On Late Nights and Writing Prompts

When I first began to write with the intent of someday being a professional writer, I went to a lot of creative writing classes. But after a while, they became less exhilarating for me and I found myself learning less and less. Then, I decided to take the matters into my own hands and for a while, I was writing tons of pages during late nights, honing my craft, and trying to improve myself as a writer.

I was writing for a magazine for a while, and my editor was very helpful and always trying to steer me in the right direction with my writing. She gave me an idea to try writing prompts on the internet. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical at first. I was used to being given assignments and homework whether by her or by my creative writing professors, so you can imagine my suspicion. Who was going to review these, and how would I know if they were any good?

My editor told me that that was precisely the challenge she wanted me to face. She said she wanted me to learn to grow on my own, to be more critical of my own work, and try to be objective. I was slightly offended by this. Did she mean that I was too dependent on her as a mentor? I could only guess…

But, I did listen to her. By then I was working independently so I had more free time. I started following the writing prompts and writing every night for two hours. Soon, it became a beloved routine and the hours grew. Sometimes I wouldn’t even look at my automatic wrist watch until way past midnight. I even started pouring myself a whiskey or two every night, just to get the juices flowing… I felt like Hemingway, haha! Those were some good times.

What was challenging was when I had to read back my work, because, on the advice of my former editor, I didn’t edit as I went, but came back to it only after I finished the piece. At first, everything I wrote seemed perfect to me. I started submitting to various literary magazines and publications and then wondered why I got rejected.

My confidence waned. I couldn’t figure it out. But after numerous re-readings, I slowly started realizing that I probably needed to start identifying the parts that need improvement, instead of only the good ones. And I’m still working on that.

Turn Anything into a Story

As a writer, I look for inspiration in every corner. Almost anything can be turned into a story, even the most mundane circumstance. For example, let me recount a recent occurrence at home. I am challenging myself to turn it into something interesting for my readers. It will boost my reputation while serving as an example to the world of the power of words. I am using this blog to practice my craft in the hopes of building a following. Stay with me and let me know if I succeed. It may be an ambitious goal, but if I become a better author, it will be well worth the risk.

Now back to the mishap at home. Here is what happened. I was about to get into my car to run an errand. I walked into the garage and was soon wading in a few inches of mysterious, swirling water. Where on earth did it come from was my immediate reaction. While I wanted to mop it up, I first sought the source to turn it off. I checked the garden hose and utility sink faucet: both showed no signs of tampering. But it had to be something! Could a neighbor kid be playing a prank, first running the water, then turning it off after flooding the garage floor?

I pondered the problem for a while before coming to my senses. What else contained water on the premises? I ran through a list of things with taps or faucets and nothing made sense. I was getting pretty angry and ready to call the plumber. I held back for a short moment until I realized the culprit. My water heater is housed in a cupboard in the garage and I ran to open the door. It stuck at first as I hadn’t taken a peak in years, since its installation no doubt. How many years has it been?

There it was! A stream of water leaking from the old tank wreaking havoc on the cement floor before running out into the street. Who knew so much water was in one tank? It was practically empty at this point. Yes, I would have to call the plumber, but it was surely too late for him to stem the tide of destruction. Some of my stored clothing was already wet. Fortunately, my sports gear is waterproof. The plumber was prompt and pointed out the obvious. I would have to get a new unit.

Agh! Money out the door. We talked a while and he suggested a tankless model from https://tanklesscenter.net/gas-water-heaters/ as a leakage is less likely to happen and my concerns would be laid to rest for a long time. This was an easy decision and in a few days’ time, the new water heater was officially ensconced. All traces of water were gone. Only the wet clothing set out to dry was evidence of the “accident.”

as a leakage is less likely to happen and my concerns would be laid to rest for a long time. This was an easy decision and in a few days’ time, the new water heater was officially ensconced. All traces of water were gone. Only the wet clothing set out to dry was evidence of the “accident.”

Editors and The Dreaded Red Pen

On the whole, I have been lucky in my writing career. I’ve had good experiences with editors. We usually have the same goal in mind: making my writing sound the best it possibly can. It’s hard not to like someone whose whole goal improves your professionalism. For my part, I try to give the editors little to do in that regard. I take it as a point of pride to have as much of my own words published in their original state as possible.

The good editors I have worked with have been as talented as wizards. They wave those red pens (or the modern equivalent, the “track changes” setting) and poof – my writing is mine, but better. They know how to take sentences that I struggled with and are awkwardly worded and make them flow better. They can take something verbose or which takes up too much space and make it concise and more clear. Working with a good editor feels a bit like give-and-take. They make suggestions and tweaks, and I go back and make them – or explain why they’re missing the point. I resubmit my piece and that’s that.

Sometimes, though, I don’t get that back and forth collaboration. There have been times (and it happens much more frequently on websites than other media) when I submit something that I consider a great piece and it is accepted. Then, even though it was good enough to be accepted, it gets hacked up and worked to death without so much as a head’s up email to me. I check out the site or the publication on the release date they gave me and I barely recognize what I submitted.

If my name is not attached to the piece, it is a little easier to accept – I can walk away from it and pretend I had nothing to do with it. When my name is included, though, excessive changes can be hard to swallow. I take a lot of pride in my work. It can be hard to read things that have slaughtered to pieces or Frankensteined together into something that I would never have put my name on. I would much rather be given a second chance to make the corrections on my own and work in the suggestions in a way that sounds like my voice.

The worst editors are the ones that are not really editors. They act like writers, and they go through and change things just to change them. Maybe it is so they can say they did something. Maybe it makes them feel better about something in their own lives. Some of them probably just like wielding the power of that red pen.

I understand that editors are only doing their job, and they’re often working from special (or proprietary) guidelines that I don’t have. I also understand that the changes they make are never personal. I also know that turnaround times don’t always allow for writers to do second drafts, nor do editors always have the chance to even let writers know about changes before they have to publish things. That does not always take the sting out of their rewrites, though.

What’s your take on editors? Have you come across any overzealous ones, or any that have been amazing?

Writing Contests

I enter a lot of writing contests. Some of them are just for fun, some are for publicity or experience purposes, and others are for the challenge. Whether it is a writing prompt, a topic, or even a required style, writing contests can be a surefire way to beat writer’s block. The prizes certainly help in that regard, too!

Although I will write and rewrite until I feel my submission is as polished as possible, I don’t actually expect to win. For me, it feels a lot like buying a lottery ticket. My odds are about as good as anybody else who enters the contest, sure. Maybe a little better, as I’d like to think not all of the submissions will meet the requirements and that others are low quality. I’m too much of a realist to assume I’ll win. Contests I find on the internet probably have thousands of submissions, especially if the winner is published on a well-known website or in print. Even more submissions are likely when there is a monetary prize as well.

Some contests are best to avoid, even if they have great prizes to be won. The best way to learn which ones you should dismiss is by reading the fine print. It might sound like a lot of legal language and mostly appear to be nonsense, but there are a few key phrases to look for. The wording might be different depending on the publisher, but the gist is always the same. It has to do with ownership.

Some places feel that once you submit a piece to them, they have the rights to it – even if you don’t win. That may not be a deal-breaker for you, but it does change a couple of things. For one, you can’t submit that piece to any other competitions. If you write something specific for that contest, that might be OK with you. But you should know that it means it can’t be published by you or anybody else, ever. The part that really bothers me about this caveat, and why I feel the need to mention it, has a much more serious consequence than your work never seeing the light of day. Some places believe that because they own the piece, they can publish it at any time. And, while that could be a good thing for you in a variety of circumstances, it is possible that it will look and feel a lot more like theft. Depending on what that fine print says, they might not even need to let you know, give you credit, or compensate you in any way. So do yourself a favor and read the fine print to be sure you know what you are getting into.

If you’re going to enter a competition, go for it. Be realistic about your chances of winning and don’t count your winnings before you get your congratulations letter. Also be sure to protect yourself and your work by reading the fine print about the contest. If you’re not sure who will retain the rights to your submission, email or call to find out.

Good luck!

Internet Presence Matters

Being a writer nowadays is much different than when guys like Mark Twain were getting paid by the word for serial novels. Now you almost have to be somebody already to rise above the noise and get some attention. The best way to do that is to create a good internet presence for yourself and stay active on social media.

There are sites that will not accept you as a contributor unless you have some sort of social media presence. You are expected to respond to comments and promote your posts online. Some places won’t even consider you unless you have a decent amount of followers. That always felt strange to me because having followers doesn’t necessarily correlate to how well you can write. However, if clicks are the only way sites make money, they are better off hiring people who will bring people in right off the bat.

Everyone has heard stories about writers getting lots of rejection letters before their big break, but the internet levels the playing field a little. It gives writers more of a chance to reach an audience. A perfect example of an author getting their big break through the power of the internet is Andy Weir. He got rejected by agents, so he started publishing his book a chapter at a time on his website. People would give him feedback – mostly scientists making suggestions or correcting factual errors – and he would make the corrections. To appease readers, he compiled the book and published it as an ebook. It was, if you can believe it, only .99 cents. It made Amazon’s Science Fiction best seller list, and from there it was picked up by a publishing company. After that, it won awards and was made into a film with big names like Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Peña. All that happened because Andy Weir had access to the internet.

What I’m saying is that as a writer in the modern world, it is key to have an active social media presence. You need to produce content regularly to keep yourself relevant and fresh in peoples’ feeds. An easy way to do that is to post on a blog or add pictures on Instagram. Be sure to respond to comments and inquiries. If you are concerned about privacy, you can have more than one account – one that lets you post more personal things and one that you have open for public viewing and commenting.

In order to have a good social media presence, think like the big guys. You want to have a website that is easy to find, so learn some SEO tricks to be sure that your site ranks high and is obvious in internet searches. You should also select a domain name that is easy to remember and makes sense. Your name makes a perfect internet address. Follow other writers with large followings and comment on their sites. Interact on forums, or share/retweet things that you are interested in to draw attention to your own site.

If you need more help, there are books and websites out there to give you more detailed instructions. Or you can message me in the comments and I will get back to you.

Another Rejection Letter

I get up an hour earlier than I need to get ready for work every morning to do internet searches. I find different sites that are looking for submissions, contributors, or various writing competitions. I’ll make note of deadlines, submission guidelines and where I need to send my writing samples. I’ve been doing this for a couple of months now and I’m getting pretty good at finding places looking for new talent.

But today, I was checking my email and there was a rejection letter for one of the competitions I had entered. I’ve gotten a lot of rejection letters at this point. And while any rejection stings, I have found that the more often you are rejected, the more you realize it is not personal. It takes a bit of the edge off to know that it is not a rejection of me, just something I wrote. It’s part of the job, I think. Sometimes things are just not a good fit and that is OK. Not everyone is going to like everything I write, and that is something I have to accept.

If rejection got to me, I’d never submit anything and nothing I wrote would ever see the light of day. Instead, I tell myself that old writer’s mantra: one more no is that much closer to a yes. I will just keep sending out my stuff and putting my name out there. On an average week, I might send out four pieces – that means I end out about 16 pieces a month. Of those 16, I’d say two or three a month land in publications or online and the rest are some version of the phrase, “Thanks but no thanks.”

This particular rejection was rough because it had been a personal topic and I’d spend a long time making sure I had everything exactly the way I wanted it. I thought it met their criteria perfectly and was looking forward to hearing what they thought. Unfortunately what I received was just a standard rejection form letter. I don’t like those. I prefer to be rejected by a real person who gives me some insight into the thought process behind the rejection. Sometimes they will offer some constructive criticism so that I can take something positive away from the experience, and sometimes I’ll receive a little better insight into exactly what they’re looking for. But when it’s just a quick message that says, “Sorry, not at this time,” there isn’t a whole lot that can be done. I don’t know if they liked the piece and there were other, better submissions, if it really just wasn’t a good time and I should try again at a later date, or if they hated it.

Most authors spend years getting rejected before they find the right agent or the right publishing house. Things take time, and who knows will happen. You just have to keep putting your work out there. Anything can be a learning experience. It is my job as a writer to take experiences like that and use those to fuel my writing and turn them into something that people will want to read or learn something from.

Stuck in the Research Phase

I have to write a history piece about World War II for a website. I’m excited because it is a topic I I am really interested in. Also, it is my first piece for them and I really want to do a good job – it is a nice paycheck and I’d like to keep writing for the site. I am hopeful that a well-written piece now will help me get some repeat business from them.

However, I’ve got a problem: I’m stuck in the research phase and my deadline is quickly approaching. My goal, as always, is to write something well-researched and insightful. The well-researched part is not going to be an issue. In fact, there is a wealth of material on the war – documentaries, newspaper pieces from around the world, books, diaries, letters, and interviews. I’ve essentially been overwhelmed by the amount of information available.

For example, I was going through articles last night to create a timeline for what I needed. I plan to use the timeline to guide me through the topics I have to hit as per the guidelines. Plotting out the information led me to some specific divisions that fought in the battles along that line. That somehow led to me staying up all night reading a book about the 101st Airborne. The book was really good and I enjoyed every moment of reading it. However, it wasn’t the most helpful as far as getting the timeline done, nor was this division part of the assignment I am being paid for.

I am not really sure how to approach this piece so I just keep poking around and gathering information. Because I’m writing about something that has been covered in just about every manner possible, it’s hard to find a way to contribute. I want to put my information together in a way that is slightly different than what is already out there, making it worthwhile for people to read whether they are history buffs and know a lot about the subject already or are neophytes looking for specific information. I am finding that to be a bit of a challenge, to be sure. What can I say that hasn’t been said before about a war that ended long before I was even born? I don’t know, but I have to try.

At this point, I’ve got notes upon notes upon notes. If I kept everything tacked up on my walls and not in my notebooks, my place would look just like those obsessive murderers’ apartments you see on tv – covered floor to ceiling with newspaper pieces, photos, and maps.  I know I just have to put everything down and start writing. Not on this blog, either, but on the actual piece I’m being paid to write. I’m going to give it another go. Wish me luck.