Fitting creative writing in

In addition to freelance writing and editing for pay, I also write fiction. I hope to sell these works at some point, but recognize that they will not be as immediately lucrative.

I have published one book of poetry, and am currently finishing a collection of short stories. I have some other projects on the go, including a screenplay and a novel. I never start creative projects frivolously, but my goal is to finish more of them. Many have been close to completion for a while.

The trouble is, sometimes at the end of a work day I don’t feel like doing more writing (there I said it).

So, what is the secret? Many writers try to fit these projects in before dawn, something I’ve tried before but find hard to keep up consistently daily. Apparently, Anthony Trollope, the very prolific nineteenth century British author, wrote something like 3000 words a day.

Closer to home and time, I have also read that one of my favourite authors, Richard Wright (best known for his novel Clara Callan) gets up 2 hours before his job as an English teacher at Ridley College to write. That’s early.

My current way of fitting fiction in has been to devote a weekend day here and there to it, but I’m looking for new ways to make it an even regular commitment. Not particularly a morning person, but from what I’ve read it’s the way to go. Cut out some late-night TV in favour of some early morning stories. Sounds worthwhile if only I can make the leap.

Great book: Stephen King’s On Writing

Stephen King's On WritingI not only recommend this book but I hear it recommended all the time: Stephen King’s On Writing.

Full disclosure that I was a huge Stephen King reader in high school so read almost everything he wrote until about 1995 when I graduated from high school, and frankly, from King.

Although my teenaged self still has a soft spot for King, my adult self is curious to reread a couple of titles to see how I feel about him now, and I also have a lot of respect for his writerly success and the fact that he seems like a cool guy, judging from Twitter.

On Writing is great for several reasons. First, the structure of the book is both a memoir about his recovery from a terrible car accident that almost ended King’s writing career, mixed in with his tips on writing and notes about how he structures his day.

I like the down-to-earth tone, and the approachable nature of the advice which makes clear that writing is more than anything just a lot of hard work, butt in seat time. The book is also short enough that it is handy for pulling out when in need of a refresher, reminder, or inspiration. I try to take it down off the shelf annually to get just that.

Teaching writing

Pen!While I was working on my PhD dissertation, I started teaching writing courses at the University of Ottawa. I haven’t stopped, and teaching has forced me to clarify my writing process in order to share it with others.

As a grad student, I was assigned mostly first year courses for non-English majors, designed to teach them how to write proper essays. The courses were based either on non-fiction (Introduction to Essay writing) or sometimes using literature as the basis for the essays (Prose Fiction, or Poetry and Drama). Today I teach part-time at Humber College, both a course called Workplace Writing to the general student population, and in the Professional Writing and Communications program I helped develop and now help administer.

Being a writing teacher is interesting because you learn yourself how to break down a skill that comes very naturally to you. Like many instructors, I think I found grammar the most difficult to convey: things that just sound right to me now needed to be given names and explanations and required answering difficult questions about exceptions.

Another challenging is describing less tangible elements like audience and voice and the techniques to use in writing for different readers.

Challenging for my general writing students focussed on essays and papers is how to narrow and focus a topic. In teaching undergraduates, I found myself reading a lot of opening sentences that read along the lines of “Since the dawn of literature, writing has been important to the human condition.” Following up in class, I would suggest that perhaps it was not required to start quite from the dawn and that their writing might even be more interesting if it started at a manageable point.

Again pencilling “vague” next to sweeping statements reminded me of the need for specificity in my own writing, to always use an original example when it was warranted.

A final lesson from teaching was a reminder about the need for proofreading, and if possible to leave a bit of time between the first and final copy. Fresh eyes are the gift you give yourself.

By now my students have moved on towards the careers they were heading for, but I hope they still remember to reread their work.

My favourite unpublished piece from last year

Taylor SwiftLast year, I wrote an op-ed on the occasion when Taylor Swift stood up for other artists with her open letter to Apple. Since it didn’t find a home, I thought I’d publish it here:

To unfriendly contracts and misguided friends, Love Sue

I’m no Taylor Swift, but I can say I felt a moment of kinship when I read her open letter to Apple http://taylorswift.tumblr.com/post/122071902085/to-apple-love-taylor. As someone who makes a living through creative work, I’ve had reason to feel the same sucker punch that must have sent her reeling upon learning of Apple’s plan not to pay artists during its three-month trial.

For me, it happens every time a web magazine asks me to write something for free, or “for exposure” as it’s put more exuberantly. It happens whenever I’m asked to sign a lousy contract that takes away my copyright, or worse, my moral rights. It happens when I read the clause that my work may be published “worldwide in any other form media or transmission, whether now in existence or developed in the future.” Developed in the future? When I tell them this wording exists, my non-writer friends think I’m joking. To my writer friends, it’s increasingly familiar.

I also share Swift’s conflict over the fact that some of these requirements come from companies whose work I respect, or have even worked for in the past, who have been “my partners” in Swift’s words. I’ve had clients that have suddenly decided to cut my rate in half, or institute a contract that leaves me open to legal liability—”take it or leave it.” As a more workaday creator than Swift, my departure does not cause the writing industry to grind to a halt, and so when I do say goodbye—and I do—I’ve had to watch the endeavor carry on without me.

For creators, Swift’s open letter and the success of her plea is a good reminder of our own power to nudge creative industries towards a fairer position. We may not all be the hottest pop act on the planet, but maybe Swift’s “no” can spur us to change in our own spheres—senior writers can stop a bad contract from becoming the norm for juniors, or refuse to support a new endeavor that doesn’t prioritize fairness to writers.

How do we do that? By asking editors to strike out unacceptable clauses in their contracts. By preparing ourselves to walk away from gigs that pay too little or take too much. Maybe it’s a line, but often when I ask editors about removing a clause in a contract, they tell me I’m the first writer to have questioned it. And sometimes they’re able to strike it.

Although I have and will continue to walk away from terrible contracts, I’m often frustrated by fellow writers undermine my efforts by accepting them. When I ask them about it, they say they want to work for those larger publications and companies, despite being strong-armed. Do you think I don’t? I ask. I admit, the decision is sometimes harder for younger writers who really are desperate for clips, but my question to them is whether this is an ideal client, and whether they might be able to find a better option if they spend their time looking further than writing for so little money.

Another facet of standing up to creative work is respecting and paying for works in other creative industries. As a writer, I feel a kinship with those in the music industry whose work is constantly used without compensation. When friends tell me about their adventures in unauthorized music downloads or share tips on getting around paywalls by clicking on Internet links, or accessing streaming services through secret websites, I cringe. They know I spend my days creating work that I try to get paid for, and yet they try to avoid paying for creative work. When I say something, they doth protest too much—common defenses include the notion that artists receive just a fraction of the profit anyway, that musicians make most of their money on tours (which the downloader will go on as soon as they get a chance), or that no good system exists for payment.

Of these arguments, the last is the most problematic because it is often true. Fixes are needed: newspaper paywalls are clunky, streaming services need to update their content more frequently, and micropayment systems are lacking. But unless I’ve got a fix to implement, as a consumer I work within these existing systems. So, if a band asks me to buy through a service I’m going to go that route as a sign of respect for their creative efforts. If a paywall is put up and I’m a regular reader, I’ll pay. Sure, I’ll go on YouTube to sample a song, but I’m a regular listener I’m going to show my fandom by buying their whole offering.

In addition to becoming the heroes of our writing communities by standing up for better contracts, Swift’s “no” is also an opportunity to take action with these friends—to stop smiling and nodding at their downloading shenanigans and tell them that we sometimes feel greater kinship with the artists whose work they take without payment. Like the artists, writers, and producers that Swift purports to represent in her own social circles, we need to stand together as a creative bunch and push back a bit. To make friends and clients alike realize that if they’re benefitting from creative work they need to support it with dollars not just words.

Learning InDesign

Indesign logoThis fall I brushed up my skills in InDesign. Scratch that, I developed skills full stop.

The last time I was immersed as fully in a layout program was back in Quark Express days (hello oldster), so the learning was almost new.

I am a regular WordPress user, and before that had been a user of Dreamweaver and Photoshop basics (back when designing websites for other writers was part of my business). So, I have a decent comfort level with technology. But Quark Express had always intimidated me (my first exposure was as an intern, when I laid out a newsletter for a patient publisher who was continually having to come over and unlink my text boxes – if you’re familiar with the program you’ll have an idea of what this means).

Finally taking the eight weeks of training gave me the basics, and made me appreciate even further how powerful this program can be. Learning it made me more confident to work with designers, and I also wanted to be able to pass skills along to my writing students.

I also realized, self-taught how I am in most things, the benefits of taking a course. Another motivation in taking InDesign is that Photoshop is somewhat similar in setup (made by the same company, Adobe) and along the way I learned some neat tricks and shortcuts in that program too.

I confirmed that I really am the word person rather than the graphics, but that I could also understand a program that’s complex, and do a few fun things with it. Now I just need to keep practising so I don’t lose it. Anyone need a brochure mocked up?