Monday, October 18, 2010

Sending It Out

The past two months, Barton and I have been sending out proposals- a major one each week. We have dedicated Fridays as our day, and while we may schedule one or two meetings, carving out time has been essential to work on some of the larger projects together. These proposals have been everything from contract proposals, grant applications, a book proposal and scholarships. 

What I have found over the last two months is a transformative shift. I have found myself excited and motivated to be working on some of these larger projects. While normally I am a little anxious and tend to put a great deal of emotional weight into a proposal, I have been able to let go of the outcome, have fun writing on these projects and spending time working with Barton. Together, we’ve seen each other get excited about different aspects of a particular project, which has then motivated the other.

We don’t know any of the outcomes of our efforts yet, and that’s okay. There is a movement forward, and we know that just in going through the process of sending material out, there is a great deal of vision, learning, and exploration with new aspects of our work.

This has given me the freedom to be creative, find a belief in my work that is not attached to being accepted by a third party, and discover new areas of work. As a writer, it’s important to me to come back to writing, to come back to my vision. Even if the work isn’t ready or isn’t accepted, it’s important to discover the joy in the process itself.

As writer’s, when we put work out there, people will have an opinion. Of course we want people to love our work or agree with our point of view, but that isn’t always the case. I discovered this when I wrote an article for the local newspaper about a website for stay-at-home fathers. What I didn’t know was that there was a behind-the-scenes issues between the father’s group and a similar group for mothers. Being able to come back to the writing and to the vision, helps me find my center when there are differing opinions or challenges that come up during the process.

How do you find your center? It may be in the time you write or the place, or journaling apart from other writing projects. Take the time to discover and nurture your vision. 

~Megan Cutter, 

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Writing Fast, and Well

In an ideal world, writers would have as long as it takes to finish a particular job. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world, so most of us have deadlines looming over our heads like editorial swords of Damocles.

In order to meet these deadlines, it's often necessary to write much faster than we would like. I speak from experience on this issue, having recently co-authored a book that required me to write several articles a day to stay on schedule. The articles weren't long -- just one or two pages each -- but there were a lot of them, and each required a bit of research. I quickly learned that I needed to add more hours to my workday in order to meet the mandated deadlines, so I started getting up an hour earlier, and working until around 9:30 each evening, including weekends. I didn't like it, but I did it, and I met all of my deadlines without difficulty.

This isn't the first time I've had to pound out the words to meet a deadline. Several years ago, Mark Cantrell and I wrote a 42,500-word book about the Columbia space shuttle disaster in just six days. (On the seventh day, we rested.) And previous to that, I wrote a 100,000-word book about World War II in nine weeks, at one point churning out 5,000 words a day. 

The fact is, a writer who can write quickly (and well) is an editor's dream, and thus a writer who likely will get a lot of work. It's not the ideal situation, but it happens often enough that any writer looking to make freelancing his or her career should come to accept it as an inescapable part of the job. More times than not, time isn't a luxury we can afford.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should accept every assignment that crosses your desk, regardless of deadline. If you know in your heart that you don't have enough time to do a good job, you should decline and explain why. A smart editor will understand and not hold it against you. And if your editor DOES hold it against you, is that someone you really want to work for?

Beginning freelancers often take an excruciatingly long time with their first assignments because they want to do as good a job as they possibly can. That's commendable, but unrealistic. Bottom line: finished is better than perfect. Especially when a tight deadline looms.

-- Don Vaughan

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Case Against Blogs

I hate blogs. Hate is a strong word, so let me explain. To put it more clearly, I have mixed feelings about blogs. In this overexposed and conformist world we live in, it’s just a tad conceited to think that everyone in the world is interested in every whit and tittle of every suburban mom’s (or dad’s or _________’s, insert noun here) mundane details of daily life.

I am also a bit perturbed that the maintenance of a blog/website/Twitter feed entitles the small-minded and willfully ignorant to proclaim themselves as authorities on the world at large, a là Fox News-style (on second thought, all their commentators are paid outrageous bucks to spar with other blowhards and simply express their opinions-maybe I need to ring them up to find out their secret). The self-absorption and selfishness of current society has allowed any and everyone to become “authorities” on whatever topic, political ideology, or economic policy seen fit. Some writers are bloggers but not all bloggers are writers but this crucial distinction is lost on the general public.

I was fortunate enough to graduate from my local school system (the largest county-wide system in central North Carolina-I won’t name names but you know who you are) before the current political uproar exploded. Back then, grammar and fundamental English skills actually seemed to count for something, and young people of varied socioeconomic backgrounds had a chance to interact with each other and get a taste of “how the other half lives”, for better or for worse. Okay, I went “political” on you when I said that was the very thing I hated. My point is that US society is inundated with singular material and commercial interests and that our so-called “celebrity” culture is slowing destroying us.

Back to blogs. Yes, I am a proud mother who delights in every coo, every squeal, every giggle of delight and wonder of my young children but I am loath to participate in a forum open for emotional rants, heated political discussions, or, worse still, exaggerated portrayals of modern life for expressly commercial purposes,  like a book deal or movie rights. Excuse me, but wasn’t Eat Pray Love intended to chronicle  a thirty-something woman’s journey to self-discovery? The objective was lost on me when I learned there was a  perfume coming out by the same name. This ethereal expedition has turned into a franchise. Some spiritual discovery.

To be fair, I do read  some blogs, specifically the “mommy” kind, some of which I find cute, amusing, and reminiscent of my own life. Truth be told, if I started a blog, it would primarily concern “mommy” topics because that is where I am in life right now. But this new venture creates its own special quandary: If I started one, when would it end? When Mom gets tired of posting? After the children’s high school graduations? How much to reveal? How little? If spiced with too much detail, you turn into the  overexposed, ubiquitous internet “celebrity” that  people get tired of hearing about. If too dull, no one will be interested and will move on to the next flavor of the month. Say it’s a hit and you develop a following. If you get fed up, want your life back, and decide to pull the cyberplug, your loyal followers will be sorely disappointed.

So why am I considering joining the fray?

If I were to start a blog, I should hope it would be a lighthearted look at modern family life to capture my children’s fleeting childhoods, without ulterior motives. My desire would be to inspire moms, and families in general, to enjoy their children, remember what’s important in life, and to make the most of their time in this fragile and short life we are given.

So, will I start one?
I’ll keep you posted.

Tracy Capella is a mom and occasional freelance writer living in North Carolina.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Not for the Timid

    The meek may inherit the earth, but they make lousy freelance writers.
    With more than 30 years of professional writing experience under my belt – nearly 20 of them as a full-time freelancer – I’ve found that it takes a strong personality to be a successful journalist. Bottom line: you’ve got to take and maintain control over every aspect of your career. Let’s break it down:
    1. Getting work. Landing an assignment with a new market is exciting, but what do you do for an encore? Upon completing that first assignment, the aggressive writer (and I’m using the word “aggressive” here in the best possible context) will immediately follow up with another strong proposal. He doesn’t wait for feedback or accolades – he forges ahead, confident that he has the editor’s eye.
    Equally important is keeping your name on an editor’s short list of contributors after you’ve established a relationship. “Out of sight, out of mind” is a common phenomenon within publishing, so I make sure to let editors with whom I’ve worked in the past know of my availability on a regular basis, even if I don’t have anything to pitch to them. It takes only a few seconds to send a reminder e-mail – “I just wanted to let you know that I’m available if you have any assignments in need of a writer” – and the results can be spectacular. I’ve received many, many assignments from editors who just happened to have such a need when they received my note.
    2.  Working with editors. The writer/editor relationship is unique, and takes a while to gel. You should always be professional and polite when dealing with editors, but that doesn’t mean you should let them walk all over you or do nasty things to your work. When things go wrong, it’s important that you take the initiative in correcting the problem because, quite frankly, no one is going to stand up for you except you.
    Only once in my career have I walked away from a magazine because I couldn’t stand my editor (thankfully, that editor left soon after, and I quickly returned to the publication in good stead) and I’m happy to report that the vast majority of editors with whom I’ve worked have been wonderful people who respected my opinion and my work. Occasionally, however, problems have popped up that have required me to file a verbal complaint. The meek writer might let the problem go, fearful of rocking the boat, but the aggressive writer will stand up for himself and make sure it is either corrected or will not happen again. After all, this is your career we’re talking about. Defend it – politely and professionally, of course.
    3. Sources and interviews. It’s here, especially, that a strong personality is a necessity. Finding sources sometimes means calling people cold, which may mean rejection – something the meek writer will try to avoid. The aggressive writer, however, doesn’t give up until he gets what he needs. As an example, I recently wrote an article about war correspondents for Military Officer Magazine. I had been trying without success to reach a reporter with the Washington Post, and was about to give up when one of that reporter’s colleagues at the New York Times told me, “Don’t hesitate to be a pain in the butt – that’s what she would do! You’re a journalist; she’ll understand.” And he was right. I called a few more times, finally reached her, and was ecstatic when she agreed to a telephone interview. The result was an article that made my editor very, very happy.
    It’s also important that you convey a strong, take-charge personality during interviews, whether in person or on the phone. If you come across as timid, it’s easy for a source to hijack the conversation and go wildly off topic. Always maintain control, and don’t hesitate to lead your source “back to the sidewalk” if he or she starts to wander. It’s easy to do: when they stop to take a breathe, leap in with, “That’s interesting, but I’d really like to ask you about...”
    Being aggressive does not mean you should act like a jerk. In fact, being obnoxious won’t land you more work, it’ll only damage the relationships you may already have. So play nice – just don’t be a wimp.
   -- Don Vaughan

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sitting Down to Write

One question that I get asked often is when is the best time to write- do you write 3-pages as soon as you get out of bed (The Artist’s Way Morning pages)? Do you write as if you were in a regular job 8am-5pm? Do you write even when you know it’s awful or only when you are inspired?

I’m not sure that there’s any one right answer to any of these questions, and since the beginning of the year I’ve been aware of my writing patterns. For me, 4:00-10:00am is definitely my best creative writing time. This is usually met with protests from my husband who hates it when he wakes up and I’m not there beside him.

I work better by deadlines and find it difficult to work on my own creative works before the daily grind/daily deadlines. I’ve been working to shift this so I work on one creative project at the beginning of the day. In the afternoon I lull, where something mindless like bills or paperwork, even though it’s morning, I can usually rumble through. And somewhere in the afternoon or evening I get a second wind.

The zone- the zone comes when I can put everything else aside, hide the to-do list, forget the deadlines and focus solely on the project. To me, this is where mission and vision come into play, and when I can let go of all the other nagging things to do, I can fully surrender myself to the purpose of the work. Even if the work seems mundane, the intention behind it is an important part of succeeding at completion or raising the bar of quality of work I can produce.

When we began our writing contracts, I used to take every single contract I could get my hands on, as we all do starting out, hungry for work. Even though it’s tougher, I know try only to work that I know I can fully stand behind because my commitment and value to the work will be even greater.

Forcing the words does not work for me. In the entire creative process, I have a long incubation period. I used to think this was procrastination, but I’ve noticed the differences of incubation/germination and actual procrastination, which usually involves picking housework over writing or working. The day before a deadline, I might be scrambling to get my notes together, but the actual writing comes without hesitation. I’ve learned that if I sit there and can only write three words in an hour, it is much better to stop, even if it means getting up early the next day.

How do you discover your best writing time? Become aware of your day! When do you feel the most energized, inspired, or motivated? When do you feel like pushing the button on the remote control is difficult? What environment makes you excited or deflates any life inside? Try to take those high-energy, inspirational moments and use them to your advantage and expand them.

And if nothing else, sit down to write!

Megan Cutter,