Writing Out of Bounds

Three Steps for Getting Out of the “But We’ve Always Done It This Way” Mentality and Unleashing Creativity

Girl and Steampunk style future Typewriter. Hand/home made model.

Silly me … When I began my transition from journalism to fiction writing, I likened it to doubling the family recipe when houseguests were coming to dinner. Following the, “do the same thing, only bigger,” principle, I approached a 300-page novel as I would a 1200-word feature article.

Turns out (and as other writers reading this might expect), while a few essential components remained the same (catchy intro, body of relevant info and a circle back to the beginning with a strong wrap-up), a short article is clearly not a novel; nor are nonfiction articles sci-fi/fantasy thrillers.

I then moved onto the way its “supposed” to be done. I outlined settings, my characters, my plotline and sub-plotlines. I began a style sheet to make sure my characters’ dialogues were consistent and that the reader got the “great reveal” several chapters before the characters did. These are all wonderful, time-tested tools, and I would never try to diminish their value. But for me – it wasn’t working. I was still trying to do what I’ve done for the past decade as a professional writer. I’d edit as I’d go along, I’d craft a story linearly, and my subjects would behave just as we’d expect.

I’d about given up entirely were it not for the fact that my characters were developed just enough as to wake me up in the middle of the night with random scenes floating through my head … And there began the Grand Experiment. My story began to flow again within days of succumbing to my characters’ nagging. Here’s what works for me (feel free to take what you can use; discard the rest):

The Grand Experiment: Three Steps for Writing Out of Bounds

  • Write Spatially. I wanted a very linear outline and a story that easily went from start to finish. Instead, each day I would begin writing whatever scene happened to come to mind – no matter where it fell in the story, even if all the details hadn’t been carved out yet … I could change it later. On days where I came up empty, I would choose a character and write or expand upon their bio. Invariably, they would “reveal” something to me that I could use, and a new scene would be born. By writing out of order, it freed up my creativity and allowed the characters to act of their own accord vs. following a script. Remember, there’s time later to rearrange the content and edit.
  • Allow Your Characters to Be Unpredictable. I had one scene where the protagonist was acting exactly as I would – as almost any “real” person would, and yet something didn’t feel right. It was too … predictable. As part of my Grand Experiment, I wrote down the most illogical statement that this very logical character would make and – aha! This sparked a new plot device, and a much better scene followed.
  • Write Without Reserve (i.e. don’t edit as you go along). (You know, like what I’m doing with this article? Don’t do that.) When working with a short feature article, you have the luxury of working and reworking a paragraph until it reads in just the right way. Try that with a novel, and you’re more likely to be obsessively trapped rewriting your first scene indefinitely. It worked in the movie Groundhog Day, but I wouldn’t suggest it as a daily practice. Trust me, you’ll have plenty of time to edit later … and edit again … and proof … and then edit some more.

Try Your Own Grand Experiment

Feel like an experiment? I understand that what works for me may not be for everyone. However, I always ask people to consider an idea before dismissing it. Below is an activity for trying your own Grand Experiment …

Step 1: Pick a random scene – somewhere in the middle of your story – and begin writing from there. If you don’t have a story, use a writing prompt (many are available online). Do not edit as you go. If you need to, write over, under, or around an error. For example, if you started off in a blue room and you’ve decided later that a red room is much better, have the walls change color or make the characters dispute the color of the walls.

Step 2: Introduce a character, object or event – and then have them do something unpredictable. I just gave you one example. The walls of this scene are changing color – why? After fifteen minutes or so, stop.

Step 3: Go do something else. Put this experiment away. If the scene is a good one, you may be able to revisit it, working it into a future story. If this method worked, then repeat the process for other projects.

Bonus Exercise: Can you apply this method to other areas of your life – beyond writing? Where in your life can you randomly try something new, random, or unpredictable?

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“If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” ~Thomas Jefferson (Or … someone else. No one is really sure.)

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How to Be Productive as a Freelance Writer: 10 Tips for Working Smarter

type“What is it that you do all day?” One might wonder about the freelance writer or the self-employed entrepreneur who works from home. The short answer is, “a lot,” and it requires discipline, skill, and the willingness to do the grunt work, not just the fun 10% of creative inspiration that everyone thinks of a la the movie depictions of a writer.

In a recent NPR radio interview with actress Judy Greer, she confessed to the host that before she sat down to write her book, I Don’t Know Where You Know Me From she had a glamorous idea of what it would be like to be a writer (probably not unlike my glamorous idea of what it would be like to be a movie actress). “I thought I’d write for a while, maybe stop to take in a yoga class in the afternoon, and go back and work some more,” Greer said. “Writing turned out to be a lot harder than I thought!”

The work itself is only part of the battle. Freelancers do not often have the luxury of a steady paycheck each week, but an ebb and flow. It’s not for the faint of heart, and many fear the lack of stability. We are required to be our own employee, boss, accountant, human resources team, sales director and payroll manager. And yet, on a job interview many years ago, my prospective employer asked, “Describe your ideal boss.”

I bit my tongue because my first response was, “Me!” If you would have answered “me” to that question, please read on …

In order to be productive as a freelance writer, I needed to have a strategic game plan. Here are a few concepts I learned along the way. Feel free to pick and choose what works for you.

10 Tips for Better Productivity in the Freelance Writing World

1) Schedule Your Workday Like a 9-5-er. Before you yell at me that no one works those kinds of hours anymore, please take this conceptually. That is, plan your day as you would if you were going into the office. Get up in time to eat, get dressed and be ready to work at the start of the business day. The very ritual of changing from your pajamas into jeans and a t-shirt sets the tone of “going to work.” Schedule in a lunch break and stick to a daily work routine. Otherwise, you run the risk of finding other seemingly important tasks that will eat at your time. Stay focused.

2) Timing is Everything … Track Your Production Time. When working on a project, record all start and end times. In the beginning, you will likely find that you’ve underestimated the time involved to research, concept, write, edit and review with clients. A one-hour project may take three. Once you learn your development pace and the pace of your clients, you will be able to estimate small projects within the hour and large projects within about three.

3) Organize Your Task List. Creating can be exhausting. When possible, schedule your day in segments, allowing blocks of time for research (interviews, books, online digging, etc.), brainstorming, writing, administrative work (conference calls, emails, billing) and editing to break up the day into different intellectual tasks. Of course, there will always be that grueling book that takes a solid week of your time to edit. However, when possible, plan for variety in your day.

4) Allow for Creative Brainstorming. This is the main reason why I love being self-employed. In our fast-paced, “gotta have it ten minutes ago,” micro-managed world, we seem to skip the most joyful part of the creative process … brainstorming. It’s so alluring, in fact, that it becomes a major hurdle for writers. Before they know it, they’ve fallen down the daydream rabbit hole and they lose track of time. Whether 15 minutes or an hour, schedule in time to explore the possibilities of a concept. If you’re worried about zoning out, set a timer. When it signals you, stop exploring; start writing.

5) Stay on Top of Industry Trends. Be a lifelong learner. The publishing world changed dramatically over a few short years, and the worst thing you can do is adopt a, “but I’ve always done it this way” attitude. There are always new skills to learn and avenues to try; you’re never done learning.

6) Dedicate Three Hours a Week to New Business Development. We’d like to think our current clients will be there forever. However, management changes, budgets change, and some contracts by their very nature have an expiration date. Even if you have a full schedule, keep an eye out for what’s in demand. Refer work to other colleagues if your schedule is full (they’ll return the favor), but never stop growing your social network. This time can also be applied to discovering “next steps” and where you’d like to take your business over the upcoming years.

7) Recognize That You’re Not Just the “Talent.” At all times, you are one part writer and one part business owner. Plan your service fees, time off and expenses accordingly; and above all, have a budget.

8) Set Boundaries. As a contractor, you may be juggling a dozen or more projects at a time with various clients. Some new clients may confuse you for a full-time employee and assign you deadlines that reflect as much. They do not see your entire schedule nor should they. Do not over promise, and set realistic expectations for when a project will be completed. This gets down to knowing your timing (Tip #2) very well.

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9) Avoid Isolation by Planning Lunches With Colleagues and Scheduling In Person Business Meetings. As welcoming as a quiet workspace is, you need more than your dog or cat as company throughout the week. At least once or twice during normal business hours, have lunch with another freelancer, schedule a business meeting in person vs. by phone or attend a local networking event.

10) Know When It’s Quitting Time. There’s a danger of always being “on” since time is money and the office is just a few feet away at all times. Create “black out” times where you will, under no uncertain terms, check your email, phone or tend to work. The quickest path to burnout is not allowing time for recovery.

 

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Five Elements of a Successful Blog

womantyping“You’re writing a blog about how to write a blog?”   

Oh yes, I am.     

When I’ve been hired to craft a professional or ghost blog for businesses, they seem surprised when I tell them that it will likely take me an estimated hour-and-a-half to two hours from start to creation. Since the average Joe can crank out a blog about his funny trip to the supermarket in fewer than twenty minutes, shouldn’t a professional writer be able to produce something more quickly?

Not if you want a well-crafted blog.  

Five Elements of a Successful Blog

1) Understand How Your Audience Will Find You (SEO) – It is not enough to deliver a well-turned phrase. Google analytics doesn’t get “witty.” In addition to adding SEO-friendly key words and descriptions to the post, good bloggers will know how to work phrases into the blog that will help searchers keying in the topic find your content. The only way to know what those words and phrases are is through …

2) Research. In addition to understanding the audience, bloggers need to understand the industry. Even when writing about a topic in which you have experience, you will most likely be siting sources to back up your statements or supplement your knowledge of a topic. At the very least, when referencing sources for more information (or locations of interest), writers have to know how to find that website to provide links to that source.

3) Cut Out Unnecessary Words – Already you’re wondering “when will this blog end?” Keep the audience engaged by getting to the point, quickly and efficiently. Then take some time to re-structure clumsy sentences. Avoid repetition and start blending your wordsmith skills with your SEO knowledge. Remember, you are NOT the guy writing about his funny trip to the supermarket. You are a professional writer.

4) Add Photos, Video and Link-Loving Tools– Add visual elements to your page (such as photos or videos) that link to a relevant web page and contain your meta-data. Link to other pages on your website or external sites that you’ve referenced in your blog.

5) Use Subheads (such as the one above) to break up the page so that the reader is not overwhelmed with two much text all at once. It also compartmentalizes information into easily digestible pieces and highlights places where you’d like the reader’s eyes to fall on the page.

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5 Ways to Succeed as a Freelancer

TypwriterDeadlineMissing a deadline is bad … Missing a deadline and not letting your assignment editor know that you’re running late – until he phones you to check on your article – is worse. Over promising and under delivering is bad … Under delivering because you were afraid to ask for clarification is worse. And, being “easy to get along with” is not a skill set to be added to your résumé. Being nice to others should be a given.

In truth, I can only speak from my  personal experience. As a current freelancer and business owner and a former career counselor, assignment editor and events planner, I’ve been on the “deliverable” and “deliver to” sides. I’m going to share what works for me and what I look for when contracting work in the writing, editing and graphic design world.

1) Meet Deadlines. Emergencies happen to all of us personally and professionally. However, if your track record is one filled with constant delays and excuses, you’ll quickly join the ranks of the unreliable. Those dates on the editorial calendar affect more than just you. Don’t throw a monkey wrench in the works if you can help it.

2) Be Self-Motivated. Unless you’re given a concrete set of deliverables, when a large and multi-faceted assignment comes in, plot out your schedule – and stick to it. If you haven’t received instruction, ask questions. If you require constant supervision, you may reconsider your decision to be a contractor.

3) Pay Attention to Details. Turn in polished work and exceed expectations. That’s not as challenging as it sounds. I recently hired someone to do market research on my behalf. I expected an email summary in answer to my questions, whenever she had them. Yet, without my asking, she sent email updates about her progress and formatted her findings into an easy-to-digest report summary. She also followed up with me two weeks later to check in if I needed anything else.

4) Be Honest and Ethical. Don’t throw someone under the bus to get ahead and don’t lie to help your cause or your client’s. It will make you both look bad.

5) Keep Your Skills Honed. The career field changes on a regular basis. The worst thing that you can do is assume that you’ve learned everything you need to in order to remain successful. Keep up with current trends and don’t be afraid to learn something new.

 

 

*Photo credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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The Top Ten Questions I Get Asked About Writing

meThere was a part of me that used to cringe every time a person asked me what I did for a living. It’s not that I didn’t love my work nor was it a lack of pride. There’s no other career path on earth that suits me quite the way mine does, and I am proud of the way I communicate ideas and represent clients who trust me to write on their behalf.

It’s just that when you answer, “I’m a writer” the response is generally a mix of doubt, envy and strategic personal planning. You can see the wheels turning in people’s heads as they try to figure out what you being a writer actually means – and what it might mean to them. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the top ten questions that I get asked about the writing profession.

To steal from comedian Bobby Collins, this is how I’m answering on the inside…

The Top Ten Questions I Get Asked About Writing

Q: Do you get paid in food? (I was a restaurant reviewer at the time.)

A: Yes. Every time I turn in an article, I get paid 1 lb. of rice, 8 oz. of sugar and one free-range chicken.

Q: I’ve got this great idea for a book. What if you write it for me and we split the profits 50/50?

A: Clearly you have not heard the expression “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” If you’d like me to stop working on my ideas, in favor of your own, my current rate of service is …

Q: Isn’t it true that if you self-publish a book, you’re not considered a “real” author? (In reference to the Acting Out Yoga books I produced through Birdland Media Works)

A: I don’t care if people consider me a “real” author or not. As long as people buy my book and enjoy my words, the title they give me is irrelevant.

Q: Yeah, but what do you do for income? (They are assuming I am an artist who waits tables or an actress who doubles as an exotic dancer.)

A: (pause) I write down words and people pay me.

Q: Will you write an article about me? I’m sure you can find a magazine to send it to for publication and probably even make some money off of it.

A: Most editors send me a specific assignment or request ideas based on their editorial calendar. If you’d like me to pitch an idea on your behalf or write an advertorial on your product or service, my rate of service is…

Q: You write press releases, right? I’ve got an event coming up. Here’s the info in case you wanna write about it…

A: Actually, I’m usually contracted by companies to write a press release announcing their event. I submit it to various members of the media and that media entity will decide whether or not to send a reporter out to cover the event.

Q: I’ve always been told I’m a good writer. Can you read the novel I’m working on and tell me what you think?

A: I am happy to review your book as a consultant or as an editor. Please review my Author Services page for more details.

Q: I’m a writer too. Have you ever read my blog?

A: No. More Polite Answer: No, I haven’t. If you email me the URL, I’ll take a peek at it.

Q: What do you write? (This is not a bad question, just a difficult one to answer.)

A: A little bit of everything: feature articles, books (fiction and nonfiction), press releases, marketing materials, newsletters, workshops, web content, advertising slogans, social media updates, blogs, resumés, training manuals,  interoffice correspondence for large companies, commercial scripts, etc.,

Q: How did you become a writer? (Again, this is not a bad question, just one that has a lengthy answer.)

A: That’s a long story; but what I can tell you is that I jumped at every writing opportunity that came my way, whether it paid or not, just to establish myself in the industry. I got to know every person who crossed my path, not because “networking” is a good idea; but because I legitimately liked hearing people’s stories. I followed my gut feeling on every occasion, even when all logic told me “this is a bad idea.” There were a few crash and burns; but for the most part, I came out of it a success.

 

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