Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean Out – Links for Writers, December 30, 2011 Edition

Riverteeth Journal has announced its first Nonfiction Conference, May 18-20, 2012. Robert Atwan and Hope Edelman are featured guest speakers. Check out the full schedule and other writers on the agenda (including many friends of this blog) here.

►Tips for writers on using LinkedIn (via Poets & Writers).

► Carol Tice has few – make that 113 -- tips for growing one's freelance writing income.

► Anna Quindlen has called World Book Night (a huge give-away event scheduled for April 23, 2012), " Halloween on an intellectual level."

► Speaking of giving away books, I was awed to learn about The Book Thing, a Baltimore book *store* which collects and then gives away books. Free. To Everyone. Really. (hat tip Jenny Rough)

► The January 2012 Mindful Writing/River of Stones challenge is to, quite simply: "1. Notice something properly every day during January. 2. Write it down." Get more info at the Writing Our Way Home blog or Facebook page.

►What do you think about the idea of "paying" for something (ebook, video) with a Twitter message or Facebook update announcing the "purchase"? (via GalleyCat)

►In a wonderful interview at Hippocampus, Beverly Donofrio talks writing process (and so much more): "I print out constantly and edit with a pencil. On the memoir I’m writing now, I rewrite and polish a chapter until I think it is good and it is finished. I pin it to the wall. Write the next chapter till I think it is good and finished, then go back to the previous chapter and sometimes the one or two before that one. Invariably I find that none are good enough or finished. But, by moving on to the next, I’ve gained enough distance to view it with a fresh eye. My first take on situations, my memories, the stories I want to tell is fairly superficial. I hate this about myself: I’m fairly superficial. Only through writing do I go deep, and each draft brings me deeper still. Perhaps if my default weren’t to be so shallow, it would take many less drafts to get to the good stuff: the truth."  Read the full interview here.

►Finally, did Santa strike out this year? Out of Print Clothing has a nifty selection of tees featuring classic book covers. And Rokki Handbags turns actual old books and vintage album covers into cool handbags and totes.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Writing the "I Did It List" Before the Next Year's To-Do List

(UPDATE: If you're visiting from Erika Dreifus's January 1, 2017 newsletter, welcome! The original post she referenced is just below. And, when you've read it, you might also like this update from 2014.)

I've talked here before about all the reasons, as a writer, that I love lists, of all kinds.  And last night I sat down to compile one of my favorites -- a special kind of list that, instead of looking ahead to what needs to be done or what I hope to do, looks backward at what I have done.  I call it the Did-It List (or the What I Accomplished List) and I tackle it every year at this time.

This ritual began about five years ago when I was feeling low about what I had NOT accomplished that year, and thought: well okay, so what HAVE  I done this year?  And so I listed it all, and felt better for all kinds of reasons.

I saw that I had been a lot busier than I had given myself credit for. I realized that even for goals not achieved, I had taken several steps in the right direction. I found that having accomplished something relatively minor but which represented a major stretch outside my writing comfort zone, was unexpectedly satisfying. I noticed that rather than the rut I had imagined I was in, there was actually a lot of variety on the list. I saw patterns I had not recognized before, related to when during the year I'm most productive.  I began to understand that the amount of time involved in completing a writing project is not always in direct proportion to its importance, either emotional, financial or career-wise.

I've encouraged other writers to do their own version of a Did-It List, as a reminder of all the ways one has grown as a writer from year to year. I won't clutter up this post with my actual list because hey, who needs another writer brag post, and anyway it's mostly in a shorthand only I would understand.  But it may be worth considering that last night's (that is, 2011's) list was different from many other years because in some ways it was less about what I DID because I wanted to, and more about what I had to do.  It's worth it, I've realized, to look not only at the things I did which I am happy about and planned for and want to brag about, but also at the things I did out of necessity or obligation or self-preservation.

For example, in 2011 I did: - Survive the loss of a client of 4-plus years, replacing that monthly retainer check with other income.  -Say goodbye to a 16-month gig as an essay contributor when a management shuffle triggered a payscale downsizing. –Refocus teaching energies when the continuing education classes had too few registrants. –Turn down a good offer to edit and write for a regional web venture, despite a true admiration for and instant camaraderie with the owner, because I knew in my bones I wasn't the right person for the job.

On one hand, I could look at this part of the list and see that I only DID these things in response to loss, bad luck, and maybe even poor judgment on my part. Or I could look at it as the kind of rebalancing that occurs every couple of years in my crazy writing/freelancing life.

And on the plus side, I saw that the work slow-downs coincided, almost precisely, to the periods when I found myself in need of more personal time and more focused mental energies to help my son, a high school senior, navigate the college application / visits / testing / essay-writing labyrinth.

There were wonderful things on my Did-It List too, thankfully. In the final analysis, I think the most important aspect is that there IS a list, that it exists yet again, another year, that in the last 12 months there was, again, a creative writing life, and a freelance working life built on writing, editing, teaching, ghostwriting and research. Good or bad, I DID it for another year.

Maybe you will want to write your own Did-It List. Maybe not. Either way, I wish you all the best in your creative endeavors in 2012, whatever you DO. Thanks for reading the blog, and if you're so inclined, go ahead and tell me what you DID do in 2011.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Dec. 9, 2011 Edition

► Need to give a reading?  Learning to confidently read your work aloud is essential – some tips from a grab bag of writers, at Beyond the Margins.

► Especially for poets, five "quick and dirty" lit journal submission tips (a few unconventional), from a Gulf Coast journal editor. (Hat tip Erika Dreifus)

►Speaking of poetry, this new book looks interesting -- Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets.

► Writers who want to work on their fiction skills in an online class (somewhat similar to my nonfiction classes), might want to check out Jordan Rosenfield's current crop of offerings.

► I love how this former rock critic turned her literary efforts to something she'd been admiring for a long time – songwriting.

► Marketing your own self-published book?  Or promoting your traditionally published book?  Good tips and solid how-to advice is found in the newsletter from Author Marketing Experts.

►Mosey over to Flavorwire's "40 Inspiring Quotes About Reading From Writers."  Then, head out to (or over to the website of) your local independent bookstore and buy books as gifts!

►Finally, there's been a lot of web chatter lately about undisclosed sponsored (paid-for) tweets, links, blog posts, Facebook updates and the like, which are designed to appear as spontaneous, genuine testimonials. Just to let you know, I don't do that here. Nothing on my blog (or Twitter feed, or any online presence) appears because I was paid to post it, or because I received free products, services or special consideration. 

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Freelance Worry Cycle

After decades as a freelancer you'd think I'd get used to the down periods, when work is scarce, clients and editors go missing, and I feel as if I'll never see another paycheck (or opportunity). You'd think I'd just chalk it up to business as usual and not worry so much. You would be wrong. 

I worry.  I kvetch. I agonize. I alternately obsess over the fallow state of affairs or busy myself for hours each day making lists of possible new sources of business, generating queries, submitting like crazy, contacting likely sources of business, asking too many people if they know anyone who needs a writer, editor…heck, sometimes even a gofer. 

I forget that at times, I've designed things just this way -- purposely creating a lull between teaching assignments, so that I can make substantial progress on a manuscript; declining certain writing assignments for reasons that make sense (at the time, anyway); allowing an eager but difficult editing client to drift away because the fit was not right, for either of us.

Even so, I worry, whine, and I wonder….what if I were to chuck this freelance status?

I don't.

Because then, the upswing begins. Slowly at first, and then it seems all at once. Contacts email me back, some with tantalizing prospects. Editors suddenly seem to remember who I am and what I can do, and get in touch, some with assignments. Writers in need of editing or writing coaching call and tell me about their interesting projects and how I can help. Organizations looking for a seminar leader or instructor want to talk.

You'd think, after so many years, I'd realize that the flurry of activity that accompanies the upswing also just means business as usual and that I wouldn't get overly excited. Wrong again. 

I do – get excited, that is.

When work picks up, I think I've won some sort of (okay, small scale) freelance lottery. I can't believe how lucky and fortunate I am. I even sometimes wonder if these folks have the right person.  Do they really want me to do that? Well, okay then.

Very quickly then, I get over it. I get busy. Get to work. Get going. And for a while, I forget that, inevitably, another slow period will come along. And I'll worry, naturally.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Women Writing on Family: Always topical here, and now - it's a book!

When your work is occasionally published in essay collections or other anthologies, a fun day is when the ARC (advanced reading copy) arrives, and you get to see, often for the first time, what other writers and topics will be in that same book, and how the issues are treated across hundreds of pages.

Yesterday the ARC arrived of the forthcoming book Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland – Key Publishing/Canada, Jan 2012). I have two contributions in it, both on the topic of writing about one's spouse in nonfiction. One is a round-up of tips and techniques used by other contemporary women nonfiction writers, and the other is an interview with writer Meredith Hall, about the absence of the spouse in her memoir, Without A Map.

Since the book arrived yesterday, I've been delighted to find within its pages, contributions from one other writer who is a good personal friend – Christin Geall; from writers I've come to communicate with online – Kate Hopper, Cassie Premo Steele, and Caroline Grant; from a writer whose memoir I loved – Catherine Gildiner; and from one whose teaching ideas I admire – Sheila Bender. Together, they've written on such diverse issues as narrative voice, non-paid writing, journaling, writing about memories, writing conferences, confidence, making time to write, and working with editors.

And there are so many other articles and essays from talented, thoughtful and resourceful women writers in the U.S. and Canada. I can tell, from the titles alone, so much of it will be worth reading -- pieces on: voice, marketing and market research, web writing pros and cons, organizing critique groups, personal essay craft, writing about childhood and about one's children, character development, research, writing about grandparents, the MFA and PhD, rattling family skeletons, writing about illness in the family, moving between fiction and memoir, seeing family members as characters, lines between history and imagination, avoiding sentimentality, and so much more. It's packed, at 320 pages.

Timing is everything, right? I worked on my two pieces for this book back in 2008, but just this week, I am concluding teaching an online creative nonfiction class, which has focused each week on a different aspect of writing about family, about our memories, about difficult personal issues. Yet, for the nonfiction writer who focuses on crafting personal narratives, writing essays based on personal experiences, and envisioning memoirs which, of necessity, includes as characters others who are important in one's life, these issues are also timeless.

You can preorder the book now here (I won't earn any commission.) I hope you'll consider getting yourself a copy, and also passing the information/link along to your writing friends.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

This or that? Now or then? More or less? Yes. No. Maybe.

Four times now over the last few weeks, I've had phone, online and in-person conversations with writer friends, all dancing with the same questions: Start a blog, or not? Develop a group blog with a few other writers, or go it alone? Forget about blogging, concentrate on the book manuscript and/or publishing more short pieces? Submit the manuscript direct to contests and small presses, or try other agents? Go to an upcoming writing symposium, or use the funds to hire an editor, and/or the time to get more revisions done? Spend time researching additional publication venues, or get busy submitting and research more later? Teach, or not?

Write today, or go to Target instead? And maybe swing by Dunkin Donuts too?

In other words, all of the same questions writers everywhere ask themselves –torture themselves with?—each and every day. Let me be clear: No one was coming to me for "answers". And good thing; I don't have any. We were simply picking one another's brains.

A few things stood out. A group blog sounded like a wonderful way to spread out the work, and fun, of maintaining something as insatiably hungry as a blog; or it's a way to avoid building a personal online presence. One writer's attendance at a conference is considered to be an "investment" in his craft; for another writer, it's classic procrastination M.O. Contest deadlines can represent thrilling opportunity, or intimidation-inducing paralysis.

Finally, all we could conclude was that there is no "right" time to do, or not do, any of these things, only what feels right at the time, or what makes sense in the larger context of the writer's life and goals, time constraints and interests.

Which either means we are all, always, back at square one, and – or? -- that there is a lot (maybe too much) freedom in this thing we call a writer's life. Decisions, decisions. More of this? Less of that? Now? Later? Maybe? Ever? Never?

Obviously, I waver on some, no make that all of the many dizzying options and possible paths. Readers of this blog know that sometimes I'm here several times a week for weeks in a row, and then I go missing for a week, a month, more. Sometimes it's a conscious decision (if I am working to meet a client or editorial deadline, say), and sometimes I simply feel that it's the right time to be putting all of my writing energies elsewhere.

I don't claim to know the right, best or most intelligent way to apportion writing time and energies across all of the activities I mentioned above – blogging, submissions, revisions, new drafts, research, contests, teaching-- only that it's necessary to engage, every day, in the activity of trying to sort it out. Some days, doing what feels right at the time. Other days, doing what needs to be done because I've agreed to deadlines, signed a contract, accepted students, made promises to clients, editors, publishers.

In the meantime, in the background, I have been mulling over something I heard. A writing acquaintance told me he quit nearly all online activities for a year because, "The blog ate the book (manuscript), and then Twitter ate the blog." Interesting. And not necessarily in a good way. I take what he said seriously. And yet I also know that I'm the kind of person (kind of writer?) who usually gets more done when I have more to get done.


Over the past week or two, the four writer friends with whom I talked about these pesky time-and-energy-apportioning questions have made some decisions, put off some decisions, decided to not decide on other issues.

Me too.

So I'll be here, but sometimes not, because I'll also be researching, writing, teaching, submitting, editing, revising. Deciding, every day.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Sept. 9, 2011 Edition

►Book contest season has arrived, and here's a list of the small field which focuses on the memoir manuscript.

►On the Glimmer Train blog, Lynne Barrett discusses (often funnily) what an editor of a literary journal wants (and so rarely gets). Kind of makes you glad to be a submitting writer instead.  (hat tip Kendall Williams)

►Galley Cat has unearthed links to free ebooks of five ultra long novels. 

►At Writer's Digest University, an excellent example of the kind of crisp, no-frills cover letter recommended for literary journal submissions; plus, other tips for less submission stress (via @ErikaDreifus).

Amazon has launched an interactive feature inviting its customers (or anyone, really) to ask questions of their favorite authors. Queries can be posted either online or from Kindle.

►Quick – pronounce these authors' names:  Colm Tobin, J.M Coetzee, Jhumpa Lahiri. Need help?  Try this cheat sheet. (via Shelf Awareness)

►Many – at least 200 – MFA faculty members are upset at Poets & Writers Magazine's ranking of MFA programs, and have said so in an open letter.

►Finally, one writer asks herself 200 Questions Before Lunch.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Three Upcoming Local Events for Writers - Come See Me Sometime!

The next few weeks are shaping up to be busy, event-wise, for me.  For those of you who are local, perhaps you'd like to join me. All events are free and open to the public.

Monday, September 19 -- Pen to Prose, Nutley (NJ) Library, 93 Booth Drive, 6:30 p.m. After I discuss tips for writing more dynamic dialogue, I'll stay and contribute to the group's regular critique session. For more information, click here.

Sunday, October 2 -- Bluestockings Bookstore and Café, 172 Allen Street, New York City, 7 – 9 p.m.  I am one of 12 writers reading our food-based poems, which appear in the recently-published collection, Broken Circles: A Gathering of Poems for Hunger, from Cave Moon Press.  Please bring two canned or boxed goods if you are able, for the Food Bank of New York.  C'mon by, Manhattan friends. Help celebrate my birthday! More details here.

Tuesday, October 11 -- Penny University, The Fine Grind Coffee Bar Café, 101 Newark-Pompton Turnpike (route 23), Little Falls, NJ,  9:30 – 11:30a.m.  Write About What You Love: Turning your love of a hobby, sport, interest and other passions into prose.  I'll talk about my experiences writing and publishing work that pivots on my interests in horses and riding, food, raising sons, and other passions; also, tips and advice for writing, research and editing material about what you happen to love, too.  (This is my local go-to place to meet clients and friends, and they are big supporters of local writers and literary events.)

Reminder:  *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp still has openings for the session starting in just a few days, on Monday, September 12.  An affordable, enjoyable way to break out of a writing rut: get going, keep going and stay accountable!  Details here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Writing Prompt Project Returns for Fall

It's Prompt Project time again.

For those who are new here, the nutshell: A few times a year, I email a daily writing prompt to anyone who signs up. It's typically a short prompt (sometimes even just one word), and useful for writers of most any genre. There are no rules, expectations or guilt: You get the prompts, and do with them as you like. Unless you tell me or anyone else, no one need know whether a prompt inspires an award-winning piece of work, or if they all molder in your email inbox.

The next Prompt Project begins September 7 and will run until October 31. If you want to join the prompt mailing list, contact me. You can opt out at any time. I'd love it if you would include your real name in your email, but it's not required.

For those who haven't worked with writing prompts in the past, some tips and my personal reasons why I love prompts, can be found here, here and here.

By the way, if you have a writing blog, or are connected with other writers via social networks, I'd love it if you would pass on this post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Stuff my Writing Students Say, Part 12: It's been done already, so I can't do it

Here's one I get a lot:

"Other people have already written about this. I guess I'd better write about something else."


People have been writing about the same topics for centuries – love, hate, desire, relationships, crime, food, birth, death, deception, dogs, aliens, friends, enemies, you name it (okay, maybe not cell phones, but you get the idea). If writers were to stop writing simply because someone else beat them to the topic; well, most every bookshelf would be empty, magazine or newspaper pages and websites would be blank.

The point is that what you write will be different because you are a different writer from all the others who have already mined the same material. Or at least, you'd better be. If on the other hand, you have nothing new to say, if the only way you can manage to write about X, if the only thing you have to contribute about X simply mirrors what others have already done, then by all means, stay away from X and write about Y instead.

If abandoning your chosen topic is more about marketplace concerns, then I have even better news: Forget it. If you make choices about what to write based on what's selling at bookstores TODAY, you will be in for a lifetime of disappointment. Let's say you notice that books about twins are hot, and you are working on a novel or memoir about twins, you'd be mistaken to decide either that you'll be too late to the party by the time your manuscript is done OR that you if you write really fast, you can get in on a hot trend.

Either may turn out to be true, or neither – like so many other once-hot subjects, the topic may slip from its pinnacle, but remain a healthy but smaller part of the book market anyway. The thing is, you won't know while you are still writing which scenario will play out, and anyway, do you really want to determine what you write about based on something as fickle as readers' tastes? I'm not being naïve; I realize that writing a new vampire or wizard series is probably not going to generate huge interest right now. Except -- I could be wrong. (On the other hand, if you can reliably predict what will be hot in a literary sense, say, two to three years down the line, then I take it all back. And, can I get your number?)

This goes for short pieces of writing, too. So many writers have seen an essay or feature in a particular media venue – usually a publication or site they greatly admire and aspire to being published in, with a huge circulation, top freelancer pay rates and mucho prestige – and thrown up their arms. "Ugh. So-and-So just wrote a column about X. So I guess it's been done. "


Who cares if So-and-So wrote about it? You know what? It may be a really good thing that So-and-So raised awareness about X, introduced X into the conversation, put other editors on alert that there's something to be said about X. Now you can approach editors at venues other than the admired, highly valued one, high paying, prestigious one you aspire to, and concentrate on those that – let's face it – are probably more likely to publish your work.

And if that isn't what you want to hear, then there's this: Next time, stop dawdling over your pretty-damned-good essay or manuscript or query and hit send, instead of worrying over every comma (for the 14th blessed time) and talking yourself into the idea that it's not going to fly anyway, so why submit it? Be first next time. But if you can't, being second, tenth, or 203rd is okay too. It's a pretty big literary world out there and chances are very good you can find a place for your work where what you have to say about X will be fresh, and first, for them.

Meanwhile, you could also just stop reading so much! (kidding, I think)

Note: Your can read the rest of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer reruns from writers worth a second look.

It's August. In New Jersey. Land of the Triple-H weather forecast – hazy, hot and (horribly) humid. While I'm at the pool, here is a list of suggested blog reruns for you: all author interviews or guest posts which get a fair share of traffic, and in my opinion are all worth a second look.

Writing memoir – Sue William Silverman

A poet in nonfictionland – Susan Lilley

Lessons learned while writing a novel – Christina Baker Kline

The mind of the essay writer – Candy Schulman

How to interview scientists – Jennifer Gresham

Book publicity journey of a first time author – Vicki Forman

Planned productivity – Sage Cohen

And, here's a guest post I wrote for a friend's blog, about how writers often say no to ourselves before we even give others the chance to say yes.

Happy reading. Poolside, I hope.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are the Benefits of Organization Overrated?

I like to be organized. Apparently I was born that way. Mostly, I've grateful, though at times, I'd rather be brilliant instead, or stunningly creative, or gorgeous, at least wildly successful. I've written here before about why it disturbs me to have a reputation as an extremely organized person, even though I understand that having this inherent trait is enormously helpful – in work and life.


Sometimes I get carried away. I over-organize, which isn't a bad thing by itself I suppose, except when it is. Lately I'm asking myself if the time it takes to organize things could be better spent DOING things.

Does it really pay to spend time organizing a spread sheet -- by type, deadline date, word count and other criteria – for the publications, online venues and contests where I want to submit? Or would a simple (less time consuming) list do the trick? Does the time I invest in meticulously mapping out future marketing plans and dates for my classes make sense, or should I really just be blasting out links whenever and wherever I can? Will the way I organize my in-development writing, into electronic files and sub-files, and the way I gather and organize my rough handwritten drafts and notes -- by carefully sliding notebook pages, ripped out articles, photos and other paper stuff into carefully marked old-style file folders -- really help in structuring the memoir-in-progress, or should I instead just be writing and editing and revising like mad?

How to know when one's highly toned organization muscle would be better off going just a little bit slack, in favor of just getting on with things? Can organization be a procrastination tool? Hmm. This is interesting – and unsettling – to me, because I have never thought of myself as a procrastinator, and in fact, others tell me I'm pretty darn productive. There's not much evidence that I do put things off. I get things done.


Getting things done is not the same as getting the most important things done. The things that will matter more over the long haul. The things I may not have time for because I'm spending that time you know, getting organized.

I’m nothing if not self-critical. And lately, I've noticed that not only do I spend what I think might be too much time organizing, but that I also have grown rather annoyed with my highly organized self. She just seems kind of bothersome lately. Who cares? I want to yell at her, shake her by the shoulders. Who cares? Do I really care any longer if everything is color coded, cross-referenced, totally updated, crossed-off, linked up, mapped out? Do I really need a monthly list, weekly lists, daily lists, and then – oh, I'm so sorry, but it's true – a morning, afternoon and evening list?

No? No kidding!

Changing an ingrained habit is difficult, especially when that habit is, mostly, a good one. But it can be done. As I'm sure you can guess, my organizational tendencies spill over into non-work related areas. Just ask my kids how many lists I make before a trip, how intricate the itinerary is, how often I explain where the tickets, hotel confirmation emails, GPS and antibacterial hand gels are to be kept. On an upcoming trip, I've decided to test my ability to be less organized and more spontaneous, and hoping that if I can live through it, maybe I can transfer those newfound (non)skills back to the office.

We might get lost, delayed or dirty. It's a start.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, August 12, 2011 Edition

►Excerpts from books short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, as well as those nominated for a number of other prestigious awards (such as the PEN/Faulkner, National Book Critic Circle, and Edgar, among others), can be found through this list of links.

►If you're planning to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Chicago in 2012 (and even if you're not), you might want to check out their recently released list of just-approved panels, seminars, readings and other sessions.

►A lot of people may opt to take down their own status photo and upload something benign instead, after reading this piece about how facial recognition software and Facebook photos can lead to unsettling results.

►Mediabistro just announced an Authors Who Visit Book Clubs directory; writers can post their information, and clubs can search for nearby authors willing to make an appearance.

► Quill & Quire, which tracks the Canadian book scene, posts a links round-up once a week. The two most recent entries are here and here.

►The next U.S. poet laureate has been named.

►My sort-of-quarterly newsletter was just sent out. If you are not on the mailing list and want to be, please let me know.

►Finally, do authors sometimes get a little (or a major) attack of schadenfreude? You bet.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Not exactly qualified for that writing award? Apply anyway.

This is a story about freelancing, a wild chance, nostalgia, looking back in order to go forward, friends with blogs, and a little luck.

A few months ago, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship (in the category of Nonfiction Article Writing) by the Education Foundation of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), to attend ASJA's annual three-day conference in Manhattan.

I knew I would gather plenty of terrific advice, tips and knowledge from the panels and seminars, and I looked forward to spending a few days around fellow freelancers, exchanging inside info and trading (a few) horror stories. But the real reason I wanted to go to the ASJA conference was that I hadn't been to one in about 20 years. Before that, attending the ASJA event had been an annual outing for me, beginning with my first, the year after graduating from college with a journalism degree.

At the time, I was struggling to support myself as a freelance writer, and saw the conference fee as a necessary investment. I was right – from that first conference, I made important contacts with editors who sent work my way for many years. After that first attendance, I made the ASJA meeting a fixture on my calendar, even after I began working in public relations a few years later (another story!).

The conference slid off my annual agenda at some point. Until this past winter, when I got the idea in my head that, living just across the river, and wanting to expand the freelance journalism arm of my career, I really had no excuse not to attend again. Except of course, the fee. I visited the ASJA site a half-dozen times, filled out the registration form, and then let it languish. That money, I kept telling myself, would be better spent on my son's tuition. Or the other son's cello lessons. Or groceries.

One late winter morning this year, I was doing one of the online things I do every day – reading my friend Erika Dreifus's great blog, Practicing Writing. That day, she reminded readers that the deadline for the ASJA Education Foundation scholarships was that very afternoon. I thought for a moment about applying, but immediately dismissed the notion; I figured the selectors were probably looking for someone either (take your pick): younger, with less (or more) publishing credits, in worse financial circumstances, with less (or more) experience.

Then I remembered something I'd read a while back on another great blog, where novelist Tayari Jones wrote a post meant to encourage young writers to think big and be a bit reckless in seeking out opportunities. Tayari passed along advice she was once given (and I'm paraphrasing here): Every day in the writing world, someone is awarded something for which he or she may not seem especially qualified. The trick is to keep applying for things, because one day, why can't it be you?

The ASJA application, including links to published articles, a CV, and cover letter explaining why the scholarship was being sought, was due in a few hours.

Why can't it be me? I hit send.

Here's what was so interesting to me, sitting in on ASJA discussions again, some 30 years after having attended my first conference: How much has not changed, and how much has. On the one hand, everyone was discussing the very same things that we worried about in 1982 – the best way to query editors, how to attract an agent's attention, negotiating rights and fees, interviewing difficult people, keeping clips organized and presentable. But that was fine, because in the intervening years, everything else had changed, and so doing all of those basic things that propel a freelance career, now requires an entirely different set of skills, tools, technology.

Back in 1982, I recall wide-eyed, eye-rolling, grudging reactions in some sessions to certain ideas of changing up the way one does business. In 1982, a panelist suggested that five years hence, everyone in the room would own at least one computer on which we'd all be writing our articles. Having seen computers being installed in the journalism classrooms at Syracuse University just before I graduated the year before, I believed it, but I noticed quite a few crossed arms and shakes of the head around the room.

It was a similar scene several years later, when in those same ASJA sessions I heard another speaker declare that in just a few years, we would no longer be printing out word-processed articles and stuffing them into envelopes to send off to editors. At another ASJA I attended, probably around 1990 or so, I remember someone said the words electronic communication and web page. Some people seemed excited, but others clearly were not happy to contemplate the coming changes.

Fast forward to this past April, when there was a lot of talk about online activities -- creating a great website and blog, building a Twitter following, knowing how (and how not) to use Facebook and other social media, writing for online venues, SEO skills, developing e-newsletter lists, building an online portfolio of clips. Mostly, audience members welcomed information on these topics. But then in some sessions, where the conversation veered to video blogging, podcasts, writing for phone apps, formatting ebooks, and other issues, I could sense some reluctance (could some of that have been coming from moi?), and suddenly it felt just like old times: Can all this newness really be coming our way, be here already? Yes, and how wonderful. Yes, and oh no!

One way the conference also felt familiar, for me at least, was in the way these gatherings are good for one's career, and the soul of the work-at-home freelancer. I got to talk, in the flesh, with other writers – some with more experience than I, whose tips I appreciated, some with less experience, whose questions I was happy to answer. I met editors face-to-face and gathered useful intel on what might get an assignment nod. I was able to listen to others ask the questions I was either too hesitant to ask, or would never have thought of – and heard the answers in real time. I shared a meal, a drink, a coffee, with people I might not have sought out – a design blogger, a pet columnist, an education writer -- but whose company, and insights, I enjoyed.

And, I got to write this blog post – which I hope will encourage other writers to go ahead and ask for that scholarship, apply for that residency, enter that contest, go after that job. Why can't it be your turn next?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, August 5, 2011 Edition

► Over at Shelf Awareness Pro, young adult novelist Mal Peet talks about the necessary musicality of prose and how reading one's work aloud can help a writer develop rhythm. "A sentence that clots in your mouth is unlikely to flow in your mind," he notes.

NPR Books has a short interview with Marion Roach Smith and an excerpt from her new book, The Memoir Project.

► Kerry Cohen's helpful article from The Writer, "Not Hurting People With Your Words," is now available over at Gotham Writers' Workshop.

► At HTML Giant, Blake Butler shares "22 Things I Learned From Submitting Writing." He's blunt.

►A puzzle constructor whose creations often appear in the New York Times, talks about his craft. Puzzle lovers, follow the other links in the piece to more great stuff, too.

►Tired of glare on your computer screen while writing outdoors? (You do write outdoors sometimes, don't you?) Not sure if you can buy this computer sun shield in the U.S., but it looks interesting. (And I'm betting you can also rig up something similar for a lot less.)

► Consulting editor Alan Rinzler with some new thoughts on – yes I'm going to write that dreaded word: platform.

►When that "complementary" hotel newspaper isn't really free. Yikes.

►Finally, what ensues when a college journalism class attempts to put together a newspaper 1970s style, sans computers, digital cameras, etc.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What I'm reading, perusing, studying, scanning, dipping into, skimming, leafing through and poring over.

In my experience most writers love dictionaries and thesauruses, some love style manuals, others even adore grammar guides. I love them all, which explains my pleasure reading this week – The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall.

I guess it didn't surprise me that Roget probably suffered from what today would be called obsessive compulsive disorder. He spent nearly his entire childhood on the tasks of categorizing, listing and codifying everything that comprised his world – people, events, nature, scholarly subjects, animals, gardens, body parts, books, relationships, vegetables.

I haven't finished the book yet, but the other day, when I heard something about promising new treatments that would maybe one day eradicate OCD, I couldn't help but feel a pang of – well, I don't know quite what.

Surely I wouldn't want anyone who must deal with an OCD that impairs their life to continue to suffer when a treatment is one day available. Yet I could not help but also think that the world is probably a richer, more creative place because of the books, films, inventions, ideas, and artwork produced by those who had/have OCD, as well as many other disorders. What would writers have done for two centuries without Roget's Thesaurus? Aren't we all enriched a little bit because of his contribution?

Likewise, I thought of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has worked tirelessly over the last 40 years to redesign the modern American slaughterhouse based on her uniquely visual thought patterns, an intuitive sense of what calms herd animals, and an innate geometry ability. Her book about life as an autistic child and adult (recently an award winning HBO film) has also contributed greatly to people's understanding of autism.

The world seems to need all kinds of minds.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Writing Quirks and Bad Habits

Writing quirks. We all have them. Sometimes a writing quirk is just a bad habit, one we should take extra care to extinguish – or at minimum become acutely aware of and question ourselves about. For me, one of my quirks is a tendency to get list-y: "Hello my name is Lisa and I am a serial comma and semi-colon abuser." Another I've mostly eradicated from my prose is the one-word paragraph comprised of the word still or yet.

Over the last few months I've advised students, editing clients and writers I coach about their individual writing quirks. A few involved dialogue tags: One writer loved adverbs (Bob said heartily), another seemed unable to use the verbs said or asked (Mary enthused; he entreated), and a third writer combined both (Sue heartily enthused; Joe entreated smugly).

Other bad habits I've seen recently include memoir writers beginning nearly every sentence with the pronoun "I"; overuse of one particular favorite (usually hackneyed) phrase ("and so with that," "not that it mattered"); starting a new paragraph every few sentences whether it makes sense or not; continually referring to an important secondary character in terms of their relationship to the main character rather than by name ("my mom" instead of Mother, Mama, Mom; "her brother" rather than Joe); and – one of my particular favorites – repeatedly using the exact same word or descriptor for an item that is central to the story ("the red dress" 10 times in one page; if it's not to make a poetic point, couldn't that item at least once or twice, be a frock, outfit, garment, piece of clothing, silky confection, or depending on its design, a sheath, gown, sundress, cocktail dress?).

Oh dear. Was that list-y of me?

Some writers are so overly enamored of a single word, they will find ways to use it far too many times in one piece; a few recent ones I've encountered: superior, blanch, quibble, obstreperous.

Then there's "it".

I once challenged a writer to do a spell check and count how many times he used it in a 1200 word essay. Answer: 46. My pet peeve with *it* is that very often the reader won't immediately know what *it* refers to precisely; or the meaning shifts, from one *it* to the next; and more importantly, that using *it* substitutes for bringing readers closer in to the story and further inside a character's head.

Example: It was a glorious day so John called in sick even though it would get him in trouble. It didn't matter. He'd already decided that it was no longer worth it. Fix: Monday morning's glorious sunrise convinced John to call in sick. He knew Mr. Morgan would make a negative note in his performance review folder, but that didn't matter. By then, John had decided he'd been humiliated by a demeaning job long enough and would no longer worry about the consequences.

Many writing quirks can be solved by awareness and practice with alternate ways of expressing ourselves. Sometimes I challenge a writer to produce something without a single adverb, or using only said or asked, or writing sentences longer than five words, or never longer than 12 words. Once, I limited a memoir writer to no more than three uses of *I* per page.

As for me, when I revise I am keenly aware of my terrible friend the serial comma and my tendency to want to list things. An instructor once told me: periods are free and for a while I kept a sticky note on my computer with that written on it.

Another way to kill your quirks is by constantly striving to be more precise, because many bad habits have to do with avoiding precision. Unless we are being purposely imprecise or ambiguous for metaphorical, style or poetic reasons, we need to work hard to help a reader see and understand our exact, specific, precise meaning.


Some writing quirks are actually good habits, just gone a little (or a lot) awry. Think of the writer who is a master of interesting description: Terrific when we're reading about the main character's new house, or the place he's traveled, or the office she's coveted and is now hers; maybe not so great when we're asked (for no reason related to plot or character development) to read paragraphs of description of a pot, blouse or pencil.

One writer I worked with wrote stunning dialogue. But not every story she wanted to tell could be done best via conversation. Another created richly innovative metaphors; but after reading five in a row in a single paragraph, fatigue set in (for me at least). One writer whose work I otherwise particularly liked, took too much to heart the typically good advice about ending a paragraph with a striking or powerful image or word, and began ending every paragraph with a word that sent me running to the dictionary.

I would continue, but that might be list-y of me.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Even More Reasons Writing is Rejected: Part Three

In Parts One and Two, I covered 40 reasons why your work may have been rejected – 20 which are easy to avoid, and others which go to the heart of writing craft. Today, to wrap up, 20 or so reasons which may or may not make sense, but turn out to be more or less true

Some Reasons you really can't control…
1. The editor was in a lousy mood that day and didn't like anything that crossed his/her inbox.
2. The editor has seen your work before and just doesn't like it, period.
3. The section in which your piece would have run has just been eliminated.
4. The venue got way more submissions than anticipated and even though your piece is good, they can only publish so many.
5. The publication got way more submissions than they anticipated and since they have far too few staff to read them all, everyone in the overflow lot simply got a rejection.
6. Your piece was read by an overworked undergraduate student on an internship who makes mistakes and overlooks good work sometimes.
7. The editor who read your work just doesn't like ____ (fill in blank with whatever the subject of your piece was – ducks, China, smokers, kids…)

Reasons you can't control, but might have realized before submitting…

8. They only publish work by…women and you're a man; health professionals and you're not; Asian-Americans and you're Greek.
9. You've written about this topic dozens of times in publications similar to theirs, and the editors don't want to be derivative.
10. You have paraphrased too much of another writer's work.
11. You keep sending to the same editor over and over, and keep getting impersonal form rejections (never any personal notes or encouragement). Take the hint. He/she isn't interested in your work. (Probably.)
12. You are not a writer that venue considers established enough for its pages.

Reasons that sound inauthentic, but sometimes really are just plain true:

13. We just ran something similar.
14. We recently accepted something similar.
15. Liked this, but it just missed: please submit again. (You know, editors often really do mean this.)

Possible explanations for: "This is just not for us," or "This doesn’t meet our editorial needs":

16. We just don't like it and aren't really sure why.
17. We have other stuff at the moment that we just like better.
18. Someone here knows you, doesn't like you, and cast the veto vote. (Yes, it happens; though thankfully, not too often.)
19. We're in a budget crunch which is limiting our page count, bandwith, editor and/or contributor budget; therefore, we're cutting back on how much we accept.
20. We're just way too busy to explain why we are passing on this.

Annoying things that, on a good day, probably won't get you rejected on their own, but are just enough to annoy the editor so that if he/she is having a not-so-good day, may just get you the boot:

- You don't know how to properly punctuate or format dialogue.
- You don't use page numbers and it's a long piece.
- You sent it to an editor's personal email address instead of their professional inbox.
- You wrote a rambling cover note filled with unnecessary information.
- Instead of inserting direct links to your published work, you invite an editor to "visit my website (or blog)" so she/he can spend time she/he doesn't have hunting down your published work.
- You mention that you and the editor once met and that he/she indicated your piece would be a shoe-in, when what was really said was more like, "send it along."
- You address a female editor as Mr. or a male editor as Ms.
- You wave your MFA (or other) degree as if it is reason enough to accept your work.

Did I miss anything? Writers, and editors especially, do chime in.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

More Reasons Your Writing Gets Rejected: Part Two

Yesterday's post noted 20 possible reasons for rejections that are easy to avoid. Today, it gets trickier:

20 possible reasons for rejection, that have to do with your writing craft and skills…and a few tips on what you can do about it next time around:

  1. Your opening lines were forgettable.

  2. Your cover note summed up the entire piece, it didn't sound fabulous, and so the editor never bothered to read the work.

  3. Your piece was riddled with poor grammar, improper usage, spelling/punctuation errors. (Message: I am a lazy writer.)

  4. Your piece was poorly organized. (You rushed, or you don't yet understand what you really want to say on the page, or you need more feedback or experience.)

  5. Your work is very clearly not at the same level of skill and craft as that which the venue routinely publishes. (You didn't spend enough time studying what's published there or you weren't honest with yourself.)

  6. Your work reads like an early draft, instead of a meticulously revised final manuscript.

  7. Your work is riddled with adverbs (instead of good verbs) or is written in a passive voice or commits some other obvious crime against prose.

  8. Your dialogue is stilted, tedious, inauthentic, or filled with banalities ("Hi," she said. "Oh hi," he answered.)

  9. Your work is loaded down with trite and expected clichés, overused idioms, too-common similes, poorly constructed metaphors, tired old phrases.

  10. You shift tenses and/or points of view for no reason, or you do so clumsily.

  11. It's dull to read. (Your language range and vocabulary inventory need a boost.)

  12. Your work lacks conflict or tension; no one wants anything.

  13. Your work has a happy-ever-after, all-wrapped-up-in-a-pretty-bow ending.

  14. You have a strong opening and/or ending, but a too-soft middle.

  15. You have a strong middle, but a lousy opening and/or ending.

  16. You didn't tie up (or at least acknowledge) the loose strings the piece raises.

  17. Your work makes it clear that you are not reading enough in your genre.

  18. You have written about a subject that has been completely over-exposed, or its time has come and gone, and/or you just do not have a fresh enough new angle on it.

  19. You have copied another writer's well-known style too closely and your work reads like an imitative writing exercise.

  20. You love to use exclamation points !!! or you overuse (and incorrectly use) the ellipsis…or you love the em dash but don't know its proper usage -- or you randomly use § dingbats or white

space breaks in places that make no sense, all/any of which weakens the overall effectiveness of the prose.

In Part One, I discussed 20 possible easy-to-avoid reasons why your work/query was rejected; you can read it here.  

Update:  Now, part three has been posted - 20 or so reasons for rejection that do and don't make sense but are still often true.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reasons Writing Submissions & Queries Get Rejected: Part One

A while back, I was prepping a talk for a writers' group about submissions and rejection (and I admit, was in a slightly cynical mood), I came across an article titled something like, "10 Reasons You Were Rejected," and I thought: Ten? Really? Is that it? I can probably come up with ten times ten. Thankfully, I didn't go quite that far, but I did compile "61 Possible Reasons Why You Got A Rejection: The Good News and the Bad." Relax, I'm not going to sling them all at you right here, right now. Nah, I'm going to break them up into three posts. There, isn't that better? First up --

20 possible pretty simple reasons why you got a rejection. (These, by the way, are oh-so-easy to avoid):

1. You sent a piece of the wrong word length.
2. You sent it to the wrong editor (and that editor did not do you the supreme favor of forwarding it on to the right one).
3. You sent it by postal mail and that venue now only accepts electronic submissions.
4. You sent by personal email and that publication now only accepts submissions through their site's Submission Manager form.
5. You sent a piece as an attachment when guidelines said NO attachments. Or vice versa.
6. You missed the deadline (yes, even by five minutes – if it's an online sub).
7. You ignored or did not read the exact submission guidelines. Or figured they did not apply to you.
8. You sent a form/genre that the publication does not publish, or no longer publishes.
9. You put your name on the pages of your work, or it appears somewhere in the text, when the guidelines say NOT to (because it's either a contest or the editors do a blind reading).
10. You sent single-spaced text or a teeny font size or otherwise poorly formatted your work.
11. You made a pest of yourself by following up too soon, too often, or impolitely.
12. You said something stupid in your cover note like, "I don't read your publication, but…"
13. You submitted (via email) something that was previously published and the editor found it online (because yes, some venues do a routine search/scan of all submissions).
14. Your cover note stated that you needed a speedy reply, hinted that another publication was interested, or asked for a specific (and way high) amount of money. Or you otherwise made an ass of yourself.
15. You queried about something you should have sent in as a fully completed piece.
16. You sent in a fully completed piece when you should have queried first instead.
17. You called something a short story (indicating fiction) when it is really a personal essay or piece of memoir (nonfiction) or vice versa, and the person who edits that genre dismissed it.
18. You sent something that is not right for that venue's clearly stated readership, mission, or desired style/form/aesthetic.
19. You dropped the names of certain editors, authors, or others who you think have influence at that venue, and you didn't check with those people first; when the editor asked them about you, there was a less-than-effusive reaction.
20. You have been published by this venue in the (recent?) past and they have a policy about not publishing the same authors more than X times per Y time period.

Have I made these mistakes over the past few decades? Some, sure. Live and learn.

Tomorrow, 20 or so possible reasons for rejection that are related to your writing craft.

Update: Parts Two and Three have now been posted and you can find them here and here.