Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

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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: 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.

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.

 

Article Interviews: Why Do They Talk?

February 16, 2012

A few years back when I was on staff a at trade magazine, I set out to interview a key merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s. Susan K. was glamorous, sophisticated, powerful, and notoriously press-averse.

“Everybody already knows who I am and what I stand for,” she told me. “Manufacturers and designers all want to get their products onto my floor.  The only possible thing that could happen if I do the interview is I could say something wrong and get people mad at me. Why would I consent to that?”

Why indeed? Why take the risk?

I was thinking about this situation not too long ago, while I was writing an article for a regional magazine about the pros and cons of living a rural life. I had contacted a writer friend of mine who lives in the country, and she spoke eloquently–almost lyrically–about the joy of driving home on winding roads after a long day at work.

“If you quote me, do you have to use my name and hometown?” she asked.

I did. That was the magazine’s policy. She told me that she didn’t like being so exposed in print — but then she said she would do it this time, and she looked forward to seeing my piece.

I wondered: Why did she agree to be published? Was it because I was her friend and she didn’t want to disappoint me? Had I gotten her to do something she didn’t want to do? Did that make me a bad friend?

Another time I was working on an article about developmental delays in children, and through a friend of a friend, got in touch with the mother of a severely disabled preschooler. The child had motor issues and language problems, and Mom’s entire life revolved around doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions. Worried that she would regret being so open, I offered to hold back on anything she preferred to remain unpublished — but no, she said, she was fine with my printing everything she said.

Why did she agree to be published? Did she really want to be as open as she claimed she did? Would the right thing be to hold back on some of her more personal quotes, as a way of protecting her from her own candor? Did I exploit her to write a good story?

Now, my interviews don’t always proceed this way. Some people ask to see their quotes before the article is printed. Some people even ask me to repeat their quotes two or three times, as though their whole world might collapse if they used the word “this” instead of “that.” Sometimes it’s because they’ve been misquoted by others in the past, and sometimes it’s because they have never been quoted, so they don’t know what to expect. And some people just don’t like to relinquish control.

And what of my Bloomingdale’s friend? She ultimately and unexpectedly called me back and agreed to the interview — and enjoyed the whole process so much that she thanked me whenever she saw me for months.

Why did she talk?

Truth be told, I’ll never  know exactly why anyone I’ve contacted decides either to speak to me or not to. But if my years as a writer have taught me anything, it’s that being interviewed for publication entails consequences — and when people decide to do it, I want to make sure that they’ve reached that decision without being manipulated, and that I quote them accurately, objectively and in the proper context.

How about you? Have you ever tried to interview someone who felt conflicted about whether to talk? What did you say and what did they say? What finally happened?

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

And P.S….my fellow blogger Nicole Cloutier (http://nicolecloutier.me) nominated my blog for a sunshine award. Now it’s my turn to spread the sunshine, so stay tuned for my great blog pics!

A Very Strange Interview

November 30, 2011

This week, I’m working on an article about mattresses — what to look for, what they cost, how to choose, etc., and I’m doing a phone interview with a marketing manager for one of the major mattress brands. I ask a question about one of the new products her company is introducing, and suddenly there’s silence.

“Just a minute,” she says, and I hear some muffled conversation on her end. About ten seconds later, she returns to the line. “Sorry about that,” she says. “Just having an early onset Alzheimer’s moment. Can you repeat the question?”

What? An early onset Alzheimer’s moment? Is this for real? Is she kidding?  met this woman once briefly at a press conference a few months ago, but I know nothing about her. I barely remember what she looks like, and I don’t have a clue as to how hold she is. We’re not friends, so I wouldn’t expect her to reveal something so personal to me if it’s true — and if she’s kidding, it’s a pretty weird joke. How does she know that I don’t have early onset Alzheimer’s, or that my husband or a close family member doesn’t? And she’s not laughing or chuckling at all.

So I somehow get out another question to her — I’m not even sure it was the same question I originally asked — and the conversation goes on. And today, I can’t get my mind off of her? Does she really have early onset Alzheimer’s? Has she just learned to deal with it by being upfront? Or was it a joke? Should I feel sorry for her? Or offended?

What would you have done?

Just another strange day in the life of a working writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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