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.

Image

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.

5 Tips To Help You Become a Successful Freelance Writer and Editor

You love to write. Though you may not be a professional, you are dedicated writer. You get up in the middle of the night to jot down story ideas and have even called in to work because you “got the bug”. There has got to be a way to get paid for this, right?

Right! Though the world of freelance writing is competitive, if approached in the right way by a dedicated individual it can also be extremely lucrative. So what are the steps you need to take to start making an income doing what you love? I’m glad you asked.

1)      Research.

The best way to know where your writing will fit in a paying market is to take a look at the material they are currently publishing. Go out and pick up a few copies of your local publications. Get a feel for their individual styles, the voice they use, the general length of the articles, the subject matter they prefer, and see if they have contact info for the editors inside (usually on the “Contents” page or near the back). Do the same for online publications. Maybe you can suggest a piece for a specific section or regular column—knowledge  of the publication(s) you are querying will go a long way.

2)      Reach Out

Tell your friends, family, and colleagues of your intentions to become a professional freelancer. Who knows—you may know someone that needs copy written for a website,  a brochure made, or who happens to be the editor of a major magazine.

Besides, you are not likely to find any work if nobody knows you are looking for it. Use social media, and if you are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, make your profile(s) for each one now. No really, now, in a separate window. No excuses.

3)      Brand Yourself

No, not literally—I mean create a unified professional image. What does that mean exactly? Well, clean yourself up and make sure you dress to impress in public, but also be sure to create a basic marketing package for yourself. Handing someone a professional-looking business card with your contact info and website will dazzle in comparison to ripping off a piece of the newspaper you are reading to scrawl out your email address for a potential client. Vistaprint.com offers 250 full-color cards at no charge to anyone. Just pay shipping.

The second part of that package is your website. Don’t panic yet—it can be very basic. You just need a page that tells a little bit about yourself (your background, and the services you offer), another page with a few samples on it, and one more with your contact info. The goal of your website is to make it easy for potential clients to get in touch with you and to see samples of your work, so these three basic pages posted publically on your own website are an essential piece of any professional freelancers marketing arsenal.

Do some rooting around the web to find great deals on hosting and domains. Find a drag-and-drop website creator that will take the pain out of building a website. I suggest starting with Wix.com and GoDaddy.com for an intro to web building and hosting.

4)      Write.

Basically, you have to do the work to get the work.

Blogs are great for this. The freedom inherent in the format is fun and, as long as you keep yourself posting regularly, you are demonstrating to potential clients that you are dedicated to the craft and that you can create original content consistently. WordPress and Blogger offer quality platforms that integrate easily with most web builders. Make sure your blog is linked to your website and vice versa.

5)      Reach Out Further

You have done the research. You have the samples. Now it is time to put your ideas to work!

Take a few of your blog ideas and pitch them as story ideas to paying markets. Draw upon your research to decide where to send each story idea and to whom you should address the query.

A quick note on queries—be concise, yet thorough. Include a VERY brief introduction about yourself, a headline, a brief summary of the article including sources and experts you might interview (if possible), and an approximate word count. Some pros suggest including multiple story ideas in your query letters, which I will not advise against.

Expect rejection, but be persistent. “No’s” may lead to other opportunities or even unrelated assignments. As long as you show that you are passionate, dedicated, and professional you have an advantage over a majority of the other queries those editors are reading on a daily basis.

So there you have it—everything you need to get started on your new career doing what you love. Please feel free to offer any pointers you might pick up along the way as I am still learning myself, and KEEP ON WRITING!

Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare Made Easy– Picking a Specialty Stress-Free

zoo bday 2012 082 Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in my professional career. With the launch of this blog post, I will have completed the finishing touches on my new website (www.CraigSBaker.com) and officially made my profile available to the masses– an intimidating thought, to say the least.

As such, I felt it important to draw everything together with respect to my image as a professional writer, editor, and copywriter. This blog is the culmination of that effort.

The time stamp on this blog post will forever mark the moment that I, traditionally a generalist in every sense of the word, will give myself a topic of specialization and take that leap feared by every writer, author, marketing or public relations professional, filmmaker, and artist alike.

I owe the decision, and the confidence I needed to make it, to a video posted by PR Wiz Brendon Burchard on how to position yourself as an expert in your field (Click Here). I recommend watching it if you are looking into going into business for yourself in any capacity.

What I realized while watching that video is that, though I may not be the world’s foremost expert on freelancing (yet!), I do already know a thing or two about getting started. After all, I have landed several lucrative and repetitive contracts, formed a relationship with the editor of a well-respected magazine in my home town, been in contact with just about every other editor in a 50-mile radius, set up two websites, made marketing material for myself, and held literally weeks-worth of non-stop professional correspondence– a heck of a leg-up for any fledgling freelancer, I would say. I may not have the coveted dollar-a-word blog offers yet, but I am helping to pay the bills at home. And since a good writing gig pays about 3-5 times what my last customer service job payed hourly, I have found time everyday to  keep on top of my housework as well.

In all honesty, I am not getting rich. Not by any standard. But I do have the best job on earth– getting paid to do what I love!

So how, you may be asking, can you do the same thing for yourself?

First off, YOU JUST NEED TO START WRITING! Start today. Start now. Go and get yourself a blog if you don’t have one– open a new tab in your browser, go to WordPress.com and register. No, really. I’ll wait. It’s free and if you are reading this post, I know you have the spare time.

Once you are comfortable with your blog format, read some blogs by other people that interest you. Make notes to immulate your favorites and put up one post tonight. Then one a week for a month or two. Don’t worry about picking your specialty– just write about what comes naturally. Once I had a medium for free writing, I found that my mind was always open to story ideas and, over time, coming up with article pitches simply became part of my regular thought processes. Share your posts with your friends and family and ask for feedback. Make sure you ask for honest feedback and take all criticism as compliment– after all, a critique is simply testifying to your level of toughness in telling you how bad you really are.

Then, sit back and review. What do you write about the most? What topics always seem to draw you in? What blogs are you following and who do you like to comment on the most? If you have put in the work you are likely to find that your specialty has been calling to you the entire time. My personal posts and interests, for instance, always seemed to lead me back to the same thing– HOW TO BECOME A BETTER WRITER.

And so here I am, writing about it. When I left the mall to work in the written word, it was scary. The big dogs occupy a lot of space in the field already, and pushing your way in hardly seems like an option. So I say don’t push. Do what you love and your experience will come organically, and it is precisely that experience that will see you develop from amateur to expert. If you find yourself writing and you don’t love it, then stop. Don’t force it– if it feels disingenuous it will sound that way to your readers. Take a break, try a different voice, a new topic or a new format altogether– video montage, podcast, audio journalism, digital photography, whatever.

When you finally do find the thing that you want to learn more about just because it excites you, or that goal that  you want to keep pursuing despite the fact that nobody is paying you to do so, you can stop looking.

Once that happens, it is time to write about it. So do that, and get back to work.