Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas for a Writer

Just because it's Christmas I don't stop writing. In fact, for the last 13 years I've composed a special Christmas article that I enclosed in a card with the same theme. Unlike the letters many people write, telling of their families trials and tribulations during the past year, my article is about some little-known fact about celebrating Christmas. It's not only a way of practicing my craft, but also a way of giving something tangible to my friends and family.

To read this year's edition, go to my Web site and click on the link, "A special greeting just for you." After reading my Christmas article for 2009, click on the link "More Christmas Articles" at the bottom of that page and enjoy.

And if you're still in need of Christmas cheer, be sure to go back to my Home Page and click on the link "Read special holiday stories," which will take you to several stories written by my students in my Creative Writing classes.

And before you go to bed tonight, be sure to read "Santa's Coat," another story by one of my very creative students.

Merry Christmas

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Read What You Write

In order to be a good writer, I had to start reading like one. I have two reading modes–one for pleasure and information and the other for writing technique. In the first, I sit at my desk or in a comfy chair and read for entertainment or knowledge without paying much attention to how the writer wrote the text. But in the second, I read for technique, carefully paying attention to structure, grammar, and English usage.

Many writers never read their work once they finish it. In fact, too many beginning writers never look at what they write beyond their first draft. Writing takes on a life of its own and only after it has “settled” a bit can I really see the problems and the mistakes.

Writing on a computer has lots of advantages, but the one big disadvantage is that I find myself being hypnotized by the print on the screen–so much so, that I often don’t see simple mistakes right in front of me. To avoid this problem, I print out each draft of what I write–yea, I know it isn’t good for the trees–and put it aside to read later. Later can be the next hour, the next few hours, or the next day. Just the act of getting away from that particular piece of writing helps me to get a new perspective on it. Also, I usually read it somewhere else, say in that comfy chair with a nice cup of coffee, just the way I would read any other material.

In this process, my mind forgets for a while what I wrote and sees it as if it’s something new. This, alone, helps me to see the flaws in my writing, so that I can act as my own editor. In effect, I’m not only reading it as a reader but also reading it as a writer. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Keeping an Idea Book

Ideas are the fuel that keep me going as a writer. These might be for future articles, short stories, plays, non-fiction books, and, yes, even my blogs. They can be little bits of information, observations, profiles, or full-blown concepts. Unfortunately, the human brain–my brain–can’t possibly remember them all. In fact, I can’t remember most of them since they seem to disappear into thin air as fast as they appear.

My solution to this problem is to keep an Idea Book–well, actually, a series of Idea Books. As a writer this notebook is my most valuable possession–it’s what keeps me writing.

Starting an Idea Book is easy. I use a standard 6x9½-inch, spiral-bound notebook that’s about
¾-inch thick. I’ve also found the ones with tabbed divider pages handy, especially when I want to divide my ideas into major subject specialties. And while this is my main depository of ideas, I also keep a small, 3x5-inch, spiral-bound notebook that I carry around with me. Periodically, I skim over the ideas in it and transfer them to my larger Idea Book.

So exactly what do I put into my Idea Book? First and foremost are lists of ideas on a particular topic. I write a monthly genealogy column for Genealogy Today. I can’t write these columns off the top of my head without some research, so I keep an ongoing list of ideas for them in my Idea Book. As soon as I finish writing a current month’s column, I take a look at the list and decide which topic I’m going to tackle next. I also keep a list of all the columns I’ve written in the order I’ve written them, so I don’t repeat myself–or in case I need to refer back to one in a current one.

I also focus ideas in my Idea Book. Sometimes an idea is way too broad, so I have to focus it down to its essence. It’s in this process that I play around with variations on the topic–different slants, possible fiction adaptations, even Web page ideas for any of my four Web sites. I never write about a topic just once. My record is 18 articles on a single topic–The Oregon Trail.

Another part of my Idea Book is the resource section. Here, I jot down information about library books I’ve borrowed in case I need to borrow them again and the addresses of Web sites that contain pertinent information about subjects I write about.

Lastly, I use my Idea Book to brainstorm possible markets for my work.  This might be just a list of places I can send my articles and such or it may be diagrams that help me figure out who will be reading my pieces and then which markets cater to them.

Now for all you junior geeks out there, I haven’t forgotten about you. If you wish, you can adapt all of the above to an Idea Folder on your computer, using your PDA (personal data assistant) or cell phone to record observations, etc. on the run. This concept is fully adaptable to your situation. Whatever you do, get your ideas organized. And you’ll keep writing forever.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Writing on Speculation or Assignment--That is the $100 Question?

If you've been trying to write and publish non-fiction, namely articles, should you write on speculation or assignment? You'll notice I said that's the $100 question since there's no way the everyday freelance writer can make a million bucks answering it.

As a non-fictioin writer, I have a choice of working in two modes--on speculation or on assignment. Naturally, I prefer to work on assignment, but sometimes, for instance when entering a new market or at least a new one for me, I need to work on speculation.

What's the difference between these two modes, besides the obvious? When working on speculation, I decide what to write and how to write it, and then market what I produce. While this may seem an easy method and one that many writers follow, there one element missing--the reader. Unless I write for a particular group of readers all the time, there's no way for me to know what their needs are. Consequently, I can't assume to know the needs of editors, either. So writing on speculation is risky at best.

On the other hand, when I write on assignment for a magazine, the editor already has an idea in mind and does know his or her readers very well. Sometimes, an editor will give me specific instructions on what to write, how to write it, and how long to make the article. Some even give me suggestions of where to go for information or contact information for sources of quotes. At other times, working on assignment is a cooperative effort. Perhaps I approach an editor with an idea. He or she then offers their input, and I offer mine--it's an even exchange. The result is knowing exactly what the editor wants and needs. This method works best with an editor with whom I have a good working relationship.

The other problem with writing on speculation is not knowing exactly when my article will be published. The first article I had published, for example, took a full year to the day from the date I sent it in until it appeared in print. It took another month or so to get paid. At that rate, I'd have died of starvation if working full time! Luckily, at the time I had a full-time salaried job, so it didn't matter when I got paid. Today, as a full-time writer, it does. Even if an editor agrees to publish my article, that's all he or she agrees to. In fact, at other times, my articles never made it into print because the magazine went under before they did.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Black Friday Humbug

Well, another infamous Black Friday has passed, and I'm not any richer or poorer for it. You see, I choose to stay home, avoid the crowds, and wait until a calmer time, say the day before Christmas, to so my shopping. Seriously, I shop for Christmas all year round. Why wait for the bargains on Black Friday? The stores all have them at other times. It's just that they have everyone trained to think that if they shop on the day after Thanksgiving, that something magical will happen to their pocketbook.

Another question I posed to myself this week is should I wear black on Black Friday? What if everyone did that as they croweded the stores and the malls. How depressing!

Look at Scrooge, Charles Dickens' lovable character in his story "A Christmas Carol." I think everyone shops like crazy because they don't want to be called a "Scrooge." But really that old guy was just depressed because the days got shorter and the London streets were dark, dingy, and smelly in Dickens' day. No wonder Scrooge wasn't all excited about Christmas. But through his story Dickens does leave us with a strong message. It's not what you give, but how you give it. Remember that the next time you whip out that credit card.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those Pesky $20 Words

It's a beautiful mid-summer's day here in Eastern Pennsylvania where I live, so I'm spending a few hours basking in the sun by a crystal clear blue pool in a nearby state park. To pass the time, I thought I'd catch up some reading. I'm not one to waste valuable reading time with the likes of Danielle Steele. Instead, I have become engrossed in a travel saga about fellow writer's Jason Elliot's journeys through Iran--a place I know nothing about.

He writes beautifully about the culture, with its mosques and bazaars. Unfortunately, all this beauty comes at a price. It seems Elliot, like so many writers, assumes all readers have his extensive vocabulary. So here I sit in a beach chair in my swimsuit with not a dictionary in sight. While I get the gist of what he's saying, I'm missing some of the nuances because Elliot insists on using what I call $20 words--complex words that replace the more familiar ones for show.

I'm a great believer in using familiar, conversational language so that many people can enjoy what I write. Writers shouldn't try to impress their readers. If their writing is good enough, it will do that just fine.

So this explains why I found Elliot's book, Mirrors of the Unseen, a book about his travels in Iran, on display in my neighborhood Dollar Store. I guess his $20 words helped to catapult it off the remainder tables in the regular bookstores.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Rollercoaster Ride of Freelancing

Many people love to ride rollercoasters--the higher and faster, the better. But what if they had to ride one every day. They'd soon tire of it mighty fast. Freelance writing is a lot like riding a daily rollercoaster. It has its highs and lows and its thrills. But it also has its risks. And while few rollercoasters ever jump the track, that's a common occurence in the world of a freelance writer.

I've had to start over with markets at least a half-dozen times. Writing markets are volatile, giving way to every little bump in the economy or in reading trends. It's difficult keeping ahead of the changes. Editors switch jobs just about as frequently as hair dressers. In today's economy, they're being tossed out with all the other people for lack of advertising income. And what do they end up doing--freelancing.

While there may seem to be an endless supply of writing markets, the number in any one niche or specialty is often limited. When more writers enter the marketplace, that drastically limits the publishing possibilities for those already in it. A recent edition of The Washington Post offered a travel article on Moscow, a creative quest to find information about a great, great, great uncle who was Lenin's right-hand man. After reading it, I came upon the writer's tag line--former travel editor of the paper. So much for trying to break in there.

I guess I'll have to buy another ticket and try to ride this damn coaster again. Maybe this time it will stay on track.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Communication is the Key

Writing is one of many forms of communication. Like listening, it requires a reader to digest the ideas provided by the words. Remember that old saying: "If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it?" That could be changed to read: "If a writer writes down his or her ideas, do they exist if no one reads and interprets them?"

This concept has been the basis for my writing, and it's what turned it into a career instead of a just an avocation. Most people unfortunately learned, albeit subconsciously, that what they had to say was the most important part of the writing process. No so. It doesn't matter at all what I have to say if no one reacts to it and gives me feedback. This can come directly from the reader, or it can come indirectly when a reader buys and reads not just one of my books, but several.

Have you written something that hidden under a pile of papers in a drawer? Dig it out and read it again. Were you communicating with the reader or just yourself?