Friday, May 30, 2014

Challenge Thyself

It’s hard to keep up the creative energy that all writers need to succeed. All writers are prone to intellectual laziness from time to time. Coming up with totally original, totally innovative ideas is exhausting. So many writers, once they’ve achieved success with a particular concept or genre, tend to repeat it.

Writing is a business. And business success relies on repeated production. One book does not a writer make. However, many beginning writers, like yourself, are under the mistaken impression that if they write a book, then they’ll have achieved success—at least for a few brief weeks or months. But what happens after that? Nothing unless you make it so.

As a writer, you have to constantly keep challenging yourself. You have to train your brain to constantly come up with new ideas or ways to reinvent old ones. A good writer never stops. It’s amazing how many writers publish a book or two, and perhaps several short stories or articles, and readers never hear from them again.

Others, like James Michener, fall into the trap of success. Michener wrote Tales from the South Pacific which became a bestseller. He soon realized that the format of the epic novel was the key to his success, so he wrote one after another. Originally, he did all the research himself, but after much success he was able to hire a team of researchers that would travel to a location and work for six months or more to help him write a book. Each book was much like the last. His publisher and his readers preferred it that way. Michener continued to write epic novels for years until he decided that he had had enough. He wanted to write something different. Unfortunately, his readers wanted more of what he had always done. His effort at writing something different failed miserably.

Many authors fall into this same rut. It’s really not all their fault. Instead, it’s usually a business thing. The more success a writer has with one subject or type of writing, the more he or she continues to do it—or is forced to continue to do it.

So the key is to challenge yourself. Try something new once in a while, some kind of writing that’s up to now been out of your realm. That doesn’t mean you have to go to the opposite extreme, say from writing articles to writing a horror novel, but perhaps the challenge may be in tackling a new subject. Get out of your comfort zone and wade into deeper water. Whatever you write will be better for it.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Fate of Punctuation

This past week, the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary folks announced they had added over 150 new words, including hashtag and selfie—words increasingly used by many people in social networking—to the classic volume. Even though a word may have become popular in usage, it takes a while for it to make it to the big leagues and the dictionary. You might say this also applies to spelling. But the same doesn’t go for punctuation or English usage. Their acceptance comes from continued correct or incorrect usage. The more they’re used, the sooner their use becomes acceptable by the public. But the process can take a long time.

The French have their National Academy, which acts as a watchdog over their language. For anything, including punctuation, to be used in the French language, it must first be approved by the National Academy. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have any such watchdog institution.

Every profession has rules and writing is no different. To be successful at writing—and for many that means getting published—you need to know and follow the rules, and that includes the rules for punctuation.

Some beginning writers feel they need to ignore these as a way these as a way of developing their own style. But every artist, including writers, starts by learning the basics. The unique thing about writing is that it’s a language art. And in order for everyone to communicate clearly, every language has usage rules, including those for punctuation. While you may be communicating in English, the same would apply if you were writing in Spanish, French, German, or any other language.

However, many beginning writers are led astray by the blatant ignoring of basic rules by published professionals, all in the name of style. Many big name writers do this to attract attention to their work. And their publishers go along with it because these writers make lots of money for them. In these cases, ignoring the traditional rules of punctuation is profit based rather than language based.

What some famous writers don’t realize is the effect their work has on writers who look up to them. They don’t see that they have a responsibility to all those that follow them to present their work in the best possible light.

So how did all this miss-use start? Email seems to be the culprit in most cases. Since its inception, there have been no rules governing how anyone writes anything in their messages. Originally used by academics to exchange notes, Email quickly evolved into the message medium for college students, who saw this it as a way to defy the rules of the English language which they had to adhere to in their studies. Soon this ignoring of the rules spread downward to high school students. And the problem got worse since Email had no rules, communication with it became an “anything goes” concept. Even today, most people still aren’t sure if they should adhere to good English usage or just do whatever they want.

Punctuation—or the lack of it— soon became a problem in other types of writing. Some Email users used no punctuation while others wrote in phrases instead of coherent sentences. Both came about because student users and soon everyone viewed Email as a personal communication medium in which both the sender and receiver knew each other fairly well. Soon all users adopted a casual style to Email.

But then something began to happen. That same casual style used in Email messages began to appear in articles, stories, and even books. If a lot of people used this style in their Emails and in online forums, many writers assumed it was okay to use it in their work. But in many cases it isn’t okay because not using the right punctuation, for example, can prevent clarity and ease of reading. Good examples include using two forms of punctuation at the end of a sentence when only one will do (?!) or (!!!!!) or using punctuation marks incorrectly, such as using an ellipse (...) outside of quotation marks to trail off the end of a sentence. While the latter may not be confusing to the reader, the former certainly is.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Creating Your Own Playbook

Before a football team goes out on the field to play the opposition, they have to learn the plays in a playbook, assembled by the coach. Without these plays, the game would be chaotic, plus there wouldn’t be any way for one team to defend itself against the other. And so it is with freelance writing.

Most beginning writers don’t give any thought to planning much of anything. They’ve been taught in school that ideas and words will just flow out of their brain like magic. But what most of them soon realize is that doesn’t happen—at least not very often. Plus, even though they think they know how to write, they probably don’t, and surely they really don’t know how to write whatever form they choose—articles, short stories, novels, non-fiction books, plays and screenplays.

There’s no set playbook out there. The truth is that you have to create your own, based on your writing skill level and interests. You have to do what works best for you.

To begin, you need to decide how you’re going to learn about how to do the type of writing you want to do. Will you take a course or two or three, or will you learn on your own. Taking classes is obviously the easiest way, but it may not afford you the information you want and need.  If you’re at all self disciplined, you can teach yourself.

Today, the Internet provides a wide variety of resources for the beginning writer. Plus, there are books specifically written about the type of writing you want to do.

Search the Internet for how-to articles and examples of the writing you want to do. Print out the ones that you think will help you to understand this kind of writing. Get yourself a looseleaf binder and some dividers and assemble your playbook. You won’t be doing this all at once, so make sure you have enough room in the binder.

Look for information about getting ideas,  formatting, marketing, blocking, and developing a style, and most importantly, information on how to write articles, short stories, or whatever particular type of writing you’ve chosen. Each type of writing has its own rules and formatting. Learn what they are and start practicing them from the start.

After you’ve assembled your playbook, choose an article, story, or book idea and begin to work on it using the information you’ve gathered as a guide. Essentially, you’re creating your own guidebook. Use your playbook over and over until you’ve developed your own procedures and writing whatever you decide on becomes second nature.

At first you’ll follow the directions slowly, making sure to get the format of your writing correct. Then using the examples of writing like what you’re working on, continue building your article, story, or book. When you get it finished, use the marketing information to send your work to publishers.

As you continue to write, find better examples to analyze and make notes to add to your playbook. Nothing beats your own notes. While you can learn a lot from reading online or in books, having notes you made from these sources will help you tremendously. You can even assemble a virtual playbook for your tablet or e-reader instead of the paper variety.

Now that you have your playbook, get out on the field and win the game. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

One Block at a Time

Every career depends on the building blocks gathered along the way. It isn’t any different for writers. Even the great pyramids rose one block of a stone at a time. So what kind of building blocks should you cultivate to make your writing career successful?

In this business, you’ve got to leverage whatever experience you have. Sure, one article or book may lead to another. A article, short story, or book may lead to a film. But those are the most obvious. What you need to look for are less obvious building blocks—those that you may even take for granted.

First of all, every experience you have may contribute to ideas for your work. Many writers, especially those writing fiction, use their own experiences as jumping off points. Some go as far as turning their personal experiences into stories or books. If you’ve gone through a traumatic time, readers want to read about it. Today, there seems an insatiable curiosity about what happens in other people’s lives.

But it’s a variety of experiences that lead to further successes. Take one writer who began writing reviews and taking photos of musical acts for a free arts tabloid handed out in record stores. This gig led to the publication of some of his photos in a large city newspaper. That gave him some clout to use when promoting his work to editors of some music and arts magazines.

That same writer loved to travel. But travel can be expensive, which limited him to local places. One day he received an invitation to a trade show from a friend in the travel business. That led to an invitation to travel to Guatemala on a press trip. He notified some editors of trade magazines that he was going on the trip, and one asked for whatever stories he could provide from the trip—on speculation, of course. He returned and wrote the stories, and the editor loved them. That was the beginning of a long-lasting gig with that trade publication.

Work from that publication led him to write for other trade publications. While writing for more than one trade publication in a particular field is normally frowned upon, he managed to end up writing for most of the major ones in the travel industry. Because he offered so many different angles, none of his pieces competed with each other.

And while trade writing brought in steady income, it didn’t pay all that much. So this writer set his sights on consumer travel magazines. His trade writing gave him ample credentials—he often wrote two or three articles a week for them. And writing for trade, no matter which trade, meant he was also writing for business.

That business article writing led to another long-standing gig with a regional business newspaper, for whom he wrote one or two articles a week. These provided another source of steady income.

Along the way, he was now developing several avenues of income which helped to steady his overall freelance outlook.

His travel trade writing led to offers to write travel guide books. Sometimes he was one of several contributors, while at other times he wrote books on his own. This added greatly to his credentials. The reading public, as well as magazine editors, look up to anyone who has written a book. The truth is that books don’t pay all that much. But the wealth they do give you is in the respect you get as a writer. If a book is successful—even if you don’t get paid a lot for writing it—it will be one of the biggest building blocks on your road to success.

If you’re work is good enough, you may even get awards. And these can go a long way to helping to promote your writing business. The writer above knew that and when he received several prestigious awards, he took full advantage of them as promotional tools. These helped him establish at least one specialty.

The bottom line is to always push your comfort zone. Seek work that stretches your skills—yes, even exaggerate here and there. Remember, your experiences plus networking plus your skills equals moving to the next level.