Monday, March 27, 2017

One Columnist's Story

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I want to share Cheryl Butler’s story.

          I met Cheryl though a letter she sent me asking to become a contributing writer for one of the magazines I was editing. She discussed her minimal writing experience and also mentioned she was the mother of eight children and hadn’t left the house in a decade except to go to her OB/GYN.

          That comment made me laugh so I called her. We had a delightful conversation so I assigned her an article. She had a strong voice, good perspective, and met both the word count and deadline.

That was well over a decade ago. Since then she has written hundreds of terrific pieces for the magazines.

A few years into her career with the magazines, I asked her if she was interested in writing a column about family life. With eight kids, who could know more about it? With her sense of humor, her column quickly became one of the most popular with readers.

Due to her vast experience as a mother, her family column, and a friend’s recommendation, Cheryl interviewed for and then was named Macmillan Publishing’s Mighty Mommy. She started by writing weekly blog posts then added podcasts. Occasionally traveling to New York City to meet with her editor, she’s living a writer’s dream life.

Over four years ago, Cheryl asked me about writing a blog together to inspire others to write. Her life changed just by taking a chance and contacting me. One brave step and look where she is now. She wanted other writers to take chances, too.

I said yes. Cheryl set up the blog then we each wrote a post a week for years. Cheryl is now working on her second and third books so she stopped writing for this blog, but her Mighty Mommy work and family life columns continue.

I’m so glad Cheryl took a chance contacting me and that I took a chance on her. I don’t know how she found the time to write while raising eight children under eleven when she first started; however, she persisted and succeeded not only as a writer, but as a mom. She has one college graduate, three more in college, and four still at home—and she still finds time to volunteer in the community.

Cheryl’s story proves that dedicated writers can succeed.

* * * *     
If you’re interested in becoming a columnist, start a blog. What is your niche or expertise? You’ll need twelve to fifty-two topics every year so make a list. If you can’t, pick another niche. Put in the time. You need a strong voice, knowledge, and perspective to keep readers interested.

Then take a chance and contact a local publication you enjoy. If your blog is engaging, you might become a columnist. If not, take any assignments—you have to start somewhere. Be professional—NEVER miss a deadline or word count. Who knows where it might lead?

You, too, can succeed. Believe it and keep writing.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Editing and Writing in Reality

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          My deadline for the magazines is the 15th-18th of every month. This month, I spent over 10 hours editing and five hours writing on the 18th to meet my text deadline. (Magazine editor is not a Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm job.) I spent that much time working as the 18th is the sales deadline and the ad count determines the page count. For April, there wasn’t room for everything submitted to fit so I had to do the hardest editing of all—re-editing.

First, I edit everything submitted by the contributing writers and the public for errors, transitions, redundancy, and coherency as I receive them. The word count may go down, but the main goal is to make the writing as perfect as possible.

When space is limited, I have to re-edit ruthlessly—usually in one day.

The first things I cut weren’t happening in April. Those items are the easy targets, but I know the people and writers who submitted them will be upset, but I cannot let that influence me.

I’m also humbled at this time. I always find some errors and redundancy that I missed. When found, these mistakes are easy to edit.

I know the writers put a lot of work and artistry into their columns and articles. The columns fit on two facing pages so I don’t cut the word count in columns; I publish them or I cut them.

However, the hardest editing is taking a cohesive article then cutting it down to fit exactly on one, one and a half, or two pages without jumping extra text to the back pages. I cannot just cut the last three or four paragraphs. I have to keep the articles smooth, entertaining reads. This means great lines and well-written paragraphs throughout the article don’t always make the cut.

If I think the issue is tight—too many items to fit—I put off writing my timely article(s) until I know the pages I have left to fill. Because I’ve written so many articles over the years, I can write them quickly. This does put more pressure on me when I’m tired, but it’s easier and less time consuming to write shorter articles then edit down well-written completed articles. This is one of the tricks of my trade.

The last difficult thing I have to do is contact all the writers and individuals whose items were shortened or cut. I explain the situation. I also publish these items on the magazines’ facebook pages. Luckily, most of them understand and accept this. The ones who don’t, take time and diplomacy to appease.

This is why my days off coincide with delivery of the magazines to the printer. Once they are printed, I can’t change anything and I need to recover from all the work and stress it took to get them there.

Editing is more than using a red pen to transform text. It also takes persistence, patience, and people skills. It’s a great job, but not for everyone.

Word count for the week of March 12-18 was 7,121.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Reads for Writers: More Personal Writing Classes and Notebooks

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          You might think I have enough writing to do working for the magazines, freelancing, and blogging, but no. I have a lot of other writing plans and dreams. As I mentioned earlier in the year, I have set up several writing projects. Writers write!

          I have five notebooks going right now: my fill-a-notebook-a-month notebook based on Natalie Goldberg’s suggestion in Writing Down the Bones, one for exercises in Backpack Literature by Kennedy and Gioia, one for exercises in Screenplay by Russin and Downs, one for my book ideas, and a new one for the exercises in The Writer’s Workshop by Gregory L. Roper.

          The key to completing any project is a deadline. The first notebook has a built-in deadline, but the other four do not. I’ve set up weekly deadlines—a chapter a week for the three ‘personal writing class’ notebooks. To ensure that I meet my deadlines, I have a pact with Cheryl to send my word counts to her by email three days a week. She is working on a couple of projects of her own so she sends me her word counts two days a week. If we don’t receive them, we agreed to send email reminders.

          So far so good. We’re both professionals so we are meeting our deadlines.

          As for my projects, not only do I see progress by word counts, but my writing is changing. It’s becoming more detailed and specific. I’m also writing more quickly.

I wrote my most recent facebook thoughts for the magazines in seventeen minutes including rewriting. The word count was 165. I wasn’t under a tight deadline, but once I got an idea, the words just flowed through me onto the page. I credit filling a notebook a month with improving my writing speed and thought process to just get the words onto the page so I can rewrite them.

I credit becoming more detailed and specific to both Backpack Literature and The Writer’s Workshop. I highly recommend both books. While I’ve completed six chapters in Backpack Literature (I started the book over to complete all the exercises in each chapter instead of just one), I’ve only completed the first chapter of The Writer’s Workshop. I HATED the first task, but I loved the second two. They made me realize my weaknesses when it comes to describing people or anything else, but also gave me inspiration and concrete steps to improve my writing.

Details are necessary, but thoughtful, well-worded details elevate regular authors to best-selling status. In his book, Roper has excerpts from various authors throughout the ages for readers to review then imitate. While writing in each author’s style, you realize how many ways there are to describe something. It’s eye-opening.

For extra credit, I looked at the character descriptions written by some on my favorite authors. I realized I have very good reading taste, but not very good writing description skills—but I’m enjoying working on them in my five notebooks because I’m a writer.

Word count for week Feb. 5-11 was 8,105.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Working Writers Meet Deadlines No Matter What

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          A working writer doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. If there’s a deadline, it must be met on the page—not in your hopes or dreams. It must also be met in spite of any setbacks—personal or professional.

          I’ve had a tough week, but my blog post is due. So instead of wallowing in cookie dough ice cream or rereading a favorite book in bed, I’m at my desk writing. It’s difficult, but this is what I signed up for when I became a working writer.

          Unlike my previous career in Corporate America, I have no co-worker who can step in for me so I can take some time off. If I haven’t written blog posts in advance then I am at my desk even if exhausted, sick, or heartbroken. When the magazines are at deadline, I work. The printing company waits for no one; the workers go on to the next job that’s ready if I miss that deadline. Then the magazines are delivered late. Advertisers complain or pull ads. Soon, no more magazines. So I work no matter what.

          Lots of people romanticize the writing life. Get up when you wish, write when you wish, live as you wish. I wish that were true, but when you have worked hard for assignments and therefore deadlines, you write them on time, no excuses. A working writer learns not to procrastinate. If you miss deadlines, assignments and jobs dry up as no editor wants to work with unreliable writers.

However, life happens. People and pets you love get sick and die. Accidents occur. Illnesses strike. Not on a schedule, just out of the blue. Be prepared to write anyway—that’s what working writers do.

      Word count for the week of February 26-March 4 is 9,687.   

Monday, February 27, 2017

Dealing with Negative Feedback

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Rejection letters are part of a writing career as is negative feedback from readers. You have to learn to deal with them.

          Thoughtful criticism is always helpful, if difficult, to read. Nasty comments, not so much. However, some of them are unintentionally funny.

          Even as the Assistant Editor and then Editor of a family-friendly magazine, I have seen my share of negative feedback:

We used to receive a postcard from a retired English teacher with a list of all the mistakes in each issue. She prefaced the first one with “You are the best written publication in town; however, there are still errors.” The Editor and I comforted ourselves that they all fit on a postcard and not in a letter. We also learned from her notes.

          However, the comments I really remember are the funny ones.

          A veteran wrote us when another veteran appeared on the cover. “I usually don’t read your magazine. I use it for kindling. But this cover caught my eye so I read the article and I’d like you to introduce me to that veteran.” Hmm…an insult followed by a request for a favor. Of course, we did let the veteran on the cover know about the request and they met.

There is a section in the magazine where residents can email in photos and captions about positive things like awards won, promotions, new business openings, making the Dean’s List, fundraising events, and cute kids doing fun things. Generally, there are three or four items that all fit on one page. One month, there were six items so we jumped the section to another page. A woman called me up to say the News Bit on page 8 was complete and did not jump to page 10. I explained that the section jumped to page 10. Exact wording: News Bits continued on page 10. She was not amused. I wondered how stress-free her life must be to call up and complain about that?

          A message left in voicemail: “How dare you put a criminal on the cover of the magazine! I can tell by his teeth.”

          I picked up the office phone only to hear an angry man telling me that he was reporting the magazine to the Post Office for mailing porn to his house. Stunned, I asked him why he was doing this. He was upset by a spa ad. (This ad had also appeared in three other local publications.) Not sure what a porn charge would entail, I called the magazine owner, who laughed. She called the Post Office to ask what would happen if the charge was made. The Postal clerks couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t know what would’ve happened, but the man never showed up.

          Dealing with the public can be challenging, aggravating, and hilarious. Learn what you can from the serious comments and learn to laugh at the rest—then continue writing and publishing.

Please note: If someone is really upset, diffuse the situation by asking them what they would like done to rectify the problem. Most people are not prepared for that question which stops the tirade and moves the conversation on to taking positive steps.

Word count for Feb. 19-25 was 5,198.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reads for Writers: Why I Write? Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I’m curious about relationships. I always ask about how couples met; how people ended up in their current jobs; and, since I’m a writer, why people write.

          In Why I Write? Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe, twenty-six writers answer this question. Well worth reading.

Here are some of my favorite answers:  

“The only time I know the truth is when it reveals itself at the point of my pen.”

                                                                   —Jean Malaquais p.4

…Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.
                                                                   —Joy Williams p. 9

…The act of writing, though often tedious, can still provide extraordinary pleasure. For me that comes line by line at the tip of a pen, which is what I like to write with, and the page on which the lines are written, the pages, can be the most valuable thing I will ever own.
—James Salter pp. 34-35.

…Yet I don’t blush when I’m with dogs, and I don’t blush when I write. I take it then that these two activities answer a related question: Where in your life are you most yourself?
                                                                   —Amy Hempel p. 42

…the lesson retold in its most basic form was this: write with great truthfulness; work harder than you thought possible; have passion, enormous sweeping passion. Give it first to your work. Let your work have all the passion it requires, and whatever is left, put into your life. What is left varies greatly for me from year to year.
                                                                   —Ann Patchett p. 66

This writing stuff saved me. It has become my way of responding to and dealing with things I find too disturbing or distressing or painful to handle in any other way. It’s safe Writing is my shelter. I don’t hide behind the words. I use them to dig inside my heart to find the truth. I guess I can say, honestly, that writing also offers me a kind of patience I don’t have in my ordinary day-to-day life. It makes me stop. It makes me take note. It affords me a kind of sanctuary that I can’t get in my hurried and full-to-the-brim-with-activity life.
                                                                   —Terry McMillan pp. 70-71

… For the time of the writing, I am nobody. Nobody at all. I am a conduit, nothing but a way for the story to come to the page. Oh, but I am terribly alive then, too, though I say I am no one at all; my every sense is keen and quivering.
                                                                   —Lee Smith p. 134

…Writing should detonate in your brain like a strong dosage of acid, exploding in an abundance of color, attacking all that is accepted as sacred and true, rearranging, changing all sense and sensibility. Writing should dump the jigsaw puzzle of reality on the ground. Let the reader put the pieces back together.
                                                                   —Darius James p.169

…Writers drive cars, hold jobs off and on, raise children, climb mountains, and take out the garbage, but very few have retirement plans. Retire from what? Thinking? Being?...the process of writing goes on, the secret reserve is honed and moving, moving toward writing, into writing, until death cancels all.
                                                                   —Jayne Anne Phillips p. 189

Word count for February 12-18 was 6,866.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Word Counts for a Working Writer

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          As a working writer, I write almost every day. Deadline for the magazines lasts three days each month so I’m too busy then, otherwise I write.

          Filling a notebook a month is the best way to stay on track. Use an 80-100 page notebook as recommended by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. If you write about three pages every day, you’ll fill the notebook. If you don’t, then you will have a lot of pages to fill at the end of the month.

          In January, I had company as well as deadline. Because I wrote only a few paragraphs or a page or two each day, the last week of the month I had to fill 40 pages—which I did. My word count for that week was over 12,000 which also included a blog post and facebook thoughts for the magazines. I had to write fast to meet my monthly notebook deadline.

          Learning to write fast is essential for a working writer. Get all your thoughts down on paper as quickly as you can. This leaves you more time to rewrite, organize, make corrections, and polish your words—the real work of a professional working writer.

The initial act of writing is wild, spontaneous, exciting. When you reread what you wrote, you might not even remember some of these thoughts as they came so fast. Good. Those thoughts are what you really think without any filters. Work with them.

As I wrote in my post on 3/9/15:

 I think anyone interested in becoming a writer should read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury.

These books will also energize anyone who is already a writer. I often pick one of them up, flip open to a random page, read for a while then jump into writing.

           In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury not only encourages writing, he also shares his story of becoming a writer then working hard to become a better writer. Read his work. His dedication and creativity are astounding.

He’s inspiring—hard not to be when he begins his essay “The Joy of Writing” on page 3 with:

Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.

          Bradbury notes on page 13:

In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon the truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

Tiger-trapping. How exciting that makes writing sound! We are brave. Capturing truth. Following wherever our creativity leads us. Zest and gusto indeed!

Write with zest and gusto in a monthly notebook no one else will ever read. You’ll surprise yourself as well as come up with ideas for writing projects. I’ve written many essays and blog posts on thoughts I might never have discovered without scribbling in my notebooks which I take with me everywhere—like Natalie Goldberg, I carry a notebook-sized purse. Writing in public is inspiring in a different way than writing at home. Write wherever you are.

Word counts do matter. Not only in meeting specifications for projects, but quantity leads to quality. In filling these notebooks, you’ll find your voice, your rhythm, and your ability to meet deadlines no matter how short—all hallmarks of a working writer.

My word count for February 5-11 was 7,287.