Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Freelance Life

A self-employed person working, or available to work, for a number of employers, rather than being committed to one, and usually hired for a limited period.

It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Self-employed. Working for a number of employers. Hired for a limited time. As with many facets of business, the job description rarely matches the position. Freelancing is no different. It’s been touted as the work from home, pick your projects, set your own hours, convenient, easy choice for writers in this, the age of technology.

It is nothing of the sort. In fact, freelancing has been the toughest job I’ve ever had.

Depending on the source, I can spend the better part of a day transcribing tape recordings. I can’t decipher my own handwriting so, when I interview by phone or in person, I use a tape recorder. Don’t worry, I’m up front about it with all my interviewees. Not one of them has turned me down, yet. There is one other reason why I tape interviews; so I can quote my sources accurately.

I find a topic I feel hasn’t been covered and I research it. I jot down sources and contacts. I read until my eyes hurt. I make notes until they start losing any semblance of order. I organize the information and pull quotes I can attribute to another source (always footnoting the source in the article). Inevitably I need answers to many questions on the topic and start writing those down. The list can be long. Once I have my complete list of questions I go back through my notes and research to see if I’ve missed the answer somewhere. When I can’t answer those questions, I call on the contacts I’ve uncovered.

Every interview is different because every interviewee is different. There are people who have so much information to give but little time to give it. Then there are people so enthused about what they do that nothing will stop them from giving as much detail as they can for every question. These are the extremes with many kinds of people in between. I love and hate both of these types of interviews since those with little time don’t take up as much of mine but some how miss answering some key points. Those that give so much detail that I have to flip the tape over or put in a second one always answer my questions, invariably burying the answers so deep in the interview that my fingers hurt from the transcribe. You’d think I’d learn to cut out the waste, but I am my own worst enemy; I have to type everything – I rarely skip over parts of the interview.

Which brings me to the worst part, the transcribing. I remember being hit so hard in a hockey game once that I literally saw stars. I would gladly take that punishment again instead of transcribing taped interviews. I get this panic every time I push the play button. What if it didn’t work and none of the interview is on the tape? If it isn’t, I start over, and I probably miss my deadline which means, I don’t get paid. Even though this has never happened to me, I can’t shake that initial feeling.

Once the transcription is complete then comes the easy part. I love writing the articles and enjoy the process of stringing words together. That is, until I’m just about ready to send the piece to my editor (whomever it happens to be that day). There’s this spike of self-doubt that feels like the worst hunger pains I’ve ever had; a nagging, empty feeling that makes me think the work isn’t good enough. As you might expect, I have to give the work one more good going over before sending it off. It never quells the pangs of fear and doubt, but I send it anyway. The days when my edits are so heavy that I can hardly see where my words once were, are long gone. There’s always a few fixes and matters of differing opinions but all are easy enough to handle.

I have to find the work, research, pitch it, more research, interviews (some travel at times and always on my dime), write it, edits, and rewrites. I don’t set my own hours – those are set by the deadline. If the work has to be done in a day, I work whatever hours I need to get it done. Yep, I’ve pulled all-nighters and not for as big a payday as you’d think.

Why do I do it? Simple. Writing is what I do best so, I can’t fight it.

Fiction has its similarities. We research our subjects to death, we write whenever there is a spare moment, and we do it far longer than our eyes and minds can take. All for the same reason – we love it. Are writers destined to poverty? It would seem not; names like Rowling, Brown and King negate that thought. If nothing else, at least for the majority, writing disproves the old adage, do what you love and the money will follow.

Do what you love because you love to do it.

Here’s an article I wrote, ToyOps Excels With Toys That Teach. After transcribing the interview it turned out to be seven pages long, single spaced. One interview, seven pages. I still twitch at the thought.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Road To Getting Published

Getting published, seeing your words in print, is possible. There are many avenues down which a writer can travel: letters to the editor, poetry, newspaper and magazine articles, e-zines, fan-fiction, as well as the brass ring that is a novel. The big question is, how do you get published?

How Do I Know?

So, what qualifies me to write about getting published? How can I claim to know how to get published. Well, because I’ve been published.

I’m thrilled that my novel, Endo, will be out in November, but it won’t be the first thing I got published. I’ve written for several magazines and newspapers: Equinox (so sorry it’s gone), Canadian Wildlife, Seasons, Canadian Sports Collector, Globe and Mail and Ottawa Sun among others. I was fortunate and honoured to receive a 2002 National Magazine Award for my work with Seasons magazine.

There are a few articles floating around the net with my name on them. Here are two stories you can check out at Forget Magazine: I Get It Now and Train Of Thought.

Does all of this make me some kind of expert? Not in the least. But, it does give me experiences to share with others. Maybe I can make someone’s road to getting published that little bit smoother.

How I Got Started

Telling the story of how I got published might give you some ideas of your own to explore.

I’d spent a dozen or so years in advertising and ended up working client-side for a home improvement retailer. One day I came up with fifteen different names for a toilet. That, and a few other things, was my cue for a change.

I’ve held many jobs but writing was what I knew and did best, so, I decided to try freelancing. I had a portfolio of radio and television, newspaper and magazine ads, point of purchase signage, posters, press releases, articles, and I’d even written a newsletter. This was great if I wanted to continue writing for the home improvement industry, but I didn’t. That was the last thing I wanted. I needed change. So, I looked at my interests, the markets available, and decided nature and wildlife was the way to go.

Part of that decision was based on my love of photography. I’d read that there are few writers shooting and few photographers writing. It would definitely be a positive.

I researched what it would take to get published and learned that a writer would query an editor at a newspaper or magazine with a story idea and the editor would decide if it was right for their publication. That was fine if you have a relationship with editors. I didn’t know any of them, and they didn’t know me.

So, I had no samples to offer editors of either my writing or my photography. My only choice was to write a full article and provide the photos. This would prove that I could write and shoot; it would give me legitimacy.

That decision made, I sat down to look at what had been written over the past five years so as not to regurgitate an old idea. Or, at least to give a topic a new spin or update it. I decided to write a story on the plight of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake in Ontario - their last stronghold in Canada. I interviewed members of the Recovery Team. I went to Killbear Provincial Park and spent a few days with Chris Parent - better known in those parts as Snake Man - and his staff. I shot rolls of film and had a friend, Tony, visit another park to take as many photos as he could.

Armed with a ton of information, I sat down and wrote the article (it can be found at Brock University). Then, I wrote a query letter to accompany the article. I sent it to as many magazines as I could find that I felt would be interested (based on my research of their needs) in the story. No one wanted it. And, that was okay. I had even planned for that happening. Remember, the idea was to prove that I could do the job. It worked.

Though my story about rattlesnakes never made it to print, it gave me the opportunity to contact editors, who then knew my name. And, when considering the snake story, they were then comfortable receiving more traditional queries from me - here’s the idea in a few paragraphs, what do you think?

I owe a great big thank you (which I’ve extended personally) to Nancy Clark, former editor of Seasons Magazine. Based on my snake story, she gave me my first opportunity to write a feature article, How Light Pollution Affects Animals, which appeared in the Summer 2000 issue.

This was my path to getting published. It is just one method and you may try something similar. If nothing else, it shows that if you stay focused, do your research, and are open to new ideas, then you, too, can get published. Whatever you do, remember the three Ps when submitting your work and I know you’ll stand a better chance of seeing your words in print: Polite, Professional and Persistent.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Games Have Rules, Writing Has Guidelines

There are far more rules governing writing than there are governing golf. Grammar and spelling are lifelong pursuits for any writer and are made all the more manageable with desktop companions like a good dictionary, The Elements of Style, The Chicago Manual of Style and a host of others. Where rules should be considered guidelines is in the crafting of a story.

So many new writers see the word ‘rules’ and immediately adhere to them without question. This can be a dangerous thing considering that if every writer stayed true to these so-called ‘rules’ then fiction would be unbearably formulaic. I took it upon myself to research the ‘rules’ for writing a mystery. I’ve written a mystery/thriller to be released in November, so, I just wanted to see how close I came to staying inside the lines.

These are in no particular order and I have not listed all of the rules I found, only some of them.

*Plot is everything.

*The hero must be male.

*Introduce the detective and the culprit early on.

*The setting will be Los Angeles.

*Introduce the crime in the first three chapters.

*The crime should be sufficiently violent, preferably a murder. Or, it must be a murder mystery.

*The crime should be believable.

*Some violence is required.

*Certain Violence is prohibited.

*Write in first person.

*The hero cannot be the culprit.

*The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.

*Don't try to fool your reader.

*Use only two-character scenes.

*Authenticity is required.

*Do your research.

*Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.

*The reader should have the same opportunity as the Hero to solve the crime.

*No tricks can be played to mislead the reader unless it is also done to the Hero by the criminal.

*The Hero should not have a love interest.

*Neither the Hero nor one of the official investigators can turn out to be the criminal.

*The villain must be found by logical deduction, not luck, accident, or un-motivated confessions. Or, the solution must come by 'naturalistic means'. Or, the detective should solve the case using only rational and scientific methods.

*There can be only one hero, not a team.

*The villain has to be someone who plays a prominent part of the story. After all, he/she is at least as important as the hero, right?

*The culprit can't be a servant.

What an interesting list of rules. Should one take these as gospel then we would never have had great stories from authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (no teams – poor Watson), Ian Rankin (write only in first person – poor Ian and his bestsellers, I’ve lost count), and Sue Grafton (the hero must be male – how dare she write a female protagonist) just to name a few.

I certainly don’t want to walk through each item on this list, but I do want to talk about why we should view any ‘rule’ of writing as a guideline. Consider these ‘rules’ carefully before you decide how stringently you want to follow them. I’ve broken my fair share, thank goodness.

For instance, the first on the list – plot is everything. Let’s be honest, when it comes to mysteries the plot is extremely important. However, a killer plot with flat, lifeless, uninteresting characters would have readers, well, not reading. The plot drives the story but the character is what keeps the reader engaged. They see the mystery by way of the protagonist and not only root for them, they work with them. Give the reader a character to pull for, and you’ve got the reader hooked. As important as plot is, never forget the importance of your protagonist. It’s all about balance.

There are a few items on the list that I suggest you ignore; the hero must be male, the setting must be Los Angeles, write in first person, no teams. I’m sure readers will strike a few off the list right away considering personal taste, attitudes, and the work they’ve read by published authors. But, let’s not be too hasty about killing them all.

Many of these ‘rules’ come down to common sense when writing. Introducing your hero, culprit and crime early in the novel makes sense. If the crime takes place in the middle of the book you’d better have some entertainment planned to keep the reader around. Doing research and keeping it as real as possible make sense as well. If by the culprit can’t be a servant they mean that the butler can’t do it, then yeah, steer clear of that clichĂ©. I’m sure you’ll find more.

There are those items on the list that when handled carefully and respectfully, can be bent or outright broken. I’m referring to the use of violence. Many writers believe that certain areas of violence should never be touched on such as cruelty to animals, rape, and child molestation. I believe that if handled correctly, any of these areas can be used. Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones would not exist if she didn’t venture into this territory. Her protagonist is a young girl who was raped and murdered. It has been called a masterpiece of writing yet, those who would follow these ‘rules’ would staunchly disagree.

J.K. Rowling answered her critics regarding the omission of Dumbledore’s sexual preference by stating that it wasn’t necessary to the story. And, it wasn’t. Nowhere in the series of seven books would the mention of his sexual preference further the story or give the reader more clues to who he was. One should consider the same thing when writing about violence. Ask yourself if it is necessary and if it can happen off the page. Often it is the aftermath to an event that is the necessity showing the personality and mental state of the characters.

Whatever genre you write, be aware of the rules, learn them, try them, then do what is best for your story.

It seems my mystery/thriller, Endo, is colouring outside the lines.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Great Query Letter

I’ve often been asked, what do you do after you’ve finished your novel? After enjoying that wonderful feeling of accomplishment, I usually put the manuscript away for a few weeks and work on something else. Then I dig it out of whatever file I’ve buried it in and read it with a fresh perspective. The following edit takes weeks or months to complete and even then I’m never truly satisfied that the work is the best it can be. It can always be better. However, I know I must stop the editing cycle at some point and get on with it.

Getting on with it is submitting it. At first it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in regards to my writing. Well, there were a lot of hardests to contend with when I first started writing fiction. Trying to finish my first novel, my first edit, showing my work to others for critique… the list was long. But, I confess that the first time I sent a manuscript out was by far the most unnerving.

A few years ago I stumbled onto a great query letter example and wished I’d been able to lay my eyes on it before sending out my first query. I want to thank Jenny Bent, a literary agent and Vice President with the Trident Media Group, and Karin Gillespie, the letter’s author, for allowing me to reprint it here.

Jenny Bent’s comments are in italics.

Dear Ms. Bent:

Yay! She got my name right. You'd be surprised how many people don't. Although honestly, I don't hold it against them, but I know many agents who do.

My novel Who's My Daddy? took first place in the Sandhills Writers Conference in 2001 and one of the judges, Robert Bausch (author of A Hole in the Earth), called it "brilliant and original." I've read on your Web site that you handle women's fiction.

Good opening. I know Robert Bausch is a respected writer, and so if he liked it, that does mean something. Also, she demonstrates that she has done her research-I do indeed handle women's fiction.

Who's My Daddy? is a farcical Southern novel about Elizabeth Polk, a hairdresser who works at a beauty parlor for elderly ladies called the Cozy Cut. Everything in Elizabeth's life is "cattywampus." Her fiancé Clip Jenkins recently shoved a "Dear Jane" letter under the windshield wiper of her Geo Metro; she's embarrassed by her redneck daddy who blows up ottomans on TV in order to promote his rent-to-own furniture business; and her half-brother Lanier continually gets arrested for stealing lawn ornaments.

This is just plain funny. The only word I would have removed is "farcical," because farces are very tough to sell, but it would be hard for anyone outside of the business to know that.

Given her circumstances, Elizabeth can't understand why one of Augusta, Georgia's wealthiest matriarchs, Gracie Tobias, takes such a keen interest in her. Gracie introduces Elizabeth to her grandson Timothy who's just returned from a Buddhist monastery in California. When a romance between Elizabeth and Timothy develops, Elizabeth is plagued by insecurities regarding her lowly, family background.

Here, she's demonstrating that this novel does have conflict and hence a plot. Plots are good things. Agents and editors like them.

Who's My Daddy? crackles with more secrets than a middle-school slumber party. Elizabeth discovers a diary that raises questions about the identity of her daddy; Timothy refuses to discuss a trauma that made him abandon his life ten years ago; and Gracie Tobias knows a truth about Elizabeth's birthright that will change her life.

Again, she's demonstrating plot, plus, that first sentence is so fabulous and shows me that she's a good, creative writer.

Would you like to see a few sample chapters? I am the editor of The Metro-Augusta Parent a regional parenting publication and have received national awards (Parenting Publications of America) for my nonfiction writing.

Good. A very short bio that sums up her experience. Of course, I would have liked to see more awards, etc. for creative writing, but at this point I've already decided I want to see the book. She was smart to put her most significant writing award at the beginning of the letter and then put the rest, less significant experience here at the end.

Thank you for your consideration and time. An SASE is enclosed for your reply.

Short, sweet, and polite closing, plus a SASE. Who could ask for more?

Karin Gillespie

Siren-BookStrand Yahoo Group

My publisher is having a membership drive on June 28 with a chance to win some great prizes.

Click here to join this group.

Amazon Pushes Publisher's Button

According to The New York Times, Amazon has disabled its ‘buy now with 1 click’ icon on its UK site for hundreds of books published by Hachette Livre’s British arm.

Hachette Chief executive, Tim Hely Hutchinson, fired off a letter to many of his authors explaining the sudden disappearance of the purchasing button. In it, he disclosed that Amazon was out for a bigger slice than their already 50 percent take. Apparently Amazon has used this tactic before when rebellious publishers have balked at Amazon’s requests for steeper discounts.

“Amazon seems each year to go from one publisher to another, making increasing demands in order to achieve richer terms at our expense and sometimes at yours,” Mr. Hutchinson said in the letter. “If this continued, it would not be long before Amazon got virtually all of the revenue that is presently shared between author, publisher, retailer, printer and other parties.”

Read the full article here.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Book By Any Other Name…

There is, and always will be, opposition to change.

Vaudeville performers walked off the job to protest silent films. They took a stand against change. Silent film actors quivered at the mere mention of the talkie. They feared change and rightly so. It must have been a very uncomfortable feeling, like the rug was slowly being pulled out from under their feet; they saw it, they felt it, but they couldn't stop it.

That is the essence of change, it is not only inevitable but impossible to prevent. Change, on a grand, some might say global, scale, is brought on in many cases by technological advances. Theatre – radio – film – television, a natural progression where the next technological breakthrough certainly had an impact on the last, but it did not destroy it. We have radio despite television. We have theatre despite film. In a way, they complement each other by allowing a ravenous audience more choices.

Technology is once again the culprit in bringing on change in a media that has seen little over hundreds of years.

Where once books had to be stored in huge libraries, thanks to advancements, that same library can fit on a single computer hard-drive. Not everyone is convinced this change is for the good. It’s truly a bibliophile’s nightmare since the tactility and sensory experience of reading is removed. Now one turns pages at the cold push of a button on computer keyboards ranging from one that sits atop a desk, to one that rests in the palm of your hand. The smell of ink and paper gone, the feel and sound of paper turning, sliding through your fingers as your eyes land on something soft on the vision but always a possible sensory overload.

Sheldon Comics

It’s difficult to accept change when really, there is no need for it. The onslaught of electronic media is brought on not by necessity but by the simple fact that we need to use the technology in some way. Is there anything wrong with that? Is it so bad that we can have all the books we love, at our fingertips, in one device that fits into a pocket or a small briefcase? Is it not the voice on the radio that carries the message and not the radio itself? It would stand to reason that the words are more important than the book.

Why do we fight change so vehemently when the change is for the better?

I’m an e-book author and I read e-books. Does that mean I want traditional books to disappear? Of course not. Who among readers doesn’t love to sit in a cozy spot on a cold or wet night, book open on their lap, immersed in the pleasure of reading? No electronic gadget stands a chance of replacing something so dear and precious. Can a child’s book on a computer screen compare to the touch of a book open on the floor, its bright colours mirrored in the wondrous eyes that read it? No. When you want to upgrade a radio, you buy the newest version of a radio – and it’s still a radio. The same goes for televisions. I’ve gone through a dozen in my lifetime, but all were televisions. The same cannot be said for a traditional book.

So, why not fight e-books with all our page-turning, cozy-cornered, wide-eyed reading wonder of energy? Simply because traditional books and e-books complement each other like radio and television, theatre and film. Choices are the byproduct of change. As readers, we now have the ability to choose which format our reading pleasure will take given our circumstances at the time. When would you choose a Kindle or E-reader over a paperback or hardback? During a morning commute on any mode of public transit. While traveling it would be an ideal space saver in any suitcase. These are just a few examples.

Where then would one relax with a book, enjoying it’s simplicity and tradition? At home, the coffee shop, the beach…

When it comes to books, traditional or electronic, there’s room for both.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Life, Mom and A Lucky Son

My mom, Alice O’Neill, turns 73 today.

It’s a wonderful milestone to celebrate, but it’s made all the more special by her incredible strength, unwavering perseverance and the best love-of-life attitude I’ve ever encountered.

No one has to tell our family that ‘life ain’t fair’ or ‘life is cruel’. Not only do we have the senses to soak up the world’s ills going on around us, we’ve had enough ills of our own as proof. Having said that, my mom refuses to succumb to the negative. I truly believe that her positive outlook is one of the reasons she beat breast cancer and is beating down lung cancer.

Her three year fight is well documented – there’s a paper trail of reports, findings, medication lists, CAT scans and x-rays. The files may be thick with medical facts and figures but it is not, nor will I ever let it be, her legacy.

I’ve passed people in the street and thought each has a story to tell. Average, everyday people can dazzle you with facts about their lives, facts they feel are of little importance when held up against the heroics splashed across global headlines. Heroism isn’t just committing an act of remarkable bravery, heroes are also people who show great courage and strength of character. To me, there is no better hero than my mom.

Comedians have joked about the huge football player, blood gushing from a cut on his nose, dirt and mud all over his face, looking into the television camera and saying to a national audience, “Hi mom.” I’m a hundred pounds, a foot and a truckload of talent short of being a pro football player, but I know why these seemingly tougher-than-hell men seize the opportunity to acknowledge their mothers.

Here’s a few examples to illustrate. I got hit in a hockey game in high school and suffered a mild concussion. No, I didn’t go to the hospital. Trust me, one just knows (the slurring is usually a good sign). So, a teammate took me home and told my parents what happened. I was a lifeguard through high school and knew that a deep sleep was not a good idea in the case of a head injury. So, I stayed awake for as long as I could then mom took the first shift, waking me up at about two in the morning.

“Son,” she said after gently rubbing my shoulder. “Can you tell me your name, love?”

She’s Scottish, so, everyone is ‘love’. I don’t remember anything. Other than her gentle massage on my shoulder and her laying her hand lightly on my forehead.

At five a.m., it was dad’s turn. He grabbed my shoulder and shook me roughly awake. “Hey, what’s your name?”

I swore at him.

“You’re fine,” he said.

And I went back to sleep.

Does this mean that mom coddled me, not a chance. She just always knew the right thing to say and she added that special mother’s touch to everything. I was the only soloist in my school’s grade six concert. I’d practiced hard and was in regular fights for the first few weeks leading up to the concert. Apparently, in the estimation of some six graders, singing is not the most manly thing one can do.

The big night arrived and I took my cue, carrying my chair out to centre stage, where a guitar (I’d pretend to play) was handed to me by a girl who then sat at my feet to enjoy my song, Red River Valley. As the song progressed, more girls in their cute cowgirl outfits, would run on stage and plop down at my feet. I got to the last verse but started to sing the third verse over again. I caught my error and switched, rather abruptly to the last verse. The audience laughed. It was like I could pick up each person’s distinctive reaction. I just kept going and finished my song.

I carried my chair off stage where the stage hand, a grade eight student who thought my error was so funny that he just had to laugh at me, got hit in the head with the chair. It was an accident, I swear.

After the show was over my dad punched me in the arm and smiled. He was telling me to get over it, not to worry about it, to move on. Mom hugged me and said, “You were amazing. And, the way you kept going like a professional singer was very impressive.”

She took, what was the worst mistake I’d ever made, and turned it into a positive. I can’t tell you how that made me feel. It was, well, wonderful.

There came a point in my life where a distinct fork appeared. I’m not talking about what university to attend or what job to take. I guess it was tracks that appeared; I could follow the right side or the wrong side. My parents sat me down one day, out the blue, and together, they let me know that if something were to happen to me they would be there for me, but if I were to be arrested, I was on my own. Their exact words, “Get caught, and you’re on your own.”

I’ve never asked mom why they chose that strategy and probably never will. All I know is that there was a time, when things began to escalate, that I heard this voice in my head saying, “You’re on your own.” It was the deciding factor on what side of the tracks I took. Basically, I think they called my bluff. Either that or I knew I’d never make bail on my own.

Regardless, I think I’ve turned out okay. It was not by accident, I assure you. I carry lessons learned from mom’s teachings. There were subtle examples of how one should act and what one should do. Those required no words, she showed me. Anyone in trouble, in need, mom would help. She gave even when giving hurt. Sometimes it was a kind word, a hug, a shoulder to lean on. And sometimes she gave money when there was too little to give. It didn’t matter, it always worked out. “Whatever you give,” she says, “you’ll get that back and more.”

Alice & Andy O'Neill
January 17, 1959

My father once said to my mom, “Alice, I love you so much that I would die for you.”

Mom’s response didn’t exactly thrill my dad. “That’s nice of you.”

“What? You wouldn’t do the same for me?”

“No,” my mom replied. “Life is too precious. It’s all we have. I won’t give it up, not even for you.”

Though some may disagree with that sentiment, it has stuck with me, because truly, when you think about it, your life is all you own. It is not something to take lightly, and thanks to mom, I’ve tried my best to treat it well.

When I’ve needed her, she’s been there, to help, console, celebrate or just kick me in the ass. My life has been better because I was blessed with a great mom. Happy birthday, mom. I love you to bits.

Now, dear readers, go hug your moms.