Category Archives: Nonfiction

The Complete Writer: Writing the Feature Article *Free Read*

The Complete Writer
Part III
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs

Chapter 13. The Structure of Feature Articles

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears at our here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Like a work of fiction, an article has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Accomplished writers organize their material up front. Before they sit down at the keyboard, they know how the story will begin, how it will conclude, and what path it will take to reach the end.

If you look closely at published feature stories and at most journalistic blog posts, you’ll see they follow a fairly standard format.

  • The lead, which opens the story with a person, an anecdote, a set scene, or—rarely—dialogue.
  • The transition, often called the capsule statement, bridge, nut paragraph, or “nut graf.” It tells the reader why you’re writing about this subject. The nut graf has its equivalent in the “thesis sentence” of freshman composition.
  • A strong ending, a real gem saved for the last paragraph.

The way the writer develops these elements depends on his or her purpose and material. An effective story is shaped logically to fit its substance.

The story’s architecture

The typical news story is shaped like an inverted pyramid. It starts with a lead that concentrates the so-called “5 W’s and an H” of classical journalistic style: who, what, when, where, why and how. The facts of the event are then presented, as objectively as possible, in descending order of importance.

This structure made it easy for the reporter to call in or submit a typescript that disgorged whatever happened on the scene, and for the copy desk to shorten the story to fit the space available simply by cutting from the bottom—the closer to the end, the less important was the content.

The feature story, in contrast, can take on any of several shapes. The basic structure is what I like to call the “paper doll”:

Here the story opens with an attention grabber. A transition between the striking image or statement of the lead bridges the gap between the lead and the main part of the story, which develops facts and observations in a coherent way. Finally, a strong ending wraps up the narrative.

Without the transitional plateau of the nut paragraph, you get a footed bowl, also a useful structure:

Some feature stories are circular: the ending brings the reader back to the lead.

Others may be Y- or menorah-shaped. In this fairly complex structure, several distinct strands or parallel substories are braided to form a narrative that come together in a rousing conclusion.

The best writers understand the importance of structure. William Howarth, in his introduction to The John McPhee Reader, notes that McPhee, a master craftsman, seeks “to create a form [for a given story] that is logical but so unobtrusive that judgments of its content will seem to arise only in the reader’s mind.” In designing a structure, Howarth observes, McPhee may “either find an idea for order in the material or impose one upon it, selecting what Coleridge called the ‘organic’ or ‘mechanic’ principles of structure.” Levels of the Game, a study of Arthur Ashe and Clarke Graebner’s September 8, 1968, Forest Hills semifinals match, takes up the back-and-forth action of a tennis game, deriving the story’s form from the material at hand.

The structure you choose for your story must give it unity, balance, and coherence. You can point out the facts’ meaning simply by the order in which you present them, sometimes by setting two telling items side-by-side without editorial comment. Search for a structure that complements your story’s theme. You might, for example, write a human-interest piece about someone caught in a bureaucratic runaround: the story could have a circular structure, taking your subject from Point A right back to Point A. This would effectively underscore theme with structure, conveying the victim’s frustration or bemusement without ever preaching or explicitly criticizing.

Writing Leads

The lead’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention, provide the central idea, and persuade the person to read on. It need not state the story’s point or most important facts. Feature leads are less formulaic than a hard news lead; they give you more room to be creative.

Feature leads for newspapers are necessarily short and to the point. This is true of leads for blog posts, where brevity is often the point in itself. Newspaper and blog editors invariably prefer a punchy opening over the impressionistic lead that may appeal to a magazine editor. Try a magazine lead on a newspaper editor and you’ll hear that you’re “backing into the story.”

In any event, the lead’s information must be related to the story’s main point. Don’t open a piece with a colorful descriptive passage that has little to do with your message. If a catchy anecdote illuminates the story’s point, fine: use it. Otherwise, find a better lead.

Many writers will start a story by focusing on a person whose experience underscores what the story is about, and they’ll try to put a good quote near the top. Bloomberg News focuses on entrepreneur Richard Branson to open this story:

In 2014, disaster struck Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The company’s experimental spaceship tore apart and crashed during a test flight, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The crash added tragedy to a string of delays and disappointments for the company, which Branson founded in 2004 to make space tourism routine. This year, Virgin Galactic came back with the unveiling of the beautiful SpaceShipTwo.

Hello World’s Ashlee Vance went to the desert to attend the SpaceShipTwo press event at the Mojave, Calif., airport and to find out how much resolve Branson has left. With his typical flair, Branson brought the spaceship out amid a sea of champagne and celebrities and huge helpings of optimism. Flashing his brilliant smile, he said that the world’s wealthiest people will be able to travel to space soon. Some more of us will follow, someday.[1]

Some of the most effective leads are anecdotal. An anecdote is a ministory with its own opening, middle, and end. When you use it as a lead, its ending should tie into the rest of the story by making a transition into the capsule statement or body of the story, by making a strong point that underscores your story’s subject, or by serving as a capsule statement itself.

The letter arrived on a spring day. It had flown across the Great Lakes, over cornfields, across the Rockies, and out over the Pacific—8,000 miles across the briny deep and up into a satellite somewhere in orbit that flicks emails from one end of the earth to the other. It zipped through the stratosphere above the skyscrapers of Hong Kong, over the sprawl of Guangdong and the rice paddies beyond, to the foothills of the Himalayas. And finally to Kunming, a city of seven million people in southern China. The day it arrived, Jessica was sitting at home, eating dinner with a friend from school.

When she saw the words “Northeastern University” on the subject line, Jessica almost didn’t want to open it. It was clear outside, “but I was afraid of raining in my heart” if the college refused her, she said. Jessica was a high school senior at the time, in 2013. She had grown up in Yunnan, the Chinese province edging on Tibet, Myanmar, and Laos, but her dreams rested in a distant land, the United States. Slowly, she scanned each line of the letter, carefully. Then she turned to her friend with a huge smile and said: “I did it!”[2]

Similar to the anecdote is the single example or series of briefly stated examples. These are often short case histories illustrating a problem the story will address. They are popular in women’s magazines, especially for health-oriented stories.

“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare,” and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.”[3]

This lead, which appeared in a newspaper’s magazine, begins with a quote. Many editors, especially those with a newspaper background, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. Although they sometimes go with it if the lead works exceptionally well, beginning writers should avoid leading with a quote.

Similarly, many editors disapprove of leading with a rhetorical question. This approach has become more common, though. The problem with the rhetorical question—posed so the writer can provide the answer—is that it may appear patronizing. Also, it can lead your reader to provide a different answer from the one you’re trying to elicit.

Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five time to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?

The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.[4]

The narrative lead opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in a dramatic, chronological way. First this happened, then this, then we get to the substance of the story. Long form nonfiction pieces, such as this one by Siddartha Mukherjee for The New Yorker, often open with a narrative lead.

On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia. Lean and taut, with a swirl of dark hair, Macesic resembles an aspiring urban d.j. In fact, by night he spun electronica in clubs around Melbourne; by day he was a fellow in infectious diseases. The call concerned a woman in her late forties who had come to the hospital complaining of a fever, headaches, and an unusual rash.

Travel-related illnesses may be an Australian obsession: foreign contagions brought into the country can spread like, well, rabbits. The woman in the E.R. had just returned from the Cook Islands, an isolated spray of atolls in the South Pacific, where she and her husband had been attending a family funeral. Other people at the funeral had been sick with mysterious fevers, but she hadn’t made much of it. Now that she was home, though, a mild headache had progressed to a full, persistent throb. Migratory pains appeared in her joints, and an angry, blanching rash—the kind that pales when you press it—was now blooming across her torso.

When Macesic entered her hospital room, the woman, a textile worker, looked more medically stable than he had expected she would. She spoke in measured sentences, with no sign of confusion or delirium. But Macesic was struck by her strange rash—vivid raised red dots coalescing into islands—and the color of her eyes (pink, with streaks of vermillion), which was indicative of conjunctivitis, a symptom of certain viral infections.

Was it dengue? Macesic wondered. Dengue—colloquially known as breakbone fever, because of the intense corkscrews of pain that can occur in the bones, muscles, and joints—is caused by a mosquito-borne virus and was endemic in the Cook Islands. But the woman’s symptoms seemed too mild for dengue: the disease can cause catastrophic drops in white blood cells and platelets, but her blood counts were nearly normal. Could it be chikungunya? Another mosquito-transmitted viral fever, chikungunya can leave its victims with months, or even years, of wracking joint pains. But this woman’s joint pains and swellings weren’t severe. It was as if she had acquired a milder variant of those diseases—a more temperate cousin. And the conjunctivitis was a tipoff: neither chikungunya nor dengue is usually accompanied by those blood-tinged eyes.

Macesic decided to consult an online reporting system called ProMED, which tracks infectious diseases around the world. Even surfing the site casually takes a fair amount of fortitude: one day this month, there were eleven new reports on the site, including an undiagnosed measles-like disease that killed forty children in rural Myanmar; anthrax outbreaks among deer in Siberia; food poisoning from cyclospora at a Mexican resort; and a form of strep, normally found in horses, that sickened a woman in Washington State and killed her mother.

As Macesic went through previous entries in ProMED’s database—malaria in Oman, Lassa fever in Nigeria—he found a cluster of cases in French Polynesia, some six hundred miles east of the Cook Islands, that seemed remarkably similar to the woman’s condition: a dengue-like, mosquito-borne viral syndrome, but with a milder course. Those cases had been attributed to a little-known virus called Zika, a member of a family of RNA viruses that includes dengue, West Nile, and yellow fever. (Zika gets its name from the Ugandan forest where the virus was first found, in a monkey, in the nineteen-forties.) Macesic sent the woman’s blood to a specialized laboratory for viral analysis.

The next morning, the woman’s husband arrived at the hospital, enveloped in the same diffuse, blanching rash. By the end of the week, the woman’s blood test had come back positive for the Zika virus. The husband, however, had no detectable virus in his blood: he had seemingly cleared the infection almost completely. In both cases, Macesic noted, the symptoms had also begun to resolve on their own. He figured that the man and the woman had been bitten by Zika-carrying mosquitoes. (The sexual transmission of Zika had been described in one prior case report, but Macesic did not know about it.) Macesic wrote the case up as an abstruse curiosity—a medical “quiz”—for an infectious-diseases journal. “The illness is typically mild and self-limited, with resolution over 1 week,” he noted. “In a previous outbreak with 49 confirmed cases of Zika, no deaths, hospitalizations, or hemorrhagic complications were reported, but neurological complications . . . have been described.”

Medical students are often taught a piece of diagnostic wisdom: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” But this case, a rare illness that closely resembled common ones, was a classic zebra. Macesic didn’t expect to encounter it again—at least, not anytime soon.[5]

Setting the scene can also be exceptionally effective. To do this, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and puts the players in place. This gut-wrenching investigation begins in the most ominous way:

Apartment #716

It was a joke among members of the ragtag maintenance crew at the Section 8 housing project, as well as a convenient answer for local fire marshals who sometimes inquired: “Blacks frying chicken with grease, they keep burning down these apartments!”

The London Square apartment complex where the crew worked was an aging misfit in the midst of a well-established middle-class neighborhood in Tulsa, in central Oklahoma. When it was built in 1965, the sprawling complex was considered a jewel in the midtown community, boasting seven private in-ground swimming pools and immaculate landscaping. Fifty years later, neighbors see it as a tinderbox—its aging wooden roofs, dilapidated stairs, and boarded windows a testament to neglect. Numerous fires through the years served to evacuate unlucky tenants, along with the colonies of bedbugs hiding in mattresses of previously burned-out units.

One of those occurred on November 18, 2013.

For Miashah Moses, it began with a plume of black smoke. She saw it rising from her building as she crossed the parking lot. She broke into a run. Her two small nieces were inside.[6]

Sometimes you can lead with a bit of striking, well-written description:

Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock-n-roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings thrust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. and above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.[7]

With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale.

Occasionally, you can use some odd, unusual, or outrageous statement:

Hendricks County, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.[8]

So a Wall Street Journal piece led into a story about a cop on the witchcraft beat.

These aren’t all the possibilities, but they should be enough to get you going. Read a lot of the kind of stories you enjoy, and observe how each one opens. Decide which ones work best, and then go forth and do likewise.

Nut Paragraphs

The nut graf or transitional capsule statement, often called the “bridge” by newspaper writers, moves the reader smoothly from the lead, which may be startling, into the body of the story. It explains what the piece is to be about and how the opening ties into the subject.

Many writers compose a one- or two-sentence thesis statement before they begin the story. Some version of this can often fit into the nut graf, but whether or not it does, the habit helps organize and focus one’s thoughts.

In a story about the AT&T break-up, Wall Street Journal reporter Francine Schwadel introduced a customer in the lead, showing him making a snap decision to sign up for the company’s long-distance service. She continued:

Millions of Americans have made the same call. In the big wave of balloting that started two years ago and ends Sept. 1, roughly 75% of the voters so far have chosen AT&T to provide long-distance service to the home or business. And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll indicates that feelings like Mr. Seitz’s are largely responsible for the outcome: half of the 1565 respondents who expressed a preference for one of the phone firms cited familiarity with AT&T as the most influential element in their choice.[9]

Though the next paragraph concedes that the then-monolithic telecommunications giant was seeing some inroads from its new competition, the gist of the story is summarized in the nut graf: AT&T was still beating the dickens out of its rivals.

Development

In the body of a feature story, you make your points or discuss the issues at hand. These details must come in a logical order, one leading reasonably to the next. Most writers accomplish this by outlining the information they plan to present, whether on paper, in a computer file, or mentally.

A newspaper or magazine story may be organized along the lines of any of the standard rhetorical approaches. You may compare and contrast issues. You may develop an argument inductively, working from particular facts to a general conclusion, or deductively, reasoning from the general to the specific or from a familiar principle to the unfamiliar. You can build a chronological narrative, presenting events in the order they occurred. You can show cause and effect, or write a story that is an extended definition of some abstract concept.

Your approach to your story’s organization should fit your purpose. Chronological ordering works effectively with how-to stories and straight reports. Deduction—leading the reader from something familiar to new, unfamiliar concepts—is especially useful in science writing, where you may have to present bizarre, difficult ideas. Induction—drawing general conclusions from specific, concrete facts—helps clarify economics, sociology, and business issues, and it also works well in writing profiles. Cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast are useful approaches to the report.

One dramatic variety of development involves abutting a series of peaceful or pleasing events against an ironic fact or a stunning change in fortune. A writer discussing feral horses, for example, described the beauty and grace of a wild stallion that eluded capture for many ears. She wrapped up this idyllic passage with a bald statement: “The next year the big black and five of his mares were gutshot in cold blood by vandals and left to die in a meadow where once they peacefully grazed.” This can be a forceful way to make a point.

However you decide to develop your facts, they should hang together coherently. Short but smooth transitions should tie each paragraph with the ones that come before and after it. You can accomplish this by repeating key words and phrases and by using transitional words such as but, and, however, so, or nevertheless. Schwadel leads almost every paragraph of her AT&T story with some transitional device. The story’s second developmental paragraph begins, “AT&T’s success in the balloting,” echoing “impressive victory” in a preceding paragraph. This paragraph ends with “The theory was that people would desert AT&T in droves once federally mandated “equal access” enabled them to enjoy cheaper service without having to dial extra digits.”

Next graf begins, “But the results indicate. . . .” Now we see a steady progression of transitional function words heading paragraph after paragraph:

Another reason for AT&T’s strong showing. . . .”

But AT&T didn’t succeed solely. . . ”

Still, some people didn’t buy. . .

“AT&T’s efforts, however, were clearly. . . ”

“AT&T describes such defectors. . .

Indeed, of the customers that AT&T’s rivals . . .”

“In some parts of the country, meanwhile, . . .”

Although this approach seems mechanical when shown out of context, it demonstrates the importance of everyday transition words. They help your reader follow your train of thought.

Careful, logical ordering of your points so that the reader’s thought moves easily from one paragraph to the next will do the job, although you’ll need an occasional assist from those mechanical transition words. To succeed with this, you lay out a meticulously organized outline before you start to write. If the outline flows logically and the writing is coherent, the article should move logically, too.

The Last Word

Save a strong quote or a striking observation for the ending. It may or may not hark back directly to the lead, but it should summarize what you’ve said in a powerful, colorful, or succinct way. Sometimes you can use an ironic or telling quote for this purpose.

As a prosodic note, some writers try to end a story on an accented beat. That is, the last syllable in the last sentence is stressed, rather than unstressed. About Indiana’s steelheads, Homer Circle concludes,

The dictionary defines mania as “a form of insanity characterized by great excitement.” After you do battle with your first one, you’ll see why Skamaniacs are well named.

Because English usually stresses the first syllable, this reversal subtly catches the readers attention and, like the final flourish in a song, it ends the piece on an emphatic note. It’s not necessary to do this—it’s not always possible—but it’s a nice touch.

Sources:

[1] Bloomberg News, “Virgin Galactic’s Next Big Bet,” July 29, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-29/virgin-galactic-s-next-big-bet?cmpid=google&google_editors_picks=true

[2] Caitlin Dwyer, “Escaping the Gaokao,” September 17, 2015, The Big Roundtable. http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/escaping-the-gaokao/

[3] Daniel Holzman, “Endless Care with Costs to Match,” December 28, 1987, Insight.

[4] Homer Circle, “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” January 1985, Sports Afield.

[5] Siddartha Mukherjee, “The Race for a Zika Vaccine,” August 22, 2016, The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/the-race-for-a-zika-vaccine

[6] Carol Mersch, “A Trial by Fire,” May 26, 2016, The Big Roundtable, http://www.thebigroundtable.com/stories/a-trial-by-fire/
[7] Douglas H. Chadwick, “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu,” July 1987, National Geographic.

[8] Alex Kotlowitz, January 7, 1988.

[9] August 22, 1986.

Woo Hoo! Cookbooks SELL!

Wednesday evening our redoubtable choir director agreed to let me wave the new cookbook around during the break at rehearsal. And by golly! SEVEN PEOPLE bought a copy on the spot!

And I don’t even have the hard copies yet! What I showed was a page proof from the previous PoD printer.

Down at the new guy’s plant, we saw that his software (which differs slightly from his competition’s) left a quarter-inch border along the bottom edge of the cover, so he suggested I bleed the image further off the edge. So instead of ordering a bunch to fill the requests already lined up, I had to traipse back to the office, fiddle with the cover art, and order a new page proof. {gronk}

So: if you’ve ordered a copy of 30 Pounds / Four Months, be assured yours is on the way. I expect we’ll have them in another week.

And if you’d like a hard copy, which is not available at Amazon, leave a comment to that effect at this post or at the Plain & Simple Press “contact” page.

Discounted $3 for blog friends and choir members only, the price is $10 plus shipping.

Dark Kindle LoRes

Coming Attractions!

Recently, having surpassed our short-term publishing goal, we decided to slow our production pace by about 50%, partly to allow the writing team to focus on longer, more interesting stories and partly to give me a break from the 14-hour days. Interestingly, the result has been that more projects of higher quality have blossomed.

Soon to appear, for example, will be a revised and much improved version of the ill-fated diet/cookbook, whose first incarnation was titled How I Lost 30 Pounds in Four Months.

The new version is renamed. Its new title is 30 Pounds: 4 months. Here’s a draft of the cover, still very much under construction:

Dark Kindle for post

I’m not nuts about this design. What’s really desired is one of my friend La Maya’s gorgeous original oil paintings, rights to which I wish to purchase…  She’s out of the country just now, but will return next week. At that time I hope to strike a deal with her. Possibly, for example, she’d be willing to share this one.

How I Lost was the first book I posted to Amazon all by my little self. The very first Plain & Simple Press effusion, Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education, was formatted and posted by a professional e-book formatter, and it came out looking very nice. After I discovered, however, that one can upload to Kindle direct from Word, nothing would do but what I had to try it myself.

Naturally, I picked the single most difficult, complicated book we’ve emitted through Plain & Simple Press and Camptown Races Press combined. Not only is it plenty long, it has a complicated set of heads and subheads, almost every recipe contains a list, and at one point (no longer!) it was illustrated with graphs and jpegs.

With a little fooling around, How I Lost loaded right up into the Amazon store, and from what I could tell, it looked OK. When I reviewed it in Amazon’s previewer function, it appeared tidy enough: the paragraphs seemed regular, the heads and subheads appeared to be consistent throughout, the table of contents seemed to work well enough, the lists of ingredients in the recipes looked like…well, lists. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

So I sat back and waited for the vast wealth to roll into the Money Bin.

What rolled in was a squawk of rage from a dismayed reader. The fonts, she said, were all over the place, illogical and unpredictable. Heads and subheads were cattywampus; so were the ingredients lists. And by the way, she really, really, really hated the writing style!

😮

Not everyone can love you. And by this time, I’d learned that on Amazon your competitors will often take aim at a new book and post reviews blasting it. So I wasn’t very concerned. Besides, after forty years in the writing biz, I do have a stainless-steel ego. Just spell the name right, Duckie!

When I had time — some weeks later — I downloaded a copy to the iPad and opened it.

I was horrified! It looked nothing like what I thought I had posted. The reader was right: the book was a dreadful mish-mash. Fonts  that I never knew existed popped up at irregular and illogical intervals — no rhyme nor reason to why some words would appear in italic, some boldface, some roman, some huge, some damn near submicroscopic. The only consistent rule was that all tables and images needed a magnifying glass to be viewed.

By then I’d put up about 35 bookoids and real books on Amazon, and, practice making something closer to perfect, I’d learned a few things. Relevant to this fiasco: what you see in Amazon’s on-line “Preview” tool is decidedly not what you get.

Amazon invites you to peek at your uploaded document with its “Preview” tool but neglects to tell you the result will bear no resemblance to what your readers see in a Kindle reader.

To view an even vaguely accurate rendition, you have to download Amazon’s Kindle reader software into your computer, fire it up, and then download your posted document into that.

PreviewerViewed in the computer-resident software, the mess that was my book became eminently visible.

And as I read the copy, I realized that yes…it was pretty bloggish. Many of the recipes had been tossed together for Funny about Money and bloviated with copious hot air.

So, I took it down from Amazon, making it unavailable to readers.

We slowed our production schedule  almost a month ago, but it’s taken this long to catch up with all the pressing tasks I couldn’t get done while trying to keep up with the unrealistic work demand. Now that the dust has settled, though, I hope to return the cookbook to the market within the next couple of weeks.

In addition to getting rid of all the jpegs and the re-flowing the entire 255 pages of fine print into a clean new Joel Friedlander template, I cleaned up a fair amount of the copy. The tone is still very casual, but the most bloggy passages were cut. It’s about ready to re-post in its new incarnation, but while I wait for La Maya to return and decide whether she’ll share a painting, I probably will go over it again in search of more hot air to delete.

So, watch this space: a grand new cookbook is coming your way! Sensible weight-loss advice included.

bread

 

Breast Book Proposal Under Way!

w00t! This afternoon I finally got around to producing a halfway decent draft of a proposal for the Boob Book — the one on making informed decisions when you get a breast cancer diagnosis. And I’ve found a few people to send it to.

First effort was disappointing. The thing has been floating around inside my head for so long, I figured I could just toss it off and be done with it.

Well. No.

Scribbled a thousand-word cover letter. Yes, it covered all the bases. Yes, it distinguished my book from others. Yes, it described the (copious!) market. Yes, it was b-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-i-i-n-g!

It was a thousand-word plod around the bases.

Verbose, to begin with. Maybe if I cut out the overgrowth…

…Shorter, but no less plodding.

Would I buy a book on the basis of this proposal? Could I sell it to my marketing department? Could I sell it to anyone?

Hell, no!

So, I set it aside and went online in search of that old standby, Literary Marketplace.

You can buy a week’s worth of access to LMP for $25. So I ponied up the credit card and bought a username and password.

Disappointing.

The online LMP is not the LMP of yore. Back in the day, when you went to the library and hauled the several-volume work off the reference shelf, LMP was elaborately cross-indexed. And that was what made it a valuable work for would-be book authors. You could search a subject index that would take you to every publisher with anything in its backlist relevant to your keywords. You could search publishers by the various types of books the published — textbooks, for example, or inspirational, or genre works. You could search by just about anything.

Better yet, when you found a promising publisher, you also found a list of the key personnel, including acquisitions editors. You found their names, their titles, their snail-mail addresses, their phone numbers, and their e-mail addresses.

No more! The online LMP does not list any publishing company staff. Leastwise, not that I could find.

So, it looked like I would have to find a new literary agent to replace the deceased.

{sigh} For nonfiction? Ugh. Another layer of gatekeepers to cope with.

LMP‘s literary agency listings are slightly more forthcoming. But just slightly.

I trudged through 14 single-spaced pages of linked listings. Whenever I saw an agency’s name that i recognized (or thought I did), I clicked through to its information. Discarded the ones that weren’t in New York City or Boston.

This process yielded eight candidates.

One agency’s owner, I found on further exploration, croaked over last March. So that left me with seven possibilities.

However. When you try to copy and paste from LMP into a Word file so you can store it to disk, the data is jiggered so it won’t paste into Word!

Well. Some of it won’t. The agency names NEVER paste. Sometimes the agency address will paste into Word; often it won’t. Usually the names and email addresses of specific agents will paste over; sometimes they won’t.

So I had to sit there and type what I needed, character by character, shifting back & forth between Firefox and Word.

Infuriating! For this I paid these clowns 25 bucks?

Oh well. I learned something anyway: When you want to use LMP, go to the library.

That little project done, I returned to the proposal.

By now it had dawned on me that the introduction is full of the kind of lively language needed to write a proposal that looked like it was written by someone other than a zombie.

So: open that file, shoof around, fiddle around, adjust, rework, dork… A-n-n-d at the end of all that come up with…

A Pretty Darned Good Proposal!

By golly, it’s starting to look very good. The first paragraph is a real grabber. The next several grafs engage the attention, and one points out the size of the proposed book’s market.

All right!

Set it aside until next Tuesday, when I’ll send it off to the first agent on my list of choice.

Never email on a Monday. Your message will get lost in the tonnage of incoming that floods an agent or AE’s in-box over the weekend. Wait until the person has had time to shovel out his or her in-box. THEN send your golden words.

It’s been years since I dealt with an agent. The last one shopped a proposal around half-heartedly. Never gave me a clue where she was sending it and what the responses were. Then she died.

Presumably she was sick. That would explain the feeble marketing.

By then I had a job at the Great Desert University, one that paid a real salary with real benefits and even had a real office with a real computer and a telephone. Wonders never ceased. Oddly, in return they expected me to work, and so my book writing days went into a long pause.

I don’t hold out much hope that any high-powered New York agent is going to pick this project up very soon. And secretly, I hope it takes two or three months before it attracts anyone’s attention.

That’s because I figure it’s going to take at least six months to get the naughty book business up and running. If an agent comes trotting back to me with a contract, it will have the benefit of providing me enough to live on for a year…but it will slow down the p0rn plan by about that long.

An advance of 15 or 20 grand will help capitalize Camptown Races Press. However, it will divide my attention. And I’m finding the new enterprise demands all my attention. Wander off to do something else, and forward momentum instantly comes to a dead stop. I’m not at all sure that trying to budget, say, four hours a day to the Boob Book and four to the new imprint is going to work.

So. The longer it takes to find a publisher, I suppose, the better. Sort of. In a way.

 

Crazed Client + CreateSpace + Crashed Computer = No Work Done

ugh ugh UGGHHH what a gawdawful day!

Up at 5 a.m. Clean the palm tree crud and duck droppings out of the pool before the thermometer tops 105. Water the plants before the sun can fry them. Feed the dogs. Bolt down slice of watermelon. Park in front of the computer before 7 o’clock.

Planned to finish writing Chapter 2 of the Boob Book. That done, I’ll have the introduction, two chapters, and two decent appendices, enough to support a proposal, which I intend to send to a couple of my past publishers. One of those publishers is likely to pay an advance large enough to free me from a year of teaching drudgery. And that will open the door not only to writing a socially redeeming book but to kicking off a totally unredeeming bidness that is likely to support me into my dotage.

Speaking of the which, my accountant & friend and I were meeting for happy hour this afternoon, both of us having exceeded our respective drudgery allowances some time back. Developments that arose yesterday — two people offering to write spicey novelettes for my company, on contract; another offering to serve as project manager, plus an offer to do e-book formatting at a batch rate — meant we would need to talk business as well as drink off the stresses of the past few weeks. And I would need something to talk business about.

So, I put off book writing to revise the S-corp’s present business plan and compose a strategic plan. Four pages worth.

Finally I return to the  Boob Book and start to write. There’s a page of To-Do notes to print. When I hit command-P…oh, yes. EFFING Word freezes again.

I hate Word.

Apple’s accursed spinning mandala goes on and on and on and on and on and on and I go off and do some other chores and come back eight or ten minutes later and find the accursed spinning mandala twirling on and on and on and on and Force QUIT! FORCE QUIT WORD, DAMMIT.

Word crashes. Reboot. Notice the wireless connection is unstable. Trying to print the unsaved To-Do notes freezes Word again.

FORCE QUIT!!! Now I figure I’d better shut down all the programs and reboot.

The whole system hangs.

It will not unhang.

A bunch of things I’m working on — and that I’ve done a ton of work on — are hung with it. They’re not saved to DropBox because I’ve been busy working on them. They’re saved to the hard disk. If the aging laptop crashes, hours and HOURS of work are going to crash with it.

I throw on my clothes, grab the machine with its eternally spinning mandala, and haul it to the Apple store, hoping they can clue me to how to make it stop without losing everything I’ve done for the past several days. Which is a lot.

They can’t. The woman I speak to is actually rude.

Next computer is going to be a cheap PC. What’s the point of spending top dollar on a Mac if you can’t get customer service? I’m done with Apple.

Outside the store I sit on a park bench under a mister, a pathetic effort to make the outdoor mall environment tolerable for the baked customers. Finally figure since everything is probably gone, I might as well turn the machine off. Turn it back on.

Incredibly, it reboots.

Some data is lost, but most of the files are recoverable, largely because the MacBook is set to save every five minutes, thanks to years of experience with Word’s crashing proclivities.

I’m relieved but furious.

Back home, more and more time remains to be spent spent sorting out the crashed files, backing up to DropBox, and generally farting around.

But…

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away… A client and dear friend was going into melt-down mode. Had been, since yesterday.

Yesterday he sent a dozen emails and left two voice messages. He’s been trying to produce a second edition of a book he uses as a marketing tool for his chiropractic practice. CreateSpace and Ingram/Spark keep rejecting his application. They tell him he hasn’t filled in tax and address data. He says he has filled in these parts. There is, of course, no human there to ask for an explanation. Only repeated, circular, machine-generated demands.

But while I’ve been enjoying the better part of a year of surgery, design and production for this second edition has been going on without me. A local graphic designer and author’s shepherd has been doing the project, leaving me pretty much out of the loop. So…I have no idea what he’s talking about. Nor do I have a clue what to do to help.

He sends me screenshots of the rejected forms. I can’t access them without his username and password. He sends the same; I still can’t get in. Not that there’s much I could do about it: what on earth would I know about his tax data? Oh well.

He’s at a conference. He gives presentations at such conferences. So one might say he’s a bit preoccupied. But in short order he has a series of seminars to give, and he wants copies of the new books. By this morning he’s getting frantic.

Arriving home from the infuriating, frustrating encounter with the Apple Bit*h, I find two more frantic calls from him. Try to return his calls: no answer.

At this point, I think, “Why on earth are you going with CreateSpace and Ingram when there’s a perfectly fine PoD printer here? The only reason to print through Ingram/Spark is to get access to international distribution to bookstores. The only reason to print with CreateSpace is to sell hard copies through Amazon.

“But…but…almost all your hard-copy sales happen at conferences and seminars. Most people buying the book through Amazon are perfectly content to get it on their Kindles. There’s no reason your admin can’t fulfill hard-copy orders from Amazon.”

This thought communicated to him by e-mail, he eventually returns and allows that he’s had it with trying to deal with these two outfits.

So I call the local printer and ascertain that if we’ll get the local designer to send the PDFs and artwork over, he can probably have his first print run in hand within two weeks.

By e-mail, I report this to Beloved Client and Incommunicado Designers.

This consumes a significant amount of the day. By the time I’m done, it’s almost 2 o’clock in the freaking afternoon. I’m starved and I need a drink.

Fry up a decent meal, pour a bourbon and water.  By the time I finish eating, it’s time to paint my face and get ready to meet Accountant Friend.

The ENTIRE DAY was shot, what with all this screwing around. I got one, count it, one paragraph written.

Research Blues…

Here we are, on the way to writing the Boob Book, swimming through dense swamps of academic research by way of compiling something to say and maybe even getting it right. Each new research report and serious news report points me in the direction of some other paper I really ought to read. The pile of print-outs now numbers about 800 pages…and counting.

Plowing through all this material, reading it carefully, and annotating it, I’ve reached page 701 and probably will get through another 50 pages today. But of course…this morning I stumbled across this little gem:

Rastelli, Antonella L., Marie E. Taylor, Feng Gao, Reina Armamento-Villareal, Shohreh Jamalabadi-Majidi, Nicola Napoli, and Matthew J. Ellis. “Vitamin D and Aromatase Inhibitor-Induced Musculoskeletal Symptoms (AIMSS): A Phase II, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Randomized Trial.” Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 129, no. 1 (August 2011): 107-116. doi 10.1007/s10549-011-1644-6.

Damn! A randomized study on a BIG topic and the thing is dated 2011! How the hell could I have missed this?

WhatEVER. I’ve got my sticky little hands on it now and will be reading it within the next day or two.

As dry as it sounds, I’m finding this stuff extremely interesting. It’s so fascinating, as a matter of fact, that once I’m launched on a study session, it can be difficult to tear myself away from it.

And it makes me regret that I was born 40 years too soon. I always loved the sciences and, as a little girl, craved to grow up to become an astrophysicist. Over time I came to find the life sciences more interesting. But come the 1960s, when I entered college, neither field was, shall we say, welcoming to female students. Oh well.

In any event, the project feels a lot like writing the dissertation, only considerably more engaging.

Reading the research on breast cancer, DCIS, breast cancer treatments, and the breast cancer industry can be surprisingly disturbing, too. I’ve found it’s wise to limit the number of hours spent working on this stuff to about four a day — otherwise, it can really ramp up the stress level.

As an example… One of the most startling revelations this little project has uncovered has been the very negative effects radiation therapy has when applied after the “immediate reconstruction” procedure that is widely hawked to women who have mastectomies. “Immediate reconstruction” entails inserting a saline or silicone implant under the chest muscles during the same surgery that removes the diseased breast.

If the woman has an invasive cancer, then even after a mastectomy she will be subjected to radiation treatment. (Many women who do not have invasive cancer end up with mastectomies: a large enough DCIS will do the trick, as well the presence of a mutated gene that hikes up your chance of developing breast cancer as high as 70%). But radiotherapy hugely increases complication rates when it’s done after cosmetic surgery (which is what “reconstruction” is, boys and girls). The unsightly and often painful results can lead to repeated new surgeries and extended misery.

Overall, if you think you’ll need radiation therapy — or if there’s even a chance that you will — you’re better off to wait on the reconstruction until after the radiotherapy is done.

I came across images illustrating said stark fact in a review of recent research, what we humanities PhD’s would call a “survey of the literature”:

Rozen, Warren M. and Mark W. Ashton. “Radiotherapy and Breast Reconstruction: Oncology, Cosmesis and Complications.” Gland Surgery 1, no. 2 (August 2013): n.p. http://www.glandsurgery.org/article/view/662/712.

Doctors don’t tell you this when they propose that you should undergo a mastectomy. When mine first suggested that she felt getting rid of the boob was the best course of action, in the same breath she said “but we can do an immediate reconstruction while you’re on the table.” As though everything would then be said and done.

Well. Not quite.

Nor was I told, during the eight months or so that we attempted to excise the criminal DCIS from my dainty little boob, that the radiotherapy they intended to subject me to after the lumpectomy could cause the scar to contract and hideously deform the breast they were trying so valiantly to save.

Actually, I was given a choice between going with lumpectomy, radiation, and aromatase inhibitors or having a mastectomy and being done with the whole effing ordeal. WonderSurgeon indeed had managed to excise the entity to fit the 2014 ASTRO/SSO guidelines. These say that “no ink on tumor” suffices and that wider margins of tumor-free tissue make no difference in survival rates. But she wasn’t buying the new guidelines and felt strongly that the better part of valor resides in wider margins.

Being the incurable skeptic that I am, every time the woman opened her mouth I resorted to my research tools. And yea verily: I easily found research studies that were just freaking NOT THAT OLD suggesting — convincingly! — that wider margins = better results.

After learning what radiotherapy can do to a gifted surgeon’s work of art, I am so glad we elected to go ahead with mastectomy. And…after learning how much can go awry with “reconstruction” — and how often — I’m also mighty glad I elected to go flat.

Even though I was assured that a mastectomy would mean no radiotherapy and no hormone therapy, something else was left unsaid: Naturally, the excised boob would be carefully studied by a pathologist, and if any invasive cancer showed up after all, none of the above would apply.

Obviously, it would be good if the Writer never had a dog in this particular fight. When you’re this close to it, reading the research surely can raise your blood pressure.

But…having lived the application of all that research, I’ll have plenty to say about it and what I have to say should be pretty lively. This is going to be a great book. Good reporters by their nature have high blood pressure. 😉

Starting to Write a Nonfiction Book

At last I got around to starting the introduction for the upcoming book on the various predicaments of women who are presented with a breast diagnosis, whether it’s DCIS or actual cancer.

This is something I realized I could write about several months ago, between the personal experience that recently culminated in a double mastectomy and the reams of research material I collected as I struggled to understand what was happening to me and to maintain some degree of control.

A lot of material has accrued during the nine months or so the little drama occupied the center stage of my life. This morning I went over to FedEx to collect the printouts of the umpty-jillion scientific studies, journalistic articles, nonprofit organizations’ public information, miscellaneous web pages, and files full of my own notes. The pile is huge:

P1030429Two extra-large three-ring binders, packed as full as they’ll go with printouts.

So… What do you do when you write a nonfiction book? How do you go about it? This is my third, not counting the ones for self-publication. And from experience I’d say the pattern is pretty much the same from opus to opus.

Step 1. Obviously, gather information. Gather a LOT of it.

2. Come up with a strategy to manage notes and printouts in a way that works for you. Personally, I build smaller projects — articles and blog posts — with material that’s found online and stays online. But for a larger project, or for something I take seriously and think will pay well, I print everything out on three-hole-punched paper and stash it in binders.

3. Organize the material. This step was much simplified by the computer and the flash drive. Thanks to the Mac’s “Finder” function — same as a PC’s file manager — I was able to sort all the stuff into numbered, titled folders and subfolders.

The result was a rough, informal outline of the book’s contents. When the FedEx guy printed out the files in the order in which I’d placed them on my flash drive, all the material came out to match the outline. Each of those pink sheets in the binders is a divider put in by the photocopier dude, demarcating the articles and giving me handy sheets on which to make notes and paste markers. So it’ll be relatively easy to find the material I need for this chapter or that section, because all of it appears in the order in which I’ll probably use it.

In the binders, I marked the material for each roughly planned chapter with a divider page and a home-made tab:

P1030439

Click on the image for a better picture.

So. This is a good start. Next…

4. Number the pages from 1 to however many it takes.

5. Sit down and read the stuff from beginning to end. Mark it up with underscore or highlighter showing the most important points you want to make. Enter key words along the margins, and note any items you regard as especially useful or important.

7. Obtain several packages of index cards. With these at hand, go through the research material again. As you go, take notes on the index cards. On each card, enter a note to each important point. At the top left of the card, write the keyword that points to this point on the page. At the top right of the card, write the page number.

NotecardExample8. When you have sifted through all the pages and prepared note cards indicating where-what-is in the pile of data, organize your note cards by keywords. You will now have piles of note cards that bring together the information by keyword. This makes it fairly easy to organize and manipulate the vast amount of disparate data you’ve accumulated.

9. Compare these labeled piles with your outline. Adjust your outline (by now you’ll have new ideas) as desired. Now, using a large table top or the floor, arrange the piles by topic, in the order in which you plan to address each topic.

10. Stack the piles into one tower and set it next to your keyboard. Place your binder or file folders of printed notes on your desktop. Turn on your word processor.

Now you’re ready to write. All you have to do is go through the note cards, turn to the printout pages marked on the cards, and translate your notes and article printouts into narrative.

If it’s a formally researched book, as this one will probably be, open a Word file or get another pile of index cards and write out the correct citation for each source, in Chicago style (unless your publisher specifies some other manual).

Sound like a lot of work? Well, yeah. That’s because it is a lot of work. I figure if I can break free two or three hours a day, I should be done by the end of 2015. But I do expect to have the introduction, a chapter, and a prospectus on the float within a month or two.

I wrote Math Magic for Scott Flansburg in a little under six months. We actually had a year to write it, but for personal reasons I had dawdled on getting started until we were less than six months from the deadline. We made the deadline — just — but only because I sat down and wrote eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week, until the MS was finished.

What with the teaching and the editorial enterprise, I’m certainly not going to have eight hours a day to spend on my own stuff. Two will be pushing it. However, if I can wrest a decent advance from someone — which may happen, given my track record — I should be able to belay some of the teaching or farm out the editorial work, and that will accelerate production of this book.

Should be interesting to see how it goes!

🙂

Writing Funny

This semester the term for the magazine-writing course is only seven weeks long. So, we’re opting the last assignment, which is for a “brite,” a type of journalistic short-short whose main purpose, in the publishing world is to fill space when a feature leaves an empty column inch or two.

By some people’s definitions, the brite is supposed to be humorous. That leaves my students trying to write funny, even when I advise them that they don’t have to: the point of the assignment is to write very, very tight. And their attempts at hilarity usually end in débâcle.

People who can write funny copy on assignment amaze me. It is extremely difficult to write humor on demand — in fact, to my mind it’s hard to write humor at all. Some people are very, very good at it. The rest of us…well, there’s a reason humor is not widely known in journalism.

This glum fact of life came to my attention years ago when, as a young freelance, I was writing for Paul Schatt, an editor at The Arizona Republic. Among his several tasks there, he produced the paper’s now-defunct Sunday magazine, which paid decently and hired me with some regularity.

You couldn’t spend any time around Paul without dissolving into laughter. He had an effervescent sense of humor. The two of us resonated off each other — we thought we were hilarious.

One day we were sitting around his office trying to come up with story ideas. I mentioned to him that through my husband I’d met a guy who was into some newfangled thing called the “Internet.” This gent, an insurance broker with a techie bent, had invited me to his office, where his computer resided, and shown me around the “rooms” and “library” that made up an entity called CompuServe.

He seemed to envision this imaginary architecture as an actual place: bricks and mortar, as we moderns would say. The guy would talk about going into this room and that room as though he were walking down a hall from doorway to doorway.

Well, Schatt and I thought that was the funniest damn thing. He loved it. And I had an assignment: write a hilarious story about this crackpot new phenomenon.

A contract and promise of money secured, I tabled the story until about a week before deadline. Finally, I sat down to — yes — the typewriter, there to crank out…

…nothing.

Oddly, there was nothing funny about the vision of imaginary rooms and libraries floating in the ether.

For the entire week, I strained to come up with something, anything remotely funny about what I’d seen that day with the insurance guy.

Finally came up with a story. It wasn’t very funny and I said so when I handed it across Schatt’s desk. “Let me be the judge of that,” said he.

Well. I doubt that it set him to rolling on the floor. But at least he paid me for it.

Since then, I have never agreed to be funny on deadline!

Occasionally something mildly entertaining will surface at my blog, Funny about Money. My own sense of humor tends to be fairly dark. The other day a reader commented on the wit in a post describing my first venture in public after a double mastectomy. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was especially funny, but apparently she thought it was.

I suppose that writing about things you consider innately absurd or silly must come across, at some level, as humor. Women’s clothing does strike me as pretty silly. So does the human body, a manifestly ridiculous mechanism.

The “funny” in Funny about Money means “odd” or “strange,” not “hilarious” — it refers to a remark made by a friend of mine. When something appears there that’s funny, it’s usually by accident. 😀

McCutcheon: Funny Takes Out a Loan
Consumer Alert: HOLY Mackerel!
If You’d Asked Me, I Would’ve Told You…

First eBook: PUBLISHED!

Pleased to report that my first effort at e-publishing is now live at Amazon. The title is Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education. If you are enrolled or about to enroll in a college or university, if your kids are going to college, if you’re a graduate student who has designs on an academic career, if you’re a legislator who cares about the future of this country, if you’re a member of a board of regents, if you’re a college administrator, this book is for you.

Slave Labor describes the short- and long-term effects of replacing professors with part-timers and chronicles one adjunct’s semester in America’s largest community college district.

IMG_3006

Click on the image to go to Amazon. And buy, buy, buy!

This is the first stage in what will be a fairly elaborate experiment — or so it’s planned. We’re told the key to making a profit at Amazon is (in addition to astute marketing) to get several titles on the market there. And we have several more titles forthcoming. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year and a half. For nonacademic clients who are writing book-length works for business marketing or for personal reasons, I believe it will be very interesting, indeed.

The cover design was done by colleague James Metcalf, a veteran of many a magazine issue and many an advertising campaign.

The physical e-book itself was created by Ken Johnson, proprietor of Your eBook Builder. Copyediting was done by my business partner at The Copyeditor’s Desk, Tina Minchella. I did the easy part: writing it.

Self-publishing, I have to allow, was never my style. As a creature of an earlier era, I was brought up to believe that only writers who weren’t good enough to persuade an acquisitions editor to buy their work self-published books, usually at great expense and to little profit. My books appeared through mainline publishers: William Morrow, Columbia University Press, Folger Shakespeare Library.

But times have changed. Among the crowded mediocrity, a fair number of decent writers are publishing on Amazon, Nook, and iBooks. Most are nonfiction writers — a salable piece of nonfiction is not very difficult to write, and occasionally you come up with an idea with some real redeeming value. Some decent fiction surfaces in those precincts, too.

More to the point, Amazon’s publishing model offers the potential to earn much more money from a moderately successful book than you could expect from a traditional publisher. You do split some of the revenue with Amazon, but it’s negligible compared to the proportion of gross sales that goes to a major publishing house. The books you see to the left here paid me 10% royalties. Today, 7% is more typical.

Amazon flips the traditional model upside-down: because of the almost nonexistent cost of production — at least to the “publisher,” Amazon itself — and because neither Amazon nor the author has to pay bookstores and distributors to get the product on retail shelves, the author collects a large share of gross sales.

As pretty as that looks, though, one can’t expect to get rich publishing squibs on Amazon. Some people do, of course, but they’re the exception. What I have been told, however, is that with consistent marketing of a number of Amazon-published books, it’s possible to earn something approaching a middle-class income. We’re told (depending on who’d doing the claiming) that the critical mass, as it were, is five to eight books.

Well. I can churn out books as easily as I can breathe. As we scribble, two more are under way — a work of speculative fiction and a diet/cookbook. I hope to get these out by the end of this year or, at latest, in Q1 2015.

And I’m nine chapters in to a second novel; a book of essays is in draft; and several other schemes lurk at the edges of the drawing board. It’s within reason to think I could put five books out by the end of 2015.

Giving this project two years should reveal whether revenues from a number of books residing on Amazon actually do cumulate to yield a living wage, given an active marketing plan. I think it will be interesting to see what happens.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to take part in the experiment, buy that book!

🙂

13 Kinds of Article Leads

Writers Plain & Simple has largely addressed fiction writing so far, mostly because one of my liveliest clients is engaged in a vast novel, and because on the side I’ve been scribbling my own little future history. So of course I haven’t carried on about details like journalistic leads. Yet.

But not all of us write fiction. Come to think of it, I happen to be primarily a nonfiction writer myself — all my published books are nonfiction, and I spent 15 years writing for and editing national and regional magazines.

So let’s take a look at a genre that can (in some circumstances) represent real, paying work: the magazine feature.

When writing a magazine article or blog post, you've got to connect with the reader quickly. Here are 13 ways to start a non-fiction article.Without going into a lot of detail about what a feature is, let’s allow that to engage a reader in taking on the task of reading an 800- to 3,000-word magazine article, you as the writer must connect with the person very fast — within the first few words you present. You do that in the story’s lead: one to maybe half-a-dozen paragraphs designed to draw the reader into the story and situate her or him in your subject.

Typically a nonfiction article has either a lead followed by body copy or, more often, a lead, a “nut paragraph” summarizing the theme or point of the article, and the body copy.

Let’s consider types of leads. Here’s a baker’s dozen for you:

1. Focus on a Person

Showing a person whose experience underscores what the story is about can humanize an otherwise dry topic or show the reader how the story’s information might effect her or him. Here’s a lead for a Wall Street Journal article that, despite being full of soporific figures such as market shares held by AT&T, MCI, Sprint, GTE, and United Telecommunications, manages to keep the reader’s interest by translating the numbers into human terms:

 When Paul C. Seitz was asked to pick a long-distance phone company last year, the 36-year-old accountant from Wilmington, Del., spent “all of about a minute” pondering his options. Then he chose American Telephone and Telegraph Co., the carrier he had always used. With AT&T, he explains, “I knew what I had. The other companies were question marks.”

 2. Start with an anecdote.

An anecdote is a mini-story with its own beginning, middle, and end. When it appears as an article’s lead, it should lead into the larger story by making a transition into the capsule statement (nut paragraph) or body of the story. To do this, it should make a strong point that underscores the article’s subject, or it should serve as a capsule statement in itself.

Marcia Stamell opened a service piece for Savvy about negotiating a severance package with this tale:

Late one Friday afternoon in 1982, Ellen G., an advertising account manager with seven years’ experience at a New York agency, was told by her boss that her services would no longer be needed. He gave her a check for two weeks’ severance and asked her to clean out her office. Ellen spent Friday evening commiserating with friends. She spent the weekend planning. On Monday morning, she returned to the company to present to the personnel office, in writing, a request for office space and six months’ pay. “My rationale was that two weeks was nowhere near the time I needed to find a new job,” she says. “I also wrote that after seven years, I deserved a better break.

She got the office space, but it took some negotiation with the personnel officer before arriving at a financial settlement of one week’s pay for each year of service, accrued vacation pay, and a specialized payment schedule of half-time salary over 14 weeks. the package was less than Ellen had hoped for, but it prolonged the steady flow of income and gave her a tax advantage. And it was as good deal more generous than two weeks’ pay.

 This anecdote leads into the nut paragraph, which explains that a growing number of nonunion workers are asking for and receiving sweetened severance packages when they are discharged from their jobs. Then the story explains how to get one for yourself.

3. Give an example or a series of briefly stated examples.

Often a short case history can illustrate a problem the story will address. This kind of lead is very popular with women’s magazines and health-care publications. Daniel Holzman, writing for Insight, opened a report on long-term health care costs with this:

“Pop had to be put in a nursing home at a cost to my mother of about $2,400 per month,” a man from Cicero, Ill., wrote to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “and neither Medicare nor Medicaid could help because my parents had a nest egg. The law is without pity. Had my father lived for just two more years in a nursing home, my mother would have had to spend the rest of her life in poverty, but God called Pop to his eternal rest in one year, instead of two. My mother and I can never forget the terrible feeling of relief we had when Pop died. We can only live with it in shame. We loved him.

4. Lead with a quote.

Note that the lead above opens with a quotation. Many editors, particularly those with newspaper training, dislike a lead that opens with dialogue. However, they sometimes will go with it if the lead works exceptionally well.

5. Open with a rhetorical question.

This tactic is also problematic; many editors strongly dislike rhetorical questions, mostly because they can appear patronizing or may lead the reader to talk back with an answer the writer did not intend to elicit. A rhetorical question is one posed so that the writer can provide the answer.

When handled with skill, though, the rhetorical question can work as a lead, as it does in Homer Circle’s “Skamania: Indiana’s Super Steelhead,” which appeared in Sports Afield:

Which freshwater fish weighs an average of between 12 and 20 pounds, slams your lure with a hair-raising jolt, screams line off your reel with alarming speed, splits the air with slashing, leaping runs, and shucks free about three out of five times to leave you with nothing but a memory of it?

 The answer is Skamania, a very special steelhead found almost exclusively in Indiana.

6. Launch into a narrative.

The narrative lead (first this happened, then this, then this. . .) opens the story with a chain of events unfolded in chronological order, which carry the reader into the story’s substance. This sort of thing often appears in Reader’s Digest, as in Emily and Per Ola d’Aulaire’s story, “Falling from Mt. Garfield.”

It was 3 a.m. when Florian Ioan Wells arrived at the Parsley house in Seattle, Wash. The 33-year-old aerospace engineer had driven from across town, where his wife and daughter still slept peacefully. Craig Parsley, a 25-year-old environmental technician, had been careful not to disturb his wife when he blinked himself awake.

 Over breakfast the two men discussed their plan for that day, May 14, 1983. They were going to climb one of Mt. Garfield’s western peaks, a minor if perilous crag in the Cascade Range east of Seattle. For them it was a routine climb, and neither had bothered to pinpoint for his wife where he would be.

 As they headed in Craig’s truck toward the mountains, the two men talked about the importance of physical and mental conditioning. Both had years of climbing experience. Before fleeing to the United States with his family in 1979 to escape the confines of a Communist regime, Florian had been a member of Romania’s Mountain Rescue Team. Craig, a native Californian, had taken up the sport in the ninth grade.

 When they reached the mountain, the sky was cloudy and the temperature was 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Conditions weren’t ideal, but the men decided to continue on, hoping the weather would hold. Scrambling over rocks and through gullies, they hiked two miles to the climbing area. it was 8 a.m. when they roped up and started climbing the half-mile-high granite face that led to the 4,896-foot-high summit.

7. Set the scene.

In this approach, the writer establishes the story’s locale or circumstances and then puts the players in place. New York Times Magazine writer Stephen G. Michaud takes us into the office of forensic experts dedicated to recovering the remains of Argentine terrorism victims (“Identifying Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’”).

 On a warm November afternoon, four friends gather to talk in a windowless upper room of an old office complex in downtown Buenos Aires. One is a medical student; two have undergraduate degrees in anthropology and another is working toward one. Although they speak with measured dispassion, their subject is death, violent death—the kind only state terrorism can produce.

 “Generally, we find the victims’ skulls exploded and the bullets still inside them,” says Mercedes Doretti. As she sips her coffee, Alejandro Inchaurregui elaborates: “They used cheap coffins which quickly rot away. Also, sometimes we find their hands have been chopped of and mixed up with others.”

 “At first we were very scared, and this has been a very emotional experience for us all,” Patricia Bernardi says. “We knew as soon as we started, we would be marked. The police are always there, and I remember a day when one of them turned to a police doctor at one grave site and said, ‘If we had done it right 10 years ago, these people wouldn’t be here now.’”

 “They asked us all the time, ‘Why are you doing this? What kind of ideology do you have?’” adds Luis Fondebrider.

 Note the length of this lead and of the one that precedes it: four paragraphs each. Magazine leads may run longer than the one- or two-paragraph lead you see in newspaper features.

8. Lead with some striking, well written description.

 Before me is what looks like a small, serene idol. It is in fact a beautiful child, eyes outlined in black ointments, dark hair gleaming with mustard oil, relieving herself in the street. I try to move left but bump into a businessman’s briefcase. Nudging right, I’m nudged back by a bull wearing a necklace of marigolds. Pressed from behind by a piping flute seller, I step over the child as a bus blares up the narrow brick canyon, missing us all by inches. Within its coils of exhaust a man painted orange, carrying a snake-headed staff, takes form, nods at me, then vanishes behind a jostle of teenagers with stereo headphones working out their rock ’n’ roll moves. Pagodas that writhe with erotic carvings trust roof upon roof above the trees, where big bats hang like fruit. And above the rooftops pure white snow peaks reach upward toward the stratosphere. At the moment all I’m looking for is the local computer club—somewhere in the magic confusion of modern Kathmandu.

 With this tapestry-like imagery, National Geographic writer Douglas H. Chadwick introduces us to the sights, sounds, smells, and people of an almost unimaginably exotic locale in “New Forces Challenge the Gods at the Crossroads of Kathmandu.”

9. Flash an odd, unusual, or outrageous statement.

 HENDRICKS COUNTY, Ind.—Detective Michael Nelson is walking a beat with one foot in the Twilight Zone.

 So Wall Street Journal reporter Alex Kotlowitz launched a story about a cop who covers the witchcraft beat.

10. Or pose a surprising contrast.

Often you can point out that although things may look one way, they’re actually something else. Donna Fenn set an old chestnut against reality to open a story for Inc. on mousetraps through the ages:

 “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods the world will make a beaten path to his door.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Emerson had it all wrong. If you make a better mousetrap, chances are you will be completely ignored by the public at large and destined to labor in obscurity. Such, at least, was the fate of many a hopeful inventor how took the philosopher’s advice literally.

11. Address the reader as “you” in the first few sentences.

This device is common and easy. Diane Hales uses it to open a McCall’s story on “How to Say You’re Sorry.”

You snapped at your husband, kept a friend waiting for an hour, forgot your sister’s birthday, wounded a co-worker’s feelings. Now you’re sorry, but you don’t know how to express your regrets. And you’re wondering why making up is so hard to do.

12. Skip the frou-frou and open with the capsule statement.

Gary Graf’s story in Air & Space., “Putting Mars on the Map,” opens with the nut paragraph: the statement of what the story will be about.

 Through the 1960s and ’70s, a series of space probes took off from Cape Canaveral on picture-taking expeditions to Mars. Today the pictures are yielding information that will end up on maps of the planet’s surface. In the 21st century, Earthlings landing on Mars won’t worry about getting lost; they’ll arrive with maps of the sort familiar to legions of Earthbound back-packers, maps with “U.S. Geological Survey” printed at the bottom.

13. State your opinion.

Journalists are rarely asked for their opinions, except when they write a review or op-ed piece. Even in those cases, unless one is a recognized authority on a subject, one should avoid trumpeting one’s bias up front. But in an instance that works, two publishing industry consultants, DeWitt Baker and Jim Hileman, excerpt their report on “College Publishers and Used Books” for Publishers Weekly.

 The world of college text publishing is populated by many highly dedicated and talented people. The difficulty is that in important respects the whole does not seem to equal the sum of the parts.