I used to struggle with what came out of me onto a fresh page. It was never as beautiful or brilliant as it was in my mind. In my mind, I was an eccentric, quirky, and stunning writer. One the world had yet to seen. In reality, my words were mediocre at best. It kind of depressed me. Thus, began the slog of my writing career.
Every time I wrote, I suffered a little on the inside. Why was I doing it? Why was I torturing myself when my writing sucked? I would never be an award winning writer. I would never write perfect prose like the kind in Karen Walker’s The Age of Miracles or a classic like A Wrinkle in Time. When friends read my work they thought, “I could do that,” not “I wish I could do that.” I was kidding myself. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed.
But it’s been almost a decade since I started writing professionally and it’s been three decades since I vowed to one day be a writer. And I suddenly got it.
All the work that I’ve put in. All the bad writing that I wrote and continue to write. It MEANS something! It is getting me somewhere. The work is the gold at the end of the rainbow.
Eventually you will get there too. But all the sweat you’re putting in is important. It’s necessary even. Every single writer started where you are. Even Mo Willems and Dan Santat must have written something unsuccessful at one time.
I sometimes need to be reminded of it too. Just because your working isn’t published or publishable right now, that doesn’t mean it won’t be. Your time will come. If you put in the time now.
It’s just like raising kids. Your kids won’t applaud you, give you an award or promote you for a job well done. But it MEANS something! At times, it is everything! It may be one of the most important things you do for them, for yourself, for the whole world.
Your writing is your babies. You need to invest the time and energy and the pain of producing shitty work to get to where you want to go. And when you get there, you will know. You will understand why you had to go through hundreds of crappy drafts, and rejected manuscripts. You will get it. And you will appreciate that crazy journey all the more.
If you ask me what the difference between fiction and nonfiction is, I’d say, “apples and oranges.” And to most writers, that’s a given. For people who don’t write professionally, however, words are words whether they’re made up or based on fact.
There’s an art about each. And both have their challenges. For me though, using my imagination, and letting go into it are difficult. There is no way of controlling what will happen to my characters. There is no specific date or fact that can completely direct my story. That’s why writing a children’s book has been a continual hurdle for me. And why I drool over real authors the way I do over runners running past my window.
Here’s what Ayn Rand says about the two in her book, The Art of Nonfiction:
“Contrary to all schools of art and esthetics, writing is something one can learn. There is no mystery about it.
In literature, as in all the fine arts, complex premises must be set early in a person’s mind, so that a beginning adult may not have enough time to set them and thus cannot learn to write. Even these premises can be learned, theoretically, but the person would have to acquire them on his own. So I am inclined to say that fiction writing-and the fine arts in general-cannot be taught. Much of the technical skill involved can be, but not the essence.
However, any person who can speak English grammatically can learn to write nonfiction. Nonfiction writing is not difficult, though it is a technical skill.”
She says the essence of fine arts can not be taught unlike nonfiction. Anyone can write nonfiction, but where does that leave a wannabe fiction writer?
I sometimes question that myself. Does a fiction writer have to be born? Can anyone, even a straight, factual nonfiction writer create?
I’m apt to say, “Of course!”
But the journey has been a long and furiously frustrating one.
While I often offer advice on my writing posts, I’m throwing this back to you dear readers. What do you think is the main difference between fiction and nonfiction? Can a nonfiction writer learn to be a fiction writer? Which one is harder for you to compose?
One of my all time favorite quotes about the writing process comes from one of the world’s greatest painters, Vincent Van Gogh.
“Mediocre I do not despise at all. And one does not rise above that mark by despising what is mediocre. In my opinion one must begin by at least having some respect for the mediocre and know that it already means something and that it is only reached through great difficulty.”
Whether you’ve written for decades or are just beginning, Van Gogh’s insightful wisdom can take you far in your writing life. To be able to write badly – to be able to give yourself the freedom, the authentic permission to spit out words, sentences, and ideas that fall short of your expectations is an ability that will ultimately nourish your creative spirit.
Over the many years that I’ve worked with writers, one of the most common myths they believe is this idea that “other writers” must write really great first drafts – these blessed “others” sit down and the words just flow – brilliant ideas tumble easily onto the page – everything somehow comes out ordered and whole.
Well, as we say in Brooklyn, that’s a whole lotta horse @&$!!!
The process of finding the perfect words, expressing that great idea, sculpting that magnificent paragraph is just that – a process. The bottom line is that we must be willing to initially (and maybe for a while!) write badly. We must be willing to put down on paper the mediocre stuff. But even more importantly, as Van Gogh urges, we must be willing to honor our own tender, imperfect efforts. If we don’t, we will ultimately undermine the entire discovery process. Writing a first draft is never about being an editor; it’s never about what your audience thinks or what your mother thinks or what the publisher thinks. Writing a first draft takes enormous courage because it is about leaping in, picking up the paints, and tossing them wildly on the canvas to see what colors stick. Writing the first draft is about listening to that nagging impulse, that gut feeling. It’s about breaking rules, not following them.
Did Michelangelo start chiseling away at the marble in search of David, only to throw his hands up after a few sweaty hours to lament, “This crappy lump doesn’t look anything at all like a man’s hand! I suck as a sculptor!” No, he worked tirelessly, draft after draft, willing to form “bad” lumps and bumps in that impossible stone, until one day something glorious emerged.
So it is with all creative processes. We must be willing to trudge through the slush of our terrible ideas, our clumsy words and awkward transitions. We must be willing to follow that goofy impulse down that dead end. We must be willing to explore that crazy idea no matter where it leads. In other words, we must be willing to give ourselves the spaciousness to write badly so we can discover what we’re looking for, even when we have no idea what that might actually be.
If we’re brave enough to honor our own mediocre attempts, here’s what Van Gogh promises:
“Your work is unbeautiful, alright let it be unbeautiful. It will grieve you but it must not discourage you… It is the experience and hard work of every day which alone will ripen in the long run and allow one to do something truer and more complete. You will not always do well, but the days you least expect it, you will do that which holds its own with the work of those that have gone before.”
Marcia Zina Mager is an author, journalist, performer, award-winning poet & mixed-media artist. Her fiction and non-fiction books have been translated into ten languages. Her international best-seller, BELEIVING IN FAERIES: A Manual for Grown-ups, is now available as an e-book, along with the trendy 31 Words to Create an Organized Life. Listen to an excerpt from her latest book THE HIDDEN KINGDOM: Discovering the Divine Presence in Nature. Marcia is the founder of the original Write From The Heart, a national seminar series on creativity taught all across North America. She studied improvisation with Academy award-winning actor, Alan Arkin which brought new energy to her writing career. This past November Marcia guest starred on Hawaii Five-O. She brings her diverse creative skills as The Write Coach to anyone with a desire to express themselves. Find out more at www.321write.com.
My freelance lifestyle wasn’t born out of a dream to forge my own path, pursue my innate sense of creativity at all costs or even break free from the corporate grind. Nope, my motivations weren’t as lofty as all that.
The way it really went was something like this:My husband was given a career-boosting opportunity that involved nine months of schooling in the Washington, D.C. area, with no idea where we would be moving next. We talked it over and decided together that he should take the opportunity, and before we knew it, we were on a flight from beautiful Hawaii to the Mainland and our Nation’s Capitol.
With nine months in a new city and no idea where we’d end up next, I knew I wasn’t exactly an attractive hire for local publishing companies, even with three and a half years as editor of a high-quality Hawaii magazine firmly under my belt. I also knew that taking nine months off might just be a career killer. I loved the magazine industry and didn’t want to give it up, so instead of pursuing another, more temporary line of work, I decided to go freelance. While my income level would go down, at least at the beginning, I knew it was the only way to stay in the game. Plus, I thought, if I decided to go back to full-time corporate work in nine months, I could apply again.
Up until I started freelancing, I always thought of myself as a real brick-and-mortar work type, one who thrived in an office environment, giving presentations, running meetings and performing and receiving scheduled feedback and reviews. I loved issue planning, sales seminars, client lunches and the like, and every time I visualized myself in the magazine industry ten years down the road, an office in a large city with a commute was always involved.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Today, three years later, I can’t imagine giving up my journey from the bottom to the top of the stairs (the exact distance between my kitchen and my home office) for a one-hour commute in rush-hour traffic. I’ll never trade in my jeans and T-shirts for a suit again if I can help it. Though I’ve been blessed with some pretty amazing co-workers over the years, nobody beats our two adorable hounds, George and Patty, for workplace company.
I’ve traded a higher income for lower stress and constant deadlines for creative freedom. And that’s all fine with me. But there are negative tradeoffs as well. I have to be my own financial manager, my own marketing and public relations department and social media consultant. Without my husband’s income, I have yet to work out how I’d support myself writing without taking on a second job. And I do sometimes miss the outside validation that comes from a glowing annual review or promotion.
A lot of bloggers encourage readers to dream big and take the freelance plunge in one fell swoop. Some life career coaches talk about goal setting and pursuing a life or career “with intention” as if all one has to do is dream it in order to do it.
The reality is, for many of us, freelancing is a huge leap off of a very high diving board. Some of us risk our financial heath, our relationship power dynamic or the prospect of falling behind in our chosen field. All of us risk failure. I took a calculated risk with enough water under the high dive to ensure a safe plunge. And to be honest, I might never have jumped off if I had many other options. But today, as I sit here in my comfy home office, with my pooches curled up at my feet and a day of whatever I decide ahead, I can honestly say I made the right choice.
If you’re considering going freelance, I say, more power to you! I know I’m swimming in the right pool. But only you know how high your diving board should be and how much water you need in the pool before you make a splash. So be sure to think it through. Dip a pinkie toe in the water and try one article or two on the weekends for a while if you can. Review your finances carefully. Devour books on the subjects of freelance writing and starting your own business (Check out one of my favorites here). Talk things over with your partner. Attend a few free seminars in your area, if offered, on the subject of starting your own business (I attended a lot of free and low-cost SCORE events, for example, when I was first starting out.) Basically, run through all the boring considerations you won’t find laid out in most blogs that tout creative, freelance lifestyles. There’s no one right path to freelance success, so find the process that works for you, both personally and practically. When you have it worked out, and if you decide to take the plunge like I did, then I say, come on in. The water really is so fine.
Sabra Morris is a full-time freelance writer on topics such as home décor and remodeling, wellness, family life, pet care, ecofriendly living, solar technology, retirement living, food and farm equipment. Her work has appeared in Virginia Living magazine, Northern Virginia magazine, Southern Living, Dog Fancy and Hawaii Home + Remodeling magazine, among others. She blogs at thefreelance-life.com.
Going to the SCBWI Hawaii Chapter Conference was well-worth the Benjamin this weekend. I learned a ton about fiction-a topic I rarely write about. It was an eye-opening experience teaching me all the mistakes I’m making and probably will make in my fiction future. I thought I’d save you the expense by sharing all the secrets I learned this weekend. So close your wallets and pull up your laptop. It’s going to get good right now.
1) Showing off.
It’s tempting to be like a peacock and show off your feathers. But puffing up your ego with superfluous verbiage may make for pretty prose or witty wording, but if you don’t have a good story, forget about it. You’ll lose your audience.
2) Not reading enough.
I’m guilty of this. Not that I don’t read. In fact, I’m a readaholic. But when it comes to fiction especially kid’s fiction? Yikes. I need to jump on it. The thing is, you can’t write a good piece of work, if you aren’t familiar with what’s out there. So thank you Matt de La Pena for reminding me of the obvious. Great writer = great reader
3) Rushing it.
You want to finish it. You want to see it in print. But rushing the process makes for hurried, chaotic and unintentionally messy writing. Take your time to enjoy the scene you’re currently in.
4) Writing shallow.
Nancy Galt literary agent Marietta Zacker says all good stories have one thing in common. They all have a distinct voice that comes their emotional truth. What is your emotional truth and how has it directed your life and the life of your current work-in-progress?
5) Hitting send prematurely.
I’ve done this one before. But Zacker reminds me that you should only send in your submission when you can imagine the editor and agent on the receiving end. If you would feel proud of what you’re submitting, it’s ready. If not? Step away from the computer!
6) Gabbing more than writing.
Writer groups are beneficial for a lot of reasons. But you need to be clear about why you’re spending time together with other writers. Make sure the time you’re spending is helping, not hurting your ability to complete your work.
That’s the 6 golden rules I learned this weekend. I’ve got a few more nuggets I’ll share later this week. So grateful for both Zacker and de la Pena’s words of wisdom and the writing community for motivating me to get hopping on my fiction WIP.
P.S. Have any fiction tips I haven’t included here? Please share.
You’re a writer. Fiction, nonfiction it’s all the same. Or is it?
To me, they feel like two different literary monsters. One’s like breathing. The other? It’s what I imagine skydiving would feel like. Super fun and exhilarating, but also vomit-inducing.
Which one you experience all depends on your comfort level.
For me, nonfiction is safe. There are research, experts, facts to back up my words. Fiction? Fiction is like free falling. I never know where my imagination will take me. It’s part thrilling, part walking on the edge scary.
When I’m feeling particularly insecure, my left-brain tries to pry out logic from the illogical. It grasps on in desperation for something concrete. The left-brain is my worst critic. It’s the one that gobbles up any creative idea, late-night inspiration and spits it out in disgust. “Crap,” it says. “It’s just crap.”
While it does an equal job of tearing apart anything nonfiction, there’s also editors and fellow writers who can critique it. It’s like math. You can filter out what’s right, from what’s dead wrong.
Fiction’s a lot murkier.
It’s why I have 3 stories mid-written. There’s always another way it can go. I can’t control my imagination, the way I can push around words here and there in a nonfiction article, for example. It’s a constant battle-this desire to create, compose and let be. My right brain’s continuing working, running amok while my left-brain’s trying to manage and understand it all. It’s like a funnel trying to filter through all the stuff that’s in there and translate it into something that makes sense.
Is it just me?
Do you have a hard time juggling fiction and nonfiction too? Let’s commiserate.
Finding writing gigs used to be a job on its own. I needed a full-time job to pay for the full-time writing job I was supposed to have. It was a ton of work and not much return. But that’s sort of to be expected when you’re just starting out. However, I quickly learned there were avenues of the freelance writing job search other writers were not taking advantage of. Here are a few less travelled paths that could help you find more freelance writing work no matter what stage of the writing game you’re in:
1. Online ads: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Craigslist has been a surprising god send. It’s where I landed my first copywriting gig more than 6 years ago and where I continue to find reputable work from well-known companies. Not many writers like to dig through the scammy stuff to find gold. But it’s like going to a discount store. Spend enough time searching through the junk and you might find a gold mine.
Secret tip: If you want to make sure it’s a legitimate job, cross-check the contact info usually listed on Craigslist. These days with sites like LinkedIn, it’s easy-peasy to do so.
2. SEO: When I first started out, SEO sounded as foreign to me as UFO. Thank goodness it’s a lot less complicated and intimidating than it sounds. And surprisingly, it works! I’ve caught a lot of fish by making sure to draw in the right visitors through my site via appropriate keywords.
3. Be a big fish in a little ocean: While I was living in the Bay Area, I was like a tiny little goldfish swimming in a BIG ocean. There was a ton of competition there. Amazingly, I still landed a good number of lucrative writing gigs. But I also found much more success when I ventured outside my neighborhood. Don’t limit yourself to your hometown especially if you’re hometown is brimming with talented, experienced writerly folks.
4. Attend meetups and local events: I admit my true intention for going to meetups and events in my new hometown (Hawaii) was to network with potential clients. But I didn’t come across that way. In fact, I approached every social event as an opportunity to meet someone new, not to sell my services. Although I’m an introvert at heart and was completely nervous to do so, I have to say the one event I went to a year ago has paid off in multiple writing gigs. And not just from the publication that sponsored that one event. Once I got my name out there, I was able to capitalize on a writer’s favorite way of getting work effortlessly-referrals.
5. Believe in the power of a cold call: This surprised me too because I’ve cold called several times without any success. But then cold calls turned into internet emails and that somehow worked. It did take almost a year, but it was worth it. Imagine my surprise when a short email a year ago materialized into a writing project. What’s more amazing is that the editor who contacted me wasn’t even the person I initially cold called. Somehow my email was passed along into the hands of another editor. It’s always worth the effort to get your name out there. You never know when a short email or brief conversation could pay off down the line.
How about you? Any surprising ways you got a writing gig? Share please!
It’s always exciting to see your name in print no matter how long you’ve been a writer! This is especially the case since packing up my life in the Bay Area to move to Kailua, Hawaii where there were just reminiscence, crumbs really, of my Hawaii writing past. High school newspaper clips, college letters to the editors, and jobs in marketing. But nothing substantial to base a new writing career here in the islands.
Thankfully, my ambition overpowered my fear and after a successful jaunt at a handful of networking events, I scored a few assignments for Element Media, a company that publishes two publications I write for: Pacific Edge and Las Vegas Bound. After that, I landed a few assignments for Hawai’i and Waikiki magazines. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to expand my portfolio as a Hawaii freelance writer. The journey has been an adventurous one and I’m hoping it will continue to be filled with unexpected surprises and greater writing opportunities.
If you’re looking for a Hawaii-based writer or someone who has experience writing effectively and successfully telecommute, I hope you’ll contact me at email@example.com. If you’re just a fellow writer friend, thanks for your support all these years! If you’re just curious to see if I can write, please see my list of writing samples here or read my latest story on a successful young professional who seems to be able to do just about anything.
Talent can take you far in life. But hard work will push you further than talent alone.
What I’ve learned in the last 6 years I’ve been freelance writing is there are other skills besides writing that can benefit the successful freelance writer. And that’s a good thing! This means that I don’t need to be as creative as Young House Lovers John and Sherry, funny as Martha Beck or as pushy as some go-getter writers to be successful.
Talk about a load off of my back. If I had to be naturally talented like the authors I drool over, I would have given up on this business several lousy paychecks ago.
What I’ve learned has been key to finding more jobs irrespective of where I live, how much experience I have or what I’ve done in the past. It’s helped me overcome and even make use of a degree and work experience that have no relationship to my career as a writer. It’s also given me confidence to pursue different directions in my writing. So here it is. It’s all the work that I’ve compiled from making tons of mistakes and learning in the process. It’s how you will become the writer editors seek out.
Take yourself seriously no matter what stage you’re at.
When I first decided to quit job hopping to finally pursue a freelance writing career, I was scared silly. I didn’t know what I was doing and was sure I would mess up. And I did. But I’m glad I did. It forced me to work hard. I threw myself in my work. I signed up for classes. I called people and asked them for advice, suggestions, help. I bought books, dogearing and highlighting as I went along. I joined and then started my own writing group. I did everything I could to learn as much as I could because if I was going to do this, I was going to give it my all. That’s what I also found inspiring when watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a 2011 documentary about a Japanese man who makes sushi making an art. Here’s what he says about success and hard work:
“Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.”
There have been many times at the start of my career where I felt like a fraud. I was amazed people gave me jobs and believed that they would eventually see how inexperienced I was and fire me. So I hid my insecurities and pretended I knew what I was doing when I didn’t. This backfired on me big time and I learned it’s much better to be honest about what was expected of me. In two words, be transparent. It’s how you build trust with any potential editors and how you work with integrity. If you can’t finish an article on time, let an editor know right away. If you’re not clear about the assignment, ask. It’s simple things like these that make you much easier to work with and be the type of writer editors will contact again and again.
I’m no writer diva. My belief is that every writing gig that comes my way is an opportunity and I like to bend in the wind of all opportunities. This means that for the most part, I’m going to get up real early, drive far, or write fast if it will make my client happy. I will deliver quality content and I will change pieces, organize them differently and do so happily. As long as I am treated well, my aim is to be a client-pleaser.
These are just a few tips I’ve learned that can make working with editors and clients easy-peasy. It not only makes the relationship work better for the current assignment, but it makes me more likely to gain future ones too. Basically to stand out from the millions of other writers out there (some who have more impressive portfolios than you), you need to treat your clients as people, think about what would make them happy, work hard and deliver quality content. Those are the things that have and continue to help me. What’s helped you?