Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How Much Time Do You Spend on a Query?

Ugh. It figures that I have a few deadlines coinciding with some hot and sticky 90 degree days--where sitting in front of the PC is not my idea of a good time. So I'll keep this short and sweet.

I've sent out quite a few queries in the past few months. Some have landed me assignments, others were rejected, and yet others are still hovering around in that editorial black hole where I have no clue what might happen. I felt I had enough work to tide me over for the next few weeks (between researching, interviewing, and writing), so I haven't been pushing the follow ups or sending out many additional queries.

But I had an idea today, and dashed off a query to a new-to-me publication. Now I'm wondering if I spent enough time on my pitch.

Obviously, the more interested/passionate/knowledgeable we are about a topic, the easier it is to write the query; although, I sometimes have more trouble with the topics I'm especially interested in, because there's so much to say, and I want to be sure to do the topic justice. I feel most confident about those assignments where I know something about the topic, but I'm certainly no expert, and the people I speak with can then fill in any blanks.

My query today was an idea for a niche publication, but on a universal topic, so I hope the editor agrees. The query seemed to come together in only a few minutes, which can be a good or bad thing.

I tend to dash off queries as soon as I do a little bit of research (such as get a few experts or resources in mind), as I have this fear that another writer will pitch my idea before I get to do it. Strange, I know, but I haven't quite been able to shake myself of this habit. Sometimes I'll take a bit longer on a query for a new-to-me publication, or I'll do a quick outline before I lose my idea, and come back and finish it when my idea is more developed. I still follow the query template I'd learned a few years back at a writers' group meeting, but try to flesh out the premise before sending it out. Let's see how this one goes.

What about you? How much time do you spend writing a query?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tackling Those "Too Close to Home" Topics

Some very foolish man once said "Write what you know." I wonder if he/she ever did this--if they did, they would understand just how difficult it is to do. Just ask anyone who's ever attempted a personal essay or memoir.

As I branch out in my writing projects, I find that I'm getting a bad case of stage fright when it comes to writing about topics close to me. And I mean any topic that's close to me. I think it comes down to that pesky inner critic and the fear that I'll offend someone close to me. I can get past it normally, but for I'm really getting hung up on this for some reason.

Right now I'm working on an article about sharing an office (something I've done for over 2 years so I feel pretty knowledgeable about it) and I'm having the worst time with it. I'm over-analyzing, writing long rambling sentences instead of being short and sweet, and basically tripping all over myself to get the words down. Awful.

So how do I tackle this? How should writers approach any topic that hits a little close to home, as innocuous and universal as it may be?

Here's the approach I'm going to try:

Look for the universal appeal... Chances are, the topic you're writing about is something that others have gone through. Look at the big picture--what can you share with others about the subject? What will have your readers nodding in agreement, groaning in sympathy, or rolling their eyes knowingly? Try to find those angles and emphasize the points most of us can relate to.

...but personalize it. But remember that it's still your article, and your experience with the topic is yours and yours alone. Don't be afraid to put your own spin on it, using "I" and referring to yourself at certain points throughout. This will help to put a face on the experience, universal though it may be.

Focus on the end result. What are you hoping to achieve with your piece? What connection are you looking to make with your readers? Are you looking to entertain with a funny family vacation story, or are you providing information on a new online dating site you've test driven personally? Focus on your purpose and that will help to guide you through the rough writing waters.

Don't write out of spite. If you are writing a personal essay about how a best friend from high school betrayed you, think about the consequences. Is there a possibility your friend might read the piece (very likely if you're still in contact and/or it's for a well-known publication)? Are you prepared for their reaction? Don't write out of anger or with the intent to cause hard feelings, although, if you're truly baring your soul, that might very well happen. Hopefully your piece will spark some discussion and be the first step in clearing the air and getting over any old grudges.

How about you? How do you approach those tough personal topics?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Interview with Avis Cardella

Avis Cardella was living the life many of us can only dream of--she worked as a fashion model and later as a writer in the fashion photography industry. Both her words and her image appeared in some of the top fashion publications in the world. But she was battling some inner demons--she was a compulsive shopper whose habits were driving her further and further into debt. She chronicles her habits, and how she was able to overcome her compulsive spending, in her memoir Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict. Avis was nice enough to sit down and talk about her book and the life that inspired it.

Q: In your book, Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict, you talk about your own struggles with shopping addiction. Can you talk a little bit about how your “pastime” became so serious?

AVIS: I started spending more time shopping after my mother’s untimely death. I found that spending time in shops felt safe, comforting and could keep negative emotions about my loss under control.

Q: Do you think your careers as a model and fashion journalist were enablers for your habits?

AVIS: I found the fashion industry was an easy place to hide behind this image of someone who needed to look perfect, always have new things to wear, so in this respect it did provide certain opportunities to believe that shopping every day was normal. I do think easy credit—access to credit cards-- enabled me to shop. Credit cards allow for impulse purchasing.

Q: This is a problem that is probably much more common than people realize. What are some of the signs of shopping addiction?

AVIS: Researchers estimate that as many as 1 in 20 Americans has a problem with compulsive shopping. The research also reports that shopping addiction cuts across gender, age, and socioeconomic lines.

Some of the warning signs include: obsessive and constant thoughts about shopping, spending time shopping when you should be working or fulfilling other obligations, lying about shopping, accumulating unmanageable debt and buying things that you don’t want, need or use.

Q: For those who haven’t read the book, how did you get your spending under control?

AVIS: My road to recovery was a long process and too lengthy to detail here. But, I did go on debt management, that was the first step... then I needed to apply some self-therapy and try to understand why I was shopping compulsively. What was I searching for? What are we all searching for in the things we buy?
When I began to understand that my shopping was related to deeper emotions is when I began to recover.

Q: How do you handle shopping these days? Do you still feel the urge to buy compulsively?

AVIS: I am a healthy shopper today and am no longer plagued by compulsive urges. I still love fashion and shopping but know how to fit these things in my life in a balanced and healthy way.
I believe that understanding the deep emotional issues that were driving my shopping was the key to this recovery.

Q: Finally, what do you hope readers gain from your experiences?

AVIS: Spent is a personal story but in a way, it’s about everyone who shops. It is a story about a culture of consumption—it traverses nearly thirty years of everything from the beginning of mall culture to the “me” generation, easy credit, luxury label fever, Sex and The City... up until today. I’ve woven these cultural aspects into the story hoping that readers may rethink their relationship to shopping and their power over it.
I’ve come out of this addiction having answered the question: What was I searching for? It’s a good question to ask yourself, and it's very liberating when you find the answer.

Thanks, Avis. For more information, visit http://www.aviscardella.com/

Monday, June 21, 2010

How's Your Summer Looking?

Going into June, I had only a few projects on deck. Now that it's approaching July (yikes! How did that happen?), I'm looking at one busy summer!

I have 4 articles due, a blog post (which can turn into a steady gig), and over the weekend I connected with an editor on a rush project he was working on--although the project's on hold for the moment (apparently all of the writers were having some difficulty capturing the right "voice" forthe project), the editor liked my style and said he would send me additional projects. Let's hear it for networking!

All of that, plus researching each piece as needed, should fill up my schedule quite nicely. I'm also on the schedule for 2 classes this fall--both are brand new to me, so I have to start from scratch and create a syllabus, new materials, the works. Throw in my ever-growing list of books to read and the social invitations that have been coming in, and it'll be September again before I know it :(

I'm extremely grateful for all of these projects, however. It's starting to feel as though all of my hard work is finally, finally, finally paying off.

What about you? What projects are filling your calendar this summer?
Flickr photo by DonnaWhite2010

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What Freelancers Do You Admire?

Every freelancer needs a few mentors as we get our careers off the ground and start to find our way. Since I started seriously pursuing writing opportunities three years ago (ack! It's been that long already?!?), I've been very fortunate to meet (either in person or virtually) a number of freelancers who have been incredibly gracious with their time, talent, and wisdom. It's been great (and very reassuring) to have a few "go-to" freelancers I feel comfortable approaching with questions about various issues. There are also a few freelancers I don't know personally, but feel I've gotten to know as I've read their blogs and learned more about their career paths and focus areas.

So here's my list (in no particular order) of a few freelancers whose devotion to the field, longevity, creativity, and graciousness never fail to inspire me:

Jodi Webb. I basically owe my start in freelancing to Jodi, whom I met at my writer's group eons ago (OK, in 2007, but it seems like a lot longer). I'm always amazed at how she can get countless story ideas out of one concept. I don't know how she does it--a fact I often share with her. The fact that she's also finished a novel sort of humbles me, too!

Michelle Goodman. I've read both of Michelle's books on freelancing (My So-Called Freelance Life) and alt careers (The Anti-9-5 Guide) and I think she's great. I love her conversational, candid writing style. I also love how she's made a career out of writing about non-traditional careers.

Lori Widmer. I just started reading Lori's blog a few months ago. I admire her outspokenness and advocacy for writers asking (and receiving) wages comparable with the quality of their work; so much so that she is the brain behind the annual Writers Worth Day. I look forward to reading her blog, Words on the Page, daily.

Caroline G. Keyser. Caroline is a new Internet friend and it's been great swapping markets, ideas, and basically building our careers one query/LOI at a time (OK, sometimes multiples of each, but you get the idea).

Linda Formichelli. I was familiar with Linda thanks to Writer's Digest, but the sheer number of other major (and minor) markets she's written for is mind-boggling. Her Renegade Writer blog is another one I read regularly.

Thursday Bram. Thursday is a great resource for all things business-related. I've emailed her quite a few times with questions on various issues and she's been a terrific help (and I've managed to avoid some bad decisions thanks to her advice).

Susan Johnston. I've been a devoted reader of Susan's Urban Muse blog for the past year or so, and I have to say, I would be the happiest of campers if my own writing career could emulate hers. Also, she's been another invaluable source of advice and is another writer who has helped me avoid some rough situations (I should also add that I sold an article to a very big market that was included in her e-book!)

What freelancers do you admire?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Top 5 Beach Reads

I'm still getting back into the routine after being on vacation last week (and set a personal record for loads of laundry done in a single day), but happy to report that I'm keeping up with my reading list really well! I'm about to start a new book this week--The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews--and thought it might be fun to devote this post to beach reads.

Below is my list of top 5 best beach reads. These aren't new or upcoming releases, per se, but ones I've checked out in the past and would recommend to others:

A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand. I love books set on the beach; Hilderbrand's are all set on the island of Nantucket.

The Bachelor Preferred Pastry by Shirley Jump. Fourth in Jump's "Romances with Recipes" series, I think this is the best of them. How can you not love books that focus on food?

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah. Good if you don't mind having other people see you weep openly. Yes, it's that kind of book--be forewarned.

Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews. I've been pleasantly surprised by Andrews' books. They are all well constructed with solid characters, plausible plots, and a few steamy romantic scenes. What more could you ask for?

The Guy Not Taken by Jennifer Weiner. This collection of short stories came out a few years ago. I'm not generally the biggest fan of short story collections, but thoroughly enjoyed this one. I'm also excited to read her latest, Best Friends Forever, this summer.

Any other good beach reads that you would recommend?
Flickr photo by *sarahdippity

Friday, June 11, 2010

Guest Post: Why Everyone Needs Poetry

by Linda Neas

It was William Wordsworth, who promoted poetry as the “language of the common man.” While life has changed significantly since the days of Mr. Wordsworth, poetry has remained the language of the people. Why is this?

First, anyone from child to elder can write a poem. Second, there are no requirements for formal education. Indeed, one does not even need to write; anyone who speaks can create a poem. In addition, poetry can be as simple as a Basho haiku:

“Now I see her face,
the old woman, abandoned,
the moon her only companion”

or as complex in meaning as the lengthy poem “The Zodiac” by James Dickey

"You and the paper should have known it, you and the ink: you write
Everybody writes:
With blackness. Night. Why has it taken you all this time?
All this travel, all those lives?”

Poetry allows us to speak from our hearts, to voice our greatest fears and frustrations, to wax eloquently, or to share insight inspired from on high. Poetry gives voice to the artist, the persecuted, the lover, the child and the hero. We put it to music and call it song. We find it in greeting cards, subway panels, church walls and tombstones. We recite it to our children to teach morals as well as to entertain. Poetry surrounds us.

Everyone needs poetry because it allows us to see beauty in the common – a dandelion, an empty bowl, a rock wall – to feel deep emotions – fear, love, joy, peace – to track the moments of our lives – birth, school, marriage, death.

Poetry is inclusive, being found in every language spoken by humanity.

Poetry is timeless. Think of epic poems, like The Epic of Gilgamesh or The Odyssey. These stories speak to us of trials and tribulations that still have relevance today.

Poetry is the oxygen of our souls. Without it, life would simply be an existence, instead of a journey filled with wonder.

About Linda: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas self-published her first written work at the tender age of seven on the cardboard she gathered from her Dad’s shirts when they came back from the laundry. Since then, she has written extensively in various venues, publishing and performing her work throughout New England, including her own column in two newspapers in Southern Maine and as an online writer and contributing editor at BrightHub.com.

In February 2008, she self-published her first complete book of poems, Winter of the Soul. She recently published Gogo’s Dream: Discovering Swaziland a collection of poems dedicated to those who work to aid the peoples of Swaziland. Currently, she is working on several children’s books.
Ms. Neas lives in an enchanted cottage in western Massachusetts with her Beloved.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ones You May Have Missed...

I'm still MIA for a few days, so I thought I'd leave you with a few older posts that I think are some of the more thought-provoking ones that have been on here. Perhaps you missed some of them:

Any Freelancing Regrets?

What's Your Query Output?

On Staying Motivated

Monday, June 7, 2010

What Was Your Most Nightmarish Assignment?

Sooner or later, every freelancer has a horror story if they stick with the writing long enough. Whether it was an indecisive editor, persnickety source, client who couldn't quite make up their mind, or simply a beast of a project or assignment, most writers have had their share of nightmare experiences. But rest assured--those sticky situations pop up in any kind of job. I deal with headaches at my day job every day, so I think I've gotten pretty good at handling difficult situations.

Writing-wise, my most nightmarish assignment to date started out very innocently. I put together my query (I sent 2 ideas to the editor, actually) and sent it off, crossing my fingers as I always do. A few days later I received a response from the editor--she liked my idea but would I mind changing the focus a bit? "A bit" can mean a lot of things, so being the newbie I was (this was probably only my second assignment or so), I was completely agreeable. Well "a bit" turned out to be "a complete shift". The editor went from my rather specific topic to something much more broad and, to my unskilled way of thinking, confusing. I emailed questions almost weekly as I plodded through interviews; she would get back to me right away but somehow still not answer my questions.

Long story short? The final article turned out to be COMPLETELY different than what I'd originally pitched; my second story idea never saw the light of day. I usually get a little bit of a rush seeing my stories appear in print; this time I was disappointed in the final version, since it was nothing like what I'd planned to write. I was also very frustrated with the editor who had all but overlooked my concerns and questions. I haven't written for them since.

What nightmare projects do you care to share?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Favorite Ways to De-stress

I'm frantically trying to wrap up some loose ends (both writing-related and not) before heading to the beach for some MUCH needed downtime. I haven't been on a big trip since the fall (I know, boo hoo for me, right? I know some people who haven't been anywhere in years--my b.f. being one of them), but I'm itching to get out of my regular routine and do some big time chilling for a few days.

Which brings me to my main question--what are some of your favorite ways to de-stress?

Since I'm not a full-time freelancer, my first response is almost always "Do some writing". And it's true that writing helps me to calm down, focus, and shift my thoughts away from other things that might be bothering me at the moment. But as any writer will tell you, it's not an easy process; being stuck and having a few deadlines looming isn't exactly a vacation.

So I'll go with what is usually my next response--"Chill out with a book". This is probably closer to the truth as far as my favorite way to de-stress. One of the main things I'm looking forward to doing over the summer is making a major dent in my reading list--it's getting a little out of control, but it would probably be even easier to manage if I would stop buying them! Sigh. But yes--I would say that laying on the couch (or beach!) with a good book and no plans for the day is probably my absolute favorite way to de-stress and unwind.

Oh, and massages are good, too!

What are some of your favorite ways to de-stress and unwind?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What Are You Worth?

I'm taking a cue from freelancer extraordinaire Lori Widmer, who regularly blogs about the importance of freelancers recognizing, reinforcing, and requiring their own worth and value at Words on the Page. Lori, you've inspired me. Read on...

As I've said in past posts, I think I've been in the freelancing game long enough to recognize a red flag for what it is. In this case, it's companies who don't feel freelancers are worth paying for the work they do; they either flat out don't pay, or they don't pay nearly enough for the work that the writer completes.

What the--?

I've been in this situation myself a few times, unfortunately; twice recently, in fact. For two projects I was told I wouldn't be paid at the outset; for another project, I was getting paid, but wasn't comfortable with the rate. And in another instance, I'd emailed an editor asking if they work with freelancers. I got a reply saying that they did, and she spelled out exactly what would be required. Pay was not mentioned, which to me always spells trouble. Sure enough, I had to ask the question, and wouldn't you know, I didn't like the answer. Though it could have been a good opportunity, my time is too valuable to spend it on something that I'm not even being compensated for. Volunteering for an organization I feel passionately about is one thing; not being paid for a service is quite another.

Worse yet, I know writers who gladly take on these unpaid projects. Of course it's important to build up some experience, and we all know that quite often the "experience" comes from unpaid (or low-paid) projects, but at some point I think we really have to ask ourselves if the work and no compensation is truly worth it. I know of a few writers in my writers' group who are doing some work for a publication that I'd contacted a few months back and doesn't pay their writers. When I heard these ladies were doing work for them, I cringed inside. Perhaps these ladies have the time to devote to researching, interviewing, and writing the final article--I, however, do not, so if there's no value in it for me, sorry, I'm not interested. Maybe I sound greedy, but I have to be honest.

Obviously we all have our own goals and aspirations for our writing careers, but for the life of me, I can't understand those who just want to "write for myself". I love writing and it's always been (and always will be) a huge part of my life, but honestly? If I can get paid for it, so much the better. Some things are for myself, sure, but I'll happily put something out there that I might be able to get paid for.

What about you? Where do you stand on low- or no-paying gigs, and the writers who accept these types of assignments?