Saturday, October 4, 2014

Staying Fresh as a Writer

We’re working on monthly themes on The Prosers, and for October we’re talking about Writerly Education, or as I've titled it, Staying Fresh as a Writer.

For your visual enjoyment, here is a photo of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. Nom nom.

I’ve covered this topic in two ways before – once discussing writing workshops, and another time talking about getting unstuck/addressingwriter’s block.

Today I’ll take a different approach. One of the ways I’m trying to keep my overall writing skills fresh is by tackling non-fiction writing in addition to the fiction projects I have going.

Non-fiction writing is a different beast entirely, but I find a lot about what draws me to fiction, the process of unfolding a story, the beginning, middle, endness, etc. is applicable to non-fiction writing. I think my fiction experience makes me a better writer of all kinds of words, fiction or not. Ask yourself how many times you’ve forced yourself through an article you need to read for work or because it covers a topic you’re interested in, but find your mind wandering? What could the author have done to include more anecdotes, personal stories, or even introspection akin to that inner monologue that makes so many novels so interesting? Did the author have a clear sense of where their piece was going, and did he/she do the right things to bring the reader along on the journey?

Another aspect of non-fiction that is potentially of interest to writers is that there are many many markets for non-fiction writing, and most of them pay at least a little. The trend in non-fiction markets has been toward greater and greater use of freelancers over the last several years. This is a double-edged sword, as it means companies are trying to cut corners and pay less, offering no benefits to those who sweat words for the pages of their digital or physical copies.

But with the onset of “digital editions” of major newspapers and magazines, there are even more opportunities open for non-fiction writers. The online sites tend to pay less than print, but they often do pay. If you write fast and develop relationships with several editors, you can often cobble together a reasonable career out of freelance. Those who are open to corporate writing can find even more paycheck-enhancing work. The general feel in the non-fiction groups I operate in is that a combination of some corporate clients and some regular magazine or online site gigs plus some pitching to new markets is the best way to keep your portfolio diversified and to keep the paychecks coming in.

There’s an entire industry around pitching to non-fiction publications, including great coursework. I highly recommend the online class How To Pitch (which I would appreciate a mention if you sign up – I get a little bonus…) from The Thinking Writer, which is where I learned most of what I know about non-fiction writing.

And because there are more paying markets, while there is still plenty of rejection in the non-fiction space, there are occasional wins! I sold two articles this year (having pitched about 8.) I haven’t sold any short or long fiction in quite a while, though that’s also because I haven’t submitted any in quite a while. Still, my hit rate on fiction was never as high as 2 out of 8.

So from an ego perspective, non-fiction writing is a little easier on my poor bruised writer brain. I also find that there is much to be gained from the discipline of paying close attention to what I’m writing, going back through with a fine-toothed comb (much of the non-fiction I pitch is pre-written essays, though most pitches are done on a summary level.) Looking for mistakes. Fixing words. Focusing on the words I’m using to express my ideas. Being clear. These are skills that readily translate to my fiction writing.

This week I had a major hit when an article I pitched to theNew York Times’ The Motherlode column was bought. It was a timely piece about an internet brouhaha and the whole process took less than a day. I wrote a pitch (including the full article) in the morning, sent it to the editor by 11 AM, she called me at 3:45, a few edits and a signed contract later and it was live on the site before 6 PM. It was tremendously exciting and an excellent addition to my non-fiction portfolio.

They even used one of my photos of my daughter's lip glosses and lip scrubs, I'm famous in multi-media!

One big issue w/non-fiction work is the need to have clips to get clips. I suggest here that you choose a sample of some of your best writing that is readily available online, personal blogs or what have you, and write up an “about me” blurb that covers the basics of you (where you are, what your platform is, etc.) and include links to those few articles you think represent your best work. If you have any actual bylines, include those as well. I have one that’s uncredited, but it’s a piece I’m very proud of so I include it in my about me and reference it as uncredited. If you have a website, add a freelance page so that you have one place to direct potentially interested editors.

But most of all, what you’ll hear from writers of all stripes, is to keep writing!

How about you – have you dipped your toes in the non-fiction writing space beyond your personal or group blog? Have any niche interests you can exploit or that you love to talk about?  

1 comment:

  1. Heh, used to be that all I did at work was write non-fiction... though it was a vastly different kind than what you're talking about in this post. Still, I think the fact that I write scientific documents so often has made me shove non-fiction into the Yikes Work mental category. Which is probably unfair.


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