General Interest

Organize Yourself

This article appeared in the “Bottom Line” department of the Writer in July 2002.

Use a database to keep track of everything and energize your writing career.

By Eve Kushner

Can you manage all the details in your writing career? How do you remember that one magazine wants e-mail queries and 2,000-word pieces, while another publication prefers 1,200-word articles and hard-copy printouts? Do you recall your impressions of those travel magazines you bought last year, or are you going to have to study them again? And if you want to combine a new freewrite with another piece, do you know where you filed that previous draft?

To solve these organizational headaches, try computerizing your records. Although you could do this with word-processing programs, database programs provide the most benefits. After all, you own a powerful machine capable of amazing feats. Why not harness all of its strength?

A database program is like a well-organized storeroom that contains millions of items. Using simple commands, you can make it shuffle its contents and present specific data within seconds. The program can sort this information for you, too.

Despite such high-tech capabilities, databases simply look like tables. You create rows and columns and then fill the boxes with information. Imagine, for instance, that Jane Austen had used a database to keep tabs on her literary career. Initially, her database might have looked as simple as Chart 1.

Title Pub. date
Sense and Sensibility 1811
Pride and Prejudice 1813
Mansfield Park 1814
Emma 1816

But as Austen mastered the program, she would have enlarged the database, recording acceptance dates, payments received, expenses and so on. When she received £10 for Northanger Abbey but no promise of publication, she would have created a column called Explanation to note the strange circumstances, as well as a row for Northanger Abbey. She also could have tabulated marketing information as in Chart 2, using the fictitious data you see.

Publishing House Editor’s Name Address Payment Schedule
Kings’ House Michael Dithers 201 Tottenham Ct. Rd., London 15% royalty, £5 advance
Crosby and Sons Richard Price 18 High St., London 10% royalty, £5 advance
Regents Press William Warren The Royal Mile, Edinburgh 15% royalty, no advance
Chelsea Press Owen Brooks 3 Chepstow Lane, Bangor, Wales 5% royalty, £50 advance
Stratford Bros. Miles Stratford 45 Oxford St., London 15% royalty, no advance

If she compiled a list of, say, 35 publishers, Austen could have scrolled up and down to survey all the information. But what if she didn’t want to see so much data, wishing instead to view only specific rows? She could have accomplished that with a search.

Let’s say she planned to visit editors and wanted the addresses of all the London publishers in her database. Let’s also pretend that she used FileMaker Pro as her database program. After giving a Find command, she would see a screen with Publishing house, Editor’s name, Address, and Payment schedule above a row of empty boxes. If she typed “London” in the box under Address, the database would instantly present all the relevant rows, as in Chart 3.

Publishing House Editor’s Name Address Payment Schedule
Kings’ House Michael Dithers 201 Tottenham Ct. Rd., London 15% royalty, £5 advance
Crosby and Sons Richard Price 18 High St., London 10% royalty, £5 advance
Stratford Bros. Miles Stratford 45 Oxford St., London 15% royalty, no advance

Flush with the success of her search, Austen could do an even more precise one, asking to see only those London publishers with a 15 percent royalty. She would type “London” under Address and “15%” under Payment schedule, bringing up Kings’ House and Stratford Bros. but not Crosby and Sons, as in Chart 4.

Publishing House Editor’s Name Address Payment Schedule
Kings’ House Michael Dithers 201 Tottenham Ct. Rd., London 15% royalty, £5 advance
Stratford Bros. Miles Stratford 45 Oxford St., London 15% royalty, no advance

With a command to Show All Records, she could make any hidden rows reappear. Who knows how much more productive this technology might have made Jane Austen?

A database program is like a terrific assistant who relieves you of countless details, compensating for areas in which you may be too busy to perform tasks perfectly. If you recognize yourself in any of the following scenarios, you can probably benefit from a database program.

Three scenarios

1 Where did I put it? And what was it called? You want to write an essay about your love of tennis. Because you’ve attempted this before with considerable success, you don’t feel like starting from scratch. It would help to see previous drafts. But you wrote some in your journal, others on the computer, and more on paper that you then filed. How can you find these drafts quickly? You could lose hours poring over journals and files, and inevitably be distracted by other discoveries. And there’s no guarantee of locating what you need.

If you had used a database program to index your “library” of work, it would be a cinch to search for this information. To set up such a database, create one row for each published and unpublished work, every freewrite, any idea for a future piece, and each journal entry. Under a column called Title, input the name of the piece or a synopsis of it. In another column, indicate precisely where each item is located (such as “journal, 8/16/99″).

To find everything you’ve written about tennis, search the Title column with the word “tennis,” and the program will immediately display 20 tennis-related entries. If five results seem useless for your current search, you can easily omit them from view. From the remaining results, you’ll learn that you have three essays and 12 journal entries on the topic, and you’ll know just where to find them.

You’ve already done a lot of writing. Why start with a blank page? The database allows you to build on previous efforts. In the same vein, if you ever feel stumped for writing topics, you can scroll through your database and find inspiration in the ideas and unpublished works you’ve already recorded there.

2 To market, to market we go. How about a nap first? You’ve written a funny 1,500-word essay about cats, and the right magazine would surely snap it up, but which magazine might that be? It would have to accept personal essays and 1,500-word pieces works about pets. Without a database, you’ll need to remember all those aspects while plowing through several sections of market guides. The thought of this tedious search makes you want to crawl under the covers for a lengthy hibernation.

But if you’ve stored marketing information in a database, the task becomes easier. The database can have columns for market type (e.g., pet magazines), market name, contact information, genres and topics published, submission and length requirements, payment schedule, rights bought and editors’ tips. Other columns can indicate whether you have guidelines and copies and what you think of each market. Create a row for every periodical that interests you.

To narrow your marketing options for the cat essay, you can search by genre, topic, length requirements and payment schedule. When you compare these elements at a glance, you’ll be able to survey your choices with a clear head. In little time, you’ll produce a viable market list

3 Where is my writing career headed? Does all my work add up to anything? You’ve fallen into a funk. Even though you’ve submitted manuscripts for years, you’re not sure what you have to show for it. Your database can help cut through such angst by giving you a clear picture of your writing career.

Let’s say your database lists everything you’ve published, including the market name, genre, amount earned and dates of acceptance, publication and payment. With this information you can take stock of your writing career, starting with some statistics. According to your database, you just sold your 55th piece to the 17th market ever to buy your writing. Hey, that sounds too good to be true. Could there have been some mistake? Not likely—a database program keeps calculations error-free. These statistics give you a shot of confidence, and will certainly enhance your credibility if you mention them in queries and autobiographical blurbs.

Your database program can help identify sales trends, too. If you search by date, you’ll discover that you made four times as many sales in 2000 as in 1995. There’s progress for you! A search by market name allows you to compare your earnings from the Weekly Express with those from the Monthly Gazette. Aha—that’s interesting; although the Express comes out more often and therefore tends to accept more of your writing, it pays less, so overall you’ve earned more from the Monthly. Searching by genre, you could compare the number of essays and articles accepted. Wow, look—you’ve had much more luck selling articles! You also learn that the Express has bought more of your work than anyone else. With this information about your sales history, you’ll find it easier to replicate successes and avoid rejections.

So now you know about the past. But what about the future? That partly depends on what you have out for review. Your database contains your submission history, such as correspondence dates, what you submitted to whom, and the status of each piece (in review, accepted, or rejected). If you search your database, you’ll learn that nine pieces are currently out—more than you remembered. You also have five forthcoming publications. You can print this information and post it on a bulletin board to stay on top of these situations.

Sounds great, but how do I get started?

The first item of business is to buy a database program. If you work on a Macintosh or a Windows-based PC, your best bet is FileMaker Pro, which retails for around $250. Another option for Windows users is Microsoft Access, roughly $300.

Next, you need to plan what sort of information your databases will include. Note my use of the plural. So far, I have referred to one database for simplicity’s sake, but you actually need several of them. Just as you wouldn’t create one table showing the price of apples and the length of airline journeys, you wouldn’t set up one database to contain all the information we’ve discussed. Instead, one database could index your writings (Scenario 1); a second could store market information (Scenario 2); a third could contain publication and income information (Scenario 3, part 1); and a fourth could track submissions (Scenario 3, part 2). As you realize how easy databases can make your life, you may want to create more for various uses: to keep track of quotations for a nonfiction project, to store bibliographical information, and … who knows?

Initially, you’ll have to spend time entering information, and you’ll need to maintain your databases regularly. For instance, you might spend one to four hours monthly adding to your index of writings. You can update the other databases whenever you find a new market, communicate with a publisher, or receive an acceptance or paycheck. However long it takes, though, this investment of time will save you countless hours down the road.

Having databases at your disposal will increase your control over your affairs and motivate you to do what you previously dreaded. You’ll be able to devote more attention and energy to shaping your texts, and less to tedious tasks. And when you don’t want to write, you can still feel productive as you update your records.