Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pet Peeves

I haven't posted on here in quite awhile, I've just been too busy with, well, actual writing work for which I am paid. Priorities, dontchya know. I microblog on Facebook because it doesn't involve much time, and I'd rather expend my very limited free time doing something other than writing, since writing is my job, and when was the last time you did your job as a vacation? But I digress. I thought I'd kick off the New Year with a list of my pet peeves. Some of them are writing-related, others are just general pet peeves. But, since a lot of people go out of their way to annoy me in a manner directly related to my profession, a lot of my pet peeves are directly related to writing. (People really do seem to become unintelligent and socially inept where the writing biz is concerned. I wonder what would happen to our economy if people behaved the same way about the stock market. Oh, snap. . .)

My Top Ten Pet Peeves, in descending order:

10) People who come up to me at parties and ask if I will participate in some half-baked get-rich-quick writing scheme of theirs for free. I have been dealing with this for years, and you'd think people would buy a clue by now, but they never do. Some dude came up to me at a Christmas party last month and asked if I would be interested in ghostwriting a memoir for some Z-list pseudo-celebrity he allegedly goes bar-hopping with. "What would he have to do to hire you?" the dude asked. "He can write me a very large check," I replied. "In advance. The going rate is about $50,000, minimum." The dude was surprised by this. "But, wouldn't you get paid AFTER the book is published?" I was like, "You mean, work for free? I don't think so."

9) People who email me on Facebook asking if I will please use my "connections" to help them track down and hire internationally bestselling authors to work for their half-baked venture-capital computer software scheme, FOR FREE. Uh huh. Because I'm sure people like Terry Brooks, Orson Scott Card and Stephen King would absolutely love it if I showed up on their doorstep asking them to do me a favor for someone I'm not even friends with, and they don't even know me personally in the first place, and somehow I don't think they'd be interested in writing content and characters for your 10th-generation copycat of World of Warcraft for zero compensation when they make more money for a two-hour speaking engagement than I make in a year. Yeah. Right. Please go take a long walk off a short pier. Thank you very much.

8) Flaky people. You know, I am so sick of people asking me to help them with shit, who want me to take time out of my busy schedules to teach them a craft, do them a favor, make them something, whatever, and I offer to do it, and set up a time, yadayadayada, and then they flake out on me and cancel, multiple times, and then wonder why I don't want to help them with anything anymore. Seriously? Go to hell.

7) Flaky people, Part Deux. Ya know, if I've already helped you with something, and all you have to do to complete the task to get what you want is stick it in an envelope and lick a stamp, and you don't even do that, for like a YEAR, and then wonder why you haven't gotten what you want, well, you need help. (And the best way to accomplish something, however small, is to DO IT, and stop BSing about it. This rule is widely applicable. Give it a try sometime.)

6) Childless people who lecture me on how to be a parent. This requires no further explanation.

5) Single and/or multiply divorced people who lecture me about how to have a healthy long-term relationship. Again, this requires no further explanation.

4) People who interrupt me when I'm teaching a class every five seconds. If you're taking my class (or any class, for that matter), you'll find you learn a lot more if you actually LISTEN to the instructor instead of interrupting her ALL THE TIME. I have been known to kick students out of my classes who do this too much. And raising your hand first BEFORE blurting out your questions also helps.

3) Gun nuts. I really have no use for firearms, and even less use for people who continuously espouse how wonderful things that are used to kill people by means of explosion violence are, especially when they ignore all the scientific/public health evidence to the contrary. Seriously, these people piss me off. Stay out of my state. Better yet, go form your own country somewhere in the Arctic and don't come back, ever, and hopefully you will all just shoot each other to death and do the rest of us a favor. Bye.

2) People who don't appreciate the favors you do for them. A simple "thank you" will suffice. Biting the hand that feeds you is usually not a good way to go through life. Nor is it a way to win friends or influence people.

1) Mean, nasty, self-important haters who have nothing better to do than to attack/belittle everything I do, believe, and say. I've run into a lot of them over the past year. Granted, I'm responsible for that to some extent, because I'm tolerant to a fault. But no more. There's a new sheriff in town, and if you act like an asshole, and/or act like an asshole to people I care about, please do not expect me to keep talking to you. I don't care how long we've known each other, or how important you think you are, that rule applies to everyone.

(Oh, and then there's the random no-name people who email me asking if I will write their incredibly fascinating life story for them at no charge, sign over the copyright, and let them keep all the millions of dollars it will surely make for themselves. Gotta love them. NOT.)


Sunday, October 30, 2011

NaNoWriMo Tips

November is National Novel Writing Month (and National Play Writing Month too). Since I've written almost 20 novels (most of which are published, though I've still got a couple of failures in the drawer too), not to mention a buttload of plays, this time of year I always get hounded by people who want to know how they can write a novel or a full-length play in a month. Mind you, these are people who are not writers----in fact, they often can't even claim to be wannabe writers.

Nine times out of ten, those same people are not even remotely serious about getting started in the novel-writing process, and the ones that do start often do not finish. (And we're not even getting into their success rates on publication, which are even lower.) So, suffice to say that I am generally pretty cynical when these Johnny-come-latelies interrupt my very limited free time asking for writing advice.

To bypass that, I've come up with a list of 10 tips. So, read these tips, and don't bug me for free advice. TYVM.

1) Write every day for at least 2 hours. Bare minimum. No excuses. And that means EVERY SINGLE DAY, including holidays and weekends. You need to get down at least 1700 words per day for 30 days to have a 50,000 word manuscript (which might be a piece of crap, but at least it's something). Ditto for a play. So get cracking.

2) Don't bother with a bunch of writing "exercises" like outlines or brainstorms or character profiles. That kind of garbage is just stupid busy-work invented by bad writing teachers. Just write the damn novel (or play, or whatever). You can always go back and revise a first draft, but without an actual first draft, you've got jack nada.

3) Don't quit your day job. Unless you already write for a living (and I highly doubt it), do not expect your as-yet-unfinished novel or play to start paying your bills for you.

4) Don't expect to get published. It is very, very, very hard to get published. (Self-publishing and vanity publishing don't count). The brutal truth is, the vast majority of first novels do not get published. Your first completed novel is really more of a training exercise that helps you learn how to write a novel. (Mine was.) Oftentimes, the "first" novels of published authors were in fact the third or fourth (or more) novels they actually finished. (The same goes for plays----don't expect your first play to get produced.) Mind you, I've had dozens of my plays produced and published, and I've still got a ton that I can't even give away---and just FYI, the new play market is worse than the novel market, and it's getting worse every year.

5) Be prepared to give up most of your leisure activities. That means turn off the TV, stop playing World of Warcraft, stop screwing around online, stop going to parties, stop gossiping on the phone, and sign out of Facebook. All of it. That book isn't gonna write itself. If you're not willing to do all of that, then you should probably quit right now.

6) Don't bother me. I am a full-time professional freelance writer with bills to pay and deadlines to meet, I don't have time to answer a bazillion stupid writing questions from strangers (or even friends that I know aren't serious about writing). If I choose out of the kindness of my heart to give you some of my time and expertise, please appreciate it.

7) You are not God's gift to literature. If you've never written a book or play before, then this should be obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people think the exact opposite.

8) No publisher is going to show any interest in an unfinished novel manuscript. So stop reading my blog and finish it! And the market for unfinished (or even finished) plays is approximately equal to the market for used belly lint, so keep your expectations well in line with that.

9) Do not ask me to introduce you to my agent and/or publisher, because I won't. This would be in line with Tip No. 7, but given how many audacious people have asked me to do this, it merits its own tip. (And the one time I did it, I got totally burned, so I will never do it again).

10) Don't say that you "don't have time" to write. I am sick to death of hearing from people with half-finished manuscripts who complain that they would like to finish them, but they "don't have time." Bullshit. You have the same number of hours in the day as allotted to Ghandi, Voltaire, Gore Vidal, J.K. Rowling, and Jesus Christ, and look what they managed to do with it. So, stop making a bunch of bullshit lazy excuses and go write.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pasteups, Part Deux

These days the closest thing I get to doing a pasteup is linking my latest articles to my portfolio page on my professional website. I always put it off because it's a pain in the ass, but it's a necessary pain in the ass since as a freelance journalist, you're only as good as your latest article. I have a bunch more articles to post this weekend, it's on my list of (procrastination) things to do this weekend, along with some PR copywriting work I'm not in the mood to do right now.

Since I'm waxing philosophical anyway, allow me to continue my post from yesterday about writing for yourself versus writing for an audience. We've already established that amateurs write for themselves and pros write for others. But what happens when a pro gets stuck in a self-involved rut and can't see the forest for the trees? Well, I've got an anecdote to share.

A former coworker and acquaintance of mine wrote and published about 30 pulp sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels (think Conan the Barbarian type stuff) in the 70s and early/mid 80s. Although he never made enough money to give up his editing day job entirely, he did quite well and had an international readership for those books. At one point, he even had the same agent as Stephen King. (No joke). Then, in the late 80s the market changed and nobody wanted to read those kinds of books anymore. Readers' tastes' changed, and the market changed with it.

But instead of exploring new things to write about (which is how any writer grows professionally), my acquaintance just kept writing the same damn book over and over again. Small wonder his novel-writing career was dead in the water. His agent dropped him, his publisher killed the rest of his contract, and he couldn't even give his work away.

And so it went for him for about 25 years. He stopped writing altogether because he was bitter. Then he started writing again, but he was still covering all the same old ground. He went the self-publishing route, at great expense to himself and his family. He reached out and mentored younger writers like me (and since he'd been tutored himself by the great Leigh Brackett, I appreciated that---for a while anyway), but his own career still went---you guessed it, nowhere.

Still, I liked the guy. He was smart and funny and knew a lot about books and movies, so he was fun to chat with, and his much-younger wife had a child about my son's age. We would hang out sometimes. Then we got the idea to have a monthly writers' group meeting, where he, I, and one of his hanger-on friends who also wrote on the side would discuss our work.

I went to a few of those meetings, but pretty soon figured out they were a waste of time. First of all, this guy's writer friend was completely self-absorbed, not to mention kind of creepy (he once threatened bodily harm on me for disagreeing with him on something), and second of all, we didn't really talk about writing or discuss each other's work. Mostly the two men talked about old movies, with smatterings of sex and booze and assorted other misogynistic topics, and then they'd switch gears to talking about all the self-publishing projects they had going. They were "investing" thousands of dollars of their own money into vanity-press contracts, not to mention slick, expensively produced book trailers, going so far as to hire professional actors to appear in them. (And neither of them could really afford to be doing that, either).

They would insist doing this was the "wave of the future" of publishing, and neither of them wanted to hear much about how I had managed to land multiple book contracts that paid ME advances and royalties instead of the other way around. Not to mention that I earned a steady full-time living as a journalist. No, neither of them wanted to hear anything about how I'd accomplished that. No, they just wanted to talk about how cool they thought their new characters and plots were and how much fun they were having writing them. But there was still plenty of complaining from the both of them about how they weren't making a living as writers and how they thought the whole publishing system was bogus, and people were stupid not to want to buy pulp sword and sorcery books anymore.

The one time I brought up to them that they were not succeeding as writers because they were thinking too much about themselves and not about readers, well, I didn't get a good reaction.

So, suffice to say I ended that friendship. But I learned a great deal from it nonetheless. And I'll leave you with this. Yesterday I got copyedits back from my editor on two articles I wrote about mental illness in the United States. My editor said,"Wow, these were great pieces! Really made me think, and even made me outraged. I can tell you're really passionate about this topic."

And it's true, I am very passionate about it. I have multiple family members who struggle with mental illness so it's a topic close to my heart. I told her that, and also said that I try to do my part as a journalist to keep people informed about it. She replied, "Wow, that's great. By the way, my grandfather committed suicide, I wish we could have gotten him some help. It's nice to see journalists like you take that topic on."

And that, my friends, is what makes my job worth doing. I don't write for myself, you see. I write for others. Peace.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I don't blog these days as much as I "micro-blog" on Facebook, but I try to post longer, more thought-out posts here. Still, today I'm sort of cheating since this post is more of a compilation of some recent Facebook conversations.

I've been working some long hours writing-wise, with lots of deadlines and competing projects. I just landed a new long-term freelance client, just upped my monthly article load, and also spent about a month and a half on an intensive edit of my latest novel release, which was especially arduous. (But in a good way, since I made that editor very happy and she's made it clear she wants to buy more of my books so she can keep working with me. Always a bonus.)

One thing that a lot of aspiring writers (and even some writing teachers) will tell you is that you should always write "for yourself first." Which has got to be the worst piece of writing advice ever, especially from a career perspective. If you really want to make writing your full-time paying career, you have to learn to write chiefly for OTHER PEOPLE. (In other words, readers.) If you want to get paid for writing, you have to be able to write something other people are willing to pay for. Unless, of course, you're planning on just paying yourself all the time, and that's not a good career strategy unless you're a billionaire.

If you want other people to pay you for the privilege of reading your work, then it helps if you actually have some idea what other people want to read. How do you do that? Well, you could probably start by reading everything you can get your hands on. Newspapers (online or print), magazines (online or print), books (print or digital). Go to the bookstore, or the book section of WalMart or Target and see what's on the shelves. Go to your library and ask the librarians what books are most popular with patrons. Read, read, read. Think about what you yourself like to read and what kinds of writing you plunk down your own hard-earned money to purchase. Then apply that to your writing. Always write with an audience in mind.

There is a certain amount of selflessness involved in writing for a living. Only amateurs write "for themselves." (If you write only for yourself, you'll likely have an audience consisting only of yourself.) Pros write for others.

An old friend of mine and I had a Facebook conversation the other day about when she used to work for a print magazine in the old days of paste-ups and column typesetters. She said, "We had a group of heavyset older ladies who would typeset out and paste up everything into columns [ahead of printing.] Boy, you did NOT want to piss off those ladies with last-minute changes!"

Publishing used to be a lot more labor-intensive than it is now. The digital age has removed a lot of the barriers to writing for an audience by taking a lot of the physical work of publishing out of the equation. But that's not necessarily a good thing. As my old friend pointed out, in the old days you thought a lot more about how what you did affected other people in the publishing queue. Maybe we need to go back to that a little, because too many people these days think only about themselves when it comes to their writing, and not about others. And they wonder why they don't have an audience.

More on this topic tomorrow. Peace.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Recession? What recession?

I've been plugging away at this self-employed freelance writer thing for a few years now, and I'm proud to say that I'm now very, very successful at it. Almost too successful, in fact. Because I now have so much good-paying work being offered to me by many different clients that I've spent the past 2 weeks working 12-18 hour days. Not to mention proofing galleys and audiobooks for my published novels on tight deadlines for my book editors. It's grueling, but rewarding. And not just financially. Having people come out of the woodwork completely unsolicited offering you good money to write for them sure is a confidence booster.

It's odd, though. Even though I'm thankful for the success, in today's troubled economic times I can't help but feel a little guilty to be doing so well. (Especially when I was struggling myself not that long ago.) I know lots of unemployed writers, many of them former newspaper reporters and magazine/book editors who've lost their jobs in publishing, some of whom had been working as professional writers for 30 years or more and now don't know where their next meals are coming from. Plus there are tons more writers who struggle to write on the side while working day jobs they hate (if they're lucky enough to have day jobs at all), and they seldom make more than the price of a Chinese dinner for their writing---if even that much. But for me, this year has been a banquet, and it keeps getting better and better.

But then again, it kind of follows my longstanding pattern of going against the grain in life. In the late 90s, when the economy was on a tear and people all around me were making money hand over fist, I was barely getting by. I worked staff writer/editor jobs that paid a pittance when I was lucky, and waited tables/worked in retail when I wasn't so lucky (staff writer/editor jobs are the last hired and first fired even in good times). I did freelance writing on the side, contributing articles to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, and numerous magazines, but the pay for that was low and intermittent, though it helped me build a nice portfolio of clips. Plus I was living in a big expensive city, I was single, I had massive student loan debt (now mostly paid off) and a low/mostly unstable income. I had friends from grad school who had originally aspired to be writers choose different careers because they didn't want to live hand to mouth; they made more money than I did but weren't necessarily happier. But I wanted to be a writer, dammit, and I swore I'd never give up the dream. Seventeen years later, I still haven't, and now I'm the envy of many of those friends.

But I'm still not satisfied. I won't be until I have a book on the New York Times Bestseller list. Then two. Then four. Then all of them made into films. Then, I want my ultimate childhood fantasy fulfilled----I want one of my plays to get a successful run on Broadway, preferably to include a Tony (maybe even a Pulitzer, but one thing at a time).

Okay, okay, maybe I'm getting carried away now. But the thing is, even though this recession and job market are brutal for a lot of people, I'm doing better professionally now than I've ever done in my entire life. I'm thankful for it, I appreciate it. And I'll keep right on working my ass off. I've only been doing it for seventeen years now.

Gotta go, deadlines await.


Monday, August 15, 2011

A Grownup's Guide to Inner Peace

Lately I've been reflecting a lot on my own life choices, as well as the life choices of some of my friends and family. The old saying "the grass is always greener" is true---to a point. While I have single friends and family who have zero responsibilities and the freedom to gallivant all over the country and world at a moment's notice doing all sorts of crazy, glamorous things (and sometimes, I have to admit, I find myself envious of them even though I lead a very full life myself), I honestly would not trade places with them. Why?

Because in most cases, these are people who are older than me (sometimes MUCH older) but still don't have their "real" lives together yet. As in, no stable relationships (and/or multiple broken ones/divorces), blah-blah careers, no family or dependents, sometimes even no real financial stability. They spend their time jumping from one glamorous "adventure" to the next, jam-packing their schedules with every thrill-seeking activity they can possibly think of, without ever once stopping to notice what they're really doing is hiding from themselves. I can certainly understand the need to stay busy, since keeping busy is something that I do to address my tendency to get depressed if I don't. But there's a very big difference between finding productive things to do and running around like a chicken with your head cut off.

One thing I've learned as a Buddhist is to place a lot of value in keeping still. We all lead crazy lives, but at some point, we all have to slow down, sit down, and listen to ourselves, or we'll lose touch of who and what we really are. Not only that, a big part of being truly happy is serving something (and someone) other than yourself. Part of what it means to be a grownup is to consider yourself part of something larger than just your own needs and wants---whether that's a long-term relationship, a family, or even just your community. That can be hard to do when all you're doing is chasing the next thrill.

I can understand the appeal of the thrill-seeking life, since I spent the better part of my 20s pursuing it myself. But I also spent the better part of my 20s as a miserable emotional wreck who was full of anger and self-loathing. It wasn't until I slowed down and spent some serious time doing nothing but the basics of existence that I really figured myself out. All those years I spent travelling (I still travel, I just do it for the right reasons), jumping from one project/interest to the next, bed-hopping with umpteen-million boyfriends and casual one-night-stands did nothing for my self-esteem or for my character. Sure, they've given me some good stories to tell at cocktail parties, but that didn't make me me.

People often justify their crazy, impermanent, never-stop-to-smell-the-roses lives as "ways to find themselves." But that's not it at all. Really, what they're doing is running away from themselves. I know, because I've done it. All it got me was a major crash-and-burn in which every aspect of my life----personal, financial, spiritual, emotional----literally fell apart around me, and I was left with nothing.

How did I right my ship when that happened? (It happened about 10 years ago). I just stopped. I totally rebuilt my life from the ground up, and I did it by chucking all extraneous activities (other than work, exercise, and sleep) in favor of meditation. Seriously, I did that for almost an entire year. It worked. Within a year of doing that, I found myself married, with a good job, owning a home, and with a career that was going places.

Do yourself a favor. This week, get out your crazy-busy schedule, look it over, and then DELETE everything on it for at least one day. Or even a half-day if that's all you can do. Go out and sit on your porch or in the park or in a field and do nothing but just think, and breathe, and meditate (or pray, if that's your thing). Really take a hard look at yourself and your life, but don't attach any feeling or judgment to what you find. You might find yourself a little freaked out by what pops into your head while you do this. Be prepared to get upset, angry, maybe even cry a little. But it's worth it in the long run. When you're forced to look hard at yourself, you learn two things. One, that your own life really isn't all that important in the big context of the world, and two, that it's the people around you that really matter most. That doesn't mean you have to start sacrificing your own happiness, though. What you'll often find is, if you're where you should be, your happiness will just be there regardless of what you're doing or who you're with.

Easier said than done, I know. But you can start by inquiring within. And it sometimes it takes a major slowdown in order to speed yourself up for good.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Writer's Conundrum

You know what's great about being a successful writer/artist? You see and feel things that others don't, and when you express what you see and feel, people pay attention.

But you know what's also really bad about being a successful writer/artist? You see and feel things that others don't, and when you express what you see and feel, people pay attention.