Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is your average work day like?
A: There's no such thing. What happens during any given day depends on what I'm working on at a given time, whether I'm traveling or not. I've written columns on occasion in airport waiting rooms. I never can tell.

My deadlines are Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I usually spend those days slaving over a hot computer. I spend Mondays and Wednesdays gathering ideas, doing any necessary research, and sometimes getting a jump on the writing. Friday is a housekeeping day, usually used for taking care of tasks I've neglected the rest of the week.

Q: How long does it take you write a column?
A: It depends. Probably five hours as a general rule.

Q: How did you get started?
A: Well, I began to think of myself as a writer from the time I was five years old, which was a good thing, because it gave me a lot of time to be bad at it. I started sending poems and stories to magazines when I was 12 years old, first became published when I was 14, and first got paid for being published when I was 18. I spent the next 18 years working primarily as a music critic for a variety of magazines and radio programs. I was editor of SOUL, a black entertainment tabloid, did freelance work for such magazines as Spin, Record Review and Right On!, co-created and edited a radio entertainment news magazine called RadioScope and was a writer for Casey Kasem's radio countdown show, Casey's Top 40.

Q: I'm an aspiring writer. What advice can you give me?
A: Practice your craft. Then practice it some more. After you're done with that, take a little more time and practice. This is the only sure route to learning your craft.

There is, in other words, no trick, secret, or magic formula that will make you good. Unfortunately for them, most writers are very good at finding excuses not to write. This is because writing is not enjoyable. As some sage once put it: "Writing is not fun. Having written is.

So what is required of the would-be writer is that he or she first develop the discipline to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and start putting words down on the screen. You will be awful at first, then a little better. In time, perhaps, you will become good. And sometime after that, assuming you possess the basic gifts for it, you will become great.

Time not spent writing should be spent reading. Read constantly and promiscuously. Read writers whose work you admire and try to figure out how they do what they do and what it is in their work that makes it achieve whatever effect it does. Read writers whose work you dislike and try to figure out what they're doing wrong so that you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Also: It's important to invest in the tools of your craft. In making an investment, you prove – to others and, more importantly, to yourself – that you are serious about this thing. To that end, you need a workspace – doesn't have to be fancy, but it ought to be yours and accessible to you on a regular basis. You need a word processor or computer; a good dictionary, an almanac, a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and a thesaurus. You need a copy of Writer's Market, which is a directory of magazine publishers. It lists the kind of material they're looking for, the contact persons and the prices they pay. Also, get yourself a subscription to Writer's Digest; it's a monthly magazine that deals with the craft of writing, but also the business of it. The magazine provides a great crash course for young writers.

Finally, assuming you have any cash left over, you might want to pick up a copy of Stephen King's On Writing. It's a memoir of the craft that I found inspirational and instructive

Q: How does syndication work? What advice can you give me about getting my column syndicated?
A: Syndication is like cable TV. You've got your basic channels and your premium services, like HBO, for which you pay extra. Similarly, if your work goes out over the wire service to which your paper is a contributor, it's available to any other paper that is a subscriber. When you sign a syndication arrangement, your column becomes an HBO, a premium service that must be purchased separately. As the columnist, you split that fee with the syndicate handling your column.

As for advice, I don't know that anything I could tell you would be of much value. I was blessed enough that my column became a big hit on the Knight-Ridder wire and I was approached by a syndicate that wanted to sign me. I never had to go out looking for a syndicate in other words. I remember, my one fear at the time the syndication push was launched was whether editors would be willing to pay separately for something they had been accustomed to receiving for free.

If you're interested in syndication, I suppose the best thing to do would be to contact the sales departments at some of the big syndicates (Tribune Media Services, Washington Post Writers Group, etc.) and inquire about their submission requirements.

I'd also suggest that, if you want your column to be accessible to newspapers in other places, you not focus too narrowly on local affairs. I always resisted writing solely about events going on in my backyard; I felt that if something interesting was going on someplace else, I should have the freedom to comment on it.

Q: Can you read and critique my work?
A: I'm afraid not. In the first place, I haven't the time. In the second place, I'm not the person who needs to be looking at it. Columnists and reporters aren't the ones who decide if a piece of work is published in the paper. Editors are.

Q: Can you speak to my group?
A: Yes, if I can work into my schedule, I'd be happy to. Please send me an email.

Q: Can you come speak to a high school class?
A: I'd be happy to, but I'm probably not in whatever town you think I'm in. My column appears in your local paper, but I actually live just outside Washington DC. If you’d like to set up a Skype visit, however, click here.

Q: Can you investigate the miscarriage of justice that happened to me and write about it in your column?
A: I'm sorry to hear of what you've been through, but the problem is, I'm not the person you need to talk to. I'm a columnist; you need an investigative reporter. Also, even if I was going to look into this, I'd need to be in your area to do that, and I'm afraid I'm not. My column appears in your local paper, but I actually live just outside Washington, DC.

My best advice to you is to contact a reporter at your local newspaper or TV or radio news outlet. Tell them your story and see if you can get them interested in covering it. Good luck.

Q: All you ever write about is race. You people need to get over this preoccupation with the past. What's done is done.
A: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Here are some in return. In the first place, I'm always amazed that anyone thinks I only write about race, since it's so demonstrably untrue. I write about gay rights, women's issues, pop culture, the war in Iraq, journalism ethics, family issues...and race, among many other things. Anyone who bothered to read my column would know that.

As to the issue of "getting over it:" I find it intriguing that no one sees a preoccupation with the past when we endlessly celebrate the Greatest Generation for its World War II exploits or commiserate with the soldiers of Vietnam for their suffering. No one has difficulty understanding how the past impacts the present when we're talking about, say, how a 30 year old political scandal – Watergate – reverberates in the cynicism of the succeeding generation.

It seems we only have these problems with the past when the past in question has to do with African Americans and their history. Which suggests to me that the issue here is less black folks' preoccupation with our racial yesterday than some white folks' fear of it. And that's a problem beyond my control.

Q:  How to we order bulk quantities of your books for our school or reader's group?
Please contact my publisher directly or go to your local bookstore and ask them to order the books for you. Here is my publisher's information:

Doug Seibold, President Agate Publishing, Inc.
1328 Greenleaf St.
Evanston, IL 60202

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