2 stories in 1 week on Newsworks

hooked a big one

Proud to have scored two bylines in a few days on Newsworks.org, the website of WHYY-TV and WHYY-FM.

“In a world of ‘not my job,’ do you shut up or speak up?” asks whether people are tattle-tales or whistle-blowers — or not. It starts with a story of what happened when a lifeguard was looking at his cellphone instead of the waves.

“I was always one paycheck from being homeless” is an interview of 2 homeless men I interviewed on the streets of Philadelphia.

I always have a story idea or 6 up my proverbial sleeve.

Do you read nonfiction as well as write it?

library
I write nonfiction, but I read fiction for pleasure.

Years ago, before the age of self-publishing, someone told me that only about 15 percent of books published in America are fiction, in all genres, while the vast majority of books fall under nonfiction. I imagined that those statistics indicated that editors slave more thoroughly over fiction than facts, parsing more sentences, correcting more errors, enhancing more nuances.

So I read fiction, I tell myself, because the writing is intrinsically better than in nonfiction. I am more likely to encounter a memorable phrase or aptly used arcane word in contemporary fiction than in heady books penned by politicians, potters and patients for whom writing is not a first language.

Recently I asked librarians and booksellers if I was correct about the ratio of domestic books. They had never considered the question and had no answer. So I wrote to the Library of Congress.

A librarian named Abby Yochelson responded: “I think the quality of editing probably depends on the publisher rather than fiction vs. nonfiction. I know plenty of people who complain about the quality of fiction editing, too!” She asked Andy Lisowski, of the institution’s information-technology staff, to run a search.

“In terms of figuring out percentages,” she wrote later, “you would have to figure out the number of books we have compared to our overall collections.” The most current compiled information is for Fiscal Year 2013. “Fascinating Facts about the Library of Congress” reports that the Library of Congress owns about 160 million items, about 37 million of which are books and other print materials.

The library’s annual report includes an appendix listing books by class. Class P covers language and literature: English, American, etc., plus fiction, literature, children’s literature, poetry, drama, essays, literary criticism, biographies of writers, etc. Andy could not identify fiction specifically, Abby says. The two of them “Concluded that trying to count genre fiction would not work. Including a genre category is fairly recent in terms of library cataloging. Many works have multiple genres, so something could be categorized as a love story and suspense fiction.”

Abby went all out, making me value this remarkable federal resource. Who knew all this stuff even existed? Not I.

“I also attempted to make use of the subdivision fiction as it can be used with subject headings: libraries-fiction, railroad trains-fiction, writers-fiction,” she wrote. “I used the advanced search in our catalog. I typed fiction in the search box and used the pull-down menu to indicate SUBJECT ALL (KSUB).

“Unfortunately, the maximum number of records the catalog can retrieve is 10,000, with no idea of how many records there are over that number. In addition, fiction didn’t always appear in subject headings, so this search would miss thousands of older books.”

Abby even searched OCLC WorldCat, a database showing the holdings of more than 70,000 libraries. (Here’s the free version.) When you use the advanced search, you can limit to fiction or nonfiction and to adult or juvenile. Unfortunately, you can’t just click on the limits without searching on something.

“I don’t really ‘trust’ any of the numbers above about the Library of Congress holdings or think they are sufficiently accurate to quote.”

So there are no facts on which to base my preference for reading fiction while continuing to write nonfiction. And that’s the truth.

What about you?

To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.

The best time to write

clock
Q.
When is the best time of day to write?

A. Whatever time works for you.

When teaching adults to write nonfiction, I often ask when they prefer to write. The most common answer is 2 hours after awakening. The second-most-common time is late at night, when most other people are snoring. Occasionally people set an alarm for 2 a.m. and write until their eye-drops run out.

Morning is best for me, by the way. But it’s also the best time for me to go to the gym. If I don’t walk the treadmill first thing, I never do. If I delay writing in the morning, though, I always make time later. So I go to the gym as early as I can, then write.

The only reason to think about your best writing time is so that you can articulate it. Then build your life around it.

Now a question for you. What is your best time? How can you build your day around that time? Can you post a sign on your cube from 8 to 9 a.m. – or 3 to 3:45 p.m. – that says, Writing in progress? Can you find a quiet corner near your office or office building where you can hide out frequently?

Most important: Find the best time of day for you to write. Then write then.

 

8 great tips for creating writers’ contracts

pencil slanted

Q. Can you please show me a writer’s contract?

A. Sure.

I use a contract or a simple letter of agreement that clarifies who will do what, my fee, and payment terms.  No lawyers involved. No big words. Here’s a sample contract with a client to ghost-write an article for an (imaginary) professional magazine.

Thank you for inviting me to write a 500- to 750-word article about investing in real estate for Private Asset Management.

  1. You will give me a bulleted outline of the sub-topics. You will answer my questions in a timely manner so that I can meet your deadline. You will send me links to sources of additional information, if appropriate.
  2. I understand that the information you give me is confidential and of great value to you. I will respect your intellectual property.
  3. The names of Ms. A and Mr. B will appear as the authors of this article. My name will not appear.
  4. I agree to write the article for delivery on or before DATE. I will provide one major revision and any minor changes before DATE.
  5. I will charge an hourly fee of $400 (don’t I wish), and I anticipate that this project will require 4 hours.
  6. If you decide to change the scope or subject of the article, we will consider that a rewrite. If that happens, there might then be additional fees and/or an extension of the delivery date.
  7. We will consider the assignment “accepted” when you approve it, regardless of whether the publisher decides to use it.
  8. You agree to pay me on or before DATE, upon accepting and approving the article.

Susan Perloff

Now write one of your own.