Monday, October 22, 2007

Freelance Writing Like It Should Be

The truth is, I'm not even a freelancer anymore. I made my living for many years stringing for newspapers and selling articles and copywriting for the occasional small business and writing curriculum for the occasional very large one, but those days are gone. I have a fabulous day job now, where I write / edit / manage content full time.

Still, a writer is a writer is a writer, and so sometimes writing and editing fifty hours a week at my day job and maintaining four blogs just ain't enough. That's why I always have a novel or two in progress, and also why I sometimes still bang out the occasional freelance article in my (non-existent) spare time.

Last week was one of those times. I was browsing writing blogs when I happened across an online magazine that was unfamiliar to me. It had a regular column in it that sparked an idea. I checked the submission guidelines and discovered that it was open to freelancers, and that the pay was acceptable (though by no means earth shattering). The publication accepted both queries and full submissions.

Now, I've heard many a seasoned writer turn up her nose and say, "I don't write on spec," and it's a reasonable position. Once you've established yourself, there's no reason to do the work if you don't know that you're getting paid, and most editors won't expect you to. Personally, though, I prefer to complete the article before submitting wherever that's feasible. The writing is the good part for me, so I don't have any fear of "wasted" time if it doesn't sell--and odds are there will be another market, anyway. What's more, my writing often takes unexpected turns. I can control it if I have to--if I'm writing an assigned article with a particular focus, for instance. But I'd rather let it flow naturally, and writing the article up front ensures that I'm not pitching an article that turns out not to be the one I want to write.

It was late on Thursday night when I had the idea, and I forced myself to go to sleep even though that idea was just bouncing around inside my brain begging to be written down. On Friday, I wrote the article out by hand on a legal pad during my morning commute. Friday night, after my daughter was asleep, I typed it up and submitted it by email. I got an acceptance by email on Sunday night.

Is it always that easy? Of course not. It happened that I had a story waiting for an opening and the magazine I ran across had the perfect forum for it. Certainly, my previous publications helped. But the thing is, sometimes it is that easy. And sometimes we worry and agonize and question whether this is really exactly right and list ideas and write and rewrite query letters when the thing to do is really just to write it down and send it off and see what happens. Will it sell every time? Of course not. But sometimes it will.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Writing: Whatever Works for You, # 1

In one of the most popular items ever posted on this blog, I offered the opinion that we should all stop listening to the "rules" about what you absolutely must do if you want to be a successful writer and accept that the only thing you absolutely must do is find what works.

The flipside to that, of course, is that no one can offer you the magic formula. You can cheerfully ignore seasoned writers who tell you that you have to outline everything twice, or that you can't write meaningful fiction unless you answer to your character's name for six months, or that if you speak the title of your book aloud, the spell will be broken and you'll have to scrap the whole project and start something entirely new. On the other hand, you also have to invest the time and effort to figure out your own formula for success.

A lot of new writers, however, are reasonably uneasy about ignoring advice from the experts. The "Whatever Works for You" series aims to chase away that fear by demonstrating how consistently the experts disagree. My purpose isn't to show that the experts are wrong--quite the opposite. It's to point out that for every wildly successful writer who says, "NEVER try to write while wearing black socks!" there is another who says, "I'm helpless without my black socks. Couldn't form an English sentence without them."

And guess what? The guy wearing the black socks and the guy making sure there aren't any black socks in the room where he writes both go on to sell their books, get tons of fan mail, and rake in a boatload of money. You can too--even if you never give a moment's thought to your socks.

As I mentioned in an earlier post (or two, or three), I saw Jacquelyn Mitchard speak at the Midwest Literary Festival earlier this month. Despite my constant harping on (um, I mean, commitment to) the idea that no two writers are alike, I was stunned to hear her say that she works out the plots of her novels by talking them through with people in detail.

"What helps me is either to outline it or to tell it to someone."

That one line was enough to leave me aghast. I'm no fan of outlines, but to actually talk about your story before it was written?
I was kind of sputtering internally and mentally saying, "But...but..." while she described how she bounced plot events and character actions off of other people during the creative process.

You see, if I tell a story before I write it, it weakens the story. Once upon a time I wouldn't have been able to write it at all. Time, practice and professional discipline have changed that a bit, but the first telling is the truest, for me, and if I talked a novel through with someone before I committed it to paper, that lucky soul would be the only one who ever heard it in its finest form.

But Jacquelyn Mitchard has written eight best-selling novels, so she must know what she's doing. Does that mean I'm wrong? That maybe if I were a bit more practiced and professional, I'd be able to chat about my novels and incorporate feedback into them while I worked?

I can't rule it out, but in any case I'm in good company. Here's what Louis Sachar, whose young adult novel, Holes, won a Newberry Medal and a National Book Award, has to say:

I never talk about a book until it is finished. It took me a year and a half to write Holes, and I never told anyone anything about it during all that time. I do this for a variety of reasons, but mainly motivation. By not allowing myself to talk about it, the only way I can let it out is to finish writing it.

Sachar's statement shed a little bit of light, for me, on the possible reason that I need to keep a novel to myself until it's actually a novel. Alice Hoffman's explanation is a little bit different. She told the New York Times:

Sometimes I have the urge to talk to Faith [Hoffman's editor], to tell her what I'm thinking, but unless it's down on paper, I don't think I have a strong position. Without writing, without style, what is it? Plus there's a certain point where I feel I wouldn't want to be too influenced by someone else, even Faith.

Just one of the many ways, it seems, that successful writers differ in their process. I believe that's true for virtually every area of writing. I do. I REALLY do.

But it's still something of a relief to me when I discover that an author like Louis Sachar sees it my way.

Friday, October 19, 2007

This Tagging Thing is Getting out of Hand

To be fair, Barb DIDN'T tag me for this one. No, on her blog she made the kind, understanding declaration that she wasn't tagging people because she knew how busy we all were. And then she discretely left a comment here letting me know that I was "on". Actually, the comment came before the disclaimer, but that's probably not pertinent to the story.

The questions are about books, though, so how can we go wrong?

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why? Paperback to read, hardcover to reverence.

2. If I were to own a book shop, I would call it... probably The House Bookstore, which would probably be trademark infringement or something, and isn't even a very good name for a bookstore. The thing is, there used to be this coffee shop in DeKalb, Illinois called The House, and it was everything a bookstore should be. They served tea in glass pots and had worn sofas and shelves full of donated books, and my sister started the very first House journal, which grew to book after book of notes, random journal entries, sketches and poetry by anyone who passed through the place. If ever you read a book of mine and there's a coffee shop in it, it's The House, even though I'll pretend otherwise, and it will always be warm and softly lit inside and raining or snowing outside the window.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title)... oh, man. I don't know whether I should say it. It's the last line of The Sun Also Rises, and I love it because it puts the whole book in a different perspective, but that also makes it a huge spoiler. Everyone already knows it, right? Well, I'm not taking the chance. If you know what it is then you know what I mean and don't need me to write it down. If you don't, it wouldn't really mean anything to you anyway, right?

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be... Sheldon Vanauken. I discovered Sheldon Vanauken's writing several years after he died, or I would have...err...I believe the phrase "introduced myself" is probably preferable to "stalked him until he consented to converse with me". He was friends with C.S. Lewis, another of my favorite authors, and he'd be MORE than welcome to join us, but if I only get one, it's Vanauken.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be… I answered this question once before by choosing a volume I own that has 49 of Hemingway's short stories and a complete novel in it, but I think that's cheating. This time, I'm going to pick Atlas Shrugged, because it's long, I've read it a couple of times without getting bored, and it might inspire me to remember that I could figure out a way to either get off the island or make it work for me if I remembered who I was. As an added bonus, if I did get bored I could occupy myself endlessly by removing or shifting around the randomly placed commas.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that… I would not love someone to invent any bookish gadgets at all. I would like everything but old fashioned books to be abolished.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of... oddly enough, a stranger's basement. When I was in high school I needed a copy of a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and couldn't find one at the library or regular bookstore. My mother called a used bookstore listed in the telephone book and it turned out to be a book dealer with aisles and aisles of books, many of them antique, in her basement. I still remember feeling like I'd stumbled into a treasure vault.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title)... Dagny Taggart, of course.

9. The most overestimated book of all times is… That first Anne Rice vampire thing.

10. I hate it when a book… ends. Well, not any book, but when it's a really good book I really don't want to come back up out of it, and it's almost impossible to find something to read next when I've just done a full immersion thing with a book.

I'm not going to tag anyone in this post since it's only been a few days since I hit up 8 people, but watch your comments...I might stealthily come around and invite your participation....

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Eight Things

I just discovered that I'd been tagged to tell you all eight things about myself. The writer who tagged me, at Chitchat and All That, listed this as one of her eight things, and I loved it. This is my favorite kind of statement to see from writers!

2. It has always been a dream of mine to have a writing career that would financially and emotionally support me. Recently, I have moved that dream into the goal category and have begun to make an action plan and timeline for it.

I have to warn you, though--unlike my predecessor and her predecessor, I'm not going to try to figure out what I can tell you about myself that won't bore you to tears--my theory is that if you're the sort of person who is bored to tears by the details of someone else's life, you probably aren't reading this.

The struggle for me, though, is that I'm a pretty simple person, and so it always seems likely to me that everyone already knows everything there is to know about me.

Here goes:

1. The most expensive car I've ever owned cost $10,200. That's worked out very well for me. My $10,200 Cavalier and my $8,000 Neon both lasted more than 275,000 miles.

2. I have no interest in strange dogs. I miss my poodle of 17 years like crazy, and my family's various dogs have been like members of the family, but I'm not apt to stop and pet someone else's (or even notice it) on the street.

3. I babysat well into college and was in hot demand because I actually spent all the time doing stuff with the kids and enjoyed it. When I was a teenager, I cut pictures of babies out of magazines. When I was a single adult, I took my friends' kids out to parks and playlands and anywhere else their parents didn't feel like going.

4. I never get rid of anything. I still have clothes I haven't worn in 20 years, shoes that haven't fit me since my daughter was born eleven years ago, and 500 purple envelopes from a project I completed four or five years ago.

5. I love standardized tests.

6. The thing I love most about my job is being in a position to give people the opportunity to write.

7. I lose interest in what I've written as soon as I'm done with it--so much so that sometimes I don't get around to trying to publish it. I don't even have copies of most of my published articles.

8. Every Monday morning when I'm lugging my garbage cans up the hill behind my house at 6 a.m., I wish I was married.

Now, I'm supposed to pass this along to eight other bloggers:

I'll start with my friend Margo at Margo's Meanderings, though I only need seven from her because I just discovered by reading her blog that she went to Gettysburgh, PA in August (we live in Illinois) and I somehow missed the whole thing.

I will SPARE my friend Barb (unless she wants to play) because I don't think she's recovered from coming up with 100 things yet, and because she is as we speak creating gift bags for more than FIFTY children for her daughter's seventh birthday party.

I'd love to hear eight things from Gerri at Absolutely True, because she's such a together person writing about such bizarre events that anything she has to say create a compelling juxtaposition...or she'll surprise me.

Next, Theresa at Sleeping Kitten, Dancing Dog. Theresa has quietly done almost every interesting thing I can think of.

I hope that Writing True will play along, because I'd be very interested to see what sorts of true and interesting tidbits he can share while preserving his anonymity.

I'd also like to invite the author of I Don't Know Where I'm From, But I Do Know Where I've Been, because readers of her blog know a lot about what she's been through but not so much about who she is today.

Then, in an unprecedented move, I'm going to take a crack at my sister. Since she doesn't read my blog and she hasn't updated hers since December of 2006, I doubt that she'll ever see this or respond, but she's on the list.

And finally, Ramblings of a Longtime Procrastinator, because she had the (misfortune?) to be the last person to have signed up for my Writers and Writing Group at Blog Catalog, and I don't know anything about her yet.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Synchronicity II

Just a couple of hours after my post about taking risks, my daughter and I sat down to watch The Ron Clark Story. On his first day teaching in Inner Harlem, Clark hung two handwritten signs: Dream Big and Take Risks.

Honestly, I'm starting to wonder if there's more going on here than confirmation of what I've always preached to other writers. I'm starting to wonder whether someone is trying to tell ME something.

But that's not what I came here to talk about tonight. No, tonight I want to talk about ordinary people in fiction. This one started nibbling at my brain a few weeks ago, when I visited Regina Doman's website. Regina Doman is a Catholic writer whose books were recommended to me in a comment on my Catholic Blog. She writes grown-up, novel-length stories based on fairy tales, and on her website, she has a quote from G.K. Chesterton:

The old fairy tales endure forever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling: they startle him because he is normal.

My initial interest in the quote, I must admit, stemmed from the use of a semi-colon and a colon in the same relatively brief sentence. Secondarily, I was personally pleased by the concept because my latest novel-in-progress has as its protagonist a young man who works on an assembly line in central Indiana. But finally (by which I mean, after two minutes or so), I started to think from a writer's perspective, and to think about some of my favorite fiction. Could, for instance, anyone be more ordinary than Nick Adams? Hemingway's Nick Adams stories were among the earliest fiction to dig its hooks into me and really make me think about the art and craft of creating characters, but Nick could have been the boy next door to any of us.

Doman clearly took the words to heart--and I don't say that just because they appear both on her website and in her book. The two heroines of her first book are high school girls living with their widowed nurse mother in an apartment in New York.

Today, Jacquelyn Mitchard referred to the main character in her latest novel, Still Summer, as "the most ordinary of mothers". In fact, she pointed out that most of her characters are "people we already know". That definitely rang true to me, and it got me thinking about some other popular phenomena, too. Seinfeld, for instance...the show that became famous and wildly successful for being "about nothing".

We've all long known that identifiable moments were an important part of drawing in a reader, so it should come as no surprise that identifiable characters work. After all, the people who live lives much like our own, like those we see around us, are the most likely to have experiences that we identify with, to think in ways we'd think, to react in ways that we can understand and empathize with.

On one hand, this isn't much of a surprise--it's common to most of the memorable books I've read, and it's something I've apparently been leaning toward unconsciously myself. Still, I always find that it makes a difference when something has been consciously identified, that examples and opportunities begin to present themselves from all directions when a new consciousness enters the picture. I'm not sure yet how it will affect my writing, but it will be turning over and around in the back of my mind, awaiting its opportunity.

"It's Okay to Take Risks"

As any regular reader of this blog knows, synchronicity happens a lot in my life. Today is no exception. This morning, I was involved in a discussion online about aiming for goals that might seem unrealistic. I'm a fan of the principle, but like so many good ideas in the world, it seems to me to have become a bit blurry. The idea that it was good to reach for unrealistic goals like publishing a novel or starting your own business or becoming a concert violinist seems to have somehow become lumped in one category with unrealistic goals like "I can make six figures with my blog, and I won't have to write any actual content!"

I'm also a much bigger fan of the "I can achieve any goal if I'm willing to sweat blood to do it" school of thought than the, "If I just think positive Oprah Winfrey will knock on my door and ask if she can help me get the book on my hard drive published because she's eagerly waiting to feature it in her book club" approach.

Now, as you may know, I'm a big fan of Jacquelyn Mitchard. I had the opportunity to see Ms. Mitchard speak this afternoon at the Midwest Literary Festival. It was very interesting for a number of reasons (many of which will undoubtedly be the subject of future posts), but the thing that really reverberated with me--perhaps because of that discussion earlier in the day--was her description of her decision to write a book instead of pursuing more conventional employment after she was widowed.

She said, "People had offered me real jobs," and that people kept asking her why she would "want to do something so stupid and so unlikely to succeed". And her response was that she wanted to show her children that it was okay to take risks.

She said a good deal more on the subject of pursuing your dreams and not being beaten down by life; she'd been widowed and her children had lost their father young, and she said that she'd always wanted them to know that no matter what life dealt you, it didn't give you permission to become small. It's a lot to think about, whatever your profession, but that one line is still ringing in my ears: "I wanted to show them that it was okay to take risks."

For anyone who doesn't know, Mitchard's "risk" was to write and send out a book called The Deep End of the Ocean. If you haven't read it, perhaps you've seen the movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer? The book was not only a bestseller, but was named by USA Today as one of the ten most influential books of the past 25 years and was Oprah Winfrey's first book club selection. Since then, she's written seven more novels, and they've all been bestsellers.

If it sounds like I've digressed for a moment into tooting Jackie Mitchard's horn...well, maybe I'm guilty. She's the writer I want to be when I grow up, even though she's not too much older than I. But my real point--the point that's relevant to all of us--is that she could have listened. The naysayers who couldn't see why she didn't just get a "real job" aren't so much different from the people who lie to novice writers that it's "almost impossible to break in" these days or those who claim to have the only formula that could possibly work for a successful writer.

And if she'd listened....well, that's the thing. We never know, do we? The world is full of people who listened, people who look to us just like every other clerk in the grocery store or finance manager or carpenter, and we never know about the song or the books or the invention they might have hiding inside them.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Huh...Turns Out There IS Such a Thing as Too Much Writing

As I've mentioned before, I'm a prolific writer. I'm always dismayed when I read an interview with some author or other and she says "if I can get 500 good words a day..." or something like that. I averaged more than 1,000 "good words" a day when my only writing time was my 50 minute train ride and I was writing in pencil on a legal pad. Well, I suppose "good words" is open to debate, but they were as good as any of my other words.

It's not unusual, when I'm wrapped up in a project, for me to write 5,000-7,000 words a day. I've written two novels in less than a month each, one while working full time.

I say this not to annoy those of you who are striving for five hundred good words a day--that pace works well for a lot of very successful writers (most, I suspect). No, I bring this up because I want to let you in on a little secret: I always secretly thought that there was no limit. I thought that, left to my own devices, with no "real life" to intrude, I would just write until I fell asleep at my keyboard and never tire of it.

I wrote, by my best estimate (I'm too freaking tired to go back and count), 16,000 words today.
I do not know where the magical line between "total immersion" and "I'm going to die if I write another word" is, precisely, but I now know this: it comes somewhere BEFORE 16,000 words.
I'm 41 years old and I've been writing since I was six; this is the first time I've ever walked away from writing feeling worse than I did when I started. And I feel like I've been hit by a truck, physically. My body aches. My fingers are numb. My typing skills have taken a nosedive to some point just slightly lower than during the period when I was typing with my arm in a sling.

I'm a huge proponent of the idea that nothing is absolute when it comes to writing, and that no writer should ever say to other writers, "You HAVE TO..." or "Don't EVER..."
But listen. Don't EVER write 16,000 words in one day.

For the first time in my life, I got up from my desk not wishing that I had time to write a little more, but desperately craving a nice long break from writing.

That was four hours ago. I guess "nice long" is open to interpretation, too.