Friday, July 31, 2009

5 Truths About Writing and Writers

I feel that you need to balance the negative (even the marginally negative, which I feel Wednesday's post may have been) with a healthy dose of the positive. To that end, here are a few facts about writers and the writing life:

1. There's a big difference between a writer and someone who likes to write. How many times have you heard someone say "I've always wanted to write a book" or "I think I have a book or two in me." The difference between those people and writers is that the writer sat down to get that book out of his head and on to the page. I can't tell you how many times I'll tell someone that I'm a writer, and that is met with a small smirk and the comment, "Oh? What do you write?" Once I tell them about the various things I've had published or the new things I'm working on, the smirks quickly fade. I'm certainly not pursuing this to impress people, but after years of defending my choice of major in college ("English? Oh, you must want to be a teacher!"), it's nice to give my friends, relatives, and acquaintances another option to consider.

2. It is a job if someone is paying you to do it. Once you do break into that first market or take on that first client, you're no longer writing for you--you're writing to meet someone else's requirements. This is when it stops being a fun little side hobby and more of a serious business. After all, if you don't take yourself seriously as a writer, how will anyone else?

3. Freelance writing (or any other freelance gig) is a bit like job hunting all the time. That's the reality, folks. Even the most successful freelancers who have work lined up for months spend some time scrolling through sites like MediaBistro or each week. I can't tell you how many sites I visit or markets I investigate, while at the same time trying to think of story ideas for those markets or new ways to broaden my writerly horizons. I often have flashbacks to my first few months out of college, where my long, dark, unemployed days were spent poring over the classifieds with a fine-tooth comb.

4. Writers don't just "write what they know". If that's all we stuck to, we'd be out of a job really quick. Granted, it's much easier to exhaust the topics we feel most comfortable with, but if we expect to grow our businesses, or simply grow as writers, we may need to work a little harder. As one workshop facilitator put it--"Writers don't just write 'what they know'...we write what we want to know more about.'" And that, for me, is one of the most rewarding parts of the whole process--doing the research!

5. Few writers are in it just for the money. I don't know any freelance writer who boasts a six-figure income or who is living in the lap of luxury. Writers are writers just like any other creative type does what they do--we do it because it's who we are. It's what we do. Most freelancers will tell you that even though writing copy for brochures was not their childhood ambition, the freedom to work on their own pieces and write in different genres far outweigh the financial gain. Most writers I know are happy to make enough to support themselves--anything beyond that is a bonus.

What are a few other truths about the writing life?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

5 Misconceptions About Writing and Writers

If you've been pursuing writing seriously for any length of time, chances are you've heard (and dispelled) at least one of these myths. You may even be finding out the harsh truth yourself. Below are a few of the common misconceptions about writers and the writing life:

1. Writing isn't really work. Remember those days in high school or college, when you would pull an all-nighter to slave over that research paper, trying to find the best way to describe something or put a new twist on a topic that's been covered over and over again? Try doing that all the time. Try coming up with an endless stream of ideas for articles, essays or stories, never mind coming up with text that can be clearly understood by a larger audience. Worse yet, trying to find possible sources for a story and tracking them down for interviews. Oh, and then following up (often more than once) about payment.

2. There's a magic formula to getting published. Anyone who's been trying to break into certain publications, and certainly anyone who's been tirelessly shopping a manuscript around will tell you that this is not true. For some reason, people don't want to believe this. I know that in my writer's group, getting published is one of the topics most frequently requested by our members. I guess it's intimidating to hear that getting published--much like the actual writing itself--is a process. It can be a very loooong process. But, also like the writing itself, with enough talent, perseverance, endless rounds of edits, and plain old hard work, it can be done.

3. You can't support yourself on writing alone. You can if you mix up your offerings enough and don't limit yourself to one genre. Granted, I'm still a part-time freelancer, but I make a nice extra income from writing, and that's solely from writing features and my online column. I wish I had more time to spend on pursuing clients or working on my fiction. When people hear "writer", most assume we all write fiction and come up with fanciful stories or complex characters. Maybe most of us would like to, in our heart of hearts. But as I've said to more than one person, "The nonfiction is bringing in some bucks", so that's my main focus right now.

4. The editors and clients will come to you. They will if you're lucky. If you're like the rest of us, you have to do your share of pounding the pavement and burning up your keyboard looking for work and contacting potential clients and editors. I've only recently learned the value of following up with editors--these days, it's very easy for your email to slip through the cracks, so it's important to persist (but not harrass) and keep your name out there, particularly if you have an angle for a story that you feel strongly about.

5. Isn't writing the easy part? This ties in closely with #1. Writing, especially if you plan to make it any major part of your career, is one of the most difficult parts of the whole process. It's no small thing to make yourself sit in the chair and churn out text that's both compelling and concise. I often think of one writing conference I attended a few years ago. A gentleman asked our keynote speaker, a New York Times-bestselling author, about his writing process--"Do you practice yoga or existential meditation [I'm paraphrasing here] before you sit down and start writing?", to which the author responded, "I just sit down and write." It's amazing how many ways there are to procrastinate and make excuses--in the time it takes to "prepare" to write, we could be at least a few pages into the project.

What are a few other common misconceptions about this crazy writing life?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lehigh Valley Literary Awards

On Friday night, my friend Kathy and I had the pleasure of attending the first annual Lehigh Valley Literary Awards, presented by the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (GLVWG).

The purpose of the event was to recognize the publishing excellence of GLVWG's members. Awards in 5 categories were given.
It was a fabulous evening. Though I've only been an official member of GLVWG for a few months, I've gone to their conference twice and attended a few meetings. I must admit, the Black Diamond Writers Network is modeled heavily after GLVWG. It was inspiring to be around writers from so many different genres--at our table alone we had romance/mystery/erotica, business/spirituality/self-help, history/relationship/lifestyle, forensics/true crime/paranormal investigative, and essay! Whew! Needless to say, there was no shortage of conversation going on!
The importance of supporting local artists--whether they are writers, painters, musicians, dancers, singers, actors, or something else that defies genre--cannot be understated. My time with the other GLVWG members simply reinforced just how important books and words are to all of us.
Congratulations to all of the 2009 Literary Award winners!

Friday, July 24, 2009

New Favorite Writing Music

Below are a few CD's that have been great background music for my writing lately. Enjoy!

Chris Botti, Italia. Sigh. I could listen to "Deborah's Theme" or the title track over and over again (and often do!) Though I would recommend any of Botti's works, I think this last CD is one of his best.

Madeleine Peyroux, Careless Love and Bare Bones. Close your eyes and you'd swear that Billie Holliday came back from the beyond for a few more recording sessions. I've only recently discovered her music, and what a great find it turned out to be!

Diana Krall, The Girl in the Other Room. Smoky vocals that kind of reminds you of being in a jazz club in the 1920's. Might inspire some romantic poetry or help you along with a romantic scene. Pour yourself some wine and see where it takes you!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

When Writing and Reality Collide

Our little group at my personal essay workshop on Saturday morning had some great discussion about writing--I think I gathered enough info for a few weeks' worth of posts.

One of the topics that really seemed to get the group going was the often sensitive issue of writing about friends or family--particularly in the context of personal essays or poetry, which can often stir up some long-ago memories or hard feelings.

We all had our own opinions on the subject. Family issues are an endless source of inspiration for writers, whether they're essays, articles, columns, poems, what have you. Relatives need to understand this--if there's a writer in the family, chances are good that an embarrassing childhood story might resurface in a magazine or website somewhere along the line. And as writers, we have to be prepared to accept the fact that our loved ones may be sensitive to how we portray them or the rest of the family, and be willing to accept the consequences.

A few thoughts on writing about friends or family:

Be honest with your loved ones. If your piece has been published, someone in your family's network will see it. I can promise you this. Be up front about the fact that you wrote this essay or poem based on something in your family's history.

Change names to protect the guilty. Better yet, don't name names at all. Obviously, your parents or siblings are still your parents or siblings, no matter how many times you change their names. If your proud mom and dad share your latest essay with their friends or co-workers, of course they'll know who you're referring to when you talk about "Mom" in your piece.

Remind them that an essay is your recollection of an experience. You could be writing about the family's disastrous vacation to the Grand Canyon in 1985, and without a doubt, every member of your family remembers it differently. Only you know if you had a secret stash of Razzles in your duffel bag. Maybe your sister was hoarding some Mike 'n Ike's that she would snack on when no one was looking. Everyone has their own memory of a shared experience. Simply remind them that you're recalling the experience as you were at the time.

Find the humor in it. Everyone can relate to family vacations or holiday get-togethers that didn't quite go as planned. Aim for a humorous angle. Your parents may be embarrassed, but odds are they won't disown you. Even the best of cooks burn the turkey once in awhile--your mom shouldn't feel too badly about it! So you have a funny story about your best friend's car getting towed by accident. Stuff happens. It's funny. Write it down.

How do you handle writing about those closest to you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

How Much Time Do You Actually Spend Writing?

In many of the blogs that I follow and conversations that I've had with other writers, the topics of time management and marketing often come up. Obviously, even part-time freelancers need to put in a fair amount of time marketing ourselves and trying to get more work. With so many demands on our time that are equally important parts of the process--researching, emails to editors and sources, following up on queries, researching/developing/sending out new queries, etc. etc.--the question becomes: How much of your "writing time" is actually spent on the writing itself?

This wasn't a topic that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, but last week it occurred to me that I've been doing an awful lot of supplemental writing activities--mostly the things I just listed above--but besides my columns, I haven't been sitting down to wrestle with words and concepts for articles in a long time. That's when it dawned on me that all of those blogs that I read and writers that I talk to are right...there's a lot more to writing than writing. Once I start getting back into the regular flow of working on articles and hearing from more editors, I'm going to do a little experiment. I'm going to start keeping a log of how I spend my time on writing and related activities. Just for fun, why not try it? I bet we'll be amazed at the results!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Time Management for Writers

One of the biggest challenges that writers face is simply finding the time to sit down and, well, write. In fact, ask a group of wannabe writers why they haven't started the process and the majority of them will say, "I don't have time."

This could very well be the case. Demands of a spouse, kids, job, church activities, or any other volunteer commitments definitely put a strain on our schedules. But if writing is truly what you love to do more than anything, you'll find the time to fit it in between your other commitments.

I admit that I don't have many of the demands that most writers have. I'm single, have no kids, and I have a job that I leave behind at 4:30 every day--I don't have the type of job where I need to bring work home or put in extra hours at the office. But I do have a full-time job, go to grad school part-time, serve as president of my local writer's group, and have to fit in interviews and research time for articles and projects in between all of that. Oh, and there are those family events and alone time with the b.f. that I like to include, too.

But it can be done, even with a jam-packed schedule. Below are a few tips to help you say "I don't have the time to write" a bit less often.

  • Work backwards from your deadlines. If you're already churning out articles, try to get a definite deadline from your editor. If they don't have set deadlines (and some don't), set one for yourself and notify the editor when you expect to have the piece finished. This way, you're obligated to both the editor and yourself to put in the time needed to get the piece done. Set a timeline for research, interviews, and actual writing time working back from the deadline you've established so you leave yourself enough time to get each stage completed. You may feel less overwhelmed or stressed, too.

  • Develop a daily or weekly to-do list. This practice above all others has helped me stay on track with my goals and commitments. If you have more than one project going on at a time, work on them a little at a time. Include tasks for following up with editors, emails to sources, questions about photos, etc.

  • Set aside some time each day to write. Even if you can only spare an hour, make the most of it. If you work better in the early mornings, get up a bit earlier to get some tasks accomplished. I find that I get a lot of little things (emails, etc.) finished around 10 p.m. I prefer early Saturday and Sunday mornings for my actual writing time, and find that I feel this great sense of productivity all day! If you have kids, steal some time when they're napping, at their friends', or otherwise occupied.

  • Cut what you can out of your schedule. If you have kids and are used to chauffeuring them here and there, maybe you can work out a carpooling schedule with another parent. Or maybe you can arrange for a baby-sitter for your kids one or two nights a week. Look at your various volunteer activities--are you devoting as much of yourself as you can, or are you simply spread too thin as it is? Perhaps you need to reduce your time commitments, or just need to say "No" more often. You'd be surprised how much time saying "No" a little more frequently will free up!

  • Make the most of lunch breaks. Since I share an office, and work in fairly close quarters with the rest of the staff at work, I'm limited with my time during the day. This makes for tricky business when I have to schedule interviews or talk to folks during the workday. I do my best to schedule phone interviews during my lunch break, when I can have some time out of the office. As a last resort, I email questions to my sources. I much prefer face-to-face interviews, but obviously, geography is often a huge obstacle. As most writers will agree, the majority of interviews are done over the phone.

How do you manage your time when it comes to writing? Do you get it all in?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Clip and Workshop This Weekend!

Check out my first piece for on "Re-writing History." Depending on how it's presented, historical books and articles can either be fascinating or dry and boring. Hopefully writers who are looking to break into this genre will find this helpful.

This Saturday I'm teaching a workshop on Writing Personal Essays Through Journaling at Stonehedge Gardens in Tamaqua, PA. If you've never visited Stonehedge, you're missing out on Schuylkill County's best-kept secret. 7 acres of beautiful public gardens, including a pond, waterfall, and (my favorite), a bamboo garden. The festival will feature 4 workshops--2 writing, 2 poetry--a featured poet, Open Mic sessions, and a marketplace where published poets and authors will be selling their wares.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fresh Clip

Check out my first piece for Young Money, the last of the shorter pieces I've finished recently. I received some encouraging words from the editor and have been invited to submit queries for longer pieces later this summer, which is always great to hear. Enjoy!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Recommended Writer Read: The 30 Second Commute

I recently finished Stephanie Dickison's book The 30 Second Commute, a memoir about writing and working from home. Those closest to me know that I've been toying with this very idea for awhile now. If you're in the same boat, you might pick up this book hoping it'll give you the final push you think you need.

It doesn't, and for one very specific reason, which Stephanie clearly spells out: Only you know when you're ready to make the leap, and you won't know if you've made the right decision until you've thrown caution to the wind and done it.


For the practical, logical, "look at a situation from every angle" types like me, the idea of taking such a bold risk is both thrilling--"I'm the last person to do such a thing"--and terrifying--"What will I do for insurance?" I'm absolutely on the fence with this. My assignments are picking up, but can I get enough work to keep me afloat? What's wrong with trying out the "starving artist" bit for awhile? It's the path that plenty of others have chosen.

Stephanie pulls no punches--it's not easy (though most of us already know that), but if writing is what you truly love to do, then it's well worth the risks.

The problem is that I've been ready to make the leap. Several times, in fact, and I backed out every time. The last time was only a few weeks ago. I'd had a contingency plan in place and just had to do it. I have faith in myself and confidence in my abilities--it's the rest of the world and the uncertainty of the field that makes me nervous. It would be nice if someone would say, It's okay to take the chance! It'll work out!

If you've made the leap, how did you know you were ready? How has it been working for you?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Keeping Those Ideas Fresh

I write 2 columns--my weekly "Date and Relate" one for Online Dating Magazine, and a second one about business/workplace issues set to start running in the fall for my local newspaper--and one of the most challenging parts of the whole process is constantly coming up with a new batch of ideas.

I submit the dating columns all at once, so technically I only need to come up with 4-5 ideas per month. An added challenge is that I appear to have lost my edge a bit--my column is for those still on the dating scene, while I've been happily spoken for since March. But I'm soldiering on and doing my best to keep those ideas coming!

So what's my process, you might be wondering? Glad you asked--I'm happy to share with's no big secret!

I'm listing my ideas below in the context of writing a column, which demands fresh content each time, but as I was coming up with my list, I realized that they're the same tactics I use when trying to think of article ideas, too.

Brainstorming/Free Writing. When I was first assigned the column, I sat down with a piece of paper and jotted down every possible dating scenario I could think of. I call them my "go to" ideas.

Read newspapers or magazines. My local paper often prints lifestyle and human interest stories that I find myself gravitating toward. For my dating column, I save anything I can find that's dating or relationship-related. Sometimes a column will come in response to an article, or I'll put a different spin on it and turn it into something new.

Pay attention to trends. Cost-cutting measures...going "green" awareness...they're some of the hottest topics that I've been seeing in the media lately. Can you put one of these spins on an idea from your freewriting list? I find myself on the lookout for workplace and business news and trends in preparation for my new column this fall. I wrote a column on finding love at pink slip parties, which some bars in New York City have been starting to hold each week. In many cases, it's all about narrowing your focus and/or putting a new spin on an old (or, if you prefer, "timeless") topic.

Keep an "idea file" (or several). Every article I save that's related to dating goes into my "Dating column" file, along with my freewriting notes. I also have a file for my workplace column, and a thick file for future story ideas. These ideas can come from anywhere, but I look in my local paper, and believe it or not, I've been perusing the e-newsletters, blasts, and other bulletins that I get in my work email, just in case that might spark something.

Being a writer means being able to use absolutely every bit of your life and the human experience as inspiration for your work. One of the biggest mistakes I made was telling a close writer friend of mine that I had "no ideas". It took some time, but I realized that I was way, waay off.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Batteries Low

Just as it's important to be persistent with your writing projects, it's just as--if not more--important to keep those ol' batteries charged! So that's what this weekend is all about for me--a much-needed recharge. I'm off for some R&R over the next few days. I'm bringing a few books with me, but other than that, I'm focusing on hanging with my friends, sightseeing, and having a little bit of beach time. Back to the queries, articles, and columns next week!

Enjoy the holiday weekend!