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Occasionally, you may find yourself drawn to the idea of writing about a subject that you aren’t exactly an expert at. For newspaper reporters, the issue is a daily occurrence. Imagine, you walk into work one morning, happy as can be, only to find you’ve been assigned to write about the life of a bee keeper, or an auto mechanic, or the President of the United States.

What’s a poor reporter to do?

You may have an opinion on bee keeping, or honey production, or pollen – and that opinion may be perfectly valid. But the story isn’t supposed to be about you and your opinions, it’s supposed to be about the bee keeper and his world. A good reporter will use one of the most powerful tools at his disposal in such a situation – quotes.

Of course to use pertinent quotes in a story it’s necessary to do a little leg work. You have to actually interview the subject of your story. If that’s not possible, you might find an expert in the field you can interview. The experts comments carry weight that yours alone cannot, giving your story more oomph. They also tend to lend credibility to the premise of your story, should you employ one.

Quotes are a useful, educational and sometimes entertaining tool for any writer. Even fiction writers will find the need to use quotes. Characters need to talk, to interact, to divulge information to each other and the reader. That can be accomplished through narration alone – but it makes for a long, boring read. By using quotes the writer can impart knowledge without making the reader nod off to dreamland.

Like any aspect of writing, the use of quotes, in fiction or non-fiction, takes practice. In non-fiction it’s critical that the quotes you choose are accurate and used in context. In non-fiction, they need to be believable. At least most of the time.

Your first attempts may be clunky, rough and less than compelling. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually get the hang of it. Much of the magic of good quotes results not so much from your tremendous writing talent, but rather from your interviewing skills. Those too will require some experimentation. But like everything else, you will find that with some effort, your abilities will improve over time. But the art of the interview is another blog entry for another time. For the moment, think about how you might use quotes to improve a story you’ve been considering putting on paper, or struggling with in rewrite after rewrite. Then give it a try. You just might be surprised at how powerful those two little quote marks can be when you start using them to improve your work and fill out your stories.

Jamie Beckett

Author – Burritos and Gasoline

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The author, practically working.After five years of writing a weekly newspaper column, I’ve come to a decision. At least I thought I’d come to a decision. It turns out my resolve wasn’t particularly strong. So I’m wishy washy. Sue me.

I was very proud when my column ran on Sundays. Traditionally, Sunday is the day for the big guns to appear on the editorial page. I was flattered to have been selected for that slot, although probably unnecessarily so. I’ve run on Wednesdays too. Occasional columns have been timely enough that my editor has chosen to run them on the day they come in. I’ve always enjoyed the rush of having done a good job on the editorial page. That editorial feedback makes all the difference, whether it’s the decision to run the column immediately to take advantage of the timing – or to run it in Sunday’s paper, right under George Will.

The approval of the editor is a big deal to me. And I may be wrong, but it seems likely that editorial respect ranks high up on the list of things-to-get-right-today for a whole lot of writers.In my case, there have been five editors who have been pressed into service, passing judgement on my columns. Tom gave me my initial break. But he retired and handed the reins over the Bill. Bill was a real treat to work for. Bill ran me on Sunday’s without fail. Then Bill died, leaving the task of watching over my work to Dave. Dave taught me a fair amount about how to deal with editors in a professional manner. As editors are wont to do, he eventually moved on to another publication where the grass was allegedly greener. Dave was still employed there when he too died, just recently.

Sitting at a desk all day may not be the healthiest lifestyle in the world. Which is why I have a treadmill and a weight bench in my office. But that’s a story for another day.  

Christie was a hard nut to crack. My first female editor, she was the toughest to sell on my abilities. But she saw enough value in my work to run me in the Friday edition. The columns kept flowing and the paychecks kept coming. Christie left for a job up north. Apparently Florida wasn’t her cup of tea in the end.

Joe is my current editor. I like him. Which is why it pained me to write him to say that I wasn’t all that thrilled about writing my column anymore. Budget cuts had shaved my once a week column to twice a month recently. The financial shortfall isn’t of much consequence really. Newspapers don’t pay all that well in the first place. But once a week is a real column. Something a writer can be proud of. Twice a month is something less than that. For the first time in my career, I felt deflated and uninspired when I sat down to write. So I decided to pull the plug, to go out with a modicum of my dignity intact. I wrote Joe and told him I was out. I thought I was done. My columnist days behind me, I began to make plans to spend more time whittling away at the many pages I’ve piled up that may or may not become my next novel.

Plans almost never work out the way you expect they will.

Within an hour I had an e-mail from my editor asking me if I wouldn’t reconsider. Well, of course I’d reconsider. I love writing my column. I love the mail I get from fans and foes. From readers who think I’m a genius, closely followed by readers who point out that I’m an idiot. But I still find it hard to fire myself up to write an occasional column rather than a regular, weekly piece that readers come to love, or hate – but they expect it nonetheless.

Negotiations are reopened it seems, with my editor leading the fight to return my column to its former, once-a-week status. A fact I am tremendously grateful for. Novels will come, one at a time. But the weekly columns provide nearly instantaneous feedback to the writer. That kick is hard to replace.

I’m not sure there’s a tidy wrap-up for this installment – other than to say, “Be good to your editor. You never know when they might be good to you in return.”

Nuff said!

Jamie Beckett

Proud editorial columnist

Author – Burritos and Gasoline

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While diving into a new book project, I find myself struggling this week with the art of building a reasonable sentence. The job sounds easy enough. Stick a noun in close proximity with a verb, surround it on one end with an upper case letter, on the other end with a punctuation mark and there you have it. A simple sentence. Not to be confused with a sentence fragment, which the previous sentence most assuredly is.Some are short. They shoot from the hip. Information is conveyed in quick bursts. The readers pace quickens. Tension drives the words. Suspense is heightened. Our protagonist’s mood darkens. The story takes shape.

Sentence construction does most of the work in that paragraph. There is no plot, no character development, no scenery for the reader to consider. Just short, choppy sentences that move the reader along, set the pace of the moment and establish a mood for the work. While you may not be riveted by that short blast of information, you weren’t bored either. The sentences drove you down the page, searching for more information. And so you went, willingly, for a trip that would take you who-knows-where.

I love short sentences. No more or less than long sentences mind you. But I do love them. Perhaps because they are so difficult to do well. At least in quantity. It’s easy to write a short sentence. For goodness sake, school children are masters of the short, declarative sentence. They appear to have a special talent for developing them, or for saving graphite at all cost. Either way, you’ll rarely find a 3rd grader who will willingly write a sentence with much fat in it. They hit. They run. They’re finished with the assignment.

Dave Barry, the humorist, is my favorite long sentence writer. Dave seems to have the ability to string together so many words in a single sentence that I’m not at all sure at the mid point whether there will be any left unused by the end of his sentence or not. But it makes no difference. He does his job well. He makes me laugh. And if the great and powerful Dave Barry feels that he needs to employ sentences that are so long I need a MetroRail Pass to get from one end to the other, so be it. He’s the boss. I’m just a reader who’s happy to have been invited to come along for the ride.

So maybe I shouldn’t sweat my sentences so much. Perhaps I should just take a deep breath, lay my fingers on the keyboard and see what happens. After all, it’s not like anyone’s life depends on what flows out onto the page. Provided you don’t take into account my mortgage, the car payments, the electric bill, my high speed access account, the cell phone bill, the regular phone bill, the fact that my younger daughter (first runner up, should my older daughter be unable to fulfiller her duties due to sickness, schedule conflicts or an inconceivably powerful case of apathy) will need braces shortly and the occasional veterinarian bill – I guess it doesn’t really matter.

And in case you’re wondering – that last sentence was ridiculously long, unfocused and probably unnecessary. Feel free to use it if you like.

Jamie Beckett

Burritos and Gasoline

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In a perfect world, where words flow effortlessly and flawlessly onto the page, the act of becoming a writer would be a cake walk. The joy of doing the work well would probably be diminished, too. After all, if any Tom, Dick or Harriett could jot line after line of engaging prose at the drop of a hat, what would be the point of working to improve your own writing?In real life, at least in this life, the challenge to become a decent writer is very real. For those with the passion and the drive, it’s possible. But it’s not easy. The path is long and occasionally arduous. It’s filled with bad grammar, misspelled words, questionable punctuation and the ever present risk of run-on-sentences.It’s a jungle in here.

If you find yourself struggling with less than compelling paragraphs, don’t sweat it. We’ve all been there. Not every word Mark Twain put on paper was golden. Our current best seller list is rife with authors who struggle with phrasing, character development and plot points. The fact is, writing is hard. But it’s a powerful calling. If you’ve got the bug, my condolences. There’s nothing to be done now but surrender to the struggle for perfection – and learn to settle for less.

Editors, while having a bad reputation – possibly due to their horrible portrayal on television and in the movies – just might be your most important asset. I never saw Perry White edit a thing. The man was always steaming mad, yelling at Jimmy Olson or admonishing Clark Kent over some idiotic thing or another. But I never heard him question a source or suggest a stronger lead to reporter.

Real editors are a bit different. In the worst of situations they can save your work, improving it dramatically while teaching you valuable lessons about the trade. They can also become good friends, trusted allies and perhaps most important – a fine placement service with a line on where a new opening just surfaced for an aspiring writer.

Periodically I’ll sit down with an editor I’m working with to ask for feedback. We might do it in person, or we might correspond over long distances via e-mail. Either way, the editor has something to teach me that will make me better, provided I’m willing to listen. If he doesn’t offer his opinion unsolicited, it’s worth taking a shot by asking. Whatever the answer, I’ll come away from the exchange with a better understanding of what he wants to see in the future. And I just might become a stronger, more marketable writer in the process.

So don’t fret if you’re not performing to the level you’d like to as of yet. Keep banging away. Be critical of your work to the point that you’re willing to do a re-write on your own if you need to. And practice asking the very serious question, “How could this be better?”

It couldn’t hurt

Jamie Beckett

Author – Burritos and Gasoline

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In the waning days of January I found myself at my desk, toiling away into the wee hours of the morning. Admittedly, there’s nothing unusual in that detail of my life. However, unlike most late nights, or early mornings, I was making absolutely no effort to be creative. This one regularly scheduled task doesn’t lend itself to creativity. Accuracy is the key. Which is why on one night each month I turn off the music, shut my door and pull out a pile of my most recently published clips to wade through.

This is no exercise in ego I’m embarking on. It’s the necessary precursor to a payday. You might refer to it as Invoice Night. I do. When the sun rises on the landscape outside my curtained window, I’ll have a detailed listing neatly prepared, ready to send out to publications that have used my work that month.

I didn’t always burden myself with the irritation of Invoice Night. But I didn’t always get paid, either. The realization that your work might occassionally be published, unintentionally gratis, will rattle the cage of even the most blasé of freelancers. And so I am devoted to this uninspiring chore, dedicating one night a month to the financial realities of being a writer. I’d urge anyone who aspires to earning even a meager living with words to do the same.

My invoices are simple. They could easily be more complicated, more ornate in their design. Although the reasons why I might want to go down that road escape me. The template I’ve come to work with is spare, but simple. Even more important, it gets the results I expect from my various publishers. So I continue without modifications. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I write out my invoices on letterhead. Included is my contact information, as well as the name of the publication that printed my work, the name of the editor who gave me the green light to write the piece as well as their address. Below that I include the name of the story, the date of the publication it ran it and the rate we’ve agreed upon. At the bottom of the page I include a total figure. This is an especially worthwhile figure when dealing with publications like newspapers, where I may have sold multiple stories over the course of the month.

I end with the ever-so-businesslike phrase, “Invoice payable upon receipt.”

There is no punch-line here. No great payoff other than in the fiscal sense. For while writing can be a cathartic activity for many, or a method of preserving a historical record for others, it is a means to paying the bills for more than a few. And so I succumb each month for a few hours to the most mundane aspect of my career as a writer.

Here’s hoping you’re fortunate enough to do the same – with even greater success. Keep hitting those keys. If practice makes perfect, real dedication just might make you a satisfying living that you, your family and friends can take real pride in. One word, one piece, one invoice at a time.

Jamie Beckett

Author – Burritos and Gasoline

http://jamiebeckett.com

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Two weekends ago I attended a fantastic aviation event. Granted, “fantastic” is a subjective term. But for a guy who has both flown and rebuilt airplanes for a living, I looked forward to this particular event for quite some time.

For one thing, the event was held in Sebring, Florida – an absolutely lovely little town that overdevelpment hasn’t ruined yet. I was also quite enthused because I was attending with media credentials in hand, as I have since this particular event’s inception. The publication I was freelancing for is a favorite of mine. The publisher is a top-notch guy and my editor is a real professional.  I’ve never had a bad experience with them. Considering I can say that even after submitting a story with a small but slightly embarassing factual error several years ago, you know I really mean it when I rave about these guys.

Back at my home office after a day in the sun, my face tilted skyward with the arrival of each new airborne engine sound, I got down to the business of writing my story. My deadline was lax, perhaps because I have a history of getting my work in ASAP. So the words were flowing without any anxiety about when I had to hit the “Send” button with a finished piece. I was well into it when I realized I’d never actually asked anyone what my word limit might be.

Oops!

In reality I didn’t have much of a problem. Having written for this same publication for several years I had a pretty good feel for what they were looking for. As a matter of fact, I’d covered this same event for them for at least three years running. So my confidence level was high. But that stray throught brought back a flood of memories of my time editing a few small aviation magazines over the past decade. I’ve had stories submitted that ran for so many pages I couldn’t possibly finish reading them, let alone edit them down to a usable length. I’ve also opened envelopes to find nothing but a handful of Polaroids with notes scribbled on the back. Either extreme is worthless to a busy editor. And neither gets the writer any closer to their first published article, or a paycheck.

It’s a fact of writing – size matters. Whether you submit to the local paper, where they measure length in column inches, or the magazine market where they count words individually – writers have to know where to wrap it up.

And on that note, I’ll do exactly that. Goodnight.

Jamie Beckett

Author – Burritos and Gasoline

http://jamiebeckett.com

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Deadlines are a critical necessity of life as a writer. I take great pride in never having missed one – with certain painfully obvious exceptions.

It’s plainly posted on the right side of this screen that I am scheduled to post on the 1st and 3rd Friday of each month. Whether I’ve done that or not this month is open to discussion. Please allow me to explain.

This post will go up with a date stamp that suggests it went up on a Saturday, January 20th. This is true in every sense. Although, being a slightly off-beat sort of fellow, my clock doesn’t run quite in synch with the one you more than likely use. My day starts in the early afternoon. Like most people, I refer to this beginning portion of my day as, “morning.”

Just today as I was mailing off a series of packages at my local post office, I greeted the familiar staff behind the window with a cheery, “Good morning!” I did this without thinking. The fact that it was well after 1:00PM hardly entered into my mind. I had been awake for less than an hour and was in fact finishing my work from the night before.

My days start late, consequently they run quite late too. I generally finish my writing and wander off to bed around 5:00AM. I like this schedule. It works for me.

Of course it’s absolutely fair to say that I’m out of step with the majority of my neighbors.

All of which leads me to raise the question; Is it a bad thing to be off kilter? In my case, I don’t think so. While I generally write my newspaper column in the wee hours of the morning, and often send them off to my editor at odd hours, I make my deadline without fail. No harm done. The kids are quiet, the dogs are asleep and the phone hardly ever rings in the middle of the night. For me, it’s the most productive time of day to work.

Until tonight.

In this case, on this blog, I will be the first to admit that I’ve missed my deadline this week. And I’ll blame that on a new schedule for a new blog, of which this is my first official post. With that in mind, I will adjust my schedule to accommodate my deadlines and post early in the morning on Fridays – a time most people would still refer to as Thursday night. Because as any writer who has raced to meet a deadline is aware, it’s far better to be a day early than a day late.

The moral of this story is an important one for anyone who is, or hopes to be, a writer. The deadline is the deadline. If you miss it, you’re dead – hence the name. It is our responsibility to reshape our schedules, our lives in fact, if we must in order to meet our deadlines. No editor will be inclined to extend a second assignment to a writer who has missed the last one. Only an idiot of an editor would be likely to assign a story to a writer who had missed their deadline more than once in recent memory.

So write, re-write and at least consider the possibility of going through that process at least one more time. But keep your eye on the calendar and the clock while you do. Your deadline is looming – and I just missed one for the first time, by an hour and a quarter. Shame on me!

Jamie Beckett

Author – Burritos and Gasoline

http://jamiebeckett.com

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