Writer Aid celebrates ten years of advice for writers

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.

How do you find a critique group?

Last week when I wrote about how to tell when your novel is done, I mentioned my critique group and their reactions to my manuscript. You may have noticed other authors talking about their groups or thanking them on the acknowledgements pages of their published books. And you may be thinking: I don’t have a group, I have no idea how to get one, and it’s lonely out here.

I hear you. Good critique groups are not easy to find, especially if you live out in the boonies like I do. If you happen to be in a college creative writing program or taking a workshop, you might have a chance to critique each other’s work, but that’s only a temporary fix, and these might not even be the people you want to have reading your work. The ideal critique group is long-lasting, local, and small enough that every writer gets the attention he or she needs, but big enough to offer varied opinions. The members share a similar level of skill and experience, and they understand what you’re trying to do with your writing. They stick to a regular schedule and a consistent process that works.

How do you find such a group? That’s where networking comes in. Most writers would rather just write. Too bad. There are many steps between the writer and reading world, and you need other people to get there. Here’s what you do:

* Join a local or regional writing organization. Here in Oregon, I belong to Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge. We also have Oregon Writers Colony. In California, I belonged to the California Writers Club, which has branches all over the state. Most states have their own writing organizations. A quick Internet search will surely find you a group. You can find a great list of genre-specific groups at http://www.writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations.

* Go to writing events. Look for readings, open mics, workshops and conferences where you can meet other writers.

* Get involved. Join the board, volunteer, offer to bring cookies, read your work at the open mic, talk to people. Writers are inherently shy, but if you get yourself an official job to do, it’s a lot easier to meet people.

* Ask people about critique groups. Do they know of one that could use another member? Would they like to start one with you? If there’s a newsletter, submit a notice that you’re looking for a critique group. Our group was born one night before a Willamette Writers program when three of us were having dinner together and discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We set a date, started meeting, added a couple more members, and have been meeting every other Tuesday since then. When I lived in California, I was invited by a fellow member of California Writer’s Club to join her group.

Not every group succeeds. You may need to try different combinations of people. It helps if you’re all working on similar types of writing. In my group, we’re all doing novels or memoirs right now. Another group I know does nothing but poetry. And you need to set up a process. Where and when will you meet? Will you read passages out loud or distribute copies before the meeting? Our group sends up to 10 pages by email a few days before the meeting so members arrive having already read and marked up their copies. We go clockwise around the table giving our comments while the author listens and takes notes. We talk about what works and what doesn’t and about where the story is going. We discuss issues like flashbacks, point of view and plot. It’s painful when a friend says, “No, this section doesn’t work,” but it makes our work much stronger in the long run.

It’s not essential to meet in person. You can exchange critiques around the world by computer, adding comments and corrections with the “track changes” function in Word. You could even meet via Skype or Google Hangout. You can also join existing online critique sites such as the Critique Circle, where you earn critiques for your work by commenting on other members’ work. I belonged for a long time, and it was helpful. But there’s something about meeting face to face, working through the pages of your work together, that really does make it stronger.

We writers would like to think we don’t need anyone else. But we do. We cannot be objective about our own work, and we will never see it as a reader sees it. We need a critique group.

But of course there’s nothing to critique until you write it.

So now go write.

How do I know when my novel is done?

It was the fifth total revision—I think. I got to the end of my novel, sat back with a sigh, then posted on Facebook that I was finished, ready to share that book with the world. My friends congratulated me. But my critique group was still about 50 pages from the end, and I hadn’t heard their comments yet. We met Tuesday. Bill and Theresa liked it, but wanted a few minor changes. “Tough Shit Dorothy” hated it. HATED it. No, you can’t have your protagonist do that. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The story ends here, not there.

But I was done, wasn’t I? Maybe not. Critiques spread out around my computer, I went into the file and tweaked some things. Better. Maybe now it was done. But my friends’ comments had gotten into my head. Doubts crowded in. Do I need this section at all? Should I cut this? Expand this? Does my main character suffer enough? Dagnabbit, I just sent out my first queries on this book. I’m ready to move on to another project, but maybe I’m not really done. I got so flummoxed I set it aside and went for a walk in the rain.

When you bake a cake, it’s easy to tell when it’s done. If it’s not fully cooked, it will be wet inside, but if it’s ready, you can poke it with a toothpick, and the toothpick comes out clean. You can press it with the tip of your finger, and it bounces back. You could cook it another minute or two, but it might burn, and nobody likes a burnt cake.

So how do you get your book to that place between soggy in the middle and burnt, to where the toothpick comes out clean? I have no magic answers, but I have learned a few things in the course of publishing six other books.

* No book is ready on the first draft. No matter how good a writer you are or how inspired you feel while writing it, you have to go back and revise. Everyone makes mistakes. With a book the length of a novel, you’re bound to find inconsistencies, places where you’ve said too much or too little, and things that need to change in view of discoveries you made along the way. Details and names may have changed. One of my characters is on her fourth name.

* After a while, we authors can’t see our own mistakes. We’ve got to have someone else look at it. We need other people, writers, editors or wise readers–not your spouse or your mother–who can come to the book with clear minds and who don’t know what we’re trying to say, only what we have said.

* If you’re not sure about something, mark it and come back later. Go for a walk, then look at it again. When you cut a section of your book, save it in another file, just in case you change your mind.

* Writing novels is not a race. You do not have to finish in a month or even a year. Perhaps you drafted a book in 30 days  during NaNoWriMo. Bravo. Now take at least twice that much time to revise it. No one can say exactly how many revisions it will take. Revise until it’s no longer soggy in the middle and stop before it gets burnt.

* Sometimes it helps to stop reading fiction by other authors while you revise your own. That way, your story is the only story in your head.

* If you self-publish, you need an editor. Yes, even you.

* Even if a traditional publishing house buys your book, you need to revise and proofread like crazy. Today’s publishers spend less time on editing and proofreading than they used to. Any error in the manuscript is likely to show up in the published book. Be prepared to do some more revising for the agent and editor before the book is finally published.

So is my novel done yet? Almost. I woke up this morning knowing that what I have written is good. The house smells like sugar and vanilla, so we’re getting close. I can’t wait to frost it and serve it up.

Now go write.


Don’t let the holidays keep you from writing

Happy day after Thanksgiving! The holidays are upon us. Christmas is less than a month away. New Year’s is the week after that. Hanukkah is happening right now. It’s getting hard to concentrate on writing, isn’t it? Other things are pulling your attention away. Got to buy gifts, send cards, decorate the house, plan and attend holiday events. Maybe you’re traveling. You’re tempted to set your writing aside until the holidays are over in about five weeks. Don’t.

Writing is a lot like an athletic activity or like playing music. If you don’t do it for a while, your muscles get stiff and your skills take a dive. It will take you at least another month to get back to where you were before. If you’re writing a long project, such as a novel or a nonfiction book, you need to keep your mind in it or you’ll forget and have to start over. Trust me, I’ve been there. If you’re submitting articles, a gap in activity will cause a gap in assignments and pay later.

I know how harried the holiday season can be. I’m worried about the Christmas presents I haven’t purchased, and I’m leaving for San Francisco on Monday, and the end of the year is coming and . . .

But I’m a writer and writers write. If you’re a self-employed writer, you do not get vacations or holiday pay. It may not be possible to work full-out the way you might in an ordinary month like September, but don’t quit altogether. No matter what’s going on, you can find at least an hour a day to work on your writing projects. Freewrite, gather ideas, do research, write queries, add a page a day to your work in progress. Adjust, but don’t give up.

I plan to keep at it. Promise me you will, too.

Now go write.