Thursday, December 31, 2009

What's in Store for 2010?

As we all get ready to officially kiss 2009 goodbye (not to mention the first decade of the 21st century), it's an excellent time to start moving forward and doing some planning for 2010 if you haven't already!

For me, my goals are (in no particular order):
  • Increase marketing efforts to attract business and establish myself as a professional writer and not just someone who "likes to write"
  • Get back to writing fiction and enhance those skills
  • Finish and polish some long-forgottten essays
  • Get the hang of my new content writing gig!

What about you? What are you hoping to accomplish in the new year?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Favorite Books of 2009

Friends, I read a lot. Just look at my WeReads page on Facebook, or just ask, and I'll tell you--I read a lot. Not as much as some, but definitely more than others. I've started reading 2 books at once just to keep my list moving.

I started keeping a list of the books I read every year. While I still have to go back and add up this year's total, I would guess that it's probably at 40-50 books. Overall, I was a little disappointed with the majority of what I read this year. I like to read for escapism, and with my tight schedule, it's a letdown when I make the time to get through something and wind up disliking it.

With that in mind, I read some really great stuff this year, too. As I was going through my list, it dawned on me that most of these titles are memoirs or biographies. I don't have any particular reason for it, really--I suppose I just read more nonfiction than usual, and much of it was good!

Here's a short list of my literary highlights from 2009:

Cornflakes with John Lennon: and Other Tales from a Rock and Roll Life by Robert Hilburn. I just finished this last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't mind this guy's job--reviewing rock shows, discovering the "next big thing", and (best of all) interviewing some of the biggest music legends of our time. Hilburn's interviewed folks like Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Jack White from The White Stripes, Elvis Presley, and (I'm so jealous!) Bruce Springsteen and U2! Where can I get that job? Just let me meet Bruce or Bono (or both) and I'd quit the next day, no questions asked--I'm afraid I'd be too starstruck to do the piece justice, but would love the opportunity to meet either one of them! But I digress...

Between Me and the River, Living Beyond Cancer: A Memoir by Carrie Host. This powerful memoir of the strong ties between family and how it can truly conquer any odds--even a rare and often untreatable kind of cancer. I started this book with no particular expectations, but was struck by the quality of the writing and the depth of Carrie's message. Read this book and learn of the trials she overcame to merely live, and your life won't seem so bad!

My (So-Called) Freelance Life and The Anti-9-5 Guide by Michelle Goodman. Love, love, loved both of these books. Besides all of the great info they contain, Goodman's friendly, big sister-y writing style was a treat to read. She sets it straight and doesn't sugarcoat the less-than-glamorous side of self-employment, but the frank explanations were refreshingly welcome. My So-Called Freelance Life is a helpful guide for anyone thinking of ditching the daily grind and going it solo, while The Anti-9-6 Guide celebrates (and offers advice for) the self-employed, particularly those in "alternative" careers, like full-time dog walkers.

Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult. I love anything she writes, so her titles are usually on my "best of" lists by default. Always tackling difficult subjects, this time Picoult focuses on a family struggling to raise a young daughter with a rare bone disease. Her bones are so brittle, they break at the slightest bump, fall, or sneeze. She has a knack for pulling readers right into the story--this one is no exception.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. A much different storyline from Jodi Picoult's, but no less compelling. Undress Me is Gilman's memoir from her time in Communist China with her best friend following their graduation from college. Besides the usual cultural barriers, Gilman and her friend have the added strain of mental illness. An interesting, compelling read.

On the list for 2010--

No More Mondays by Dan Miller.

Job Hopper: The Checkered Career of a Down Market Dilettante by Ayun Halliday.

The Other Queen by Phillippa Gregory.

The Crowning Glory of Calla Lilly Ponder by Rebecca Wells.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Since I rushed through Thanksgiving without taking any sort of time to list the many things I'm thankful for this year, I thought it appropriate to make that list now, just in time for Christmas.

I really do have more things than usual to be thankful for this Christmas. Here are a few of the major ones:

*A solid relationship with a wonderful, funny, and truly Renaissance man

*My family's health is holding steady

*I made some great strides in my writing goals this past year, and have very high hopes for 2010

*I finally reached my longtime goal of teaching at the college level. Although it wasn't easy, I'm a better person because of it.

*I've gotten to know some local creatives--both writers and non-writers--in the past few months and look forward to developing those friendships this year

Whatever you're celebrating, be safe!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Planning a Writer's Conference 101

My writer's group is gearing up for our first large-scale event--a 1-day conference scheduled for April 2010. Our group has been around since 2007, and we've finally picked up enough momentum to even attempt something like this.

I've worked on enough events to have a pretty good idea of how the day should flow, but there's always those little details that slip through the cracks, no matter how organized or prepared you think you are. But I'm listing some of the key points to keep in mind when planning a major event:

Know your limits. We don't have the resources (manpower or financial) to pull off something huge, so we're starting with a 1-day event. We're hoping that what we might lack in quantity, we'll make up for in quality. Rather than hold our conference at a huge conference center or hotel, we're keeping it on the smaller side with a more intimate feel and holding it at our local arts council.

Be organized! We started holding monthly meetings to discuss the day's logistics and details. So far we have the location and most of the speakers confirmed. Luckily, our group's treasurer is super organized--I had a fairly good list of initial tasks we'd need to accomplish, and she more than picked up what I'd missed. Lists, lists, more lists and timelines are a huge factor in the success of an event. Try to predict (and plan for) any foreseeable conflict, and especially those you may not see coming! Have a plan in place to troubleshoot for any dilemma that might pop up. Delegate tasks to your volunteers and be sure to communicate with them often.

Have a catchy name. Marketing is key, especially for your first event. After our last meeting, our homework was to come up with a list of possible event names. Though I can't share my list here, the key is to draw in your target audience. Our goal is to bring in writers from all genres, so we can't be too elitist in our title, yet we want something with a "hook" that will attract people's attention. A local city called their book festival Pages and Places, using the book angle to draw crowds to their downtown, while a neighboring writer's group's conference is called The Write Stuff.

Listen to member feedback. We sent out an informal survey to our members, asking them for what sorts of topics they'd be interested in for our conference. Not surprisingly, "getting published" and "overcoming writer's block" were our top winners, so we're including breakout sessions for both topics into the day's schedule. We're also holding genre-specific sessions but allowing the speakers to determine the content--we gave them the general topic but trust them to do the rest!

Schedule dynamic, organized (yet flexible!) speakers. We asked some of the more outstanding speakers that have presented to our group over the past year to lead the breakout sessions.

Think about the takeaway and other incentives for attendees. What would appeal to you if you were a mere attendee? Freebies, writing contests, agent/editor meetings, critique groups, book fairs? It may not be logistically possible to have all of these things for your first time out, but determine what's possible and then assign the task to someone on your committee. Think about what you hope the attendees get out of the event. If this is your first time out, focus on offering one or two "extras" rather than breaking your budgets or manpower by trying to do them all. Even the most established writing conference is constantly being tweaked and developed to better serve their writers. Give yourself some credit--you're pulling off your first major event! Be proud!

What do you look for in a good writer's conference?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Guest Post: Does Your Holiday "To-Do" List Include a Query?

by Priscilla Y. Huff

As you cross off the items on your holiday “to-do” list of shopping, baking, and other related tasks, was “sending out a query” also checked-off? According to publishing insiders, the November-December holidays; and the summer vacation months are two of the best times of the year to approach editors about an article idea or a book proposal. The reason is obvious: writers are occupied with celebration preparations and/or traveling during these months, while editors are often left scrambling for new content ideas.

There is still time to send a query before the year’s end, but do not do it too hastily that you forget to include the query basics in your letters or e-mails:

*Attention-grabbing opening – “The Hook”

*Article summary details – “The Pitch”

*Why your article/book would interest the editor’s readers? - “The Reason”

*Why you are qualified and/or the best person to write this piece/book? - “Credentials”

If you really do not have the time now to write a well-written query, keep a paper and pen handy while wrapping presents to jot down proposal ideas for the New Year; and, of course, be thinking of queries for next year’s summer and holiday months.

Happy Holidays! Happy Writing!

Suggested Resources:

*E-book: QUERY LETTERS THAT WORKED! Real Queries That Landed $2K+ Writing Assignments by Angela Hoy,

*Print book: The Writers Digest Guide To Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas

*Article: “How to Write a Successful Query by Moira Allen
Flickr photo by One Pretty Thing

Monday, December 14, 2009

Balancing Writing and a Day Job

A few writers are lucky to work at the craft whenever they want. For the rest of us who haven't been able to make the leap yet, we first have to put our time in at an outside job before we can come home and get back to our real work. Time management is important to any effective writer, but for those of us who have limited hours to spend pounding the keys, it's even more crucial.

This semester I had the added weight of my teaching gig, which was a real challenge. I had to hit the ground running since I was offered the job on a Friday afternoon and would start the following Tuesday! I had no idea what I was doing, and tried my best to keep up, but I had many late nights over the last few months where I wondered what I'd gotten myself into and when would I ever have time to get back to writing?!?

But I made it, which just goes to show that it does pay to be organized. Here's how I've been able to juggle everything--my methods may not work for everyone, but maybe they'll give you some ideas of how to manage:

Make the most of any, and I mean any, spare time. I'm talking nights, weekends, early mornings, and yes, even downtimes at work (or if you're totally swamped the entire day, use your lunch break wisely!) And don't forget days off (yes, that might even mean a holiday now and then.) That's time that you could be spending researching, querying, or doing some actual writing. Even if you only get to email that query, it still counts as productivity. (Obviously, never use your work email address for writing-related business, but you knew that already.) Early weekend mornings are my prime writing time, followed by weeknights. But really, I squeeze in some writing time whenever possible. I prefer a solid chunk of time to get bigger assignments finished, but will make the most of whatever time I can get.

Make friends with your to-do list. If you don't have a to-do list (and I don't know many writers who don't), it's time you started one. Or two. The list might seem a trifle overwhelming, but as most time management experts will tell you, start with the smaller, less time-consuming tasks and work your way up to the more demanding projects. Also, invest in a good planner. Or two. I can't seem to have enough calendars. I carry a "master" planner in my purse with all of my commitments listed, but decided to get a second one just for my writing-related activities.

Cut back if necessary. I had to scale waaaay back on my querying and didn't pursue many projects besides my regular monthly columns. Between my new teaching gig and the full-time job, I have to admit my writing projects took a backseat over these past few months. In a way I was glad that so many editors were slow to respond--it gave me the chance to focus on the other things. I have a few assignments on my plate over the next few months, but can see it slowing down again once the spring semester starts.

Conduct interviews via email whenever possible. There seem to be writers who are very pro-email interviews, and the others who are staunchly anti-email. I do prefer the face-to-face interviews whenever possible so I can capture the sense of a place or a personality, but sometimes in-person meetings just aren't possible. One of my favorite assignments from the past year was a straight-up interview with an author and forensic psychologist. The editor encouraged email communication, and she was only too happy to "talk" over email, as well. All I had to do was add some transition material so it sounded like more of an actual conversation and spice up my intro, and boom! A finished piece. I also try to schedule phone interviews with folks as late in the day as possible (some are OK with evenings; others, not) or, better yet, in another time zone so I can call them at my convenience.

Don't be so hard on yourself. I hated to cut back on finding new assignments (especially now that I've gotten better at actively seeking markets and finding new story ideas!), but there came a point where I simply had no choice. I was swamped between my various projects, my job, and still trying to have some semblance of a real life--besides wanting to spend the very needed "quality time" with my boyfriend, that laundry won't do itself, nor will those bills get paid on their own! So I had to let the writing projects slide for awhile until I could get back to them. You just have to set priorities and get as much work done as you can without sacrificing the other parts of your life.

What other tips would you share with part-time freelancers?

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Writer's Emotional Education

A recent op/ed piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks struck a chord with me. In the piece, Brooks talks at length about the "emotional education" he received from none other than one of my favorite musicians, Bruce Springsteen. (Read the piece here). To me, Brooks perfectly summarized the feelings of all Springsteen fans.

Beyond that, though, Brooks' piece is just one example of an artist's job--to inspire an emotional connection to our work. Sure, it's easier to do that with music than perhaps other genres, but despite the medium--music, painting, books--the end goal is the same. Another part of our job is to give our audiences a glimpse into what could be, and that's not something to be taken lightly. I think it's been easy for Springsteen fans to connect with his lyrics in particular because he gives some light and hope to the underdog--we may not be a laid off mill worker or a teen mother or someone from the wrong side of the tracks, but through his words and imagery, we're able to better understand these folks a bit. For me, I became a Bruce fan during a particularly difficult time in my life. I started listening to his song "Better Days" over and over again, and for some reason the lyrics just clicked with me--he'd put my feelings right into words, saying it far better than I possibly could at the time. It seemed to sum up my experience at the time, and I thought that someone, even a fabulously wealthy rock star celebrity, had bad days once in awhile, and it gave me a little bit of hope.

What artistic works have had a particularly strong effect on you?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Goodbye, Waldenbooks

I don't get angry that easily, but the news that the last 2 remaining bookstores in my area are closing did NOT sit well with me (a third closed earlier this year). I guess for all of the money that I've spent in each of the 3 stores over the years, it just wasn't enough to sustain them.

I absolutely love bookstores for many reasons. Besides the obvious--browsing through the shelves and checking out the latest best-sellers or finding a new, "must-read" author--they have become a bit of a sanctuary for me. I find it soothing, somehow, to be surrounded by all of those ideas and information. It makes me feel small and anonymous, which is relaxing sometimes. Call it a religious experience if you'd like--all I know is that wandering through a bookstore brings me a tremendous sense of peace.

The 3 to close are part of a chain, which is part of the problem--chain stores need to reach certain sales goals and apparently these stores just weren't cutting it. There are a few "big box" stores about an hour's drive from me, and I admit that I enjoy the variety and availability that those stores have. But for my little community and my voracious habit (but schedule that prevents me from getting to all of the books that I have to read more than I'd like), what we had here was just fine. I posted something about the store closings on Facebook and a few of my friends had similar reactions. Although we aren't exactly a bustling metropolis, we do have some culture, but literary offerings come up short, so it was good to have something locally.

I also love the good old-fashioned independent bookstores, though they're even harder to come by where I live. I've always had this secret goal to open my own little funky independent store, just because there are so many more things you can do with that type of place than you can with a chain. My absolutely favorite bookstore is an independent; again, a good distance away, unfortunately, though I get there as often as I can. It's the oldest bookstore in the country and has loads of charm and history to boot.

I'm very sad about this. Although I've become a loyal customer, there's just nothing like spending countless hours searching through the shelves in a real live store. As my friend said on her blog--"You shop online for books you want; you browse bookstores for something you didn't even know you wanted." I think that sums it up perfectly.

Has the recent economic slump impacted any of your favorite book outlets?
Flickr image by brewbooks

Monday, December 7, 2009

My apologies...

Forgive me, friends. Fine blogger I am--I no sooner get into the regular rhythm of posting and life interrupts, causing everything to go by the wayside a bit!

I am very happy to report that I'm in my last week of my first semester of teaching. I'm also happy to report that I've been given a second chance and have been rehired to teach the same class in the spring. Suffice it to say that I'll be much better prepared the next time around, and am already working on new ideas and trying to plan my syllabus! My hat's off to anyone in the teaching profession--the last 15 weeks have been an invaluable learning experience!

I've also lined up more work, which is very exciting because things have been eerily quiet in the last few weeks/months. The word is that print media is on its last legs, yet 2 of the pieces I've just been given are for print pubs. I'm also exploring a few other genres, which is sure to be a welcome challenge. I'm hearing that quite a few writers are shifting their focus from magazine features to other avenues, and it looks as though I'll be doing the same. I'm simply too impatient for all of the follow-up--I certainly don't want to come across as annoying, and I'm afraid that's what will happen, so I just have to keep myself in check with that!

With this semester rapidly coming to a close, I should have much more time to post a bit more frequently. Thanks to those who've continued to check in--fresh material is coming soon!