Saturday, September 26, 2009

What if Writing Happened Out Loud?

This evening, I took my daughter and a number of her friends to see the remake of Fame, and during the movie something crystalized that's been nagging at me for quite some time: writing is the only art that occurs almost entirely internally. When a musician picks up a guitar or sits down at a keyboard to practice or to compose, for instance, that experience is to some degree shared with anyone in the vicinity. Notes and chords, ready or not, reach nearby ears--even if the musician is unaware.

Visual arts are quieter, of course, but anyone who walks past a painter or sculptor at work catches at least a sense of the creation, can see what kind of work is in progress, what colors dominate, what feeling the piece conveys. Writing alone is different, isolated, hidden during its creation. Certainly someone could peek over the writer's shoulder as he scribbled on his pad or tapped away at his keyboard, but it would take effort, very close proximity, focus on the work before him. Nothing meaningful is, or could be, communicated at a glance, across a room, through a closed door. The writer's art exists in his mind alone until the moment someone turns to his work with the sole purpose of reading or hearing his words.

How does this change the process, I wonder, the fact that a musician creates out loud, that an artist's work is readily visible while it is in progress, but that a writer's product can only be absorbed with effort?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Self-Publishing Revisited

Some time ago, I considered the pros and cons of self-publishing fiction. As I mentioned then, I'm not against self-publishing in general; I did quite well with a self-published book several years ago and definitely think that in the right niche with the right marketing plan, self-publishing can be lucrative.

However, I had (and have) reservations about self-publishing fiction. Quite by chance this evening I ran across a post that led me to a blog about this very process. As if self-publishing fiction weren't challenging enough, this author has self-published a children's book and is handling his own promotion--a tough job for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the inability to price competitively. He has a clear plan, though, and I'm watching with interest; if you're toying with the idea of self-publishing in a non-niche area, I strongly suggest that you follow along and see what you can learn, too.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing for a Living in the Internet Age

Recently, a friend started a discussion on Facebook about whether this was a good or bad time to begin a career as a professional writer. The question, which referenced both the decline of print media and the proliferation of unpaid bloggers, seemed to contain the assumption that it was not.

It’s an issue that’s ripe for discussion, both because there are valid points on both sides that bear consideration if one is embarking on a writing career and because the insights of the people who see opportunities in today’s market may be useful to anyone who hasn’t yet worked out how to make the most of the changes.

Those changes are sweeping: a shift away from print to online media, international competition that impacts pay scales, the ever-growing volume of free content available online, shifting publishing and distribution models for longer works, and more.

Writers and New Media

Print media is declining. That’s not up for discussion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that professional writing opportunities are decreasing. The market is changing, and those jobs many think are disappearing have actually just moved out of our lines of vision. The answer may be as simple as looking over your left shoulder or off to the right, rather than staring straight ahead at the spot where the work used to be.

The Decline in Print Media is Matched (or Outmatched) by an Increase in Online Opportunities

The first step toward building a successful writing career in the digital age is understanding the opportunities. The new opportunities aren’t just web-based versions of the old ones. Web writing looks different, and writers must bring new skills to the table, and market themselves effectively by showcasing those skills.

For example, most paid web writing gigs require:

-faster turnaround

-lower word count

-Google-friendly text

-shorter paragraphs

-more visual formatting

Those aren’t difficult changes to make, but they require consciousness of the differences. A web publisher is looking for writers who can create web-friendly copy in a format that works for both search engine spiders and Internet audiences. It’s up to the writer—new or seasoned—to let a publisher know he can produce content that’s competitive in that environment.

This can be a problem for seasoned print writers; someone who has spent years writing feature articles for magazines may have a portfolio full of high-profile clips that simply don’ t reflect the skills a web publisher is looking for. The copy is typically too long and too dense; the paragraphs are probably too long and there are undoubtedly too few headers. Headlines and subheaders aren’t written with search engines in mind, and the visuals have most likely been handled by someone else.

If your name is big enough and your credentials rock-solid, someone will see past that…but if you’re a mid-level writer you should be prepared to prove yourself all over again in a new arena.

Results are Measurable Online

The goal of most paid writing has always been to sell something, whether it’s copies of a magazine or advertising space or a specific product. Online, though, it’s much easier to measure how effective those efforts are, down to the individual article. Whereas a print publisher knows only the number of copies of a particular issue sold and some rough information about the demographics of those purchasers, a web publisher knows exactly how many people opened your article, how long they stuck around, where they went when they left, whether they came back, and who linked back to you.

That means that where you’ve been published is no longer the primary credential; instead, a writer must build and be conversant in his stats. Some writers will have to learn a new language in order to sell themselves: hits, unique visitors, bounce rate, time on page, click-through rate and inbound links. These are the currency in which online value is measured, and if you have no idea what I just said, it’s time to learn.

When You Land the Job, It Won’t be the One You’re Used To

Thus far, we’ve only talked about landing writing jobs in the new world of web-based publishing, but that’s only the first step. Once you get the gig, of course, you have to do the job—and the job is a somewhat different one than most writers are accustomed to. (See, just look at that. I REGULARLY end sentences with prepositions, and I have no trouble getting writing work in this brave new world. Nothing is sacred.) And, of course, pay scales and compensation systems are different, as well. More on all that in future posts; for now, please share your thoughts and experiences on making the switch from print to cyber-publishing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jacquelyn Mitchard's No Time to Wave Goodbye

The sequel to Jacquelyn Mitchard's first bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, came out yesterday...and I don't have it yet. Of course, I wasted no time in ordering No Time to Wave Goodbye, but I ordered it through Amazon--not because I didn't want to or have time to run out and pick it up at Borders, but because it doesn't take all that many sales in a short period of time to make the various Amazon lists that boost publicity and, in turn, more sales. Now that it's in transit, though, I'm having a hard time getting interested in reading anything else.

If you've been here before, you know that I am a constant admirer of Mitchard's writing. I love her style and, above all, I love the truths that are dropped into her writing like surprise chips of chocolate in a creamy vanilla ice cream. As I've mentioned before, her novels always make me nod. "Yes, that's true...that's exactly right." Even though, of course, I might never have consciously entertained that thought before.

So I haven't even had the opportunity to start No Time to Wave Goodbye, and I can't comment intelligently on it. But the book's release does have me thinking about character development. It's been thirteen years since The Deep End of the Ocean made its splash, and we've all lived a lot of life in the interim. My daughter was an infant when I read it, and now she's teetering dangerously close to high school. We've all lived, laughed, cried: some of us have married and divorced (or divorced and married), some of us have had children, graduated from college, watched parents die, moved across the country. We are, most of us, in some way different people than we were in 1996. And yet, we care what became of this fictional family.

That's what we have to do, as writers, isn't it? Create stories and people so rich and deep that we forget that nothing actually happened to those characters after the book ended and feel as if they're somehow out there continuing to live their lives and their struggles?