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.

Advertisements

Are you sure your writing is really done?

You know how sometimes fried chicken is all brown and crispy on the outside, but then when you cut it open, it’s pink and bloody inside? That’s how I’m feeling about some of the work I have been reading in my role as one of the editors of the Timberline Review, for which submissions closed yesterday.

It happens mostly in poems, but also in prose. I start reading and think, wow, this is going to be great. What a fresh topic, what wonderful imagery. The rhythm, the emotion, the substance. And then . . . rats. The piece fizzles out. Suddenly I’m at the end, and the writer didn’t carry through with the promise he or she made at the beginning. The piece ends in a stream of vague generalities or clichés, goes on too long, or stops suddenly, leaving me wanting more. We grade the poems on a 1 to 4 scale, 1 being yes and 4 being forget about it. In my weariness last night, I gave one poem a 5. I hate, hate, hate starting out reading a 1 poem and having to give it a 4 because the writer didn’t finish it.

I worked in the newspaper business for a long time. We were lucky if we had time for two drafts, but if you’re writing on your own, you do have time for two or 20 or however many drafts it takes to make sure your work is the best it can be. Right now, take out a piece of paper and write down these words. Write them big. WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY? Hang it up where you can see it and ask yourself that with everything you write.

Write your first drafts as loose and wild as you want. Don’t worry about things hanging together or even making sense. But when you revise and before you ever send your work out for publication, ask yourself that question. What am I trying to say? Write down what you’re trying to say in one sentence. And follow it up with: Does this piece of writing say it? Does it say it all the way from the first line to the last? Can I tie the opening and closing together? Are there sections that just don’t support that main idea? Did I run out of steam halfway through or quit too soon? Finish your thought. Then stop. The most common editing suggestion we’ve been making to our poets is to cut the final stanza. So take another look. Is your work really ready?

Two other editor quibbles I have to share today:

1) If the guidelines say not to put your name on the submission, don’t put your name on it. Don’t put it in the file name or in your headers or footers, don’t put it anywhere except in your cover letter or the online form you use to submit. When editors say blind submissions, that’s what we want.

2) Learn the difference between lay and lie and how to conjugate them:

I lie down now, I lay down last night, I had lain down last Tuesday, I am lying down now.

I lay down the book now, I laid it down last night, I had laid it down last Tuesday, I am laying it down now.

See the nifty chart and examples at The Grammarist.

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.


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.


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.


Write your ABCs and 1-2-3’s to grab readers

I found myself reading an article all the way to the end this morning even though I really didn’t have time. I was drawn in by the format. The writer went through the alphabet offering words of advice for writers. A is for anecdotes, F is for focus, etc. And I just had to read all the way to Z. Alphabet articles get me every time.

Why?

1) They’re easy to read.

2) I’m curious what words the writer will connect with each letter

3) The letters act as mnemonic devices that help me remember what I read.

Letters and numbers can work for you, too. I’m going to talk about articles first, but hang in there, poets, fiction writers and essayists.

ABC articles are common, but numbered list articles are even more common: Ten hidden treasures on the Oregon coast, five reasons why your child should go to summer school, eight ways to get better orgasms, a baker’s dozen gluten-free cupcakes. Look at the front of any consumer magazine to see how popular list articles are.

These articles are rarely great art, but they are easy to write, easy to read, and they sell. If you offer an editor 10 ways to ___________, he or she knows exactly what you’re offering and where it will fit in the publication. Write an intro and a list of what your list will contain, a bio paragraph about yourself, and your query is done. When the editor says yes, fill in the list.

A few cautions about writing the list article:

1) If you start out with the alphabet, you have to use every letter, and if you go with numbers, you need to follow through with all of them.

2) Each item must have value, no cheating, no excuses like X is useless, nothing starts with X. Find something and make it good.

3) The pieces all need to fit together somehow. Think of those exam questions that ask which item doesn’t not fit in the list: apples, oranges, bananas, snickerdoodles.

Now, you writers of fiction, essays and poems, some of my favorite works are done with lists. You can get painfully corny with alphabet poems, which actually have a formal name, abecedarium, but some are truly works of art. Many great poems, essays and short stories have been written in numbered sections that draw the reader along and come together in a way that straight stanzas or paragraphs wouldn’t. Actually, how different is this from numbering chapters? They’re just much shorter, sometimes only a paragraph or even a line. Try it. It works.

There’s an annual A to Z blog challenge which I did last year. I was surprised at how easy it was to find ideas with the simple prompt of a letter of the alphabet. Try a list. Or make a list about why you’d rather not.

Some links to check out:

1) Poets.org offers an explanation of abecedarium poems and some great examples.

2) At Blue Sky, Big Dreams, a lesson and some examples.

3) New Yorker Short story “Permission to Enter” by Zadie Smith, example of short fiction told in numbers.

4) Also from the New Yorker: “A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists” by Maria Konnikova.

Now let’s go write. 1-2-3 GO!


Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Buy This Book

No, I’m not naked or drunk, but I am writing. I haven’t quite finished reading Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, but I can’t wait to share it with you. The subtitle: Shed Your inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay tell you what this book published in 2010 by Ten Speed Press is about.

I have been writing essays and memoir for decades, but I have never found a book or a teacher that made the process so incredibly clear. It comes at a perfect time for me as I struggle to figure out what to do with almost 800 pages of journals I’m trying to turn into a memoir. Now, thanks to this book, I know how.

Lara, a longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of 13 books, as well as a popular teacher and writing coach, has packed this book with information that will help you write personal nonfiction that will get published. She uses her own experiences and that of her friends, offers tons of examples, lots of great exercises, and clear steps to crafting an essay designed to please your editor, not your English teacher, and memoirs that read like the best fiction.

Topics include: finding the question that drives your essay or memoir, establishing tone and voice, mining your emotions, figuring out what to keep and what to take out, how to craft a scene, how to submit your work to editors, and more. Lara presents it all in a voice that makes you want to keep reading.

Read this book. Get inspired. Write.

I find it distracting to be naked or drunk while writing. Lara wasn’t naked or drunk either. She just thought the title would get people’s attention. So, put on your clothes, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and let’s write.