Award-Winning Beer Writer and ‘All About Beer’ Editor Ken Weaver Spills about the Writing Game

All About Beer Magazine, Freelance Writer, Editor
Award-Winning Beer Writer, Author and Editor at All About Beer Magazine, Keen Weaver,

Ken Weaver was working toward a Ph.D. in Particle Physics at ivy-league Cornell when he transitioned over to an MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Maryland in 2005. After a handful of years freelancing (and perhaps a stern talking-to from the fam), Weaver is now an award-winning beer writer, the author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide, and Beer Editor at All About Beer Magazine (AAB), where he has worked writing features for a number of years. Weaver sat down to chat with me about his experience in the writing life, his transition from physics to writing about booze, and to offer a few tips to the other writers out there fighting the ever constant battle to get—and stay—published.

Here are some of Mr. Weaver’s thoughts…

…on his recent appointment at AAB and freelancing draughts:

It’s weird, because four months ago I was in one of those freelance lulls and now it’s sort of the exact opposite of that and I didn’t appreciate it sufficiently at the time. I will from now on…you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. You have free time and you’re always thinking about work, or you have work and you’re always thinking about free time.

…on his workload as a staff editor at a magazine:

Half my job is on the magazine editorial side and the other half is on the festival side of things—we do World Beer Festivals with AABM so I end up curating the beer lists for them, figuring out what breweries are going to be on what kind of panels, All About Beer Magazine Logo, Freelance Writing Advice, Editor and Writer Ken Weaverand just do some of the coordination; budgeting, that sort of stuff…no writing or anything like that but just making sure stuff works and editing the process.

Editing itself I find boring…Technical editing pays well, which I used to do, and that’s a good gig whenever you find clients that can do that sort of thing. But I like the magazine stuff better; that side of the editing process where you’re on staff at a magazine and you’re helping design content—instead of working to a mold you’re actually figuring out what that mold looks like—that’s fun; that I like; that stuff I could do for the rest of my life and enjoy doing it, but the actual (copy) editing itself, it is what it is…

…on going from scientist to beer aficionado:

For me, I started transitioning to writing when I was in Grad school. I was in a Ph.D. program in physics and I… well, I found it very boring. I was at Cornell and basically that means, when you’re a graduate student there, you can pretty much do whatever you want. So, I took some wine tasting classes…and I took English classes, because if I submitted a portfolio I could get into undergraduate creative writing classes, so I did that and I ended up applying to do my MFA in creative writing and that was my sort of escape hatch out of the physics stuff. I just basically switched over to another graduate program at a different university. That was when I started writing, but that was all creative writing—fiction, short stories, stuff of that sort. And the good part of that is that it teaches you how to tell a story; and what the important parts of conveying a message and putting things together in a coherent fashion are. The bad thing is it’s completely a terrible degree if you ever want to make any money or have any sense of the real world—it’s just as way out there as physics, to a degree. So, I did some other stuff in between but eventually the beer thing came about when I was out here on the west coast for the most part—I got involved with a beer website which I’d been involved with for a few years (called the Hop Press) and they wanted to start doing some blogging stuff and I just kind of went from there with it—got some clips and just sort of built that up, So that’s the long-winded answer, but there was no direct transition between doing physics and doing beer writing.

…on how he found his focus on beer:

It was mostly tasting beers on my own; I had a lot more experience there—the wine (tasting classes were) useful but it’s a totally different set of flavor profiles and for me it didn’t directly translate. It was mostly just tasting beers with my friends; being involved on RateBeer.com and just tasting with friends and getting a sense of how peoples palates are different and how they talk about beer and that was the biggest influence for that kind of thing. . .I mean I was tasting beers for years before I’d ever tried to make any money off of it—I just did it because it was fun. My friends are into it, my wife’s into it. And so by the time it became a source of income, I had a lot more years of tasting under my belt than I think a lot of folks that do this…it was organic. I was interested in the industry before I’d ever tried to get a job in the industry rather than just coming in fresh, I mean there are writers that will just write about any alcoholic beverage but I focus on beer and I know that and I care about that.

Northern California Beer Guide by Writer, editor, and author Ken Weaver. Freelance writing advice…on landing his book deal:

For me, I had a book deal before I was even doing this full-time. I actually met a publisher at a book festival; I met him because I was doing fiction and he published a literary journal. And, I gave him my card, told him I wrote about beer, and that’s how we connected. So that was all—I didn’t even pitch the damned thing—it sort of fell into my lap in a magical way and was hugely important to me. We live in the same town now as our publisher, my wife did the photos for the book, but that was how that came about—he saw an opportunity, it was a great idea for a book, and we’ve been selling copies of it ever since. Not a lot of money in regional beer guides, though, no matter where you do it—any regional scope book, there’s not a lot of money in it unless you really, really have a huge platform for selling it… But basically, if you specialize (as a writer), and you do freelance stuff, if you have a book (and it can be a shitty book) it goes a long way in terms of establishing your expertise in the field. Ideally it’s a good book, but for me, after I had a book out, that was it… I could kind of pitch where I wanted. And I think it did make a big difference—it didn’t really change me; I learned things, but it isn’t like I was a totally different process before and after that process.

…on crafting the perfect pitch:

When I was pitching, I used to spend a lot of time on my pitches. If you don’t have a super-dense portfolio, you can convince people of a lot of things in a pitch. You want to do it in like two or three paragraphs, and for some things you need much longer pitches, but I spent a lot of time crafting pitches so that it would sound good, it would sound very knowledgeable, it would be thoroughly researched, it would show ahead of time that I wasn’t coming in blind—that I already knew what I was going to be writing about—and it wasn’t a jump on the part of my editors (to assume) that I was actually going to be able to do it. And I think that’s super important for people, especially early on—you can’t just be like, ‘here’s some random idea that I came up with drunk last night. Sound good?’ It’s gotta be better than that and it’s gotta sound the way it’s going to sound when you actually write the thing. And you can convince people (to let you write for them) that way… I got to write for Saveur Magazine, for instance, and they’re one of the best food and beverage magazines out there, and it was because of my pitch. It was because my pitch sounded good; it’s because I read them; because I had a subscription there and I knew their magazine, I knew what they hadn’t published and I hit them with a pitch that they knew I could write…Editors just want something that’s going to work for them, that’s going to sound good, that’s going to sound right for their publication, that they’re not going to have to go and have rewritten. And I think that when you do stuff like that it makes it a lot easier to get work because editors just don’t want to babysit…

…on what will get a pitch instantly tossed:

This isn’t speaking for AAB, this is just in general, but if you are trying to write about something that someone just published, that’s definitely a good one; a lack of familiarity with the magazine or the publication in any way, shape or form; if you’re trying to write in a voice that is completely incompatible with what they do; if you’re trying to pitch a form (that is outside the normal scope of a publication)—like if you’re trying to pitch a 3000 word story to someone who only publishes one or two page articles, it’s not going to work. And I think because editors see that as sloppy, anything along those lines, anything that sends up those red flags that demonstrate that either you’re not careful, you aren’t paying attention. For me, my biggest concern a lot of times if I’m looking at pitches from other people is, can you write at a high enough level as a freelancer coming in and—especially with something longer—are you knowledgeable enough about both the topic and the larger industry to be able to do so in a way that will actually work for the publication.

Like what you saw here? Find it helpful? Check out some of my other interviews with semi-famous people who write much better than I do in the archives. And subscribe today to get the next one sent straight to your inbox—not sure who the subject is going to be yet but promise to make it worth your while!

Award-Winning Writer and American Introspectionist Taffy Brodesser-Akner Is Always Keeping It Real. Really Real.

Indeed, haters are gonna hate.The phrase has admittedly been tossed around by more than one super-huge pop star as sort of a catchall for any and all criticism, regardless of its legitimacy. But still, the simple truth is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how successful you might become, there will always be someone lurking—in the PTA, on the internet, in your office, on the internet—doing their best to sprinkle a little bit of metaphorical fecal matter onto your optimism salad on the off chance that it might sour your spirit to a level they deem appropriate. And even though she recently signed contributing writer contracts with two of the biggest names in long-form reporting on the planet (GQ and The New York Times Magazine), and though she is now writing cultural biopics (like her recent feature on Nicki Minaj for GQ, or her feature on the female fighters of the UFC for Matter) that will likely be read by university students, journos, and news junkies for many years to come, not even Taffy Brodesser-Akner is immune to the effects of naysayers.

Brodesser-Akner was still in high school when she started ghost writing professionally. Well, she was writing college entrance exam essays for her peers and, somehow, her eleventh-grade English teacher caught wind of the operation. She told a young Taffy Akner to shut the side business down “Principally,” the teacher told the future New York Press Club Award winner, “because you’re not that good of a writer.” Brodesser-Akner told me over the phone that she remembers the whole ordeal vividly, and that, even years later, she couldn’t help but wonder if there was some truth in her teacher’s words. “I kept thinking, what if she’s right?” she says. Still, Brodesser-Akner insists that self-doubt plagues many of the writers she knows and, no, I didn’t press her to name names, but she did tell me (half-) jokingly that she doesn’t “know very many writers who don’t believe in their hearts that they are just hacks and that eventually they will be found out.” I was just glad to hear that it wasn’t just me.

But it did make me wonder. Did that mean that the feeling of dread that comes while waiting for a piece to be accepted, followed by that surge of anxiety preempting the public response never completely goes away? Brodesser-Akner says that landing a decent contract (or two) helps confirm that your efforts as a writer are paying off; she also said that, to this day, she hopes just a little bit that her eleventh grade English teacher sees everything published under her byline. Made sense enough to me. Let ’em hate.

And though she’s now working much more closely with at least two major magazines than ever before, Brodesser-Akner says that her working life hasn’t changed all that much from when she was strictly a freelance writer. She says that about eighty-percent of her stories still come from pitches, and that her contracts do not necessarily mean that she can’t write for other markets. “Whereas, when you are completely freelance you are kind of dating a lot of different people, I now have two husbands and all of my stories have to go through them first.”

But, she adds, working with such talented editors is her “favorite part” of her job. Basically, to this guy, it kind of sounds like a non-fiction writer’s dream; the type of dream I might believe is real right up until the phone rings or the dog starts barking. At any rate, needless to say that when Mrs. Brodesser-Akner said she was willing to chat with me about how to get from ‘Point A’ (naysayers) to ‘Point Z’ (what I’ll refer to as the ‘haha-told-you-so’ phase), I was eager to give a listen.

Here’s what she had to say about…

…the most important aspect of her pre-interview research:

“When you look at someone’s art, when you are looking at the thing they are lauded for, you can see who they are trying to be.”

…how to know when an article is ready:

“You have to cultivate the confidence to wonder, ‘Am I still curious about this subject?’ That way all of the questions I ask myself on behalf of the reader are not false questions. ‘Is my curiosity satisfied about all of this?’ You have to remember that you are acting like an ambassador (on your subject) to the reader.”

…specializing:

“I always resisted a beat and, therefore, I don’t know if anyone actually thinks of me for any one type of story.”

…working from home as a parent:

“My kids can’t tell the difference between when I’m using my computer for work or when I’m just using it to check Facebook. Your children don’t just sit in the corner quietly while you write—they want you to actually be in there watching the movie or doing whatever else with them. They want the shared experience.”

…long-form non-fiction v. other forms:

“I actually went to school for screenwriting but I think I lack the sort of imagination required to make things up. What I’ve found that I am pretty good at, though, is seeing something and finding some sort of art in what I’ve seen—in the true story.”

…her dream interview:

“I’ve always thought that I could retire a very happy person if I could get any kind of quality time with Bruce Springsteen.

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.

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).

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