Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What I Learned at the GLVWG Conference, or, 5 Timeless Writing Tactics from Horror Master Jonathan Maberry

This past Saturday a few gals from my writers’ group and I had the great pleasure of attending the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers’ Group’s annual Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA. I look forward to this event every year and always pick up some useful nuggets of info. This year was no exception. I attended a fabulous morning workshop led by literary agent/keynote speaker Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) and, appropriately, had to fight off writer’s cramp on and off throughout the day because I was taking so many notes (unlike past years, where I was content to merely listen or jot down a gem or two, this time I was determined to retain as much info as possible so I took copious notes). But my favorite session was the last one of the day—“Making a Living as a Writer” with Bram Stoker Award-winning author Jonathan Maberry (Rot and Ruin, The Wolfman, Cryptopedia, among others). I’ve heard him speak at this event a few times before, and I get such a boost from his presentations. Maberry is a writer’s writer—he’s had numerous books, over 1200 articles, and countless poems published, among projects in many other genres—so I knew I’d get the same jolt of inspiration that I had from past sessions. Over the course of his talk, I picked up 5 tactics that he mentioned for sustaining a writing career. This isn’t new advice, exactly, just tried-and-true writerly wisdom that works:

  • Persistence pays off. Maberry said that when he was starting out as a writer, he had no idea how to write a query. “If there were 25 things that editors didn’t want in a query, I had all 25 plus a few more thrown in,” he’d said. The first editor he pitched thought the query had been a joke. Maberry called to explain that no, he was serious about his writing, he just didn’t know what a query looked like. The editor sent him a few examples, Maberry followed the format, and landed quite a bit of work from the editor over the years. He was also relentless about querying editors when he was a magazine writer, proving once again that you shouldn't take no for an answer.

  • Don’t limit yourself—try new things. Maberry has written greeting cards, instructions on seed packets, song lyrics, magazine articles, novels, and—most recently—comic books. He said, “Did I know how to write (insert project-out-of-left-field here)? No! But I didn’t tell them that.” Staying diverse and open to new challenges helps to build your skills and confidence as a writer. It also keeps things interesting.

  • Stick to a schedule. Keeping to a self-imposed deadline or target keeps you accountable to yourself. Maberry said that he’s taken 3 days off in the past 25+ years, and now spends 10 hours a day on his writing projects (which also includes reviewing contracts, giving interviews, etc.) He writes something like 3,000 words a day, no matter what. If he comes up short one day, he’ll do double the next.

  • Reward yourself. Maberry puts $1 in a jar every time he reaches his word count for the day. When the project is finished, the money in the jar must go toward something fun. That could be something as small as a massage or as extravagant as a vacation. You’ve worked hard—now treat yourself.

  • Bring your “A” game to each project. You may not love every single thing you’re writing about (lawn fertilizer, home heating systems, and projects that involve techie-speak come to mind), but he suggests falling in love with some aspect of the project and bringing your very best writing to it. Editors and clients don’t have to know that you burned the midnight oil wrapping up the project because it bored you to tears; they do have to know that you delivered what they hired you for and would happily do it again if they asked.

What about you? What useful advice have you gotten lately?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Surprise of the Day

I'm generally not a big fan of surprises. For myself, anyway. Oh, I like the occasional unexpected low-pressure surprise--a free coupon, a free book, or an invite to someplace cool/interesting. But those big, full-on, "it-took-weeks-of-planning-to-get-it-right" kind of surprises just make me very anxious and self-conscious.

I do, however, love surprising other people.

Birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, babies...all perfectly acceptable reasons to celebrate. No, all occasions that should be celebrated. These occasions remind us all that we're alive, that we're loved, and that our happiness means something--not only to us, but to our friends and family, as well.

I love the planning that goes into a good surprise. Sure, it's stressful, but the look on the person's face when they arrive makes it totally worth it. I love being a part of something that's going to make someone else happy. And I, of course, love to share in that happiness. It's nice to be reminded of all of the fun and joy in the world still!

Life is definitely one big surprise after another. Every day brings its share of them. Some are good, some are bad, but we learn a lesson from every single one.

So think about it--how will you handle the next surprise that comes your way?

NOTE: I wrote today's post as part of the WOW-Women on Writing Blanket Tour for Letter from Home by Kristina McMorris . This debut novel is the story of three young women during World War II and the identity misunderstandings they and the men in their lives have. Ask yourself: Can a soldier fall in love with a woman through letters? and What happens if the woman writing the letters is different from the woman he met the might before he shipped out, the woman he thought was writing the letters? Is it still love or just a lie? Like many authors, Kristina has had a wild selection of "real jobs" everything from wedding planner to actress to publicist. She finally added novelist to the list after Kristina got a peek at the letters her grandfather wrote to his sweetheart(a.k.a. Grandma Jean)while he was serving in the Navy during World War II. That got her wondering how much two people could truly know each other just from letter writing and became the nugget of her novel. In honor of her grandparents, and all the other families kept apart by military service, Kristina is donating a portion of her book's profits to United Through Reading, a nonprofit organization that video records deployed U.S. military personnel reading bedtime stories to their children. You can learn more about the program at http://www.unitedthroughreading.org/

Friday, March 11, 2011

For Those Fiction Writers at Heart

My writer's group is split into two very distinct camps: fiction and nonfiction. (A third, smaller percentage, are in the "undecided"/"still too nervous to get started" camp). There are four of us who pursue articles, blogs, copywriting, and the like either full- or part-time. The rest are pursuing children's/YA, etc.

I admit I'm biased. I've made some nice supplemental income as a freelancer. I've come to a place where I can't understand why a writer would work so hard at polishing and shopping around a manuscript that may never get published when there are so many other ways to make money from writing. I'm all for creative outlets for creativity's sake, but it's also nice to have something to show for your efforts after all of that hard work. I love, love, love reading fiction, but I think that's because the work is already done for me. I don't have to worry about creating a compelling opening, sagging middles, or crafting characters with distinct personalities. I find it all a bit overwhelming, actually, although I have the utmost appreciation for those writers who can do it well.

I also know a few freelancers who are uncomfortable calling themselves a "writer" when they haven't had a book published. In my mind, you're a writer if you put in the time every day/week to find new (paid) outlets for your work and complete said work on deadline. If you obsess over tracking down a particular source and find yourself jotting down even more ideas or angles on a particular topic, that makes you legit in my book.

I haven't completely shut the door on pursuing fiction a little more aggressively one day, but for now, I'm focusing my energies on articles, blogs, and copywriting. I've had a few ideas for novels lingering in the back of my mind for years, but I find that when I sit down to get started, I get overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. That little nagging voice in my head taunts me as I write: Is this too boring?, Is this character likable?, Is this something a lawyer/doctor/sommelier would actually say?, Does this sound like something I've read before?, so the project stalls. I find it easier to control that voice with nonfiction. I think the creative freedom of fiction is liberating, but if you pursue the right avenues, nonfiction can satisfy that outlet, as well ("creative nonfiction" is a whole sub-genre in itself). But for now, I'm happy to stand back and tell others' stories until I feel more prepared to tell one of my own.

What about you? Are you happy as a primarily nonfiction writer? Or does the nonfiction pay the bills while you secretly toil away at your real passion--fiction? I'd love to know!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Are Some Favorite Writing Assignments?

If you’ve been at the freelancing game for awhile, you’ve had your share of good and bad writing assignments. Sometimes even a topic we pitch to editors turns out to be much more work than we’d originally thought, or simply not as interesting as we’d first imagined.

But this post isn’t about the stinkers. It’s about those good/great assignments that make this crazy freelancing life worthwhile. For every migraine-inducing article or client project comes a few more that almost don’t seem like work because they are about topics we care about, or want to know more about, or focus on a fascinating person, place, or cause. They’re the types of projects that keep us going. So what are some of your favorite assignments?

I’ll go first. One of my earliest assignments was a profile on an “outsider” artist who worked in found objects—bottlecaps, shovels, broken or discarded items…basically the junk that most of us would throw away without a second thought. This was my first in-depth article, and I was interviewing sources from all over the country, including museum and gallery curators, a VIP from the Smithsonian, and a college professor who had the funkiest home office I think I’ve ever seen. I also had the opportunity to visit this artist’s home, which also served as his studio and a gallery of sorts. He even carved a small piece for me, which I still have and proudly display. Sadly, his house and most of his art (!) perished in a fire a few years back, which makes this experience even more memorable and special for me.

Another favorite assignment was my most recent article for Match.com’s magazine, which talks about the evolution of dating customs. I can’t take all of the credit—the story was my b.f.’s idea—but I had a lot of fun doing the research. I had some difficulty finding experts for this one, so I had to do some detective work (all in the name of journalism, of course) to find the historian I wound up interviewing for the story. I’ve had some other great projects, but these two immediately leapt to mind.

What about you? What are some of your favorite writing assignments—whether articles or client projects?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Giving Clients That “Little Something Extra”

Reports. E-books. E-newsletters.

This is just a sampling of some of the free products I’ve seen freelancers offer as a way to retain existing clients and entice new business. It’s a great idea—with so many freelancers out there, clients are going to look to hire someone who has a clear knowledge of their field. More importantly, they'll want to hire someone who will clearly go above and beyond for their business and deliver the results the client is looking for.

My business partner and I are in the process of developing a number of these products that we’re using in our information packets and as a “draw” on our website. We’re using a few different angles with each product:

1. Why a business needs a copywriter (not us, necessarily, though of course we hope they’ll want more information!)

2. What a copywriter is/does (we’ve been getting a lot of questions about whether we can help someone legally protect—i.e. copyright©—their manuscript)

3. How we, specifically, can help their business. We’ll be featuring e-newsletters and the like in the not-too-distant future, but are working on building our client base and getting our name established first.

For new freelancers, these extras can go a long way toward establishing credibility in a particular field. Veteran freelancers can use these products to add a new element to their website or existing offerings. We need to stand out from our competitors just like any other business, so if you provide that little something extra to clients, that’s a pretty good indicator of what a client can expect if they hire you for a larger project.

What about you? Do you provide free “extras” like downloadable reports or other similar offerings to entice clients? Have they worked?