What is A Writer’s Role in Tragic Times?

Once again, a young man has opened fire at a school, killing students and teachers. Once again, it’s in my state, Oregon. Once again, TV stations are showing nonstop coverage of the tragedy. Once again, I dropped everything to watch after I saw the news on Facebook about the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Then I went outside and hacked the wild berry plants crowding my deck until I had filled three garbage cans with thorny branches. At that point, I could not write. I had to do something physical.

But we’re writers. Eventually we have to deal with the news in writing. Back when I was working for newspapers, my task would have been to “cover” the event if it happened in my area. Gather facts, interview people, take pictures, type it all up for in the next edition. If it happened in another town, the task would be to find someone with a connection—somebody who went to that school or worked there, someone with family involved, someone from our town going to help. Beyond that, we would talk to local school officials to find out what they’re doing about security. Do they have a plan if a shooter shows up, how is the news affecting local students and staff, etc. We might talk to mental health professionals and get quotes from local officials. We might write an editorial about school safety, mental health care or gun control. Of course print is too slow in these days of instant information, so the stories would be published online first.

Journalists all over the country have been doing those things since the shooting, all working as quickly as possible and putting in extra hours. Do I miss those days? No. I miss the adrenaline rush, but I hated bothering people in crisis for quotes, pictures, names and facts. I know we need it. People need information, and journalists are devoted to providing it, but 25 years of that was enough for me.

If you have a connection, an insight or a source that you can turn into a freelance article related to the school shooting, pitch it to an editor today. If you can turn that story around quickly, you could end up with a byline and a check this week. If you wait until next week, it will be too late.

If news is not your thing, you can still find ways to address events like the Roseburg shooting in your writing, whether you write articles, essays, poems, novels, scripts, or something else. Maybe at first there are no words. I wrote an instrumental piece for the piano after the Sandy Hook shooting, and playing it again yesterday gave me comfort. Eventually the words will come. We may not be able to provide physical healing like the doctors and nurses treating the victims. But we can help heal broken spirits by offering comfort, trying to make sense of things, or expressing what other people don’t know how to express. We are the scribes, taking notes on history as it happens. We also can offer the gift of distraction, a story to carry us away from the pain for a while or a laugh to remind us we’re still alive.

Today, I urge you to write something about the shooting in whatever form feels right. Write for yourself if not for publication. It helps. We’re writers. That’s what we do.

Now let’s go write.


Don’t Be Afraid to Follow Up on Submissions

I’m seeing a lot of questions online these days from writers who are worried about their submissions. Either they have gotten no response at all, or their piece was accepted, but now nothing seems to be happening. Would it be okay to send them an email? Would they seem too pushy?Will they annoy the editor? Will giving the editor a nudge endanger their submission?

My friends, editors are just people doing a job. If you sent a jacket to the cleaners and it was taking forever to get cleaned, you’d have every right to know what happened to your jacket. But we put editors on a pedestal and are so afraid that if we say the wrong word, they’ll reject us. Having worked on both sides of the editor’s desk, I can tell you that’s crazy. They’re only judging the writing. Either they like it and plan to use it, or they don’t. Once you present your prose or poetry to them, nothing you say or do will change that.

That said, editors fall behind, overwhelmed with submissions. Things do get lost. Or sometimes they’re holding a piece in the hope of finding a place for it in a future issue. But we writers at home have no idea what’s going on unless we ask. Most publications list a response time in their guidelines. It’s usually two or three months. If that time has passed, then you have every right to shoot them an email asking for a status update. They won’t hate you for it. They might be glad for the reminder. Sometimes it gets things moving. One of my queries got lost. After I asked about it, the editor asked me to send it again, and she published the resulting article.

One caution: Some editors (and agents) now state in their guidelines that they will only contact you if the answer is yes. I think that’s rude, but so be it. If their response time has passed, assume it’s a no and move on.

If they have already accepted it, it’s only good business to keep in contact about what’s happening. If there’s a delay, you are entitled to know. If you have a contract, does it state when the piece will be published or give an expiration date, after which you can send it elsewhere? Your writing is your inventory, and if an editor is going to sit on it forever, neither publishing nor paying you, you might want to sell it somewhere else.

Many publications these days use the Submittable program. When you send something in through Submittable, you get a username and password, which allows you to log in and check the status of your submission. It doesn’t give you details, but it will tell you whether the piece is declined, accepted or in progress. Check there first.

Otherwise, write what I call a “que pasa” note. Be upbeat and polite. No accusations or anger. Say something like, “I sent X to you on (date), and I haven’t heard anything. I’m anxious to know what’s happening with it. Can you give me an update? Thank you.”

Sometimes they never got it. Sometimes it got lost in the avalanche of submissions. Sometimes they were just about to contact you because they love it and it’s going into the next issue.

Don’t be afraid to ask. Even if the answer is no, at least then you know and can move on.

You can’t submit what you don’t write, so  . . .

Let’s go write.


Can journalists become “creative” writers?

When I was a baby writer, I had no interest in journalism. I wanted to be Robert Frost or Louisa May Alcott. In high school, I did not get involved with the school paper. I took creative writing. This was in the 1960s, and our “magazine” was a brown paper bag called “Your Bag” in which we inserted colored slips of paper with poems and stories typed on them. Those were wacky times, my friends. Lots of beads, miniskirts, and long straight hair parted in the middle. The scent of marijuana everywhere.

When it came time to choose a college major, I would have loved to major in creative writing or music, but I didn’t come from a wealthy family. College was a luxury we couldn’t really afford. I knew I had to make a living, so I chose journalism. At West Valley Community College, I edited a magazine full of poetry, fiction, and airy articles illustrated with black and white art. At San Jose State, I wrote lengthy articles for the school magazine. I did not get involved with the frantic activity over at the Spartan Daily office.

Then I needed a job, and guess where I ended up? Newspapers. One after another after another. Writing, editing, taking photos. Covering city council, school board, features, business, local artists, and everything else. I loved it. I was good at it. But I still wanted to write fiction and poetry.

Many years later, I went back to school and earned my MFA in creative writing, specializing in something called “creative nonfiction,” true stories using elements of fiction like point of view, characters, setting and plot. I was probably the only student sneaking time between classes to conduct interviews for my freelance article assignments.

So, now I was a certified creative writer. But what had all those years of journalism done to my skills? In academia, there’s a big divide between literary writing and journalism. Art vs. trade. Some literary types imply that journalism ruins a person for creative writing. Does it?

Let’s look at the pros and cons:

Pro:

  • Writing regularly for publication teaches you to write quickly and efficiently. There’s no time for writer’s block. You just do it.
  • Journalists develop information-gathering skills and learn how to translate that information into palatable prose.
  • In the course of their work, journalists meet a wide range of people and learn about many different subjects.
  • You can build up your clips and develop a recognizable name which can lead to other opportunities.
  • You usually get paid actual money for articles.

Con:

  • Because of deadline pressure, journalists don’t have much time to revise and polish. They crank it out, do a quick spellcheck and turn it in.
  • Because of a lack of space, journalists may not explore stories in much depth.
  • Because the language of most newspapers is plain and simple, there’s a tendency to use a limited vocabulary.
  • Sometimes the articles are little more than free advertising.

I think working as a journalist is a good thing for any kind of writer. Hemingway and Mark Twain did it. Pete Hamill and Tom Wolfe did it. Why not you and me? After all, you’re working with words every day, polishing your skills, and learning about the world.

But do those skills translate into creative writing? Read this article, “Journalists Who Turn to Fiction Writing Can Find It Tough Going,” about journalist-turned-novelist Scott Flanders.

What do you think? Can journalists also be literary writers? Why or why not? Please respond in the comments.

Now let’s go write.


As newspapers fade away, where do we fit?

Today is the 14th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Where did I first hear about what was happening? Online. Then I turned on the TV. Eventually I read more about it in the Oregonian, but my main information came via screen. And that was over a decade ago. Information and communication have moved online so quickly. And why not? Why wait a day, a week or a month to get the news when you can get it instantly on your computer or smart phone?

Do you subscribe to a newspaper? To more than one? Or do you get all your news from TV and the Internet? If you’re one of the millions who no longer count on the “morning paper,” you’re not alone. A recent article by Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York, states that 2/3 of Americans don’t buy newspapers. That’s a big change from 1950, when he quotes Editor and Publisher as saying newspaper penetration was 124 percent, with some people buying multiple newspapers. Click the link and read his article. Pay particular attention to the graph that shows what’s happening with the newspaper biz. Then ask yourself how many people you know under 30 who regularly read a newspaper.

Newspapers are supported by advertising. A common misconception is that subscriptions pay the bills. No. Those annoying advertising sections from supermarkets, car dealers, and department stores pay the bills. Now, Jarvis says, a lot of those advertisers are taking their business online. Where does that leave newspapers? Screwed.

Where does that leave people who want to write for newspapers? You guessed it. Having published a book on the wonderful world of freelancing for newspapers, I hate to say it, but it’s a tougher world than ever for newspaper writers. Every paper I ever worked for in California is now owned by the same company. They need fewer reporters because the same articles can be shared throughout the chain. This is happening everywhere. You can still freelance if you look hard enough. Specialty papers—entertainment, antiques, sports, trade papers, parenting papers—still take freelance. You can still try to get into the remaining big-city dailies and the national stars like the New York Times and Washington Post. It happens. But freelancing for newspapers is not as easy as it used to be. And if you do want to write for newspapers, you need to start reading them.

The world is moving online and we need to move with it. I often wonder what will happen to all the writing stored on the Internet if the technology fails, but for now, take those writing skills wherever you can find an opening. Whether you’re reading a newspaper, magazine, or a file on your iPad, keep an eye out for opportunities. Most print publications also have online versions with space for more writing. Stories are stories, wherever they’re published. Take those skills and adapt to the new world.

What do you think about all this? Please share your thoughts in the comments. And if you want a copy of Freelancing for Newspapers, I’ll send you one for $10, including postage.

Now let’s go write.


Let Your Writing Marinate for a While

Dear writers,

Did you miss me last month?

I learned two important things while I was off-blog. One is that I missed doing this blog, even though I have two others to keep me busy. I like talking about writing, teaching it, and editing it. I just like playing with words.

Last month, I did some teaching at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, but I did even more learning. The big thing that I learned is the value of setting a project aside for a while. I’m talking about my novel, Being PD, which does not yet have a publisher. At the conference, I pitched it to a couple of agents who were interested but made no promises. I also attended a “First Page Gong Show” in which actors read the opening pages of participants’ novels. A panel of agents and editors “gonged” them as soon as they lost interest or heard something they didn’t like. Only about four first pages made it to the end. I was number 38, and they never got to my page. Thank God. Most important, I took several classes from Jennifer Lauck, author of four memoirs and a fantastic teacher. Her workshops on structuring one’s novel or memoir blew my mind.

While struggling with a memoir, I’ve been marketing my novel. I was sure the novel was finished, that I could not make it any better, and that even though 105,000 words is a little long for a novel, the editors would just have to live with it. I did not plan to look at it again until an editor from a publishing house demanded changes for the final version. I’ll bet you can see where this is going. After talking to agents and editors, attending the Gong Show and inhaling the wisdom of Jennifer’s classes, I came home and started tearing PD apart.

I was working on a deadline. I had assured the agents I would send the book to them within two weeks. So I cranked into high gear and got it done. Suddenly I could see exactly what I needed to do with this book, none of which had occurred to me before the conference. The first thing I did was ditch not only my first page but the whole first chapter. I didn’t need it. I needed to start closer to the action. Plus the gong panel was universally turned off by certain bodily functions. So, bye-bye. Cutting that chapter meant I needed to figure out how to include certain necessary details later, but it was not difficult.

The agents said I needed more romance. That was easy to add. And most surprising, I found oodles of words I just didn’t need. Excess verbiage. As I cut, the word count went down painlessly. Another big chunk went out toward the end of the book because I could see the ending went on too long. I trimmed approximately 9,000 words in all. Now I’m in the ballpark. And now I know this novel is the best one I’ve ever written. I was certain it was perfect before. I was wrong. It was good but not quite cooked. To read a brief excerpt from the new and improved opening, click on the Being PD link at the top of the page.

I couldn’t have done this revision if I hadn’t set the book aside for months while I worked on the memoir. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing. We all want our books out in the world as quickly as possible. But we need to let them marinate for a while, then throw away the excess sauce to make them the best they can possibly be.

It also helps to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes, whether it’s a critique group, a teacher, an editor, or an agent. Take classes, read good books, never say “good enough” just because you’re tired. Set it aside and come back to it later. It will be so much easier than if you didn’t wait.

Jennifer Lauck teaches online as well as in-person in Portland. You might want to check out her classes. She strongly recommends Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

The annual Willamette Writers Conference takes place in Portland, Oregon the first weekend in August.

Now, let’s go write.


Take your notebook on a writing vacation

I was feeling all tangled up with the many different projects I’m working on, so much so that I dreaded sitting at my computer. Outside, it was summer, and I live in a place where people come for dream vacations. I decided to play tourist for a day. I went on a long drive that ended at the beach, gathered treasures at a used bookstore, and ate crab cakes at a swanky restaurant with a fabulous view. You know what I was doing the whole time? Writing. I filled page after page in my journal with observations, ideas and even a new poem. Suddenly the tap was wide open, all because I took myself out of my usual setting and my usual schedule. I also got away from the Internet, which was a big factor. I had forgotten to charge my phone, so I had to turn it off. And my brain said, “Yippee! let’s play.”

At lunch, while I was scribbling in my notebook, I couldn’t resist writing a description of a woman sitting at a corner table by herself. She wore casual clothes and her hair up in a ponytail. She had her laptop open in front of her and was eating with one hand and typing with the other. What really got my attention was that she was drinking champagne. As the bubbles rose in her glass, I wondered what she was celebrating and whether she actually tasted the champagne or saw the incredible view just outside the window. What’s her story? My imagination is still toying with that picture, which I would not have seen from my desk at home. You might want to play with it, too. Who is she? Why was she drinking champagne alone at noon in an expensive restaurant at the beach?

I’m taking the month of August off from this Writer Aid blog. More sunny days and other projects need my attention. My assignment for you is to take your notebook–I mean the paper kind–and a couple of pens or pencils and take yourself on a mental vacation. Turn the phone, tablet and computer off. Write down whatever comes to you. Don’t worry about marketing or any of that. You’re creating raw material. If nothing comes, just breathe, just live life for a while. The words will come when it’s time.

While I’m on vacation, you might want to look at my updated list of resources for writers. I welcome suggestions for things I have missed and alerts to links that don’t work.

See you in September. Let’s go write.


Should We Use THOSE Words in Our Writing?

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.