Two Legendary Authors Reveal Humble Beginnings and Professional Insights at the Tucson Festival of Books

“It’s been a long time, shouldn’ta left you (left you) without a dope beat to step to…”               

-Timbaland

Humility—aside from the obvious items in your writing tool kit (a knowledge of language, a pen and paper or a word processor, the blinding drive to produce come-what-may) humility is perhaps the one thing that will take you the furthest in your freelance/writing career, and maybe any other career you pursue, for that matter.  And when I say “humility” I’m not talking about the fake smile and flattery you put on to get through a dinner party—no, no, no. I mean the real stuff—genuine interest; gratitude without pretext. You know—actually treating people the way you want to be treated; honestly, and with dignity. Like you were important; like your thoughts and opinions had value.

Nothing will put you in your proper place quite like spending a weekend surrounded by people that are smarter and more successful than yourself. Last Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of authors and writers—legitimate ones—descended on my hometown for the sixth annual Tucson Festival of Books—the fourth-largest event in the nation of its kind. And for the bulk of this shindig, your narrator played the part of fly on the literary wall.

Authors and writers flock to Tucson Festival of Books
Thousands attend the annual Tucson Festival of Books. Photo by James S. Wood (jswoodphoto.com).

The more I talk to (and listen to) published writers, musicians, and other artists of varying levels of fame, dedication, and talent, the more I learn (and have to [reluctantly] accept) that there is no one path to success—no one magic secret to launching myself into those dollar-a-word assignments, fiction contest victories, or whatever else the other freelance “gurus” happen to be hawking at the moment.

Every single professional I have ever spoken with has their own success story, that is to say, their own very unique path by which they were able to make writing their living, and some 95 percent of them (if not more) had to struggle like hell to get there. Aside from that, the only common threads between these stories, at least from what I can see thus far, are 1) persistence; nobody ever got a job they weren’t looking for (except Luis Alberto Urrea, which I will cover in a minute), and 2) likeability; nobody ever got a job from somebody that didn’t like them.

Take these stories of humble beginnings gathered from talks given at the Tucson Festival by two award-winning, best-selling American authors: renowned children’s author Lois Lowry and Latino Literature Hall-of-Famer, Luis Alberto Urrea.

Author and writer gives great advice.
Two-time Newberry Award-winning Author Lois Lowry never set out to write children’s books.

Lois Lowry has written a number of children’s novels that deal with some very adult subject matter, including two Newberry Award winners in The Giver and Number the Stars, though she never set out to be a children’s author. In fact, Lois’ journey toward her status as a legend of young adult literature began with an essay she had written for an adult audience titled “Crow Call”, which had been published in a magazine somewhere in the 70s, the name of which I forgot to write down. At any rate, the Lois Lowry that I grew up reading and revering came into existence when an editor at Scholastic Press read “Crow Call”, called up Lowry personally, and asked her if she might ever be interested in writing a children’s book. You can fill the rest in yourself with a quick Google search.

One specific writing tip worth mentioning from Lois’ talk: she read all of the opening lines from her Giver  quadrilogy—all of which were mesmerizing, not to mention similar in many respects—and said this, “That’s what makes a reader turn the pages; an introduction to a character (age, gender, name, etc.) and an introduction to a part of a problem—something you need to worry about.”  That about summed it up, I thought; made my skin tingle a bit just to hear it spoken so succinctly. Oh, and watch for “The Giver” the movie starring Jeff Bridges this August—it’s been 18 years in the making, said Lowry, and promises a few surprises to fans of the book.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s path to literary greatness is equally unlikely and, in my opinion, even more exciting than Lowry’s. Urrea was actually “working the graveyard shift scrubbing public toilets” after finishing graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. When he one day had the realization that scrubbing toilets at a

University might get him a step closer to becoming a famous writer than scrubbing toilets in public parks, Luis sent a letter to an acquaintance of his that taught writing at Harvard in hopes of getting a good recommendation for a janitor position. Sure, said the friend, he could have his recommendation, so long as he sent three pieces of published writing along with his application. “Harvard is so elite,” Luis had told some of his musician buddies that night, “even the janitors are published poets.”

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Urrea’s connection at Harvard was actually the second in command of the school’s writing program, and so instead of a job as a janitor, Luis was hired to fill an open position teaching expository writing at the most elite University in the nation soon thereafter. When he got to Boston, he was in a completely different world than his native Tijuana—it was his mother’s world, an America he had never known existed, but one that nonetheless belonged to him in some way. “It was a revelation,” said Luis, “that I was not a border rat—I was an American.” Again, I will leave it to you to fill in the rest of Luis’ story on your own (watch for his 10-year-anniversary rerelease of  t

Great writers, humble beginnings.
Best-selling author Luis Alberto Urrea came from very humble beginnings.

he non-fiction classic Devil’s Highway later this year from Little/Brown).

If you are just starting out as a writer—or even if you’ve been at it for a while and have found yourself in one of those inevitable slumps—remember that there is value in what you do that can never be measured in dollars and cents. You write because you love it; because there is nothing else that you would rather be doing, and because, even if there was something you’d rather be doing, you’d only be doing it so that you could write about it later. A writer is one that writes because they have to; not just because they want to. Because those story ideas pile up on themselves and eventually disappear. Because they can cause headaches when neglected. Because you started carrying a pen and paper everywhere you go “just in case”.

Money, success, any notion of book sales or fame—all of these things can come of being a writer, sure, but they must be entertained as afterthought, if at all. The fact of the matter is that the guy (or gal) that is writing from the heart (that is to say, doing it solely for the love of the art form) quite honestly is going to produce better, more honest—and certainly more heartfelt—work than someone rushing toward their next paycheck. And any editor you query is going knows this all-to-well.

So, make sure and remind yourself from time to time that nearly every writer in history has been there—stuck in a rut, no money, no pending assignments, no support or opportunity to speak of, with nothing but their own words to sooth their aching spirit. But, to paraphrase something Urrea was told by a Native American medicine man when he was at perhaps his lowest point:

When you ask the world to free you of your obligations so that you can focus your energy on your craft, make sure you mean it. If you are sincere in your request, then when the angels come to rid you of your burdens, you will be grateful. If you are insincere, however, the angels that take your possessions, break the bonds of your relationships, cull your distractions even at your request, you will be tempted to call devils.   

No matter what you may find yourself doing, do it because you love it. And if you can’t do what you love for a living, do it anyway, whenever and wherever you can. When you stop loving it, stop doing it—regardless, you will one day learn (either the hard way or otherwise) that passion and hard work are the only prerequisites to success. Just make sure and count your blessings along the way. In truth, there is plenty of advice out there to help get you from introduction to conclusion time and time again, but nobody is going to hold your chin up for you.

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).

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

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.

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.