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.

How long should it take to write an article or blog post from scratch?

I read a lot of posts on how long it should take to write an article or blog post, and as I sit here considering a particular 1000-word piece for a local magazine that is taking me way too long on the research end, I realized something– though maybe my hourly rate for this piece is going to drop a little bit, the time spent in research is in no way time wasted.

I have found that the more research I do on a subject, the more sources tend to reveal themselves. As a result, I have taken to a “research-until-I-feel-overwhelmed” approach, at which point I break, organize, and compile the mess I have created during the research frenzy. With respect to the actual writing, if you can get a (very) rough draft pounded out in an hour for a piece that size, amazing. But you can expect to have to edit several times when done. I have learned a neat trick from another post that I appreciate– type TK for “to come” where you do not remember a resource, quote, or reference rather than stress yourself out looking for the note or whatever (chances are, if you can’t remember it, you may well end up cutting it by your final edit and the glaring misspelling makes the note easy to find in your document). But this still only takes me so far. I can generally agree that, because of the freedom inherent in the format, that a blog post should never take more than 30 minutes to an hour. If you find yourself pushing that 45 minute mark with no end in sight, shorten it, put it aside, or scrap it altogether– blogs are generally enjoyed for quick reading, not in-depth reporting.

But still, I realize that I have not answered my own question yet: How long should it take to write an article from scratch? The only answer I can come up with is:

“…as long as it takes.”

I know. It’s lame. But it’s true. If you are trying to save yourself time on a piece or stressed out that it is taking too long, maybe you are not yet ready to write that piece. As you get better at writing and learn more about your areas of specialization, your writing time for those great pieces will decrease, but until then great work is going to have to be a labor of love, and one which you should pursue to completion or deadline– which ever comes first.

Getting to Know Your Characters– Exercises for Your Mind

Someone much more talented and wiser than I can ever hope to be (I think it was Paulo Coelho) once said that all writers must write from experience. After all, it is all we know (I crudely paraphrase, of course). As such, when working on a bit of fiction from a perspective that is any way alien to me—the enhanced gender, for instance, or that of a character from another race, or even, say, an alien—I often find my own opinions and thoughts creeping into those of my characters. My stories thus become corrupted, polluted. They lose some of their honesty when I, as the writer, am unable to objectively consider how they would react to a scenario, and opt instead to simply replace what would be their unique reaction with my own knee-jerk response. It is a difficult thing to stretch outside your comfort zone when attempting to familiarize yourself with a novel character, and at times, I think we all find ourselves stuck. Here are a few exercises that I have found help me to better understand my characters when they seem exceptionally foreign:

1)      Make lists.

Lists are amazing little devices in literature—even in the news, presented objectively they can evoke a dramatic response. Consider the following: police found a duffel bag containing a large knife, several plastic garbage bags, rope, duct tape, and a Polaroid camera. See what I mean? Make a list of what is in your character’s fridge, what is on their coffee table, in their pantry, medicine cabinet, shower, bathroom, or whatever. Are these items clean or filthy; organized meticulously or in utter disarray? Each of these details will offer insight to and describe a different type of person, and they may even shine a light on the personality quirks of your less-developed characters.

2)      Journal

Follow your character for a week, independent of the framework of your preexisting storyline, and see what life is like for them. Where would your character like to vacation? What sort of challenges do they face on a daily basis? How do people react to them at first glance? Would this character even bother to journal, or would they just rant on a napkin and throw it away? Maybe they are the blogging type. You can amend this to be a meal log, an online chat log, or any other relevant form of self-expression that your character may utilize, or even a journal made by a third party about your character.

3)      Write a back story

Even if it is not directly relevant to your storyline, your character’s history (real or imagined) is what made them who they are today. To have a more complete understanding of their bio can lead to more informed and more natural sounding writing, even if the back story never finds its way into the final draft.

4)      Write a piece of Mini-Fiction.

You aren’t going to share this with anyone, so feel free to go crazy on it. Send your character to the grocery store, the bank, or to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of milk and see what ensues. It may contribute to your original story idea or even evolve into something completely different, perhaps better.

Any one of these exercises can be manipulated an infinite number of ways to accommodate the changing landscape of a character in development. Try them out and let me know how they work—if they work—for you . Do you have any special technique that you use to more completely develop your characters? I would love to hear from you.

Until next time.

–          Craig Baker

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I used to shudder when I heard the word—WEBSITE. Ugh. I knew I needed one. I knew they were expensive. And I knew that there was no way in hell that I would be able to build a decent site myself. People pay thousands of dollars for those things, after all, right?

WRONG! I mean, yes, people used to pay oodles and oodles of money to have a decent website made, hosted, and managed, and at the time it was worth it. Having your own website meant that you were ahead of the curve. It showed that you were professional, you paid attention to your image, and frankly, that you had some disposable income which allowed you to afford said site—an indicator of success.

A good website with a strong domain name (like YOURNAME.com) still looks more professional than a social media page or blog. And it still shows that you care about your image. Web design has become so accessible and easy, though, that having a website no longer puts you ahead of the professional writing curve—now it simply means that you’ve caught up.

Having a good-looking website is essential for driving potential clients to your portfolio. Really, I would go so far as to say that a good website is even more important than a business card—at least your website can’t be thrown away. And if anything, that business card is going get a lead to your site to look over your portfolio long before they attempt to contact, or for that matter, hire you.

Now, with respect to design, don’t start sweating yet. A number of web hosting companies (like GoDaddy.com) have made it easy and now offer simple drag-and-drop website builders with a large selection of customizable templates. Don’t tell anyone, but this was how I made my site (www.CraigSBaker.com). Check it out and let me know what you think. Also, if you have any questions about how I went about making my site, please feel free to ask. I will respond directly to you myself within a couple of days.

There are a million marketing professionals and coaches out there telling you that you can build a home business nowadays without spending any money out of pocket.       Where this may be true if you are a computer genius with loads and loads of excess memory from which you can host your own website, this is, in general, a misleading concept.

Everything costs money, and this is still true of websites. But fortunately, over the last several years the cost of having your own website, complete with email and a custom domain, has been shaved down to the bare minimum. Look around for deals online—I know GoDaddy is running a special right now that will get you a domain, a website builder and template, and an email address for an entire year for just $12. Mine even came with $100 of advertising credit. So, unless you are literally overdrawn in your bank account and late on your billing cycles, you really have no excuse not to get on that. Seriously. (If you really can’t afford $12, wix.com offers free websites, and you can upgrade your domain here at a later date).

A professional looking website can be the make-or-break difference to a client—even the best portfolio on earth is doing nothing for your career if nobody can find it. As such, this one simple addition to your marketing arsenal can take you from the level of ambitious amateur to up-and-coming professional instantly, and trust me on this—it will be the easiest and most worthwhile promotion you have ever given yourself.

9 Ways to Break a Writer’s Block

Writer’s Block: we all get it. The question is how do you deal with it? Here are a few exercises to get your mind jogged in those times when you find yourself struggling to get the words on paper.

 

1)      FREE WRITE

I know it may sound silly, but just getting your mind in a place where it is ready to start channeling ideas through your pen can be really helpful, even if what you produce is not. Grab a piece of scrap paper and just write something. Anything. Whatever comes to mind. My free writes usually start with something like “OK, so I am stuck again and so here I find myself free writing.” It’s like talking your ideas out with yourself without the threat of looking like an absolute loony, or worse, a jerk using a Blue Tooth in public.

 

2)      WRITE A SCENE USING ONLY DIALOG

This is a challenging exercise that can sharpen your skills as a writer while you are trying to stir up some new ideas. Focus on a real conversation you heard in public or one you had with a friend. The cadence of writing real dialogue may well help you to find a rhythm that helps you in your more serious writing endeavors.

 

3)      RE-WRITE AN OLD SCENE FROM A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Drag one of your old works out of the closet and look at it with fresh eyes. Toy with new perspectives, voices, or points-of-view in the piece. You may find yourself breathing new life into something you once thought tired, or at the very least, you will be providing your brain with very valuable, novel information on work you have already produced. Don’t have anything written to look at? Re-work your favorite classic essay or short story in a similar fashion.

 

4)      WRITE A TWEET-LENGTH NON-FICTION PIECE

Sometimes all you need to get moving is a little bit of confidence, and completing a piece in less than 5 minutes may just be the boost you have been waiting for. The journal Creative Non-Fiction actually publishes a handful of these little gems in their quarterly issues. Worth looking at if nothing else.

 

5)      START A DISCUSSION

Take advantage of those social media platforms and get some people talking. Linked In groups, Facebook, and Twitter all provide forums for writers to talk with other writers about whatever they choose. Use it—you just may be pleasantly surprised.

 

6)      GO OUTSIDE

Take a walk and look around you. Listen to the sounds and voices, look closely at the objects, plants, buildings, and people around you. Think about how you might describe those things in prose. Bring a notebook if you like or just absorb it all until you get home and make notes then. The world outside, believe it or not, is often a better place to look for inspiration than even the internet.

 

7)      READ SOMETHING NEW

Introduce yourself to a new writer or author and study their style. Try writing a paragraph emulating that style and compare your work to the original.

 

8)      READ SOMETHING OLD

Re-read something you love and pay attention to what it is you love about it. Is it the language? The imagery? Are you fascinated or in love with a particular character? What about them draws you in? Examining the work you admire in a critical way is a great way to sharpen your own skill sets.

 

9)      WATCH A BAD MOVIE OR TV SHOW

Again, this one is about confidence. Some of the stuff out there for which people are actually being paid is downright bad. Take it in and take some of that pressure to perform off of yourself.

 

We writers often feel some intense duty to create and a lull in that process can be maddening. But relax. Even the greatest of the great writers were human—they too had off days, though we do not read about those as often as the good ones. If all else fails, do something else. Just like trying to remember where you put your car keys, those great ideas will probably refuse to reveal themselves to you until you are elbow-deep in dishwater.

Happy Writing.