Living to Write/Writing to Live: How One Author Cracked the Code to Success.

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Andrew Blackman is living “a writer’s life”, and you can learn all about it on his blog of the same title. The long and short of it is this: he was a Wall Street Journal staff writer for a while, then participated in NaNoWriMo in 2007. During that month of intensive wordsmithing he finished a draft for his first novel, The Holloway Road, which went on to win the first ever Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers in 2008. It was then published by Legend Press the following year to some acclaim, even earning a spot on the short list for the Dundee International Book Prize. He published his second novel, A Virtual Love, earlier this year and moved to the island of Crete soon thereafter for cheap rent and a view of the Mediterranean Sea, where he can “live simply and concentrate on writing,” according to his website. Jealous yet? Well, you’re not alone.

Blackman’s blog includes occasional insights to his life and career as a professional writer, as well as tips and tricks for up-and-comers in the industry. Subscribers get a free copy of the eBook “$250,000 Writing Contests”, which could potentially save any writer of short fiction many countless hours of outlet-searching for their polished-yet-unpublished pieces. On a personal note, I can tell you that his guest post for the popular blog, The Renegade Writer, on using the “TK” method while drafting has saved me tons of time writing magazine articles and anything else in which a tedious research effort had the potential to morph into an all-consuming waste of time.

Fresh from a meditation retreat somewhere even quieter than his rural home site, Blackman was kind enough to speak with me via email about the writing process for both of his books and—spoiler alert—even clues me in about his progress on novel number three. It seems that a good relationship with a publisher—even a relatively small one—really can affect a writer’s approach. And even the pros are constantly learning, incorporating new information and experiences, and evolving with regard to their perspective and their process.

Here’s the unedited text of my questions to him and his email response, also unedited:

CB:  Maybe you can start by telling me a little about that first novel- how long did your first draft ultimately take? And what about the revision process? How many read-throughs were there before you set it free? Finally, did you find the process of writing your second novel to be similar to the first, or was it perhaps an altogether different experience?

AB:  Good questions. The process was completely different for each novel.

I wrote the complete first draft of my first novel On the Holloway Road in a month, and that first draft was remarkably close to what eventually got published. I went over it, added a few scenes, straightened out a few logical inconsistencies, fixed a few ugly sentences, and then let it go.

Shortly after finishing, I found out about a newly-established prize for unpublished writers, the Luke Bitmead Bursary. I sent off my manuscript, not expecting much, and was amazed when a few months later I was invited to an award ceremony in London and announced as the winner. The prize was £2,500 and a publishing contract with Legend Press, a fairly small independent publisher in the UK.

After revelling in the win for a while, I panicked. They’d only judged the prize based on the first three chapters. What if they hated the rest? I spent a few frantic days making last-minute revisions, but I don’t think I changed anything much – it was more just agonising over words here and there.

To my surprise, my editor at Legend Press didn’t make or recommend any major changes either. It was more line-editing stuff, like breaking down some of my long and winding sentences into smaller pieces. So the process from start to finish was very easy, and the published novel was mostly completed in that one-month manic writing binge.

For my second novel, it was totally different. I wrote much more slowly, and edited much more thoroughly. With the first novel, I’d had the freedom of not expecting it to be published. Second time around, I had an agent and a wiling publisher, and knew the chances of publication were high. The second novel was also more complicated in theme and structure, so there was more work to do.

So I spent about a year and a half writing the first draft, and then wrote a second draft with major changes – whole chapters deleted, characters dropped and introduced, personalities and plot radically reshaped. And then a third draft, and I showed that to my agent, and he recommended some pretty major changes. For example, the novel is narrated by different characters in different chapters, and he felt the voices were not distinct enough. Going back through the whole novel and changing the voices took months by itself, and then there were elements of the plot that had to be rethought, characters who had to be made more believable or sympathetic. I think this stage took another year. I showed it to him again, and he was happier, but recommended another draft.

Finally it was done, and it was just the publisher’s edit, which was pretty light again. All in all it was about four years from start to finish.

I’m now pretty close to the end of my third novel, and it’s a similar process to the second. I think that’s my way of working in general – slower and more considered. On the Holloway Road was more of a one-off. I’d been working on a novel before that for years (a novel which remains, and will always remain, unpublished!), and had got so sick of it that it felt incredibly liberating to free-write for a month without the burden of expectation. I was viewing it as an exercise, to rediscover the joy of writing, and never dreamed that I’d end up with anything publishable. Maybe I’ll try some speed-writing again one day if I get stuck, but for now the slower pace is working well for me, so I’ll stick with that.

All the best

Andrew

Do you have any experience with novel writing, NaNoWriMo, or a publishing success story you’d like to share? Leave a comment below or email me—I’d love to hear your take on things!

NaNoWriMo: Facing All of Your Worst Writing Fears in a Single Month

Copyright NaNoWriMo
Copyright NaNoWriMo

Anyone that has ever tried to publish a piece of writing knows that there are a number of steps along the way that can be downright terrifying. There is the intimidation wrought by that lone blinking vertical line on an empty Word Document to tend with, then the countless hours of tedious rereads and edits (also known as facing your own shortcomings), followed by forcing your writing on unwilling readers (friends and family), accepting criticism, and then perhaps worst of all, sharing your work with willing readers (strangers), at which point all control of the piece is out of your hands. At that point, your opinion of yourself is effectively handed over to the public, en masse.

If you’re like me, there is an additional fear associated with the anticipated length of a piece of writing. If it’s going to be very long, I have a tendency to shy away from working on a piece in favor of something much shorter and simpler. Writing short stories has always been an enjoyable pastime for me as I have grown comfortable in that 20-pages-or-less neighborhood. I can edit those 20 or 30 times before sending them in to a journal for a proper rejection, or even abandon one for a period of months and come back to it for a reread without having to dedicate a full week or more to the process. Great! But a novel has always been too big for me. The prospect of spending 200 full pages on a single story makes me shiver. Even worse is the thought of sharing any bit of the product with the world before it’s finished. What if it’s bad? What if I can’t publish after my work has been shared online? What if a big-time player in the publishing industry reads my work and is offended to the point of vomiting? Will I be blacklisted from ever publishing again?

If this level of anxiety seems at all too intense to maintain while still holding on to your sanity, that’s because it is. That being said, with respect to my own writing career, the process of getting from the level of amateur with no experience to that of a barely-paid professional has been all about conquering fears. We writers must learn to constantly face our fears head-on to survive. We tackle the fear of rejection with each query letter sent; we stumble awkwardly through the fear of humiliation with our first handful of interviews; we live with the threat of criticism from the moment we release a work and allow it to be published in any format.

National Novel Writing Month (www.NaNoWriMo.org) is the chance to stand up to long-form fiction once and for all. The challenge is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. In short, the goal is to have a rough draft for that novel you have been dying to write banged out without any excuses by midnight on December 1. The organization responsible for NaNoWriMo even provides you with a word count feature, forums, motivational messages, and plenty of tips and tricks to keep you blasting through writer’s blocks along the way. And though we are almost one week in to the challenge, it’s not too late to start. Build your profile today and start by cranking out your first 2000 words. Stay on it each day and by Saturday’s Writing Marathon you’ll have a running start toward tacking ‘novelist’ on to your resume.

Happy National Novel Writing Month to all of you! I’d be happy to hear from you about your experience with NaNoWriMo or any other tips and tricks you might have with respect to writing long-form fiction.

Freelance Travel Writer Eric Hiss Explains How to Get an Editor’s Attention

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Eric Hiss has more than 18 years of professional freelance writing experience under his belt. Throughout nearly two decades he has managed to place his work in more than 40 publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Delta Sky, and the Robb Report, his curio cabinet features a prestigious journalism award from the government of India. After college, Eric started working in PR writing advertising copy and producing agency work for various travel accounts, which led naturally to his career in travel writing a short time later. What follows is the gist of a short phone conversation I had with Eric last week.

 

Since you got your start that way, do you recommend novice writers go into PR as a means of enhancing their freelancing careers?

I think if writing is your application or your passion, if you can just find anything that’s good, whether that’s a PR agency or an ad agency, a lot of journalists like myself need to do other stuff now—it’s really important to diversify because  I’m finding very few colleagues that are just cranking out journalism. Some are, and I find most of those people… (have to) rely a lot on their connections… So for a lot of us that means branded blogs or copywriting, or ghost writing, that kind of stuff—the idea is to make a living doing it. For me, too, I do some branded copywriting stuff; most of it is in the travel sphere so that’s good for me, but I also do some automotive and things like that. I just want to keep busy and I want to keep doing the stuff I love because, you know, a lot of magazines aren’t paying like they used to, so if I can still get a lesser fee but get a great trip to Africa, maybe that means I need to do some corporate work, some press releases back home—I’m fine with it. Some writers aren’t, I have no problem with it.

 

Clearly having been in the industry for a little while now you’ve been able to build up something of a network, but before you were “established” how did you go about finding new publications and introducing yourself? What is or was your methodology?

Trust me, I think you always have to network. I’ve never felt like I’m at some plateau where the work just showers down— I think you saw my name on Gorkana—so that just shows you that I’m always trying to push my name out there on whatever vehicle I see. You know: LinkedIn, I have my own website that’s more like a portfolio, I have a blog, so I’m doing all the stuff I think writers need to do because we are like a brand and you always need to be out there branding yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re beginning or mid-career—you’ve still got to evolve, because editors move on.  I could have worked for someone for 5 or 7 years and then, boom, they’re gone and I’ve got to start again to make that up. But I think there are lots of good options out there to resource… between things like Media Bistro (and Gorkana), looking through magazines, and looking thru websites at your sort of dream outlets or the outlets you want to hit, I scan that to see where editors are popping up… I try to keep an eye on things like that.

 

When you say you track editors, does that mean you read what editors are writing before you pitch to them?

Yes, I do because I think it’s really important. I know they get annoyed (by the amount of mail they get) so, if it’s the right magazine, it’s better to hyper-focus your pitch. If you’re pitching Nat Geo Traveler you want to get the editor that’s managing the section you want to pitch, because if you pitch the wrong section, they may be kind enough to pass that along to the right editor, but they also might not. If you get to the right editor you’re doing everything you can to increase your chances that they’ll read your pitch and give you an assignment.

 

Talk to me about the pitch itself. Does your letter of introduction include mini-pitches? What’s your formula?

Just talking to a lot of my colleagues, everybody seems to have a different style. I think it changes too. I think 10-15 years ago the norm was…a one-page, four-paragraph pitch you would mail to “XYZ” editor. Then it was email and it would be kind of the same thing—a four-to-five paragraph, one-page pitch to an editor. Now I think a lot of people are doing really short (pitches)–I think it’s just because of the news cycle and people just trying to move faster and quicker– shorter; one-paragraph, or even just a couple sentences just to try and get a response, and then, with that response, following thru with a full three-to-four paragraph pitch. That way, instead of pounding out the full query, you’re just sort of getting a nugget out and you can get more queries out (that way). So I hear a lot of my colleagues doing that a lot more often, so it’s like short, very sweet… and saying, “if this is something that interests you, I’d be happy to send you more information.” So it’s sort of opening a dialogue and following it up.

 

What do you put in the subject line of those pitches?

Again, people come at it different ways. I think it’s good if you just put “Query, a colon, ‘Mexico’s Best Ceviche’,” or whatever your subject line is. A lot of people put “query”, and I think there’s a value to that because, as an editor they’re getting a lot of PR pitches and they may confuse your pitch with a PR person’s pitch, and I think they would be more likely to delete a PR person’s pitch than a writer’s. So if you put “query” in there, at least they know it’s from a writer and not coming from a PR agency. It gives you a little notch up, anyway.

…one more swath of deletions overstepped.

Yeah, maybe it’ll give you two seconds where they won’t delete, whereas there may be 30 similar PR pitches that they are just going through (and deleting). If they think yours is another one they’re going to hit delete, whereas if they see that word ‘query’ they know it’s coming from a writer and maybe they give you five seconds they wouldn’t have given somebody else.

 

On that note, how do you feel about following up? I know a lot of writers now say they don’t.

Again, it’s kind of all over the map, but I can tell you what I do. I always follow up. If it’s something I really feel strongly about I follow up at least twice, and usually I give it about a week. So I’ll pitch, wait about a week, and then hit them up again with another email. And again, if it’s something that I really want to sell and I think it’s really right for this publication, I’ll even send a second one. Sometimes I even call, but not very often. I rarely call;  I think email is the norm. I think at least two follow-ups. I know people that have been successful following up three and four times because something ended up in a spam filter… you never know. You have to walk that fine line between being a pest and just being persistent, but I think two is totally legitimate.

 

How many queries do you generally have out and do you track them?

I do, and honestly sometimes I think I should do a better job. Sometimes it’s less of a priority, but I have an Excel spreadsheet and I just have all my pitches in the left column, some notes, what publications (I pitched) and when was I in last contact… for a long time I just kept a Word Document, but I think something like an Excel spreadsheet, where you can glance and see different elements, is really helpful. Google docs is another  good way to go because  it will always be accessible, so I know some people that handle that with a Google doc. It’s super helpful and, you know, it’s different for everybody, so for me it’s one (query) a week, minimum. You need to do that, at least. If you can get more out a week, great.

 

Do you shop your stories to multiple publications at once or just one at a time?

Well, the best way to handle it, because you can get burned, is just send it to one outlet. I mean, it’s okay to send it to two non-competing outlets. Let’s say, in my case I could send something to a glossy, like Condé Nast Traveler and also send it to maybe a trade publication, like Travel Age West because they’re not really competing at all. And even if it’s the same topic, like Spain, they’re going to be looking for totally different elements. If I sent that to Condé Nast Traveler and to Travel and Leisure, that’s just asking for trouble, because if I was lucky enough that they both wanted it, I’d be getting somebody upset. So I would recommend just doing one pitch unless it’s to noncompeting publications and (using) different articles—then you’re okay to push it simultaneously. But just give whatever your time point is—a couple weeks, three weeks. If it’s a fast-breaking story give them less time, if it’s something that has to be written in a week mention that in your query. …and then give them that amount of time and just move on.

 

And just one more question: how do you deal with lead times? How far in advance does someone need to pitch a timely story?

…some (stories) are kind of evergreen. I’m having an article run in one magazine that I wrote; I traveled in February, submitted in April, it was supposed to have run in July, and now (in October) it’s just running because they pushed it back. So that happens, but if you had a really timely story, I’d say five months is safe because most long lead (publications) have a three-month lead time. You couldn’t pitch something in January that would need to run in April—that would be impossible. You would need to be pitching that at the end of the previous year? So you want to be at least four-to-five months out. Usually 90 days is just kind of (the standard), so if it’s January they’re working on (the) April (issue).

Eric Hiss is an award-winning freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. His contact information and samples of his work can be found at www.erichhiss.com.

Writing Honest Headlines, Using Keywords, and Living With Yourself

Many writers today seem more than willing to sacrifice clarity in headlines for web traffic, but more important still is consideration for the reader’s experience.

Like every other citizen of the modern world, I get most of my news online. It should come as no surprise then, that like everyone, I am guilty of headline browsing and article scanning. That’s right—even though I write for a living, I would say that I only actually finish reading about 20 percent of the articles that I start. And that estimate is probably on the high end.

That being said, I understand the value, nay the power, of a good headline. Carol Tice once said on her blog that “headlines are everything,” and it’s true that a killer headline can make or break a story. Not only that, but anyone can see how the placement of strong keywords in your headlines is the only way to gain search engine visibility.

You need keywords in your headlines. And your headlines need to give the gist of your story without giving too much away. After all, as a writer you want to give the reader a reason to click and actually read your piece, don’t you? But beyond that, things get a little fuzzy.

For many writers and paying clients, this is all they need to hear. Unfortunately, some people just don’t care so much about the quality of someone’s writing as they do the visibility of their articles. Let’s face it—the purpose of a company blog is never simply to provide information to interested parties, but more so to drive traffic to the company’s website and convert that traffic into sales. Many business owners will tell you point-blank that they prioritize clicks over clarity. Thus, when someone begins the process of looking for freelance work they inevitably find a vast array of paying gigs with high minimum keyword saturation requirements—jobs that can be pumped out relatively quickly at a few dollars a pop. But hey, with a little bit of luck a whole heap of these gigs will keep the lights on, right?

This thread of logic, though, gives rise to a question about the real importance of visibility. Obviously, without visibility you have no traffic. Without traffic, you have no readers. And without readers, you will have very little success attracting clients. Fair enough.

Being fairly new to the professional writing game, I have to admit that I have been tempted by the myriad of low-paying, low-quality marketing work that seems to dominate the scroll-space of freelance job boards. It is an alluring option to take any paycheck for your work, no matter how low-paying or lowbrow, if it means you might get one of those coveted bylines you’ve heard so much about. “It’ll help me get the jobs I want down the road,” you tell yourself.

But it’s a lie. You may not know it yet, but it is. No online marketing campaign, no matter how brilliant, nor email blast, no matter how succinct, will qualify you to write an article for a national magazine. Even though you might feel that much closer to your goal having a paid sample on your website, the reality is that while you are spending your time cranking out low-quality assignments one after the other, those high-end opportunities are just getting further and further out of reach.

Unfortunately, fellow freelancers, the truth is that run-of-the-mill product descriptions and press releases will only help you to win more run-of-the-mill projects down the line. To make the next big leap requires incremental progress, and is in fact rarely a leap at all. Rather the journey to freelancing success seems to be more like a carefully plotted series of steps through a minefield of rejection, coupled with the constant refinement of your professional process. To compromise on the quality of your work in favor of volume will help you build a large portfolio quickly, but at some point you will be forced to look at that portfolio and decide if the writer it defines is the one you intended to be.

So yes, visibility is good. But only if it is good visibility. And so, we come full circle to headlines.

Last week I came across this story about a poison pill defense strategy employed by Safeway. With images of espionage dancing in my head, naturally I clicked the link. What appeared you can see below.

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The top result (probably not coincidentally from MSN) seemed to confirm my suspicions—Safeway executives had developed a way to use a real-life poison pill to prevent a takeover. Sweet. Even the sub-header failed to say much more. It was not until I clicked again that I learned, in the body of the article, that a “poison pill” is actually a financial strategy. A company that uses a “poison pill” plan opts to sell stock at a discount to current stockholders in order to prevent a third party company from gobbling up too much interest and, in effect, taking over.

Boy, did I feel stupid.

I suppose it was a little stupid, or at least naïve of me, to assume that Safeway had decided to use an actual poison pill to be taken by, say, a manager in the event of a hostile takeover by, say, Al Qaeda. And in truth it had not crossed my mind that terrorists might not target a grocery store for a takeover of any kind—but man, that would’ve been a story, wouldn’t it?

The person that wrote that headline got me to click their link. Objective complete. But when I found out that I had been misdirected into landing on a page, my feathers were admittedly a bit ruffled. I complained out loud to no one in particular and moved on.

But then I got to thinking. Maybe it was a slipup, the lack of quotation marks around the short phrase “poison pill” a simple grammatical snafu. But no: within the article itself, in the third sentence, is an indirect admonition of the tactic (pictured below).

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When I looked again at the “Safeway Poison Pill” search results, I saw that the folks at Microsoft weren’t the only ones to sacrifice grammatical accuracy in favor of potential web traffic. In fact, not until I got to the bottom of the screen to the article posted by the Christian Science Monitor—the sixth most popular result for this particular search—did I find a headline employing the proper use of quotes to indicate the type of “poison pill” in use.

Perhaps I should have known that a poison pill was not really a poison pill, but rather a “poison pill.” I will accept that criticism. Silly me. But I am not a financial expert and, as such, have never heard that term used before. I assume the majority of international internet users would find themselves in the same crowded boat.

And yes, MSN got some traffic—at least my click—by employing clever, perhaps even sneaky, headline-writing strategies. I am willing to bet that loads of other people had the same experience I did with that particular headline, though this is not something I can confirm. But I left that page with the slightly nauseated feeling of having “been had”. And though I may have never remembered that it was an MSN article that made me feel so intellectually violated had I not taken a second look this time, but a few more of those moments and that site may have soon found themselves with one less reader.

The less cynical side of that same coin (let’s call it “heads”) is this: with articles that readers feel are engaging, interesting, and straight-forward, they take note, often both of the writer and of the site that published the content in question. Those writers and publications get higher preference within our own personal article selection criteria—more of a selective style of search-engine use than any practical application of SEO, really, but far more relevant to each of us than any amount of obvious keyword-cramming.

I think it is important to keep this in the back of my mind while I’m writing whatever it is that I may be writing at any given point, especially as it applies to headlines, because that is the type of work I want in my portfolio. Because I want my readers to know what they are in for when they click on one of my stories, and I want them to enjoy reading it when they get there. But mostly I think of this because, when it comes down to it, even if I never get a single writing job based on my portfolio alone, I’m still always going to have to live with it.

International Perspective From Freelancer Mridu Khullar Relph

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Mridu Khullar Relph is a multiple award-winning freelance writer and journalist based in India whose work has appeared in Elle, TIME, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, the Independent, The International Herald Tribune, and on, and on, and on. She maintains a freelance writing advice blog called “Tell Your Story, Sell Your Story,” and runs Translating India with her husband, a consulting business geared toward Western companies with interests in  India. You can find samples of her work on her website, www.mridukhullar.com. Here’s what Mridu Khullar Relph had to say…

 

…on cracking big markets:

“It’s important to remember that once you find the right person, that’s when things start happening. Because if you’re pitching the wrong people… you’re wasting your time and you’re wasting their time.

“Maybe it takes a bit more research in the beginning, but you have to find the right person who is going to be the one to buy your work… That’s something that’s very easy now, especially when you can just go on Twitter and find out who is the person (you need to pitch to) or you can ask people… sometimes they’ll even list their emails. I know New York Times editors who list their email addresses on their Twitter profile because they receive pitches from freelancers and they are happy to have you know that… Aim high and you might strike out, (but) you might get in on your first try.”

 

… on pitching strategically:

“The biggest mistake I think a lot of new freelancers make is they go for that one big story, that investigative story that’s going to change the world… but (major publications) have their big people doing big stories, so give them something else. Just go through the magazine (or newspaper)—not all of their stories are big stories… and you’ll get there… but that takes time and that takes a lot of relationships, as well. You can’t do that overnight… they need to have proof that you can pull it off because they’re making a big investment in you.”

and

“…I think for me the biggest thing is the idea. You can write a really, really good query letter, and if the idea is not that great, or if the idea isn’t something the editor really is excited about, it doesn’t matter how good your writing is… However if you have a really good idea… I find (the query letter) just writes itself.”

 

…on query letters:

“One of the traps I used to fall into when I was a bit less experienced was that I would think of it as a formal letter… but it’s not—you’re just telling a story to a friend. Think of it that way… let’s say you come across this amazing environmental story and you have a friend who is into environmental issues. Write that email… and you will see that you just write it normally. It’s more casual… not formal. That’s the kind of tone you want to keep. You want to tell somebody about an interesting story because that’s what editors do—they buy interesting stories.”

 

… on what it took for her to break into TIME Magazine:

“Every publication has its own way of dealing with which section is supposed to be pitched by which freelancer…  I was pitching section editors, and what I actually needed to do was pitch the editors in India… (but) one of the (section) editors I pitched really liked my pitch… and forwarded it to an editor here in India… and actually CC’d that editor in the email, so I had kind of a link…

“I kept pitching that editor for a while and, as happens with news stories, a few times something else broke out and that got killed or some top editor couldn’t use it… and then eventually I had been pitching this editor for about a month, sending ideas pretty much every two days and it wasn’t really going anywhere, so one day I just… emailed the editor and I said… ‘I think maybe I’m not quite understanding what you want, so would you be up for a meeting’… and it’s not a happy ending here… what happened was I got offered a stint (with an NGO) in Africa… and by the time I came back from Africa this editor had left…

“Then I was invited to go to America to UC Berkeley… and when I came back (from there) after about a year, I was still really keen on getting in to TIME. So, I emailed the new bureau chief… and this time I just went straight for the meeting… We went out, we had a drink, talked about ideas and I got my first commission. And then I got my second commission, and then I was writing for them for a while on a weekly basis… But from the time I sent my first idea to the time I got my first byline I think it was a year-and-a-half, or even more.”

A word to the wise on persistence vs. annoyance: Relph points out that she was getting email rejections regularly before getting her first assignment from TIME, but says, “I think if you’re not getting any responses, then emailing every two days—that’s a very, very bad idea.” Persistence and patience, though, she says are both important keys to success.

 

A Faith Healer of Fiction– My Conversation with Manuel Munoz

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At 41, Manuel Muñoz has hit what many would consider a stride in his writing career. He is an Assistant Professor in one of the best creative writing programs in the nation. His first novel, What You See in the Dark, was published in 2011 by Algonquin Books, following two selections of short stories: Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press, 2003) and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (Algonquin, 2007). His was a 2008 recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, has earned numerous prestigious fellowships, and his story “Tell Him About Brother John” garnered him a PEN/O.Henry Award in 2009. I sat down with Muñoz last week in his Tucson office to talk about his work, his process, and to get some general tips for writers that, like me, are just starting out on that long, lonely career path. If you are a writer and you are looking for a bit of insight from someone who knows a thing-or-two about the craft, look no further: wherever you come from, this guy has been there, and it all shows in the imagery and intimacy of his prose.

 

Here’s what Manuel Muñoz had to say…

 

…on observing new writers at work:

What’s so interesting to me be about watching (students) work through a story is knowing they’re going to get to a point where they’re going to send it out, whether it’s having the courage to send it out or having the ambition to send it out—it could be different things that drives somebody to do it—but knowing almost for certain that the piece is going to be rejected… knowing that’s the probability, but doing it anyway. Because it might cross the desk of an editor at the right time of day, if your vision has completed itself on the page, you know all sorts of different things can happen.

 

…on the submission (and rejection) process:

It feels to me sometimes like this sort of belief and faith that I can just keep working on my stories and at some point they will hit.

 

…on rewriting and drafting:

A lot of it is patience; seriously considering what you’ve done after you’ve written it, and maybe sent it out. You put it away in a drawer and maybe come back to it and you realize, well, maybe this story doesn’t have the energy that you thought it did, it doesn’t have the language, it doesn’t have the vision. Maybe I don’t think I know what the story is about yet…and being hard on yourself, in some ways, but not in such a way that it keeps you from trying… have the patience to let it sit, put it away in a folder for even just a week… but the patience is the key. Work on something else, start a new piece, but put it in a folder and whatever you do, don’t touch that story for a week, two weeks, four weeks. I had a professor that said to leave (a story) for a month always, because you can really surprise yourself when you go back and reread it.

 

…on trepidation about starting a new piece:

There’s always that moment, I think, of trying to edit even before you begin, and I think that can be self-defeating… I don’t think you should necessarily be afraid of that…as long as you can find a way to get moving on the page.

 

…on criticism, workshopping, and finding his voice:

I am a short story writer at heart. When I was in graduate school, I worked on a novel because my early experiences as an undergraduate in a short story creative writing workshop were pretty disastrous. I had great instructors but my experience in the classroom with my fellow students was really negative, and it pushed me away from material. I had a real resistance to content: not writing about these things, these places, these people, this tone. The instructors were the ones who were responsible for keeping me enthusiastic and moving, reading… and they were the ones that encouraged me to do an MFA and all of that.

But it got in my head that I didn’t understand scope and that I should be working on a novel, because that’s what I kept hearing from my peers. So I got to graduate school and I worked on a novel… it wasn’t great work, when I go back and think on it, it was pretty terrible, and that’s what I did my workshops on.

It was only when I was out of the graduate workshops—and I’ve said this before—and I thought that no one was paying any attention, it was just me, and if I wanted to work on something, why not a short story? Just try. And so I just started in a coffee shop one day just writing these sentences and it felt truer. ..

 

…on having room for improvement:

No piece is ever finished. You have to let it go. I look back at some stories and, well for instance, I’m really hard on my first book (Zigzagger)… it hits a lot of points that are thematically urgent, but when I go back and look at some of the stories and (now I see them as) kind of like mood pieces, but not stories. I mean, (this is) because my concept of story has changed, and that’s been a big revelation to me.

 

…on reading and writing for content:

Every time I pick up a new book, or I read something new, I’m never reading for content. I think a lot of people do read only for content. That’s the question (you get) at the party: “Well, what is it you write about?” and I hate that question because, and I’ve said this many times, who I write about are people that most people don’t care about, so already I have these big road blocks to an audience, you know? …So when I sit down to write about these people I have to think about form and telling, and know that that’s the big hurdle to get somebody who’s not from that community to find the story compelling, interesting, intriguing, or relatable even.

 

…on writing about the central California valley (where Muñoz grew up):

I’ve made a commitment to myself to write about the valley in an effort to make sure that a little piece of it can enter the dialogue. It’s not a big voice, it’s not a powerful voice, it’s not a huge voice, it’s not a voice that a lot of people are paying attention to, but it’s a record and that’s really important to me… when I get in to these moments of feeling down on myself, or when I’m struggling with my confidence… I have to step back and say to myself, ‘What kind of work do I want to put out in the world’? Even if it’s not noticed by a lot of people, it’s still now a record toward ultimately who I want to write about and the place I’m trying to define. It has to be about that. It can’t be about me.

Any of what award-winning author Manuel Muñoz had to say strike you in any way? Was there anything you disagree with? Whatever you might have to say, I’d love to hear from you! Please, feel free to leave a comment for me below!

Manuel Muñoz’s website: http://www.manuel-munoz.com/

Work by Manuel Muñoz: http://amzn.to/16nbI9U

This Post Does Not Include a Photograph.

Good evening readers—or morning, or afternoon. I suppose it depends less upon when I am writing this post than it does upon what time it is for anyone as they are reading it. So good whatever it is to you wherever you are.

I haven’t even started on my point yet, though already I digress. Forgive me, please— my ramblings are a method of procrastination. Simply, I think, because I feel a bit sheepish. In all honesty I realize that I have been less than vigilant in my (perhaps entirely self-imposed) duties as a blogger, and as such I would be remiss if I did not make an attempt at for one: offering an apology, and for two: explaining myself to you—anyone that has read my blog in the past and/or cares to read on.

I didn’t love it. I’m sorry to say it, but I was not crazy in love with the act, nor the art, of blogging. As a blogger I had reached too high, too early, and I was trying to offer advice on something that I hardly understood myself. I was beginning to actually dread the next blog post. I felt real anxiety about it. Thinking about posting stressed me out, and so I simply tried my best not to think about it. I had, not just one, but two blogs wasting into oblivion, no new content, and no desire to write anything for them. And why should I? I wasn’t being paid for them. I wasn’t about to start using my blog as a forum for my day to day life, like regular 800-plus word status updates that just wouldn’t fit into Twitter, and would look nothing more than narcissistic and awkward if posted on Facebook. But it just wasn’t any fun anymore for me to sit and listen to myself talk about things I didn’t understand. So what must, my wife pointed out, any readers I might have think about my writing if I wasn’t enjoying it?

What I needed was help. And I got it.

My last post was one of the first I ever actually enjoyed writing—the one about my conversation with Mike Sager. The conversation was eye-opening for me, and sitting back to think about what I could glean from it, to mill over the lessons therein, listen to the recording later (I try and record anything I do that may be of import for a piece to compensate for my Swiss-cheese memory), to hear all of the places where I sounded like I might know a thing or two about something and then immediately hear me make a complete fool of myself and try to recover, was dare I say, educational. And then to try and sit down and compose a post about it was even better.

I didn’t have to do all of the talking this time, which was better for everyone, I suppose. Rather, I had found someone who actually knew what they were talking about and I had let them do it. The talking, that is. And I learned something. And it was fun. I had the pleasure on a recent family trip of visiting Mr. Sager at his home office in La Jolla as a result of our contact—to see a glimpse of the man at work, if you will—and that, too, was inspiring in many ways. Never mind that once I was in the car again my wife kindly pointed out that my fly had been down for perhaps the entire time. It was like getting a tour around an exclusive night club while all of the lights were still on, before the real work began.

There had to be something to this, though, I thought, this method of reach out and listen, and so I did some more reading and reached out to someone in my community this time, someone that is doing some pretty amazing things as well—far outside the scope of what I am capable of at this moment—and it turns out that they were available for a brief meeting. Excerpts from that conversation will follow soon, but I didn’t want to overwhelm any cyber-readers who, if they are anything like me, should be applauded for making it 700 words into a single post without so much as a click on anything else.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, I have decided to do a lot more listening and a little bit less talking, and that is what you can expect to find here, on this blog, in the future. I may not always have someone famous to talk to, and at times there may not be anyone to listen to at all, but the quest has begun, and the rambling, stopped.

Thanks for your time, fellow readers and writers. Should you find my posts of interest, believe me, I am grateful for it. I would love to hear from you—your own tips, successes, and failures—and I wish you the very best on your own quests to create prose worth writing, whatever that may be.  I hope only that you might find a sliver of something beneficial to yourself here with me at some point along the way.

 

Cheers,

Craig

Sager Says—My Unlikely Conversation with a Best-Selling Author

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It was by design that I was at Mike Sager’s talk with Chuck Klosterman on the University of Arizona campus during last month’s book fair. It was also by design that I harassed ever single writer and editor at the event that I could get to bend an ear in my direction.

It was completely by chance, however, that I actually got one of them to not just hear me for a moment, but to actually talk to me in their free time. Woah.

Perhaps it was because I promised to buy one of his books (which I eventually did), but when I asked Mike Sager for advice or (yeah right) help with my writing career, I was stunned when he (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) agreed to hear me out. I was knocked on my ass when he later agreed to talk with me on the phone. Imagine—little nobody freelancer Craig talking with a big-shot writer for Esquire Magazine. The guy has won awards. He was a peer of Hunter S. Thompson, for God’s sake, so as a writer, I am not fit to lick the mud off of this man’s boots. But, believe it or not, most writers, it turns out, were once nobody nothing freelancers just like me and they, too, had to put a little extra elbow grease into paying their dues in order to finally get noticed.

Mike, like a lot of other writers from the last generation of greats (Mike is known as the “American Beat Poet of Journalism), got his start young working for a newspaper. That mike sagerpaper just happened to be the Washington Post. Once he had proven himself indispensable there (and this is what he says you’ve got to do to keep getting the big stories), the door opened itself to bigger and better things.

But it was persistence, confidence, and perhaps even a little bit of measured arrogance that kept those doors open. Mike explained to me in his slow style of speaking that somehow melded both Californian and Brooklyn dialects that he used what charms he had to his advantage—being a small guy allowed him to approach men that would have perhaps been intimidated by guys bigger than he was. “Oh, girls love me too,” he said, largely because he made himself so deliberately approachable. The reason he ended up forming his own publishing group after years working as a journalist—“I just got tired of hearing no all of the time (from editors)”.

In lieu of the daily reporting jobs, Mike advises you find a way in to your alternative weeklies, your local lifestyle magazine, and whatever bylines you can get. Can’t find a place to publish? Put it online. The point is, he told me, (and I paraphrase here) that as a writer there are going to be a lot of times when it all feels too tough—like nobody cares about you or your work and that all of your hard work to date has been for naught.  But for the writers that find success, this can’t be a stopping point.

You have to get out there. Pursue the stories that mean something to you, assignment or not. Make connections, get out and do the leg work, send out queries, then send out more queries. You have to keep on working, even when it feels like the entire industry is working against you. “You know, it’s weird,” said Sager, “that these editors are so overloaded with queries and people that want to write for them that they can get overwhelmed—but they are always looking for good people—people they can trust to do the work and do it well.”

As a writer, you need to know that a ‘no’ is not always a no, but more often than not, it is more like a “try again.” If an editor didn’t want to give you the time of day, you wouldn’t even get a proper rejection. So save your ‘no’s’ in your contact list and put together a new query for those editors—do some research and make sure this one is better than the last. Knock that editors Goddamn socks off and take the nail polish with ‘em. Keep at it until you do and the ‘yes’s’ will come. Eventually.

Until that day, I can only follow (and, I suppose, share) the most poignant piece of advice given to me in my forty-minute conversation with Mr. Sager, and this one really is a direct quote. “You’ve gotta produce like a motherfucker,” he told me.

And so I am.

Check out Mike Sager’s website for some valuable tips for writers or read his latest book, The Someone You’re Not (available on Amazon) for insight into creating stellar pieces of “Journalistic Anthropology”, or just for a great read.

To Post or Not to Post– A Cry For Help to Fellow Writers

I have reached a dilemma.

To this point in my career, all of my published (and, therefore paid) work has been in magazines, plus a little bit of marketing to pay the bills. Though I love (and I really do love) writing journalism and everything that comes with it, I would say that I am equally passionate about works of fiction. For my writing at this stage, that means writing short stories. For free.

Now, I have written a number of short stories that have received mixed feedback. Most recently, I wrote a piece for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and was pleasantly surprised to find that it won an “Honorable Mention” for the contest. Here is my dilemma: I would really like to continue working on this piece and perhaps submit it to other publications (with the “accolade” and successive revisions, of course, noted on the cover letter). I would also like to share the piece with my friends and (few) fans and followers, though I am hesitant to post the piece on my blog as that would technically qualify as a “First Publication,” and would therefore make it harder to place the story in an actual, real-life journal or magazine later.

As a writer– professional, student, aspiring freelance, hobbyist, or otherwise– what would you do? Share the piece as-is to get help with revision? Share the piece and not worry about revising afterword (consider it published)? Keep the piece tucked away and revise privately to see if I can place it for pay down the line? I would like to share my work with the world and I love the concept of art for art’s sake, but what if it could actually be good– I mean a guy’s gotta eat right?

I am in a real pickle here– and let me tell you, the fact that using the word “pickle” in this blog post made my stomach rumble should serve as a solid indicator as to the state of my bank account at the moment.

To post, or not not to post. That is my question to you.

Thank you in advance for your help and guidance. I will await your response.

– CB

Click here to see the PDF that proves I am not lying (if you care).

JUST KEEP MOVING!– A Hiker’s Guide to Writing Fiction

Sometimes a bad day writing can feel like you are fighting against yourself, as in this Self-Portrait by Tucson artist Joe Brown. Click to see more of his work.
Sometimes a bad day writing can feel like you are fighting against yourself, as in this Self-Portrait by Tucson artist Joe Brown. Click to see more of his work.

I am lost.

I am in the middle of nowhere, wandering aimlessly, and I am almost out of water. What do I do?

My instinct– Bail. Curl up into a ball and weep for my misfortune. When hiking in the Arizona desert, this is the equivalent of death. But as a writer, I have to admit that for many years, this had always been my instinct. Frustrated, I would crumple up my fourth draft (which was by that point clearly just another garbage attempt at capturing a spattering of fractured thoughts), get a damn glass of water, and abandon the project to the kitchen wastebasket, from whence it could never be salvaged amongst the scraps of food and coffee grounds therein.

My action– Breathe. Now, after eons of practice and self-guided anger management exercises, I have learned to (first) put the pen down calmly and (second) get off the couch to get myself a glass of water. I then (third) put on some music (something that invokes in me the feeling I am striving to attain in my piece) and (fourth) sit down in front of that horrible garbage-draft once again. Maybe I strike-through every word on the page, maybe I don’t. That is not important. But what is important is that I keep on moving, lest I find myself stranded in a desert of my own thoughts, lost and wandering like a child ill-prepared for an adventure of his own design. Prepare yourself to be lost and at least you will never find yourself hopeless.

I keep all of those horrible drafts now. I store them somewhere, usually, out of sight and (mostly) out of mind, but I know they are always there when I need something to get me moving on a story that is struggling to gain traction. Twenty pages of horrible drafting may one day reveal one gem-of-a-line amongst a field of verbal debris, but it may be that one line that saves my story’s (or my main character’s) life, so to speak. Or even better, perhaps that one line becomes the line that injects my story with life for the first time, makes it so my readers can not only feel my prose, they can smell and taste it too– reading that is less like a kitchen sponge, and more like a roasted chicken.

If you find yourself lost in your own story, keep moving. Feel free to wander and do not be afraid of getting too far off the beaten path. The important point is to get the ideas down on paper while you have them– save your frustrations and let them out in red ink during the editing process rather than letting them dominate the writing process altogether.

Always remind yourself (as I often need to do) that you really like– check that– you absolutely love the act of writing. It is the process, the journey you appreciate as much, if not more than the by lines and the finished products themselves. Never forget that many of your favorite writers were  never published in their own lifetimes, and many of those that were are long forgotten by history.

So write. Write for you. Write for your life, and always keep crawling forward in your craft. Dwell not in wasted words or on the roughness of your drafts, but rather rejoice in your surroundings once in a while along the way. Stop and take it in every now and then; have a coffee or a cigarette, take a walk or do whatever it is that you do to calm your nerves, and then get back to work.

I mean, when it gets down to it, fighting against that frustration is what makes a good writer great, and as bad as it may seem at any given point, it’s not like it’s gonna kill you.