Didn’t You Finish That Yet? (and Other Pesky Questions)

October 10, 2012

There’s a writer acquaintance I’ve been meaning to contact for a while. She and I were both working on novels a few years ago.

When she finished her manuscript, she sent out a few queries and tried to quickly score an agent. Getting no bites, she decided to self-publish. To her way of thinking, her book was done and she wanted it out there. She sold a bunch of copies, attended some local book signings, enjoyed her brief notoriety, and then moved on to new ventures.

I, on the other hand, finished my manuscript, sent out some queries, got some passes, enrolled in a workshop, enrolled in another workshop, brought the manuscript to a conference, got some feedback, attended another conference, rewrote some chapters, got some more feedback, added a new opening, sent out some queries…

My writer acquaintance possibly could give me some advice or even pass along some ideas or contacts. But first, I know, she’ll ask me that dreaded question, the same question she asked me a year ago: “You’re STILL working on that?”

And then she’ll add, as she did back then, “Boy, I admire your persistence,” which sounds like a compliment but feels like an invitation to write a big “DL” across my forehead for “Delusional Loser.”

Last year, I attended a writers conference that included a session about “success,” and the presenter began by asking everyone in the room to say what “writing success” meant to them. At one end of the spectrum, some people said simply “to finish my manuscript”; at the other end was the answer, “to be the next J.K. Rowling.”

Clearly, my acquaintance’s definition of success was to make a book. But does that have to be mine, too — as her questions have implied?

The thing is, I realized at that conference that my definition of “writing success” had become a moving target — and not in a good way. When I first graduated college, my one goal was to get a job that involved writing. That was easy — I found one without too much difficulty in the corporate communications department of a large company. But soon after, I decided that corporate communications wasn’t enough — that I would find true happiness only in a job in the publishing industry. So I became an associate editor with a small publisher of business books and periodicals. Again, my perspective changed, and I decided I would be satisfied only if I had a job writing bylined articles — and then, only if I could  write bylined articles in national newsstand-type magazines. All accomplished — just at the moment that I decided success meant publishing a novel.

Sure, it’s important to have a destination — but isn’t it also important to see good in the process?

The truth is, writing — the process of making meaning through words — means so much more to me than simply getting stuff out there. Writing was my companion when my kids were babies, keeping my imagination going during those mind-numbing hours spent in the sandbox at the playground, so that I could come back to my computer and pour my thoughts out. Writing was my companion during bad times, when the computer screen and the characters in my head provided a needed diversion from a painful reality.

Writing has been my vehicle for learning and growing, for understanding people and life and relationships. Writing is my way to make sense of dreams, and to crystallize memories and experiences so I can own them, and they won’t disappear. And writing has been the vehicle that’s brought me some of the best friends I have.

So when I call and she asks,  “You’re STILL working on that?”

I hope I will answer, “Yes, indeed. Lucky me!”

A rare, enlightened day in the life of just another working writer.

Time to Write — But What?

September 25, 2012

So I just finished a huge project for a magazine that assigns me stories about four times a year. The projects are crazy complicated, involving tons of emails and phone calls, long interviews, close examinations of product features, and surveys of prices at a range of retail stores and websites. I may have a byline when the issue comes out, but truth be told, there’s a lot less writing and a lot more research when it comes to this particular magazine. 

Anyway, it’s kept me tied up — no exaggeration — since mid-June. And when things felt a little tedious during the long, hot summer, the thought of free time to write my own stuff kept me going. No more assignments at least until winter, I promised myself. September through November would be my time to work on exactly what I wanted to work on.

But, now that September is here — what, exactly, do I want to work on?

It’s not that I have no ideas — it’s just that I’ve been imagining so many projects since June that I don’t know which to concentrate on. Now I’m not saying that any of these ideas are good or will eventually be completed (or deserve to be completed, for that matter); but even though I’m not now on someone else’s clock, time is still limited, and I want to make the most of the time I have.

So…do I work on the novel that’s nearly done, on the theory that this idea takes priority because it’s (arguably) the easiest to complete?

Or do I work on the idea that’s got my imagination going, even though, at least for me, new ideas always take the most time and show the least progress. 

Do I leverage my research from this summer to develop some new magazine queries, since these ideas are the most likely to find their way into print?

Or do I play around with some genre — romance? paranormal? — that I’ve been tempted to try for a while?

Lately I’ve taken to doing a little of everything, hoping that one of these ideas will emerge as the one I truly want to pour myself into.

But I don’t know if that will actually happen — and for now, none of these ideas is gaining any momentum. And November is not that far away.

With life so busy, how do you decide what you want to work on? 

Another undecided day in the life of just another working writer. 

Can a Writer Grow Thicker Skin?

July 10, 2012

Not too long ago, I was working on an article for a magazine — a straightforward trend story, where I was to interview a handful of manufacturers of a certain product and then write up a summary of my conversations. Easy as pie.

That is, until the moment when one of my calls happened to reach a marketing guy who had had a bad experience with a magazine request in the past.

Before I could even finish introducing myself, the guy started berating me, accusing me of running a scam and trying to deceive him when I asked about his products. He insisted that my innocent request for information was some sort of ruse intended to dupe him out of money, and he wasn’t going to fall for it again. He hung up on me after wishing me a good afternoon in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

I had never called the guy or his company before, so he was clearly confusing me with someone else, and I probably should have just shrugged the whole call off and proceeded with my work. But the weird thing was, it really upset me. I actually had to walk away from my desk for a couple of hours.

And then when I did get back to work, I was scared. If I hadn’t had a pending deadline, I would have continued to avoid going back to the article. For some crazy reason, I was actually internalizing what this guy had said about me. I kept expecting other people to blast me and hang up, and it was only after a few more successful phone calls that I was able to put the event behind me. 

Coincidentally, it was right around this time that I also had a miserable exchange with an editor I know. I had just completed a rhyming picture-book manuscript that I had been playing around with for a year or so, and I had decided to send it to her and see what she thought.

I was completely unprepared for how much she hated it — and hate it, she did! The topic was not one she was interested in, she said to me in an email, and what’s worse, the meter didn’t hold up through the manuscript. Basically, to paraphrase her, it was a hot mess.

Again, I had to get up from my desk and walk away. And since there easy no deadline pending, I didn’t return to the manuscript, the way I did with the article.

As writers, I think, we embrace our sensitivity. We dig deep for true emotions and authentic reactions in our characters. But sometimes, I have to say, it would be nice to have skin that’s thicker.

I’m currently finishing up the article, and it’s turning out well. As for the picture book, I’ve yet to look at it and still don’t know if I ever will be able to.

What do you think? Can writers grow thick skins? Would it help us? Should we try?

Another battered day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

Writers: How Did You Find A Writers Group?

May 17, 2012

It should be simple. My public library is willing to reserve a nice meeting space for us once a month; I have a fabulous facilitator lined up — an acclaimed local author who has published nonfiction, adult fiction, and award-winning children’s fiction; and I have several interested residents with a range of experience and interests who’ve told me they will join. Now all I have to do is write the email with all the details, and with one small click, I’ll have a writers group

But I can’t bring myself to do it. You see, I’m scared of writers groups.

I wasn’t always this way. I used to love the idea of a group of writers learning from one another. But then I had some bad experiences, and I’ve become a little gun-shy. Let me explain.

Several years ago I enrolled in a workshop that a local writer ran from her home. For the first 90 minutes of the class, we’d all do a free-write based on a prompt she provided. The last half-hour of the class was devoted to critiquing a participant’s work. I waited patiently for my turn to share and brought in the first chapter of a novel I had started. In that chapter, my main character — a young mom who desperately wants to return to her journalism career — brings her toddler with her when she goes to interview a store owner for an article she’s writing. As you can imagine, things don’t go well.

I read my chapter and then waited for feedback.

The first response came from a gentleman who completely disregarded my story and instead expressed outrage at the nerve of young mothers who bring their babies into retail stores. He said that he occasionally works at a liquor store and gets furious when toddlers have free range to roam the store and end up smashing bottles. This led another woman to go on and on about the outrageous parents who bring their babies and toddlers to nice restaurants and ruin everyone else’s dining experience. It was a half-hour of young-parent bashing, and then the class was over.

Not one word about my manuscript. Needless to say, I never returned to that group.

Shortly after, I enrolled in another workshop also run by a local author. This time I shared a short story about a young ambitious actor who hates the only acting job he has been able to land — as a clown on a children’s TV show. The story centers on his feelings of frustration and disillusionment, which slowly emerge as he is washing off his makeup after a day on the set.

The class complimented my character and my writing style. But after class, the instructor approached me. “You know, some actors are very grateful to get any work they can,” she said snidely. “My daughter has a friend who would be absolutely thrilled to land any role on a TV show.”

Huh? What did that have to do with my story?

Look, I write about flawed people. My characters are  flawed. They do stupid things, they do selfish things, they complain, and they make messes. But shouldn’t a critique focus on my story and not on someone’s else’s pet peeve?

More recently, I’ve taken some wonderful continuing education classes at a local college know for its writing workshops. The instructors were thoughtful and inspiring, the lessons were fascinating, and the discussions made me run back home to my computer and write and revise some more. I loved those classes and couldn’t wait to go there each week. But sadly for me, classes, unlike groups, have a beginning and an end. Plus, they can be expensive.

All I need is a little writers group. A little writers group that makes magic.

What do you think? Do you have a writers group? How did you find it? What does it do for you? Do you think I should go ahead and get my new group started?

Another needy day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Why Do Essays Feel Soooo Good?

May 1, 2012

Okay, I know the facts. It’s less than 1,000 words. It’s appearing in a regional magazine with a relatively small target audience. It’s not highlighted on the cover. And I didn’t even get paid that much to write it.

Still, I am so, so happy to see my personal essay in print!

It’s funny, isn’t it? I write a lot of research articles for a variety of publications, and I do love those assignments. It’s fun interviewing experts and learning new things–and like every other writer I know, I get a kick out of putting words together to make a great lead, a satisfying conclusion, or a clever headline. I like watching an article come to life, and I feel pride when I email a finished product to an editor–especially if it’s been one of those article that resisted getting written.

But nothing gives me the kind of charge that I get when an editor publishes an essay of mine. And the fact that it doesn’t happen that often makes it even more special. That email from an editor to tell me “Yes, yes!” is like the ultimate pat on the back. It’s the universe telling me, “You did it!” No–it’s the world saying, “We love you!”

Take this latest essay. It started with my plan to spend some alone time with my daughter by taking a weekend trip and exploring the home-turned-museum of one of our favorite authors, Louisa May Alcott.

Driving to Concord, I got that spark that writers all know so well–the sudden thought, “Hey, this would make a great article!” What followed, of course, were days and weeks of self-doubt and stagnation. “Nobody’s going to want to read this,” I told myself. “It’s all been written before; it’s all been written before–and better!”

And then, throwing caution to the wind, I plunged into deep and unknown waters–playing with words and memories, daring to feel that the work taking shape would actually have merit, whipping up a query that presented my heart and soul in a mere five-sentence paragraph, and then hoping for response from an editor who really “got” me.

Maybe what it comes down to is this: While most other types of articles are mostly about the work, a personal essay is also largely about the author. It’s the author’s opportunity to say, “This is what I think, and this is what I feel. This is what’s important, and this is why. This is who I am and who I want to be. This is a piece of my life.”

How about you? When did you publish a personal essay, and how did you feel? Are you working on a personal essay now? What are your hopes for it? And if you’re not working on one–why not?!

Another grateful day in the life of just another working writer.

 

Writers: How Much Do You Daydream?

April 4, 2012

Last winter, we were driving along an endless stretch of highway on our way to the Poconos for a vacation, when my husband started asking me about some home repairs we were planning.

“Stop, wait,” I said, holding the palm of my hand up toward him. “I can’t talk right now. I’m working on something.”

He laughed and shook his head as he turned his eyes back toward the road. He knew exactly what I meant. I was working with some characters on a scene.

Specifically, I was watching what my main character was going to do with her cell phone to ensure that she wouldn’t answer it during lunch. You see, I had recently begun working on a novel I had put away for a few years ago, back when cell phones were still a novelty. In my original manuscript, my main characters sneaks off to New York for an afternoon to have lunch with a secret acquaintance, but comes back to serious consequences because her kids were not able to reach her. These days, however, they could just call her on her cellphone. So I needed to find a way she could still be unavailable.

In my head, I watched her forget her cell phone on the kitchen counter as she leaves the house. But no, I thought, that would be totally out of character, as she never takes it out of her purse. I watched her grab for a different purse for this special lunch–but then she’d have to transfer her wallet to the new purse, and she’d clearly transfer her cell phone as well. Could she accidentally turn her phone off? I gave that one a try — but when I watched her do that, it didn’t feel real. She’s a pretty intentional kind of person, and she doesn’t make careless, accidental mistakes.

Put it on mute? Maybe. I saw her stop in front of the restaurant, open the purse, find her cellphone, and purposefully turn off the sound. But why would she do that? She wasn’t expecting any calls, and if her kids were to call her, it would be because of any emergency, and she’d want to answer. Although… how about if she didn’t hear the phone? Say her purse was on the floor and the restaurant was one of those loft-type spaces with background noise, and she had a little buzz because she wasn’t used to drinking wine at lunch and she was really into her lunch companion? Now, that could work, I thought, as I sat back and watched her sip her Pinot Grigio.

The two-hour road trip ended in a flash, and as our car pulled up in front of our hotel, I put my character away. I wasn’t quite done with her, but that was okay. I would no doubt visit with her again before the day was over.

I daydream all the time. I’m constantly living in my head. Sometimes I do it on purpose, and sometimes it happens on its own. But either way,  it’s far from a burden; in fact, I really enjoy it. When I’m watching TV and the commercials come on, I play a scene out. When I’m on line at the grocery store, I listen to dialogue. When I’m walking at the track, I’m writing an article, envisioning the anecdote I’m telling or just watching the words on an imaginary magazine page. I read them to myself, change a word here or there, and then read it over again a few times to memorize it,  so I can write it down later (although it never sounds as good on paper as it did in my head).

At the gym last week while panting in step class, I watched a juicy scene from a new story I may write. I pictured a campfire burning on a warm spring evening when my heroine learns that the man she loves is engaged to someone else. I saw her lean against a tree and look into the night sky. I heard the guy walk up behind her and plead with her to trust him and give him a chance to straighten out his life. Is he persuasive? I watched the scene over and over, changing his words, lengthening his pauses, adding gestures that would make both my heroine and me believe that yes, he is worth waiting for.

I daydream sometimes when I’m having coffee with someone who’s launched into a blow-by-blow description of the fight she just had with her boss, mother, or Cablevision agent. I can do this, you see, because I’ve acquire the ability to snap back into the conversation when I sense that an important part is coming. Usually I’m pretty good at getting the gist of the conversation. I may miss the details, but at least my friend has gotten everything off her chest and I’m not jumping out of my skin.

I daydream sometimes when I’m supposed to be listening to my kids, nodding so they won’t catch on. But they do. They’re not fooled. They know I’m somewhere else. They get really mad.

My husband, on the other hand,  just smiles and shakes his head and lets me be until I’m ready to rejoin him. Now, that’s gotta be love.

How about you? Do you watch your characters throughout the day? Do you think writers live in their minds more than other people?

Another dreamy day in the life of just another working writer.

Writers: What Do You Do When You’re Jealous?

March 21, 2012

Okay, get this.

Two months ago I went to one of the larger writers conferences in New York. It is so big and so sophisticated that the sponsoring organization issues a set of “etiquette” rules in advance. The rules mostly warn you to be polite to editors and agents–that is, to refrain from accosting them in the hallways and elevators and shoving your manuscript in their faces. In fact, the rule sheet suggests, you should leave your manuscript at home, as no one will want to see it on site. Bring only, it says, paper for taking notes, an open mind, a good attitude, your best listening skills, and so on.

So at one of the workshops, I happen to sit next to a very nice person. It turns out we have kids the same age and a couple of other similarities, so we chat a bit, and then she asks how I’m enjoying the conference. I mention that I’ve learned a lot, I feel somewhat motivated and inspired, I’ve collected the email addresses of agents who might be interested in my book, so it’s all good. And what about her?

As it turns out, she ended up seeking out and meeting one of the conference organizers who also happens to be a very successful and well-known author with dozens of popular books to her credit. And while I was following the rules and being polite with my open mind, my new friend was handing her manuscript to this writer (yes, she brought her manuscript, “evading” the very rules that this famous writer had probably helped write!), who promised to read it and get back to her with feedback within the next two weeks.

Oh, did I mention that I’ve been working on my book for three years, while she just wrote hers last fall?

We exchanged email addresses and we’ve been in touch a few times, and she wrote me yesterday to tell me that she heard back from the famous writer, who loved her manuscript and recommended an agent who she felt would definitely be interested. Of course, using this famous writer’s name will no doubt catch the agent’s attention, so there’s no danger that my friend’s work will sit in the agent’s digital slush pile, along with mine and the gazillion others that have been emailed since the conference.

In short, I really do think my new friend is on her way.

Now the hard part: I want to be happy for her. I really do. And I am happy for her.

But I also feel like throwing up.

Even worse, when I read her emails, it completely derails me. I find it hard to work or be at all optimistic. I feel hopeless. It’s as though she won the lottery, and the other 1200 of us at that conference should just pack it in. It’s hard to keep doing all the things the books and conference workshops tell you to do, when a newcomer can just scoot in, cut the line, and potentially win the whole kit-and-kaboodle.

What do you think? How do you feel when a friend strikes it big in the publishing world? How do you stop yourself from feeling miserable and giving up?

Another discouraging day in the life of just another working writer.

Who Owns Your Digital Rights?

March 15, 2012

Several years ago — before the Internet really took hold — I wrote a series of slice-of-life essays for a local newspaper. They weren’t very good, and I didn’t get paid. Still, I was just starting out, and they did what I needed them to do: taught me how to work with editors; gave me confidence; and served as evidence of publication when I began going after paying gigs.

The newspaper , which is now about 100 years old, is published by a small company on a shoestring budget, so they’ve never invested in a significant online presence. However, recently a local community organization made a generous grant to begin digitizing old issues, as a way of preserving the town’s history.

Now, as an active community member, I think it’s great that our heritage and history will be available to anyone who wants to enjoy them. I’ve had the chance to browse some of the issues from the 1920s, and they’re truly fascinating. I’m told that many of the older newspapers are nearly unreadable, so the grant couldn’t have come at a better time.

But as a writer, this turn of events leaves me uneasy. You see, when I agreed to publish my essays, I never signed a contract — the newspaper was too small to even offer contracts to freelancers. My agreement with the editor was simply that she would publish the essays, but I would own them — so I could market them elsewhere if I ever chose to do so, or not. It was all up to me.

I never agreed to give the paper digital rights — simply because back then, there was no such thing.

Sadly, I hear many stories of writers whose work has been digitized without their permission. As a matter of fact, I recently attended a workshop by a consultant who has built a successful business helping writers recover damages from publishers who may have illegally turned their printed books into e-books. But when I went up to her afterwards to ask about newspaper articles, she basically told me to let it go. “It’s impractical to expect newspapers to contact every single writer who has ever written anything and ask for permission to digitize,” she said.

Truth be told, the current digitization plan for my local newspaper involves only older issues that are in the public domain, which means it does not cover the more recent issues in which my stories appear. And as I understand it, digitizing newspapers is a long-term process — meaning it may be years and years and years before the question of whether to digitize recent issues comes up. I’ve also been told that should my essays ever go online, I could easily lodge a complaint, and they would quickly be taken down. And, I suppose, when you get right down to it, I might actually find it nice to see those essays online, possibly getting a second, digital life.

Still, I can’t help worrying for writers who, for one reason or another, really don’t want to see their old newspaper work suddenly appear on the Internet.

What do you think?

Another confusing day in the life of just another working writer.

Are You A Writer When You’re Not Writing?

March 8, 2012

I just had a month of pure freedom.

And I hope that doesn’t happen ever again!

You see, last fall I started working on two huge articles that involved a lot of research and a gazillion discussions with my  call-you-every-five-minutes-with-another-question editor. I knew these assignments would keep me busy nearly full-time through January. So I put my nose to the grindstone, while February  beckoned, with its promise of free time to read, have lunch with friends, play at fiction writing, troll around for some fresh, new projects, imagine maybe a book project or two…

And sure, February 1st was great, and February 2nd wasn’t so bad either. But by February 6th, I was in a panic. Why was nobody calling? Where were my next assignments? How long was this dry spell going to last?

Of course, there was a real question lurking behind all these worries — and it surfaced in mid-February when I met someone new in town and introduced myself as a freelance writer. Suddenly my mouth felt dry and my cheeks sort of started to burn. Hah! the little voice in my head said with contempt.  How can you say you’re a freelance writer when you haven’t had an assignment in weeks? You’re nothing but a fraud! 

Ah, so that was the question I was wrestling with. Was I freelance writer when I wasn’t…well, writing? And if so, then when would I stop being a freelance writer? After four weeks of no assignments? Eight? Six months? Come to think of it, have I really ever been a freelance writer? Or have I always been merely a lucky wannabe?

My insecurities led me to make a bunch of stupid decisions — like sending out queries for articles that I really didn’t want to write, just because I thought I could get the assignment. And emailing an editor I haven’t heard from in a while, just to “touch base” and “say hi.” I should know better. Article assignments comes from great ideas, not from desperate “remember me?” emails.

Happily, in early March I heard from two editors, one of whom I had basically written off because I had sent her what I thought were two wonderful ideas in January and she hadn’t gotten back to me. In my panic, I thought she hated my ideas — when actually, there had just been a problem with her email account that she only recently noticed. I now have three major assignments, and I’m busy as ever.

I only wish I had made more of freedom when I had it.

What do you think? Do you have to be actively writing to consider yourself a writer? How do you handle insecurity, which is so much a part of a freelancer’s existence?

Another self-doubting day in the life of just another working writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can a Good Writer Make a Story Out of ANYTHING?

February 27, 2012

Not too long ago, I got a great assignment from the editor of a website devoted to religion. She had identified seven key ethical values — empathy, compassion, spirituality and a few others — and she wanted me to create a kind of grid showing how each of these values develop in children, with boxes for infancy, toddlerhood, preschool-age kids, middle-grades kids, and teens.

Now, it was pretty easy to find experts on and research about how children of all ages demonstrate values like empathy and compassion. Studies show, for example, that even very young babies will cry when they see another baby crying. But there was simply no evidence, no studies, no nothing –at least not back then — to show that babies can feel spiritual. I contacted child-development scientists and authors at major research universities and facilities, and got the same answer: Spirituality develops later.

So I finally called my editor, who resisted my explanations, evidently because the horror of a blank box in her grid outweighed any need for facts. “Come on now,” she said condescendingly. “You know as well as I do that a good writer can make a story about anything.”

I was speechless. My first thought was that I couldn’t believe what she was saying.

My second thought was that she was right.

More recently, I took my young daughter and her friend to a classical music concert at a local community center, and was approached by a reporter and cameraman from a local TV station. The reporter held the mike to my face and asked why I had decided to come out with young children on such a cold, dark night.

“I knew the music would be beautiful, and I wanted to enjoy it with them,” I said.

“Did you come to be part of the great community spirit here tonight?”

“No,” I said. “I just wanted to hear the music.”

“But would you agree that there’s a wonderful feeling of community, with so many people from town coming together?”

“I guess,” I said. “But we came for the music.”

Not surprisingly, when I saw this story on the local news the next night, I was not part of it. Instead, there were a bunch of people talking about — what else? — community.

As for my story, I went back to my old sources, found some new sources, stressed that I needed something, and finally was able to weave together a few vague sentences that linked babies and spirituality, albeit with the thinnest of threads. I never wrote again for that website.

Sure, I guess a good writer can make a story out of anything.

Just not sure I want to be that writer.

How about you? Have you ever had to create a story where there was none?

Another resigned day in the life of just another working writer.

 


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