What Have I Been Up To?

I read an interesting study not that long ago on time management for school principals. One of the more interesting, if obvious results, is that you only have so much time in the day. If you’re fully booked and you try to cram in something new, something else will fall by the wayside. It won’t be planned and it won’t be by choice, but you cannot add to a full schedule without losing something, for all your intentions of working just a little bit harder and moving just a little bit faster, we all have our limits.

In my case, I’ve been busy with a number of new roles in my life over the last couple of years:

1) Home renovator: This may not seem like much of an explanation, but I really have poured a metric tonne of time into making this old house as beautiful and functional as it is cozy, and I’ve done the work with great amateurish gusto. It started with tearing down and rebuilding a kitchen entirely from scratch two summers ago, and it just spread from room to room after that. Every vacation, save this past Christmas when my family went to El Salvador, has involved one major or several minor home projects. I pretty much stopped taking major writing contracts starting that summer of 2015, though I may get back on the horse, finally, in the new year.

2) Dad: My son’s impending birth actually provided a motivation as well as a deadline for the new kitchen, which somehow led to the several projects since. I’m on dad duty from the time I get home from work until my two-year-old is down for the night. All my writing has to be done after that, or during nap-time on weekends (if I’m not redoing the bathroom or something, of course).

3) School Principal: I got this job at almost exactly the same time I got the two previous jobs, that same eventful summer. I think I have finally become comfortable (not complacent) in the role, but it’s not a nine-to-five job oftentimes, no matter how much experience you get.

4) Student: This was actually related to role number three, as I took on graduate work in educational administration at night and just finished this past June.

So, after spending most of my time writing school budgets, board reports, research essays, curriculum, and workshop presentations, I am slowly starting to pick up the pace of my public writing again. It’s nice to be back at it.

I haven’t been entirely inactive on that front, and I’ll post some round-ups of my work from the last year or so in the upcoming weeks. But it won’t take long to catch up. I’ve written more academic papers and office emails, by a long shot, than literary reviews, essays, or editorials.  Hopefully there will be some quality where I lack quantity.

What’s Up and Such

Recent readings: I finally got around to reading Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, start to finish, which I’d had on my shelf for a few years already (pretty good). I’ve also been reading some Bradbury just over the last few weeks, specifically Something Wicked This Way Comes and his A Sound of Thunder collection, and I’ve come to appreciate how beautiful his use of language is, something I didn’t really pick up on when I read him as a teenager.

I’ve also been looking at some Asian-themed fiction of late, though no recent releases. It’s been years since I’ve read Shōgun and I’d been thinking I should finally read Tai-Pan this year (also by James Clavell), but of course it’s a bit of a door-stopper. So instead I started with the much shorter The Ronin (quite good), have just started dipping into the equally short Bridge of Birds, and have been thinking I might do Musashi after that before Tai Pan. Of course I’ll be jumping around a bit, not knocking these off one after the other without a break.

(And now that I think of it, there is one recent item on my radar in this “genre”: Murakami’s new novel just came out. I haven’t picked it up yet. I forgot about it until the last-minute and so wasn’t able to place a review and, thus, didn’t request an ARC.)

Obviously I’ve read several Heinlein books recently, for my coverage at Green Man Review and I do have one more to take care of soonish, though that’s a weekend read at most.

And there’s an eclectic mix of other stuff I’ve started or planned on starting over the last couple of months, including Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series (looking for that third volume in the second-hand stores still) and a few non-fiction titles. I’ve got a nice little pile on my night table, but the difficulty is when something new pops up in the mailbox and jumps the queue, as it were. Raincoast, which distributes for Tor (and many others), is one of the worst offenders for sending me big boxes of wonderful ARCs, meant to tempt me from whatever I’m doing and into a good book and, often, the ensuing, unplanned review. Of course there are worse problems to have than a surplus of delicious boks.

But, yes, I have been reading at a pretty good clip of late, and I’m pleased about that. For nearly the first half of this year, I just couldn’t find the time. But I’m in a bit of a groove lately. I suppose I’ve cut back on the television a fair bit, since, brief vacation aside, my work hours haven’t dropped a whole lot (even with the aforementioned turning down of work). Not all of my writing work is downright exciting. Occasionally it can border on (or enter right into) tedium.

Literature is the great escape, even for, or perhaps especially for a working writer.

Booked Solid for Three Months

I have a couple of book reviews coming up for the Free Press in the next several months (both are being filed very early since I received the ARCs equally nearly six months ahead of publication). I’ve also submitted a non-review draft to AE, which will likely run sooner than that. Other than that, what I’m sitting on is a really impressive “to-write” list.

If, before spring, I actually get around to writing all the things I plan on writing — scratch that, if I actually manage to pitch all the things I’m thinking of writing, and perhaps end up writing even a couple of them during that time frame, I’ll be satisfied.

The thing is, I have so much commissioned work already, trying to sell additional stuff, even were it pure gold (and only an editor can make that determination), probably shouldn’t be my main focus. I’m so focused on trying to get “caught up”, I think I’ve missed an obvious but important point. The whole point of pitching, querying, pounding the virtual pavement, as it were, is to get work. If I have enough writing work, my focus should really be on turning it in in a timely manner.

As a fairly employable teacher in a, nevertheless, fairly rough hiring environment over the last five years, I’ve gotten used to applying to new jobs on a daily basis. When I finally ended up with a fairly stable position, I had to consciously break the habit of checking the want ads, anticipating unemployment. “You’re not on a short-term contract,” I told myself. “They want to keep you. Relax.”

Likewise with my writing. I’m working on, not one, but three concurrent projects, related to content and curricular development for private companies, each one of which will likely stretch from two to five months. And of course, I do still have that pesky day job.

All of which means, this is enough. If I have any spare time at all, I’d like to fit in a few articles for Care2, since it’s been months since I’ve contributed, and I don’t want them to forget about me. But I certainly don’t need to start any new working relationships or make any new commitments at this point.

As a side-note, it’s worth noting that much of my present contract writing work is at least partially related to either my educational or science backgrounds. As a writer, you need to use every working relationship and connection, draw on every talent and experience you have to get work. Spent some time as a wedding planner? Parlay that into a gig writing for a wedding magazine. Worked at a Radio Shack? Write for a technology website.

Every new item on your résumé, every new sample in your portfolio, every new connection on LinkedIn increases your chances of getting work. It’s an exponential process — well, sigmoidal, only because of the human inconvenience of sleep.

Another Literary Year in Review

The Winnipeg Free Press has another favourite books of the year list, which includes my own pick: A Tale for the Time Being by American/Canadian writer, Ruth Ozeki.

It really is quite excellent and deserves to be on a year’s favourites list (my editor was careful to explain that this is not a “year’s best” list; we’re not jurying a prize, here and having made an exhaustive survey). Along with his caveat, I’ll add two of my own: not every book I’ve read is for FP review, and not every book I read is for review, period. Many of the books I read are not even recent releases.

So if I expand the list to include anything and everything I’ve read this year, what was my absolute favourite?

I dunno. The older I get the harder it is to pick favourites. Let’s just say it was a good reading year and leave it at that.

Tuesday Links (07/09/13)

A Mathematician Goes to the Beach: Topology and modesty.

Semicolon (Lonely Island): Some inappropriate lyrics and some questionable punctuation advice.

How to Brand a “Useless” College Degree: It’s education puff piece season. Stay tuned for September when we learn how (North American) college students can’t spell and don’t know math.

On To-Do Lists

Lately I’ve been all about lists. My day job, the still new experience of “owning” a home (the quotes are a nod to the mortgage which owns me), my decision to take on a second job, and of course, the writing, which I’ve been pretty good about not getting complacent about — all of these make for some time management challenges.

In the last month or two, it’s gotten to be just a bit much to the point where I simply ran out of time to do all the things I planned on doing, and had to start triaging. That meant one or two committed writing assignments made the cut along with all the urgent life stuff and ongoing (but piling up) requirements of my day job. So I’ve had very little output since March.

But for even longer than that, I’ve realized I’m turning into a list person. I’ve never been the dayplanner type, before. I just remember my appointments, my plans for the day, et cetera. But lately it’s been more of a challenge, and sitting down and writing down my tasks for the day, week, or month on a Post-It note has become more of a necessity.

This isn’t a bad thing, in my view. There’s a certain satisfaction in crossing items off that list. It’s helped me manage a busy schedule while ensuring that nothing gets put off indefinitely. It’s great for the day-to-day realities of work and life.

But I also have a particular long-term list of writing tasks, goals for the year, really, which is a little more aspirational and a little less straightforward to work through. It’s not on a Post-It but it’s short enough that I can keep it in the back of my mind. Sell a piece to such-and-such. Break into market X. This is important, too, and I don’t want to get too focused on the day-to-day that I ever stop moving forward with an aspect of my life.

So it’s important, I think, to have that big yearly goals list, that bullet-pointed five-year plan, even the bucket list. I want to be crossing items off all of those, as well.

On Getting Published

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.

When You Know Things Are Going Well

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.

Tuesday Links (01/22/13)

Now Writers Can Drown Their Sorrows With Their Own Sorrows: Writer’s Tears Irish Whiskey. Learn what tragedy is, in liquid, alcoholic form.

I’m Mentally Ill, I Love Violent Video Games, And They’ve Never Made Me Feel Like Killing Anyone: “If we want to look at why Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school and opened fire on a bunch of children and adults, it’s not video games we need to be looking at. I recently saw someone using a league of legends cheat – and they dashed through the game like five times faster than everyone else. We need to ask who was paying attention to him, and had anyone noticed something was wrong with him emotionally would the mental health care he probably needed have been both accessible and affordable?”