Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Need a Job and I Want to be a Paperback Writer

If you want to ever publish a piece of work anywhere other than your own blog, a query letter is an essential document.  It can be a challenging place to tread, full of hidden pitfalls that you might not have thought of.  Several pieces are essential, and some ideas and strategies should best be left behind.  

Writer's Market has a clinic within its pages to help craft the perfect query letter.  An excellent writer of young adult fiction, Rosemary Clement-Moore, has a section on her blog devoted to helping budding writers avoid the most common mistakes.  I thought I'd do something a little bit different... an analysis of the world's most famous query letter.  Never heard of a famous query letter?  I bet you have.  It was written 45 years ago by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  I thought we'd take a look at it and see what works... and what should have been left behind.

Dear Sir or Madam, (not off to a good start here.  It is essential to target the specific editor or agent who will be looking at your work)

Will you read my book?  It took me years to write, will you take a look? (needy much?) It's based on a novel by a man named Lear (Are you saying this thing plagiarized or what??)  And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer.  (Don't start off a sentence with a conjunction.  It's bad grammar and you are trying to get a writing job for pity's sake.  Also?  You sort of said that already.

It's the dirty story of a dirty man and his clinging wife doesn't understand.  (We need a bit more of hook to know what this story is really about.  This is pretty vague.)  The son is working for the Daily Mail, it's a steady job but he wants to be a paperback writer.  (So is this a novel or an autobiography?)

It's a thousand pages, give or take a few, I'll be writing more in a week or two. (An editor or agent isn't going to be the least bit interested in a book that isn't even finished yet.) I can make it longer if you like the style, I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer.  (Believe me, if there are problems that need fixing, the editor or agent will be making you change it around. Oh.  And I believe you said that already.  You should never admit in a query letter that you are a beginning writer or that you have never had anything published.)

If you really like it you can have the rights,  it could make a million for you overnight.  (This is a bit over-enthusiastic.  The writer seems really focused on making money.) If you must return it, you can send it here (hope you included a self-addressed stamped envelope or you aren't getting it back) but I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer.  

Paperback Writer is a great song (one of my favorites, can't imagine why) but it quite frankly fails as a query letter.  Bummer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Line-Up

Today I met with my advisor (eee! That sounds all cool and ... and... collegiate!!) and we laid out my plan for my classes and electives.  So now I know what I have to look forward to for the next couple of years.  My class plan is thus:

  • Professional Editing I (enrolled, starting in April)
  • Fundamentals of Technical Editing (will be taking the online course that starts on May 9)
  • Fundamentals of Document Design (I need to get a grasp on InDesign for this, so I'm going to need to acquire a copy of "InDesign For Dummies" or something like that... anyone feeling generous??? I just refuse to pay $450 for a course when I'm pretty sure I can get a handle on it myself.)
  • Writing Web Content that Works
  • Writing White Papers
Those are my required classes.  Here's what I chose for my electives:
  • C# for Technical Writers
  • Intro to XML for Technical Writers
  • XHTML Level 1
  • Designing Effective Websites
  • Project Management for Technical Writers
Whew!  This is actually (technically, haha, my little joke there) more credits than I need for my certificate, but I'm okay with that.  It should make me pretty valuable and diverse (look out you software geeks,  soon I will be able to SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE BWAHAHAHAHA...... ahem).  I decided to take a web-heavy route, which I think can only help me in the long run.  The word on the street is that tech writers will need to have some serious web skills soon in order to compete.  So why be behind from the get-go, right?  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rarin' to Go!

Last night I went to my "information session" for the Tech Comm program that I'm starting.  Oh, you guys, I'm so excited! I'm not a complete twit, I know it's going to be a lot of work, some of it very hard and frustrating, but finally having the chance to make this major life change just has me jumping to get started.  I wish I could start tomorrow! 
It was an interesting mix in the group.  We had a journalism student who was coming to some harsh conclusions about the reality of journalism these days, a former tech writer for Microsoft who was coming back after a ten-year hiatus and realizing that none of his skills were marketable any more, two former construction workers whose coworkers were tired of them correcting their grammar all the time and decided to find greener pastures, an executive assistant from California who had been out of work for two years and couldn't find anything in her field, and a library student in her late fifties who was simply bored.  And me. 
One of the speakers was a tech writer from Microsoft who gave us a breakdown of what it was really like on the job.  And the thought that kept running through my head was, I can do this!  I can really actually truly do this! 
Besides the overall Tech Comm certificate I will have at the end, each class has its own individual certification.  And each class has a portfolio project so that when I'm done I will have a "real" portfolio (instead of the barest scrapes of one that I have now).  Things are looking up!  It's nice to be able to look towards the future and not just see more of the same. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Shady Side of Writing

As I branch out and learn more and more about the weird world on online writing (SEO optimization? keyword frequency? whosit whatnow?) some of the things I'm finding out are causing me to question a lot of assumptions. I've always had a healthy streak of cynicism, I've been scammed my fair share, and working in a pharmacy has certainly caused me to never take anything at face value.  But recently, I've learned a lot of truths about things you might read on the web.

Here is the truth that I have learned:  Everything is BS.  Okay, maybe not everything.  But you are going to have a hell of a time separating out the crap from the gold.

Guess what?  There are companies who pay writers (not even well, I might add) to write blogs that will be posted under another person's name, who will ask writers to essentially plagiarize an article so they have fodder for their website, to write product reviews for items that they have never tried, to provide controversial commentary on an article.

On one of the sites I have been writing for (not going to name and shame here, sorry!) a writer on the forum was asking for opinions from the other writers about a job that he had recently picked up and was being paid for.  A company wanted him to write a number of "articles" about their product, and was calling it marketing and promotion.  But what they actually wanted him to do was write glowing first-person reviews that were going to be distributed around the web on various review sites.  He was feeling this was a bit sketchy, but decided to do it for the paycheck.  Several people chimed in, verifying that they too had done this sort of job. And not just the glowing reviews!  Some had even been hired to write BAD reviews about competing products!

The upshot?  Don't bother researching product reviews on the web.  You have no way of knowing if they are authentic or if they are bought "opinions."  The ones who defend this practice claim that it's no different than a TV commercial where a paid actor gives his "testimonial."  But this isn't exactly true, is it?  A TV commercial will have a disclaimer somewhere on it that says "Paid Actor."  Also, there is a certain level of expectation involved.  I know perfectly well when I see a TV commercial that it is being paid for by the company that makes the product being advertised.  I take whatever is being said with a grain of salt.  However, when I read a review on Amazon, or Yelp, or wherever, my expectation is that an actual customer is posting based on their actual experience with the product.  Well, it just ain't so.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Would you be willing to write a review for money for a product you haven't even tried?

**** Disclaimer-- All posts on this blog are conceived in the brain of Amelia Ramstead.  Which probably explains a lot, actually.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Moral Dilemma

Sometimes we become experts in topics we never actually wished to know about.

This has happened recently, and I am learning the ins-and-outs of a system that I am embarrassed to admit I had never given much thought to before.  My dilemma is that I feel like I want to do something with all this newfound information.  But I don't want to feel like I am benefiting from it either.  I feel like I have an obligation to share the information with others who might be in need of it, but I might not yet be in a position to help others yet when I am still in so much need of help myself.   I keep going 'round and 'round with it and I can't seem to come to a decision.

I was going to ask somebody who is helping me deal with this about this situation at our meeting yesterday, but I chickened out.  I'm so afraid of looking like someone who is trying to capitalize on a misfortune when that is not the case at all.

But isn't the oldest adage to write what you know?  My intentions are good -- I want to write from a "first-hand help" standpoint...
So complicated!

Have you ever found yourself in this situation? What did you do about it?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Positively Rejected

Sometimes we find encouragement in the strangest places.

I know that I'm just a beginner to the game, but I'm starting to piece some things together.  I've started to get rejection letters back and they have actually been quite encouraging.  I know, I know.  That makes no sense whatsoever.  But wait.

I was under the impression that the typical rejection letter would be cold, impersonal:  Dear Writer (maybe your name if you are lucky):  Thank you for submission.  We are sorry that it does not meet our needs at this time.  Good luck in your future endeavors.

So imagine my surprise when I received this (names have been changed to protect the innocent):

The first paragraph is pretty standard rejection letter.

Dear Ms. Ramstead,
Thank you for submitting your proposal to Rxxxx magazine.  We read each query we receive carefully, and take them  very seriously.  Unfortunately, due to the high volume of articles that are sent to us, we can only publish a small percentage of the pieces we receive.  After careful consideration, we do not see a place for your story in Rxxxx.

Here's where things get interesting.

We appreciate your willingness to share your expertise on executive skills (I'm an expert!?!?) with other women, and your passion for what you are writing about is clear.  You have a unique voice (I hear that a lot.  I hope it's not editor-speak for "You suck!") and make an interesting and inspiring statement about how these skills relate to and may hinder xxxxx (I'm not telling -- no vultures!).  Thank you for considering Rxxxx for your professional endeavors (heehee they think I'm professional!).  We are glad that you identify with the voice of our magazine.  We wish you the best of luck with your writing.  Please do not hesitate to write us again in the future.

So have rejection letters become more touchy-feely these days?  Or did I get lucky?  It certainly feels like they think my writing is worthwhile and I hope that's the case.  The letter makes me feel energized and ready to send out a dozen more queries, even if all I get back are nice rejection letters like this one.

I guess I'm just easy to please.

Please don't tell anyone.