Thursday, May 31, 2012

How I Became a Paid Writer

I was sitting at the counter in a drugstore having a soda, minding my own business when an editor came up to me and said, "Hey, you look like a writer! How about a job?" Suddenly I was a writer!

Yeah, right.

I was seven years old when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I may have had momentary dalliances with ideas of being an actress, a nurse, or a rock star, but the desire to be a writer remain in my heart above all else. So I wrote. bits and pieces of things, ideas, poems, whatever. When I was 11 I started writing a book that I never finished. It was the best activity EVER.

I spent years sending stuff out to magazines, major and literary. I sold the occasional poem or story to little literary journals. I sold a filler to Women's Day. I basically was not advancing much as a writer. I did not study journalism. I didn't get a degree in writing or English. In fact, I studied criminal justice in college  I chose it to broaden my experiences and world view as a writer. That, and to piss off my dad. I knew that I would be a writer eventually, even though a psychic my mother once took me to said I would never succeed at  it, that I would only write to please myself -- like a hobby. There was one thing I knew that she didn't -- I knew she was WRONG!.

For several years I set about writing poems about and for the people around me. I gave them to each person they were about. I would also dabble around with the occasional story. I took a couple of continuing education classes at the University of  Colorado that were taught by writers instead of teachers. My skills progressed immensely.  Then I won a poetry contest that my mother insisted that I enter. I was elated. I joined the Poetry Society of Colorado and began really working at poetry. I entered the slate of annual contests every year and began winning a great deal. This really honed my writing skills into saying exactly what I meant succinctly and clearly.

During these years life managed to take me in the right direction. I managed to land a job at the Colorado Daily newspaper as a marketing assistant. I finagled my way into writing letters for a few marketing campaigns to garner new advertisers. Before long they were laying me off. It was a quirky newspaper that all but shut down publishing during the summers. Fate took a hand and the editorial department hired me as their calendar editor instead.

During the summers most of the writers were laid off until September. One day a press release crossed my desk. It was for an art showing for work by my neighbor across the street. After 20 or 30 minutes of getting my courage up, I walked into the editor's office and pitched my article idea. It felt something like throwing myself off a cliff. To my great joy, the editor agreed. Now I had to write something well enough to prove that I was worth taking a chance on. It worked and I began writing articles more regularly. This was in addition to my job, so I was considered a freelancer. Just like that I was suddenly a paid writer.

One of my early articles was about my junior high English teacher, Frank Reno, and the book he had written about the historic King Arthur. He had been my biggest mentor in wanting to become a writer. Back in the day he would read and comment on my scribblings when I would bring them to him after school. It was delightful to interview him and to let him know that his extra support had been worthwhile.

It didn't last. The next summer I was one of the people laid off. From there I went on to write, edit and publish the newsletter for the Poetry Society of Colorado. It was unpaid, but it kept my hand in the field.

At my most recent job I wrote newsletters for homeowners associations. A bit on the boring side since I wrote mostly about lawn care, rules, water conservation, and snow shoveling, but at least I was writing. It was during this job that I started seeing a new way to do things.

I joined Facebook just to be able to see some family photos. Then I began reconnecting with old friends, my coworkers and others. I started looking at the blog of one coworker and it dawned on my that I needed to blog. So I created this blog and started putting EVERYTHING on it. I was putting all of my writing out there. I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing with it yet. Eventually it turned into this writing blog, as well as a link to writing samples for potential writing jobs.

That helped lead me to getting a paid writing gig with and the potential for another that looks like it will start sometime late in June or early July. For that website I would have a column writing local business trends and news. I found these opportunities on Craig's List. I'm supposed to be looking for a "job" right now. Oddly, I am getting more bites to freelance. Somehow I don't mind.

So basically, I became a paid writer by putting myself out there and by not letting anyone tell me that I can't write. I also didn't sit back and wait for it to come to me. I know I can write. You know you can write. So keep writing. I'm going to.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Avoiding Thesaurus Abuse

In one episode of M*A*S*H, Radar, the company clerk, has decided to improve himself by becoming a writer. He signs up for a highly questionable writing course by mail and proceeds to try his hand at writing. When he starts to attempt to exercise his new vocabulary he met with disastrous results. He offends someone by saying "provocative anecdote." In his daily reports he writes that Corporal Klinger was going about his crepuscular rounds. Later Klinger took off with a nifty nonchalance, only to return with his "nonchalantness" not so nifty. Colonel Potter advised Radar to write what he knows. Always good advice -- well, sort of.

What was really at issue here was not so much writing what you know, but writing as yourself. People just don't use words like "crepuscular" in ordinary conversation. Guys like Radar do not discuss provocative anecdotes. There are times when you might use such verbiage, such as when you are writing a television script about a simple guy trying too hard to not be quite so simple. But for the most part you don't want to go there.

Writing the way you speak is far more accessible to your audience. That is unless people tend to nod off whenever you open your mouth.  The way you speak is contemporary and designed to communicate thoughts and ideas easily to the listener. You may need to change the contemporary part somewhat for historical pieces, but you don't want to vary too far off modern speech or you may lose your audience.

Putting distracting words into your work detracts from it. Did anyone hesitate, even briefly at my use of verbiage above? You should have. I could have just used "words" and done just as well. Anything that stops your reader in the flow of the story is a bit of bad writing. You want the reader to stay totally engaged. I used to love reading Judith Krantz novels, for which she was paid many millions of dollars. The one thing about her writing that drove me absolutely nuts was her insistence on placing smatterings of French into her dialog. Without translating it or alluding to the meaning somewhere nearby. This always pulled me out of the story since I don't speak French much beyond "oui," "non," and "merci." I can usually manage better with German and Spanish, but, not being fluent, I still have to stop and translate.

It can be difficult to find just the right word, and a thesaurus is a great tool to have handy for any writer. The problem is giving into the temptation to indulge in flashy language. It is so easy to want to make yourself smart. That alternate word may seem so cool. You can find yourself going to the thesaurus more and more often to keep it up. This is thesaurus abuse.

When I wrote for the Colorado Daily I was limited on the size of my articles by character count, not by word count, since the articles had to fit into a certain amount of space. I would write my article, check the character count, and then go over my work with a fine tooth comb to carve down the number of characters without losing the meaning of the story. The fancier words had to go, for they tended to be much longer. Anecdote has eight characters where story is only five. It was one of many ways that writing for print news helped sharpen my writing skills immeasurably. To save characters I would also end up rearranging sentences to make them more compact.

Don't write a provocative anecdote, write a great story. If people have too much trouble understanding you, they aren't going to bother reading your work. Save the flowery language for that one particular character that no one is supposed to understand -- the pompous scientist, for example. You don't want the best of your work to get lost in translation.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Branding: By Any Other Name

Should you write under your own name or select a pseudonym? If you do choose to go with a pen name, why? It can be personal, or it can be part of your marketing strategy.

 Making the choice is an age-old dilemma. The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, jointly published a volume of poetry in 1846 under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. One of the reported reasons for this decision was the concern that no one would buy the book as penned by women. A similar decision was faced by Mary Anne Evans who wrote under the pen name George Eliot around the same time as the Brontes. Some women did write under their own names, but were not taken seriously and it was assumed that they could only write lighthearted romances. Eliot wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist. Fortunately, that is not the case any longer. Or is it?

Many male authors who write romance novels will do so under a female name. The perception of the book-buying public is strongly biased in favor of women writing romance. This is a similar sentiment that is still going strong more than 100 years later.

The choice can depend on what you write, but not necessarily for reasons of gender bias. Some writers will choose to use their real name for one genre of writing and a pseudonym for another. This is basically what is known as branding in the marketing world. You choose one name to become synonymous with one product, in this case, books, short stories, essays, or even articles. Perhaps you  write mysteries under your own name, but you also write science fiction. To keep you mystery "brand" solid, so that readers everywhere associate your name only with mysteries, you then select a pen name for your science fiction work to give that body of work its own brand.

Another possibility is that you write somewhat graphically explicit books and stories. In such a case you may want to use a pseudonym for reasons of propriety. This may be to shield your children until they are old enough to understand. Or maybe you don't want other relatives weighing in judgmentally on how you are making a living.

When I was younger I toyed with using a pseudonym. I think that at that point I was just enchanted with the idea of being someone else. After several years and a very short stint being published as Skye Meredith, I decided that I wanted to just be me and be known by my real name. Then I chose to also use my middle name. As a child I was actually called Laurie Kay, like Mary Kay, but outside the family it never took. This has caused some unwanted opinions from some family members who thought I shouldn't use it, but I stuck to my guns. Somewhere along the lines I found a great reason for using my middle name. My mother's name is Dawson, a sept name for the Davidson clan in Scotland and I discovered that Kay is also a sept of Davidson. By using my middle name I honor both sides of my family, father and mother. A side benefit of this is that when people google my writing name, I am Laurie Kay Olson. I am the only Laurie Kay Olson with books on There are tons of Laurie Olsons out there. There is only one me. It is my brand as well.

I recently started writing as a paid blogger for a website. The people running the website liked my work well enough that they gave me a second beat to write. So they wanted me to come up with a pen name for the second beat to keep the beats separate as to what I am writing. So now I write animal news under my own name and under the name Kitty Devine to review cool animal-themed stuff. For this my pen name is purposely tongue-in-cheek due to the more lighthearted nature of the beat. Kitty probably won't live forever, but that's okay. It's a limited-time only brand.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Write On: Getting Past Writer's Block

To be honest, this is not usually a big problem for me. Indeed, I have trouble shutting my brain down and letting the ideas stop for the moment. However, it does happen. Sometimes it is that excessive flow that caused the block -- much like a log jam on a river. Here are some of the ways I have found to move beyond the block:

Blank Page Syndrome: I love the blank page. It is so ripe with possibilities. Because of that it is easy to get intimidated. What to do? Where to start? Basically this is similar to the fear of failure. You always want to write your very best and looking at that blank page reminds you of this. Keep in mind that you will write crap. Lots of it -- and it doesn't matter. The blank page is there for you to explore all of the possibilities it can hold. Mess with it. Write anything at all. I knew an English teacher once who had his students do "jottings." This was an exercise to connect them with their right brain and let the words flow. To get going it doesn't have to be on what you are planning to write, just write. Prime the pump. Once you have the words working, then you can turn to your story. Nothing has to be perfect on that blank page once you get to your story. Just get it down. You can fuss over it and tweak it later during editing and rewriting. You may find that what you thought was the beginning is really somewhere in the middle. That's okay. It's all okay.

Where Do I Go Now Disease: One of the problems with being a writer is that we see a great many possibilities for every action. We can easily get stymied by which course of action that our character  should take next. We can lose ourselves considering our options. What if? What if? What if? You need to get out of this loop. Get up and walk away. Do something else for a bit. Preferably something that gets your hands working and not your brain. No TV, no music, no reading. During the warmer months I garden and I get a great deal resolved while working with the soil and the plants. Ideas and resolutions abound out there. During the colder months I will knit, crochet, or do cross-stitch -- nothing complicated. Somehow keeping the hands moving does something to the brain making it work better. I discovered in high school that working on my home ec crocheting under the desk in history class made me remember the teacher's lecture extremely well. It is a shame that the standard school system frowns on multitasking or we would have a larger bunch of kids who are far more well-educated. Find your Zen activity and make use of it. If all else fails I resort to actually cleaning the house.

The Road Block Condition: You've been racing along with your latest manuscript and all of a sudden you are stopped in your tracks. Traffic is at a standstill. You don't know for sure if there is a wreck ahead or if there is just a family of skunks crossing the road. Whatever the block here is, you need to get things moving. This is a great time for brainstorming. There are many techniques out there that have you drawing lines and making circles and such. I just make lists. If there is a specific topic I need to write to for an assignment I start with that topic. You can start with whatever it is you are needing. For example, say I need to write about cowboys. What do I think of when I think of cowboys? Horses, bridles, reins, hats, chaps, jeans, lasso, Roy Rogers, cowboy songs, Bonanza, Ponderosa, the wide-open range, tumble weeds, boots. . . Invariably something in the brain starts to move. I go from single words to phrases, to ideas. The progression eventually takes me into actual ideas of where to go with my subject. I used this method to write many cowboy poems when that wasn't my sort of things. Though this method I managed to pair the idea of the armchair quarterback with cowboys and wrote a series of three poems about The Armchair Cowboy, all dedicated to my father.

The No Clue Infection: For most writers who stick to fiction, this is rarely a problem. Most of the fiction writers I know have more trouble turning the idea machine off rather than trying to get it moving. If you write articles, blogs, columns or essays, you can sometimes be coming up empty. When I wrote for the Colorado Daily newspaper I would occasionally resort to browsing the yellow pages in the phone book. Usually not the big ads, but the tiny little entries that no one notices. This led me to finding a school for Santa Clauses and a great seasonal article. That was back in the days before I had regular Internet access. More recently I have stumbled across some great ideas while surfing the web. Did you know that a Jewish dog can have a Bark Mitzvah or that you can adopt a bee? Taking some time to just wander can provide some great material. It is up to you to find your own angle if it is a subject that is popular. Find one that isn't so popular is a true gem to add to your writing resume.

Just remember that writing can be extra difficult if you aren't feeling well. Take care of yourself and get plenty of rest and fluids. Don't forget to exercise. That is a great Zen for getting your brain working.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Characterization: By Any Other Name

Naming your character is just as important a part of creating your character as any other. Shakespeare claimed that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," but would it really? He penned this phrase centuries before psychologists began to study the perceptions of the human brain. Would a rose still smell as sweet to us if we called it skunk cabbage? I say it would not.

Your name and the names of your characters can affect how they are treated, which is a strong part of who they are. References such as The Name Book by Pierre Le Rouzic lists names with their associated personality traits. This is often amazingly accurate. It can be scary, but I digress.

The sounds of hard and soft consonants tend to fall differently upon the ear and therefore the psyche. Hard consonants are edgy, outspoken and strong. Soft consonants are smooth, gentle and unobtrusive. This is something that I discovered in my years of writing poetry, but it can translate into writing prose as well.

Take the similar names Kiki and Cici. Kiki has an edgier sound, like this person would be outspoken, extroverted, and even shocking. Cici on the other hand has a gentler, more forgiving sound, so the character may be shyer and more caring. Names that mix these sounds can fill in the spectrum between the two.

There are also our cultural perceptions that go into a name. Someone named Edna is not a super model, but may be a stern spinsterish librarian. Roxanne on the other hand is the super model sort of name, but highly unlikely to be a librarian. The cop on the beat is more likely to be Bud or Joe, but would get his ass kicked routinely if his name were Chauncey. However, here is where you can have a little fun. Chauncey could have the nickname Chance and keep the truth quiet. That can also add to who the character is.

Would Marilyn Monroe have been the same bombshell if she had remained Norma Jean? Would Morgan Fairchild had become a vixen as Patsy? Would John Wayne have such a tough-guy image as Marion? I think not. You get my point.

The other thing to keep in mind is the time frame in which you are writing and how appropriate it sounds for that moment in history. A character in the 19th century would not be named something very frivolous. The Victorian Age was more down to earth and you would be more likely to find a slew of Janes and Marys, but to go a bit further out from dead center, you would find Pearl, Ida, and Hazel. Author Suzanne Collins does an admirable job with this in The Hunger Games by making the names of the future sound like a natural evolution of current names. So that the irascible Haymitch may have once been the name Hamish.

You may also want to steer clear of trite names. Using Shirley for the wise-cracking, gum-popping waitress at the diner is as old as the hills. Does that actually fit your story? Maybe that waitress would be better as a Phoebe, the seemingly flaky, over-worked grad student trying to finish her thesis. The girl who is called Willie because daddy wanted a boy has been done to death. Put a spin on it. She was named Willie, not because she wasn't the desired boy, but because mama went into labor at the ball park when Willie Montoya was pitching a no-hitter.

I am blessed, or cursed, with the gift of synesthesia, whereby letters and numbers take on colors. So this plays a strong part in how I select names for my characters. Julie is a lovely purple and green, where Edna comes across as a dull blue-gray. Andrea is a pale harvest yellow. I have to take this into account when I name characters, because this has an even deeper effect on how I perceive them. Hazel, while a dandy name, is shades of brown and black to me and I would need to assign it properly to be able to use it.

So, what's in a name? An awful lot apparently.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Kindred Spirits: The Importance of Fellow Writers

Yesterday afternoon I was able to spend some time in conversation with playwright, filmmaker and cartoonist, Jane Shepard. We had gone to junior high and high school together and had gotten to know each other when we were in the school play together. There is something refreshing and energizing about communing with kindred spirits of the quill.

Only another writer really knows what you are going through when you suffer for your art. (Excuse me while I put the back of one hand to my forehead and swoon.) There is nothing romantic or dramatic about our "suffering" It is one of frustration when our characters won't do what we were expecting them to do. No matter how many times it happens, it is always a bit startling when your characters take on a life of their own. Suddenly you find that your are no longer writing what you thought you were. Only another writer can understand and truly empathize with this experience. Non-writers are baffled by this phenomenon, truly believing that we writers are a form of literary god who can make the characters do whatever we want. Ah, if only it were so easy.

There is little about writing that can truly be classified as "easy." I had a friend who once commented that she wished she could write well so easily. My response was something to the effect of , "Yeah, if you consider sweating blood easy."

We don't write because it is easy. Few of us find it all that easy. What we do find is that it is a  worthwhile and compelling effort. We get something intangible back from it, like the fight well fought. Through it we gain a larger understanding of the world around us.

We need to find ways to connect with other writers, if for no other reason to know that we are not alone and not crazy. Other writers know how to talk us down off of the ledge when we are ready to jump. Other writers are the ones who understand why writing has driven many authors throughout history to become raging alcoholics and suffer from depression.

I am most fortunate that I am surrounded by writers now. My next door neighbor is a writer and we chat often about writing. There is the aforementioned Jane, who has recently resurfaced in my life thanks to Facebook. Then on Facebook I belong to a number of writing chat groups. Here we connect, commiserate, complain, and contemplate. We are there for each other for the good and the bad, and everything in between. We have supportive and caring conversations, disagreements, and completely inane conversations. These discussion threads would often make little sense to non-writers. It gives us community in what is a very solitary vocation (or avocation).

If you are unable to find a support group to meet with in person, find one online. Take a class on writing. Find a cafe that has an open mike night for poets. If not writers, then artists and musicians will do nicely. The creative process is the same, if not the actual act in how you manifest it. Go -- find your kindred!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Motivation - The Write Stuff

Why do you write? What makes you get out of bed to face the blank page every day? What drives you to rewrite, edit, and edit some more? What makes you strive to find a publisher or self-publish?

If you are in it for the money, stop writing and focus on your day job. Money, in shrink-talk is a "negative and non-sustaining motivation." Oh, sure, we all need and want money, but if that is your sole or main motivation, you are headed for a world of hurt.

You need positive and sustaining motivations to write to keep you writing.

I write because, like breathing, I will die without it. It is as essential to my being as my heart and lungs.. I have found that when I don't write I am more prone to depression, restlessness, and listlessness. Ever since I decided to be a writer at the age of eight, it has been a part of me. Perhaps it was always a part of me and it just took until I was eight for it to become incorporated into my awareness. Until then it took the form of my being a voracious reader at an early age. I remember sitting in my little reading group in first grade and the teacher was asking if anyone could read the one word on the first page of the reader. I looked quickly around the group. What was the big deal? Couldn't they all read it? All it said was Tip. I had already taught myself to read as my parents had read to me. I could already sign my name because I had had a savings account for college for more than a year.

Years ago I realized that my need to write was my "calling." Just as serious as though God had called me to become a nun. Since I am not Catholic, I did not go running off to the nearest convent. I was raised Presbyterian and later veered off into the New Age. So my "service" to God is to do what he provided me the talent to do. To speak to everyone with my writing. Later on I discovered that I have a talent for writing humor, the strongest medicine in the world.

I also write because I love the places I can go, the worlds I can explore, the different people I can be. It does leave me living primarily in my head. Not a bad place on the whole. I am entertained and consumed at the same time. It is living life on an intense level since I try to put myself in everyone else's  shoes. It makes me a more compassionate human being because of this.

I am, therefore I write. And yes, I do make some money writing, but that is a nice side benefit. I am hoping that the old saying "Do what you love and the money will follow," is true.