Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Cost of Being a Writer

While at the Book Summit in Toronto two weeks ago, one of my friends and fellow writers reminded me to keep all the receipts for my expenses. In fact, she kept reminding our group to retain even our food receipts. We all joked about it and had a good laugh about being starving writers. However, claiming writing expenses is no fiction.

If you’re like most writers, you’re probably beside yourself wondering what you can deduct against your writing income when it comes to taxes. What does the Internal Revenue Service (for USA) or the Canadian Revenue Agency (for Canadians) allow? What deductions send up a red flag? Will you be audited?

How to Tell if Your Writing is an Occupation or a Hobby

First, let’s define your writing occupation. The IRS will apply “hobby-loss” rules according to how serious you are as a writer. If writing is merely a hobby or an occasional income-producing venture, then you can deduct your expenses only to the extent of your income. In other words, you can’t take any losses against other income. For example, if your hobby writing generates $1,500 for the year and your expenses amount to $1,900, you will not enjoy a $400 loss against other income. You may deduct only $1,500 in expenses, making your net taxable income zero from writing sources.

Intent becomes a key factor in determining your status. Are you a full-time writer, earning your entire income from this source? Or do you have a 9-to-5 job and write an article here and there for extra income? Perhaps you’re currently living on your savings while writing the Great American Novel. If you are working toward making a living from writing, even if you have another job on which you’re subsisting for the time being, then you can declare your writing an occupation by filing a Schedule C and take deductions, even if the result is a business loss. The loss applies to all other income you receive during the year, reducing your taxable income and therefore your tax liability.

The IRS leaves it up to each individual to make an honest determination of whether his writing activities are a hobby or a business. You make the decision as you file your tax return.

But the IRS gets a big scowl on its face when it sees five or more years of losses from a business activity. It’s inclined to audit and disallow the losses if it feels an individual is attempting to write off her hobby. That could be rather expensive, because the IRS will go back three years and recalculate your tax liability—including interest—without the losses. In some cases it may add penalties.

Here are some ways to prove business intent so you may enjoy losses against other income:

1. Keep business records, either on an accounting software program or on spreadsheets.
2. Maintain a separate checking account for transactions related to writing. (This not only proves business intent, but will make it easier to track income and expenses.)
3. Attend classes and conferences to improve your skills.
4. Advertise, network, seek new clients and keep a journal of these activities.
5. If you plan to deduct vehicle expenses, keep a mileage log.
6. Keep a phone log of business-related calls.
7. Obtain any required licenses and insurance.
8. Give your business a name.
9. Chart future projections and plans to turn the activity into a profitable enterprise.

By following the above guidelines, you’ll demonstrate a profit motive and be more likely to convince an auditor you’re serious about the business of writing.

Remember, every case is different in the US and Canada therefore, you have to consult with your accountant whether you can claim certain expenses or are entitled to every deduction. I would encourage you to seek professional advice to discuss your individual situation and how best to apply the laws to your advantage.

Friday, June 25, 2010

First Serial Rights and Other Rights

Knowing your rights is the most important step you can take toward protecting your work in today's competitive marketplace. It’s your responsibility to protect your literary work therefore, get informed on the copyright laws as they vary from country to country. I did some research on this topic since I'm still having a problem differentiating between copyright and use rights. I found some user-friendly information about copyright. Moira Allen, editor of Writing World explains it for us.

Copyright vs. Use Rights

Copyright refers to your right to claim ownership of a particular piece of "intellectual property." It also means that no one else can reproduce that work, sell it, or distribute it without your permission.

You have the ability to grant that permission, however, through "use rights." Licensing a "use right" does not affect your ownership of the copyright itself, unless you license away "all rights" or "work-for-hire" (see below).

Some publishers are under the mistaken impression that if they don't "buy" any rights, they aren't actually "using" them. This, however, is not true. As an author, you need to be aware that any publication of your material constitutes a transfer of rights.

Following are the rights most commonly offered by writers and acquired by periodical publishers (print and electronic):

• First North American Serial Rights (FNASR). This right is commonly licensed to magazines, newspapers, and similar periodicals. Specifically, you are granting a publication the right to reproduce your material in a "serial" (e.g., a magazine or newspaper), within North American (including Canada), for the first time.

It's equally important to know what you're not selling. You are not, for example, licensing a publisher to reprint your work in another format, such as an anthology. The publisher may not distribute the work outside North America; that would require a transfer of "international rights." Nor are you transferring "electronic rights" -- though many publications are now claiming the right to publish material on a website as "part" of FNASR. FNASR is an "exclusive" right, which means you can't transfer it more than once or to more than one publication.

• First Rights. Unlike FNASR, this term does not specify where or how material may be published, only that the publication has an exclusive "first use." Electronic and non-traditional markets often use this term. To protect your remaining rights, however, you may wish to request a more specific term, such as "first serial rights" (limiting use to periodical), "first international rights" (for distribution outside North America), or "first electronic rights."

• One-Time Rights. This grants a publication the non-exclusive right to use your material once (but not necessarily "first"). "Non-exclusive" means that you can license this right to more than one publication at a time. For example, you might license one-time rights to a column to several non-competing newspapers. "One-time" rights are often sold after you've sold FNASR.

• Second Rights or Reprint Rights. Once you've sold FNASR, your next sale of the same material is likely to be covered under "second rights" or "reprint rights." When you offer this right to a publication, you are clearly stating that the material has been published before and is a reprint (which usually brings a lower price). Often, the original publisher will ask to be credited when material is reprinted. As with one-time rights, you can often license "second rights" to more than one publication simultaneously.

• Electronic Rights. This catch-all phrase is extremely hazardous to writers, as it makes no distinction between different types of electronic publication -- e.g., publication on a CD-ROM, on a website, or in an electronic database. Consequently, if you license "electronic rights" to one form of electronic publisher, you may lose the right to sell that material to another and completely different type of publication.

It's wise, therefore, to specify the type of electronic rights you are licensing. If you're selling material to an e-zine, you might wish to specify that the license is for "first Internet use." If a print publication wishes to post your article on-line, you may wish to specify "one-time non-exclusive Internet use." Another option is to insert an "exclusion" clause into your contract to specify the types of electronic use rights that you are not transferring. Be wary of transferring away all electronic rights, or you may lose the right to post your work on your own website!

As mentioned above, many publications are now attempting to claim "electronic rights" as a part of FNASR. When you license FNASR to a print publication, be sure to ask whether the editor believes this "includes" the right to reproduce your material on a website or in another electronic form. If so, have this use included in writing -- and note any exclusions that you feel are necessary for your protection.

• All Rights. This term, loathed by writers, is often used by publishers who want to avoid the need to buy additional rights later. By acquiring all rights, for example, a publisher acquires electronic rights as well.

Once you've sold "all rights" to a piece, you can never sell that piece again. All you retain is the right to claim authorship. You may even be precluded from selling revisions or rewrites of the same material.

That doesn't mean that you should never sell "all rights." In some cases, the benefits of a such sale may outweigh the lost potential for resale, especially if there is a limited market for that particular work. If you do sell "all rights," however, be sure that you are being adequately compensated.

• Work for Hire. This controversial term is showing up with increasing frequency in magazine and other publishing contracts. Originally, it referred to work produced within the scope of a person's employment (e.g., if you worked for a publication, the articles you wrote in the course of your job were considered "work for hire," belonging to the publication rather than to you). Lately, however, some publications are attempting to claim that if a piece is "assigned," that constitutes a "work for hire" agreement (even if the original idea was yours).

When you sign a "work-for-hire" agreement, you lose all rights to your work, including your copyright. If a publication chooses to run that work without your byline (or under another byline), it has the right to do so. The publication also has the right to edit, alter, reprint, or resell your material. Most alarmingly, you may even be liable for copyright infringement if you write another article that closely resembles the "work-for-hire" piece.
When faced with a work-for-hire clause, your first act should be to attempt to renegotiate the contract (even if the best you can get is an all-rights clause). If that fails, you must consider very carefully whether you wish to renounce all claim to that piece of work, and whether the benefits are worth the cost.

And remember, it never hurts to have someone familiar with freelancer contracts glance over your contract before you sign.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Interview with a poet

On June 17, 2010 while in Toronto for the Book Summit, I had the opportunity to interview Canadian poet, Len Gasparini. Born in Windsor, Ontario, Guernica author Len Gasparini is the winner of the 2010 NOW Poetry Open Stage at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Author of The Undertaker’s Wife, The Broken World: Poems 1967-1998, and A Demon in My View. He's also the author of two children's book; a non-fiction work, Erase me, and a one-act play.

CDB: Did you study poetry in school? When did you start writing poetry?

LG: No mentors. I learned on my own. I was a voracious reader. I read everything. I dropped out of school at seventeen and I was a pitcher because I wanted to be a baseball player. I first got published at twenty-six but I came into writing through the back door. You have to live it, experience it, relate to everything in order to write it. My literary influences were Dostoyevsky, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire. Three people changed my life: Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley, and James Dean.

CDB: I noticed you start the book with your poem titled The Photograph of my Grandfather Reading Dante and end the book with the poem Watching my Wife Make Passatelli. Did you want to begin and end with poems about your family? To me, it’s very symbolic. It seems as if you’re embracing everything but family always comes first and last. Is there a significance to it?

LG: Yes, it’s done on purpose. I start the book with the poem about my grandfather because he showed me how to hold a pencil. I had a beautiful childhood. My wife was Greek and she learned how to make passatelli so I wanted to end the book with what all begins with, life begins and ends with “la famiglia,” “la sangue” (Family, blood).

CDB: Is Self Portrait (1967) really a portrait of yourself at that time?

LG: Yes, more or less. I was married with two kids. That’s when I began writing seriously and publishing. I lived the way I wanted to live. I haven’t had a day job since 1982 because I’ve been seriously writing. If you love something passionately, you’ll do anything just to do this.

CDB: The Accident, a poem about an electrician who gets his finger jammed in a V-belt, was this about someone you knew?

LG: Yes. I worked with this guy in a factory that processed table salt. I had to call the foreman and tell him the V-belt was stuck. His finger got stuck and the guy passed out, blood was gushing like a fountain. He lost his finger. I worked there four years, the longest I’ve worked in a place.

CDB: Is your poem Nocturne a Haiku?

LG: Yes, it is. I was experimenting with Haikus. Actually, it was a experimental poem to try different forms.

CDB: There are fifty-one types of poetry. Which type do you write: Lyric, narrative, rhyme, romanticism, or sonnet?

LG: Mostly lyrical, free verse, blank verse, sonnets, haikus, and elegies.

CDB: Some common techniques used in poetry are onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance, rhyming, simile and metaphor, do you still use them?

LG: I use everything. Dylan Thomas (Welsh poet) said ‘use whatever you can use to make a poem dramatic and entertaining’ that’s up to you whether you want to use foreign words, slang, metaphor, you name it.

CDB: Kafka’s Other Metamorphosis, is this a homage to Kafka? Is he your favorite author?

LG: No. It’s a take on him with black humor. It’s a pastiche. I turned it into a sexual thing.

CDB: Transvestite, is a strong poem that strikes a chord with the gay community. The poem is raw and descriptive. Is this a message to society?

LG: I wrote this poem as a fact, as I saw it. Yes, a message but objectively giving poetic image of reality. No propaganda, just reality.

CDB: Artist’s Model, is a very sexual poem, yet it's sensual, artistic, and evocative of a muse. In the last verse we could see this desire, “I could possess your essence by painting you; but heaven it would be to paint your essence in my mind while possessing you. Art has an alternative, too.” Are you talking about the duality of his creation? Can you elaborate?

LG: The artist has two lives; any artist who lives two lives is living in a kind of schizophrenia. He creates two things at once because it’s only imagination. It refers to his creation and not necessarily a woman. It’s symbolic like Pygmalion. It’s like creating the perfect partner.

CDB: When I read The Buffalo Nickel, I couldn’t help but to feel sad even though the adjectives you chose didn’t evoke sadness. In the last verse I noticed you misspelled two words, “Up the road was a gas station-diner he hunched toward it. A sign in the window said- We dont serv injuns.” Is this to show ignorance?

LG: Yes, the ignorance of whites. Back then you could buy a coffee with a nickel so my father suggested I should write a poem about it. The poem shows the irony of how the land once belonged to the natives. To answer your previous comment and you can quote me on this, “The secret to poetry is to create sensation not emotion because sensation is more subtle, more physical.” Poetry is words resounding words and that’s how you create rhythm.

CDB: I noticed you wrote three poems about Pelee Island. Is there a personal reason behind it?

LG: Yes, there is. I wrote those poems because I want to be with nature. I want to wake up in the morning and hear birds. By being close to nature, we’re in contact with our lives. It’s a communion.

CDB: In the poem Words, you say, “The Bible, the Torah, the Koran- the vain anthropocentrism of man. So we need myths? Should these bones live? The computer runs algorithms but the psyche’s still primitive.” I find this poem to be very philosophical. Are you questioning life and/or religion? Or, are you just critiquing the slow evolution of man’s rationale?

LG: I’m questioning both. What I’m implying is that human evolution stopped at the neck. The psyche is primitive –what other creature does what we do to other humans?

CDB: La Puttana Maria, to me it’s a bit blasphemous. Was that your intention? Or are you using this woman as a metaphor for religion?

LG: The original title was La Puttana Madonna but an Italian woman, a writer I met, told me to change the title to Maria instead. People have different interpretations so what you do is your write your own.

CDB: Mr. Gasparini, it was a pleasure meeting you. I really appreciate the opportunity you gave me to interview you. I also want to thank you for the books you gave me. It was very thoughtful of you.

LG: The pleasure was mine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Five Writing Techniques to Improve ALL type of Writing

Writing comes easily for some of us but unfortunately, this is not the case for all of our fellow writers. A lot of it has to do with the technicalities this craft entails. We love to create and play with words but we loathe the editing aspect of it. I want to share with you five keys to good writing that editor Jen Stevens at Travel Writer says will improve all type of writing - whether you're writing a memo to your boss, composing a letter of complaint to your bank, or sending a thank-you note to somebody who did something nice for you.

Key #1. Don't waste your verbs.
The verb "to be" is one of the weakest verbs in the English language. For stronger, more descriptive sentences, replace "to be" with verbs that do more. Eliminate "to be," and your writing becomes more vibrant, more interesting, and more persuasive. Notice how much better sentence (b) is than sentence (a):
a. The owner was in the doorway at the back of the bar.
b. The owner LEANED in the doorway at the back of the bar.
Similarly, the verb "to have" doesn't gain you much ground.

Try to eliminate it as well, and you'll find your sentences are more economical and active. Again, notice how much better sentence (b) is than sentence (a):
a. A storm is brewing over banking-privacy laws, and it could have a significant impact on Caribbean economies in the year to come.
b. A storm is brewing over banking-privacy laws, and it could SIGNIFICANTLY impact Caribbean economies in the year to come.

Key #2. Write to express rather than to impress.
Always choose words that make reading easy for your reader. Don't let him get tangled up in your language. Instead, choose the words you'd use if you were speaking to your reader. Write the way you talk.

SHORTER words are better.
• Instead of "assemble," use "meet."
• Instead of "domesticate," use "tame."
• Instead of "happenstance," use "fate."

SPECIFIC words are better.
• Instead of "greenery," use "fern."
• Instead of "large," use "329-pound."
• Instead of "gem," use "diamond."

COMMON words are better.
• Instead of "automobile," use "car."
• Instead of "criminal," use "crook."
• Instead of "dispatch," use "send."

Key #3. Use fewer words.
You should never use more words than you absolutely need to. Oops! What I mean to say is: Never use more words than you need. Simply put, use fewer words. You may have a lot to say. Fine. Say it in more than one sentence. Short sentences keep your copy moving forward. When your sentences are too long, your reader gets bogged down in the language and confused by what you're trying to say. Your job is to make it easy for a reader. You do that by trimming words.

Key #4. Express one idea in one sentence.
When you include too many ideas in one sentence, you dilute the impact of the sentence. Your reader will give your ideas more attention when you make those ideas accessible. To do that, limit your ideas to one per sentence. This confusing sentence contains more than one idea:

Spring or fall weddings are in abundance on Saturday afternoons: wander the streets and observe crowds dressed in stunning, celebratory attire.

This version is better:
In the spring and fall, weddings are common on Saturday afternoons. You can wander the street and see crowds in celebratory dress.

Key #5. Say what you mean.
Say something with every sentence you write. Don't pad your copy with high-minded "filler" or tiptoe around an issue by weaving a complicated web of words. Instead, get to the point. But before you can do that ... you have got to know what your point is. So,
1. Figure out what you really mean to say.
2. Say what you mean to say.
Each of these five keys to good writing should become habits for you. And the only way to make that happen is to revise, revise, revise. Keep these keys on a checklist, and each time you write something, go back through it and make sure you've done each task properly. Soon you'll find that it all becomes second nature.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Writing a Good Query Letter

We as writers get so excited when we finish writing our stories or novel. However, we forget a very important part of the writing process: the query letter. This type of letter is the equivalent of a cover letter when you’re looking for a job. Keep in mind that this letter might get your novel published. It’d better be written meticulously in order to get a publisher’s attention. I found this article by Gail Eastwood in the Eclectic Writing Articles. Ms. Eastwood points out key details that we often do not take into consideration. Remember: publishers have no time for bad letters.

DO: Make your query letter professional. It should be short (one or one and a half pages max), direct, descriptive and businesslike, set up as a business letter.

DO: be certain you are targeting the right publisher, and have the right address!

DO: address your letter to a specific editor (and make sure you've got the right one!). Find out who to send to by networking, getting information through writers' publications, or by calling the publishing house to get the name of the editor for the line you are targeting.

DO: be sure to include your name, address, and telephone number on the letter!

DO: follow what is a fairly standard format. First paragraph should introduce you and your book -- the title, projected word length, whether or not it is completed (or how far along it is), type of book and which line it is aimed for.

The second paragraph is the most important --it must summarize your book in just a few sentences, like a TV movie blurb or 30-second commercial. What is your book about? What is your theme? What is it that makes your characters different, what makes them and their conflict interesting, what will they learn, how will they be changed by what happens to them? Remember the basic fiction formula: characters plus problem = conflict; conflict plus action leads to resolution and change.

The third paragraph is about you -- your writing experience and credentials, prior publishing history, if any (of any kind, including articles, poetry, stories); professional memberships; any other relevant information -- expertise that helped you write this book, for instance, or another career...

Last, thank the editor and express your hope for a prompt reply.

DON'T: confuse "sales tool" with "sales pitch." This is not the time to say how great your book is or how endearing your characters are -- that's for the editor to decide. Be straightforward.

DON'T: tease by not revealing the facts of the story, hoping to entice the editor's curiosity.

DON'T: neglect basics of spelling, grammar, clean presentation, clear and vivid writing. First impressions count! Your query letter itself functions partly as a writing sample.

DON'T: indulge in a long story synopsis, or include an autobiographical essay about your writing or your children. Just focus on what makes your book special. Why do you love this story? Why did you want to write it? Why does it fit this publisher's line? Capture its essence in your letter and if it fits, the editor will be asking to see it.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Editing Could Be Fun!

You’re probably wondering why I titled this post Editing Could Be Fun. Well, I didn’t think this could be possible until recently. I’ve been working on a couple of short stories that were originally birthed two years ago. I hadn’t revisited them since then to avoid the painstaking editing process. However, my friend who’s also a writer and I have agreed to encourage each other whenever one feels disheartened in her writing. We’ve also teamed up to revise each other’s work and get feedback from a fresh pair of eyes. The result? Non-stop writing! We’re feeding of each other’s energy and it feels wonderful! I can’t believe I even wrote a new short story in one day in between edits. My friend has written four short stories and that’s not even including her poems. The best part is that we’ve made the editing process fun as we laugh at our mistakes. I’m fortunate to have found the perfect partner in “writing crime.” My advice to other writers is to work with someone who will respect you as a person and as an artist. Team up with someone who’ll help you along the writing journey without judging you based on your work.

My tips to making editing fun:

1. Avoid too many adjectives, weak verbs, and characters that do not move the story forward. Don’t forget that sometimes less is more.
2. Don’t be afraid. It’s okay to axe some characters, paragraphs, and even pages.
3. Brainstorm and be open to changes and suggestions.
4. Revision should not hinder your writing time. When you write, just write. Do not edit while the inspiration is flowing. Editing will come later.
5. Take a break. After finishing your story, put it away and revisit it two days later. You’ll be surprised at your new-found perception.
6. Have fun! Laugh at your mistakes, share them with your writing partner as he/she will learn from them as well.

Is there someone with whom you share ideas and who fuels your writing energy?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Social media and the arts

Yesterday I attended the 10th Annual YES Artists' Conference. The topics covered were very interesting. One that caught my attention was how you can build your professional profile using social media such as YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I like LinkedIn because is a professional site with tons of user friendly features and helpful pages to increase your visibility. Michelle Sullivan, Director of Social Media & Digital Communications said that YouTube is a great tool (if used correctly) to help you make your mark and stand out from the crowd.

I found some tactics that corroborate what Sullivan said:
1. Make the videos viral, and spread them to as many websites as possible. 2. Use other social media sites like Twitter and Digg to post your videos.
3. Create well thought out, professionally styled videos that are edited properly.
4. Make sure the sound on your videos is clear and mixed and edited well so users can clearly hear it.
5. Keep content funny, engaging, and informative so viewers will watch it from beginning to end.
6. Try to keep the videos you create clean without too much controversial material.
7. Embed your logo and website into the video somehow. You can do this with text at the end or beginning, or by including your logo or URL throughout the entire video.
8. Have goals for your YouTube videos, but remember that there are thousands of videos on the site, and some have millions of hits while others only have a couple hundred. Set realistic goals.
9. Make sure you have a good camera and editing equipment. If you don't want to sink the money into these things, consider hiring a professional.
10. Keep the resolution of the video as high as possible, so it's as clear as it can be.
Want to read the additional 40? Go to: http://www.susangilbert.com/50-powerful-social-media-tactics-for-youtube/.

Reprinted from "The Book Marketing Expert newsletter," a free ezine offering book promotion and publicity tips and techniques. http://www.amarketingexpert.com

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"If you don't get that break, make it happen!"

Who says writing is easy? Not me! Anybody who is committed to this craft (notice that I say committed) knows how difficult it is to find time to write, finish one’s project, promote it, and most importantly, believe in one’s work! The key words here: promote and believe.

I met a throng of children’s authors last week at the Book Expo in New York City. I was fascinated by the creative titles I encountered and the inspirational tales by first-time authors. For instance, The Champion behind the Champion by BarbarAnn Fitzgerald, an accomplished master-rated competitive figure skating coach and artist. She wrote and illustrated the book herself. It tells the story of LambieAnn; a lamb that wants to learn how to skate. It has a wonderful message that teaches children how to handle winning and losing at sports. BarbarAnn was very outgoing and full of zest. She was promoting her book with the help of her sister Kathleen Fitzgerald, a figure skater as well. BarbarAnn was carrying a toddler-size LambieAnn doll. The three ladies donned polka-dotted fuchsia blouses. I thought that was genius! They were so unique and colorful I had to approach them. This was promoting at its best!

Creativity doesn’t have to stop at writing the book. It continues on the road of marketing and promoting.

Another example of promoting and believing in one’s work is new YA author, Zita Banasinski who recently published Julian’s Enchanted Red Door. Zita became inspired to write this series of novels while watching her son, Julian, play soccer. The story is about eleven-year-old Julian and his mischievous friends who try to unravel his family’s mystery. They encounter trials, learn valuable life lessons, and embark on a journey that will change their lives forever. Zita is promoting her book by reading at schools and local libraries. I call that a “goal” in marketing strategies as she’s directly targeting her audience.

Remember, writing is fun, but promoting your book should be even better! If you don’t do the legwork nobody will. So here are some important things for you to do to get YOUR book out there:

• Research your target market
• Find ways to market that are fun and creative
• Network, network, network!
• Have business cards made and carry them with you at all times! Hand them out
• Create a webpage or a blog
• Tell your family members, friends, and colleagues about your book launch
• Be a professional and put in the hours
• Have fun!

Looking forward to seeing your book in print!