Saturday, January 25, 2014

In the Beginning...

In the beginning, many writers have trouble distinguishing the idea of being a writer with the writing, itself. For some reason, perhaps the notoriety that a few writers achieve because of things like the New York Times Best Seller's List, many beginners think that’s all there is to it—write a book and you’re instantly propelled into the spotlight.

A current ad for a serious childhood immune deficiency disease shows several kids, who’ve survived the disease, talking about what they want to be when they grow up. Two of them seem to have a good grip on their dreams. One wants to be the top pitcher on major league baseball team while the other wants to write a cookbook for children. There’s no pretense. No extras. Just a straightforward dream.

However, the other two children have dreams that aren’t as concrete. One dreams of being a rock star. Not for the notoriety and the money, but because she thinks that rock musicians can play as loud as they want and that they get to drive around in a big bus with their name on the side. The second child wants to be a fireman—not because firemen save lives, but because they get to ride around in a big firetruck and slide down poles at the firehouse. Neither is thinking about all the work it takes to become either.

This second pair are thinking like many beginning writers or wannabee writers think about being a writer. They see the glamor and the fame they can get out of writing. However, the first pair are more direct. As beginning writers they would be thinking about what they might write, subjects, stories. They wouldn’t be concerned about fame and fortune but more about improving their craft.

And while all four of the above are children and think like them, many beginning writers, no matter what their age, don’t think about writing much above that level.

So before you get glamor stars in your eyes, you need to think about why you want to become a writer. Have you always wanted to be one? Did someone encourage you along the way? Did you want to emulate a famous writer?                       

All of the above reasons are good ones. Some people fall in love with words from the first time a parent reads them a story. Others are natural storytellers and want to share their stories with others. And don’t forget that special person who told you that you’re a natural-born writer.

And while it’s great to dream, making it as a writer requires work and dedication—lots of it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wake Up Your Wild Side

All writing begins with sense of adventure and an appetite for life. If you’re starting this year off safe in your comfort zone, perhaps it’s time to wake up your wild side and your imagination.

Start out by taking a good look at yourself. What makes you tick? What are you afraid of? What does that fear feel like? Knowing more about yourself and how you handle various situations makes you able to anticipate problems before they occur.

Make a list of your accomplishments during the last year or so. Also list problems you had and how you solved them. Did you get creative in resolving them? Then think back to when you were young. What did you do for fun? What turned you on? Perhaps you’ve been away from that spontaneity too long.

When opportunity knocks, do you answer the door or hide behind it? To take advantage of opportunities, you have to be ready.

First, get yourself in physical shape. While you may not have to climb mountains, you may have to conquer obstacles in the path of your career. The better shape you’re in physically, the better shape you’ll be in mentally. Exercise and eat right. You don’t have to go to extremes, just eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and go for a walk every day. And not a leisurely walk around the block, but a faster one around a few blocks. Increase the distance a bit every week.

Learn to recognize opportunity. This may come in the form of something you overhear or something you’ve read. Then give opportunity a chance. Don’t let that inner “No” take over. Ask yourself “What if?”

Look behind the scenes at situations. Go where you’re not supposed to. If you’re caught, make up an excuse. Think fast on your feet. Ask questions—lots of questions. Curiosity is one of the prime attributes of a good writer. It takes nerve to ask questions, especially if you’re not a journalist. But you’ll learn off-the-record, juicy information that may suggest nonfiction book and article ideas as well as fictional plotlines.

When you stay as you are, you get stale. Your life and your writing remains static. Resolve to learn something new. Take a class. Take time to follow one of your interests that you’ve been ignoring for a while. Start working on that book idea that’s been gnawing at you. Or learn some new information about a subject that you’ve been interested in for a while.

Learn to eavesdrop on others’ conversation. Sure, it’s impolite, but it may yield something juicy. When you go out to eat with someone, keep one ear tuned to them and one to the tables around you. You never know what you’ll hear. It may just turn out to be something you can use in your next short story or novel or perhaps it may spark a new investigative article.

One of the best places to eavesdrop is a coffeeshop or café. Often people who haven’t seen each other in a long time meet over coffee to talk their heads off, or people meeting for a not-exactly-a-date first date, or to discuss something important, will do it in a coffee shop. Take an older couple at Starbucks. After listening for a while, it was obvious they had met through an Internet dating site, had chatted with each other for a while, and were finally meeting. The conversation yielded some interesting facts about what older people are looking for in a mate.

On another occasion, a family from Germany had stopped at Starbucks for a break while sightseeing. Even though they were speaking German, it was interesting to see how they reacted to their surroundings and each other.

Or what about the younger couple and their two kids at a fast-food restaurant. While the mother rocked her newborn in a stroller, her slightly older son put on a tantrum. The scene that followed brought up some interesting questions about sibling rivalry and how new parents deal with it.

Finally, do something that normally turns you off. Never been to a strip club? Go. Afraid of what you’ll find out about yourself? Skeptical about mediums? Attend a séance. Do nursing homes creep you out? Walk into one, find a lonely person and talk to them. Avoid making judgements. Just let what happens happen.

Busting out of your comfort zone to seek out unique experiences will not only make you a more complete person and bring authenticity to your writing, but also it may suggest new ideas and new work. While you don’t have to get into the ring with the bull like Ernest Hemingway, you can at least watch from the stands and gain an insight into bullfighting.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Editors Can be Monsters

There’s no doubt about it. Writing is hard. Actually, it often isn’t the writing that’s hard but the crap writers have to take from editors that can set them back. Do you feel as if your writing career is in everyone’s hands but yours? Have you had less than stellar experiences with some of your editors?

For the most part, editors are nice people. They want you to succeed, but occasionally you find one or two that are so horrible that it may make you want to quit writing altogether. Let’s take a look at a few instances.

Take the frustrated writer/editor. This is an editor that tried to make it as a freelance writer but didn’t make it. She ends up having to get a full-time job to support a family and resents having to sit behind a desk and edit other people’s work. In the process of editing, this editor goes overboard and edits the work so badly—in fact, rewriting it—that the piece isn’t recognizable. And not only that, forgets to save drafts along the way, so that the piece loses its continuity. She then goes back to the writer asking all sorts of questions, making the writer fix her editing mistakes.

Or take the alcoholic editor. A travel editor of a large East-coast city newspaper, calls a writer to ask a question. The writer is working at a travel agency to make ends meet. The editor goes ballistic and says he’s throwing the writers work in the trash can and doesn’t give the writer a chance to explain. What the writer finds out later is that this editor has a drinking problem, making him irrational at times.

Or take the new editor. A writer works for a large-city business publication as a regular stringer for seven years. He’s got a great rapport with the managing editor—the editor even helps him out with leads for assigned articles. Then the managing editor takes a job at the city’s largest newspaper. A new editor comes to the business publication. After a while of putting off the writer with one excuse after another, he finally tells the writer he can’t write. And this is after working for this same publication for seven years.

Or how about the condescending editor. You’ve probably run into editors like this. They think they’re the greatest and that writers are nothing more than slaves to do their bidding. They don’t see writers as being on the same professional level as themselves. In fact, they most likely have a journalism degree and feel they’re several steps up the ladder from the writer. And while they continue to send work the writer’s way, there’s never a strong bond between themselves and the writer.

As you can see from the above examples, dealing with situations like this can be unpleasant and may even have a long-term affect on your work. Some writers quit writing altogether while others quit temporarily or become blocked.

Always remember this: Editors are just another step in the chain of publication. They’re no better than you. In fact, you may write better then they do. And some resent that. And to be fair, there are a lot of great editors out there. So if you run into a less than professional situation with an editor, move on, and keep writing.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Looking Ahead

As another year passes into history, it’s time to reflect on your writing career. If you just started out in 2013, then you’ve got your whole career ahead of you. If you’ve been at this a while, then maybe it’s time to take stock of what you’ve accomplished and make some plans for the future.

Let’s say you’ve just begun to work as a freelance writer. Did you find it hard to place your work in the marketplace? Did the process seem frustrating? Do you think you’ve exhausted every avenue?

If you answered “yes” to the above questions, then you have most likely haven’t followed the path of least resistance. Most beginners start out by sending their work to top publications. That’s your first mistake. Remember, you’re a beginner. You haven’t been in the marketplace long enough to establish credentials. So maybe you ought to plan ahead for 2014 so that you can get at least one piece—and hopefully many more—published.

Here are a few tips to getting on track for 2014:

Write about what you know. The first mistake many beginning writers make is writing about subjects they know nothing about. Stick close to home. Write about subjects having to do with work or with a special interest of yours. Doing so will help build your confidence and give what’s called a “voice of authority” to your work. (More on voice of authority will appear in a later blog).

Keep your pieces relatively short. Another mistake beginners make is writing everything there is to know on a subject. It’s not really their fault, however, since the only type of writing they learned to do in school that had anything to do with research was term papers and reports.

Write to communicate.
You’re not writing for a grade as you did in school. You’re writing to communicate information to a reader. Unlike your teachers, your readers want to learn about your subject and be somewhat entertained at the same time.

Start with small publications. Search for publications that work with beginning writers. The editors of top publications are too busy to fuss with the musings of beginners. They need writing that’s concise, accurate, and professional, leaving little for them to do but lay it out and print it.

Set some goals. Create some goals for yourself for the coming year and see to it that you achieve them. Check on them occasionally to make sure you’re on track. And if you get off track, get back on as soon as possible. Lots of things can knock you off your game—illness, even a cold, family emergencies, a death in the family, etc. Remind yourself to review your goals in six months to see if they’re still possible or if you have to adjust them to your present situation.

Good luck and make this blog part of your reading for the coming year.