Have you noticed that today, Oct. 31, 2012, is loaded with subjects to write about? No matter whether you write, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, articles, blogs or even screenplays, if you can’t find something to write today, you aren’t looking.
Hurricane Sandy has been amazing and horrible. When nature comes at us full force, there’s nothing we humans can do to stop it. Please join me in praying for all those suffering from this super-storm with its rain, wind, floods, fires and the subsequent destruction and shortages of electricity, water, food and everything else.
Now, let’s put on our writer hats. My 90-year-old dad said last night that he keeps imagining what he would feel if this happened to him, if everything he owned was suddenly wiped out. What would you do? Can you imagine yourself in that situation and write a poem or story about it? Might a character in your novel encounter a flood or hurricane? Take notes on what’s going on and use it in your writing.
Does this event bring up memories of something that happened to you or a loved one? Has there been something about Hurricane Sandy that especially horrified or inspired you? Something that made you angry? Write about it. Can you think of article ideas for how to cope with a disaster such as a hurricane, how to be safe, how to decide whether to evacuate, how to stay in contact with loved ones, how to deal with insurance, bank accounts and other matters? Write an opinion piece, research an article, or pull together a query letter.
While the hurricane has occupied most of our attention, did you know that British Columbia suffered a huge earthquake over the weekend and it triggered tidal wave warnings all along the Pacific coast, with measurable surges in Hawaii and the western U.S.? So many stories could be told there, maybe even making a connection with the hurricane or with previous earthquakes and tsunamis. Remember Japan?
If that isn’t enough to write about, the election is less than a week away, and it’s Halloween.
Get off the Internet, grab your keyboard or your pen, and start writing.
How do you prepare for a day’s writing? It seems there are as many ways as there are writers. Where, what and how you write makes a difference. When I worked at newspapers, I didn’t have much time for messing around. Deadlines loomed, and the guy in the next cubicle was concentrating on his own writing. I’d lay out my notes around the keyboard, type a heading, and then go to the bathroom.
Wait, what? Go to the bathroom? Yes, for two reasons. I didn’t want to have to run to the ladies’ room once I got rolling, and I needed a minute to organize my thoughts. Often my opening lines came to me in that three-minute trip.
It doesn’t have to be the bathroom. One could go down the hall for coffee, or, if working at home, do what I just did and put away some stray clothes and start getting dressed. I was putting on my pants when I decided what to write about. Some people do yoga, some pray, some knit, some go for a walk. It doesn’t matter what you do to prepare to write, but your brain has to be free to think. No media, no talking, no texting. I have closed my Internet connections, opened a fresh screen on my computer, and placed hot tea on the warmer beside me. I’m ready.
I don’t have a deadline today, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to write. I have plenty of half-finished projects and lots of notes scribbled on scratch paper that I can expand into stories or poems. I can always outline a new article or a query to get myself an assignment.
Writing muscles need regular workouts. You’ve all heard the advice to “write every day.” Actually it doesn’t have to be every day. Maybe you’re a Monday, Wednesday, Friday kind of writer or just weekends. That’s okay. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether you do it before work, while the kids are at school, or when everyone else is asleep. People rarely understand when you say “I have to work” or “I have to write.” Do it anyway.
Like an athlete, a writer needs to warm up. Creativity gurus Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg and others recommend “morning pages.” Just write whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about whether it’s beautiful or correct or publishable. If you can’t think of anything, you can even fill a page with “I can’t think of anything to write.” But honestly, there’s always something. Write about what’s bothering you. Write about something you read or saw on TV. Describe something that happened to you yesterday.
One exercise I’ve been doing this week came from Poets & Writers’ series of prompts. They credit this one to poet Linda Gregg. Every day for a week, you briefly describe six things you see each day. They can be absolutely ordinary things to which you usually don’t pay attention. At the end of the week, pick two of those things and write a poem about them. I have been amazed at how many things there are to notice in my house, especially my living room. I can already see that I’m going to write about more than two and it won’t necessarily be poetry. There are essays, articles and short stories in those things I’m seeing, things like the flute I never play, the tambourine I bought in Portugal, the stained carpet, or the dog sleeping on her smelly blanket on the floor.
I’m never going to run out of things to list. If I exhaust one room or even my whole house, I’ll simply change location. Meanwhile, having filled several pages of my journal, I’m warmed up and ready to tackle the day’s writing project. As soon as I go to the bathroom.
Get comfortable and get started. Write.
You spend 20 hours researching a great idea, e.g., why kids join gangs, and it’s rejected. Three months (or six months or a year) later, the editor calls: Will you write an article on how to plan the perfect wedding?
Despite the way writing publications constantly encourage us to query with our great ideas, most magazines are planned in-house. Editors and staff decide what stories they want to have written, then find writers to do it. They have annual special sections and departments to fill, and they always have to think about their advertisers. The wedding story fits into their bridal section and will help sell ads to every business that deals with weddings. The gangs article may be fantastic, but it doesn’t fit anywhere, and it doesn’t sell anything. There are publications that handle serious issues, but most of them are newspapers or journals with private funding, not the slick magazines sold at Safeway.
Why did they call you to write about weddings? Your query showed them you were a competent writer. They decided you were worth a try. Pat yourelf on the back and start calling wedding consultants. Once they know you, they’ll be open to your ideas and might even find a way to work that gangs story into a future issue.
One way to get inside the process is to look at magazines’ editorial calendars. These rough out the themes and featured topics for upcoming issues. They are routinely given to advertisers to encourage them to buy ads. Do a search for “editorial calendars” or, more specifically, your target magazine’s calendar and see where you can match your talents to their desires. For example, I just looked up the Horizon airline magazine’s calendar. It’s listed under its parent publication at http://alaskaairlinesmagazine.com/horizonedition/editorial. I see that they’re featuring Southern Oregon, the 2012 summer Olympics in England, and gourmet ice cream in July and doing a special section on Idaho in October. Hmmm.
If you really want to write for a specific magazine, study it so well that you know exactly what the editor is looking for and when, then offer to provide it. A good query may get your foot in the door, but the right query will have them inviting you in and offering you a chair.
I’ve got a new gig, writing for a local weekly paper called Oregon Coast Today. The editor knew my work, and when a need arose, she called me. All I did was keep myself visible, most recently at a free writing workshop she taught for our local branch of Willamette Writers. I honestly hate networking, but contacts will get you farther than anything else in the writing business. I know, we’d like to believe talent is the key, but it’s contacts.
We have agreed that I will write a minimum of two features a month for a pleasing amount of money. So, I already have the gig. However, I still need to pitch my ideas. Here’s where we come to today’s lesson. What the editor wants is extremely specific. The stories must be local, happening right here in Lincoln County or south Tillamook County. They must promote something that is happening in the foreseeable future or something that people can do anytime. Readers must be able to take that story and do something.
There’s no coverage of things that have already happened. There are no free publicity stories about local businesses or local artists. Articles must come with photos, either mine or pictures that I am sure I can obtain from someone else. The writing must fit the breezy, let’s-have-fun tone. Overall, my queries must be very specific.
I pitched a story on an upcoming Art Walk happening over Labor Day weekend. Because I’m personally involved, I had contacts, access to pictures, and a lot of details. She bought it. I also pitched a story on an upcoming set of events around Sept. 11 on the theme of peace. I didn’t have much information, mentioned what I knew and said there would be “other cool stuff.” I would call the person in charge if she was interested. She said: Try again with more information. In addition, I pitched a “glass pumpkin patch” being displayed at a local gallery. It’s a business. I failed to mention the raising-money-for-Food-Share angle. She said: No.
I remind you that I already have the gig. We have enough stories already lined up to keep me busy. If you’re querying a publication that doesn’t already know you, you need to work even harder to make sure your query matches that publication’s mission and is as specific as possible. You need to know exactly what that story is going to contain before you ask an editor to let you write it. It works better that way for both of you because the editor knows what she’s getting, and you know you can provide it.
So, before you send that query, take another look. If there’s anything vague about it, make it specific. If it doesn’t quite fit the publication’s mission, try again.
That’s what I’m doing today.
>The newspapers, magazines and TV are overloaded with Thanksgiving articles, recipes and ads this week. Everything seems to be written with the assumption that we’re all going to be chowing down on turkey in big family gatherings. That simply isn’t true for everyone. In fact, I can name several friends who, like us, are planning on a quiet day at home. Not only are they far from family, but they’ve been working so hard they look forward to doing nothing. Other people are sick, disabled or can’t afford to do the big holiday thing.
What’s the connection with freelancing? Editors welcome new angles on the old articles. Let’s all look for stories about non-traditional Thanksgivings. Ditto for Christmas. What are the alternatives to the standard celebration? What options are available for those who’d like to turkey down but can’t do it without help? What about those folks who just don’t eat turkey? How do we explain this holiday to newly arrived immigrants? On the more mercenary side, one could do a roundup of restaurants offering Thanksgiving dinner. Or grocery stores selling complete dinners ready to heat and eat.
How about a religious connection? What are churches doing about turkey day? Although I don’t plan a big dinner, I do plan to go to church on Thursday and thank God for my blessings. I expect sparse attendance at that service. Between football and feasting, most folks will be too busy.
It doesn’t take long to brainstorm lots of article ideas. It’s too late to get anything published in print this year, but you might get something in for Christmas. Meanwhile, look for the publication possibilities online and save your list of ideas for queries next September.
>Some days, finding article ideas is like trying to put together dinner when you’ve run out of groceries. You might be able to make peanut butter and pickle sandwiches on stale hamburger buns, but you won’t find many takers. It happens to all of us; the larder is bare, and every idea that floats through your mind seems stupid. You could blow off work for the day. Sometimes relaxing the mind leads to new inspiration the next day. But what if the rent is due and you can’t afford to take time off?
That’s when it pays to have a regular newspaper gig, a publication for which you write every issue. If you’re lucky, the editor supplies you with ideas. All you have to do is set up the interviews, do the research and write the story. If you’re really lucky, the editor has already done some of the legwork and listed sources for you to contact, along with a loose outline of what she wants. Nirvana, and a check in the mail soon.
How do you get a regular newspaper gig? Decide whom you want to write for, study the newspaper until you know what gets published, then send an irresistible query. Write a good story, turn it in error-free and on time in the requested format. Then do it again until the editor says, hey, this is a good writer and starts calling you with assignments. It happens. I’ve done it, both as the writer and as the editor.
That’s one way. There are others.
Networking works. A former member of my writing group became editor of a community newspaper. Soon she was calling with assignments to write for their home and garden section. I never submitted a query. She kept me supplied with ideas. All I had to do was say yes. Likewise, I signed up for the job bank at a local writers’ organization, and an editor called me with an assignment. Soon I was getting assignments from him, too.
Finally, don’t overlook the classified section of papers that you read. Sometimes, you’ll find an ad for freelance writers. In two cases, I followed up on such ads and wound up writing monthly articles. For one of the papers, the editor and contacts I developed doing my stories supplied most of the ideas. With the other, alas, all of the ideas were mine, and I had a hard time coming up with subjects that fit the limited parameters of my assignment, but I always found something in time to meet my deadline.
How did I get the idea for this blog item? I didn’t have an idea. I sat out in the sun with the dogs, my most trusted advisors, and they told me to write about that.
Happy writing to one and all.
>We just adopted a new dog last week, Halle Berry Lick. Obviously black and gorgeous. She cannot replace our beloved Sadie, who died in November, but she has added a new element to our lives. What does that have to do with freelancing for newspapers? Well, since she arrived, I keep thinking of dog-related story ideas. This pooch is young and rambunctious–and big. The Safe Havens shelter from which we got her would make a good story on its own, but there are plenty of other topics: What steps do you need to take to welcome a new dog into the family? How do you keep a big water-loving dog out of the spa and is it okay if she drinks the water? Do you have to take her to school to train her? What chew toys are safest and most durable? How do you keep her from assuming that everything else–your shoes, your headphones, the coasters–are also chew toys? What if she won’t eat what you feed her? Why is crate training so popular now, and how do you do it? Etc.
Whatever’s happening in your own life will provide article ideas, like low-growing fruit that’s easy to grab off the tree. Take an idea and spin it every way you can think of for every possible market.
Now I need to get Halle a treat for giving me something to write about in my blog this morning. See how it works?