Writing

5 Questions from a Beginning Writer, Answered

Are you an aspiring writer who needs some advice to help jumpstart your career? You can submit your questions for our column by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up! Now, on to this week’s letter.

 

Hey. I have several questions for your column.

1) Are there any tips you could offer someone who has a passion for writing, but wants build their confidence in their writing skills before submitting to publications?

2) Should a budding writer focus on carving a niche or being experimental?

3) What can I do to help with finding my tone or voice within my work?

4) What are some of the best publications to send work to when submitting work for the first time?

5) How can blogging improve my writing?

I understand that some of these could probably end up being answered in questions asked above them, but I had a lot on my mind.

- Christian

 

Hi Christian! These are all really great questions, but before I launch into answering them, I just wanted to say a few words.

You ask what you “should” do as a beginning writer, and I’m not sure that I can answer that in any specific way. Each writer’s goals and style are very different, and the steps you’re going to need to take really depend on what you’re trying to achieve with your writing. Do you want to be the first zombie steampunk author to win the Nobel Prize? Or do you just want to make a modest living writing web content for online publications? Obviously, the approach needs to be completely different in those situations.

I’d think, first, about what kind of writing you’re most interested in doing. What subjects or genres you’re passionate about. What ideas really get you fired up. Where you want to be as a writer 10 years from now. Then it will be a lot easier to figure out which early steps will be most helpful for you.

So with that in mind, here are my general thoughts on each of your questions!

1. Building confidence in your work is mostly a matter of practice. First, write as much as you can. Try to set yourself a goal to write every single day – it doesn’t necessarily matter what length or topic, as long as you’re exercising your creative muscles. When you’re not writing, read as much as you can. Try to take in diverse subjects and genres – even stuff you don’t necessarily like or normally wouldn’t read. It will introduce you to new concepts and techniques you might not have seen if you stuck to just one type of literature. Finally, go back and re-read your work after a month or two so you can see how it’s developed and how much you’ve improved in the meantime! :)

2. Now, whether you should focus on a niche right away is a tough one. It really depends. Are you trying to land a book deal based on your blogging? Is there a particular subject you’re interested in that you’d like to land gigs writing about? Then specializing will definitely help you reach those goals more easily. But if your goal is just to gain experience and hone your craft for now, go crazy. Be as experimental as you like. (And who says you can’t do a little of both? I have two separate blogs – one where I post my fiction, which is, admittedly, pretty weird, and this one, where I focus on nonfiction writing about creativity. There are no rules!)

3. There’s not necessarily anything you need to do find your writing voice – your voice is who you are already. Try to be authentic and honest. You don’t necessarily want to write exactly the same way that you talk (though it depends on how formal you want your writing to be), but don’t strain yourself to write in a way that feels unnatural. Your voice will naturally emerge as you become more confident in yourself as a writer. I wouldn’t spend too much time worrying about it at this stage.

4. Where to submit when you’re just starting out? This is a pretty tough question – because it really depends on what you’re writing! Markets for nonfiction, fiction, poetry, blog posts, etc., are all really different. I would start out with publications you already read and enjoy, because you know what kind of content they want and it will be easy for you to send them submissions that fit their needs. Check to see if they have writer’s guidelines available, and if not, shoot them an email and ask if they accept submissions! If you really want to go the extra mile, pick up a copy of The Writer’s Market at the bookstore of your choice and look for listings that say they’re open to new writers. Don’t worry too much if your first few publication credits don’t pay (or don’t pay much). Once you have a few published pieces under your belt you’ll be more confident and it will be easier to convince editors you’re well worth the money.

5. The main benefit of blogging is that it gets you to sit down and write something on a regular basis, from start to finish. Creative writing can be a struggle because it’s easy to let the process of writing a short story or a novel drag on forever. With a blog post, you need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Tackling small goals is really helpful in building writing momentum, and as an added perk, it’s a great way to get in that regular writing practice I mentioned back in my first answer.

I know it can be really intimidating when you’re just starting out – hopefully this will help set you on the right path. Best of luck!

–Julie

Old books in Sarah's house

Creative Nonfiction: “Tumbleweeds”

I was a bookish child. I lived and breathed stories, reading every sort of book I could find and dreamed up new books I would write myself someday; someday when I could stop reading long enough to write.

My father worked in Germany, homeland to two of the world’s most prolific storytellers: the Brothers Grimm. Our family lived in a picturesque house at the heart of a small German village that seemed out of a fairytale itself, with its narrow cobblestone paths and half-timbered houses, bordered by dense woods whose trees ensconced crumbling castle ruins. The goblins and witches and doomed historical queens in my books seemed still very much alive all around me, lurking just beyond the nearest forest path.

My parents frequented local markets on the weekends, and while they browsed for furniture, I sought out antique books. For a pittance, I could call myself the owner of a 17th century Latin prayer book, or a children’s book from World War I, or a folklore anthology from the time of Napoleon. At home, I placed these new additions of old editions center stage on my crowded bookshelf, running fingers over their cracked, faded spines and imagining what sort of readers might have already done the same, decades or centuries ago.

At the age of ten, during a school trip to Paris, I found a kindred spirit in George Whitman, owner of the fabled Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Company.

It’s unusual, perhaps, for a bookseller to achieve international acclaim, but George Whitman had achieved it nonetheless. Following in the literary footprints of Sylvia Beach – founder of the original Shakespeare & Company, a Parisian bookshop that became a salon of sorts for the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Joyce, closed in 1941 after Beach refused to sell a novel to a Nazi – Whitman established a new Bohemian storyteller’s haven directly across from the glittering bell towers of Notre Dame.

Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise, reads the painted quote above the doorway, and Whitman had welcomed thousands of strangers since the 50s, encouraging aspiring young writers to sleep and work on the beds and desks upstairs, free lodging amid books and like-minded souls in exchange for assistance in running the shop. The eccentric Whitman, who reportedly preferred to light his own hair on fire in lieu of haircuts, required his lodgers – whom he dubbed “Tumbleweeds” – to read at least one book a day, and woke them each morning with pancakes. Shakespeare & Company wasn’t just a bookstore: it was a home.

I knew none of this upon my first visit, when a school chaperone led me through the colorful painted entryway and into a veritable bibliophile’s paradise. I couldn’t contain a gasp – inside was a winding labyrinth of ceiling-height bookshelves overflowing with antiquarian books. I stood spellbound for a moment, breathing in the smell of weathered pages, then rushed up the staircase to explore, stopping short at the quote at the top of the stairs. It reminded me of a fairytale: feed the crone on the forest path, and find yourself blessed with three wishes. At that moment, I felt as though all my own wishes could be granted, somewhere in between all those pages. When I came upon a wishing well at the center of the store, I laughed.

It was quiet upstairs, disturbed only by the soft sounds of rustling pages as I reached up for books I already loved or crouched down to flip through unread tomes by writers I’d only heard about. “I would like you to open my door the way you open a book that leads into a magic world in your imagination,” George Whitman would write. “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel. The girls who come in here are coming into a novel.”

When it was time to go, I had selected three old books to buy. They couldn’t be more than a few francs each, and I had just enough, I thought, practically bouncing down the stairs to pay. The ancient man at the register (rusted and decrepit, it must have been ancient itself) – with an inscrutable, imposing face and a shock of white hair –informed me that the prices were triple that. Crestfallen, I made to hand the books back. The man was watching me carefully.

“Fine choices,” he said. He had the wry, gravelly voice of a wise old mentor in stories. “What’s your name?” I told him. “Keep them,” he said, nodding to the books still cradled in my hands. “I know a book lover when I see one. I can tell you’ll treasure them. Won’t you?”

I managed to nod. “Thank you,” I said, then burst out – “I love this place.”

“So do I.” He was smiling. “You must come back someday – are you a writer?”

“Maybe.” I paused. “I want to be.”

“We like writers here.” The white-haired man reached out to place Shakespeare & Company stamps inside each book. “You’ll come back. I’ll remember you.” And with a final enigmatic smile – “Enjoy the books.”

The white-haired man, of course, was George Whitman. But by the time I came back to Shakespeare & Company, Whitman was no longer alive.

He died above his bookstore in December 2011 at the age of 98. In the weeks following his death, I read all the dozens of tributes and profiles in shock – he had seemed immortal, somehow, all those years following that trip to Paris. A larger-than-life character living always between pages. It was impossible to imagine that magical bookshop without the smiling white-haired man behind the register.  I’ll remember you, he’d said, but it was I who remembered him, every time I looked at those three stamped books on my bookshelf.

I returned to Paris for the first time since childhood the year after college, after losing my first job and my first relationship in a single week. Desolate, I ran away to the City of Light – an enchanting, enchanted place where I’d been the happiest I’d ever been.

The limestone and wrought-iron buildings were the same as I remembered – so were the sidewalk cafes, and the warm croissants, and the way the moonlight reflected on the Seine. Only Shakespeare & Company was different.

When I entered – alone, this time, and so much older – I was engulfed in a loud hum of voices. The shop was bustling to capacity, with book lovers of all ages mulling about downstairs. The colors were brighter, the books brand new, the cash register at the counter shining. The woman behind it nodded at me in greeting as I made my way through the throngs of customers and neatly organized shelves. George Whitman may be gone, but his bookstore, it seemed, was more than thriving.

Upstairs, the quote remained on the wall, and the old books remained on their shelves. I followed the dreamlike sound of classical music to the back room, where a little girl was sitting at an old piano, small fingers dancing along the keys with impressive skill. There were mattresses nearby. I sat down on one and listened.

I had imagined tumbling back to Paris as a Tumbleweed someday – imagined George Whitman asking me again, Are you a writer? and responding with a resounding, affirmative Yes. Imagined him pointing upstairs and saying, Pick a mattress. We like writers here. You’re home.

Enjoy the books.

The little girl’s parents were calling her. She looked up and saw me – I smiled at her, and she smiled back. I wondered if she liked to read, if she was as good at telling stories as she was at the piano. I wondered if coming here, for her, felt like coming into a novel. Her parents were calling her, then she was gone.

I picked out a book: a second edition Faulkner. It took becoming an English major to appreciate Faulkner. My ten-year-old self would have passed right by him on the shelf.

The woman behind the register frowned when I handed it to her. “I’m sorry,” she said, “You can’t buy this.”

I blinked. “Why not?”

“None of the books upstairs are for sale.” Seeing my incomprehension, she continued, “It’s a library. You can read the antiquarian books, but you can’t buy them.”

I shook my head. “I bought some of them once. Or I would have—”

She frowned again. “Then that must have been a very long time ago.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. “Yeah,” I said finally, “I guess it was.”

I returned the Faulkner book to its place upstairs, but not before scribbling a note on a page from my own notebook:

Welcome to Shakespeare & Company. I love this place. Enjoy the books.

I signed my name and slipped it between the pages where a stamp would have gone, and when I finally closed the door behind me, I supposed George Whitman would have said it felt like closing a book.

Person writing in notebook

Win A Free Manuscript Critique With A Professional Editor!

My work on this site is about more than just posting articles on writing process and running writing contests. I also offer detailed, professional critiques for writers in all genres — to help writers learn their strengths and weaknesses, and to help you determine if your work is ready for submission to editors, agents, and publishers. It’s my way of giving back to the writing community, and helping other writers succeed.

But I know that not every writer has the resources to hire a professional editor to look over their work. And that’s why, during the month of August, I want to help – by giving away one free manuscript critique to one lucky reader.

That’s right — I will personally look over up to 5,000 words of your writing and provide detailed feedback, totally free of charge. I’ll look at style, character development, structure, plot, and anything else you want feedback on! Normally this service would cost $150 or more, so it’s really a great deal. I’m open to short stories, articles, novel excerpts, or anything else you’d like to send my way.

I know what you’re thinking… There must be a catch. And there is, kind of. To enter the drawing, I need you to go take this quick survey and answer a few questions about the site and your writing goals. That will help me figure out what type of articles I should be posting to help my readers really get the most out of the site. I promise it won’t take more than 5 minutes — it’s only 9 questions long. (10, if you count the question where you give me your email address so I can let you know if you’ve won!)

Here’s the link to enter the giveaway again. It’s going to be open through the end of July — on August 1st, I’ll randomly select one lucky winner. Good luck, and thanks in advance for your help! :)

sleeping  kittens

Creative Nonfiction: “Living and Dying with FIV”

Our cat Moss woke my wife and me up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last (Moss is a snuggler, whether the snugglee likes it or not). Something was different about that night. She walked on our pillows, nudged our heads with hers, and mewed softly, then louder. I don’t know why, but I mumbled to myself in the dark, “We’re going to lose Roi.”

We had adopted our cats Moss and Roi a few months before. Stickers on their kennel named them “Augusta” and “Savannah,” sisters from the same litter, just a few weeks old. The two were tortoiseshell negative images of one another: Moss dark with light flecks like the night sky and Roi bright with shadows like a smoky fire.

We fell in love immediately.

We tried to talk ourselves out of it. Our wedding was still months away; my fiancée was living with her parents. We didn’t have any cat stuff, which was just as well since we had nowhere to put it. There was a house we were looking to buy, but it was a fixer-upper where we would have to be careful with cats. I could imagine one of them slipping into a hole in the drywall, disappearing into the ventilation, becoming a meowing ghost we may or may not ever see again.

But we had fallen in love, and so we came back the following day to adopt them.

The next few months were difficult but good ones. We replaced walls, laid flooring, patched, painted, and re-painted. We renamed the cats from their “old lady” names to Moss and Roi after gender-bent characters in the British comedy IT Crowd.

Finally we were moved in, and life settled down a little more. The cats loved the new house, especially all the boxes to climb over and semi-arranged furniture to hide under. Their room, our library, was the first to be finished. They were allowed out during the day, but we closed the door at night to keep them out of trouble. They would knock, making ominous thuds as if politely stating, “We’d like to come out and play now,” over and over and over again until we gave them full run of the house twenty-four hours a day. They accepted nothing less.

Moss and Roi loved to play chase, running and sliding as fast as they could over the wood floors before bounding on top of furniture. Meal-times had to be punctual, as if they knew to take turns to keep us on our toes. Closets had to be opened for inspection. When my wife and I settled down for a movie, they would settle, too, on the back of our couch: Moss on the right, Roi on the left. Always.

Roi was the sweetheart of the two. She would sit in my lap while I graded papers or wrote, always seeming to know when I needed company. When I had a case of food poisoning, she waited at the bathroom door until I had finished evacuating bad chicken wings and then came to nuzzle me, as if checking to make sure I was feeling better. It was so adorable that we decided to get her a nurse’s costume for Halloween.

She didn’t live that long.

Roi never seemed to grow much. We did not think much of it until our regular checkup at the vet where Roi had a low fever. The doctor gave us some antibiotic that we had to give to both cats to make sure Moss didn’t catch anything, too. It was an orange-pink solution that smelled sweet as it came out of the dropper. The cats hated it. Roi didn’t seem to struggle nearly as much.

They didn’t play chase anymore. Roi spent most of her time in warm spots under the bed or in a sunbeam. Moss outpaced her growing so much we joked about her being a football player, never realizing it was Roi who wasn’t normal. Even though we loved her and were with her every day, we had no idea her little body was giving out.

Moss nudged us urgently that late Sunday night. I woke up first, but I was too tired to move. Then my wife said, “Do you hear that?” Soft coughing sounds.

Little Roi was in the living room. She had thrown up something watery and lying nearby. As we came in, she got up, took several steps, and then slumped back down to the floor.

We petted her gently, asking in soothing voices what was the matter. She made a brave face, as if it were nothing she couldn’t handle by herself. After a few minutes of petting, she seemed better and walked casually to the little fabric cube she used as her own little room.

Between teaching classes Monday, I took Roi to the vet for some blood-work. She still stumbled as she walked, and she didn’t fight like she usually did going into the carrier. I held the carrier on my lap, petting her with my fingers through the wires of the gate.

The vet came back to say that she tested positive for FIV—feline immunodeficiency virus. The two cats had tested negative when we adopted them. Where had she gotten it? Had the neighbor’s cat spread it to them through the screen door we left open? Did we bring it home somehow?

It was hard not to blame ourselves, especially since there was so little else we could do. FIV itself just meant that we had to be careful to certain she didn’t come into contact with other cats. The real danger was the secondary infections, which is what made Roi sick. Like many cats with FIV, she developed a buildup of infected fluid. Other cats typically had a buildup in their abdomen like a squishy belly, but Roi’s settled in her pericardium. If it had been anywhere else in her body, anywhere, we could have had the fluid drawn off. Instead, the fluid was building up, giving our little kitty, still months from being a year old, congestive heart failure.

The vet asked if I would like to have her put down. I shook my head. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye like that.

I took her home, and my wife set up our guest bedroom just for her. We gave her fresh soft towels, her own water bowl and litter box, anything a cat could want. Her food bowl was filled with the best canned food we could find.

Not salmon, though. She didn’t care for seafood.

My wife and I wrestled with what to do. Roi was dying of a broken heart, and there was nothing we could do. We sat with her when we could. She lay still most of the time.

About two in the morning that Thursday, my wife woke me up. The coughing sounds were back. Moss was already at the door to Roi’s room, ready to be with her sister. She didn’t knock; she just waited.

Roi was splayed out like a ragdoll, panting as if she could not get enough air. My wife petted her while I got out the carrier to take her to the all-night emergency clinic across town. It was time to go.

It wasn’t that cold of a night, but despite my heavy jacket, I couldn’t keep warm. I drove faster than I should have. Roi coughed in the backseat. After just a mile or so, she went quiet. When we hefted carrier out of the car, her weight didn’t shift.

The vet at the clinic confirmed that she was gone. The vet gave us a cardboard box that folded up into a little coffin, and we went home. We didn’t talk much, except that my wife said we had to show her to Moss.

 When we got home, we laid out Roi’s coffin in the front hall and let Moss come see her sister. Moss sniffed at the box and then sniffed at the Roi’s body inside. She seemed to know it was no longer her. While my wife held Moss, I went into the garage and found a shovel.

Under a full moon, I dug next to the big tree in our backyard, splitting roots and digging deep with every ounce of sorrow I had. I wanted to be angry at God and the universe and myself, but I just couldn’t do it. There was so much good in the few months that we had spent with Roi that all I could do was to be thankful for that time.

There, under a tree under the full moon, at three in the morning, we had our little funeral for Roi. We placed a little stone over her that rests there to this day.

Stacking Up and Defying Time (+1)

Writing in Multiple Genres: How Can You Make it Work?

Hi Julie,

As a writer, I’ve never felt that I could find myself in a specific genre or keep a steady tone to all of my work. I can write blog posts, articles, short stories, poetry, fiction, non-fiction – written with honest and comedic tone or serious and dramatic tone. I find it hard to answer people when they ask what I write, because I just do. How can I find my place in a writer’s market that tends to shelve authors as a certain kind of writer? Can I find a literary agent that can embrace a client who is interested in writing non-fiction as well as fiction, and even different genres (YA, literary, etc)?

Thank you,

Ashley W.

 

Hi Ashley,

I feel your pain! I really enjoy writing in a lot of diverse genres and styles as well, and yes, sometimes that ends up hurting me when I try to market myself or build a following. For example, people who are interested in my writing on environmental issues probably get frustrated when I just post fiction, and vice versa. I get a lot of unfollows on Twitter whenever I take a new gig or try something different. (That’s okay – there are plenty of people who end up sticking around, too!)

As far as literary agents go, there are a couple approaches you can take. If there are multiple genres you’re interested in, you can look for an agent that handles all of them. It’s also possible to be represented by multiple agents who work in different areas – with your agent’s blessing, of course.

Plenty of writers have managed to be successful and make this work for them. The late Iain Banks was known for both his science fiction novels and his literary work. Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin also write in a variety of genres – fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction. The prolific Isaac Asimov is best-known for his science fiction, but he also wrote nonfiction on a wide array of topics. Joyce Carol Oates has written just about every genre under the sun. Even J.K. Rowling has transitioned to writing crime fiction, although she tried to hide under the alter-ego of “Robert Galbraith.”

Now, I would really recommend focusing on one genre to begin with, or at least genres that are related. (Writing both sci-fi and fantasy isn’t a huge leap, for example, nor is writing both a nonfiction book and a memoir.) Mostly this is so you have time to build a reputation and a fan base in your chosen genre – once you’ve proven yourself in one area, it’s a lot easier to make the transition to another, and makes it a little less likely you’ll lose readers. (It also shows any potential new agents that you have a successful track record.) Of course, I don’t think you need to pigeonhole yourself to maintain your “brand” if you’re really not inspired – you don’t want to be miserable or burnt out.

If you just can’t focus on one genre at a time, another option is to use pen names for the different genres you write in. Anne Rice, for example, wrote a series of erotic BDSM novels under the pen name “A.N. Roquelaure.” She only came clean about her authorship of the novels about 10 years after they were published. J.K. Rowling, of course, is another prominent example – she wanted to start fresh in a new genre without any of the expectations and baggage attached to her Harry Potter series.

For now, keep writing what inspires you. Worry about what genre you fit into when you have a book-length work that’s ready to be shopped to agents. I hope this helps give you a little direction in your work!

–Julie

Are you an aspiring writer who needs some advice to help jumpstart your career? You can submit your questions for our column by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up!

 

Shower Head Water Drops 7-26-09 1

Creative Nonfiction: “Naked”

I had only been in the shower for a few moments when I sensed I was being watched.

Over the last few months, I had grown used to being scrutinized every waking hour. Before I came to Africa, a friend who had been in the same study abroad program the year before told me I would be stared at constantly. “At first, it’s fun,” she said, “Like you’re famous. But then it begins to get grating.”

I had thought her arrogant, like celebrities who complain about the paparazzi. You signed up for this. Get over yourself.

I did not maintain this presumption in practice. I and the other students in my program were constantly stared at and frequently approached every time we set foot outdoors. People asked to take my picture, to touch my hair, even a few times to marry me. At first, I responded with kindness and patience, but over time, I grew more and more irritated and responded to curiosity with curtness.

I took to walking everywhere with my eyes straight forward at a rapid pace. “Slow down!” the fishermen would call to me, “Come talk to us.” They took to calling me “Haraka,” which means “hurry.” I ignored them. If peddlers were so bold as to try to sell me souvenirs, I raised my chin. “I am not a tourist,” I announced in airy Swahili. “I am a student.” I told myself that they were the ones being rude. I knew differently.

Although I was frequently watched, I was certainly not used to being observed while I was unclothed. Since I spent much of my time in predominantly Muslim areas, I was constantly covered from shoulder to ankle, so not much of my body was seen even by myself except in the shower.

That was a blessing. My body was ravaged. I avoided mirrors, not wanting to see my mass of coarse, mane­like hair. From time to time, the air was so humid my hair would not fully dry for days and I would smell vaguely of mildew. I had given up on trying to make it look presentable.

My fingernails had grown out half of the henna my Swahili tutor, Mama Zainab, had painstakingly applied a few weeks before. They were starkly two­toned, but they served as a pleasant memory, albeit an odd­looking one, of my warm, gregarious tutor family..

Henna is how Muslim women who find it unholy to wear nail polish or makeup cheat the system. Since it sinks into the skin and nails and does not sit atop the surface, it doesn’t technically count. Or so Mama Zainab assured me.

As she painted intricate designs on my hands, she told me of another American student she had taught years before who ultimately married her oldest son. How happy they were together! How she wished for more American sons­ and daughters­in­law!

“We will just do hands and not feet,” she said as she applied the ink to my fingernails. “Feet are only done for the wedding night,” she smirked, looking pointedly at her single son and back to me. I blushed.

The parts of my body that were generally covered had fared no better. My knees still bore faint red dots from bedbug bites sustained a few weeks earlier. My legs were spectrally white from being constantly covered, and hairier than the female of any species of African mammal.

In addition, my shin sported an unsightly, six­inch gash from falling out of a cashew tree the week before. My friends and multiple locals who were present had been concerned, but I laughed the injury off as I frantically calculated in my head how much blood I could lose before passing out. The angry red edges had since calmed into a moist, fluorescent yellow scab. It was obvious it would scar.

I dreaded conversations I would have years later: “Where did you get that scar?”

“I fell out of a tree.”

“Oh, how old were you?” they would ask, assuming it a badge of childhood clumsiness.

“Twenty.”

I was still unsure which had hurt more, the wound to my leg or my pride.

My body was also still in the final stages of healing from a severe case of dysentery, which had been accompanied by a hallucination­inducing fever. At the time, I was sharing one bathroom with fifteen lucky people. For days, I lay on a pallet a few feet outside of it, thankfully too ravaged and weak to feel any shame.

I was also nursing a breaking heart, although its symptoms were certainly less overt than those of my illness. It was becoming more and more apparent that my long­distance boyfriend was pulling away from me, which was quite a feat considering we were already four thousand miles apart and could only communicate rarely by email. His growing indifference was piercing. The fact that my study program moved from location to location, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks, left me feeling even more untethered. The loneliness was cutting, and I felt utterly unadaptable. Every romanticized notion I had formed about what my time abroad would be was wrong.

I had expected Africa to unearth some deep, hidden strength in me, to forge a spirit of indomitability, to…well, Africanize me like a strain of bees. Instead, it was kicking my ass. For a supposedly Dark Continent, it was proving painfully illuminating. All of my flaws and weaknesses, my pretensions, my insecurities were laid bare. I had never felt so naked.

My new rural host family’s shower was not, technically, a shower. It was a small, three­sided, roofless stone structure with the fourth side open to a line of trees at the edge of the property. I was assured that no one ever went back there, so I did not have to be concerned about being seen. Nightly, I made the short walk from the house armed with a flashlight, a bucket of water, a towel, and a bar of pink soap. I balanced the flashlight precariously atop one of the walls so I could see vaguely what I was doing. I had learned to avoid shining the light directly in the corners after discovering a few nights before that the shower was home to an uncountable number of spiders and a comically gigantic toad. Thankfully, all of us had minded our own business and ignored the others.

I could not, however, ignore the prickling sensation of being watched.

My first thought, half defiant and half exhausted, was, Let whomever it is see. I don’t care anymore.

Immediately, some variation of fight­or­flight kicked in and my heart jumped in my chest. I would catch the culprit in the act, I decided, though I didn’t have a plan for what I would do after that. Casually, I reached upward as though I were stretching. Then in a single, fluid motion I grabbed the flashlight from its perch on the wall and swiveled the beam toward the trees.

The light reflected eyes. Not two, dozens. I was surrounded.
I threw my head back and laughed.

My voyeurs were not of the human variety, but rather, bovine. Someone in the village had let their cows wander, and they, seeing the shower illuminated by the flashlight, had lumbered over with remarkable stealth.

I finished washing my somewhat battered body and wrapped myself in a towel. As I prepared to walk back to the house, I hesitated. Then, I turned the light off, unwrapped my towel, and walked out of the shower. Although the stars of the Kenyan countryside were almost impossibly vivid, I knew I would be concealed by darkness even if anyone were nearby.

I smiled for a moment at the absurdity of the situation, at the absurdity of myself. Then, I stood quietly and savored the raw beauty of being alone, naked among the cows.

Metropolis

Creative Nonfiction: “Lilith”

Whether you were two and smearing applesauce like war paint, or four and laughing at milkstaches with your brother, or eight and licking cheeto dust off of your fingers, or eleven and picking carrot pieces out of your braces, you heard a phrase at some point. “You are what you eat!” I used to take it literally and couldn’t understand. Am I really only triple chocolate chunk cookies and peanut butter protein bars?

As a teenager, I always wondered if growing up meant that I was giving up, giving up my childhood and my imagination, resigning myself to a job in a cubicle and a life that I hated. But every single year, I look back and see how much I have grown as a person and as a student. I am constantly learning, and that is one thing I have not, and never will, give up.

When I was very young, I was the girl who didn’t talk. Instead, I read books. I was the weird kid in the corner. All I ever wanted was to know everything. When you are young, it is acceptable to be so eccentric and to know more than your peers. You’re even praised for it, teachers smiling at your fat fingers tracing lines carefully while your mouth works slowly in an attempt to sound out vowels.

You are what you eat, and I was ink-stained pages and non-toxic finger paint.

As I got older, I read in quiet, just for myself. No more reading in class or any other public place. I was tired of people asking me about the feathered-edged paper in my hand and what I thought of it, and have you read that book and my personal favorite, why are you reading? I didn’t want to be interrogated because I wanted to read. What was my crime? What was I being charged with?

You are what you eat, and I was confused language and a subtle reluctance.

Eventually, I stopped reading. Partly because school gave me no time to, or gave me other books to read. Partly because I didn’t want to be the weird kid anymore. I wanted to be normal, or at least treated as such. High school was a pool of piranhas with teeth just finally growing in, and I was the poor cow nature documentaries always follow right before its flesh is torn to shreds. I adjusted. Adaptation, is what I referred to it as.

You are what you eat, and I was brand names and stifled sarcasm.

There comes a day when you decide that you are tired of hiding who you are. In my case, it was hiding my love for less popular subjects. I realized my life was full of people hearing me and nodding, their eyes never leaving the screen. There comes a day when you decide to stamp your foot down and demand attention.

It takes time, of course. Time to cut out the anchors in your life—people and things you thought were helping you… but were really only trying to drown you. You have every right to keep people in your life who no longer listen to you, but one day you will learn who is worthy of hearing your brilliant ideas and who is not.

You are what you eat, and I was saltwater and faked apathy.

But hey, fake it until you make it, right?

All throughout my schooling career, from elementary school to middle to high, I had always been a “floater,”—that is to say, someone who is capable of fitting into almost any social group with little transition. As a result, I never quite truly fit into any said groups. After I decided to drop people who only wanted my downfall, I noticed the sole survivor, the one who had stuck with me through all these changes. It was me. I was the only person I had. And in changing everything around me, I realized there was only one thing I could do, and that was fall in love with myself again. So I did.

You are what you eat, and I am thick black eyeliner and prescribed pills.

When people criticize me (in regards to hair, makeup, outfit choices, comments, and anything else) and I reply with, “Well, I didn’t do it for you, asshole,” I am reassuring myself as much as I am shooting them down. Sometimes, when people tell you they don’t like you or something you did, you have to remember that you did it because you wanted to. You have to remember that your happiness is more important than theirs. Stop trying to please the world—it isn’t going to happen.

I learned something while I tried to remember how to look at myself like I was beautiful, how to peer into mirror and smile back, how to wear what I want and not feel self-conscious when I am too lazy to shave the hair off my legs. I learned that you are not what you eat. You are not the people who love you, either. Because the people who love you always want more. It is a human fault to expect the impossible and always wish for something different. You cannot meet their expectations. You are young and you have your whole life ahead of you to worry about what employers and coworkers will think, but for now you are every single thing that you love.

What I learned while growing up is, I am every single thing that I love.

I am sunflowers and peonies, roses and red daisies.

I am heavy bass lines and aggressive guitar riffs.

I am hair that changes with the weather.

I am visible veins and ink stained skin.

I am a writer and I am an artist.

I am myself.

F.A. Cup Trophy

Announcing: The Winners of Our Creative Nonfiction Contest!

You came, you saw, you submitted. Renegade Word’s second contest,   in the genre of Creative Nonfiction, certainly kept our judging panel busy with over 100 entries. And we read them all. And we have made our decision. (Trust us, it was not easy.)

But first, a few words on Creative Nonfiction.

For me, 2014 has been a bad year for writing. Last year when I attempted my writing challenge, I had problems with my wrists that prevented me from spending a lot of time typing.  I’m sad to say the problem has only gotten worse as I’ve changed jobs.  I’m in physical therapy for something between repetitive motion injury and tendinitis in my thumbs, hands, and wrists.  I’ve had to give up a lot of things I love in attempts to heal—or at least to keep the problems at bay. This is very demoralizing for a writer.

One thing I have managed to write this year was an essay. I am somewhat experienced in Creative Nonfiction. I took one class dedicated to the genre, and another in which much of my classwork was also. I also blog a lot (or once did).

In college, I thought the nonfiction works I read in our class workshops was better than much of the fiction I marked up. I had a couple of theories about why. For one thing, a lot of pressure is off because when you’re writing about your own experience, you (most likely) won’t have to solve your plotting problems by having aliens swoop in and enslave the human race. For another thing, I think people are more comfortable in their own voices and more inclined to edit—after all, you’re trying to sell your work and yourself in a weird way.

But this spring, writing for a non-class workshop group, I realized how safe I must have played my college assignments. Nonfiction is in many ways much more difficult than fiction. I hadn’t realized before. Sure, you have lived experience on your side, but life doesn’t have plot structure, so distilling meaning out of your experiences can become complicated. (I have a hard time deciding the most important ways the topic applies to my life and try to tie it into everything.) And it can get really personal, to the point where even if you’re proud of your work the fact that someone else has read it leaves you slightly nauseated.

So in summary, I know how hard all submitters to our contest worked and how hard it is to share works of this nature (and to make them short!). While we all enjoyed reading all your entries, we have selected a handful for publication on our site over the coming days.

The winners are:

  • First Prize: “Covering the Dead” by Elizabeth Newman
  • Second Prize: “Lilith” by Stella Marlowe
  • Third Prize: “Naked” by Megan Doyle
  • Runners-Up:
    • “Tumbleweeds” by Whitney Milam
    • “Living and Dying With FIV” by Jeff Provine
    • “This Person” by Lynn Hollenbeck

Congratulations again, and thanks to everyone for making this a successful contest. We hope to see you submit again.

(PS: We haven’t uploaded a new edition of Authors Ask this week because of the contest, but check back next Monday for a question on choosing your genre!)

Its not really a free country...

Creative Nonfiction: “Covering The Dead”

I don’t think the dead people ever leave you. Especially the children. 

There’s Emily, the college student killed in a car crash. Michelle, the 10-year-old who was killed when a car hit her and whose parents decided to donate her organs. The college kid who was stabbed at a party, the 2-year-old girl who drowned in an above-ground swimming pool, the teenager who fell and hit his head on a curb during a fight, the 18-year-old who drowned for no apparent reason. 

Nobody ever wants to write those stories as a beginning community newspaper reporter, including me when I started my career as a journalist 10 years ago. Nobody wants to make the phone call, knock on the door, invade the family’s privacy. 

What you learn is that families almost always want to talk. A few years after I left the newspaper, I went to a funeral for a three-year-old who had died of the flu. His father was a co-worker. There was an open casket, and my memory is the dead child’s twin sister screamed when she saw her brother. During the eulogy, their mother said she had never understood how parents of dead children talked to the press. 

“But now I understand,” she cried to the packed church. “Because I want to tell everyone, I want to scream and tell anyone who will listen, of how wonderful my son is.” 

Still, it is astonishing to me how kind people were to me when I arrived at their homes armed with a notebook. Those hours are stamped in my memory. The mother of Emily, the girl who had died in a car crash, wrote me a thank-you note after I wrote the profile of her daughter. My own mother included the note in a scrapbook of my life she made for me last year. Another time I sat in a dark room with velvet red chairs and red walls, listening as the mother of the 18-year-old who had drowned talk about how confused she was. 

“He knew how to swim,” she kept saying, a cigarette in her hands. It was clear the boy wasn’t a college-bound superstar, but the type people describe as “a good kid.” Person after person acknowledged this teenager, Josh, had run into some trouble, but had turned things around. Still, everyone suspected that alcohol, or drugs, had caused him to have impaired judgement when he hit the water. But to the best of my recollection, the police report had said there was no evidence of that, or of foul play, or an underlying medical condition. The young man had simply gone out into the water and drowned. 

Some of the dead adults also hang out in my brain. I spent an afternoon interviewing an Irish woman named Kathleen who had worked at David’s Bridal and was dying of breast cancer. It was for some newspaper story centered around Breast Cancer Awareness Month, back in the days when I actually believed in things like awareness and early detection and liberally used words like “survivor,” “fight,” and “battle.” I was deeply concerned that Kathleen lived alone, with furniture she had cobbled together from friends and Goodwill. I dropped off a fruitcake by her house at the holidays; she wrote me a gracious note. I saw her obituary in the paper a few months later, and felt guilty I hadn’t done more. 

Even when they are less sympathetic, some of the adults stick around my brain. I once wrote a story about a man who had decided to raise goats and pigs in his traditional suburban yard, with vague plans to eventually slaughter them, along with a bull he kept in his van. It was one of those stories that begins when someone calls you at the paper to yammer about how awful their neighbor is and you murmur, “uh huh” politely until she says “I mean, the pig poop in our yards is just dangerous” and you say “Wait, what?” I drove out to to find the man, who was named Herman. I can remember this not only because I could smell the alcohol on Herman’s breath from about a mile away, or because of the goats milling in his yard, but because he was so optimistic about his plan to turn his suburban enclave into an slaughterhouse. He concluded the interview by saying to me, “Herm’s on a roll.” Of course, once I called the county to find out the regulations turning one’s house into an abattoir, Animal Control came to take away the animals. I didn’t know Herman was dying, but when his obituary showed up in the paper a few months later, it was not a surprise. 

All of these people died at least a decade ago. I’ve written other stories about the dying or dead since then: The physician who died of a heart attack at the gym, the surgeon with metastatic cancer, a nursing home industry visionary whose kidneys were failing but said to me that he’d just like a little more time. They stick with me less than the ones from my newspaper days. Maybe, having moved into health care journalism, death is so omnipresent that it resonates less. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t written a story about a dead child in 10 years. My therapist said, when I left the newspaper, “oh, I’m so glad you don’t have to do more stories about dead children” and I said, “Oh, that never really bothered me. I mean…it gets easier to talk to families. It’s always hard, but it feels like it matters.” 

I still believe that, even if my therapist was not convinced. I was a perfectly adequate newspaper reporter, but I was not a superstar, partially because my strengths were found more in empathizing with people than pursuing investigations and justice. And what do those stories mean in the long-term? My memory is reasonably good, but I can’t tell you the details about a series I did about energy in Anne Arundel County that took me three months to work on, or why a local golf course was hugely problematic politically and environmentally. I can’t tell you why there were lawsuits against the school system, which politicians were corrupt, why I still have a thank-you note for writing a story about a wallaby, or anything about the hours I spent covering the town of Crofton and its assorted melodramas. 

The only thing I can guess is that what stays in the brains of reporters are the stories of people who no longer get to tell stories themselves. Those children I wrote about, had they lived, would today be starting high school, starting careers, starting families. This is not to say they all would have been positive forces in the world. It’s not uncommon for a mediocre or even bad person to be upgraded in an obituary, and dead youth have an added wistful aspect of “what could have been.”

Everyone thinks media lives forever on the Internet, but most of the articles are near to impossible to find. Even when they are accessed, there is no such thing as objective truth. The profile of anyone who has died is told through the memories conveyed by the grieving survivors who loved them. Individual tragedies fade from public consciousness. For the vast majority of families, there will be no newspaper follow-up years later, no further revelations, and sometimes no justice. 

But the stories matter. I hope that no matter how much journalism changes, young reporters are always assigned to go and talk to grieving families. I hope they realize how important it is for there to be a record of someone’s short life. I hope they know that sometimes the stories and devastation of strangers and the hopes pinned on their children will embed in a small recess of your brain. I hope they know realizing that is a gift.

Podium and empty seats - image (c) Benson Kua

Is a Platform Really Necessary for Fiction Writers?

Hi Julie,

I am an aspiring fiction writer and I have a question.  I’m working on building a platform which includes writing articles, short stories and essays for other publications as well as maintaining my own blog and presence on Twitter, Goodreads, Google Plus, etc.

My question is this:  How important is a blog for a fiction writer?  I find that my blog is about things other than fictionland, and while I enjoy writing on it, I don’t know if it’s actually going to help me realize my goals.  Plus it takes up time I probably should be using to do rewrites on my novel.  I’d love some feedback on how best to build a platform while not taking away valuable time writing things that matter!

Thanks in advance,

Hannah V.

 

Hannah, this is a great question, and one I see many authors struggling with now that so much of the publishing industry has gone digital.

To be completely honest, I think the importance of an online platform has been greatly exaggerated when it comes to fiction writing – and I think you’re on the right track when you say you’d rather focus on rewriting your novel than cranking out blog posts.

Why do I say this? Well, an awful lot of bestselling, successful authors don’t worry about blogging or maintaining any kind of personal online presence. J.K. Rowling and Steven King don’t have a blog anywhere on their sites, just sections where their staff post occasional press releases. George R.R. Martin still blogs using Livejournal! Many successful writers who do blog do so with incredible irregularity due to their work and tour schedules (Neil Gaiman is a good example of an overwhelmed author.) Those who can blog regularly seem to mostly write about their personal and creative lives, maybe with some thoughts about publishing or their respective genres thrown in. A frequently-updated blog centering around a tight, niche topic simply isn’t a prerequisite for success in the fiction market.

Think about it: as a nonfiction writer, you can publish blog posts and articles that directly demonstrate your expertise on the subject at hand. You can use those articles to advertise a book on the same subject – a topic you already know your reader is interested in. But people read nonfiction and fiction for different reasons.

Nonfiction is largely about accessing valuable information. Fiction is about so much more than that – it’s about being carried away in a story, about being entertained, about being challenged emotionally and philosophically. No matter how helpful and informative your nonfiction content is, it just doesn’t let a reader know if they’d be interested in reading your work in a completely different genre.

So, does this mean you should shut down your social media profiles and stop blogging altogether? No, of course not. I do think it’s important to have a visible online presence on different social media sites so that your fans can keep up with your works-in-progress, and it’s likely that if someone enjoys your fiction they’ll also be interested to get to know you a little more as a person. Having an online presence allows you to more easily form a real connection with your readers, and that relationship, not book sales, should be your primary goal.

You should blog about the topics that you’re passionate about and your latest creative projects when you have the time, but don’t make it your top priority. If you do decide to blog, write about subjects that factor into your novels. (So if you’re a historical romance writer, writing about period clothing, weird historical facts, or even your favorite writers in the same genre might all be topics that will attract potential readers.) If you’re self-publishing, I would recommend trying to update your blog semi-regularly, since this will boost your site in Google’s rankings – but again, don’t get distracted from the fiction you want to write.

As for writing essays and articles for publication? It can definitely help if you’re interested in traditional publication, in that a history of publication anywhere will boost your credibility with agents and editors. So even if it doesn’t directly result in book sales, it’s definitely not a waste of your time. Just be realistic about how much time to dedicate to pitching ideas, and remember that it probably won’t directly result in book sales. (On that note: submitting short stories to websites and journals focused on fiction might just help you sell a few books and gain new fans! Definitely an alternate avenue to think about if you’re spending a considerable amount of time approaching editors anyway.)

Now, back to that list of famous writers I mentioned earlier in the column. There are a few things they have in common that have helped them reach the level of success they’re at today, which have nothing to do with their platforms:

1)   Perseverance

While all of these authors are traditionally-published, many of them had their work turned down multiple times (sometimes even dozens of times) before they ever made their first sale. Steven King submitted his first published novel, Carrie, over 30 times before it was accepted. In GRRM’s case, he was writing science fiction and fantasy for literally decades before his A Song of Ice and Fire series really went big with mainstream readers.

Indie authors may not have to jump through the same hurdles when it comes to getting their work on (digital) bookshelves, but they do have to work even harder to get their writing in front of potential readers. These marketing efforts can involve blogging, but may also involve buying ad space, personally contacting book reviewers, giving interviews, and other forms of publicity that have been traditionally handled by publishers in the past.

Which leads me to the next trait successful writers have in common…

2)   Steady Creative Output

Let’s go back to the example of Steven King. Since 1974, he’s published 56 novels, 8 short stories, 13 collections, and several comics and 5 non-fiction books. To put that in perspective, he has published an average of about a book and a half every year for the last 40 years. He’s a busy man! While not all of us can be so prolific, it’s important to remember that you’re not likely to find the success you’re looking for by simply writing one novel or story and hoping that it picks up steam.

In the same way that a nonfiction writer builds a platform by sharing information in small, easy-to-read pieces, you can build a platform by sharing stories that build off of one another. Even if you don’t write your stories as part of a series, chances are there’s something about your style, genre, or the themes you explore that are repeated throughout your creative work. Once someone discovers your writing and it resonates with them, they may go back and read your previous writing, or stick around to find out what you’re going to release next.

3)   Word of Mouth

No matter what kind of writer you are, the most crucial element to success is one that’s largely outside of your control: you need people to love your writing enough that they’ll recommend it to their friends and family. All you can do on your end is make sure your writing is as polished as possible – are your characters captivating, your plots dynamic, your settings rich and detailed? Has your manuscript been thoroughly edited for typos and errors? Does your cover stand out and really represent the content of your book? All these factors will determine whether your book catches a potential reader’s eye and influence whether they want to recommend it to their circles. This is especially important if you’re self-published, since there are so many unprofessional-looking indie books available online.

 

So, Hannah, my advice for you is to spend the bulk of your time on creative writing, and create a strategy for how you want to spend the rest of your time promoting your work. If you want to maintain a personal blog or submit to other websites, go ahead and do it, but don’t stress yourself out over the possibility that you’re ruining your chances at finding readers for your fiction. Focus on building relationships first, and the other pieces will start to fall into place.

I hope this helps give you a little direction! Good luck with the rewrites. :)

–Julie

Are you an aspiring writer who needs some advice to help jumpstart your career? You can submit your questions for our column by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up!

Money - Savings

Can I Actually Make A Living As A Freelance Writer?

Hi Julie, I have a few questions for you about becoming a freelance writer and contributing articles to websites.

I suffer from pretty severe social anxiety, and it makes it really hard for me to get a “normal” job.  Right now, my husband works and brings in the bulk of our income. We also depend on some financial assistance from our family. I’d really like to contribute more, but outside of a small online community of fellow nerds, I have a really hard time connecting with people.

Freelance writing seems like it would be easier than most of the entry-level jobs I’m qualified for, especially since I wouldn’t have to deal with customers or coworkers, but I’m not sure how to get started. How does one break into the field? More importantly, how well does it pay? Is it possible to make a decent living as a freelance writer? Thanks for your help!

M.N.

Hi M.N., thanks for your question.

First of all, I want to make sure that you know what you’re getting into. Freelance writing may not be as intense as a customer service position, but it’s by no means an introvert’s paradise. At the very least, you’ll have to market yourself, approach potential clients, and pitch to editors. If your anxiety really is bad enough to prevent you from working a normal job, you need to think long and hard about whether working for yourself and promoting your own business is something you’ll be able to do without too much stress. Granted, much of this communication can take place over email, which sounds like it may be easier for you than dealing with clients face-to-face.

It’s not necessarily an “easy” job either – finding ideas for your articles that people will actually find interesting and fresh can be really challenging, and you have to be able to accept negative feedback, edits, and sometimes complete rewrites of your hard work. You’ll have to be able to meet tight deadlines, so if you’re a perfectionist you’ll likely have to turn in work you aren’t completely satisfied with once in awhile. And remember that you’ll have to handle your own accounting and other administrative tasks, too! Just be honest with yourself about whether this is an amount of work you can take on before you become too invested in the idea.

Now, to answer your other questions. Becoming a freelance writer takes a little time and effort, but it can pay really well. Plenty of experienced freelancers make a decent living — according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for writers and authors is around $56k a year, and I know people who make over 6 figures. (Obviously, you’ll need to be a little more established and experienced to bring in those types of rates.) To be honest, how much you’ll make really depends on who you’re writing for. Most places pay by the word or by the article — the publications I’ve written for have paid anywhere between $20-100 per article, but when you’re just getting started out it’s likely to be on the lower end.

If you’re interested in pursuing this line of work, the key to breaking in is to look at websites that publish writing based on subjects you’re already interested in. There are paying markets for just about every topic, even movies and video games — so chances are you can find something that’s fun and easy for you to write about if you have a fresh take on the subject matter.

If you find a site that publishes the kind of content you want to write, send them samples of posts or essays you’ve written on similar topics. If you’re just starting out, you can even write an article you think would be a good fit for their site and submit it for consideration. You may have to get your first few clips from sites that don’t pay their writers, but you can use those samples to prove to paying publications that you’re up for the job. I recommend writing 3-4 articles for free if you need the experience, but not much more than that.

You can also use writing you’ve done as a hobby or for fun as samples. I actually got my start freelancing by running my own small political blog back in 2005 — those samples helped me get paying work writing about similar topics later on!

The one downside to freelance writing is that it does take a little time to get established. If you’re strapped for cash right now, it’s not an immediate solution, and you might be better off getting a part-time job. But if you can get a few pieces published on sites that accept submissions, in time you might be able to land a regular gig somewhere that hires freelance staff writers, and that’s generally where better (and steadier) pay comes in.

One last thing: writing articles for websites is far from the only way to make money as a writer! Check out my article 20 Ways to Make Money as a Writer for some more ideas.

Hope this helps,

–Julie

Are you an aspiring writer who needs some advice to help jumpstart your career? You can submit your questions for our column by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up!

What you type may be used against you...

How Can I Get Started as a Freelance Copywriter?

We’re trying something new here at the Renegade Word – an advice column for writers! Over the past two years, we’ve published over a hundred articles, infographics, and how-tos to help aspiring writers improve their craft, get published, and get paid to do what they love.

Now, we want to answer your questions directly in a new, weekly advice column written by our editor, Julie M. Rodriguez. She’s a professional nonfiction writer and copywriter, with 400+ articles published online and in print. She even moonlights as a genre fiction editor, with 6 books she’s edited published or coming out soon. (What we’re trying to say is that she can tackle a pretty wide range of topics.)

If you have any questions about the craft of writing, approaching editors, character development, comma usage, or anything else, we want to hear them! If someone on our staff doesn’t know the answer, we’ll find an expert who does.

You can submit your questions by filling out this simple form. Then, follow us on FacebookGoogle+, or Twitter to see our columns each week as soon as they go up!

We’re looking forward to answering your questions.

 

Hey Julie! A friend who really admires your work told me to contact you. He told me you’re an awesome copywriter and person. I’m just getting started and could really use some advice! Do you have any tips on how to land freelance gigs without much experience?

–A.H.

 

Dear A.H.,

Yes, I’d be happy to help!  It can be really hard to break into copywriting without some experience, but there are a few things you can do to build your portfolio that will make it easier for you to get better paying gigs.

First off, it’s essential to learn everything you can about writing copy. Sales copy is a totally different world from the kind of writing experience most of us have — it’s not like an article, a short story, or a blog post. Copyblogger has some amazing free resources available that will help you learn the basics: how to write copy that convinces people to buy, headlines that will draw people in to read your pitch, and SEO best practices that will make it easy for people to find your content through search engines.

If you’ve gone through all the free resources you can find and really want to step up your game, you might want to consider investing in a paid course. I personally found AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting really helpful when I was starting on my copywriting career. This is a great resource if you’d like to learn to write long-form sales pages or direct mail. (Note: it IS a $500 program, so the cost can be a little steep for someone just starting out. However, consider the cost of a single college course, which can easily be in the thousands of dollars! At the end of this program, you will leave with a lucrative and marketable skill. You might be able to find a used copy of the manual on Amazon or eBay if you’re strapped for cash, but when you buy the program at full price, you’ll also receive professional critiques on your copy assignments.)

If you’re interested in writing generic web copy and not necessarily “letter” formatted sales pages, AWAI has a course on that too. They even offer a course on how to write successful email campaigns, which I strongly recommend — email copy is very different from writing for a web page. The great thing about these courses is that they all include copy “assignments” based on fictitious brands, so at the end of the course you already have material for your portfolio to show prospective clients.

The next thing I’d recommend is volunteering for projects you care about. If you have a friend with a small business or a pet project of your own, that’s a great way to gain experience and samples. When you’re just starting out, it’s also okay to take lower-paying jobs from small companies that can’t afford a well-known copywriter. I think nonprofits and startups are a great option for this since they probably have a limited budget and are more likely to hire someone who’s passionate about their cause.

Once you have 4-5 really good samples, then I think it’s easier to apply for more professional gigs! Right now I get most of my freelance gigs through referrals or people who find me on LinkedIn – since I don’t freelance full-time I have some flexibility there and can just let people come to me. I find this pays better than applying to job listings, but it’s not the most reliable way to find work.

If you want to actively seek out new gigs, there are a lot of job boards out there where you can find copywriting jobs. Here are a few that have helped me successfully land steady freelance clients:

(Some of these sites are mostly focused on blogging gigs, but they sometimes have copywriting gigs, too!)

I would definitely recommend staying away from sites like Elance, oDesk, Guru, etc — there is a lot of competition, and it seems like most of the users on these sites are willing to offer ridiculously low rates, so it’s very hard to get work that pays well enough to be worth your time. Some people have successfully used these sites as portfolio builders, but for me it was just way too much time and effort, and I had a hard time getting referrals or even testimonials from clients — once the job was done, they tended to disappear off the face of the earth!

Anyway, it’s a lot of work at first to get started, but once you do a few jobs and start to make a name for yourself, it gets easier.  I hope this helps. If you’d like a little more advice on choosing a niche and building your portfolio, be sure to check out How to Break into Freelance Writing in Just 7 Steps for more tips.

Good luck!

–Julie