Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Writing Prompt Wednesday

Right, this week I've been a bit obsessed with the sunrise/sunset patterns in the winter-time; or more particularly when its finally going to be light when I leave my office (which has no natural light and sometimes reminds me of the inside of a pinata). On that note, I give you this little (and hopefully inspiring) prompt.

When I left the decrepit building I looked up at the grey and heavy clouds. Only, here's the thing-- those clouds weren't there. In their place were white fluffy marshmallows broken by glimmering beams of sunlight. I blinked, once, twice, then smiled. I had never been so grateful to see the sun.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Career in Writing: Four Things My College Education Didn't Teach Me

Like a lot of freelance writers out there, I have a degree in English. When I was in school, I remember a lot of people saying things like "So what are you going to do with it--teach?" and "Hope you don't mind starving!" But I never planned to give up food in trade for a career--and as much as I respect teachers, I never wanted to be one. All I ever wanted to do was write.

I loved earning my English degree. I loved reading different authors from diverse cultures and time periods. I loved writing, loved talking about writing like it was the one thing on earth that mattered most, loved critiquing other people's work. I think that my writing degree taught me a lot about writing as an art--and practically nothing about making a living at it.

I think that many liberal-arts schools fail students who study the arts. The cliche of the "starving artist" is so prevalent that a lot of schools don't expect more of their arts students than to continue their interest in art as a hobby. The tragedy is that so many humanities graduates leave school with thousands of dollars in debt and no idea how to have a meaningful career. Many of us wind up taking jobs outside of our interests out of necessity, and these can turn into a lifetime of work that feels meaningless and unfulfilling.

But for some of us, writing on the side just isn't good enough. We've got the talent--we see the pros at work and we think, "I can do that." But it takes more than just talent to make a living, and a lot of writers don't realize this until they get out of college and have to figure it out for themselves. Here are four things I wish my professors would have told me before I graduated.

It's not just about your creative talent. It's also about your self-promotion skills. Before I graduated, I thought that if I wrote well, opportunities would naturally come my way. But that's not really how it works. There are thousands--maybe millions--of people out there who want to be writers. Even if only a small percentage actually wrote anything worth reading, that's still a great deal of competition to deal with. When you're a professional writer, you'll be competing with other writers for the attention of agents, publishers, critics, clients, and readers. Many of them will write worse than you. Many will write better.

When competition is this fierce, you have to be able to promote yourself at every stage of the game. To succeed as a writer, you have to hone your self-promotion skills as much as your writing skills. I never took any classes on marketing in college--no general business marketing courses, and no specific courses on marketing myself as a writer. In my opinion, it should have been a required part of the curriculum.

Want to do your creative work on the side? It's harder than you think. When I was in college I just assumed I would have some sort of job, and I'd work my writing around that until my "real career" came through. After I graduated, I found that the reality was somewhat different. I worked full-time at several different companies, and I found that my employers didn't care about my outside interests: if the company needed me to stay late and come in early, I had to do it. I often felt too drained after a long day's work to put much time into developing my outside interests into a career I could live with.

Many people assume they will find fulfillment doing what they love outside of work. But unless you have a very undemanding job, it can be tough to find the spare time you need to truly live up to your creative potential. And when you have other outside responsibilities to deal with--like kids, for instance--the time you have to pursue your passions can quickly dwindle into nothing. I didn't realize how important flexibility would be to me until I lived without it for years.

There are plenty of ways to integrate your talents into a career that works for you. When I was in college, I assumed I had two choices as a writer: novelist or journalist. Nobody told me anything different. No helpful career counselor sat down with me my senior year and talked to me about career options that would let me use my writing skills. I talked to a career counselor, but they didn't really know what to do with me--I didn't want to go corporate or be a teacher, like most English majors.

I wish someone had talked to me in college about careers for writers--jobs like the one I have now. If you're artistic, you don't have to shove your talents into a dark, unseen corner of your life while you labor away at something you have no interest in. You can craft a career as a consultant or freelancer doing practically anything. Performance artists can become public speaking experts. Visual artists can become graphic designers. Writers can become copywriters. You can work for a company, or you can run your own business.

Business isn't as scary as it looks. I never considered running my own business as a college student. I thought that "business" and "creativity" were two extremely different, unrelated categories. I didn't see how businesses need--even thrive on--creative people. I just saw lots of people with conservative suits on and seas of drab cubicles, and I assumed I would never really fit in any business environment. I had classes that taught me to think like a creative person--like an artist.
But now, my "business environment" is my laptop. And business isn't just about wearing a boring suit and working in a boring office. It's about making your dreams a reality.

When I was in college, I had a very different attitude--and I faced a steep learning curve as a result. It took me years to come around to the fact that I'd have to be business-savvy in order to thrive. If I had had classes in college that taught me to think like a businessperson--and to use business principles to get what I want in the world--I might have had a plan right out of college. I might have been able to hit the ground running.

With the amount of money a college education costs nowadays, I feel colleges owe a little more to their humanities graduates. They owe them a solid education in their chosen field--but they should also take them seriously as future professional artists. Many creative types don't need a degree to succeed--nobody cares what Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, or Ian McKellan majored in. But we do need guidance in how to make a living at what we love. Give us that, and a college education will be more than worth it.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Surviving the 'Most Depressing Day of the Year'

I'm feeling good this morning (well, nearly afternoon now), mostly, because it’s Friday and I am faced the prospect of two days off, and the end of a very stressful week. Also, I'm very happy it’s no longer Monday the 21st of January; which has achieved cult status as being the ‘official the most depressing day of the year’. So, at least this past Monday I had a very good reason to be a little bit 'under the weather' and frankly wishing I was curled up under my duvet reading something very light and fluffy.

The 21st Of January signifies for many people a sad reality check that even the best resolutions get broken, that those bills from the holidays will not disappear (no matter where you hide the credit card statements), and that your big pay rise isn't likely to materialize this year (or at least not this month). All these mitigating factors lead many people to become depressed. However, they've led me to one overwhelming sense of purpose-- to actually work harder to keep my resolutions. So, c'mon 2008, I'm ready! Let’s make this a wonderful (and productive) year!

Since I've clearly decided that I need a big change, here are my compass points that I will use to gauge my success. Hopefully, at the end of this year I'll be able to update you with my blinding success-- or at least with news that I've broken through the realm of mediocrity.

Cultivate my writing routine.
Since I left University I've found that I really lack structure in my writing habits. Before I went to University I had a fabulous writing routine that enabled me to get loads of writing done in the evenings after school/work/swimming. I'm not sure how as a fairly busy teen I managed to get more work done creatively then as a young adult-- but something about work seems to drain me. However, I've been using this excuse for far too long. I believe in small achievable goals, and currently my goal is to get myself into a very good (and somewhat structured) routine.

Write 500 words a day (or at least 2500 words a week). My cohort Maverick posted a wonderful post about treating working on her novel like its work for a client. I can't agree more with her sentiments. My novel(s)/short stories/poems/etc are just as important as work that I do for my ‘day job’; because my writing is a job. I'm very organized, goal driven, and detail orientated in my ‘day job’. I never miss deadlines at work. In other words, I take my ‘day job’ very seriously. Its time I started treating my 'night job', my writing, the same way. Crafting a story is work (as well as an enjoyable process). If I want to succeed at writing I need to force myself to put the time in and meet my deadlines. The only one I'm cheating is myself (and my poor long suffering characters).

Post and maintain this blog more regularly. I think my slacking off speaks for itself.

Submit stories/poems to competitions/magazines. As a teenager I had a lot of success winning competitions and getting published in magazines geared for teens. I'm not sure why this was-- but believe it or not, this early success has terrified me as an adult and caused me to fear submitting to anything, period. I think this is because I'm scared I'll get rejected (over and over again). However, if I never try, I'll always let that fear cripple me. So, this year, I'm looking forward to my slew of rejections and hoping to do something creative with them--maybe I'll use them to make a paper mache lobster piƱata that I'll burst when I finally get an acceptance? I'm open to suggestions on this one.

Work on creating a freelancing profile. It’s not secret (at least not to me!) that I'm clearly meant to have a career in writing. I adore working in publishing and want to stay in this industry for as long as possible (my whole life!) but I would also like to spend this year growing as a freelance writer and gaining experience in the world of freelance copywriting. Before I got married I had been actively writing articles for a beauty website (which is ironic as I never wear makeup). Now that I've comfortably settled into married life I would really like to resume freelancing again. So, I'm going to take a deep breath and jump back into the hectic world of freelancing.

Join Writing Group. For me this will be a very intimidating experience. It’s been a long time since I was in a writing group (over a year now) and while I enjoy the support and critiques of a group, I'm very private about my writing and find it hard to pass my work along to others. I'm not good about letting my words go off into the wide world. However, now is the time of year to change all that.

Monday, January 14, 2008

NaNoWriMo: The Fallout

I'm a freelance writer by day. And I've just landed a new client. While I usually don't write about freelance writing topics on this blog (I have another blog for that purpose), I feel there's enough spillover on this one to make a post here justified.

My new client wants me to write a paranormal romance novel. She's given me the spec--a brief description on the topic, similar to a dust jacket description; lengthy character descriptions; and about 37,000 words of writing. My job? To outline the rest of the book, see where it's going, and then finish it. Luckily enough, our writing styles are similar enough to be nearly indistinguishable, and I feel confident I can write a seamless middle and ending to her more-than-a-little-muddled beginning.

I love my new client. She's very writer-friendly. She can't pay me up front, but she can promise me a healthy cut of the royalties. 100% of them, to be exact. Yep, she plans to let me take it all--although I have to let her use her name as the author. Even better, she loves my work. I've just finished the outline, sent it to her, and received a response later today: "Oooh, BRILLIANT!! I especially loved the bit about the talking space unicorn!"

That's hyperbole, of course. There is no talking space unicorn. It's really more of a zebra, with antlers.

Okay, I have a confession: My new client is me. NaNo has come and gone, and while I didn't finish my book, I did get a healthy start. And I've also decided to do something a little different with my writing. With NaNo, I struck off blindly, letting my fingers fly as fast as my imagination would take me. That's great for pure inspiration, but I'm slowly learning that it's not enough to sustain me through a whole book project. I keep getting lost. And when I get lost, I start over, thinking that if I only start in the right spot, I can finally make it to the end.

But here's the thing: I also write professionally. And I've easily written enough in the year and a half I've been in business to fill several books. With client projects, I'd never dream of setting off without a thorough understanding of exactly how I'd get there. So I've decided to do something a little different: instead of relying on sheer imagination and inspiration to get me to the end, I've decided to treat this book project as I would any other freelance writing project. I've written out a basic, 300-word teaser description (which I've found keeps me very focused), then constructed an outline. It's not the most exhaustive outline; I didn't write a detailed overview of each scene. Some areas are more fleshed-out than others. But now I know what will happen from beginning to end, and I'm hoping my inspiration and imagination will carry me through the areas that are not as detailed.

My new client is very lenient. She is allowing me free rein to finish this, as long as I follow the outline I've agreed on. She approves of my writing style and has a great deal of faith in me. The only thing is this: she is intolerant of missed deadlines. She insists I keep to a schedule of 2500 words per week. I can go over some weeks if I want, but I may not go under. That's fine with me; I never miss a deadline for any of my clients.

It's time to treat my creative writing as seriously as I take my freelancing. It's time to have a detailed plan and follow it, and not to skip my deadlines. Ever. For any reason. This may be the most important client I ever work for.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Writing Prompt Wednesday-- 2008!

Hi All,

Amazingly enough its 2008 (where did 2007 go?). So, in sticking with my new resolutions (my writing ones will be posted later) here is your writing prompt for today.

Clara looked down at her toes, sucked in her stomach, and sighed. She hated the sight of her long and bony toes, but not as much as the sight of her bloated stomach. She took her left foot off the scale and let her breath out. I've got to try better this year, she thought. I can't take another year of this.