Monday, January 06, 2014

The Things I've Learned the Hard and Easy Way: 10 Bits of Advice for the Aspiring Writer

I've been a freelance writer for a few years now, and my actual level of success often feels dependent on the month.  I do make money on a weekly basis off writing, and though the profitable times come in waves, I have months that are solid enough to reinforce that this will continue to be the career that pays the bills (though luckily Emily also works full-time and I have the other delightful day job of making sure Everett doesn't put forks in electrical outlets).

Despite my relatively minimal success as a writer -- I mean I'm not throwing hundred dollar bills into the streets because they're weighing down my wallet and in terms of fame I'm several notches below the kind Wal-Mart greeter -- I still get people taking me out for free coffee in an attempt to suction out the golden secrets to my success.  There seems to be many aspiring writers out there with dreams of making money and being able to flip off their curmudgeonly boss because they're now going to roll in cash thanks to their sweet words.

So, since some hopeful career writers seems to think my advice has some value and I don't have time for everyone to take me out for coffee, I decided to give ten bits of advice that I've learned on my own writing journey.  I need to make it clear that I am still very young in my career, and there are likely many weathered and haggard writers with more profound thoughts and through their own experience would surmise my advice is rubbish.  That is fine.  This advice is only things that worked for me, and I can guarantee they will be useful for anyone else.

But the key word is that they did work for me, and if you're still just staring at your computer screen and dreaming about the days where people pay for your words then my advice can't make things worse.  So, here they are, and you can decide what you do with them.

1.  Write and read every single day.  I realize this is painfully basic advice, and likely something you could have worked out on your own.  I've talked to several aspiring writers and from that pool, a large portion of them admitted they don't write every day and they hardly read but gosh darn it, they apparently really want to be a writer so bad.  If you aren't writing, then you're not a writer, because the most important prerequisite for being a writer is to actually write.  I've heard the excuse of not having time or the full time job making them tired, and if only some mysterious benefactor would arrive with the promise of a few hundred thousand dollars to pay for that novel that is bound to be written someday.  If you don't write for fun or pleasure than what makes you think you would want to write when it is a job?  Jobs are the things we try to avoid doing all day, and even writers sometimes have to force themselves in front of the computer and start pounding out the words because they'd rather be watching cute kittens on YouTube.

The thing is that not one will ever hire you just because you claim to be a writer.  You need to have actual written work you can show people so they can see if you're what they're looking for.  Or you need to have actual articles and content you can sell to magazines.  Plus there was that whole thing that sometimes you may feel too tired to write even when it is your full time job, so it is best to start now in training yourself to write even when you're not feeling it and getting in the mode of churning out work during good and bad.  The key to making a living in this career is being very prolific.  A full time writer should probably be writing at least 3, 000 words a day, and often you'll be writing more.  When you have you full- time job and juggling kids, dinner and bowling pins, it is important to set out a time each day where you write.  Aim for just 500 words to start, and once you'd got that down then slowly increase your daily minimum count.  If you're ever going to become a professional freelance writer then you need to write, and you need to start now.  If you haven't done this simple thing, then all my other advice is pointless.

I mentioned reading, and this is just as important as writing.  First of all, if you want to be a writer then you really should enjoy reading.  You need to love words and language and the poetry in the prose.  Reading is important to learn the different styles and figuring out how a writer went about creating those emotions or got around to making their point.  You really need to read every day, because just like writing, the constant act will only improve your own craft  Once you've got these two things down, then maybe you'll find the other bits of advice semi-useful.
 
2.  Put your work out there.  Even if you get into the groove of writing on a daily basis, nobody is actually going to suddenly call you up because a flock of birds alerted them that you write stuff now.  You need to make it known that you're a writer.  The first major step is setting up a writer's blog that can either just be a place you plop your random thoughts or be about a specific subject matter that your passionate about like gardening or cooking or stamp collecting.  It needs to be a public forum where people can find your work and now know that writing is something you do.  You also really need to promote that work on social media like Twitter or Facebook, because you need to grow that readership.  It will have the added bonus of opening yourself up to feedback and seeing if your work resonates with people.  Sometimes it can be really hard to be your own critic (I'll talk about this more later), and so putting up written work that you may never intend to sell is still important just because you can gauge what others feel about it.

Just writing a blog is not anywhere near enough.  If you want to make money, then you can't expect paying publishers and client to stumble upon your site.  You need to track them down.  One of the best starts is a Writer's Market that essentially is a book with a huge list of all the places you can sell your work.  You can buy a hard copy, get one from the library or pay a small yearly fee for the online version.

There are also a large amount of job boards online that you can use to find editor and clients looking for writers.  This can be useful, but you also have to beware that many are populated with real cheap asses.  You need to be picky if you want to avoid being pegged as the writer who works for peanuts.  At the same time, if you don't have a portfolio and lack any connections, it may be worth your time to take on a lower paying job just so you can break in.  Another great way to break-in is trying to write for your local paper, so you now have something more than just your personal blog.

Going back to the Writer's Market, this is also important because it gives you an idea of what places are open to buying your type of writing and it also lets you know what you can make off your niche.  This is also where you need to suck it up and start putting your work out there.  You either can send out a proposal/query letter about a particular article you want to write or you can try to sell something you've already written.  The descriptions next to the magazine will let you know how each company operates, but this is something you need to get used to.  It is very unlikely for the first several years or maybe for your entire career that a client will come looking for you.  You need to send the stuff to them and learn how to sell your work and yourself.

Most of you probably know I have a weekly pop culture column that I write for Collective Publishing.  I got that position by noticing the site occasionally posted articles on books, movies, celebrities and TV.  So, I then sent out a pitch where I could be a weekly writer for all those different things and be the resident expert.  I essentially created a position for myself and then tried to sell it to the editor.  It obviously paid off.  This something you really will need to get used to if you want a chance at making a living.  You need to find needs or come up with possible ideas a client would like, and then try to sell them on it.  Don't just look for job postings, but create a job and explain to a magazine, site or editor why they need it.

3.  The muse is a myth.  From my experience talking to aspiring writers, there appears to be an awful belief that you need to be "feeling it" in order to write.  There is this faulty hope that inspiration will float through the widow and swirl around you before gently sliding up your nostril and infiltrating your brain.  It won't.  Sitting down to write isn't this magical experience or necessarily a spiritual moment every time you write.  I do think writing can be enriching and sometimes transcendent and there can be moments where the words are just flowing from me and it feels like this moment where I am on some different plane.  But that isn't every day or even most days.  Often I'm sitting in front of the computer while my pantless son runs around making train noises, my wife needs help packing the car because she is running late, the dog is nudging me in arm because he has to pee, and I have a horrible craving for chicken wings but there are none in the house.  This isn't really the romantic image of the writer, but it is the far more realistic one.

You can't wait for inspiration.  You're not going to sit down and be swept away into a magical world where you have tea with Mark Twain and Jane Austen, and they share great ideas with you.  You're often going to sit down with tons of distractions and only a vague idea of what you're going to write about.  Or you'll be lucky enough to have an assignment from an editor, but you're not entirely sure how you're going to finish that article on bathroom renovations since you're only vaguely aware of what way to hold a hammer.  The writer fairy isn't going to save you.

You have to write even when there is no magical drive to do the task, just like you have to cook and clean without inspiration too.  But hopefully, you actually enjoy writing for the sake of writing.  Hopefully, you have the talent and the creative mind, because I can't teach that stuff.  If you have it, then when you get in front of that computer with all the distractions and worries floating through your mind, the moment you start pounding away at that keyboard then the ideas will seep into your mind and content will start showing up on that screen.  It might be a grind at first, but from my experience, you'll hit that groove eventually.  Once you do, that is when the magic happens and that is when it becomes fun.  But you've got to find that inspiration and muse, and it usually hiding until you actually start to write.

But some days it never comes, and some days it is always a bit of a grind.  But you write anyway, because it is your job.  Hopefully, for the most part you find that love and wonder when you write, and this is why you do it in the first place.  You can't wait for it, and it won't find you.  It is your job to hunt for it and pull it out.

4.  You can have several niches.  When I first started making a run at a writing career, I ended up spending a lot of time reading writing advice sites.  The one major thing that seemed to be mentioned in almost all them was have a niche.  The idea was to become an expert in one area, because it makes you more sellable to a client.  A client may want to have several articles and ads related to real estate, and if that is your expertise then you have a better chance to land the job than a person who writes on many things.  Or so the theory goes.

I do agree that if you can easily identify yourself a certain kind of writer then you'll be more appealing to that market.  If you know the insides and outsides of the real estate market then it likely means you'll be able to write the pieces quicker and will be more informed.  Clients like copy that turns over quickly but also stands out as something different than all the by-the-number pieces that fill up the internet thanks to "content mills."  I fully understand the niche argument, and don't fault anyone for going that route.

Except what happens when that market dries up?  Or if you're like me, what if you tend to get really bored writing about just one thing all the time, and so the passion starts getting sucked out of you.  Or what if there just isn't enough work in that specific niche, and you start questioning why you tried to tackle this career on full-time.

I mentioned earlier the key to success as a freelance writer (besides having actual talent and connections) is being prolific.  The person who is able to write several articles in the day now has far more things to sell.  If you have many things to sell, then you've obviously upped your potential for income.  Now, there is a good chance your niche is a profitable one and has many different clients.  But I'm all about increasing my chances for success, and having as many opportunities to make a living off my writing.

Sure, have a niche.  But why just be an expert in one thing?  Many people have more than one hobby, and I see no reason why you shouldn't write about things within your hobbies.  Also there is always opportunities to possibly write on stuff you may only know a little about, but then you can research more about it.  Once you've written that first article on that initially unknown subject you now know more about it, and likely have a connection to write more articles on it.  It makes sense to constantly try out new areas and take the time to learn as much about it as possible.  You can start out with one niche, but the goal should be to start having several areas that you know really well, and are able to write about.  I also just find it makes the day far more interesting to be able to write about several different things.

5.  As much as you possibly can, keep the rights to your work.  Do the research to learn about copyrights.  Then when you start selling your work, make sure you always put in your contract that the editor/publisher is getting either first rights or non-exclusive rights, but the rights revert back to you after being published.  This then allows you to sell that same work again, or one day include it in an anthology that you can sell.  The goal is to try to get as much mileage out of a work as possible.  Now sometimes there is stuff that you won't be able to maintain the rights to, like something ghostwritten or corporate writing or ad copy tend to be things that clients want full rights too.  There is also content that really only has the shelf life of a day (like a breaking news story) so it probably isn't worth trying to keep the rights.  In the case of anything you don't get full rights to keep, then you better hope you're getting paid enough to make up for the fact you can never sell it again.  This leads to my next point. . .

6. Always have a contract.  Or make sure you have every detail about your work thoroughly outlined and discussed in hard copy form before you start work.  You want to know rights, pay rate, expectations, deadline, and numerous other things.  You really don't want to stumble upon any surprises, and you need to protect yourself.  Never start work unless you have some kind of contract or official agreement.

7.  Dare to be awful.  Robert Heinlein was an incredibly popular sci-fi writer that at one point in his career made a fairly famous 5 rules of writing.  The most controversial rule was, "You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order."  Some people have a problem with this rule, because it insinuates that you're not supposed to edit or revise your work at all before sending it off to an editor.  The obvious fear is that the work won't be getting any kind of orders, because the typo-riddled copy will just find its way in a trash bin.  But I don't really think that is what Heinlein meant, and most who follow his rules haven't decided to interpret it that way.  Obviously, it makes sense to proofread your work and to put in some revisions that may be necessary in order to make it a quality and sellable piece of writing.

The issue comes with trying to make your article or story or book or advertisement perfect.  In my experience, writers are awful self-critics for the most part, and are often way too hard on themselves.  This means that what you've just written will always seem unsatisfactory or not measuring up to the vision you had in your head before starting.  So, you can spend weeks and weeks tweaking and "improving" the piece to get it exactly the way you want.  The problem is that while you're endlessly reworking a piece you'd already completed, you're now stopping yourself from writing something new.  Or even worse, the piece you've written has either missed the deadline or just sitting on your computer not being sold.  You can't publish or sell a piece if it just becomes your daily play thing where you delete a sentence here and add a new sentence there.

Now, I didn't coin the phrase "dare to be awful" and unfortunately, forget where I got it from (though something tells me it may have been Dean Wesley Smith).  It has become a bit of a mantra for me.  Now, it is really important to note the phrase isn't "aim to be awful."  I aspire to write the pieces I am capable of doing at that moment, and I aim for each to be a masterpiece.  I dream of being a great writer, and I want my works to be inspirational, emotional, profound, and entertaining.  I want each article to be well-written, and any writer worth anything hopes for the same.  It is our name attached to the work and our reputation on the line.  But as I stated before, writers can also have a habit of being a brutally hard self-critics, and not end up being completely happy with what they just written.  So, the writer wants the piece to be something great, and spend hours or days to try to transform it into the great work of art.  The problem is it may never happen.  This means that you've just wasted a lot of time.  Or maybe it will happen, but what you wrote initially was something the editor would have also loved and readers would have enjoyed.  You took tons of time to just make it marginally better when the other piece was more than enough.

I also mentioned before that a writer who wants to make a living at this must be prolific.  This mean you need to keep on trying to write new things and growing a huge portfolio of work.  I do believe every single time you need to aim to write something amazing, because again, this is your reputation and it is how you'll gain readers.  You also need to learn to write your piece, do one proofread, make necessary revisions, and then send it off to editor to be scrutinized.  The moment you send it off, then start working on your next piece.  Aim for that one to be better than the last one and try to birth the masterpiece this next time.  You'll grow and improve as a writer.  What I wrote at the start of my career is not as good as what I write now.  This is a career where you definitely grow and improve over time.  You just have to accept that, and continue to strive for better with each article or book.

You have to write more than one thing.  After you've written that piece you just have to accept it might be awful, but maybe you can trick everyone into thinking it is good.  Then you move on to something new, and hope one day, you'll be happy with something.  Don't waste your time endlessly on one piece when so many more stories are waiting to be told.

8.  Constant editing can be procrastination.  This is similar as the previous piece of advice, but I really want to clarify that editing isn't writing.  You've already finished the work, and now you should just be cleaning it up for public consumption.  Often there is this little voice in your head that is nagging you that you're not good enough or at least this piece doesn't deserve to read by anyone.  If you listen to it then you waste countless hours trying to silence it by improving something that doesn't need it.  The even scarier thing is the voice may be saying you're a shit writer and your career is destined for failure.  So now you find yourself tweaking on this one work endlessly so you don't need to show it to anyone and risk the possibility for rejection.  Or if you constantly work on this one piece then you don't need to worry about realizing you have no more ideas or risk writing other things that could be awful.  All these thoughts are going through your head due to that nasty thing called self-doubt, but you keep it at bay through the constant reworking of one piece.

I'm sure you've heard the story about the screenplay writer who has worked on the same script for ten years.  He just wants to make it perfect before showing it.  It has likely been hiding away on the computer screen because he is scared that the self-doubt will be justified and he will be revealed to be awful.  Essentially, he revises and revises in order to procrastinate from the act of showing, and then having to write something new.

See editing as something important, but also time consuming.  A time consuming act that keeps you from writing more work.  More importantly, remember you're likely an awful critic of yourself, and you'll never realize your dream and discover you're a brilliant writer if you never let anyone read your stuff.  Don't be the next Franz Kafka or John Kennedy Toole in regard to being famous after you're gone.

9.  Be observant.  This is where my wife pipes in that the sink full of dirty dishes and full laundry basket I keep walking past are signs that I've already failed at my own advice.  I think you can be oblivious in regular day to day life, but still be an incredibly observant writer.  What I mean is being able to soak up all your surroundings and being able to discover the story ideas that are sprouting out through your day.  When I used to take the bus to work, I'd observe the wide variety of people that were there and try to catch small bits of their conversation, and it was this diverse collection that I'd be able to harvest some ideas for stories.  My two daily walks with Summit are often a treasure trove for ideas that are waiting to be grabbed as I explore the vast nature but also observed the daily routine of my neighbours.  If you still have another job besides your writing, that is an amazing opportunity to find triggers for different stories and articles as you interact with and observe your colleagues but also just take the time to investigate your surroundings.  Stories are everywhere, but it is important to be alert to their locations.

It also is important to keep this observant nature at full force when you're reading news or enjoying a novel or watching a movie.  They may lead towards an intriguing fiction story or may spur you into action for a provocative opinion piece or maybe even a humour column.  You have to look at each piece as the opportunity for something to write about.  My time as a film critic has really helped with this, because I no longer can consume entertainment without analyzing a piece and having several things I want to discuss and write about.  There are often times that I'm lucky enough to have a film review but also the inspiration for another article where I want to discuss points further.

I must admit that I'm not even really sure if this advice that everyone can follow.  This act of observing and connecting to a story to tell is a very natural thing for me that I've always done.  It may be an ingrained aspect of the storyteller.  If you are a storyteller maybe you'd never opened yourself up to the potential to use regular life to inspire.

My advice would be to go to a park or a mall, and sit down on a bench.  Then just spend some time observing and soaking up the atmosphere and seeing how people act.  By the time you come home, you should be bombarded with several different ideas.  Some may be good and some may be awful, but you should at least have ideas for a story or article and if you don't then it may be a sign that you're not destined to be a writer.  Or at least one who must tell stories both real and fiction.  I'm sure a straight news reporter or an ad copywriter doesn't need such a gift, but seems paramount for one who wants to write fiction or feature articles for a magazine.

The act of observing is definitely something I encourage any aspiring writer to try.  Especially if you find yourself struggling for an idea or hit with a nasty case of writer's block.  It amazing how many stories are just waiting for you to discover them.

10.  Be choosey on the criticism you take to heart.  On a daily basis I need to remind myself that no one person will like everything I write, and nothing I write will be liked by everyone.  The kicker is that it also isn't any reflection on the actual quality of the work, but rather a subjective personal taste getting in the way.  This is a hard thing to remember when someone whose opinion you value isn't enjoying one of your stories.

There is a piece of advice I've read a few times that is really important when getting the opinion from someone regarding one of your written works.  If one person doesn't like something then you can possibly ignore it as subjective opinion, but if two or three or especially five points out the same thing then it is time to revisit that element.

Maybe you only have one person who you want to read your work before sending out to be sold.  In that case, you need to try to understand their point of view when analyzing your work.  Do they understand the genre you're writing in or do they even enjoy it?  Does the criticism drastically alter your message and intention?  Is there a chance they missed your point?  It is important to consider every criticism, but it is just as important to be confident enough in your work to know when a revision isn't necessary.  If you're honest with yourself and your work, you'll usually be able to discern when one person's criticism has validity and it is important to consider each tip in order to improve your article or story.

There is one group of criticisms that I've learned is almost always best to either completely ignore or take with about two tons of salt.  This is online comments.  As a writer who has done a majority of my paid writing online, I've definitely learned the importance of being wary of the commenter.  Many commenters are courteous and help bring up discussion based off your article, but there are a few who get a great thrill from being a pompous ass.  It seems like trying to crush the soul of a writer makes up for the fact they live in their grandma's basement and the greatest achievement in their life is the discovery you can eat pop tarts uncooked.  These asses are best ignored and their assessment of your writing skill is worthless.  There are commenters who may critique your writing and actually have something worth listening to, but there also may be aliens hiding in the craters of the moon that we just keep missing.

The important thing to remember is to have faith in your talents and believe in your work.  Most definitely remember to work hard and dare to aspire to be great even if you don't feel like it most days.  The most important thing is to write, write, and write.


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