Sometimes It Pays to Volunteer

I seem to have spent the last week working for free. I was teaching at the Catholic Writers Conference online,  something I have done several times before. Every time the organizers put out a call for people to teach workshops and lead chats, I think, sure, that will be fun. As the date approaches, I suddenly wake up and think, oh my God, why did I say I’d do this. It’s going to take so much time, and I’m not getting paid. (sound familiar to anyone?)

This year, I led two workshops, “Poetry Party” and “Power Blogging (their titles). For the poetry course, each day I presented a different poetry form with examples, offered a prompt and invited participants to write and post their poems for comments and critiques. Over the week, I learned more about the various poetry forms, and I wrote seven new poems. This is good!

As for the blogging class, I had wanted to teach this for a long time. I had an outline, but I had not written the lessons. Now, thanks to this volunteer gig, I have been forced put the whole course together. It was hard work, but I can use it for paid teaching opportunities. (See my list of classes at writeraid.net/classes.)

I can also add the workshops and this conference to my resume. So it was not a waste of time. I wrote every day, I made connections with other writers, and I also had the opportunity to participate in all the other classes for free.

The moral of the story is that it’s okay to work for free sometimes for benefits that go beyond money. Just don’t stop writing.

Many conferences are coming up. You can find listings of them at Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers or Google “writers conferences.” If you want to attend but can’t afford it, think about volunteering to teach, help set things up, make copies, pick up guest speakers at the airport, or whatever they need. It will get you in the door.

Now go write.

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Take your muse for a ride on Amtrak

The writing world is all a-twitter this week about Amtrak offering residencies for writers on its trains. It seems a writer named Alexander Chee commented in an interview that he loved to write on trains and wished Amtrak had residencies for writers. Other writers started tweeting about it on Twitter, and voila, Amtrak is now offering residencies for writers. Application information went online this week. Read about it at http://www.blog.amtrak.com/amtrakresidency. The first writers have already boarded and blogged about it, and thousands of other writers have  applied. Those who are chosen will get to ride free in a sleeper car with bed and desk and nothing to do but watch the miles go by. Read about Jessica Gross’ Amtrak writing experience in the Paris Review.

The Amtrak residencies have strict requirements and qualifications, which most of us could meet. You fill out a form and submit a writing sample at their website, and Amtrak staffers choose who gets to go and where they will go. It’s worth a try. There’s something about getting away that can be incredibly freeing.

I rode a sleeper car on Amtrak’s Starlight Express to San Jose a few years ago. It was snowing outside most of the way, but I was warm and cozy in my little cubbyhole, watching the towns go by. It cost over $700 for the 20-hour ride, and I didn’t sleep well, but I did get a lot of writing done. In fact, I write more than usual every time I travel. Planes, trains, boats, cars, feet, it doesn’t matter where I go or how I get there. I have a wonderful office at home, but somehow getting away from the distractions of ordinary life for a while, escaping my daily routines and seeing new places can really get my muse dancing. Only the cost has kept me from taking the train again.

Residencies and retreats have long been a part of the writing life. Usually you sleep in a stationary building, not a moving train, but the concept is the same. You escape to a place where you can focus on your writing. It can be especially helpful if you’re trying to finish a book or other long project or just feeling stuck. Sometimes you have to pay to go there. Sometimes the organizers award free residencies to writers who meet their qualifications. For lists of residencies, do a Google search or visit the residencies database at Poets & Writers.

I suspect other transportation companies will soon be following Amtrak’s example. It’s good publicity, and it helps them fill seats during the slow seasons.

Even if you don’t get an Amtrak residency, you can plan your own getaway. Just last weekend, I attended an all-day poetry workshop in San Rafael, California. We spent the whole day writing poetry. It was so freeing. I combined the trip with a visit to my dad and a birthday celebration with my family, but I flew from Portland to San Jose, which meant time at the airport and on the plane when I could think about my writing. It was a mini-retreat. Some days, maybe all I have time for is an hour at Starbuck’s or at the beach, but it’s still a chance to get away and write.

Try a retreat or residency. It can really spark your writing. If you can’t spend a month at a cottage in the woods or a week on Amtrak, take a day or an hour close to home. Take a lunch, a pen and a notebook, and see what comes out.

Now go write.

 

 

 

 


Contests as a route to getting published

In recent weeks, we have talked about approaching agents and book publishers to get your book published. Another path to publication is by entering contests. Many university presses and small independent publishers, especially those who do literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, hold contests in which they will publish the winning books. This can be a huge honor and a stepping stone to greater things in your career, or it may turn out to be much ado about not very much, a handful of copies that no one but you will ever see.

You can find contests in many books and websites. Here are a few: Funds for Writers, Moira Allen’s Writing to Win: Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, Poets & WritersWriters Digest, Freelancewriting.com, and the Creative Writing Opportunities list at Yahoo groups.I  So, you read the listings and find some that sound good. Now you need to answer some questions.

Who are these people?

Who else have they published? Do you like the books they put out? Would your book fit in? Go to their website, take a look at their books and see if it feels right. Then study the guidelines. Do you and your book fit their qualifications? Many contests look for authors who have not published books before or at least not in that genre. Some have requirements for age, ethnicity or place of residence. Others only want to see books that have already been published.

What do they require for entries?

Usually they’re looking for a finished manuscript. Will yours be ready by the deadline? Will it be the right length?  Do they want hard copies sent by mail, email entries, or entries fit into a form? Do they want your contact information on the manuscript, or does it need to be anonymous with a cover sheet explaining who you are. You can lose a contest in a hurry by not following directions.

Is this contest worth it to you? Nearly all contests have entry fees, often ranging from $20 up. If you enter several contest, the fees add up. What will you get if you win? Is there a cash prize? Do they guarantee publication? How many copies will they publish? What rights will they take? Will they pay an advance or royalties? Will they help with marketing and distribution? Are there secondary prizes for runners-up and honorable mentions? Do they offer critiques for non-winners?

If you’re thinking entering book contests sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is. But if you win the right contest with the right book, it can be the best thing that ever happened to your career.

You can’t enter a book contest without a book, so …

Now go write.

 

 


How Do I Approach a Literary Agent?

With caution, confidence and consideration.

Caution: A good literary agent combined with a good book can make your career. A bad agent is worse than none at all. And if you annoy that good agent, she won’t want to help you. So be careful about how you approach an agent. Make sure she’s an agent with the ability and experience to sell your book. Make sure she is the right agent for your kind of book. And don’t piss her off with a book that is not ready, that is the wrong genre, or that you have no idea what kind of readers will want to read.

Confidence: If you go in saying it’s not very good and you’ll rewrite it if they want, they’re going to say no. So don’t try to get an agent until you know your novel or your nonfiction book proposal is as good as you can make it and then present it without apologies or excuses.

Consideration: Agents are people. Like you, they have lots of things going in their lives. They get hungry and tired and cranky. So be nice to them, don’t corral them in the bathroom at a conference, don’t call them every day for answers, and if you have the opportunity, offer them a cup of coffee. Best of all, send them the book that will make both of you successful.

Finding agents:

A literary agent’s job is to connect authors to publishers and handle the negotiations. They make sure you get paid and that your rights are protected. For this, they get 15 percent of what you make. If they don’t sell a book, they don’t make any money. So they need you as much you need them.

In these digital days, finding information about agents is easy. Do a Google search for literary agents and you’ll find all kinds of listings and advertisements. But anybody can call himself a literary agent. It’s better to go a reputable source. Most legitimate agents belong to the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR). Members agree to a list of rules and standards that they abide by. You can search on their website for agents by name or genre.You can also find agents by looking in the acknowledgements of books that you enjoy. Authors often thank their agents.

Several books list agents, including Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, Chuck Sambuchino’s 2014 Guide to Literary Agents, and 2014 Writer’s Market, put out by the Writer’s Digest folks. Most magazines for writers, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets & Writers, include agents in their market listings.

All of these listings describe what kind of books the agents are looking for and how to approach them. Various agents want mysteries, fantasies, romance, books for children, nonfiction, and other types of writing. None of them want every type of writing. Once you find an agent who likes your kind of book, go beyond the listings to their websites and read everything there. Pay special attention to the titles of books they have already sold. Would your book fit into that group? If not, find a different agent. If it seems like a good fit, then go on to read how they want you to approach them.

Agents’ requirements vary. Some agents ask for just a one-page query while others request longer proposals and/or excerpts of varying lengths sent in varying ways. Some want it all in the body of an email while others want samples sent as email attachments and still others require authors to insert all their information into online forms. Whatever they ask for, send them that, nothing more, nothing less. If your query doesn’t fit on one page, work on it until it does. If you think they should see more than the few pages they request, too bad. Good agents have hundreds of authors approaching them. You want to get their attention with your great writing not with your refusal to obey the rules.

Meeting agents in person

Many writing conferences offer opportunities to meet agents for brief pitch sessions. This can be a nerve-wracking experience, but it can also give you a shortcut to a great agent. Generally authors sign up for five to ten minutes to tell the basics about their books and themselves. Agents give them instant feedback, which can range from “not my kind of book” to “Wow! I’m interested.” If they like the sound of your book, they probably will not accept it on the spot. Instead, they will ask you to send them a query, sample pages or the entire manuscript. As with agents you approach online (or in rare cases, by mail), you should schedule your pitches with agents who represent your kind of books and you need to give them what they’re looking for. You need to be one hundred percent ready to sell your book and confident it’s the best you can make it. And you need to follow all the rules for the pitch sessions. Don’t be late and when it’s time for you to give your chair to the next author, say goodbye. Dress and behave as if this were a job interview. Come in having done some research about the agent and ready to pitch with confidence. If they say no, be gracious, ask questions and thank them for their time. Don’t pitch your book to agents in the restroom or the bar or at meals–unless they ask what you’re working on.

It’s time to wrap up this post. Next week, we’ll talk about how to market your book without an agent. Meanwhile, may all your pitches be successful and your words flow like Oregon rain.

Now go write.

 

 

 


The Pros and Cons of Writing Contests

If you read any of the many publications for writers, you’ll see information about writing contests. Most offer money and an opportunity to have your winning prose or poetry published. Sounds good, right? Well, it can be, but let’s look at what it entails.

Why do publications and writing organizations offer contests? Certainly it gives them a chance to find and reward good writing. It also brings them publicity. For groups, it draws attention to their conferences and workshops and may attract new members, especially if membership is thrown in with the entry fee. For publications, contests can be a way of finding the best writing for their pages. But for most folks who sponsor writing contests, it’s mostly a money-maker. It helps pay the bills.

That said, let’s look at the pros and cons.

Pros:

Winning a contest can boost your ego and your career, especially if it’s a big contest. You get published and you get publicity in everything from the contest website to your local newspaper. Sometimes you are invited to read your winning entry at an awards ceremony. It looks great on your resume.

You get money, sometimes a lot of money.

Your work gets published, which could lead to it being picked up for an anthology or being noticed by an agent or book editor, which could make you famous. Probably not, but it might.

Even if you don’t win, the contest deadline forces you to finish a piece of work and get it ready to submit.

Cons:

Some contests are thinly veiled schemes to get writers to pay to have their work published when they could have it published elsewhere for free.

The fees add up. Most contests charge at least $15 to enter a story or set of 3-5 poems. For book-length works, the fees average around $25. Sometimes you get a magazine subscription thrown in, but how bad do you want that magazine?

The biggest contests attract thousands of entries, so what are the odds they’ll pick yours? Meanwhile, you have to either keep the work you enter off the market for months while the judges choose the winners or send it out with the risk that if someone buys it and you do win, you’ll have to withdraw from the contest.

A writer can waste a lot of time entering contests when she might be better off simply submitting her work.

What to do?

I’ll be honest. I enter contests. Sometimes I win; mostly I don’t. But one big win could really boost my career, so I do it. Each of us needs to figure out whether it’s worth the time and money to enter contests, then do so with our eyes open. For example, I won’t enter a contest that doesn’t pay at least $1,000.  I won’t enter if publication is not included. I also don’t enter contests sponsored by journals or organizations I’ve never heard of. Even if I won, what would come of it?

If you do decide to try contests, the most important thing is to follow the guidelines. Submit online as directed or by mail if that’s what they want. If they tell you not to put your name on the manuscript, make sure it doesn’t appear anywhere, not on the front page, not in your headers, not in the text. Meet their requirements for length and formatting. Read winning entries from the past to see if you write the kinds of things they like.

You can find contest listings in lots of places. Poets & Writers Magazine has one of the best-known lists, which you can find in the magazine and at its pw.org website. Writer’s Market has a whole section of contests. Funds for Writers offers lots of contests and other opportunities in its online newsletter. CRWROPPS, Creative Writers Opportunities List, a Yahoo group, sends daily lists of contests and submission calls. If you search for “writing contests,” you’ll find more possibilities than you handle.

Writing contests can be great, but before you enter, consider the pros and cons. Remember, the most important thing is to write. Don’t let contests or anything else take you away from that for too long.

Now go write.


Now that I’m retired, how do I become a writer, part II

Last week we talked about starting a writing career after retirement. It’s something I see a lot of seniors wanting to do. They show up at writing conferences, take my classes or mention it to me at social occasions. After years of thinking about writing, now they’re ready to do it. But what do they actually need to do?

In my Aug. 8 post, I offered some questions would-be writers should ask themselves: Do I need to make money from their writing, what do I want to write, and what do I know a lot about?

Here are three more questions to consider.

How good are you at self-discipline?

If you want to do more than scribble a few words when you feel inspired, you’re going to need to get serious about your writing. That means establishing a regular writing routine that may sometimes feel like you’re not retired after all. On a regular basis, whether it’s every day or every Tuesday afternoon, you’ll need to commit to sitting down and writing for a specific length of time or a minimum number of words. In order to make that work, you’ll need to set up a place to write and acquire the tools to write with and tell the world you’re not available at that time because you’re writing. This is not easy. Some days, you will not want to write, and some days you’ll have a hundred other things calling for your attention, but if you really want to be a writer, you’ll do it anyway. Just like a job.

Are you prepared to market your writing?

If you just want to write for yourself, that’s perfectly fine. Have fun playing with words, maybe writing in your journal or putting together poems or booklets for your friends and family. That’s a wonderful thing to do. But if your goal is to be published and paid for it, you’ll need to learn how to send out your writing to periodicals and websites, pitch your books to agents and editors, and ultimately sell your books to readers via social media, readings, talks, etc. It’s a lot. It’s not writing. It’s scary. But it’s a necessary evil, and it can be lots of fun.

Are you ready to reach out for support and to learn your craft?

Writing can be a lonely business. But we don’t have to be alone all the time. Writing groups can be found everywhere. Join up with other writers to share information, to critique each other’s work, or just to offer sympathy and support. You can take writing workshops in every state and around the world, as well as online. (I offer a few. Check my Classes page above). Tons of books and websites offer advice for writers. See my Resource page (above) for a list. Magazines such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets & Writers offer tons of information about all kinds of writing and places to publish. You can find online groups in every writing specialty. So reach out.

If you really want to be a writer, you can do it. You’re never too old to begin. All you have to do is start writing.

Please feel free to post questions and comments. I’m here to help.

Now go write.


Poem Not Right? Write It Again

You non-poets, stick around. This will work for you, too.

I’m not a great reviser of my poetry. I tend to throw lines on a page and consider it done. If it works, it works. But last week a prompt from Poets & Writers gave me a way to make an okay poem much better. The prompt was to take two favorite lines from a poem that needs revision and write a villanelle. Now, a villanelle is a form in which you write five three-line stanzas and end with a four-line stanza. What makes it tricky is that you are supposed to repeat the first line at the end of the second and fourth stanzas and the third line at the end of the third and fifth stanzas, then repeat them both as the last two lines of the ending quatrain. Confused yet? There’s more. The first and third lines of each stanza should rhyme while the second lines all rhyme with each other. Ready to give up? I hear you. For a great explanation and examples of villanelles, click on http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5796.

But wait, you don’t have to write a villanelle. In this exercise, the villanelle is just a tool, like grabbing a different screwdriver from the toolbox. And you have choices. In my revision, I didn’t do the rhymes, just the repetitions, and I liked what I got. Using the villanelle form forced me to think a little harder about what I was trying to say and to choose lines that said it better. However the repetitions became too . . . repetitious. So . . . I started a whole new poem, using the best of the villanelle, with fewer repetitions, and now I really like my poem. It took a while, I got a little sunburned because I was working out on the deck, but now I get it. Keeping only the best of the poem, cutting and adding until all the lines are good, I think I finally am saying what I was trying to say.

They’re only words, friends, tools to express an idea or a feeling. If the words aren’t quite right, reach into the toolbox for other words. You can always save the rejected lines for another poem. If you insist on keeping only the words from that first blast of inspiration, it’s like trying to tighten the screws on a bookshelf with a flathead screwdriver when what you really need is a Phillips-head. You’ll never get it tight, and it will always wobble.

Now go write.