On a self-guided writing apprenticeship? Flashback with me and help yourself to the tips.
Volunteering as a writer led me to a viable full-time writing career.
Working in a corporate environment, I did my writing on the side, paralleling both with parenting. I left the business sector when a volunteer role I loved became funded and I was offered the writing job; a paid position I held for fifteen years.
When I chose to move to another city to pursue fiction, I’d created more than 350 narratives ~ Lifebooks ~ over fifty pages each, for individual child clients.
In addition, I continued to volunteer, expanding the Lifebook concept to include adults involved with mental health associations, and then created another volunteer branch in conjuction with hospice, for individuals in palliative care to recount certain life-stories for their loved ones.
1) If writing’s your passion, find ways to make it add value; rewards will follow.
For me, volunteering was an incredible experience, and an opportunity to test the waters of a new career of writing: in this case, Lifebooks for child clients involved with Social Services. Beyond the personal fulfillment, my confidence grew. I was even featured on radio, television, and in a few magazines.
2) You can write about other people.
When I was approached by another writer, who wanted to feature me in Canada’s iconic Canadian Living Magazine, it validated my journey; it gave me an idea: I could freelance about others.
3) Be open to recognizing writing opportunities.
Being featured in an American Magazine—on the cover, no less—helped build my writing resume which, at that time, had few official by-lines. Someone was talking about my writing, and that was as good as a by-line to me.
THE BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY
My first paid gig in a magazine—The Alexandra’s Newsletter. I queried the idea for an article on recycling rejections, following the submission requirements. It was accepted, published, and I earned $25.00.
1) Brainstorm places and ways to share your writing. Do you belong to an organization? Is there a trade publication related to an area of your expertise? Does someone you know produce a newsletter—could you edit it? Where can you contribute online? Do you have access to someone interviewable? Would you have something to share by being a guest blogger?
2) Check the submission guidelines and comply with them. Take a look at the style of pieces which appear in local, regional, and national publications, get familiar with the regular sections, and note the features. If you have an idea, check back-copies in case that topic has been covered, and, if it has, consider other angles, updates, or related, complementary pieces.
3) By-line experience. If you want some pieces for your resume, don’t shy away from querying and submitting to ‘free’ publications that ‘do not pay’. Just don’t keep writing for nothing once you’re into your apprenticeship.
4) Learn from the rejections you receive. Is there a common message? Has anyone ever checked your grammar? Have you perfected the art of query? If the submission included the ‘piece’, did you nail the story? (Book recommendation: Writing For Story, Jon Franklin) Are you taking courses? Upgrading? Are those courses legit?
5) Support. Join a writing association or find a few like-minded people and form an accountability group. Some organizations hold workshops, host contests, or publish newsletters. If you decide to form a small group, why not arrange a session with a published writer. Kudos to the Alexandra group. It’s a great organization, still flourishing. http://www.alexandrawriters.org/
A feature in Alberta Museums Review came from being a self-starter.
I wrote a gratitudinal piece about an educational experience at the Glenbow Museum for a school newsletter. A school administrator sent it to the museum along with a thank you note. The publishers of Success contacted me and asked if my article could be included in their magazine.
Never stop writing about that which you are passionate.
Write as if the whole world is reading you.
For a writer, the whole world is a page; a writer is always auditioning.
- Study the art of queries.
- Know the style and contents of the magazine you want to write for.
- Understand each magazine’s specific submission guidelines.
- Research the subject of your piece thoroughly.
- Fact check and keep meticulous records.
- First lines are the writer’s equivalent to an actor’s first six seconds on stage.
When I wanted to write about Powwow, based on working with Indiginous clients, and my own role as ‘Mom’ (having adopted a child of Cree descent), I queried the appropriate magazine, using an evocative phrase which I intended to be the first sentence of the article. Essentially, I included the ‘hook’ in my query.
Once the story was published, I took what I’d learned and applied it to a short story, then a competition, which I did not win, but placed second. Later it became the concept for a novel (five times rewritten, almost complete, all these years later—never get rid of your notes).
How To Grow Articles
I was pumping my own gas when a dump truck caught my eye—a giant plush toy attached to the grille. The driver, a young woman with braids trailing out from beneath her baseball cap, slid out of the cab. When she stretched to close the door I spied, ‘Judy’s Junk’ emblazoned in fiery red letters.
In a flash, I envisioned my words about ‘Judy’ on Avenue Magazine’s glossy pages, specifically the monthly entrepreneur or celebrity profile. I approached ‘Judy’, introducing myself as a freelance writer—that was massively bold of me at the time.
I asked if she’d ever been interviewed by local media. (No.) Did she know Avenue? (Oh, yes!) I explained that, with her permission, I’d like to query them and that I’d let her know either way. Two weeks later the interview took place over lunch at a Tim Horton’s near the dump.
Stories are everywhere.
Brainstorm with friends.
Approach others with interest and enthusiasm, and be upfront—don’t make promises you can’t keep—and always follow up.
Google makes searching for legitimate writing opportunities easier than ever. Here’s what happens when you get active:
- You enter competitions and learn more losing than from winning.
- You query magazines and land some assignments, but you don’t get them all; instead, you receive insightful rejections, and learn some more.
- You recycle. The year after I won a short story contest, I received first in a prestigious poetry competition with a prize that included a ceremony, and a trophy that came up to my hips—it’s housed in a library. Months later, I sent the poem to a regional magazine and they published it, and invited me to submit other pieces to them, which I did. I had a regular gig.
I didn’t know, back then, that this is how a portfolio is built; I just did what I loved, and kept raising the bar.
It’s a never-ending apprenticeship, but writing chooses writers. There’s no getting out. It’s in the creative makeup.
- Set targets.
- Join a writing group.
- Take short courses.
- Read. Read. Read.
- Find a mentor.
- Attend a writing conference.
- Print some business cards.
- Do not allow anyone to crush your dreams.
No one is going to knock on your door soliciting the next bestseller. It’s up to each writer to advocate and participate. That means, after you’ve invested in learning, feel the fear and hit ‘submit’.
HOW IT FEELS ON THE JOURNEY
You Are A Writer
If you’re only a writer after you’re published,
then what were you when you were
researching, reading, and writing prior to publication?
I thought my journey had some unique twists, but it turns out it’s similar to those of other writers. Maybe you’ll find some familiar scenery below:
I was a ‘read every book in sight’ child and, when I wasn’t reading, I filled notebooks with stories. As an adult, I took courses, read copious amounts about how to write, queried publishers, entered legitimate competitions, and saved all my rejections. I continue to read vast amounts in myriad genres, upgrade to stay current and grow my skills, query, and submit to literary competitions.
The psychological games writers play with themselves are self-torture. When I first began submitting online, I’d hit refresh within the hour, in case of a reply. If there wasn’t a reply by the next day, I’d go into a funk, convinced they didn’t like me. I’ve learned that most writers tend to flip-flop between believing in themselves and not. If you do this, please know that it’s normal. But do try to stop it. It’s simply not productive.
The rejections piled up. So, imagine my surprise when I received a couple of awards and nailed a few queries. Riding that wave of confidence, I joined forces with another writer and pitched a non-credit course idea to a college. Our evening classes were popular and we were invited to expand the course. If you’re new to writing, take some classes. If you’re experienced, find ways to share your talent with others.
The roller coaster of a writer’s life loop-de-loops. I once found a cause-and-effect error in the piece that took first prize in a national competition. I even doubted myself, thinking it could not be a mistake, but I verified it with another professional. I wanted to tantrum ‘why do I bother to write, when ‘stuff’ with mistakes is published?’ But, what I learned is that those ‘I wonder why I bother’ moments are always followed by returning to the keyboard and typing some more. Don’t let the writing of others stop you from writing. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t write. Keep writing. Keep learning. Keep writing.
Being longlisted, then shortlisted, feels great. The high, from being in good company, builds momentum. It led me to be brave and apply for a meeting—to be held at a national conference—with an executive from a publishing house. Twenty minutes with a pro who said, ‘Don’t give up. Keep going, this is good stuff.’ Publishers are people too. They want to find talent.
Same conference: I suddenly blurted out ‘I want to meet you’ to an attendee who reminded me of an aunt who encouraged me in my childhood. Kaboom! a mentor: a Governor General Award winning author. She read my reworked manuscript the following summer; pronounced it perfect. Don’t feel intimidated being around other writers. Put yourself in situations where you will be around better writers. Network.
The ‘I’m a writer’ feelings grew. I sent that manuscript to the ‘keep going’ publisher man. He took my ‘novel’ to the board.’ Six months later the ‘we regret to inform you’ arrived. His personal email followed: ‘Sorry the committee decided no. Don’t give up.’ It happened with another manuscript sent to another firm. A conditional acceptance. Three months later: ‘No, we’ve decided…’ I inwardly screamed, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ You might inwardly scream about your role as a writer, too. But it’s good to remember that not everyone gets to this esteemed level of rejection. It’s twisted, but true. It’s kind of monumental just getting past the query stage.
If any of this rings true, you might want to check if your picture appears next to the word persistence in the dictionary.
The thing is: writing chooses writers and it doesn’t let go,
no matter how painful some parts of the journey.
Then one day the earth shifted. I met a woman at Spanish class who asked if I’d mentor her. ‘Who? Me?’ Weeks later she had a regular column in a local newspaper. A seed inside me suggested I might be somewhat inspiring. Within three years she was on her eleventh non-fiction book assignment, and I’d amassed an international client base, via word of mouth. And I continued to work on fiction. You might do something like ‘she’ did, or like ‘I’ did, or a combination of both. There are no rules to becoming a writer other than ‘improving’ and ‘writing’.
Opportunity knocks in unusual ways. I received a call that a keynote speaker for a conference had been injured; could I fill her workshop space? My colleague and I worked night and day to create an original. Cotton Candy and Zombies: Writing to the Heart of a Child was born. An agent from NYC sat in on the session. Later she handed me her private email. Perhaps there will be ‘short notice’ things to which you want to say no. Listen to your creative heart: opportunities abound.
I eventually emailed the agent. Though she wasn’t wild about the long-worked-on manuscript, she showed an interest in something I happened to mention—project B. The beginning of a steep learning curve about literary excellence versus marketing began. And I remain grateful to my writer-self for mentioning project B. By all means, find a niche, but don’t narrow your scope of work too much.
Writers are chosen by a creature called creativity. Writing careers are developed through hard work and communication. In my case it was suggested, by one of the agent’s interns, that I create a website. When I finally embraced the idea, I was gobsmacked by how much writing I’d done.
My agonizing about what to include to help others who want to be writers became this page. Though it is dated (I’ve been around a while) the tips are proven and timeless.