SCRATCH: Brave book attempts to convince authors to discuss the money they make

scratch-bookAuthor-editor Manjula Martin reminds me of an Olympic diver.

Dives get scored on their excellence, as well as their difficulty levels.

Martin should get a medal for her creative courage. In Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, she goes for the gold in attempting to get authors to reveal how they make a living from the written word.

Does she succeed? That depends on who the interviewee is. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, explains how her seemingly-large book advances seemed smaller when spread out over four years. She reveals that her newfound acclaim was punctuated by credit card debt.

Other authors get sidetracked talking about how it feels to be an author. What does success mean to them? In more than one occasion, Martin wants authors to talk about their social class standing as a working author.

The specifics of money disappear quickly in such cases. Some, like Austin Kleon, flatly refuse to give numerical specifics. In other instances, Martin asks how much an advance was for someone’s best-known book. The occasional figures seem to mean little when tight-lipped subjects won’t offer any other fiscal details of their work.

Martin’s interviews are flanked by numerous essay contributions from authors. Ghostwriter Sari Botton offers an illuminating explanation of how her little-known trade works. Novelist Alexander Chee praises superstar author and teacher Annie Dillard as one of his greatest influences in college. She estimated that nonfiction writers make three to five times the money fiction writers do. Then, Dillard urged students to break into print through essay writing.

In a majority of the essays within Scratch, the writers feel the need to address their pre- and post-emotional states upon finding paying work through writing. These detours make this reader think that Hmmm…How Does It Feel to Be An Author? may have been an alternative title.

Nevertheless, Martin inspires simply through her desire to pull back the curtain upon writing for pay. Once, many authors may have been shamed to admit they took ANY money for their creative endeavors. Keeping pay a secret has aided only publishers, not fellow creatives. Martin is wise in beginning to Scratch the surface upon a once-taboo topic.






How This Book Was Made: A Picture Book Not Just for Kids

how-this-book-was-made-barnettHow This Book was Made: A True Story is sneaky, subversive fun.

Children may prefer illustrator Adam Rex’s story-within-a-story artwork. While kids might simply see a queen dining on a veranda, adults will read between of the lines as author Mac Barnett describes his New York City editor. “She is like a teacher, only she works in a skyscraper and is always eating fancy lunches.”

After all, as Barnett claims he wrote 21 drafts of his children’s book, adults will remember the subtitle promise that this is a true story.

How true? Adults will guffaw over Rex portraying himself as a leisurely illustrator who needed frequent naps before completing his assignment. Rex packs each page with action, showing a multitude of characters (including King Kong and Ben Franklin) who enjoy cameos in the behind-the-scenes hilarity.

Children who stay tuned for the entire book won’t be disappointed. It turned out THEY are the true stars. How? Barnett reminds us that “…a book still isn’t a book, not really, until it has a reader.”

Published authors and illustrators will giggle over their “been there, done that” reaction to How This book Was Made.

Just be ready to explain your inside-joke laughs with the kids you’re sharing this fun title with!

See for yourself with the book’s official trailer!

Don’t let your writing get ‘totaled’ in 2016


(Photo credit: Alex Borland/

I want to make every word count this year.

That urge was reinforced when we received a surprise Christmas card.

A couple we met this year are on a year-long cross-country trip.

Their handwritten card’s first sentence read:

“On our trip, John has totaled…35 states so far.”

That’s how the card appeared. “Totaled” ended the first line.

For a moment, my heart raced. I thought the worst. “Totaled” what?

One word can make, or break, your writing. Choose carefully.


Editing advice? Get Biblical!

From the Charlton Heston Fan Club? Nope. Moses, one of history's best-known editors ("Looks good to me!") can assist you on your projects. Really, he's available IN QUANTITY from Archie McPhee. Check them out!

From the Charlton Heston Fan Club? Nope. Moses, one of history’s best-known editors (“Looks good to me!”) can assist you on your projects. Yes, those are stone tablets he’s holding. Really, he’s available IN QUANTITY from Archie McPhee. Check them out!

For Thanksgiving week (in case you chose your laptop over a pumpkin pie), here’s a second helping of some tasty¬†editing advice from earlier this year.

One of your first holiday gifts may be my two words of wisdom. Or, a lesson I learned the hard way.

Don’t overthink.

Why assume your article or manuscript needs more? It’s not set in stone (like other writing)!

Gifted by Grief offers writing inspiration

GiftedGriefToday (Sept. 10) is the last day Gifted by Grief, by Jane Duncan Rogers, is a free Kindle download.

My wife Diana Star Helmer and I were early editors on the project. We’re proud of Jane for her creative courage. Reliving the death of a beloved spouse is something most people would not attempt. Detailing those moments on paper is even tougher.

Jane did, both as a tribute to her late husband and a comfort for others dealing with loss.

Most of all, the book is exhibit A in the court of non-fiction successes.

What are you learning now? Is there a way you could take readers along on your road of exploration? Is there a way you can help others?

Answer those questions. Jane did. There are readers awaiting your answers.

How NOT to be like Jon Stewart

Thank you, Jon! By Martin Monroe (detail cut out by MARVEL) ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you, Jon! By Martin Monroe (detail cut out by MARVEL) ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Content editors, take note.

Fiction offers a constant temptation. Plug in popular culture references in every paragraph, right? Being trendy or timely helps, doesn’t it? The Daily Show guy did it for 16 years.

There’s one alternative: being TIMELESS.

It’s easy to assume that MySpace and VHS movies will be around forever. Wait. Where’d they go?

Fiction is fiction. Invent a name. Describe the good or service. Don’t get trapped by exact details. Today’s “hot” could be tomorrow’s “not.”

Be careful. Milk cartons are one thing. Seeing an expiration date, a “best when read by August, 2015” on your work, is another.

I bet even that Jon Whats-his-name would agree.



Hello, Magic 8 Ball: who likes questions as lead paragraphs?

Still available. Still fun!

Still available. Still fun!

Ask again later.

Not now.

The Magic 8 Ball may never reply, “How cute! A guessing game. What a coy way to begin your writing. Like a knock-knock joke without the laugh.”

More likely, when you ask the Magic 8 if it’s okay to start any writing with a question, the reply might be: “Throw me at your head. Then, you’ll know how I really feel.”

Fight the impulse to begin your novel, memoir, article, blog post or other writing with a question.Build trust, not annoyance. Your sources or your characters should be the ones who are applauded as cute. Readers will connect the dots later, realizing that you are the gifted storyteller.

Resist. Write. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.