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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper:
If You Are Doing a School Project...
Suggestions, Answers, and a Few Harsh Words

Use Appropriate Sources
Do the Groundwork First
Where to Find the Answers
Should You Use Web Sites as Sources?

Will TKH Read Your Manuscript?

A Note to Teachers

Additional resources for writers


Use Appropriate Sources

If you are doing a school project, it is up to you to research the information you need using appropriate sources.  These sources start with the library, not with the author or other pro.  If you do not start in the library, you are starting in the wrong place.  In addition (here are the harsh words), it is rude, unprofessional, and fairly lazy to expect others to personally provide you with information which even a basic visit to a library will provide.  I receive far, far too many letters asking me to write the report for the student with my answers.  That is not the way to make points with me or with many other pros.

Here is an analogy:  When you do a project on Intel microprocessors, do you expect the research engineers to write essays to you explaining the basics of electronics?  Of course not.  You first learn something about electronics in class or by doing science projects.  Only then do you contact the engineer and ask for additional explanations about new developments.  

Another analogy:  When you study politics, do you expect your state Senator to write pages to you on the differences between the House and the Senate?  Of course not.  That's what social studies and books and teachers are for--to provide the basics.  Questions to that Senator should be ones that result in answers and insight you would not get from other sources.

So too should your letter (e-mail, whatever) to the author be a request for information that is not available from other sources.  Other sources, meaning the library, professional organizations (journals, newsletters, web sites), the author's novels, the author's web site, and so on.  Most pros, including myself, are quite willing to answer questions from students who have done at least some prep work.  

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Do the Groundwork First

If you are doing a school project on authors, writers, etc., your first stop is the local library or the pro's web site.  Do this groundwork before you contact the pro, so that you make the best use of the pro's time.  I suggest that you do things in the list (below) before writing/calling the pro.

Fan or reader mail is not the same as student-project mail.  Readers almost always ask questions that cannot be answered in the books, about the author's ideas, about future work, or about story elements which the author has not yet fully explored and which may be the threads of future work.  Reader mail is always fun to answer, and sometimes even gives the writer ideas for directions that the writer has not previously considered going.

If you have done the preliminary work for your report, and you still have questions, then you should write to the author.  Any author or other pro should be happy to answer your questions at that point.  I am more than willing to answer student mail which shows that basic groundwork was done first.  I answer all e-mail (eventually!) and letters, as long as they include a valid return address.

As suggested above, do the following before you write your request of the author--or of any other professional:
  Look up the stats on writing careers in the career books--salary ranges, experience required, types of jobs available, employers, etc..  Your school's career counselor usually has references that contain this sort of information.             
Pick up a couple of biographies of writers to find out what their lives are or were like.
Read the author bios (the short blurbs) in the backs of novels.  You can find out, for example, that Dale Brown spent almost 20 years as a navigator aboard bomber aircraft, or that Tom Clancy lectured at the CIA.  For example, my bio is available on this site.
Look up the novels or works by the author.  (For example, my published novels are listed on this site.)  Read at least one novel.  If the author is prolific or is known for a specific series, read more than one book.  If you think you don't have time to read a book, step back a moment.  Why would you expect the pro to take the time out of his workday to write answers for you when you don't bother to take the time to do your own preliminary work about the writer first?
Ask your school to bring in a local author to answer questions for the whole class.  Prepare your questions so you don't waste that 50-minute block on trivial topics that could have easily been answered by a quick trip to the library.
Check the web for the sites of professional organizations such as SFWA, ASJA, the Author's Guild, the Writer's Union, and so on.  These sites often provide information about careers, benefits, how-to's, current concerns in the field, legal issues, and so on.  These sites also provide links to sites about important, associated topics.
Check the web for the author's site and then READ the information on the site before writing to the author.  Many authors answer standard questions (how did you get started, how much money do you make, etc.) on their web sites.  For an example, refer to this site's FAQ or writer's workshop for information about agents, how I got started, how much money I make, and so on.
Attend a public appearance by the author--signing, speaking event, convention.  Those are very appropriate places to ask your questions.  The local newspaper usually includes a listing of author (or "literary"--and remember to tilt your nose up a bit when you say that) events.  Most author events and lectures are free.

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Where to Find Answers to Common Questions

Here are some answers to common questions, suggestions for sources, and links to other, more detailed answers.
  How much money do you make? And, what kind of salary can I expect? -- The career books at your school or library have this information.  The Author's Guild conducted a survey on this topic either last year or the year before, I think--check with them for the results (the AG link is in the links file).  Also, there are different types of writers:  print journalists, advertising writers, grant writers, technical writers, science writers, screen writers, and so on.  Figure out what type of writing career you are talking about, so you can ask a more specific question.  My answer on money.  Also, links to professional organizations for writers and other creators.      
What college major is necessary to become a writer? -- My answer is on the FAQ.
What additional experience does the job require? -- This question is answered by each author differently, since authors become writers in various ways and through various fields.  My answer and a few additional notes for those who really want to be writers.
What kind of books do you write most?  What kind of books do you prefer to write? -- I answer this question in the writing file of the FAQ.
How long does it take to write a book? -- This is different for every author.  My answer.  The files for SF/Fantasy, Military/Thriller, and Classic authors provide links to author pages when possible.  Check the sites of individual authors for their own answers to the question.
What kind of deadlines are there in writing? -- Check out the Thirty-Nine Steps to Getting Published on this site.
What genre of books are most popular? -- This is not a meaningful question.  Do you mean, which category or genre makes the greatest profit for the publishers?  Those numbers change yearly.  For example, the market for inspirational books grew something like 400% between 1998 and 2000, and how-to books continue to be extremely profitable.  Mystery is taking a dive, but horror is regrouping from it's bottomed-out position several years ago.  

If you are asking which genre sells the most books, that depends on the size of the genre's market and the popularity of individual authors (such as the Big Four:  Stephen King, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, and Tom Clancy).  A reference for publishing stats will give you this information.  If you are asking whether SF/Fantasy readers are more loyal than say, readers of romance or mystery or military thrillers, you should ask the readers or publishers, not the writers.  This site includes a list of author resources and publishers.

What genre is the most difficult to write? -- Usually the one you know the least about.  Since this varies with each author, the answer will vary with each author.  I provide information about my own preferences in the writing and author files of the FAQ.
What are some related careers? -- Here you should be using your imagination.  Any job that requires writing is a related career.  If the job is supported by grants, then there has to be a grant writer.  If the job deals with the public, there are probably public-relations releases.  If the job deals with inventions, someone has to write up the inventions so they can be patented or disclosed.  Read the job descriptions in the career books at your school or library. You should also simply ask the people around you if they have had to use writing skills on the job.

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Should You Use Web Sites as Information Sources?

There are a plethora of web sites which provide information at a level (K-12) acceptable for school projects.  However, much of the information that is available online is neither objective nor easily verified as accurate or truthful.  Mainly this is because web sites exist for a variety of reasons, which include advertising, lobbying, information drilling and/or mining, collecting personal information, soliciting, and so on.  The information on these sites may be severely one-sided, biased or simply wrong for the industry as a whole.  Most sites also do not provide sufficient information for you to do verification of the information on the site.  Sometimes this is on purpose.  

You should ask questions before assuming any site is factual or before using any site as a reference.  Was the information on the site independently verified?  Who verified the info on the site?  What are the qualifications of the people who verified the site--are they also pros in the field?  Is the person who created the site a professional in that field?

There is a second problem with information found on the web:  Much of this information is misleading.  This is not always deliberate.  Instead, it is often because the people who put up the information were poor writers or were not well-informed.  One of the biggest problems with poor writing is that it creates errors, either in the "facts," by implication, or by omission.

The right to write badly was the privilege we widely used.

      - Isaac Babel, 1934

My Advice

For the most part, use a web site as a source only if it is a professional site (such as SFWA), a site recommended by a meta or pro site (or by a pro), or a site for which you have verified the accuracy of the information.  In general, pro sites have a significant stake in providing fairly truthful information, since their reputation and income can be affected by the content and recommendations of their sites.   This doesn't mean that pro sites won't also have errors or bias.  It just means that pro sites might work harder to correct errors or to ensure accurate info in the first place.

Take recommendations from usenet with a grain of salt.  Some companies hire netizens to promote their sites through newsgroup postings and e-mails in order to increase hits.  This is a proven practice, and has resulted in significant sales for some companies' products.  If you respect the person posting, you might also be able to respect his recommendation.  If it were me, though, I would still ask why the person made the recommendation in the first place.

Is the TKH Site Recommended by Other Pro Sites?

Yes.  The TKH site is recommended by many pro sites and organizations, such as the Writer's Union, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), meta-science sites, and so on.  The TKH site is also recommended by many popular, fan, and nonprofit sites, genre-fiction sites, watchdog sites (for information about book doctors and other potential scams), and advice sites for new and aspiring authors.

Finally, the TKH site is cited and/or referenced as a resource by science organizations and meta sites, such as the University of Florida, SpeciesList.com, the Disease Directory, WMDnews.org, and so on.

The TKH site is not unique in this respect.  Many pro authors (and other pros and respected amateurs) have sites that are recommended because they provide factual or important information.  For example, Michael McCollum's and Holly Lisle's sites are also recommended by pro organizations as useful sources for aspiring authors.  Check the links file for writer's resources that might be of interest to you.

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Will TKH Read Your Short Story, Manuscript, or Poetry?

No.

If you are writing stories along with your school project, you should look for two or three adults around you who have good writing skills and a discerning eye.  They should be able to help you find the weak spots in your manuscript and perhaps suggest ways to fix the problems.  Refer to the workshop file on writing groups and critique, and to the FAQ file on editors for information about finding and using readers.

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A Note to Teachers

If you are organizing a class project that includes telling the students to e-mail a pro for information about the field, please consider the following:  Pros have just as little time as you do.  If you want your students to interact with a pro (or respected amateur), please do not tell each student rto write to their pro expecting a full-length answer to every question.  There are better ways to use a pro's time.  

Yes, each student in your class might pick a different pro.  However, even if only one student from one school in each state writes to the pro, that's still a tremendous number of letters in response--all of which seem to ask the same basic questions.  I can't count the number of times I have heard other pros (in a variety of fields) complain about this school-project practice.  We want to support schools, but we cannot do it effectively in this manner.

One of our problems is that students should have done the groundwork first in the library or online to answer basic questions themselves.  Questions to the pro should be questions that cannot be answered by using standard resources--such as the library, career books, state or county reports, newspapers, or the pro's official web site.

Some suggestions:

  1. Create a list of local resources who are willing to answer questions for your students.  Many retirees and people between jobs have a great deal of experience to share.  For example, in my area, high-tech is the main industry.  Many high-tech people want a break after a while and take a half year or year off from work.  They are often quite willing to take time during their sabbatical to speak to a class about their field.  Many skilled retirees are willing to personally answer e-mail and letters in a timely manner, and these skilled people can be a valuable resource for e-mail projects.

  2. Make contacts wherever you can.  I make contacts all the time--in grocery stores, standing in line, etc.  For example, in a single two-week period, I met a man who grew up building battleships in England during WWII, then minesweepers for the period following the war, and then other ships in Canada.  I also met a forensic anthropologist who helps solve homicides by analyzing bones.  I met an FBI special agent, a girl-scout regional leader, an emergency-room nurse, and an entomologist (the study of bugs).  Just thinking over some of my friends and aquaintances, I know a man who has sailed several tall wooden ships (including on an Atlantic crossing), two missionaries who lived in India for 25 years, a professional guitarist who played for ex-president Gerald Ford, a prominent local artist, a man who helped develop the heat shields for the NASA space shuttles, a US delegate, and a biogeneticist who invents and develops DNA arrays.  I know extreme mountaineers, marathoners, martial artists, a Pulitzer-prize winning composer, a man who restores and races antique Italien cars, opera singers, inventors, dog trainers, costumers, quilters.  I know a woman who was kidnapped in Europe, a man who was held hostage by terrorists using gelignite on an airplane, and a woman who was sold twice as a child.  People are inherently interesting.  You just have to bother listening to them.

  3. Ask the students to get the contacts for your class, through parents, friends of the family, and through family contacts.  These types of contacts are almost always more successful than cold calls, or stranger-to-stranger contacts.  There will be several students in each class who can get interesting and experienced people in a variety of fields.  Someone's always got an interesting Uncle Fred or Aunt Thielda.  For example, my own late, great-uncle Fred was decorated three times for battlefield bravery in WWII in the Pacific.  During the Korean War, my father and another volunteer performed a dangerous dive to save their ship from going aground during a test.  My late Uncle Clyde was the photographer who developed the first photos of the atomic blast on Hiroshima at the end of WWII.  And so on.

  4. Consider contacting youth and scouting organizations, churches, social organizations, and nonprofits to get names of resources.  These organizations usually maintain their own lists of contacts for events, and may be willing to share names.

  5. Contact your local artist-in-residence coordinator.  This person will have a list of local artists (authors, painters, thespians, musicians, etc.) who are already willing to come to the schools and talk, answer questions, or conduct workshops.

  6. Call the local newspaper or TV or radio news station to get contacts regarding current events or interesting technologies.  Reporters seem to live for palmpilots and rolodexes.

  7. When you get a pro's name, do not have every student write to the pro separately (unless the pro says that's acceptable), expecting individual answers.  Instead, ask the pro to come in to the class and answer questions all at once.

  8. Have three pros come in to create a panel that can answer questions.  Assign a moderator for the panel.  Panels can become rather...interesting if the panelists disagree very much.  This is usually a much better option for the pro than answering 15 individual e-mail messages that ask the same questions, most of which could have been dealt with by a single trip to the library.

  9. Have the students write their questions and mail them in a batch to the pro.  Give the pro a few days or so to think over the answers.  Then bring the pro in to class to answer the questions or allow the pro to answer the common questions in a single letter.

  10. Ask the school administration to write a grant for some college teaching student (or other person) to create a resource list / program for your school or school district.  This is a good peripheral project for a small grant that pays for a week or so of phone calls and database entry.

  11. Write a decent thank-you to the pro after you use him as a resource.  Being appreciated will help the pro decide to remain a resource, and may also encourage him to help you find other interesting resources for projects.  If your students are e-mailing pros for answers, make sure the students also write thank-yous after each response.  This should be common courtesy, but it doesn't seem to happen often, and that can sour the pro from helping others in the future.

The suggestions will make it easier to create and maintain a resource list for your students' projects.  Remember too, that students in grades 6-12 can do much of this for you--phone calls, tracking down contacts, etc.  It is good research practice for them, and will help give them the confidence to look in more than one place when researching other projects.


Copyright 2004 by Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.


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