Wednesday, March 05, 2008

BTDT (Been There, Done That)

Someone recently asked me what my best advice is for newbie writers, and I wanted to inhale and ask her how long she had. I've been doing this for a long time, or at least what feels like a long time, and the truth is that there's no better experience than on-the-job training. I mean, there is no doubt that some of my lessons have been learned the hard way and frankly, that sort of lesson is invaluable...sort of like how I believe that kids have to pull themselves up from their bootstraps to really grow into themselves...but that doesn't mean that I can't pass on what I believe is my best advice. So here goes.

1) Develop a THICK - we're talking industrial-grade - skin. I was born with too much self-confidence. This, at times, has proven disastrous when I refused to acknowledge that a boyfriend (or two) might be trying to break up with me or other such scenarios. However, it has proven to be among my best assets in this industry. I honestly couldn't give two figs if a pitch or an article gets rejected. Their loss, I think. No matter how brilliant you are, you will get rejected and often in this line of work. If you don't have the stomach for it - and there's no shame in that at all (in fact, you'd be a lot wiser than I am), find something else to do.

2) Be aggressive. I'm reminded of that old cheer from summer camp: "BE AGGRESSIVE, Be, Be, aggressive. B-e-a-g-g-r-e-s-s-i-v-e. Aggressive!" You get the point. No one gets ahead in the freelance world by lobbing off on email to an editor and hoping that he/she will respond. Follow up. Follow up again. If you get a nibble, even if it's not a bite, keep pursuing it. Too many writers, in my opinion, treat editors as if they are Gods, so don't use common sense when it comes to establishing themselves. In any other line of work, you'd go after that promotion or that new job. The same is true here.

3) Be Impeccable. Too many freelancers make mistakes and their editors are there to fill in the gaps. They notice. They notice misspellings, fact errors, missed deadlines. There are too many others writers who are willing to slide into your place, and if an editor thinks you're second rate, you're also history.

4) Don't Be Afraid to Suck. Yes, this is a complete contradiction to #3. But in this case, I'm referring to fiction, not magazines. With fiction, it's entirely okay to explore your capabilities because often, you're only writing for yourself. Experiment with different voices, different points-of-view, different characters. Some will work, some won't. Nothing's wrong with abandoning your manuscript if it's crap. Chances are you learned something along the way and you'll be better for it the next time out.

5) Listen to Criticism With Open Ears (and an Open Mind). Nothing irritates me more than writers who don't think that they can get better. (Okay, that's not true, a lot of things irritate me more, but you get my point.) If you're lucky enough to have someone take enough interest in your work to offer constructive criticism, you'd be wise to shrug off your ego (get over it already!), digest the advice and then apply it to your work. Being pig-headed about it might soothe that ego, but it won't land you a book deal.

So I think those are my top tips. There are dozens of others, of course, but that's a starting point. Now it's your chance to chime in. What is your best advice to pass along to other writers?


Trish Ryan said...

Great advice. I'm going to have that cheer from High School going through my head all day (which is much more useful than "First & 10/Let's do it again!")


Amie Stuart said...

Friend of mine is doing her first work in first person--which I ADORE--and she's totally digging it.

Hmmm reference to #4 No writing is wasted.

It's a business. Treat it like a business. Act professional. DONT call editors and agents who reject you and ask why. Yes I know someone who did this. I nearly pissed myself when I found out. DONT badmouth other writers. It's also a very um bastardized business and you NEVER know who knows who or what opertunities you could lose because of something you said to someone a long time ago in an elevator about their best friend even though you didn't KNOW it was their best friend.

Funny enough I find myself in the strange situation where two writer friends have polar opposite opinions about another writer -- and I can't say a word to either of them. Besides it's not my place. So Be Discreet!

robin ann mcintosh said...

I love this advice, I've scribbled it on a post-it and pinned it to my wall. I love reading your blog, and I just wanted to say thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Great reminders. I also have that cheer in my head now :) Number 3 is especially powerful - I can often forget that once I've landed a client my job isn't done. I have to consistently show my worth, or my folks can keep on truckin' elsewhere. Thanks!

Alison Ashley Formento said...

I love this post! And Amie's remark to treat this like a business and to act professional. I want to add: As difficult as it may be, always try to respond to business emails within the same day. If contacted by a potential employer for a freelance job or by an editor you've worked with before, you'll garner good marks in their memories for email ettiquette and being repsonsive in a timely manner.

Anonymous said...

Great advice. Thanks.

kerri said...

Hey, I read your blog a lot since I've discovered it and always enjoy it! Thanks for taking all the time that you must to have such a inspiring and meaningful blog!

Jen A. Miller said...

I've found that magazines reluctant to make sure you have the contract first have bad contracts. I got burned that way once -- already did the story, got the contract, and it was awful, but what could I do? So I always always always ask now with first time clients.

Like you, Allison, I have a regular client that gives me last minute assignments, but they've never paid late, and I negotiated that contract into something more writer friendly, no questions asked, when I started. That's the only exception I have here.

Patricia Robb said...

My skin is getting thicker. I had such a high from selling my first article, and now the well has dried. Thank goodness for blogging. I am my own publisher.
Thanks for the tips.