They’ve been an occasional sci-fi topic since the early days of the genre, and modern bio-technology is making these speculations more relevant, not less. Read my essay on treatments of neanderthals in science fiction at AE.
Recently I found myself in the role of guest consultant at an upcoming conference for high-achieving, entrepreneurial high school students. As the representative freelance writer, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I thought I might find myself sharing some of my acquired wisdom for the words and letter types in attendance. And I wanted to come up with practical, real-life advice that wasn’t a cliché.
As props, I gathered up some of the usual trappings of a writer’s life. A successful pitch email that led to coffee with a senior editor. A fruitful email exchange between one of my regular publishers and myself, which saw an article morph into something completely different from where it started. A side-by-side comparison of a first and final draft.
These artifacts give a small sense of the day-to-day reality of a freelance career, but don’t necessarily explain how to get one in the first place. I don’t want to give a lot of writing tips here; to a certain extent, the writing takes care of itself, simply through practice. The bigger challenge is, having achieved a level of competence, how do you get your work out there? More than a few great writers were unknown during their lifetimes. I’d have any budding aspirant avoid that fate.
1) Do improve your writing: Yes, yes, I just a moment ago said I didn’t want to give writing tips, and I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details. But moving from the amateurs to the minors to the majors only works if you’re actually increasing in skill. So a note on attitude: take some pride in your work.
Strive for a polished, well-realized piece of writing. Take an assignment that you can get away with knocking out in an hour and obsess over it for three, because it needs to be just so. Be the best writer at your school newspaper, community newsletter, or, heck, even your personal blog. Get people wondering why someone with your talent isn’t writing somewhere higher up the food chain.
I used to worry I was spending too much time polishing pieces that were already serviceable, but I don’t worry about that anymore. It’s the old adage about dressing for the job you want instead of the job you’ve got. Moving forward means pushing the boundaries instead of churning it out.
Those overwritten pieces you publish that really make you proud? Those are your samples to get that new gig.
2) Realize it’s time to move on: As a university student contributing to my school paper, I had a casual acquaintance mention that my writing might be good enough for a certain literary review webzine with a sizable audience and a strong reputation, though it didn’t pay anything beyond the books themselves. I sent in a sample and got on board. Almost eight years went by, and my writing tightened up significantly, but I was still stuck at the same rung without even realizing there was a ladder.
It came as a sudden realization that there was a next step even for something as simple as book reviewing, and I was overdue to take it. I sent off a couple of samples to the largest regional newspaper in the area and was on the phone with the books editor the same day. I’ve already learnt a lot in this position and plan to make it a long-term relationship, but less than a year in, my sights were already set on going national. And guess what? It’s happening.
If you can be writing somewhere more prestigious, better-paying, or with better exposure, you need to make it happen. No editor is going to tell their best writer they can do better. You have to find that better gig.
3) Make new friends, but keep (some of) the old: Not every outlet for your work fits so easily into a simple hierarchy. There can be value in maintaining relationships with lower-paying venues if they offer something your other outlets aren’t offering you. As an extreme example, a beginning writer might make more money churning out material for a content milll than writing “for the love”, but it’s the latter that is more likely to lead to you eventually getting paid for writing something you care about. I’ve done my time with content creation, but it was a paycheque, not a stepping-stone.
Likewise, you might take lower-paying jobs when branching into different types of markets. I took a pay-cut with a gig covering environmental news. But it was only a pay-cut relative to what I was getting paid as a technical writer, which I was rapidly losing interest in. This was something I was interested in doing, and nobody else was offering to pay me to do it. Over the course of a year, I significantly broadened my portfolio, became comfortable in a new format, and, with the growth of the magazine, my modest pay grade actually surpassed that of my previous, mind-numbing writing job.
This only took eight months. It’s amazing how fast your writing life can change when you take a chance.
4) You can write anything for anyone: Writers are versatile; writers are always learning and experimenting. Nothing is keeping you from the New York Times but you. If you’re enjoying a news site, print magazine, community paper — whatever — and really digging it, finding its content and style to be totally up your alley, then maybe you should be contributing. You’re into science fiction, and read io9 every day? Then you should be querying them, sending them samples, whatever the listed procedure is.
Learn to find contact sections, FAQs, submission pages, general info, parent companies for subsidiary sites. Writers seek these out, but they’re meant to be invisible to the average reader. Check the very backs or very fronts of magazines, scroll down to the small links near the bottom pages of websites.
And now query. Query, query, query. And dig through everything you’ve ever written for the most relevant and polished work you have out there. You might be the best thing to happen to them, but you’re going to have to convince them you’re a writer worth your salt. They can’t take your word for it.
In conclusion: I know you’re a great writer. You’re getting better all the time. But writing isn’t enough. You have to do something with that writing. This is a business; an industry. Learn the ins and outs so you can put your stamp on it.
Posthumous publication is for the dogs.
I was going to entitle this post, “When You Know Things Are Going Good”, but the grammarian in me just couldn’t do it.
The last few months I’ve managed to fit in significantly more writing than I was managing amidst all the new job, new house, new marriage hubbub of autumn. And I’ve been largely pleased with how things have been going. 2012 was a year where, picking up some traction after a fair bit of spinning my wheels during the last few months of 2011, I just started getting meetings with editors, seeing my stuff in print at a variety of places, and started building some good working relationships with people.
Now, in 2013, the lion’s share of my writing is the direct result of connections I made in 2012, and I get to do some cool stuff that I wasn’t doing before, including reaching different audiences, writing in different formats and on different topics, and being in print more frequently as opposed to being almost exclusively online. I know doomsayers have said for years that print is dead, but the fact is, it’s not, and words on paper still mean something to me.
A few years ago, I would have found it hard to believe that I would be able to write about topics I care about — science, the environment, literature — anywhere outside of a personal blog or social network, let alone reach a wide audience, and get paid for it, to boot. But you never know until you try, obviously.
What’s really gratifying, however, is that I’ve been told four separate times from four different editors, independently of each other, that they like my writing and would like to see more of it. A big part of me writing more comes down to simply that.
I think there’s probably a lesson in there about good management. Make your employees feel appreciated and they’ll work harder to justify your high opinion of them. If it works for freelancers, it probably also works for shift supervisors, construction foremen, and school principals. Everyone likes a pat on the back.
(To be fair, my boss at my day job, has also made me feel appreciated. But I think I’ve spent enough years in that profession that I’m less susceptible to ego-stroking on my teaching abilities.)
Anyway, I’m happy on that front. Life in general, well, there have been some sources of stress. But as far as what this blog is about — my writing — I really can’t complain much.
A number of posts so far this month, with perhaps a handful more upcoming.
But I didn’t grow up in the Golden Age of the ’30s and ’40s. When I was a child, as suffused as popular cultural depictions of SF still were (and continue to be) with spacefaring imagery, other themes, speculations, and what-ifs had begun crowding in at the edges. In fact, as a voracious and omnivorous upper-elementary reader, I read an enormous amount of juvenile science fiction without ever taking my adventures off-planet.
Instead there were contemporary riffs on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World, and many, many deep sea adventures.
For those keeping track, it’s just about one year since my first time writing for the fine folks at the Canadian Science Fiction Review, and though my debut was an essay on Heinlein, I hadn’t returned to the form again before today. (Though my book coverage may have sometimes landed somewhere between a full-blown essay and straightforward review.)
There’s more upcoming. I’ll keep you posted.
Word Press, whose software powers this site, sent me my site stats for 2012, which included no big surprises. This site has grown modestly since its launch in the latter half of 2011. Reading the story behind the numbers, these are the main take-away points:
a) at least as many visitors are random Googlers as people who are familiar with my writing
b) the larger part of the site growth is from an increase in the number of evergreen items, thus drawing more of these random Googlers, who, therefore, rarely leave comments
c) I’m a writer but not a blogger and I know it, so I don’t expect that to change in the future.
What about my more general writing stats? I’ve started writing regularly at three major new markets this past year, and have published at least once at five or six additional “new” places beyond that. I think I’ve probably pitched my writing to 50 or more markets so we’re talking about a success rate only somewhat in excess of 10 percent, which could be worse, I suppose. For 2013 I have my eye on at least two additional writing spaces that I really hope to get involved in.
My best month in terms of sheer volume was January (while still in Costa Rica and not doing any other work besides writing), but my best month in terms of writing income was December (while working a full-time job). So by the end of the year my average pay per job, per word, per hour, however you want to slice it, had improved considerably.
As far as page views go, my writing at Care2 ranks highest, with one of my articles last month hitting close to 30, 000 readers, while the number commenting was less than 300. One of my all-time favourite pieces, listed under my portfolio page, received over 500 comments, but I don’t have any additional stats for that piece, and there isn’t always a direct correlation between comments and page views, so I can’t assume 50, 000 or more people read it. That said, I’m thinking my all-time most popular piece must be in that ballpark, even if I don’t know which one it actually is.
Number of times editors have fought over me because they simultaneously wanted me to cover the same thing for their own publications: twice. Different publications each time.
Number of things I’ve learned about improving my writing: lost count.