17 Number 5 - February 5, 2013
- Feature "Pointers from a Highly-Paid Author"
by Beth Fowler
- 12 Paying Markets - High, Medium, and Low
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Pointers from a Highly-Paid Author
by Beth Fowler
“Writing is not the easiest way to make a living,” wrote Stephen E. Ambrose in his book of essays titled To America. He went on to say that good business people earn a lot more money than good writers, and if it’s immediate recognition you crave, you’d have better luck getting it as a rock star.
More than 30 of Ambrose’s books were published, several landing on The New York Times bestsellers list. Although the writer died in 2002, we can still apply lessons learned from his travels on the road to success.
Write about what interests you. Writing about what interests you takes the maxim, “Write about what you know,” to a new level. Writing on a topic one wishes to know more about stokes motivation, reveals surprises and allows the writer a chance to imprint her stamp or unique perspective onto the body of work already existing in a particular genre. Ambrose liked writing about the human face of history. He relished learning and writing about “ordinary men and women caught up in extraordinary circumstances.” The rewards of writing about what interested him fueled the celebrated historian’s career for 40-some years.
“See the ground.” Can you imagine writing a book about a railroad without actually seeing the tracks? Of course not. Visiting a location is essential not only for travel writers, but for writers of virtually all categories. As part of his research for writing about the transcontinental railroad, Ambrose walked along the tracks, found railroad spikes, drove a train, and tooted its whistle. This firsthand experience of “seeing the ground,” as Ambrose called it, gave him details with which to paint word pictures, to pull readers deeper into a scene with smells, sounds, odors, tastes and feelings (tactile and emotional).
“Put it in a footnote.” Ambrose was accused of plagiarism. He acknowledged the mistakes and said that future copies of the book in question would be corrected. In describing his writing process, he told David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times, “I am not out there stealing other people’s writings. If part of [the story] is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote.” Sometimes the line between plagiarizing and using a source legitimately seems fuzzy. For example, when does paraphrasing become plagiarizing? Learn how to avoid plagiarizing at Perdue University’s Online Writing Lab (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/1/).
Tell the story. Through his writing, Ambrose converted history haters into avid readers of it. He told National Geographic News (10/15/02), “In each case I am telling a story—I think of myself as sitting around the campfire after a day on the trail, telling stories that I hope will have the members of the audience, or the readers, leaning forward just a bit, wanting to know what happens next.” Among other techniques, he wrote in chronological order, set each scene with a time and place, avoided –ly adverbs, limited adjectives, and avoided passive voice sentences. He also thought it was important to be clear about who did what and what the result was. He told The American Academy of Achievement (5/22/98), “Verbs carry everything. The verb is the clincher.” The writer, sometimes referred to as “Mr. History,” also said that the best way to discover the rules of good writing “is to be a good reader.”
Read aloud and get readers. Reading your material out loud highlights awkward wording, longwinded passages, and unnatural phrases. Record and listen to it. If something makes you cringe, rewrite it. If something makes you gloat with pride, it probably needs to be rewritten. Ambrose’s second wife was an English teacher to whom he credited some of his success. If you don’t want to or can’t marry an English teacher, find a reader who understands dangling participles, when to use its or it’s, and such stuff. Ambrose had the men he’d interviewed for a book about World War II read his manuscript. They provided critiques and corrections for the manuscript of Band of Brothers.
“Choose a good editor.” Ambrose wrote, “If you practice your craft and write often and as well as you can, you will locate a good editor who will take you on.” He said that once you get a good editor, never let that person go, no matter how unreasonable that person’s requests might be. When I asked an editor, who was interested in my manuscript, for the name of other writers she’d worked with, she took offence. That was a red flag, so I continued my search. R. L. Coffield has tips on how to find a good editor (http://suite101.com/article/how-to-find-a-good-editor-a90902).
Please the publisher. “We welcome the fact that Mr. Ambrose is prolific,” said David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster. “He works at a schedule that he sets, and we encourage the amount of his output because there is a readership that wants it. (The NYT, 1/11/02). Before hitting the big time, Ambrose taught history classes in addition to writing books. In To America, the historian reported that he worked on his books “six to ten hours per day, six or seven days a week.”
Grow thick skin. Ambrose had to respond to accusations of plagiarism and historical inaccuracies. He had to cope with unfavorable reviews.
The late historian bequeathed other pointers for reaching success as an author. Ambrose spent years interviewing, traveling, reading and researching in preparation for writing a book. He dedicated extra care to crafting those all important first and last sentences of a piece, worked on more than one writing project at a time, used his skills to earn income editing and speaking as well as writing, and he followed his mentors’ advice.
Today’s writers can accelerate their success by applying pointers from the popular history writer whose income was described as “soaring”(The NYT 1/11/02).
© 2013 by Beth Fowler
Get Beth's positively-reviewed travelogue Half Baked in Taiwan at xlibris.com, amazon.com and
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