Posts Tagged ‘writing’

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.

 

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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.

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.

 

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!

Freelance Writing and the Long Goodbye

February 1, 2012

I’m afraid the time has come for me to talk about goodbyes.

Not too long ago, I scored a steady gig with a regional, glossy magazine. I had spent months painstakingly querying the managing editor, pitching ideas, and following up on emails, trying to be polite and firm but not annoying or pestering. Finally, she got the green light from her boss to give me an assignment — and that led to a regular quarterly column.

I loved writing for that magazine. I loved its luxurious photography. I loved its thick, glossy paper and the charming graphics that accompanied my articles. Mostly, I loved the relationship I formed with the managing editor–the greetings we’d send as my manuscripts went through various revises, the banter about clueless or too-talkative interviewees. I learned that she had a big house in the country, as well as a big, sloppy dog and a couple of kids, and she was planning to take a cruise on the new QE2. She was kind of a friend, although I never saw her except on the photo on the magazine’s masthead.

And then, last summer, after more than two years of steady writing, the email came, informing me that my beloved column had been canceled. “It’s nothing against you,” my editor-friend said. “It’s just that the editor-in-chief wants to scale down on the amount of copy we’re running and add more photo spreads.”

Sirens went off in my ears and red alarms started flashing in my brain, spurring me to act fast and salvage the relationship. Reminding myself that her company had two other publications in addition to the one I had been writing for, I fired back a response. “I completely understand,” I wrote, “and actually, I have a few ideas for your other magazines that I’d like to share with you. Do you have some time later this month? I’d love to stop by your office, or even buy you a cup of coffee.”

“Hmm, coffee sounds good,” she wrote back. “But we’re putting out the next issue, and things are a bit hectic. Let me call you in a month or so.”

No, she never did.

The bookshelves in my office are lined with magazine holders storing publications I used to write for but no longer do. Back when my kids were infants and toddlers, I wrote all the time for Parents and American Baby, using my own experiences as a source of ideas. But my kids started growing up at the same time that one of my favorite editors left American Baby to become a nurse, and those gigs sort of drifted away. I also used to be a book reviewer for bn.com — but my editor there left as well, and her successor decided to write the reviews in-house. I really miss those assignments.

Of course, there have been plenty of new gigs to take the place of those that went away. One of my long-term clients has kept me so busy lately that he’s changed my bio in the magazine from “freelance writer” to “regular contributor.” I’ve found great opportunities at online publications, and a few editors I thought I lost touch with have found me through the Internet and given me assignments from their new berths. Scouting out new opportunities is part of being a freelancer. It’s what makes freelancing fun.

Still, I can’t help wondering how my editor-friend’s big, sloppy dog is…and whether she enjoyed her cruise.

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

The Art of the Quote: A Cautionary Tale for Freelance Writers

January 24, 2012

Not too long ago, I was working on a 500-word article for a local, glossy magazine about backyard decks.The focus of the piece was on sun management, and my assignment was to give some options for — and discuss my personal experience with — cooling down a deck that gets too much sun in the summer.

The most familiar and popular option, of course, is to install an awning — but because of the angle of my deck relative to the sun, I found that there was no way an awning could provide me with shade during hot afternoons. Instead, I got a builder to create an inexpensive pergola — a simple wood structure with vertical poles and latticework — and installed sun-blocking shades on the sides and the top.

To round out the article, I interviewed the owner of a major local awning retailer to talk about the types of awnings and their benefits — and then called the owner of the small company that manufactured the shades I bought, to ask her about the benefits of outdoor shades.

Now, my editor doesn’t like a lot of quotes in an article. She typically just asks for one overview-type quote, because she feels quotes slow down the flow of a piece. So I used a quote from the awning guy, because it was clever and succinct, and  awnings are a more widely used product. Then I discussed my own experience and praised the shades for being well priced, easy to clean, and effective in blocking the sun.

When the article was published, I emailed the shade manufacturer and sent her a link to the online version of the article. I expected her to be pleased with the nod that I gave to outdoor shades, so was completely unprepared for her snarky email response.

“I’m not sure why you sent this,” she wrote back. “Is something missing? I don’t see my quote, only the quote from the awning store.”

What? Couldn’t she read between the lines? Didn’t she see that while I quoted the awning retailer, the experience I described showed that shades were a better option? Didn’t she realize that I may have opened people’s eyes to a product they didn’t even know about? Wasn’t that more important that stroking her ego by including her name and her exact words?

I haven’t responded, because I don’t know what to say. Should I apologize for not quoting her? Blame it on my editor, who discourages quotes? Or try to explain to her that I actually did her a bigger favor by describing my success with her product?

What would you have done?

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

Why I Love Being a Writer: A Reminder

January 19, 2012

Those of you who have been following my blog probably realize by now that I’m a bit of a complainer. I complain about boring assignments or tedious tasks that accompany the writing of a new piece. I complain about editors who hang onto a draft for a month and then demand that the revise be turned in two minutes later. And as for crazy-low payment rates…well, don’t get me started.

But every once in a while, something happens that makes me remember that what I do is actually pretty cool

Last night, my daughter told me about a discussion in her history class. Her teacher was beginning a unit on the Civil War, and asked the students if they or a member of their families had any special interest in or connection with that time period.

My daughter raised her hand to say that I was working on a project about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and I had spent time researching documents and journals from the 1860s. She said that when we go on family vacations, we occasionally end up visiting outlying historical locations to scope out new details about Lincoln and the course of the war.

“What does your mother do?” the teacher asked.

“She’s a writer,” my daughter said. “She writes articles for magazines, newspapers, and some websites.”

At this point, the teacher’s eyes widened, and she threw up her hands in a kind of surrendering motion. “Well, we may as well stop the conversation right here,” she said. “Because I don’t think any of us are going to be able to top that.”

I laughed when I heard this story. “Come on,” I said. “I write about mattresses and kitchen gadgets, and occasionally get involved with some historical thing. It’s not all that impressive.”

“Well, she was impressed,” my daughter said.

That conversation stuck with me all night and into this morning, and actually, I’m still smiling as I write this. Maybe my daughter’s history teacher secretly dreams of writing, or maybe there’s another reason why her reaction was somewhat over the top. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that what we do –interviewing people, researching documents, making sense of seemingly random events, and then creating a piece of writing that never existed before — takes skill. And a bit of magic.  It may seem simple to people like us, who do it all the time; but simple, it’s not.

Let’s promise not to forget that, ok?

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

 

Article Assignments: Why Do I Keep Saying Yes?

January 13, 2012

So one of my best clients emailed me toward the end of last summer to offer me two major article assignments. The pay was relatively good, and I was skilled at the type of research and interviewing that would be required.

I hesitated, however, to accept the work, as I estimated that it  would fill my working time for the next four months. I wouldn’t be able to accept other assignments, prospect for new assignments or clients, or–most important–devote time to my favorite new project.

You see, I had  spent much of the summer working on my first young adult novel, and I was having a blast. I loved the freedom of fiction writing. I loved making stuff up, which was refreshing after so many years of stressing accuracy and sticking to the facts. I found my characters fascinating, especially my spunky 11-year-old protagonist, and I loved throwing obstacles at her and figuring out how she would get through.

Still, as a working writer, I couldn’t see turning down the work. I needed the paychecks. I wanted the money. I promised myself that I would work for the four months–but then I would slow down and give myself the luxury of time to work on my novel.

So now the four months are now almost over, I’ve got just two more days’ work at the most, and the reward of time to write fiction is so close, I can taste it.

And then, out of the blue, So another client called yesterday to offer me a basic product story. What do you think I did?

You’re right — I said yes.

Why.

Of course, a big part of it is the paycheck. I can’t deny that. But I think there’s more.

I think I said yes partly because I always overestimate the time it will take me to do stuff. I’m often convinced that I can make time to both do my paying work and have my writing fun. The truth is, I rarely do. The paying work always takes over.

I also think I said yes partly because even though I complain a lot about tedious assignments, the truth is I get a kick out of article writing — interviewing business executives, motivating them to reveal some tidbit of news or surprising comment, boiling down research into the assigned wordcount, hearing “good job!” from an editor.

But I think I also said yes because writing fiction is so…unpredictable. It takes a lot out of you. Maybe it’s because I’m new at it and I’m not very good, but it sometimes feels like an uphill battle to get started on a page. Once I get going, it becomes great fun, but before I sit down at the computer, I feel so doubtful. Will I write something great today? Am I getting anywhere? Would anyone else love this the way I do? Is this just a big time waster?

I don’t have those fears with my paid work.

Still, if I keep pushing off my fiction, I’ll never find out if it could amount to anything at all.

I see the days and weeks and months passing, and I wonder if I’m spending my time in the best way, or just the safest way.

How do you choose the way to spend your writing time?

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

 

 

 

 

 

 


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