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.
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.
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 & Writers, Writers 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How do you prepare for a day’s writing? It seems there are as many ways as there are writers. Where, what and how you write makes a difference. When I worked at newspapers, I didn’t have much time for messing around. Deadlines loomed, and the guy in the next cubicle was concentrating on his own writing. I’d lay out my notes around the keyboard, type a heading, and then go to the bathroom.
Wait, what? Go to the bathroom? Yes, for two reasons. I didn’t want to have to run to the ladies’ room once I got rolling, and I needed a minute to organize my thoughts. Often my opening lines came to me in that three-minute trip.
It doesn’t have to be the bathroom. One could go down the hall for coffee, or, if working at home, do what I just did and put away some stray clothes and start getting dressed. I was putting on my pants when I decided what to write about. Some people do yoga, some pray, some knit, some go for a walk. It doesn’t matter what you do to prepare to write, but your brain has to be free to think. No media, no talking, no texting. I have closed my Internet connections, opened a fresh screen on my computer, and placed hot tea on the warmer beside me. I’m ready.
I don’t have a deadline today, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to write. I have plenty of half-finished projects and lots of notes scribbled on scratch paper that I can expand into stories or poems. I can always outline a new article or a query to get myself an assignment.
Writing muscles need regular workouts. You’ve all heard the advice to “write every day.” Actually it doesn’t have to be every day. Maybe you’re a Monday, Wednesday, Friday kind of writer or just weekends. That’s okay. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether you do it before work, while the kids are at school, or when everyone else is asleep. People rarely understand when you say “I have to work” or “I have to write.” Do it anyway.
Like an athlete, a writer needs to warm up. Creativity gurus Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg and others recommend “morning pages.” Just write whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about whether it’s beautiful or correct or publishable. If you can’t think of anything, you can even fill a page with “I can’t think of anything to write.” But honestly, there’s always something. Write about what’s bothering you. Write about something you read or saw on TV. Describe something that happened to you yesterday.
One exercise I’ve been doing this week came from Poets & Writers’ series of prompts. They credit this one to poet Linda Gregg. Every day for a week, you briefly describe six things you see each day. They can be absolutely ordinary things to which you usually don’t pay attention. At the end of the week, pick two of those things and write a poem about them. I have been amazed at how many things there are to notice in my house, especially my living room. I can already see that I’m going to write about more than two and it won’t necessarily be poetry. There are essays, articles and short stories in those things I’m seeing, things like the flute I never play, the tambourine I bought in Portugal, the stained carpet, or the dog sleeping on her smelly blanket on the floor.
I’m never going to run out of things to list. If I exhaust one room or even my whole house, I’ll simply change location. Meanwhile, having filled several pages of my journal, I’m warmed up and ready to tackle the day’s writing project. As soon as I go to the bathroom.
Get comfortable and get started. Write.
I never heard so much poetry in one gulp as I heard last weekend at the third annual Northwest Poets’ Concord in beautiful Newport, Oregon. Approximately one hundred poets gathered to read their poems, write new ones, share techniques and sell books. I came home with drafts of several promising poems, some new books and some new ideas about this business of being a poet.
We all know, or should know, that you can’t make a living writing poetry. Only a few literary magazines and journals pay actual money for poems. Most pay in copies of the publication. You can make some money winning contests, but most charge entry fees, so if you don’t win, you’re actually losing money.
If we can’t make money writing poetry, why write it? Because it communicates in ways that nothing else can. It crystalizes experiences, ideas and events into word jewels that can be savored in one sitting and collected in book form like strings of precious beads. The average American probably doesn’t read much poetry, but it’s out there to be enjoyed.
There’s no reason you can’t write poetry while writing other things for money.
A world of resources exists for poets. Let me just give you a few today.
Poets and Writers magazine and website, http://www.pw.org. Poets and Writers offers tons of listings for contests and places to get published, along with lots of great information and an online forum to keep in touch with other writers.
The Poetic Asides blog, http://www.blog.writersdigest.com/poeticasides. Robert Lee Brewer, editor of Writer’s Market and its sister Poet’s Market, blogs here about poetry, offering interviews and information, weekly prompts and bi-annual poem-a-day contests.
Poetry.org, resources for poets, http://www.poetry.org
Poems.com, a new poem to read every day, http://www.poems.com