Dear writers and readers, this blog has been dormant since late last year, but I had to mark the 10-year anniversary of my first post by telling you that I have updated the past posts, revising where the information was no longer accurate and making sure all the links worked. Those updated posts are my gift to you. Because I think it would be good to have all the advice put together in one place in a logical order, I am also planning to compile my blog posts into an e-book. I will let you know about that as soon as it’s available.
In the beginning, the blog was called Freelancing for Newspapers. I started it to publicize my then-upcoming Freelancing for Newspapers book. I’ll be honest. Some of those first posts were so lame it hurts to read them now. I was just learning how to blog. Now I offer a class on it. (click on Classes above). Over those first few years, I offered a mix of my own experiences writing freelance articles, plus information about the newspaper business and advice for writers on everything from how to get an assignment to how to get paid.
But the publishing world changed, I changed, and so did this blog. It morphed from Freelancing for Newspapers to Freelancing for Newspapers +, the plus sign indicating I might talk about more than newspapers. Eventually it became Writer Aid so I could address all sorts of writing, including fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction (and also maybe lure readers into my servers for writers).
At the same time, the newspaper business was changing. With the double whammy of the recession and the Internet, newspapers were going under or shrinking. Longtime staff writers were losing their jobs by the hundreds. And freelance opportunities became harder to find. Our local daily, The Oregonian, went from a stuffed package loaded with special sections to a thin tabloid. How could one write for the garden or arts sections when even the decades-long editors of those sections were now unemployed?
My own life was changing, too. I was caring for my husband, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. In 2009, he moved into a nursing home, and in 2011, he died. Through it all, I kept writing, but I was easing out of article writing and focusing more on poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing. I started teaching. I published two more books, Shoes Full of Sand and Childless by Marriage.
All of these changes were reflected in the blog as I talked about self-publishing, poetry, plots, settings, characters, and selling books. For a while, the blog shrank down to three quick tips because that’s all I could manage, but I kept it going. Last December, I decided there were too many writers blogging about writing, and the world didn’t need me doing it. I would focus on my other blogs, Unleashed in Oregon and Childless by Marriage.
I’m still not sure the world needs me writing about writing. Writers are so inbred, and I think it’s important to talk to the rest of the world. But as I put together the e-book, I suspect I will find topics that I have not yet addressed, and I will write new posts to fill in the blanks. If you sign up to follow the blog, WordPress will let you know when that happens.
You can still buy the Freelancing for Newspapers book. Some of the information is outdated now, but the basics of writing and selling articles is the same. The steps in the book will lead you from idea to published story, not just in newspapers but in magazines and online publications. Order a copy.
Now go write something.
Curse words are rolling around in my head right now. Could be because I’ve watched six episodes of “Orange is the New Black” in the last three days. For those who don’t know, OINB is a Netflix series that takes place in a women’s prison. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, it’s raw and wonderful. It has sex, violence and all the words you wouldn’t dare say at church. If my mother were alive, she’d be horrified. My electrician dad, whose language isn’t exactly bland, would turn away in disgust. But I love it, even if it does make me want to say F— in every sentence.
But should I say it? More important here, should I write it? It depends on the audience, whether in person or in writing. I have noticed that when I slip those juicy words into conversation, some people look uncomfortable. Even when I say “freakin’” instead of—you know. Most of them don’t talk that way. Since my day job is at a church, I know I have to keep my language clean when I’m at work or around work people. I also have to watch myself around children, my uber-Christian friends and in any situation where I’m not sure how a stream of curse words will be taken.
One of my favorite expressions (and my dad’s) is “son of a bitch.” It’s a great all-purpose release. Just in case, I’ve been dreaming up other words for the end, like “son of a bean” or “son of a beach bag.” Just like my best friend’s mom used to say, “Oh S….sugar.”
Ages ago, comedian George Carlin had a famous routine in which he listed the seven words you couldn’t say on TV. Now all but about three of them are being said on a regular basis. I’m still surprised when a sitcom character says “asshole,” for example.
The novel I’m reading right now uses all the good words, including the F-bomb. But the thing is, that’s how people talk. Not all people, but certain groups of people use all the forbidden words all the time, just like other people quote the Bible. It feels natural. It would be unnatural to offer plain vanilla language.
Certainly a factual article has no need for questionable language, unless a person being interviewed speaks that way. Even then you probably want to edit it out. In poetry, fiction, essays, and scripts, think about whether you need those words to make the point, whether they feel natural and necessary or awkward and ugly. Share it with someone you trust and see how they react. Are they offended? Uncomfortable? Do the words fit in so naturally that they don’t even notice?
You wouldn’t expect people in a prison, for example, to speak like nuns. Well, actually there is a nun in “Orange is the New Black.” She only curses when she gets really angry. Use the language that’s right for your characters. Some people never curse, some always do, and some make up colorful substitutes. People who don’t even believe in God will blurt out “Jesus!” in a stressful situation.
When you use the so-called blue words, some people will be offended and reject both you and your writing. Even a single word may earn you a rejection. So be careful. As with any question about writing style, read heavily in the genre you write and note the conventions. Does the romance writer refer to a woman’s “pussy” or just “down there”? Does she say, “I want to f— you” or “I want to make love”? If you did a search, would you find a single word your grandmother wouldn’t approve of? If you want to publish in that world, do likewise. Keep it clean or don’t, depending on the market. If you’re writing porn, go for it. If you want to publish the next bestseller from one of the major publishers, maybe you want to go easy on the R-rated words.
And if you decide to watch “Orange is the New Black,” don’t let your kids or parents watch it with you.
Here’s great article on the subject by Elizabeth Sims from Writer’s digest.
Another by Mark Nichol: “What the Hell Do You Do About Profanity?”
Now let’s go write.
Last week, I spent a morning in the Cardiac Procedures Unit at Kaiser Hospital with my 93-year-old father, who was getting his pacemaker replaced. He had used up the battery on the old one, installed in 2004. It was a relatively minor procedure. He was fine coming and going, well, fine for a half-deaf, half-crippled very old man. Usually a big talker, he was quiet and nervous and probably as sleepy as I was. They wanted us there at 7:30, but they didn’t call him in until around 9, and the procedure didn’t actually happen till about 10:15.
I had brought my laptop with visions of writing for several hours while I waited, but I was too sleepy and too distracted to concentrate. Instead, I took notes, and I think that was the appropriate response. After all, I was away from my desk, away from the loveseat where I write poetry with my dog in the same setting every ordinary day. Here I was in a different setting, surrounded by all kinds of interesting people and activities that piqued my interest. Nobody looked sick. I could only tell the patients by the white wristbands they wore as they sat in the waiting room while “Good Morning, America” played on a big-screen TV overhead. They came in pairs and groups, all having different stories.
Let’s let the imagination run wild and imagine what’s going on with . . .
* The Hispanic family that keeps adding more people. An older woman appears to be the patient, surrounded by her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. It’s like a party. A white-bearded man dominates the conversation. They all speak English until a younger woman with long dark hair enters. They switch to Spanish.
* Two young black women and a man who might be in his late 50s. The man is large and he has vitiligo, where the dark color is gone from big patches of his skin. He sits next to me and I see that the white portions are as white as my skin. The man plays a slot machine game on his phone.
* A smallish bald man in his 40s with a baseball cap and tee shirt tucked into his jeans. He’s the patient. His skinny wife sits like a puppet in hiking shoes, new jeans rolled up at the cuffs, and a face with long creases on each side of her mouth that make it look like she’s always smiling. She’s chewing gum and never stops touching her husband, giving him a full back and neck massage which he doesn’t seem to notice.
* A young crew-cutted man and a blonde woman right out of the 1960s with carefully applied makeup. Neither one is wearing wrist bands.
Can you make up a story out of any of these people? I know I could.
Let’s think nonfiction for a moment. I have so many questions that could be answered in an article or pondered in an essay or poem.
* How does the pacemaker work? How do they do angiograms and other heart procedures? Do people die in these procedures? What are the risks?
* Why do they play TV everywhere these days as if we’re all one common mind wanting to watching GMA or Kelly and Micahel or the View?
* There are hand sanitizers everywhere, but they keep handing these heart patients the same plastic-encased papers to read and then sign their names on a computerized signature box. Aren’t they covered with germs?
* How do people like my dad who can’t hear get along in these situations? The answer is not so well. What can be done to make their experience better? How can nurses and aides be trained to speak up or offer more visual cues?
* Are our possessions really safe while we’re unconscious?
* Are medical workers spending so much time looking at their computers that they don’t see the patients?
* Why do some people keep touching their partners?
* What happened to the rules against using cell phones in hospitals, all those warnings that they interfere with equipment? Everybody had a cell phone or tablet, including me, and nobody said a word against it.
* Who designed the endless lookalike hallways at this hospital?
* What is it like to work in a room with no windows doing the same task day after day?
* What happened to nurses dressed in white dresses and white caps?
* Would it hurt to offer coffee, tea and snacks in the waiting room when we’re stuck here all day?
* Would my father’s mother, who died in 1954 of heart disease at age 58, have lived much longer with the procedures they have now? Will I need a pacemaker someday?
* Pacemakers: models, how they work, dangers, advantages, possible malfunctions. The doctor indicated that if Dad’s pacemaker battery died, so would my father. How many people are walking around being kept alive by these mini-computers implanted in their chests?
Writers, you are welcome to use any of these characters and questions as prompts while I enjoy the last of my vacation.
The moral of this post is that sometimes you have to put down your electronics, look around, observe and let your mind wander. Then take some notes. Maybe you’ll use them later in a story, article, essay or poem. Maybe one day, you’ll need a piece of information and think, oh wait, that day I hung out at the hospital, I remember . . . The world is one big prompt.
Now let’s go write.
So I’m reading a book or an essay or a story or a poem and I get to the end of the first page and I still don’t know what’s going on. Who are these people? Where are we? Is the narrator male or female? Is it modern times? Are we on earth? At that point, if I’m not required to keep reading for work purposes, I’m going to quit. If I’m wearing my editor hat, I’m going to mark it with a big fat “no.”
I’m all for catchy openings and a reasonable amount of suspense, but as writers we have a duty to orient the readers. Get as weird as you want in the opening line. Do whatever you have to do to draw readers in, but then, very soon, like by the third paragraph, you’ve got to tell us who, what, where, when and why. You don’t have to tell everything, but do tell enough so the reader won’t give up, saying, “I can’t figure out what’s going on.” It’s a mistake I’m seeing all the time, and I just want to say, “Stop it.” Give me some facts to hold on to. Maybe you know what it’s all about, but we the readers don’t unless you tell us.
You know how in some movies they flash words on a screen, such as “Bombay, 1915” or “Five years later”? You can do that too. It doesn’t take a lot of words, just a few key sentences to clue us in. Set the scene so we can be there with you as we transition from the catchy opening into the meat of the story.
In journalism, the paragraph orienting the reader is called a nut graf (“graf” being newspeak for paragraph). It’s called the nut graf because, like a nut, it contains the “kernel,” or essential theme, of the story. Read this great article about the nut graf by Chip Scanlon. Jack Hart writes in his book A Writer’s Coach: An Editor’s Guide to Words That Work, that “the nut graf answers questions such as ‘What’s it mean?’ ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ It tells readers why they should bother investing their time and effort in reading the story.”
Take another look at the beginnings of your pieces. Does the lead grab one’s attention? Great. Does what follows tell us what’s going on? If not, fix it.
End of sermon. Now let’s go write.
Once upon a time—
No, wait, you can’t start with that. It’s too vague. What about the five W’s, who, what, where, when, and why? What is the URL? Can I look it up on Google? Has it got a Facebook page? What do you mean it’s just a story and that’s the point? Show me where I can find it on my phone.
Those five-year-olds are getting much too sophisticated.
Okay, I’m making this up. I don’t have a five-year-old in my life. The only person I tell stories to is my dog, and she’s fine with whatever I say as long I keep petting her belly.
My mother used to make up stories. I can’t remember a single one now, but they were good. They were tailored to the audience, so they probably all featured a little girl like me. They weren’t too long because Mom was tired and I needed to go to sleep. They had action and suspense and a happy ending. If I looked restless, she added a new plot twist. There was no editing or revising, no marketing, no platform-building, and no, you couldn’t look them up on Google or Facebook.
I think sometimes we writers have lost the freedom of just telling a story. We worry so much about making it perfect that we get tongue-tied. We worry about what it’s going to be, where it’s going to go, and how people will receive it. If we could just forget all that and tell stories because it’s fun or because we need to get this story out of our heads, we could all write more and probably write better.
Many writers hate the sound of their own voices and worry about getting stuck, so they are reluctant to just tell stories to other people or, God forbid,” record them. But I think we need to get over that. Try telling a story, something you make up or something that really happened. Tell it to yourself in the mirror. Tell it to the dog. Tell it to your children or grandchildren. Tell it to your voice recorder. Just let it flow. Follow the rivulets of thought wherever they go. You never have to share it with anyone if you don’t want to.
If it’s good, tell it again. You’ll remember the important parts. Maybe write it down. Eventually, if the story is worthwhile, it will get edited, revised, marketed and hooked up on social media. But meanwhile, the story has value just for itself, just for the fun of telling a story.
Try it. See if it works for you. Start with “once upon a time.”
Here’s a link to a TED talk on storytelling. Check it out when you have time.
Now go write.