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Below are several archived tips from the “Communities & the Writing Life” category. Though some tips have been edited by the current guru, James Gapinski, most were created by past Life Tips gurus.
Choosing a Conference
Tip edited by James Gapinski
Choosing a conference is kind of like deciding where to go to college. Different ones are good for different reasons. There are big ones, like Breadloaf and Sewanee—if you go to these you'll definitely mix with some well-known writers, but you might find yourself swept up in some serious rump-smooching sessions. You can get a lot out of these big ones—like an agent, or a critique from a writer you respect. But if you shop around, you can find smaller, less pricey weekends with good writers running the workshops—without much hype. These conventions can be equally worthwhile, since you're there to become a better writer and make meaningful contacts—not to rub elbows.
Links to Literary Journals
This list from Poets and Writers is the most complete I’ve seen online. Check it out & link directly to home pages of great journals.
The basis of a freelancer’s career is her portfolio. Always concentrate on adding clips to it. Try to approach your portfolio with some kind of focus--in other words, if your goal is to write online, produce pieces that illustrate your skill at that. And let them show your interests as well. If you’re looking for advertising/marketing type work, focus your energy there. This isn’t to say that a good portfolio shouldn’t include both book reviews and product ads. A little diversity shows your range as a writer. But potential clients like to see where your commitments and interests lie.
If at first you don´t succeed...
Literary publishing is a tough world for beginners. Getting your piece in with a respectable journal can be just plain frustrating. There may be nothing wrong with your piece, but it simply isn’t to the magazine’s taste. Or whatever. That’s why you have to keep trying. Dont’ stop submitting after the first, tenth, or hundredth rejection slip. Every writer who gets anywhere goes through this trial by fire. Finally getting a publication feels all the better for the struggle. DON’T GIVE UP.
Give as good as you get
Whatever the nature of your chosen writing community, always remember to contribute as much as, if not more than, you recieve. If you attend writers group meetings, be generous with your critiques and your time. If friends are reading your manuscripts, insist that they send you something of theirs. If you’ve volunteered to distribute publicity materials for a reading, make sure you follow through. The world of writing is a nourishing community to those who give of themselves.
Choosing a Writing Program
Tip edited by James Gapinski
The benefits of studying writing at the graduate level are many. You just can't beat a supportive workshop led by a successful writer dedicated to teaching. Small writer's groups tend to bud off classes, and before you know it you're immersed in a fresh, young writerly community, taking advantage of readings and the oh-so-valuable mentor relationships. Some of these connections will last throughout your career. You must consider matters like expense, whether you can afford to be latched to a high-maintenance writing department for three years, and whether you in fact need three years of instruction.
If graduate study is for you, take into account what financial assistance a given program is likely to offer you. Who are the writers-in-residence? What are the school's physical surroundings, and would you enjoy living there?
Finding a writing gig
Landing a cushy writing job is every scribbler's dream. But you're unlikely to get a good one without clips and publications, and it's extra tough without prior experience. Kind of like getting your first credit card. And no, you won't get one in the mail! Luckily, there's freelancing. A hardworking freelancer with a reputation for getting things done will earn serious stripes—and in time, an interview for that elusive copywriting job.
Online resources for freelancers
The Business of Writing: Minding the Details
(Financial and legal advice about freelancing)
Tips For a Better Work-for-Hire Contract
While you're waiting for those high-paying assignments to roll in, throw yourself at potential clients. Keep a portfolio of your best and most recent work handy, along with an up-to-date resume or CV. Send these to ad firms, non profits, publishing companies, etc. These organizations frequently contract out and pay well for it. Be specific when telling them what you can do for them. Make sure your portfolio contains examples of the kind of writing you are offering to do. If you have to, create some “dummy” pieces that you've written to prove you know the medium (but be careful not to pass these off as published pieces). Clients love to see that kind of initiative.
Tip edited by James Gapinski
Click the following link for a detailed list of current conferences and residencies (from Poets & Writers). http://www.pw.org/links_pages/Conferences_and_Residencies/
Freelance Writer Associations
It’s good to associate.
The Author’s Guild
(Book authors primarily, but will extend membership to writers of feature articles. They have an insurance policy.)
National Writers Union
(Open to everybody freelancing in the US. Good contract advice on the site.)
Your MFA experience will be enriched if you pursue a relationship with an older, more experienced writer. This person should be someone who you get along with well and who has demonstrated an interest in your work. A mentor can provide encouragement, advice, and will often agree to read work outside of the workshop setting. Grab onto these opportunities when they come along! You’ll need the advice of a seasoned writer when it comes to publishing, getting an agent, etc.
Freelance writers can't afford to be modest or shy about their services. Promote yourself—work isn't going to fall in your lap. Build a website advertising your services; take out an ad in the yellow pages; join a writer's community like Sunoasis Jobs and take advantage of their cheap classified ad posting. Brainstorm! With the help of the web, you can find countless places to advertise yourself. A good place to snag plummy assignments is www.elance.com. You have to pay to register, but the assignments to be gained will most likely be worth it.
Can I work while working on my MFA?
Tip edited by James Gapinski
While pursuing an MFA degree in writing, make sure you have ordered your life so that you can give enough time to writing and preparing for your workshops.
You need a guaranteed time each day to write. You also need to be fresh when reading the work of classmates so you can contribute. Generally, job-stressed people make poor writers & readers.
Still, most of us can't afford grad school without a job; do your best to find a balance, even if that means cutting back on the luxuries so you don't have to spend as much time working to support your lifestyle.
Finding the writerly element in that not-so-writerly position
If the happy existence of the 9-5 writer isn't to be yours just yet, don't despair. Keep in mind that many, many jobs require polished writing skills at their cores. Don't rule these out! Marketing and Communications departments often churn out reams of copy cleverly disguised as bulletins, product descriptions, etc—as do development offices in universities (grants, press releases…) Do some digging!
Publishing for New Writers
Journals Favoring New Writers
Definitely submit to journals advertising new-writer friendliness. They can get your foot in the door for future publications, and many of them are fine journals themselves. Check out:
A good place to kick off your publishing career is through contests, many of which exclusively accept work from unpublished writers, or writers who haven’t yet published a full-length book. The best contests offer cash prizes and first publication rights to multiple writers, so even if you have to pay a reading fee, it’s often a good bet!
Current info on conferences
Tip edited by James Gapinski
Visit Shaw Guides for current info on conferences worldwide. Search by state to find the one most accessible (or enjoyable).
If you're lucky enough to have access to a good Independent bookstore, take advantage of it. The literary elite of a town or city will center around these shops, giving readings and lectures that you won't find at the chains (yuck!). You might even rub elbows with some of them at the Bargain Books table. Patronize these establishments with your business, take advantage of the programs they offer, and your own personal writerly experience will be enriched.
For a list of Independents in your area, try www.booksense.com.
Writer's groups can stoke your creative fire like nothing else—they keep you motivated, and more importantly, they provide objective pairs of eyes and ears. You’ll meet weekly or monthly, sharing work with each other and offering critiques. Writers groups can be brutally honest, and wonderfully supportive. The best ones will stay together for years.
The basic format of a writing program is workshop. You’ll have 6-12 people working on similar projects as you, led by an older, more experienced writer. You submit 2-3 stories each semester, and each week will read and critique the work of your classmates. You MUST give proper time and energy to reading and critiquing your classmates’ work. They’re doing the same for you.
Each workshop meeting, a discussion will center around individual pieces of submitted work. You will be expected to participate in this discussion, offering your ideas on how to improve the piece. It is a good idea to type up a 1-2 page summary of your thoughts on the piece, so that you can refer to it during the discussion. Summaries are also helpful to the writer when they revise their work.
When your own piece gets workshopped, you will listen, but participate only minimally. The workshop will discuss your story like a piece of literature, analyzing plot, character, imagery, etc. Then they’ll turn to critique--what you could do to improve the piece. Getting workshopped can be stressful at times, but remember: your fellow writers are trying to help. Try not to take comments too personally.
Using Childhood Memories to 'Write' Through a Creative Rough Patch
I never thought I would want to revisit my childhood again. There was a great deal of emotional pain and disappointment lurking and I did not feel it would have a positive effect on my writing. Boy was I wrong! Years ago I had been working on a chapter and I was in the midst of a scene that refused to work for me. I wanted to write it one way but it would not budge. I objectively analyzed why this was. Who was keeping me from my creativity! I was. My need to approach it 'my way' stemmed from my natural instincts being repressed as a child. I remember that happening very clearly. It was painful. But in remembering those painful incidents, other memories started to push through. Things I had not 'remembered' in a very long time. These memories were fighting for their right to be recognized, giving me the courage to admit that 'it wasn't all bad'. I wrote them down quickly, capturing what I could; the emotion, weather, and action. And then I formed a poem around it, and I do not write poems often, but this excersize helped me to cherish that memory in a 'creative context'. The disappointing memory diminished and when I gave over to the positive, it was like a dam had opened inside my soul. I went back to the chapter with a completely different approach because I 'allowed' myself to. And it has given me the continued strength to fight against that childhood oppression as it has no business influencing what is deep in my heart. I read that poem very often!
So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, make a brief journey to your childhood, stretch out in the long grass again, build your 'fort' in the backyard again and remember how sacred your creativity is!
Discipline and Distraction
I have heard many wanna-be writers exclaim 'there's just too many distractions!' And they give up before they ever begin. Either there is a fly buzzing around the room, or the dishwasher needs emptying, the partner needs attention, the dusting needs to be done... We throw obstacles in the way in order to give us an excuse not to work on our dreams- as if they are not as worthy as the dusting or the dishes. Discipline your distractions as you would discipline a child. Communicate to your partner or children that you are going to be unavailable for 30minutes. Get a bucket with your cleaning aids and set it outside your door, load the dishwasher but do not run it until you have spent 30 minutes brainstorming a story idea. You do not have to 'write' it all, just give yourself the chance to work it out in your head for that time period.
Set the timer! When 30 minutes is up, do your dusting and your dishwasher and remember to thank your kids/partner for allowing you to have the private time. Once you start setting this example, it will soon become the norm and your distractions will be tamed.
Rekindling Those Writing Fingers
Are you getting your ideas stuck between the keys? Or the cursor is blinking but your fingers aren't moving? First of all, do not panic. Your muse has not left you. The best way I have found to rekindle my inspiration has been to step away from the 'mental pressure' and go read something else entirely, even if it is only a chapter. Or do a search on something that really peeks your imagination like the latest discoveries in archaeology, an online trip to Yellowstone, or the ancient mysteries of the pyramids! It does not matter, as long as you force yourself to take a mental break and daydream about something other than writing. While on a mental break myself, I found a website on Greek Mythology and much to my surprise, I was reading ferociously about Dionysus and found inspiration for a play! I was not looking for it, having taken myself out of the writing 'mode', but it certainly found me. This rush of inspiration then helped me to finish what I was working on previously.
I approach writer's block using a familiar 'motto': If you love your inspiration then let it go! Allow it room to breathe, let it soar through the dimensions of time and space and welcome its return with a loving embrace!
P´s & Q´s of Submitting Work
You may be lucky enough to find a journal that offers online or email submission options. For most journals, however, you´ll have to do it the old-fashioned way. *Do include a copy of the story/poem/essay, as well as a SASE that the magazine can use for your acceptance/rejection slip. *Do let the magazine know if you´ve published elsewhere--this sometimes ups your chances. *DON´T tell them if you´ve sent the piece to other journals ("simultaneous submission"). Many forbid it and will send your submission straight to the recycle bin. *Don´t call the magazine to find out the status of your submission.
Finding the right home for your work
If you're looking to place your fiction, poetry, or essay, start by making a list of literary magazines and journals with tastes similar to yours. If you write 19th-Century-style love poetry, you definitely DON’T want to send your work to a journal that favors horror and fantasy. Doing your homework, finding out who is looking for what, can save you tons of time and money. This will take some digging, and some reading. Take advantage of the web—search engines can take you right to lists of literary journals with functioning websites. These websites will often have detailed descriptions of what the journal publishes, when they accept manuscripts, and where to send them. You MUST adhere to the guidelines the editors give you. Otherwise, your work will be returned or just ignored.
Make writing contacts
Making contact with fellow writers is essential to your growth and development. Non-writer friends can often give valuable and sincere responses to your work, but "colleague" feedback is vital. Sign up for workshops at book festivals. Join or start a writer’s group. Search writing message boards online and initiate correspondence with posters you might click with. Whatever you choose, keep in mind that you can never have too many writer friends and contacts. Even in a small town like I grew up in, literary communities tend to satellite larger ones in cities. Word of mouth and chains of contacts might put you in front of someone who can give your career a real push.