Saturday, August 2, 2014

Writer's Doubt: How NOT to Enter a Writing Contest

(This is an entry for the "Overcoming Writer's Doubt" contest held by Positive Writer.)

Head over to the writing blog you recently discovered, and spot an “Enter! Writing Contest!” link. Feel hopeless and excited. Hopeless because you don’t stand a chance. Excited because, well, maybe you’re wrong.

Mentally add “award-winning writer” to your bio and envision a rash of new, engaged readers on your blog. Click the contest link.  

Scan the page and find out that you’ll have to write about, of all things, overcoming writer’s doubt. Wonder how in the world you can write an inspiring “I did it and so can you” essay when you have no major writing accomplishments:  no books, no glossy clips, no awards.

Decide you’ll wait until next year’s contests, after all. By then you’ll have success stories to share.

Expect relief, but instead feel let down. Channel the less than desirable voice of your four-year-old:  I don’t wanna wait another year.

Admire the writers who had the courage to enter despite their own insecurities. Make use of your amazing writer’s procrastination skills by spending the next hour reading through their essays about doubt, courage and success.  Feel instant compassion and affection, as if you’re all in this together.

Desire to be one of them.

How to Enter a Writer’s Contest

Remember what Julia Cameron wrote in The Artist’s Way:  in order to be good, you first have to be willing to be bad. 

Think about how awful it was when you moved to Austria and couldn’t speak German. The German students who progressed the quickest were the ones who put themselves out there, and took chances speaking terrible, indecipherable German everyplace they went. Sure, some locals laughed. But in the end, those students were the ones who learned to speak fluently.

Tell yourself that no matter how your essay turns out, you should put it out there. Not to win a contest or for confirmation that you’re a good writer, or even for that sorely needed cash—but to build your skills and get involved. To practice BEING a writer.

Recall the day that you truly became a writer, when you bought the dark poet’s frames at the eye doctors and wore them for everyone to see. Realize that overcoming doubt is like that, too:  you just have to hear the inner voice that says you’re not ready, not knowledgeable enough, not good enough.

And then ignore it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lag Time, Eat My Dust

Awhile ago I wrote about why we shouldn't quit, even when it looks like we're not getting anywhere. Honestly, I wrote it to encourage myself as much as anyone - I'd submitted an article to 17 magazines and hadn't heard back from one. I should've known better, but still I wondered:  was the article that terrible? Had I offended editors in some way?

Then I submitted it to a few more places. And a 2nd article to 38 markets; and then a 3rd piece to 20 markets.

Finally, it appeared in my inbox:

RE:  Submission

One acceptance came. Then a second. And a third. I even received an acceptance for an article I'd sent out 5 months earlier. And that lag time is the unfortunate (and amazing) thing about writing - that you can FEEL like you're just running in place and know in your gut that you're never going to get anywhere - and with one editor's email find out that you're a total dunderhead who's been obsessing for no reason. In fact, I just read about a whole book dedicated to Writer's Doubt.

The trick is, well, to trick ourselves into moving forward, despite "knowing" that we're not getting anywhere. That could mean keeping tabs on the positive progress you've made by marking it on a chart, or meeting with a writing group weekly.  Whatever it takes, to keep moving forward and working towards that goal.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Right From The Editor's Mouth: What She Wants

Of course we spend time thinking about how to make articles more appealing to editors. Common sense (and a thousand writing books) say to write to the interests of imagined "readers," or on topics and in styles requested by publications.

But the email I received today from the editor of a regional parenting publication suggests a whole different criteria for how to pick good-selling article topics:

"Articles that lend themselves to being a "sell-around" for advertising are usually of greater interest. So, anything that would generate a business to advertise on an adjacent page would be great. An example may be a Tutoring Center, Children's Book or Craft Store, etc. for the article you will be sending." 

I'm not suggesting anybody should write articles simply to sell advertising space, and am not sure how I feel about this editor asking for articles in this way...but do appreciate her honesty. And also wonder now:  how many publishers of these RPP's and other publications don't say anything, but also look for topics that will appeal to advertisers?

If I have a helpful and informative article, and adding in a related sidebar or paragraph to sell ad space makes it more tempting to business-savvy publishers, I'm okay with that.

How about you?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Um, How Do I Write An Author Bio for Magazines?

This week an editor requested something both exciting and terrible:

“I include a writer's column each month to introduce the writers. So, please forward a short bio (a paragraph in size) to introduce yourself.

Exciting, because I’d be one of those professional, interesting writers in the “about our writers” section.

Terrible, because I needed to write something that made me sound both professional and, well, interesting. Thankfully it only took two days of research and anxiety to put together something only slightly cringeworthy.

I’m far from an expert, but did find a few things that helped me figure out what the heck to include – and might help you, too.

Plagiarism is a Great Place to Start

Okay, not plagiarism exactly.  More like getting ideas by scanning other writers’ bios. Because I couldn’t find examples in the target publication or similar RPPs, I scanned the magazines that are overtaking our hall closet. Discovery:  different magazines focus on different aspects. For example, the Oprah issue I had asked contributors random interview questions. The writers’ answers are put on the “about our writers” page, in lieu of bios. Other magazines included bios with mainly personal information;  professional designations & memberships; or connections to the issues’ articles.

One thing that would help is to have a collection of memorable bios clipped and saved.  It feels presumptuous to do that before somebody actually wants a bio. But it’s so much easier to whip out a few shining examples, than it is to frantically scan the internet and dig through years’ worth of magazines accumulating in the closet while you imagine The Editor sitting on the other end of the internet, waiting.

After reading through many bios, I noticed the ones that stood out had the 4 H's in common:
  • Hi - they give the one-liner intro information, although not necessarily all together or in one sentence:  name, home state, job, sometimes mention of family
  • Human - they tell you something that makes them relatable (hooked on the Housewives, eats a gallon of ice cream in a sitting, etc.)
  • Humor - often at their own expense
  • History - they give you related experience and education, and share interesting things they've done
Because I couldn’t find examples from the target publication, I decided to include four "H's" that their readership (other parents of young children) would be interested in.

Ask the Google Goddess

Unfortunately, Google is decidedly sparse when it comes to telling writers how to write things, such as their own resumes and, well, author bios. Now, there’s plenty of info out there about how to write author bios for book jackets, but not many about writing them for magazines. Luckily, a lot of the guidelines that apply to writing other types of bios also apply to these. 

One helpful piece was author Anne Allen's How to Write an Author Bio When You Don't Feel Like An Author...Yet. She gives a template for short bios, and guidance on what to consider when choosing content. Author Richard Ridley suggests that bios range between 25 and 125 words, and that unknown writers should try for ~75 words (this is for books, of course, but the word counts seem to apply to the magazine bios I saw, too.) And finally, there was this article that gave tips on how to write "an enchanting author bio".

All of this information definitely made the process more manageable, if not comfortable. I hope it does at least that for you, too.


Monday, December 2, 2013

Perfection is Not an Option

Last night, a friend asked why I hadn't shared my children's book draft with my new writing group yet.

"I haven't had time to revise it," I told him.

He laughed, and pointed out that most picture books are under 1,000 words. How hadn't I had time to polish one stinking draft? At that point, I could have done a few things:

  • Pointed out that one picture book goes through about 40 revisions before publication.
  • Shared the average length of time it takes for a book to go from 1st draft to final copy:  two years.
  • Hit him with a very packed pillow.
Instead, I wondered if he was right. Not about polishing the draft, but about sharing it with the writing group. Should I share what I have with them?  I'm stuck on a few plot points and know the end is wrong. I'd like to figure these things out and have a better draft to present. But at what point does "presenting a better draft" become Perfectionism? At what point should you get feedback?

You Can't Figure Out What's Wrong

Well, the draft I DID share with the group was an essay that I'd revised several times over the course of 18 months. I'd line edited to death, but still Something wasn't right. I couldn't put my finger on what it was. At that point, any revising would've been worthless-what was needed was a fresh set of objective eyes that would overlook line editing & find the larger problem. Said eyes discovered that the entire essay was a reflection which (gulp) lacked tension and significance for the reader. 

Had I not shared the essay, and waited until I figured out what the problem was, revising again to present the most perfect draft, I'd be waiting forever.

You Can't Figure Out What's Right

Sometimes it's hard to know what the best choice is, when it comes to things like point of view and ordering scenes. And while going with the best possible guess might work, getting other opinions could save you a lot of work. I can't help but wonder, if I'd shared my essay after only a few months in, could I have gotten the feedback I needed and saved myself the work of all of those useless revisions? Sometimes we need to take the long(est) path before we're ready to hear the truth. Other times it's just an annoyingly useless 18-month hike.

You're Afraid They'll Think Less of You

Under all of that perfectionism is the fear that what we've done isn't good enough - that they'll wonder what the heck we were thinking when we wrote that and look at the disaster of an attempt with an internal oh, lord. And that fear is the BEST reason to share with a trusted, supportive group of writers. Because without their encouragement, the fear makes it too easy to get stuck in the revise, revise, revise mode.

Anyways, the odds are what's there is pretty darn good. And even if it's not - how else can we make it better? Everything's a work in progress. I think it was Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way who said that before we can be really good at something, we have to be willing to be bad. Sometimes, really bad.

As for my children's book, I think what I really need at this point isn't a read-through, but help figuring out the right way to go with my plot. Perfection may not be an option, but asking for help is a pretty great alternative.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Why Quitting Is a Mistake

Last week I submitted an article to 17 regional parenting publications and have heard back from not a one. Other writers have told me this isn't unusual for RPP's, but I've always been contacted within a week in this market.

Successful blogger Mary Jaksch of A-list Blogging and Write to Done would call this pause "lag time," and says that whenever we put ourselves out there, there's some lag time between production and response, between submission and acceptance, between creating a blog and getting readers and comments.

When we're lucky, the lag time is a few days. Other times it could take weeks or more. The error is to mistake this pause as failure. Writers who do this quit blogging on the cusp of (an unseen) success or stop submitting articles just shy of an acceptance.

The empty inbox always threatens to freeze my progress as I obsessively (and unproductively) poke holes in my submitted article. It's easy to get caught up in the TOO's:  of course they don't want it, it's too short/too long/too general/too self-involved.  But it's so much better to focus on the DO's; on what else can be done to make progress.

Now, if a significant amount of time and effort is poured into it and there's still no response, that's a good reason to analyze things and figure out if something needs to be changed.

But until then, it's all about Building Momentum, about - as scientists would say - building pressure. While it appears as if nothing is happening, each submission (or 17 submissions..), blog, written chapter or simple admission of "I'm a writer" adds more and more pressure until progress is inevitable and as visible as any scientific reaction.


Related Posts:

Rejection, Shmijection

Have a Case of Rejection Depression?

Surviving Revision #21

Monday, November 18, 2013

Think Big. (I Will Not Be Gollum Anymore).

Gollum, from "Lord of the Rings"
The Gollums of the writing world say:
Don't share your idea. They'll take it.

His writing isn't all that great and he got published. Why can't I?

Don't give these good pieces to those small publications. Save them for the nationals.

Don't give away your valuable writing for free.
At home, Gollum says:
You know this is the only night I have for my writing, and now you want me to go out with your co-workers. Do you really think your work is more important than mine? And no, I don't want to play a game, talk or watch TV. I'm writing.

My writing.
My writing time.
My Preciousss. (I had to)

Now, there's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of reality. As writers, of course we want to be fairly compensated, respect writing schedules, etc. But when writing is fixated on us - to make us feel good, to make us money, to get us published - that's Gollum slithering in.

So what's the solution?

Shift Focus

When I returned from Austria, I was determined to help immigrants learn English so they could improve their situation (stick with me here).My focus wasn't on getting a job, making money, or getting a new career. I cared about those people, especially after my experience as an expat. So, I started volunteering with Literacy Volunteers once per week, teaching ESL to four students. Within a year, that class had grown to 20+ drop-in students in the local Spanish community. I was approached and asked to teach ESL classes at four organizations, along with leading workshops for other ESL tutors. All of this came to me, as if I were a magnet. I've heard writers tell similar stories about their writing. So why hasn't it happened to me? Or, perhaps, you?

Think Big

In comparison to ESL, my writing efforts have felt more like a one-woman crusade for publication, versus a need to help or share with others. One small example:  I've withheld many posts from my parenting blog and local publications to "save" them for the nationals. Now, there's nothing wrong with dreaming big. But if we're going to dream big, we should think big, too. There are an infinite number of ideas out there, and I have the ability to write a multitude of articles. Why "protect" those? I kept articles with valuable information to myself so that I could add a credit to my resume, and make more money. Which would be reasonable, if I'd even attempted to revise and submit those articles. But they're still sitting in a folder on my computer. Going on four years.

Share The Writing Life

When my husband initially asked me to meet up with his co-workers on my planned writing night, my first reaction WAS to get angry. He wanted me to sacrifice my work for his. But then I realized:  he's not out to "get" my writing time, he simply wants company. And why can't I woman up and take the chance at sharing what I'm doing with his co-workers, just as they'll share stories about work with me? Why should writing have to be an unspoken solitary process done alone at home?  Isn't that what got Gollum into trouble to begin with?

It's time to stop being such a Gollum. Already I feel a shift in the possibilities. How about you?