Things I’m Working On

Accountability in the disaster-relief world

Hello from Dubai, where I’m on a long layover on my way home from my 13th deployment for ShelterBox. I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about something I don’t think a lot of folks consider when they think of disaster relief: How this agency works to continuously refine both what we deliver to families in need and how we deliver it, so we can be sure we’re doing the best we can.

A large part of this responsibility rests with our MEAL team.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I need feeding every two hours. This has to do with Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning. After a decade at ShelterBox, I think this is one of my favorite parts of working with the agency. In theory, it’s about making sure we gain knowledge to improve every time we deploy aid and resources. I’ve had the great privilege of being a part of putting it into practice three times now, and I think I’m ready to share some of its most salient points with you.

First: Post-distribution monitoring (PDM) can start happening as early as a few weeks after we give families in need our aid, and, in fact, can go on while distribution of aid is still taking place. Some of this is due to our desire to see that the families we helped can use and understand our aid. So we go back and do things like making sure tents are set up properly; tarps have been installed correctly; solar lights are functioning properly and optimally (we might remind a family that using the solar light at full power will drain its battery faster, for instance). This helps us to check up on two things: 1., that the training we helped to provide was accurate and useful; 2., that the family is moving forward from the disaster they’ve experienced.

Second: Another phase of PDM involves longer surveys and focus groups. In the past, this has taken place about six months after we deploy the aid, but we are always trying new things, and this methodology may change. We spend somewhere from half an hour to an hour with randomly chosen families who have received our aid, and walk them through how hey felt about both the distribution process and the actual aid package itself. Since the families have had more time with the kit by the time we reach this stage, we are able to get more in-depth answers from them.

Focus groups are one of my favorite parts of the MEAL process. Since the beneficiaries are in the focus groups with their friends and fellow community members, this is a bubbly, lively event. The MEAL team works really hard to come up with topics that will help us to respond to each disaster, and each region’s, more specific needs. We then work together as a team to come up with questions revolving around the topics, which might touch on things like the potential for cash aid packages, how aid affects larger families, and other relevant issues that affect the communities we worked with.

In a focus group, recipients of ShelterBox aid selected which of the items they received was their favorite by attaching stickers to pictures of each aid item. Photo: Josephine Mendoza, Calbayog Journal

 

The MEAL team might opt for focus groups comprising all men, all women, or mixed. Any way you slice it, we get such valuable information–and such wonderful stories, the likes of which we don’t always hear if the families are just being interviewed by themselves. The air of discussion really loans some focus group participants bravery, and the backing to speak up.

Third: This is another one of my favorite parts of MEAL: The interviews we undertake do not happen without some help from locals. I mean the invaluable interpreters we engage in order to ensure we are understanding the families accurately. Several times we’ve leaned on our drivers, who sometimes do double duty as interpreters, and I’ve twice had the experience of working with students recruited from the local high school or university. These people come to help us as volunteers. These volunteers are amazing. They spend a lot of time being walked through the survey. And they also spend time learning about the software we use so they can use smartphone or tablet versions of the survey if they want.

Sometimes the interviewers are workers from the local government, or community health workers. Sometimes they are Rotarians. Either way, what ends up happening is a collaboration of a most remarkable sort, where people get to make connections to people they might otherwise have ever been able to meet. Another neat side effect: We’ve also heard from some volunteers that the skills they learn, and the experiences they gain, as volunteers for us end up encouraging them in different life directions.

An initial setup for a focus group at Bayho Barangay, in the Lope de Vega municipality of Northern Samar, in the Philippines. Things didn’t stay this way for long.

 

When I was younger, I loved the urgency of disaster relief. Part of me hungered for the drive involved in its immediacy. I thought delivering aid by hand to a family in need was the pinnacle of responsibility. But I’ve seen a lot more since then, and I’ve often wondered how people are after we leave them. Ultimately, our MEAL team and processes allow us to see these families again, which fulfills a certain emotional urge, but it also gives us the tools to improve, so that we can keep on getting better at providing our aid to families who need it the most.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The lenses through which we see may not be our own

When I was 18 or so, I went to Oregon to be a camp counselor. All the counselors had camp names–Seaweed, Alpine, Whinny, Weed, Shaggy, Scribbles, Moondog, Kramer. One of the ones I admired the most was about my age, but she was way, way cooler than I was. Or am. I only remember her real name, if that’s any indication. Anyway, she had a boyfriend who came to visit. I met him once, and he was coming to visit us at camp at some point in the summer. Just before he came, Turtle, whose real name I also remember, asked me what he was like. Or maybe she didn’t ask me.

See, in the family I grew up in, my parents just gave opinions, willy-nilly. They didn’t ask if anyone wanted to hear them; they just gave them, because no one but your family would ever tell you the truth, or some other adage designed to excuse the hurt such opinions could cause.

Anyhow. I started talking, talking, talking, telling Turtle about the guy, and then Turtle said something like, “How about you let me meet him first?”

It was the first time it ever really occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be influencing other peoples’ opinions with my own jabbering. It was the first time, actually, that it ever occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to have an opinion, really. And maybe it was the first time that it occurred to me that other people most definitely didn’t need to hear my opinions on everything.

(That last part is constantly a work in progress; the pressure to seem relevant is always there.)

Anyway, it’s been slowly occurring to me that anything we do or say; any time we appear, is meant to imply, to impress something upon the viewer, or the reader, or the persons you interact with. I’ve had this thought a number of times over the last two decades or so: People walking their dogs in their pajamas, for instance, imparts for me not an admirable sense of independence, but, rather, a sense of sloppy insouciance, a lack of pride in one’s appearance.

Likewise, when I walked down the street with my dog off-leash, it was meant to imply confidence over a blatant disregard for the rules, but I couldn’t have that much control over people’s reactions. Or could I?

When I wrote for the J. Peterman and Patagonia catalogs, those pieces were meant to convey very specific emotions built around getting people to buy things. Earlier this week, I gave some brief remarks on behalf of a nonprofit I volunteer for; I did it in a logo’ed top and an exaggerated houndstooth-print skirt and walking boots, an outfit I chose to convey the efficiency and yet, continued relevance and constantly evolving nature of the charity.

Sometimes these things go awry. Years ago I delivered an earnings report in a nice suit, but I did it leaning against the wall, in a posture meant to convey confidence and a modicum of intended arrogance (it was a complicated relationship) but I know for a fact–could sense it, even while I was doing it, that would backfire. And I once walked into a meeting of marketing people with my huge French cuffs deliberately undone, but they flapped while I was talking, causing a terrible distraction.

All of these things seem sartorially bent–it’s the easiest thing for me to think of–but really what I’m referring to is narrative. What I’m referring to is context.

Take, for instance, the podcast Serial, which I’m finally listening to. (If you haven’t heard it yet, pick it up here.) In the first season, the reporter tries to make sense of a murder case she feels has gone awry. I haven’t heard the end of it, so I don’t know what we’re going to find out. But there are so many moving pieces to this story–the characters, the settings, the very social backdrop of the time the murder took place–that I couldn’t help but wonder why this reporter chose to tell this story in the way she did. Why, for instance, is it crafted in segments like this?

Why does she feature the defendant’s voice in some episodes over others?

Why does she include her own musings as she’s reporting?

Why does she follow the very specific timeline she follows?

For me, all of these questions are leading to even more questions, and although I’m only just nearing the end of season 1, I’m worried that I’ll walk away from the podcast feeling like I’ve been played–that I won’t actually feel happy about the outcome of this particular series, because it will have just opened in me–has opened in me–the desire to see it for my damn self, to root through the stuff, before I can believe what the reporter has told me.

Some things are like this. Maybe the whole intent of Serial is to make you ask questions, make you realize what else might be out there that you’ve either misinterpreted, or just taken for granted because something you deem a higher authority told you so.

Or if, like Turtle, you’d been primed to see something one or or another because of something someone said.

It strikes me that this is a key part of art, the capability to shape someone’s view of things, to prime them with a narrative of your own making, before they even get to witness the thing themselves. Last weekend we took my dad to see a photo exhibition featuring pictures his friend Dr. Dean Hsu had taken on his travels around the world. Every part of that show–from the photo itself to the placement of the photos and the editorial choices made by the curators–was meant to imply and help you to form an opinion of the places Dr. Hsu had been, even if you’ve never been there yourself.

We walked around the town of Visalia a little bit between lunch and the exhibition. I took some photos of the buildings there, because I love the buildings of that era, and I like to do watercolors of them. They’re my safe spot. And before lunch, we took a tour of the cancer care practice Dr. Hsu used to work at. It was such a warm, lovely place.

I never thought about it this way before, but the intent of the drawings I do is meant to convey to you, the viewer, my own impressions of the place I’ve visited. So when you look at these pictures, the first of a window in Dr. Hsu’s office; the second of a building I particularly liked, I hope you get the sensation that these are places that made me feel warm and happy. Whether or not they imply the things I want you to feel is a mark of the work’s success–or failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and teaching about intent and its importance in writing stories and essays, but this is the first time I’ve thought about my visual art this way. Which is funny, because surely there must be some kind of internal desire around each painting I do.

It’s good to approach everything, I think, with intent, whatever that may be. The conveyance of who we are and what we’re about comprises these small details. More importantly, we have the power to change the way that others see things, and I think that’s not something to be wielded lightly.

For my part, I like to keep reminding myself that these things have more weight that we might have otherwise considered–or intended.

What have you seen, read, or heard that’s irrevocably changed your opinion or the way you think and view things? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A small-but-significant change for 2019

If you’re anything like me, you like shiny things. I don’t mean shiny things like diamonds and pearls and watermelon tourmaline, but I mean shiny things like all that distracts from the work you do to make a living or build a career, or even just  something that distracts from your everyday flow.

For me, it could be anything. It could be:

  • A long read I want to delve into and take time with
  • A web site offering new organizational tools that might be useful to me
  • A note I want to write to a friend
  • A friend I’ve been meaning to call but haven’t yet
  • A question or discussion I’d like to open up with someone
  • A new-to-me book I want to learn more about before I buy
  • A new shop I want to visit

The list is broad, and runs between my IRL and my virtual life. Keep in mind, these aren’t “tasks,” or “to do” items. They are THINGS, in my parlance. STUFF that translates to something I can hold, I think. I’m not sure what the actual rules are, but they don’t lead to anything. They are individual discrete items, in and of themselves. Anyway.

In previous years what I’ve done is to list these things down on my daily to-do list and get to them when I have time that day, but that tactic has failed to work. That is, I haven’t stuck with it. I either never get to the item on the list and then I forget it, thus decreasing the pleasure I get out of each day, or I just never write it down, trusting to memory, and then I never get to it that way, either.

But I think I’ve found something that will really work for me: A gift box to me, to be opened at the end of every week. The plan right now is to take one day out of my workweek to do this. Today’s Friday. I’m going to use this day for this catchup for a couple reasons:

  • Friday is a good day to gift yourself
  • Jim doesn’t work on Fridays either, so it’s a nice dovetail
  • If I want to follow up further on these things, I have the weekend to do so, and I can go into Monday worry-free

(This isn’t a new idea, by the way. Productivity pundits have been touting their benefits for ages, but more recently, the former director of leadership at WalMart wrote about his “Untouchable” days in the Harvard Business Review. It’s something similar, I think. Have a look here. If I find the other post I’m thinking of, something I read back in the early 2000s, I’ll post it for you.)

Okay, so what is a gift box to myself? It’s basically just a box in which I can store the things I want to take time for. I like this concept for two reasons: First, I like to open presents. Second, I’m of the “set it and forget it” mentality: If I can write something down somewhere and put it away, I can feel confident that it’s in a safe place and I won’t misplace it or never get to it.

My current gift box looks like this:

It’s basically just a fancy cardboard box. It wasn’t the prettiest box I could find (I’m not one for florals), but the New Year had started, my pile of things I was already interested in was growing, and I needed a place to Put Stuff. So yeah. Panic. I had a couple conditions for this box, though:

  • It needed to be attractive
  • It needed to be easy-open, so I could get stuff into it quickly
  • I wanted it to feel somewhat sturdy, with some heft, because the stuff in that box is important to me. I wanted it to match up.

So how do I manifest the things I listed above, the stuff I want to look into? Really low-tech: I just write it down on a piece of paper and dump it into the box. I have a little pad of llama paper that a friend gave me, no lie, a decade ago, I think, and this is the perfect use for it. Also, index cards. Scraps, sometimes. But the llama paper is nice, and loans a little uniformity. Plus, it’s always easier to find a pad of paper than a scrap. Sometimes I put the business cards of people I want to learn more about/formulate a relationship with in there, too.

How’s it going so far?

Well, it’s only been a week. But I can tell you that I feel much clearer over previous years. Like, the ugly spackle that I formerly pictured this stuff as has changed into little gems that I can put into this box. I don’t fret about things so much, I don’t have nearly as many windows open on my browser as I used to—

These are little things. But ultimately, they get to add up to big changes, in mood and in productivity.

Hey! I just thought of another thing I should put in this box. Blog post ideas. That’s a good place to store them.

Do you have a new, shiny productivity/life improvement thing for 2019 you want to share with me? Tell me in the comments below.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The Shame of Getting Paid to Write: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 16 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-15 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Freelancers have to decide if they’re willing to accept PR or publicity-related writing opportunities alongside traditional gigs. Many writers do both but rarely talk about the corporate-sponsored writing they do (which usually doesn’t include their byline).”

The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 230

Wooooeeee. It has been a long, long time. I am sorry, because I have really, really missed writing these, AND we are coming to the end. (My high school track coach used to always yell at us if we didn’t sprint through the end of the race. This feels a little bit like that.)

I was away for a little bit, and then we acquired New Puppy, whose name is huckleberry, small aitch.

Tell you what, people. New puppies are demanding. Mine is great in his crate, unless you’re not within eyesight, and then, according to Mr. Gooddirt, it’s howl city. As far as I know, this does not happen when we leave the house. We’re just in the full swing of house training now in his total of 16 days with us, huckleberry has gone a total of five days without peeing in the house. I count it a win, although those days were not consecutive.

And he has largely stopped eating rocks, bits of patio cement, and flower petals, but his new favorite thing seems to be lizard poops. Sigh. Yes, yes, to eat.

In any case, he’s a confident, curious creature, and the differences between he and Sprocket are stacking up. (My vet says I have Second Dog Syndrome. Apparently it’s a Thing among people who had great first dogs.) But that’s another post.

Anyway! Moving on. Oh, sorry. Here’s a photo.

(For the record, huckleberry is not at all forlorn about being under the couch. That is where he wants to be.)

Okay. Sorry for that minor diversion. Now, onto this post, which strikes at a subject that is near and dear to my heart. This is a little jumbly right now, because, although I’ve been living with this train of thought for a long time, it is a long, long train, with lots and lots of interesting little cars that don’t always want to stay on the track. But I am going to give it a shot.

When I was in my first editorial assistant job, I was already working for the J. Peterman catalog as a copywriter. So “corporate copy” wasn’t something I shied from, although I’d be lying if I didn’t say I told myself that the fictional nature of that copy and the imagining it allowed me to do was fueling my future career as a novelist. I’d also already done a stint in advertising, and spent a good amount of time picking apart commercials and advertisements, wondering how they worked and made me Want Things. (For more on my beginnings in marketing and corporate copy, listen to this episode of Writers’ Rough Drafts.)

But this is not the post on why we should look at corporate copy/advertorials/whatever with as much gravitas as we look at “real writing.” (That post is here.) This is a post on the harm we do to the industry of writers in general, and to the generations of writers who come after us, if we don’t acknowledge all the work we do.

Am I being dramatic? Not in the least.

Listen. We’ve all heard writers kvetch and moan about how annoying it is when someone says, “Oh, you’re a writer? Cool. Write anything I’d have read?” It seems to be a sly way of asking writers if they’re famous enough. Lately, I’ve taken to answering this way:

“It depends on what you like to read.”

I like this answer for a lot of reasons. It puts the onus on the asker of the question to tell me what they like, and it opens up conversation. But we all know that’s not the intent of the question, and that intent is why I think it’s important for all of us to disclose how writers actually make their money:

Many people believe that, if you get paid for putting words down on paper, you are not a real writer. 

I know. It sounds crazy. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that writing corporate copy or social-media posts “isn’t really writing.” I once heard this from a jackweed customs officer, believe it or not.

Come on, people. Writers who write corporate copy or social media copy are quite likely making more bank than any of us ever will penning short stories or poems. I made $5 a word easy when I was writing for Peterman, and that was in the late ’90s. Tell me I’m not a writer, for writing pithy, imaginative copy that makes people want to up and buy a tiny faux-croc-skin change purse for $75. I dare you.

And here comes the second reason for being loud and proud of where you make your money: I can’t think of another profession that is as head-in-the-clouds when it comes to how we make our money as writing for a living is. You’re not doing the profession any good by not placing a dollar value on what you write, and accounting for it over the entire arc of your career. This attitude is destructive. College students and their parents regularly ask me if it’s still possible to make a living as a novelist. The answer is that it never was possible to make a living JUST as a novelist. Writers always have some other thing going on, whether it was writing corporate stuff, or speaking gigs, or editing, or writing articles about the craft of writing. Sure, it’s all related, but it’s not all strictly writing novels.

We are not one-trick ponies. We are hacks, sometimes. And we should be damn proud of it, because it puts food on the table and keeps us writing and awake and doing things we also like to do, like  having lunch with writer friends. And signing up for races that cost a pretty penny. And going to writer’s retreat. And running literary magazines.

So: Got a day job? Say it loud and proud, right alongside of your “Yes, I’m a writer.” Write copy for a living while you’re penning your magnum opus? Say that, too. Giving guided tours of New York while you’re screenwriting? Yeah, that too. Walking dogs? Man. You’re going to have some awesome stories.

Listen. When we can come to terms with the fact that writing does not pay all the bills, we might actually be able to make people value our work. We might actually then bring it home to people who expect us to do stuff  “for free,” because we are ostensibly “living our dreams,” or whatever.

The more we can get used to the fact that writing is a commodity, the more we can expect to get paid for it. Because every time I open up a new word document, or a new notebook, I am putting a little piece of my memory, my education, my heart down on that piece of paper, and dammit, I expect to get paid well for it.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Measuring your career and profitability: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 15 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-14 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“When your book hits a major best-seller list, it does create a meaningful ripped effect—more people hear about it, more sales get triggered…and you’re likely to get more invitations to do media or to speak.” (pg. 220)

“It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.” (pg. 229)

These two quotes come from two different sections of Friedman’s book. The first is from a chapter on book launches, and the second is from a chapter on making a freelancing career.

I see them as being related. My book career is, more and more, related to my freelance writing career, and I am looking to streamline this even more, as I get older and, uh, mature in my career.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now how a lot of writing actually mirrors a lot of the way we would work in any other career: tracking your successes, doing your research, training for success, making sure you have the right resources to succeed, are all par for the course, just as they are in any other field. This is as it should be.

For today’s post, we’ll talk a little bit about what it was like for me before and after my book was published.

My book was published in 2016. Before then, I was doing a lot of marketing writing and content creation. I still do this, because I really enjoy it, but the bulk of the things I was hired to do was either pitched magazine articles or corporate work. A large part of this is not only my actual qualifications, but where I felt most comfortable offering expertise. Even while I was in the process of getting published—a long year, because that’s how long it takes in the traditional publishing world—I didn’t feel quite comfortable talking about what it was like to write fiction or publish it.

Most of my speaking gigs and teaching gigs up to then leaned on my expertise as an editor for the Tahoma Literary Review: I would come into classrooms and talk about things like working with an editor, what editing careers look like. I focused more on the broader field of publishing, since I had a lot of experience in that already, on both the publishing end and the editing and writing ends, as a freelance writer.

After I published, though, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I could see the various options that were open to me more clearly, and, probably most importantly, I felt confident in my offerings. Here’s the key, though: Nothing had changed in terms of my expertise at writing fiction, but the book—that product in my head—gave me key currency with which to trade.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu debuted at number 5 on my distributor’s fiction bestseller list. And it crawled its way up to number 3, and then eventually fell off the back end, after eight long months. And although this is not one of the major best-seller lists that Friedman refers to, it gave me even more of a leg to stand on, if only in my own view of my career as a published writer.

After I published, I felt much more confident pitching magazines with articles on the art of publishing and the craft of writing. And even the nod I got from the Thurber House (Marty Wu was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor) gave me the added emotional impetus I needed to pitch and write an article on black humor, a topic I’ve always wanted to cover.

This where tracking the profitability of these ventures, though, becomes paramount. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the headiness of chasing after speaking gigs and teaching opportunities, or penning blog posts and interviews. And, because much of this work is done with no immediate financial return on time investment (no, you do not usually get paid for doing Q&As about your book), it’s also easy to fall into the trap of justifying this time spent as moving towards more book sales and more speaking gigs.

But you have to work to balance these out. You must acquire paying gigs in order to offset the “free” work you’re doing in order to promote your book and its work.

Pre-publication, that work looked like marketing work for me. Post-publication, it’s paid articles about writing and publishing. It’s also adjunct work.

When I visit college classes, students often ask me if it’s “still possible” to earn a living off of writing books. I tell them yes, but that it’s time to expand the definition of what that means: “Being a writer” means, to me, sharing what I have learned with others. It means building on the capital I’ve acquired and leveraging that.

I mentioned tracking your profitability in the headline of this piece, and I think, the things I mention above are all parts of that puzzle. But one tool you must use is a time tracker and invoicing service. I have used Harvest for many years, thanks to my colleague at TLR, Ann Beman, who introduced me to it ages ago. It comes with a built-in set of parameters that include billable and non-billable hours, so that I can see where my time is spent. I have a complicated formula in my head that allows me to “weigh” what I’m doing against its inherent value, which I’m not going to share with you here because it is too involved—and frankly, I’m not 100% sure of what it actually is.

But I do value the work, on both a practical and an emotional level. And in our society right now, which is based on money exchange and not on, say, the barter system, well, measuring your profitability is the only way I can see of being sure that we are valuing our work on the same level everyone else does.

Here are some tips for you:

  • If you’re doing work for free, be sure you offset it with plenty of work that pays well.
  • Measure or track your time. Be clear about this; no wishy-washiness. You need to know where your time is going.
  • Find your own sense of worth and value around your work. Experience counts, so you can’t expect to command top dollar if you’re just starting out.
  • Finally, don’t underestimate the emotional value of a hard piece of “currency,” whether that be your published book(s), articles you’ve written, or your degree. I mean this mostly from an emotional standpoint. And if you don’t feel ready to make an offering because you haven’t published or are mid-degree or whatever, that’s okay, too, but be realistic about it: many great writing coaches don’t have MFAs, but you may not feel comfortable stepping into that field without one. Everyone is different, and respecting your own parameters is good. But so is pushing your own limits.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Great Literature Events: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 14 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-13 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Unless you’re a household name as an author, you need to think carefully about how you’ll structure your reading or event. What will be instructive, entertaining, or delightful for those who turn out? Readings have a tendency to be dreadfully boring, with audience members wondering when they will end..” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 214)

In my work as a disaster relief volunteer, we have the end user of our aid always in mind. The end user in our case are the families receiving our aid, so everything we do must in some way contribute to a good result for them. This kind of thinking–asking ourselves who we ultimately serve–makes everything easier, by way of allowing us to benchmark: Does this course of action serve the families who receive our aid? No? Then let’s pursue another solution. Yes? Okay, let’s follow this road and see where it takes us.

I think folks who hold readings must also consider carefully who their end user is. Often, writers run into the question of why they’re having a reading or event, and the answer isn’t always, “oh, to sell more books.” Your experiences may vary, but for me, the end user is always the reader, and the reason I make appearances is to win people over, to keep them reading me.

The why of being a writer is about the readership; the why of why I choose to put pen to paper is about the readership. For me, then, the why of readings and events is also the end user.

Years ago, when I was involved in marketing for the MFA program I graduated from, I was asked to produce an event at AWP, the biggest writer’s conference of the MFA’s year. As part of our sponsorship of the conference, we had access to a space that we could use for a cocktail party. We wanted people to socialize, but we also wanted them to get something out of the event. My only tenet going into the planning of the event was that I wanted to make it an event that people–our end user, the attendees of the party–would have fun at, would get something out of. I wanted them to be impressed with our graduates and walk away with a bright, warm spot that they would associate with our MFA.

We had readings, sure. But they were pop-up readings. Our meetings at the MFA were called to order with a big ship’s bell, so we used that to “ding” the room into order whenever a reading was to start. That kept people on their toes. And after every reading—thirty seconds max, I think it was—the person who was reading drew from a big hat of raffle tickets and someone would win a prize.

There were very short speeches. But mostly, it was a packed, rowdy room full of people who hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and people who had wandered in to see exactly what the hell all the dinging and laughing and cheering and ruckus was about. Members of the board of directors for the conference stopped by. They said they had never seen such a turnout for these value-added events before

It remains, by far, one of my most memorable and happy professional experiences, and it was all down to making sure we kept the end user in mind.

When my book was published and I started to plan readings and events, I remembered how well that event had worked, but I don’t think I saw much in the way of possibility to recreate that kind of event. The closest I came was helping to put together a panel discussion between myself and two other writers at a New York City bookstore. We all read from our works, very briefly, and then we had a robust conversation about the state of diversity in literature. It was a great evening. I really enjoyed myself, but I was pretty clear that was because I felt like the audience was walking away with some solid information under their belts, stuff they could feel happier about having learned. I recently participated in a similar event that had the same structure, and I was so happy to be asked to join in.

I love events with other writers. Two or three or four heads are always better than one, and the energy in a room is so much better when you can bounce off of someone else. But even if you’re doing a solo event, there are ways to make it feel like someone else is up there with you, and ways to promote other writers: One writer I know, Kaitlin Solimine, buys copies of books by people she knows, and raffles them off at the end of her events. She also printed pre-stamped postcards with her book’s cover on them, so that we would almost inadvertently spread the word.

Probably, for me, the best thing ever is getting a chance to promote someone else’s work. I love the sensation you get of using your success, however limited it might be, to bolster someone else’s work. We see this in our opening event for the invitation-only (for now) twice-yearly writer’s retreat, too. Twice now we’ve given the faculty members the option of just doing a reading or opting into a discussion with one of our retreat’s staff members as moderator, and both times they’ve opted for the moderator.

This might be for the simple reason that three people makes for better dissemination of nervous energy. Or that it’s just easier to talk to a moderator whose job it is to see the connection between two vastly different pieces of work. In any case, it’s preferable.

You may not come to the same conclusion as I did about who my end user is. That’s okay. But you should know, at least, who you’re aiming to reach, and build your strategy around that.

And now, your tips!

  • Each event may be different. Ask yourself who’s likely to be there, and what they may expect out of it.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your personality. I’m loud, so when even me at the mic couldn’t make the room hush up during the big event I mention above, I started to sing The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Pretty soon, the whole room was singing, and it’s easier to make everyone stop singing than it is to make them stop talking to people they really like. And at the very first reading I ever went to, the author only read for a little bit before he said that he didn’t really like long readings, and he pulled out his steel guitar and started playing for us instead. I don’t know how many instant fans he made that night. I was one of them.
  • Do ask other writers to join in. This is one thing that never, ever fails. I love spending time with other writers, and this is such a great way to support each other. Share the love!

What were the best readings or literary events you’ve participated in or attended? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The E-mail Newsletter: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 13 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-12 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

So what should you put in this newsletter? The only limit is your imagination, and while the intent is to keep your name and work in front of people, you also want to keep it interesting—which means trying to provide value or otherwise focus on other people or quality content. (The Business of Being a Writer, pp. 191-193)

I’ve just sent out the latest copy of my newsletter. I try to do one once a month, but every once in awhile I slip up, and actually, I wish I’d started this whole newsletter thing a lot earlier. As has been previously discussed on my social media, I love letters, anyway, so what took me so long?

I thought for this post, we’d dissect my own newsletter, and then I’ll tell you about a few I really like, how’s that?

The first thing people see is the subject line. For awhile there, I had a cutesy name for my newsletter—Yi Shun’s MiscelLAIney—but I abandoned that quickly. I’ve never been known by my last name, really, and nothing in my name loans itself to a cute pun or moniker, so I just started titling it by whatever month it was. (“July News from Yi Shun,” say.) I’m not thrilled with this, but for now, it is what it is, and I’m okay with it.

The second thing folks see is a banner photo. I try hard to choose one that’s different each time, but lately I’ve been finding myself gravitating to the same style of banner photo–a bunch of fruit or a big swathe of something or another, like trees or blue sky, and that’s okay; I just need to be better about making sure I take one of these photos at least once a month, so I have a ready stock to choose from, and a photo that makes me feel good. What is the point in struggling when I can make it easier on myself? And I really enjoy the act of putting together the newsletter, except for when I struggle for one reason or another—like hunting down a stupid banner photo. Meh.

The second thing is the headline. This sets the tone for the whole newsletter. In my template, the headline reads, “You guys it is over 100 out,” or something colloquial like that. I like the chatty tone, but I have got to be better about crafting these headlines. They do not stick, and I’m not sure they invoke people to reading these newsletters.

After the headline, they get to the chatty intro paragraph. I think this is just a hangover from regular letters for me. It’s a certain amount of throat-clearing, but I like to see it as a little thank you and a tiny catch-up, the “So…how are you?” part of the newsletter. Whatever you call it, I’m going to hang onto it, for now. It seems weird to start any correspondence without it. I’m going to fine-tune it sometime in the near future, though, and play with some anchor links to the different sections of the newsletter, so people can jump quickly to those sections.

The first real section is the list of books I’ve read since I last checked in with my newsletter readership. These are preceded by a little paragraph, and sometimes a photo, of an indie bookstore I visited in the preceding month. Sometimes I don’t get to visit a bookstore, then that’s sad. I write a little something about the bookstore and I like every picture of a book cover to that book on the bookstore’s web site itself, so people can buy it. I don’t know that anyone’s done this yet, but I like this part of my newsletter and it’s not likely to change. The notations about the books themselves are typically capsule reviews. I feature three books, usually.

The next section is a relatively recent adjustment. It’s there to provide a little glimpse into my personality. It is Quotidien Object I Love. I pick an everyday object and tell people why I love it. It’s a break from the info-dump a newsletter can be, and it tells my readers a little something about me. This section—the Funny Little Thing About Yi Shun section—was always there, but it was previously an ArtFail. Like, a shit drawing or watercolor. The thing is, that title was mean to be self-deprecating, but I don’t actually believe much art is failure. I think it’s just nice to put pen to paper. So that section wasn’t ringing true at all. Out it went.

The final section is back to business. It’s Where to Find Me, and it tells people about any events I’m appearing at and what I’ve written and published recently. This section serves the obvious function of telling people where to read me and meet me, but it also serves the secondary function of making me feel like I’ve actually done something in the past month.

I used to end with a section called The Last Word, but I like to save things I actually have anything to say about for my actual web site, so I dumped that section too, recently, and just closed with something simple, like “See you next month.”

What am I doing right?

  • I am leaning on the things I like anyway—reading and chattiness and ordinary objects—and this loans the newsletter an element of authenticity.
  • I am trying to provide value, by way of sharing the books I read and the events I’m going to.
  • I am trying to be regular about this newsletter. It is not without fail. But it does appear mostly regularly, and it does get a good number of opens, although that number has been dropping over the months.

What could I be doing better?

  • I would like to provide more value. Maybe something like a writer’s tip or a tip from the editor’s side of the desk, or even a roundup of things I’ve found on the web that I really like.
  • I would like to be more germane to my work. Since I do teach writing for a good chunk of my work, maybe something unique to provide would be an exercise. Or I can draw from my personal desire to see writers draw more lessons from other fields, like business or visual art.
  • I would like to be better about marketing this newsletter overall. Things like tracking the number of opens and dialing in to see what I can do to improve that would be worthwhile uses of my time.
  • I’d like to drive more engagement as a result of, or as content on, this newsletter. Maybe this will take the form of asking more questions and posting people’s answers, or hosting some other more interactive feature.

Now. Here are some newsletters I really like:

  • Aspen Institute’s Five Best Ideas of the day. It is short and sweet and makes me feel smart.
  • Submittable’s Submishmash Weekly. Publishing opportunities and good reading for the week. I get a lot of good out of this one.
  • Erika Dreifus’s The Practicing Writer. Here, too: Useful, concise, and friendly.

I see there are no visual art newsletters that come to mind. This is too bad. Could it be that I am not subscribed to any? Meh. If you think of one you think I’ll like, please let me know in the comments below.

Now. Here are your tips, or rather, some best practices, for starting your own newsletter.

  • Really think about what and who you already do that you can offer via a newsletter. This will add to your enjoyment of the thing. Presumably, you do a thing because you like it; if you make it a component of your newsletter, you get to do this thing at least whenever your newsletter comes out. Really, the reason to do this is because you are what will make your newsletter great, and compelling.
  • Plan your newsletter, each time you write it. Do not do the thing I did for the first year or so where I just willy-nilly sat down and wrote the thing because I was on deadline. Inevitably I’d forget something. Or it would be riddled with typos. Don’t do that.
  • Ask yourself who your target audience is, and what you’d like to accomplish. Friedman’s book has some good ideas for content and some questions you may want to ask yourselves.

Right! That’s enough for this list-heavy, no-graphics-whatsoever post. If you have a newsletter, tell me what the favorite parts of your newsletter are in the comments below!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Finding Your Fingerprint: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 12 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-11 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Sometimes ‘platform’ is used as shorthand for a writer’s celebrity factor…Think of your platform as a fingerprint: your background, education, and network affect what your platform looks like in the beginning…platform can’t be built separate from your creative work. (The Business of Being a Writer, page 173)

I met Friedman while I was a student at my MFA program. Her talk to us was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “platform” used with regard to a writer’s resume; and, at the time, I just filed away my notes from her talk and logged the phrase in my head.

But I was coming to an MFA from a different perspective than many MFA students do, I think: I was already an established writer and editor and had credits and a publishing history to speak of. In short, I already had a “platform”; I’d just never referred to it as such.

But as I gain more distance from my past as a writer, I am beginning to realize that maybe I never did really have a platform that I could really call consistent. For a long time, I specialized in writing about the outdoors and the environment. (I discovered the personal essay around this time, too, and have never really left that behind.) Then I realized I wasn’t very good at reporting, so I went into marketing and copywriting, and actually, I’d write anything if it kept me in funds while I was working on my novel. I stayed there for awhile, but I found I missed editorial, so I went back to dabbling in that by way of some freelance writing in the environmental world and eventually found a home in editing and critiquing longer work.

I once heard a respected businesswoman say that she believed you should reinvent yourself every six or seven years. She said she based that on some biological fact about people’s cells: every six or seven years, we get a whole new set of cells–by then, everything should have turned over. Okay, I buy that. And it’s kind of nice to believe so.

But how are you ever to build a platform if you are, like me, perpetually curious?

Well. You can specialize–really dial in to one thing or another. That wasn’t something I was really willing to do. I’m interested in too many things to confine myself to studying one thing. Or you can do what I think of as layering. I’ve pulled the lens way out on myself, and if I were to envision it, my platform would now look pretty broad.

I’ve been called a “renaissance” type of person, and while I don’t exactly love that idea–jack of all trades, master of none, is the impression I get from that description–the truth is that sometimes, your personality is what ends up defining your platform. And at the end of the day, what feels right is sometimes just plain right.

Here’s what feels right to me right now:

“Hi. My name is Yi Shun. I’m an expert in working with words.”

Here are a few things to consider for when you start thinking about your own platform:

  • Consider what fires you up, what makes you lose time when you’re working on it.
  • If you’re stuck, go back to the basics that Friedman lists: your education, your background, and your network. What do these things say about you?
  • Whatever your platform is has to jive with your personality. For instance, I know a friend who loves to write about outliers, and that’s because he has aspirations to be an outlier himself, although he’d never abandon his family to do so. Another friend is fascinated by extreme sport, and so his professional life has tinges of extreme thinking in it–he regularly pushes and challenges his team to go outside of their comfort zones.

What would you say your platform is? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Getting Creative with Audience: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 11 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-10 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

In a section on Building a Blog Readership, Friedman posits a few methods. One is “Create Guides on Popular Topics,” and in it, she writes,

“If you’re a nonfiction writer, then this probably come s naturally. Put together a 101 guide, FAQ, or tutorial related to your topic or expertise…If you’re a novelist, this strategy may take some creative thinking. Consider a few examples…”

Friedman then goes on to list a few tactics, including a travel guide if your book is strongly regional, a list of favorite reads by genre/category, or an FAQ around a strong “avocational pursuit” that influences your novels.

Please indulge me while I do a little beating up of myself. For bucket’s sake, my novel is based in Taiwan. And Las Vegas. And New York. My character is obsessed with self-help books. And diaries. 

Listen. You are never going to be able to hit all the marks when it comes to marketing your own books, or building your own platform. Someone somewhere is going to look back on your marketing efforts and see big, black, gaping holes, and if you’re very unlucky, that someone will be yourself, say, two years after your book has been published.

Woe. Oh, woe.

Listen. This is why they created the Internet, so that we can correct our own mistakes. And now, I would like to tell you a little bit about Marty Wu’s Taiwan, or, rather, the Taiwan that *I* know, which made me feel like my heroine needed to go there.

Taiwan 101, for those who might someday want to visit

Nomenclature

My mother calls it “Our Little Sweet Potato Island.” This image has stayed with me for so long that, whenever I look on a map for Taiwan now, I half-expect to see a tiny orange blob in the middle of the ocean, Not only that, I expect to see little tendrils of roots, sprouting into the water on any map.

My late dog used to lie on his belly on the floor, one leg tucked in and the other–*sproing!*–canted out at an angle. From above he looked like Taiwan, and thus like a sweet potato.

Black-and-white dog lying on belly with one foot out

Do not call Taiwan the sweet potato island when you visit. No one will know what you are talking about.

You might see it on older maps as “Formosa.” This is the name the Portuguese gave it in 1542. It was named this for a very long time, well into the 20th century. Although it carries with it a lot of baggage, my parents, at least, never seemed to mind it being called that, since it translates to “Beautiful Island.”

Language

“I speak only Taiwanese, not Mandarin,” is a common refrain for me when I go back home.

The people who have come over from the mainland to make their homes on Taiwan are usually perplexed. “But…are you uneducated?” one said to me. Silly cow,** I said back, this is Taiwan.

In the south, more people speak Taiwanese than in the north. In Taipei, the capital, you will find people who speak English. And most signs are spelled out in both phonetics and Mandarin, although Taiwan seems to have not decided on a system of romanization of the Mandarin.

Ah, the Mandarin. Yes. This is the official language of Taiwan. This is a hangover from the many years we were occupied, and then, the post-war years, when we were under martial law. Also, Taiwanese can be written, but it doesn’t have a strong written tradition.

Which I kind of love. Hearing a story told in my native Taiwanese is probably close to one of my top ten experiences.

Weather

Hot. Sticky. Rainy in the afternoons, providing brief respite from the humidity. Winter is the best time to visit Taiwan, hands down. We took a November visit one year, and although it rained a fair amount, it was still utterly beautiful. I’ll always aim for a winter or late fall visit. I’ve also been in December, and I loved it then, too, although the humidity made it feel like it was summer.

Bring layers. Light sweaters are a good thing.

Geography

In the mountains, there is coffee and bamboo.

There are hot springs in vinegar distilleries, at which you can taste the produce.

In the fine, fertile fields of the west, you’ll find such fresh vegetables that you’ll never want to season with anything but a little bit of salt, ginger, and garlic ever again.

Further southwest, mudflats are everywhere, and so are oyster beds. Have some oyster and dried-radish omlette; you’ll never be the same.

In the woods, out on the flats, in the cities–wherever  you go, eat the fruit.

Cuisine

Oops. See “Geography,” above.

Places I have Been and Loved

Anping Fort, or Fort Zeelandia: I love it because it is the last memory I have of my second uncle before he passed away. You will not have these memories, but you will find it very weird that there is a Dutch fort in the middle of Taiwan. Also, around the fort there are people making candy and you should buy some and eat some.

Kaohsiung: I love this city. Another uncle teaches at the medical college there, and my cousin teaches Mandarin for foreigners at yet another university. My aunt, an artist and loosely the inspiration for Marty’s aunt in the novel, had an exhibition at the art museum here. You will not have such memories. But you can walk along the Love River, and go to the wonderful department store, and have good coffee and a kick-ass Taiwan breakfast, all within just a few miles of each other.

Taroko Gorge: The waters through this gorge used to run so clear and so blue, but then there was an earthquake in 1999, one that really rattled the entire island. Since then, the locals say, the waters are still blue, so deep is the gorge, but they are very, very cloudy. It doesn’t matter. This is an extraordinary place and you will walk away knowing there’s nothing else quite like it in your recent history and probably in your near future.

TouLiu: This is home for me. It means nothing to you, except we grow great fruit and coffee. If we go together, though, I will make you visit. There is a street here called “Taiping Old Street” which is…I don’t know. It’s the place I eventually set some key scenes. But it’s also a place of great pain: the Japanese occupied Taiwan for a very long time, and this stretch of shopfronts has been preserved to recall this era of architecture and history. How strange, to remind oneself every day of this period, while you are going about your daily marketing.

japanese colonial architecture on Taiping Old Street in Taiwan

Anything else you need to know

Call me. I will talk your ear off. I will show you my photos. The place will steal your heart, and then some, and you will be happy you went.

Mostly, though, you are likely to be interested because you know me. Maybe you have read my novel, and you are a little bit interested in the things that drive Marty.

What drives us to visit a place, after all, but the stories we’ve heard about it, and the stories we hope to find for ourselves?

I do have tips for you:

  • When you get an idea for anything tangentially related to your book, write. it. down. You do not want to be kicking yourself for later.
  • Don’t forget to review this sheet of paper on which you will write things down. Do not pull a me.
  • Think of your book as a reader might. What things will this reader discover in your pages that would make them curious, or want to Google something or another?

What exciting things can you think of to do with the book you’re working on, or the books you’ve published? Tell me in the comments below.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Idea Generation: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 10 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-9 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Oof. I am all kinds of behind this week. And I have missed the regularity of writing these posts. I have also already broken one of Friedman’s rules for building platform (more on that a little later in this series) but totally reneging on the schedule I built for myself.

Welp. If it helps any, it is partially because I went to the dentist. I believe that is all that needs to be said on a variety of levels.

But I digress. This week’s post almost came without a quote from Friedman’s book, because the information was so broad. What you need to know is that writing for magazines and periodicals—what Friedman terms “traditional freelance writing” is the subject here, and that

“By studying a publication carefully across two to three issues–or the span of a few weeks online–you can get a sense of what material is written by editors and what’s regularly assigned to freelancers.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 150.)

Friedman then goes on to list thirteen categories—types—of articles that might be assigned to freelancers over three pages. Over my career, I have pitched or written-for-hire all thirteen of these categories, and reflecting on those had me falling down a rabbit hole of nostalgia in which I remembered the era of my career when I spent entire days coming up with article ideas and then crafting pitches around them and landing some of them.

That time was, by far, one of the most productive of my life. I don’t do this any more, for a variety of reasons, the most significant being a change in the things I wanted to spend my time doing, obviously, but I honestly don’t think my brain has ever been happier. I look back now, me with my hyper-organized (by some measures) mock traveler’s notebook and my tri-color pen and my time tracker, and I wonder, how the hell did I do it?

Let me introduce you to the Fat Li’l Notebook.


First, a caveat. This is not the exact model I used back in my heyday. The one I prefer is actually called The Fat Li’l Neatbook, and it is so rare now that Amazon has it listed at nearly $6, whereas its cousin, this thing with the spiral binding and the therefore-raggedy pages when you tear them out, is just $3.

But you want to know what I did with this notebook. Well, let me tell you. I would take it to the Barnes and Noble, and I would sit down with it and get a stack of magazines that interested me, and then I would page through them all, loosely, and just let my brain run wild. Every time I got an idea for a story or a feature or whatever that might be good for a magazine, I’d write down a capsule description of the idea, and then I’d notate somwhere the magazines that idea might be good for.

I used one sheet per idea. Whenever I found sources or tangents that would add to that idea, flesh it out more, I would add it to that sheet of paper. Eventually I had something I could pitch, and then I would put together a few pitches and send that idea out.

And when I had completed an assignment or at least pitched it, I would either rip it out or cross out the page (I can’t remember which I did. There must have been a reason I preferred the version of the notebook without the spiral binding, but that could be either because I hated the feel of the thing OR because I tore out the pages; I don’t know.)

This method did two things: One, it allowed me to never run out of ideas; two, it made me feel smart whenever I paged through it. It made me full like I had a full, functioning brain.

This is not something that cannot be overstated.

See, some creatives are very, very good at beating ourselves up. We might have produced something lovely at some points in our lives, but there are the days when whole hours will go by, and we feel like we have done nothing. Hell, there may be weeks that go by without us feeling as if we have done anything worthwhile. And so, seeing a fat little notebook with something written on each page is a very valuable thing.

I don’t know what I did with that original notebook. I know there were still ideas in it that I hadn’t written up yet.

In fact, now that I’m remembering it, I may go back to this methodology. I get ideas for essays, short stories, things to pitch to outlets, all the time. But I’m no longer storing them anyplace, which means if I don’t find time to act on those ideas in a reasonable time period of having an idea, well, it just goes into the ether. This is not a good thing.

Anyway. I’ve digressed a little bit, but I do have some actionable tips for you:

  1. Write your ideas down someplace. (Duh.)
  2. Read widely. You never know which publication might jar an idea in you.
  3. Read the publications about the things that interest you. Your interests can easily become the areas in which you become an expert.
  4. When you come up with ideas, don’t overthink them. Just jot down things that interest you. Consider a good exercise for your brain.

That’s it for this week! On Friday, look for another post from this series.

What’s your favorite method of keeping track of ideas? Tell me in the comments below.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.