks so much for inviting me to be here tonight.

jbj: Is it better for the novice writer to find an agent right away, or wait until they've established themselves? Does the novice writer stand a fair chance at negotiating with editors without an agent?

Karen: We need to discuss what you are writing first. If you are writing magazine articles, you do not need an agent. In fact, agents will not be interested in representing you because there is just not enough money involved to make a profit for them too. If you are writing a nonfiction book, it is still possible for you to sell it without an agent, although it is getting more difficult. And if you are selling a novel, you will probably need an agent in order to get a publisher to look at it. Agents are of course impressed by prior publication and also by a professionally prepared proposal in the case of a nonfiction book or by a clean, well written manuscript in the case of a novel. It goes without saying that you want to send your work only to agents who represent the kind of material you write. There are many good books about this, one of the best being Jeff Herman's book, which comes out annually: Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.

444: If your goal is to write a fiction novel, how would you go about getting credits? Starting with fiction short stories?

Karen: That would certainly help. Many novelist started out as short story writers, and as I mentioned earlier those sales would help get an agent interested in your work. So it is certainly worthwhile to try to get some short things published while you work on your novel.

Linnie: A rejection letter from a magazine finished with "I would welcome submissions from you in the future." Can I mark my next submission 'REQUESTED'?

Karen: Good for you! This is the next best thing to an acceptance. If an editor takes time to drop you a note like this. It means she sees potential in your work. Possibly the piece you currently submitted is something she already has in-house, or something that was published recently, but she clearly liked your writing and would welcome more. So yes, get that next submission in with a tactful reminder that she asked for it. In your letter, say something like "thank you for your interest, and as you suggested on January 11, I am enclosing another manuscript for your consideration." This gentle reminder about the date and the fact that she asked to see more of your work will get your manuscript past any first readers and right to the editor's desk. One more tip: don't wait too long. Strike while the iron is hot and get something else to her while she remembers your name and your work.

Kevin: Do you have your own web site? And if you do, do you use it for promotion or advertising or selling your work?

Karen: Yes, I do. Please visit me at and say hello. I use it mostly for publicity, but I don't sell over it as yet. I am working on some things that I may eventually sell over it.

Bonnie: I've written a piece that would be perfect for the Disney Channels "Playhouse Disney Short." I write books and articles and have no experience with script writing, but would like to submit this story to Disney. Do you have any idea how I should go about my research to find how to write a script, plus if I can submit to them?

Karen: I confess that I don't know a lot about script writing, but I do know that you should first be sure that your script is in the standard script format. You can learn about this by reading any of the very good books on the subject, or just by looking in the current Writer's Market, which always has a section on script writing. Check web sites, too, such as that carry software on script writing. You may want to search the Disney web site too. There may be a way for writers to contact them. If you don't have training in script writing, you might find it worthwhile to take a course. They are frequently offered by community colleges, adult education, or even your local university.

SaraJ: Do you have a particular organizational method for your paper and files and research?

Karen: Gosh, if you could see my office you wouldn't ask, but seriously, there is some order in the chaos. I keep a lot of files and I have an office lined with file cabinets to try to control the clutter. It's one of the places where I really have to discipline myself because I hate filing! But I know it's a necessary evil. I have files for ideas, files of interesting stuff I've clipped from newspapers and magazines, files for my contracts, and of course files for my clips. I do try to keep this last one up to date and well organized so I can pull clips whenever I need them. I have been trying to store more and more on the computer, but it's hard to break the habit of having a piece of paper to look at. I can see the real advantages, though, of having as much as possible stored on disk.

Red2: I would love to write a weekly column dealing with a humorous side of simple things and politics -- sort of like Erma Bombeck used to do. I have not found a market except for a free e-zine that does not pay. I am constantly told how good my writing is, but I cannot find the right market or publisher. Where do I start?

Karen: Have you contacted your local publications such as your local newspaper, a regional magazine, or a statewide publication? You'll find that markets like this love local talent--in fact, some local and regional magazines will buy only from citizens of the area or state. Certainly this would be better than giving your work away to an e-zine, which I personally do not recommend. Another option might be a newsletter--perhaps your company's newsletter, or that of your spouse. You might not get paid for this, but it would be a print clip that you could build on.

KR: Should I put "THE END" or "-30-" at the end of my manuscripts? Does it matter if they are book length or articles?

Karen: Either is OK, but -30- is probably used more for nonfiction articles and The End for fiction.

Steve: Did you write in a variety of genres because you like them all, or were you trying to find a niche? Do you recommend finding a niche to be the most successful?

Karen: I like them and I like the variety and the challenge of trying my hand at new things. It's not for everyone, and many writers feel more comfortable with a firm specialty. So it's necessary to do what works best for you. Although I write in several genres, even I am not all over the place. My interests have changed over the years, but there tends to be some tie-in in my nonfiction specialties. For example, right now I write a lot of health, etiquette, and travel, food, and wine material. You can see the obvious tie-ins: staying healthy while traveling, international etiquette, and so forth. I still write some women's issues articles, but less on parenting than when my own children were small. One of the things I like about not specializing too tightly is this freedom to follow the trail of any topic that interests me. I also write short fiction, but most of my income comes from nonfiction, which is typical. I have had poetry published in some very good places, but as you know, it's not a way to earn a living unless one wishes to teach poetry as a college professor. So I write poetry for the love of it, supporting it by the other things I write!

Dirk: I keep hearing about "single character" stories? What are they?

Karen: I am not too familiar with this particular term, but I assume it means just what it says, a story that revolves around one character. It would probably be a literary story; that is, one in which the character struggles with an internal conflict.

Kevin: If you can afford either a writing course OR a writing workshop (a week long), which would provide the most benefit?

Karen: I can't answer definitively, but I can tell you how to make a good decision. Check out the course. Who are the instructors? Are they writing and publishing their work and/or are they qualified editors? Is the school accredited by the state in which it is located or by some similar educational group? Do colleges accept the course work for college credit? (Even if you don't want or need college credit, this is a good guideline for you to look for.) As for a workshop, you would need to ask similar questions. Who will be teaching? How much time will be spent critiquing the attendees work? What is the level of the people attending? If you are beginning to get published, for example, you don't want to attend a workshop for beginners. Look for one that will challenge you to move up to the next level. And of course, time and money are important considerations. Can you afford the course or the workshop? Can you take a block of time away from other things in your life to attend the workshop? And so forth.

Jane: How likely is it to have your work stolen or plagiarized in an online critique group?

Karen: First, it's important to understand that ideas cannot be stolen, at least as far as the copyright laws are concerned. But of course online your work is seen by many people and plagiarism (that is, lifting parts of your writing and calling them one's own) can be a real possibility. You can protect yourself by filing a written copy of your work with the copyright office in Washington, but for most beginners this is a time consuming and expensive process. I think a reasonable approach is to choose your group wisely and perhaps not send online anything you really cherish, such as a completed short story that you think is really great and publishable, or at least not until you are very comfortable with others in the group. By the way, many critique groups exist in towns and cities across the country. You might feel more comfortable in one of these.

SaraJ: Why is poetry so hard to sell--both for adults and for kids? How can I improve my chances?

Karen: Yes, it's terribly difficult, isn't it? Unfortunately we do not support the arts in this country as we should, and poetry is often seen as frivolous. Many fine literary journals are struggling to stay alive, and have to turn down work they would love to accept. If you want to do a little something for the world of poetry, check out some of these journals and consider subscribing to one! As for improving your chances, check out local publications, always a good place to begin. I don't know what kind of poetry you write, but many magazines as well as literary journals buy poetry, although of completely different kinds. So as always you must explore the markets. If you are writing for kids, be sure you know the age group you are targeting. Humor often sells more easily than other kinds of writing. I share your concern about the world of poetry because I love it too. It's a shame we do not support the arts better but unfortunately poetry is often seen as a frivolous pursuit.

Sunshine4U: Could you explain what the term 'mainstream writing' means?

Karen: Yes, this is the kind of writing that you will find in the magazines you typically find in bookstores and supermarkets. It means general audience material as opposed to literary writing that you would find in literary journals. You'll occasionally see a few journals for sale in large bookstores, but generally they are by subscription, in university libraries, and so forth. Literary pieces tend in general to be a little more cerebral and complex.

Lon: If you have a good idea for a story of only local interest, is it worth the effort to pursue it?

Karen: Definitely! These pieces are perfect for local publications, which are almost always easier to break into than larger national magazines or newspapers. Many writers, including me, started out this way. The first piece I ever sold was to the Sunday supplement of my local newspaper and was about skating on the local pond. It wouldn't have interested anyone but a local editor, but it gave me a good clip. Two weeks later I sold him another piece and I used those two clips to make my first sale to a national magazine. So yes, go for it!

Randy: Any changes in submission policies with publishers in the past few weeks?

Karen: Good question, Randy, for a couple of reasons. First because there are definitely some changes, and second, because it shows you understand the importance of keeping up with things in the world of publishing. Traditionally we have all submitted most of our stuff via snail mail and that has been slow to change. The publishing world is a world of paper and most people who work in it like to have paper in their hands, but the events of the last weeks have made changes in a few areas. Some magazines are no longer accepting snail mail queries or manuscripts; this is usually posted on their web site, so you should not have any difficulty checking it out. Most magazines, however, are continuing business almost as usual, with a few precautions. Many editors suggest that you use a printed to and from address label so that your work looks professional. Package it neatly and without a lot of unnecessary tape. When in doubt, call the office and ask a secretary how the editor prefers to receive queries. Some will suggest e-mail; others will take your name so they can expect your package; others will simply say to send it in. If you have worked with an editor before, you can e-mail him that you have another idea and ask if he'd like to discuss it via e-mail or the traditional route. But I'm assuming that you know he doesn't hate e-mail. Things will settle down eventually in this regard, but for the time being, be as professional as possible when sending in your manuscripts (which you should do in any case) and try to determine each editors preferred way of receiving queries before you submit.

JaciRae: This is kind of a technical question, but we're getting a new computer soon, and is there one that is better adapted to writers that I should look for?

Karen: I am not a computer guru, I'm afraid. Many writers love Macs and that's what I started out with, but when I moved to a rural area there was no support for it and when it was time to upgrade I changed to a PC. To be honest both were great for what I do on the computer, which is mostly word processing and Internet research and e-mail. Beyond that, you really should talk with a writer who is more technologically "with it". For example if you want to produce your own newsletter, there might be some features that you would want to look for.

MBVoelker: Are there any particular points to remember when weaving subplots into a novel? How can you make certain that they stay subordinate?

Karen: You must plan ahead of time what role the subplots play in your piece and how many subplots the novel can realistically sustain. But stay flexible, because more than one writer has had a subplot run away with her novel! That's not necessarily bad because that is probably the story that needs to be written. However if you know where you are heading with the primary plot, I find it helpful to outline very loosely where the subplots will be woven in. And do try to avoid bringing in a subplot near the end of the manuscript, an all too common error for beginning fiction writers.

imhopeful: What do I put in a cover letter when submitting a story where I've previously been published? I'm afraid the ms. may fall into the hands of a reader who is not familiar with my name.

Karen: Definitely mention that you have been published there before. Better still, why not contact the editor who bought the previous piece? Once you have sold a first piece, editors usually welcome personal calls or e-mails about future work. You should take advantage of this to make a personal pitch. If your editor has moved on, you can call and ask who has taken her place. Contact that person, indicating that you wrote for her predecessor and would like to send her some work as well.

ziegler: What is chosen more often by editors, rhyming or non-rhyming poetry?

Karen: This truly depends on the type of publication. One almost never sees rhyming poetry in literary journals, for example. But it's fairly common in mainstream publications and very common in children's publications. Check out the markets, be sure your non-rhyming poetry is really poetry and not prose broken into lines, and that your rhyming poetry scans well and isn't forced.

gllwoods: What do you think of local writers groups who critique each other's work?

Karen: They can be wonderful...or awful. If you get together with a group of similar-minded people who are on the same wavelength, such groups can be very helpful. Try to find a group in which everyone is writing seriously and either being published or working hard at achieving publication. Be sure there are some ground rules--who gets critiqued and how, for example. Try not to be the least experienced person in the group because you may feel intimidated, but also don't be the most experienced--the only published writer, for example--because you will spend your time teaching rather than moving on with your own work. Of course many of these groups are more socially oriented and no real critiquing gets done. There's nothing wrong with that if it is what the participants want, but it does little to enhance one's writing career. You might check at your local library or bookstore, where writing groups often meet. Someone there might be able to steer you to an appropriate one.

james55clinton: Many TV one hour dramas now tell three stories, two occupational and one personal story of a character. Is there an advantage to this format?

Karen: I think this is largely to sustain viewer interest by trying to tell stories that will hold the interest of a variety of viewers; much like weaving a novel together, the writers weave together the various plots so that you will stay tuned, waiting to see how they all turn out.

JaciRae: Did you take writing courses or workshops to get started in your own career?

Karen: I had a good background in writing in college, and my first job was with a book publishing company where I trained as an editor. I just kind of fell into know how first jobs are...but I kept my eyes and ears open and learned a lot. I had to work with proofreaders and senior editors and graphics people, so I got a lot of on-the-job training. And of course I was working with writers all the time, which let me know that they had the job I really wanted! I did take a couple of poetry classes after I graduated. They were useful in helping me understand the technical aspects of poetry. It's taught so little today that most of us don't have a good background in what makes a poem tick.

MBVoelker: I am having trouble with chapters. I have an entire upper YA fantasy novel (proposed length 60,000 to 80,000 words), outlined as a series of scenes and I cannot figure out how to divide it into chapters. On Kristi's advice I am writing it as is, but once the first draft is finished how do I determine where to break it up?

Karen: Kristi has given you good advice. You might try reading it out loud when you have it written up. I do this a lot. For whatever reason, sometimes our ears seem to pick up natural breaks better than our eyes. Perhaps because we've been looking at the text for so long. If you decide to do this, try to put it away for a few days before you begin reading aloud so that you come to it fresh. Another option is to have a person of appropriate age read it. Ask him or her to indicate where interest flagged or where a plot line seemed to end. I know you don't want to send this out to the public at this point, but perhaps you have a sibling or a cousin or a neighbor who would be tickled to help you as a first reader. Don't forget to thank her in the book when it's published!

imhopeful: Is there a good way to come up with nonfiction ideas for a book?

Karen: You need to write about something you are interested in or interested in learning about. It's really as simple as that. If you don't approach the book with the attitude of "I really want to write about this" you will burn out quickly and lose interest. Of course if you want to write the most publishable book possible, it helps to be looking at trends. Read the newspapers and find out what people are asking about or need to know and then try to tie that in with what you like to write. For example, many books have come out and will continue to come out about dealing with grief because writers with the interest in this topic saw a need for such books after Sept. ll.

JaciRae: I want to set up a good system for tax purposes, and I tried to figure one out last week, but I'm not sure what all I should keep track of. Do you use a special system, or software or something?

Karen: Because I write full-time I treat my writing as a business and have found it worthwhile to hire an accountant. But I still have to keep accurate records. I usually file all my paper records, receipts, income, etc. by the month, and once a month I organize it and log it into the computer. Then at tax time I take it all to my friendly tax man. Remember, if you are writing for publication--that is, actually selling your work--there can be tax write-offs for mileage, your home office, and so forth. So to see if you are eligible you might want a consultation with a CPA even if you can do your own taxes. There is software out there, but I am not a tekkie and prefer to leave that to the experts. Many writers do handle their own taxes successfully, though.

MBVoelker: Does "mainstream" include genre writing?

Karen: Yes, genres refer to such things as mystery writing, or romances, or westerns, etc. and are usually mainstream, although they occasionally are literary.

JaciRae: I'd like to attend workshops, but I don't know where to look for schedules and what towns they're in. Can you give me some direction?

Karen: First, check with your library or bookstore...preferably a larger one. Writers hang out at such places and the librarians and proprietors usually know about workshops and often advertise them. If you have a university or community college nearby, inquire there as well. Also, consider subscribing to a magazine for writers. Some good ones are Writer's Digest, which is for writers of all genres and all levels. The Writer, which is perhaps more for professionals, although also good for beginners, and Poets & Writers which is geared mostly to poets and fiction writers and is excellent for all levels. These publications contain lists of workshops, college opportunities, contests, etc., so are well worth the price of a subscription. Don't forget to log the cost for tax purposes!

MBVoelker: If you use 2 POV characters is it a good idea to make one of them the primary narrator and keep the other less prominent? Perhaps a 2 to 1 ratio of scenes?

Karen: This has so much to do with plot and even with length of your novel that it is hard to give a definitive answer, but in general this is probably a good approach. On the other hand, we've all seen novels in which one chapter is told from one character's POV and the next from another's, and they alternate throughout the book. It's really a question of what works best for the plot. By the way it's often a good writing experience to try things a couple of different ways. You might write a couple of chapters with two primary POV characters, and then rewrite them making one secondary and see which way is more effective. It's a good writing exercise, too.

Moderator: We have covered such a wide variety of topics tonight! Thank you so much, Karen, for coming tonight to field questions. We appreciate it!

Karen: Thanks for inviting me. It's really been fun and I am impressed by the quality and variety of the questions. I just want to encourage everyone to hang in there. The last few months have been difficult in many ways. Many of us found it hard to write, and publishers have had to deal with last-minute changes in their plans, as well as the obvious problems of dealing with their mail. It's a difficult time for new writers trying to break in, but if you study the markets, try to stay on top of trends, and keep submitting, you will eventually achieve success. Don't be afraid to seek out your local magazines and newspapers. It's often so much easier to break in there. Remember the editors of these pubs probably want to move up too, and when they do they often carry their favorite freelancers along with them.

Moderator: Excellent words of wisdom. Thanks again, Karen! Do come back in two weeks on January 24 when Anne Grant will be with us to discuss mystery writing. She is the author of the titles MULTIPLE LISTING, SMOKE SCREEN, CUTTINGS, VOICES IN THE SAND, and others. She has taught writing online and in many workshops, including those sponsored by Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. And now, good night, everyone!

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