Deadlines and what it means to be Freelance

The other day, I visited my friendly local Starbucks.  Only because I was running late for work and didn’t have the half hour to drive to Dutch Bros.  There, I talked with Suzie the barista and caught up, since she hadn’t seen me in awhile.  She mentioned to one of the other baristas, a skinny college guy, that I was a writer and had my own travel blog.

I could tell from his reaction that he was an aspiring writer himself.  I offhandedly mentioned that I had five articles to write about boats, compasses, rigging, and PFDs.  Due on June 1st.  That’s today.

He said “I don’t write anything with deadlines.  I like to keep everything I do more freelance.”

Freelance.

You keep using this word, but I don’ think you know what this word means.

With his mindset, if that was how I wrote, the only thing true about “freelance” would be that I was writing everything for free.  Yes, I have written a book and many short stories that may as well have been for the love of writing.  But as a writer, as some point you might want to get paid doing what you love.  If you truly love it, then writing about clamps and pocketknives and boat rigging and asbestos testing won’t diminish your love of the craft.

It will get you out of a freaking office where everyone thinks you suck and one day you will die having nothing to show for it other than hemorrhoids and carpal tunnel syndrome.  At least as a writer, you get those, AND a sense of fulfillment.  You have created something.  That is rare in this world.

So, I just nodded and smiled because the kid is 20, maybe 21 and knows everything.  Just as I did at that age.  And it has taken me that much longer to understand that sometimes you don’t want to write the stuff that isn’t fun.  But when the checks come and you get to fly to London and dink around for nearly two weeks, it was worth all the stupid copy you had to write for companies.  It is an investment in getting to experience more of the world for the stories that matter.  Inspiring pieces that are beyond the scope of your imagination, which I gotta tell you, without inspiration from the outside, is pretty limited.

Anyway, enough procrastinating.  I have copy to write and maybe some stories.  Because that is what a freelancer really does.

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The Secret to Successful Writing Part 2

In four years of college, I learned a few things about writing.  In the years following college, I learned everything else.

What I learned in college

First of all, only one of my professors actually wrote outside of academia.  He was a poet. The thing that struck me most about him was how he had no front teeth and wore sweatpants to class.  But the first night, he showed up and memorized the names of 30 students.  He came into the Barnes and Noble where I was working years later and remembered my name.  Asked me how the writing was going.  I’ll never forget that.

In my creative writing courses, I learned that a bunch of kids can sit around and pat each other on the back for whatever crap they churn out.  Their teacher can grade them, encourage them to submit to literary magazines, and steeple their fingers, look thoughtful, and really have no fucking idea what they are talking about.

But in college, we built a community of writers in that class that encouraged each other to write.  That was a good thing to take away from it.

What else I learned

I decided I wanted to be a writer in college when an art class revealed how much my drawing skills sucked (I wanted to be an illustrator like Michael Whelan or Ted Nasmith).  I was self-taught, but art does require talent.  Then I started playing music with some friends from high school.  We had a garage band.  We made an album.  It was then that I realized that being a professional drummer does require some talent.  So, I started working on a book.

Turns out, I actually had some talent for that.  Writing does require talent.  I was blessed with a big brain, a bigger mouth, and a masochistic quality I didn’t know about myself that the word “No” just makes me try harder.  From an editor, that is.  No means no, kids.  Remember that.  From an editor it means “Fix your goddamned grammar, do more than a second draft, and try harder next time.”

In spite of not being very well-read, I did know my way around a story, and I loved descriptive language.  (I was a shit English major, having only read about 10% of the assigned work and never having taken notes throughout my academic career–I was a B+ student).

When the book was finished, I expected instant fame and success.  To be honest, I had two drafts down on the manuscript, but I had entire reams that were rubberbanded together that I would ship off to a publisher or editor once in awhile.  I did actually get back a signed rejection letter a few times.  Little did I know back then, but that was actually a good sign.

I decided to start writing short stories.

I thought this would be easier than writing novels.  Did I mention I was young and stupid?

Short stories are like the crucible of testing your worth as a writer.  They test your true talent, which isn’t dazzling people with dialog or description or poetry.  The true talents of being a writer are as follows:

  • Resilience: You will be told “no.”  Your college prof might have blown smoke up your ass, but in reality, you are competing with some amazing writers.  Most of you won’t ever be published.  If you can’t take “no” then stop writing, stop submitting your writing, and just be a reader.  Because you will be told NO.
  • Perseverance: Being told No is the best thing you can hear, because it gives you room to improve.  It also should spur you on to say “fuck you!” and keep your butt in your chair and your fingers on the keys where they belong, writing more stuff.  By the way, that is the other piece of perseverance.  No matter how bored you get, how lonely you are, or how you would rather be binge-watching Ozark, you have to keep writing.
  • Memory: Sure writers read a lot.  But they also remember.  Snippets of dialog overheard at diners, family reunions, sunsets and long deep kisses, all the sensory memories get put back onto the page.  Otherwise, none of that research means anything. If you can’t remember, carry a notepad around with you and write shit down.
  • Adaptation: The story you are writing has probably been written by someone else.  They were better, smarter, and more connected too.  So adapt.  Adapt to shifting markets. Adapt to new trends.  Learn how to catch a wave and ride it in.  Keep tabs on trends and try not to be the guy who writes what is popular now, because that trend already started dying two years ago when the big deal ms started going through the publishing houses.
  • Stepping outside of yourself: Your work needs to marinate, grow, evolve, whatever.  But you are biased.  Read it critically. If you can’t, sucker somebody else to read it and allow them to be brutal.  Don’t take it personally.
  • Knowing when to shut up: Not only when knowing when to stop your story, but also within your community of writers.  I have seen careers torpedoed when someone expressed their opinions on gun control, abortion, socialism, gay marriage, feminism, and any other socio-political movement out there.  Unless you are a political writer, keep your writer persona OUT of politics.
  • Procrastination/Inspiration: Take those moments when the muse strikes (for example, I have written two blog posts on the subject of writing in about an hour).  But get over the procrastination that is keeping you from writing $10 a pop articles about clamps. One is fun.  The other will let you buy fish and chips on your upcoming trip to London.  TODAY is the day you need to get started on your novel.  Not “tomorrow.”  Jeez, haven’t you ever seen Annie?
  • Writing books and short stories is as different as running marathons and the 100 meter.  Both involve vaguely the same activity. But the two are vastly different.  Practice BOTH of them if you can.
  • Buy a copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and read that shit.  If I had done that, I could have saved my dad thousands of dollars in tuition for my English major.
  • True talent is knowing how to stick all of these together.
  • Iron sharpens iron.  Bad writing that is encouraged will result in more bad writing.  I’m looking at you Season 8 of Game of Thrones!

Knowing your shit when it comes to writing that sells

On the internet forums, I got a Masters/PhD course in creative writing from some of the greatest minds in the SF/F genre.  I’m going to name drop.  Gardner Dozois was one of them.  He was extremely generous in what he shared.  He was good friends with Isaac Asimov, George RR Martin, Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, etc. etc. effing etc.  He wasn’t the only one on those forums who had info to share either.

A bunch of us would just pester the hell out of them as to what worked and what didn’t.  Some of this I learned from hundreds of rejections too.  After a while, you just get it.  Here’s some gems I wish my creative writing teacher in college would have known.

  • Show, don’t tell:  Unless you need to tell.  Then tell. It’s okay.
  • Start as close to the action as possible: Nobody needs a bunch of backstory to enjoy a story.  All of that can be whittled away with a good enough description or turn of phrase
  • Create likable characters:  this is called Pathos.  The reader needs to identify with characters in order to become invested in them.
  • Muddy characters: Nobody likes a Mary Sue.  Give your characters some grit as well as vulnerabilities.
  • Hooks to catch their interest: How many damned John Joseph Adams rejection letters I got with the dreaded “Alas, this didn’t catch my interest” was due to a lack of a decent hook.
  • Pacing to hold your readers’ interest:  See the JJA rejection letter above.
  • Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end:  Start strong/Finish strong.  The middle should be good too.
  • Connections: Treat everyone with respect.  Don’t make enemies.  One day, the person you helped out might become an editor and say, “Hey, I know somebody who writes this stuff!” and they might invite you to contribute to an anthology. At the very least, they won’t blackball you for calling them a bad word online.
  • Also, the writer is NOT the same as the stuff they write:  I have a lot of writer friends who I know only as friends who share the same obsession and I am impressed by their character, not their works.  I guess that is why they are friends and I’m not necessarily a fan.  They also pick their nose in traffic and cheat at Monopoly.
  • Just dumb luck: A lot of people out there can’t write their way out of a paper bag.  But they have three book deals, seven figure advances, and sold their soul to HBO for a series.  It happens.  Just be grateful if it happens to you, and try not to be an asshole about it.  Luck is a one shot deal, but putting in the work is real.
  • TAKE ALL ADVICE WITH A GRAIN OF SALT

But try to keep the words of W. Somerset Maugham in mind:

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 

The Writing

Happy May Day!

When I was a kid, this was celebrated by making flower baskets out of Dixie Cups and ringing a friend’s doorbell and running around their house.  Today, I’m going to leave a basket on your doorstep filled with some thoughts on writing.  Maybe it will brighten your day.  It’s hard to say.

Maybe it will motivate you to put your own stories onto the blank page.  Poems.  Drawings.  Or whatever fills your soul!

Calling the Muse

“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” 
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Man, I love that quote.  I have read a number of books on writing and Ray Bradbury is at the top of the list.  The other indispensable guide is Stephen King’s On Writing.  I think all writers should read about the process from other points of view.  Not only successful writers the world has taken note of, but also friends, colleagues, and unknowns.  There is no one single way to be successful at writing.  Other than just getting the words down.  But there are techniques.  The act of writing is different for everyone.

Steven Pressfield in the War of Art talks about his prayer to invoke the Muse every time he sits down to work.  And that is what it is.  But I think it goes beyond work.  It goes into the realm of function.  My “invoking the muse” is probably cleaning my house.  When I am out of laundry and dishes to do, I have no excuses to procrastinate.  I also have a clean house, so bonus!

For me, writing is as much a function of my existence as taking food into my body, taking a shower, or taking a walk in the rain.  It is part ritual, part therapy, and part of the way I understand the world around me.  It wasn’t always something I did.

The Why of it

I was one of those kids who HATED–underscore, bold, italics, exclamation point–journaling in high school and college.  What a fucking waste of time!  I usually waited until the night before they were due and wrote all of them, complete with different colored ink, aging techniques like coffee cup rings, and post-dating. It was closer to a visual arts (read forgery) project than writing.

When I wrote, I wanted to tell stories.  Most of them were one or two pages.  Sometimes comedic, sometimes action.  My best friend Tony could crank out 30 pages for an assignment.  Now we’ve swapped.  He sends two page emails to me, and my replies are 30 pages.  I sometimes feel bad for him.

The thing is, in my adult years, I learned through my old LiveJournal blog is the more you write, the more you write, the more you write.  Lately, I can crank out a couple personal blogs, paid blogs, and a few scenes in my current work in progress.  And when I get done, I think to myself, “What do I do now?  Well, I could go on a walk, or I could write.”  Sometimes I just keep writing.

On boring, quiet days, it helps me pass the time.  A 1000+ word post like this takes about an hour.  If I’m working on the book, if I really get rolling on a scene, I could wake up from my typing and be two hours or 2300 words into it.

Whatever I’m working on, it helps process my thoughts and feelings.  It is sometimes distracting from “real life.”  But more importantly, it is what I need to do in order to function.

It’s also the best way I know to get to visit my memories.  When I go back and read something, not only is it the description of an event I experienced (and fictionalized, or recorded) but it also reminds me of what I was doing, and my mental state when I wrote it.  It’s a good measure of things on many levels.

Getting the Poison out

Ray Bradbury also says this:

“We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember that pianist who said that if he did not pratice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know.

A variation of this is true for writers. Not that your style, whatever that is, would melt out of shape in those few days.

But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.” 

He also goes on to say in Zen in the Art of Writing that his wife could tell when he hadn’t written, and the sentiment was that he was very difficult to be around when he hadn’t.  I feel like that sometimes.  I don’t like myself when I’m not writing.  I go down the rabbit hole, so to speak.  And that isn’t a good place to be.

The process

My process is akin to dropping spots of India ink on a blank page, which spread out and connect paragraphs into a narrative.  Even here, I started the post by just typing out some key words.  Each one has blossomed into a paragraph.  I didn’t necessarily write them in order either, but that’s how they grow together.  I do this whether it is writing about alternate history steampunk or the different types of Dureen boat rigging you can buy.

Sometimes I listen to music, but I can only start it after I have gotten into the flow of writing.  Otherwise, I distract myself by making playlists.  It’s just something to drone on in the background to keep me moving.

I usually try to write an entire scene in one sitting, and sometimes it is hard to get out of the habit of writing about my current mental state.  For example, if it is late at night, I find myself ending a scene with someone going to bed.  Maybe that’s why so many stories start with someone waking up in the morning.  Beginnings and ends.  Kinda like when college kids try to be edgy and write about nursing a hangover or lighting a cigarette.  Always with the goddamned cigarettes.

Anyway, the writing is going well.  The weird thing is the more I do it, the more I want to do more.  It can be difficult to stop.  Which is a good habit to get into.

Those who write

For those of us who write, we don’t always enjoy it.  Sometimes it is the simple process of opening a vein and bleeding onto the empty page.  For others, it is fun.  For me, it’s part of how I think.  It’s the best way to organize my thoughts and the best way to stay sane.

Ish.

I hope you, dear reader, enjoy our visits.  Let me know what you think in the comments, or send me a text or email.  Sometimes this one direction conversation gets lonely.