No Rules, Just Write

By Jeanne M. Fielding

1,000 words a day or more? You’ve got to be kidding!

As if writing a story wasn’t daunting enough, published writers have killed many a tree imparting the “writing is a discipline” mantra. You must commit to writing five gazillion words a day—no matter how long it takes you.

My reply when I read these diatribes is, “Pshaw! As if!”

Perhaps this is why I struggled for so long to consider myself a writer. I hold a full-time job, co-own a home with my husband, and am the mother of one three-year-old boy. I think my plate is quite full, thank you. And yet, two years ago, I found a way to carve out fifteen minutes for myself to write every day.

You read me correctly—fifteen minutes.

For a wife and mother who also works outside the home, fifteen minutes seems like a lifetime! What working mother hasn’t wished for two seconds to rub together without a child crashing in, a husband calling out or the boss breathing over your shoulder? When a friend suggested that I give it a whirl, I scoffed at the idea. At the time, I didn’t even bathe alone, so how was I about to find fifteen minutes to sit down and write?

I thought about it. And thought about it some more. Until, sick to death of being badgered by my friend, I took a break at work, opened up Word, and wrote whatever came into my head. For about fifteen minutes.

The next day, I did it again, only this time, I picked up where I had left off.

After a week, I actually had the beginnings of a story. After a month, I had the start of my novel. In six months, I had a finished manuscript in my hands.

87,000 words.

The world didn’t end.

My baby is still fed and clothed and loved.

My husband hasn’t left me.

I still didn’t consider myself a writer.

Why? Because I averaged only about fifteen minutes a day. Some days I wrote for an hour, some days I didn’t write at all. When I did write and I was getting somewhere with my story, I was addicted. Other days, I couldn’t put two words together to save my life—usually because I was exhausted after having been up every few hours all night long with my son.

It wasn’t until another friend of mine took up writing that I found myself telling her that it doesn’t matter how much or how often you write. Heck, it doesn’t even matter if you have a project to work on. Find a few minutes each day and write a letter to a friend, jot down some thoughts about the weather, vent your feelings about the guy who cut you off on the thruway. It doesn’t matter what it is.

Just write.

Avoiding Writing Scams

By Laura Bell

Let’s just get real for a second. There probably isn’t a way to get around them completely. As negative as this sounds, they are growing by leaps and bounds. The use of the Web in advertising writing jobs has just made it all that easier.

Here is the latest one that I fell prey to. I read about this new “citizen journalism” site. The story about the background of the founder, she had covered politics, impressed me. That was my first mistake. Frequently, you see promises of shared ad revenues. That sounded o.k. at the time. I went to work posting to get folks to read the work I uploaded. I was impressed with my numbers. I waited and then I waited some more.

There was an excuse about Google, the source of the shared ad revenue. Then there was talk about hunting for new financing. Then finally, there was an announcement late May that there would be a payout at the end of June. The timing was supposedly necessary so that June clicks could be included. Well, to my dismay, I got paid for, according to an email announcement, June earnings. Hmm, doesn’t seem to be what I agreed to.

Avoid sites that don’t specify when and how much you are going to get paid. I have another site acting as agent for my content. Every time he make a sale, he lets me know what my portion is; and, he sends me money when promised.

Print publications are not out of the running for having management deep into skullduggery when it comes to cheating writers. One of my goals has been to get my byline into a national glossy general interest magazine. I found a copy of this at Barnes and Noble years ago. The publisher running this was so good that she convinced Hearst, by use of a great “dummy,” to be her distributor. I got my desired byline, but never saw a penny. It was the first time an editor actually lied to me, saying that a check had gone out in the mail. I never got a dime; nor did any of the contributors. I found out later that nobody, including staffers, ever got paid. The publisher packed her bags and went to a new town and started again.

Then, there was the guy in upstate New York that managed to get many to write more with promises of later payment. He was successful in convincing about a dozen writers before he disappeared. I found out later it turned into a class-action lawsuit. He actually gave me a phony Fed Ex tracking number when telling me when to expect delivery. I spent days on the phone while listening for a truck that never showed up.

Getting Exposure

Many novices are dragged into these schemes because they are so anxious to see their names in print. My suggestion is don’t be anxious. It really and truly isn’t that difficult. There are hundreds of community newspapers throughout the country. What they never have enough of is content. Find one near you and volunteer. Stay long enough to get four or five good clips and then move on. There are also non-profits in every city who would be thrilled to get your help with one of their publications. All writing exposure for newbies does not have to be on the Net.

However, there is one thing that wouldn’t put you into the clutches of scammers, start your own blog. WordPress is easy. Learn how to get the word out on it. Editors are now accepting blogs as legitimate samples of your work.

Cautions that May Help

Any writing post that says “great way to get exposure” means run for the hills. Do not jump into any alleged opportunity that promises revenues or money down the road. There is a very good chance the publication or site will no longer be in business when it comes time for payment.

Join writers groups. Writers talk. Go to yahoo.com and click on the Groups link on the left side of the homepage. Type writers into the search blank.

There are professionals groups that still meet in person. Many now have web pages. You can check that out by using Google or your favorite search machine.

Use your email mailing lists (also known as YahooGroups) as a place to make friends with other writers. Start writing to a few off-list and make arrangements to meet in person when possible. Share your war stories.

Also, take advantage of writers’ newsletters. There are a multitude of them. Find them through your favorite search engine also. Many given warnings about publications and websites that haven’t paid or are paying late.

Team up with one or more of your writing pals and check out possible gigs together. If you are both dealing with same editor, then there will be strength in your numbers. I had this help many times, and we got out just before a couple of sites dissolved into ashes.

Check out www.well.com if you really want to have a gateway to writers and the ups and downs in their life. This ISP started out as a BBS and has been around since 1985. Its main core has always been writers, editors and artists. I have been a member since 1996. There are conferences for both editors and writers. You have a chance to hear the other side of the story.

One last thought on the subject, well at least for the moment—when checking out a print magazine as a pending market, check out the contributors. Have you heard of any of them? Just perhaps, you can find their email addresses with a little digging. I have used this trick more than once to find out if someone else was waiting on money.

Unfortunately, the publishing world is even harder than breaking into Hollywood some days. You have to learn how to look out for your rights. I guarantee no one else is going to do it for you. Amazingly, I still find there is more to learn after almost 30 years.

Laura Bell has been a published journalist since 1979. She has over 350 bylines to her name along with five years of self-publishing history. She has been a columnist five times and her work has appeared in: the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, Small Business Opportunity, the Los Angeles Business Journal, the Pasadena Star News and the Pasadena Weekly, to name a few.

Persistence

By Mark Terry

A long, long time ago (in what occasionally does seem a galaxy far, far away), I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was toward the end of my college career, between, I believe, my junior and senior years. I was majoring in microbiology and public health and not doing a very good job at it. My girlfriend (now wife) had graduated and moved back home where she was working nearby, and my college roommate (Andy) took an internship for the PASS network in Detroit, so I was living alone, working full-time in a mailroom of a veterinary laboratory at Michigan State and not doing much else.

I picked up a book of essays about Stephen King and he had written an introduction called something like “The Making of a Brand Name,” which was all about how he got started. I was struck, naturally, by the paperback reprint sale of Carrie for $400,000, but I was hit even harder by the idea that a writer was somebody who wrote things and sent them out to editors, who did or did not decide to publish them and pay the writer for the privilege. I started writing.

It’s been a very long and often twisting road, but I’m happy with where I’m at. It took talent, but I can’t define it let alone identify it. It took persistence. A lot of it.

Did it take luck? I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve been all that lucky in this writing gig. My second manuscript almost got picked up by St. Martin’s Press. My first book contract was with Write Way, and they went out of business before the book got published. I signed a contract with another small press, and they disappeared into the night, their website replaced by—I kid you not—a site for a veterinary incinerator. I’ve had three agents. The first was this kind of fly-by-night outfit in L.A. The second was a good, well-established agency in New York and my agent there tried to sell stuff of mine for six years without success before I moved on. In my efforts to get another agent—the one I have—I sent out nearly 100 query letters.

I kept writing. I branched out, often not intentionally, into nonfiction. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

This could have been a faster process. I could have networked more. I could have gone back to school and gotten a journalism degree.

I could have given up and gotten an MBA or whatever.

I didn’t. So where am I now, in the spring of 2006, versus the summer of 1985, when I started this path of folly?

I make a full-time living as a freelance writer. I make a decent, even good, living. I have published two books, one self-published (not recommended), one by a small press. I have a two-book contract for two more, the first of which is coming out from Midnight Ink in October 2006. I’m very busy. I can pay my bills. Clients come to me with work.

Is it talent? Yes, some.

Is it luck? If you keep being persistent, you’ll get some luck; you’ll be in the right place at the right time because, frankly, you’re always working.

But I’ll tell you what. It’s always, always related to persistence.

I grabbed a tiger’s tail back in 1985 and didn’t know how to let go. I didn’t even want to let go, although I definitely had some low spots where I wondered what the hell I was doing. But I knew I loved writing and I could never quite give up the dream of being a novelist (still can’t).

There’s no advice here, really. It’s just that, yes, if you persist—probably persist past any norm of common sense—you can probably succeed at some level.

There’s this brutal story about a master violinist who, after a concert, was approached by a young man who said, “Master, will you listen to me play and tell me whether there’s a future in music for me?” The maestro nods and the young man plays and the maestro shrugs and says, “You lack the fire.” The young man abandons music and goes on to have a successful life in business. Years later he runs into the maestro and tells him the story and asks, “What did you hear in my music?” The maestro shrugs again and says, “I wasn’t really paying attention. I never do. If you’ve really got the will and ambition— the fire—you won’t listen to anybody who tells you to stop. Nothing can make you stop if that’s what you’re meant to do.”

I really don’t advocate destroying your life in pursuit of anything, actually. I think there’s a lot to be said for “getting a grip,” and deciding what things are worth to you, and deciding what’s important. Writing, for me, is a passion, yes, but it’s also a job, and I don’t think I should wreck my marriage or alienate my kids or ruin my health over a job.

Cover of Stephen King's On WritingStephen King, again, wrote a lovely essay about this subject and comments on how do you decide when to quit. He suggests that if you quite after three or four or six tries, it’s too early. But if you’ve received 1,000 or 2,000 rejections, rejections that NEVER say anything like, “Pretty good, try again,” or have no other encouragement, then it’s time to re-evaluate your time.

My guess would be most people can decide long before that 1,000 or 2,000, but it depends on what you’re doing. If it’s journalism, unless you’re a total hack who can’t string words together at all, I think you’d get an article published long before you hit the 500 mark, let alone the 1,000 or 2,000. If you’ve gotten 2,000 rejections from agents or book publishers, there’s something wrong, not the least being that there just aren’t that many markets.

But it’s your life. Only you can decide what’s important.

Mark Terry is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and novelist. You can read more about his books at Markterrybooks.com.

Write Tight — or It’s Gonna Cost You!

By Diane Sonntag

Our good friends at Strunk and White are always advising us to do away with those nasty adjectives and adverbs that clutter up our writing. This has always been a tough one for me. As someone who really likes to talk — and unfortunately, as someone who writes like I talk — removing those adjectives and adverbs has been a real challenge for me.

Personally, I have always rather enjoyed those cute little adjectives and those good old adverbs. They make my dry, boring sentences more pleasant, interesting, and fun for the intelligent, yet discerning reader. Cutting them out seems like cruel and unusual punishment. For a good long time, I just plain refused to leave out my favorite descriptive words.

See what I mean? Adjectives and adverbs are bad? What blasphemy!

Several years ago, I had to consult an attorney regarding a legal matter. In one of our first conversations, I explained the situation in great detail. I explained that I had been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this rotten person. I described how I had been naïve and trusting and this terrible, awful individual had seen that, and had milked it for every last blessed cent I was worth. I told him how this other party was just the most vindictive, cold, and heartless person to have ever walked the face of this great earth. (OK, I admit it — I might be ever so slightly dramatic!) The attorney just nodded and smiled throughout my monologue. He seemed perfectly content to sit and listen to me talk all day long. But he did glance at his watch every so often and smirk.

Three weeks later, I received an invoice for his services. And then I knew what the smirk was about. That one conversation had cost me nearly $500! At his rates, I was paying like $28 per adjective! I was both shocked and appalled at this bill, and I knew that something had to change. I simply couldn’t afford to carry on like I had during our next conversation. I had to be brief, or it would cost me dearly.

In an effort to cut down on my legal fees, I began to plan out what I was going to say to the attorney. I would write down what I needed to tell him, and then look for ways to pare it down. I reminded myself that unnecessary words were like money down the drain, and I took them out. I couldn’t afford to use two or three words when one would suffice.

No longer had I been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this no good so-and-so. Now I was simply “treated unfairly.” See how many words that saved? And in legal terms, that small cut also saved me like ten bucks!

Overnight, this other party changed from being “a vindictive, cold, and heartless beast who would sell his own poor mother for two nickels” to simply “an opportunist.” Did this person actually change their character? Certainly not! But when I changed how I described that person, it cut down on the words I used, which, in turn, saved me another $32.50. (But let’s be honest here — it did cut down on the drama of the story as well!)

Every time I prepared something to say to my attorney, I pared it down until it was as short as it could possibly be and still get my meaning across. And then one day, I was typing a query letter and I realized that unconsciously, I was doing the same thing. I was taking out all unnecessary words. The bank robber didn’t run quickly. He sprinted. The baby didn’t cry loudly. She howled.

I was condensing my writing down to the bare essentials. I was making it as tight as it could be. And yes, I was sacrificing my beloved adverbs and adjectives. It hurt the Drama Queen in me, but it did make my writing better.

And all of this because I wanted to save a few bucks. But when you think about it, being too wordy had probably been costing me money all along, and I was too dense to realize it. Editors were rejecting my work because it was too cluttered with adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. My writing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I was paying for it without even knowing it.

My legal situation resolved itself a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap fix. I paid a significant amount in legal fees. But when I think about what I learned about writing tightly and I realize how much more I’ve been published, I think I just about broke even.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “cold, heartless, vindictive beast” got what he had coming to him.

 

Diane Sonntag is an elementary school teacher and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Woman’s World, MOMsense, and Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul. She hopes to remain on the right side of the law from now on.

The Value of Writing Prompts

By Uma Girish

I often feel like a motor car, for I have starting trouble.
Pen poised over paper, I wait for the words to trickle.
Rarely do they gush from the word “go.”

When my brain does the freeze-mode act, I flick the computer on and run through my “Favorites” list. I look for a writing prompt that will thaw my machinery. I pick one that catches my fancy, then set my timer and start to scribble.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer in the value of writing prompts to rev up my writing session. A writing prompt lubricates my creaking creative joints and limbers them up nicely so they can do cross stretches when I need fresh, inspiring ideas. Believe me, it works.

What I do is very simple. I give myself a program to follow.

  1. For the next fifteen minutes I will write non-stop.
  2. I will correct nothing; I will simply let my thoughts flow, whether they’re good, bad, or ugly.
  3. I will not think about grammar, punctuation, and syntax; I will let the words pour out of me.
  4. I will start my writing session with a positive reinforcement — I know I can do this really well.

When the timer goes off, I zoom back to the real world, and find I want to write more. When I read what I’ve written, I cringe, groan, shudder. A lot of it needs re-working, but I invariably spot a gem or two in the huge word rubble. Gems that I can polish and buff for later use.

I’ve actually sold a lot of work that started out as ordinary writing prompts and morphed into personal essays and short stories. What happens when I consciously turn off the Inner Critic is that my writing is unshackled, my ideas flow freely. I find a glimmer of something, the beginnings of an idea, a phrase I didn’t think I could produce. All valuable grist for the writing mill.

Many of us have trouble deciding how to start, and what to write when we arrive at our desks. I have at least 4–5 jobs on my To-Do list but I sometimes cannot figure out if I’m in the mood for a personal essay, a work of fiction, or an article that needs to tap into my reporting skills. So I choose my prompt of the day. Write about jealousy. Sounds simple enough. I’ve been jealous a million times, over issues big and small, and I can surely unearth one anecdote worth telling. I follow my instinct and slowly feel the sluice gates open wider and wider.

There was a time when my writing day got off to a predictable start with a prompt. With my top-heavy To-Do list I find myself diving into my assignments right away these days. But I always turn to a prompt to rescue me from dry days and find that it unclogs word passages and frees up idea highways.

Sites that Offer Writing Prompts

Uma Girish is a freelance writer based in Chennai (India), and mother of an 8-year-old. She writes both adult and children’s fiction. Her articles on parenting, freewheeling columns and short fiction have appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites. She has written extensively about coping with grief. You can find her Web site at UmaGirish.com