---" It doesn't matter whether your reader is holding a stone tablet or a parchment scroll or a bound book or an iPad -- YOUR goal is to make sure that whatever he's holding, he doesn't put it down."---Moira Allen
Today, it is my great pleasure to share a Sunday "sit-down" chat with Moira Allen. She has been gracious enough to provide her time and expertise for a great interview here, I'm sure you'll find interesting and informative...
This question actually stumped me a bit right from the start, because I have such a varied background that I didn't quite know where to begin. But I'm guessing you're most interested in "writing background," so I'll stick to that.
I was one of those kids in school who would say, "Oh, goodie!" when told we had an essay assignment. I've always loved to write. I suppose that's an offshoot of the fact that I've always loved to READ -- and when I wasn't reading stories from a book, I'd be creating them in my head.
I think I always felt certain that I would be "a writer" -- even when I wasn't fully aware of what that meant. A writer was the kind of person who created the books I devoured, so that was what I'd be. It came as something of a rude shock to discover that, after graduating from college, I had to do something ELSE to actually earn a living! Consequently I worked as a secretary for quite a few years. Ironically, that finally got me to my first writing job -- writing computer documentation at the National Institutes of Health. (It was neither exciting nor time-consuming, so I spent a good deal of my time drafting a novel -- which is probably still lurking somewhere in the computer archives of NIH!)
(Actually, brief aside, that was a kick, because in those days, to write on a computer, as opposed to a "word processor," you had to write "line by line." You literally had to put in a line number, then write a sentence, then put in another line number and write the next sentence. If you wanted to change something, you wrote a command to "change X to Y in 330" -- i.e., line 330.)
So. Fast forward to 1985, when I got my first editing job, at Dog Fancy magazine, which is where my writing career really started to get off the ground. I spent about two years there, and really got a chance to learn the editing trade -- and also to discover that I really enjoyed being an editor. After leaving Fancy Publications, I wrote my first book ("Coping with Sorrow on the Loss of Your Pet") and self-published it, back in the day when self-publishing wasn't quite as simple as it was today. In fact, second technological aside, it was only possible for me because the Mac computer had just come out and made it possible for one to design and do one's own typesetting right there on one's personal computer. Typesetting in those days cost something like $10 a page, so "self-publishing" was out of the reach of most mere mortals. I already knew how to do layouts from my editorial work, so being able to do my own typesetting made it possible to produce a book relatively inexpensively. BTW, that book is still in print (and still self-published).
I didn't actually become a serious freelancer until 1996. I "dabbled," and worked on another novel (still in the sock drawer), but wasn't really putting myself out there. How that came about was... My husband had started talking to someone who was trying to get him involved in Amway. (Actually by this time I think it had another name, but that was the base company.) The selling point of all this was that one is only so many months away from being flat broke if one loses one's job, and this would offer so much security, yadda yadda... And I started thinking, OK, if you're worried about needing an extra income, I'd rather start bringing it in by doing something meaningful than by convincing people to buy soap! So I started freelancing, and started doing pretty well at it.
Shortly thereafter I hooked up with Debbie Ridpath Ohi and the Inkspot website. Thanks to Debbie, I became something of the writer's technology guru, investigating the possibilities of this new "Internet" thing. (Technology aside there was, I gave a seminar at a writers' conference in, I think, 1997, on "writers and the Internet" -- and it got bogged down on such topics as "why you need to start out by actually getting a computer...") Eventually I became an editor on Inkspot, editing the "Inklings" newsletter and a new publication we set up called "Global Writers' Ink" (which only lasted about a year). I stayed with Inkspot for several years, freelancing for other magazines like Cats, Entrepreneur, The Writer, etc. as well. And that led to... your next question...
What was the inspiration behind starting Writing-World 12 years ago?
That gets into the old history of "what happened to Inkspot." This was the day of the dot-coms, with companies trying to buy up anything that looked like an Internet business. So Inkspot got purchased by Xlibris. (That's right, THE Xlibris. Go to the Dark Side, Luke...) What Xlibris actually meant to accomplish by this, we never did figure out, and I'm not sure they knew. I think somehow they were hoping to leverage Inkspot's huge community (one thing Inkspot did that I've never done was to have lots of forums and other interactive community sections). But Xlibris was bleeding money. By the end of 2000, we knew that some serious changes were going to be made, and assumed that meant a bunch of us were going to get fired, so I started wondering what to do next.
At that point, my husband asked, if Inkspot was the #1 website for writers, "Who's #2?" I couldn't think of any site, at that time, that was a "close second" in terms of content or popularity. So I thought, hey, why don't I take a stab at creating the "#2 writing site on the Web," seeing as I was pretty sure I was about to get kicked off the #1 site. I started working on a design and a content plan, and was just about to launch in February 2001, when... Wait for it...
Xlibris shut Inkspot down altogether! (I heard that basically someone went through the office and literally unplugged peoples' computers -- happily, I worked from home!) On her way out, Debbie put a notice on Inkspot letting people know that it was shut down and redirecting them to Writing-World.com.
This gave me a double advantage: All Inkspot's regular visitors were looking for a place to find the great articles they were used to, and Inkspot's writers were happy to let me take over their material. So I inherited a huge amount of great writing from Inkspot, and thousands of readers at the same time. And I've just tried to keep going forward from there.
Beyond the general guidelines provided at the site, what are you looking for? What increases a writer’s odds of acceptance?
What I look for most is an article that makes me feel, "Hey, I could do that!" I want to come away from an article with a sense that, if I followed those instructions, I could do something I haven't done before. I could break into a new market, or tackle a new type of writing or article, or perhaps even just reorganize my office in a different way.
I get a lot of articles that have good information, but they leave one feeling that one would still need to know a lot more to even get STARTED on whatever the topic happens to be. I also get a lot of articles that are more along the lines of "I did this, and then I did that, and that's how I became successful" -- but what that person did was very individual and unique, and not something that another writer could apply in their own circumstances.
Another thing that I look for is clear evidence of experience. I get quite a number of articles from someone who wants to tell me how to, say, "write a novel" -- but that person has never written a novel. Or perhaps someone will say that they've written dozens of short stories -- but not one has been published. That tells me you've written dozens of unpublishable short stories -- and doesn't convince me that you're the person to be telling other writers "how to do it."
What would it surprise others to know about you?
It would probably surprise people to know that I do not spend nearly as much time actually writing as people might imagine. I really enjoy being an editor -- and need to remind myself to spend more time composing my own stuff.
If you could have one literary “super power” what would it be?
The power of stick-to-itiveness! Or perhaps I would be "Mighty Second Draft Woman" -- the woman who whips through second drafts as easily as firsts! We won't talk about how long it has been since I've poked at the second draft of my current novel...
Any advice you can offer to today’s writers?
I think the advice writers need to hear has not changed in centuries. I get quite a kick out of reading articles for writers in Victorian magazines, published in the 1890's -- and those writers and editors are telling would-be writers EXACTLY the same thing we try to tell them today.
I think the issue is that the fundamentals of writing have not changed. We've been TOLD that they would change -- that new technologies would "change everything." But they haven't. They simply change the mechanism by which we do the same thing we've been doing for hundreds of years: Tell a good story.
A writer's goal is to capture the reader's attention and imagination. That goal is the same whether you're sitting around a glowing fire roasting a bit of mammoth, or sitting around the glowing Kindle screen. The story has to be good. The reader (or listener) has to get past "Here I am reading a book" and on to "Oh, gosh, how is Jeremy going to get out of THAT?" It doesn't matter whether your reader is holding a stone tablet or a parchment scroll or a bound book or an iPad -- YOUR goal is to make sure that whatever he's holding, he doesn't put it down.
To accomplish that, of course, requires... well, volumes have been written upon what it requires. But if I could pass along just ONE tidbit of advice to writers of any age or era, it's simply this: Don't get too full of yourself. One of the real detriments to writers of this age of easy self-publication is that too many writers are starting to believe that "getting published" is somehow a civil right. Being denied publication is somehow akin to being denied "your voice," your right to express yourself, etc. etc. We no longer think of it as a privilege, or as something to be earned through skill and hard work.
What we forget is that writing is not just about "being heard." It's about being BOUGHT. Books are BOUGHT by readers. We're not doing readers some sort of incredible favor by bestowing upon them our timeless prose. THEY are doing US the favor if they CHOOSE to buy our work. If they don't like it, they won't finish it and they won't buy anything else with our name on it. The writing world is not "open mike night." It's a marketplace, and an incredibly competitive one.
So steer clear of the tendency to suppose, "I wrote it, therefore it is good." If your only answer to the question, "Why is this a good book?" (or story, or poem, or article) is "Because I wrote it," that's no answer at all. A far better approach is to begin with "I wrote it" and then go on to "so now, how can I make it better?" If you can't imagine making it better, because you assume it's already perfect, it has already failed.
Which 9 to 5 job contributed most to your success as a writer, author and editor?
Definitely my two years as an editor at Dog Fancy. I learned so much about editing, and about good writing, during that period. I learned how magazines were put together (with typewriters, BTW) -- how the art was handled, how photos were selected, how one chose what "blurbs" to put on the cover, and so forth. I also learned that one could not afford to wait for the "muse" when one had a deadline. I will never forget my first week in the office, when I was told to "write an article about..." I'd never just sat down at the typewriter with the idea that, by 5:00, I need to have a finished article on something! I always imagined that you thought about it for a few days, and let ideas percolate, and let it gel, and spent a couple more days doing research, and.... Well, by 5:00 I had that article done, and it was probably one of the best learning experiences of my life!
What I loved most, though, was this act of assembling many different pieces into a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. You might have an article from Writer A, but you needed photos from Photographer B, and then you might need another article to balance the first one... plus all the columns, news items, layout issues... That magazine was also seriously suffering when I took it over -- we had quite a few "dead wood" columnists (some of whom weren't even sending in their columns, and they'd still get paid!). We had a tendency to put cute puppies wearing glasses on our covers. I happily got rid of a bunch of the existing writers, found a bunch of new ones, started putting big dogs on the covers -- and in that first year we won our first-ever "best magazine" award from the Dog Writers' Association of America.
What is your view on blogging and social media?
Honestly, I know I am going to sound like the dinosaur in the woodshed, but... I believe that for many writers, it is a huge distraction. I know that the prevailing wisdom today is that you must "build a platform" and "gain a following" in order to succeed -- or in order to get a publisher interested in your work. But I think that for many writers, this is doing things backwards. It's saying, basically, that you need to build an audience before you actually produce a work. That has never worked before in the history of writing, and I don't believe that it's going to work today for that many writers.
I think it also ends up, for many, consuming all too much precious time that COULD be spent producing a work. If I'm going to write a novel, I'm not going to spend an hour or so each day talking about it on my blog or Facebook -- that novel will never get done!
I think it's also a part of the growing trend today to assume that we all have to do absolutely everything. The benefits of time-saving technologies are simply that, the more time we have, the more we feel that we must DO. Everyone's single greatest complaint is "being too busy." We're too busy to have a social life, too busy to pursue our dreams -- and we just get busier and busier. Today we can't simply be writers, or writers and promoters -- we have to be performers and social secretaries and constantly chat, chat, chat with EVERYONE. Otherwise, we're neglecting our audience and our "platform."
Oddly enough, writers like Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie don't have these problems. Amazingly, their books still sell very well, but they're not blogging or maintaining a Facebook page or conducting chats. (Or if they are, they're on a sphere that most of us can't travel...) Mind you, I think Cleo Coyle, just as an example, has one of the world's best author pages (though I doubt she maintains it herself, given that she writes novels under at least three pen-names). But I don't buy Cleo Coyle's books because I came across her web page and fell in love with her brownie recipes. I visited her web page BECAUSE I liked her books (and, admittedly, I WAS looking for one of her recipes...) Nothing on her web page, brilliant as it is, would make me buy a book -- which makes me think that too much of social media is putting the cart before the horse.
Me, I want to be Agatha Christie. I can't think of anything more fabulous than having my books sell decades after I'm dead. And if that should ever happen -- if I should become that fabulous a writer -- I don't think it will be because of blogs or Facebook. It will be because of some serious hard work (which, I confess, so far, I haven't put in).
I know lots of folks will disagree -- but I'd really like, someday, to see some hard statistics about just HOW MUCH blogs, Facebook, and other social media really do influence readers' buying decisions. So far, it seems to be largely a matter of people saying, "You must do this because everyone says you must do this." I would really like to see the statistical evidence that doing this actually brings the results that we want!
Readers, please feel free to pose any questions or comments for Moira as it relates to her role as an editor, author, or as a freelancer. We'd love to hear from you.
To learn more about Moira, as well as garner timely tips on successful freelancing, visit Writing-World.com.