Monthly Archives: September 2012
Fall is upon us and September is drawing to a close. Students are settled back into the routine of school and the leaves are slowly changing colours. Thousands of Canadians are already moaning about the coming winter. And yet with each passing day I get more excited, because fall to me is about more than going back to school and preparing for winter: fall is Nanowrimo season.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Nanowrimo is National Novel Writing Month, an annual challenge drawing people from all walks of life together to reach for a common goal: to write 50, 000 words of fiction in the month of November, or one completed novel. It’s a great way to stretch yourself as a writer and to buckle down and actually finish that novel draft–and believe you me, once you’ve finished the first one, all the other ones are just a little bit easier. As an eight year participant and seven year winner, I’m a firm believer in Nanowrimo’s power to turn a daydreamer into a novelist.
If you’d like to participate in Nanowrimo but you have no idea what you’d like to write about, you’re in the right place. This year I’m going to help you plan your Nanovel, with the help of several guests who are experienced Nanowrimo veterans–some of whom have even gotten their Nanovels published!
Each week this October we’ll be examining a different theme. Next week I’ll be featuring three posts on the theme of idea creation, each one with a short writing exercise to help you brainstorm novel ideas. The week after that we’ll talk about characterization, followed by world building and in the last week of October final preparations–including the non-writing related things you should do before locking yourself up for a month with the goal of writing 50, 000 words.
This weekend, think about your writing goals and your career goals. Think about the dreary month of November, when it’s really getting cold and you don’t want to be outside anyway. Think about the novel you’ve always wanted to write but have put on the backburner while you give more profitable or simpler projects more attention. Then ask yourself a question: why not spend the month of November trying to turn your crazy, obscure idea into 50, 000 words of fiction?
Since it’s almost October and next week I’ll be discussing novel planning and writing at great length, I thought today I’d focus on non-fiction. While it’s not my greatest love, I do enjoy writing non-fiction and I’m hoping it will help me pay the bills–and to an extent, it already has. The great thing about non-fiction is there are literally thousands of topics to write about and there’s a market for every topic. But often real life seems mundane and it seems impossible to find ideas, which is crazy if you think about the plethora of topics available to you. Today I’d like to share some strategies for finding non-fiction article ideas.
1. What are you really good at? Odds are, somebody will pay you for articles teaching them to fix their own computer, create their own Youtube videos or even identify edible plants in the wilderness. You’re probably really good at something related to your day job–say, fixing photocopiers or negotiating with high profile clients. No matter what it is, there’s probably a market that would like a step-by-step tutorial on how to do that thing well.
2. What are your favourite spots and activities in your city? Pitch these to local lifestyle markets or to travel magazines anywhere in the world. You’d be surprised how many people want–and are willing to pay for–information on the prime spots in your city.
3. What are small businesses in your area doing? Think local. Odds are there are at least three or four unique businesses at the forefront of their fields in your city or county. Find out who they are, talk to the people who run them, get a couple pictures of their storefront and BOOM, you have a newsworthy story–which is also a great way to enter business and entrepreneurship magazines.
4. Be at the forefront of change. Go out and experience life. When you hear about the “first annual” something, go check it out. Find a new and unique company to work with, either in a day job or a writing capacity. There’s nothing as inspiring as being part of something unique, and watching something happen that isn’t–and probably can’t–happening in any other place in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to go to a completely unique school this year, where we build skateboards and create our own brands, and it’s been incredibly inspiring–and helped me come up with ideas for all of the things mentioned above.
Non-fiction ideas are everywhere–you just have to know how to look. The more interesting ways you find to spend your time, the more easily you’ll find article ideas. And remember, each of those ideas in turn can be turned into several articles with slightly different spins and also into interviews.
So don’t despair when you run out of non-fiction ideas: go out and live life, and you’re bound to find more.
Every year we make a big list. Sometimes we call this list our New Year’s resolutions. Other times we call them goals. It doesn’t matter what we call them, the aim of this list is the same: to set out a path for the next year which will hopefully lead us to a better place in our lives. This list usually includes things like starting a new diet or exercise routine–or both if you’re feeling particularly brave that year–and whatever else we think will make us a better, happier person.
Most of the items on these list are never met. We spend a couple months working on them, sometimes less, and then decide they’re too difficult to accomplish and give up. Many times the problem is with the goals themselves, or our approach to the goals. We pick goals nobody could reasonably be expected to accomplish. We dive right into tasks which could benefit from a slower approach. When we fall short, instead of trying a new approach, we just give up.
Other times life interferes. We get sick. Family emergencies have us traveling across the city–or sometimes out of the city. Friends throw parties distracting us from our work related goals; while they’re at it, they tempt us with the very snacks we’re trying to avoid for our diet plan. On top of all that, we’re overworked and sleep is always in short supply. So we fall behind and eventually give up.
2012 for me has been a year of interruptions. Last semester’s courses involved a much heavier workload than I expected. I managed to keep my writing afloat for most of the year, but my wrist suffered quite a bit. This meant cutting back on writing for a couple weeks at the beginning of the summer.
In spite of my tendonitis and the constant distractions of friends and a romantic relationship, July was a pretty productive month. I blogged regularly, I got halfway through my edit of Moonshadow’s Guardian, and I managed to get a non-fiction article accepted for publication. I sent out my first query to a national magazine. I drafted multiple articles intended for other magazines.
At the beginning of August my computer was hit with a virus and days later I was officially diagnosed with tendonitis and put in a splint. My writing screeched to a halt. It took me an entire week to write a blog post discussing what happened. My editing slowed to a crawl and still isn’t finished. I didn’t start writing or editing any of the short stories I planned to work on. In short, I fell off the bandwagon. My steady plod towards completing my 2012 list of goals became a halfhearted crawl. I avoided work in every imaginable way–which is easy when you have the kind of friends I do.
But did I give up on achieving my goals? No. September rolled around, I stopped wearing the splint during the day and I reassessed my goals. I realized that Moonshadow’s Guardian needed to be my priority above everything else. I calculated how many pages I would have to edit each day to finish this draft and leave some time off before Nanowrimo–and realized it’s not that many. And I got back to work.
I’m doing less than normal, taking more breaks than I’m used to. Not in a bad way though. I’ve always had difficulty remembering that I need regular breaks from my computer, even when I’m on a roll, for my physical health if not my mental health. Now as I’m re-introducing my wrist to writing, I need to be extremely careful so I don’t strain it again. It’s also a good time to teach myself to take the breaks I’ve always needed but forgotten to give myself.
Now then, you ask, what’s the point I’m trying to make? It’s simple: you’ve only really failed when you’ve given up. Slow and steady can win the race. I’m still quite a bit closer to finishing my edits than I was when they put the splint on me, even though in comparison to my usual pace I’ve been crawling. I’ve got a plan for easing back into my regular blogging schedule and a number of non-fiction articles ready to pitch. I’ve even started planning this year’s Nanowrimo novel–and I’m on track to be finished my editing at least a week before November first.
So next time life gets in the way of meeting your goals, or if you’re already behind and about to fold, try reassessing your goals instead. Give yourself more time or make the goal itself smaller. Working slowly towards your goals is better than not working at all. Spend the time you would spend beating yourself up working towards your goals, and you’ll have completed every item on this year’s list before you know it.
Today’s guest is a very special lady, Gabriela Pereira, founder of DIY MFA, a project designed to help you build a self-tailored MFA experience. The main components of DIY MFA are a blog and Writer Fuel, a weekly email newsletter compiling interesting links and advice. I’m always excited to see Writer Fuel in my inbox and I’ve learned quite a bit from DIY MFA. I’m even more excited to have her here and I hope you’ll all enjoy this interview as much as I’ve enjoyed working with Gabriela.
1) What inspired you to create DIY MFA?
DIY MFA started when I was graduating from an MFA program. I was sitting in graduation thinking about how great the MFA had been and how sad I was to leave, and then it hit me: “I could have done this all on my own.” Sure, not everyone can go the self-schooling route, bit I’ve always been a bit of a book nerd and I love to teach, so I’ve often taught myself things just for fun. Some people need the structure of school, but I’m not one of them. I started DIY MFA because I bet that there might be other people out there like me.
2) When did you first realize you wanted to pursue writing as more than a hobby?
Truthfully, writing has never been a “hobby” for me. When I decided I was going to write, that was that and I became a writer. It happened in first grade, when I realized that there was a finite number of books in the school library, and was afraid that if I read them all, I would have nothing left to read and I’d be bored forever. (Truth be told, the school had a very small library.) Then it occurred to me that if I wrote my own stories, it would be just like reading a book someone else wrote, only I could choose how the story ended. I started writing, and have been doing it obsessively ever since.
3) What were some of the biggest factors in your decision to participate in an actual MFA program?
I love teaching and I decided to do an MFA because I wanted to teach people how to write. If you had told me at the time that my post-MFA life would be all about DIY MFA, I would have been shocked. My grand plan at the time was to get an MFA and look for teaching jobs, maybe at a community college or a continuing education program. This goes to show that you never know where things might lead and it’s important to be flexible.
When DIY MFA lodged itself in my brain and would not let go, I had to accept that my teaching would take a different form. The irony, of course, is that while DIY MFA is all about being an alternative to the traditional MFA, I’m probably the one person in the world whose job actually requires an MFA. After all, I wouldn’t have been able to create DIY MFA if I hadn’t gotten an MFA myself, and the degree lends credibility to the program because it means I’ve seen what works from the inside and I can improve the things that don’t work. It also adds weight when I caution people against a traditional MFA because I’ve been there, I got the degree and had a great experience, but I still don’t recommend it.
Funny how things turn out.
4) What do you think is the most important thing you learned through your MFA program?
The most important thing I learned is that the MFA is not the end all and be all of your writing education. In our last semester, while most of my classmates were stressing about the thesis and trying to hammer out entire drafts, I chose to look beyond graduation day and start planning for what I would do after I handed in my thesis. I probably spent as much time applying for teaching gigs and creating sample syllabi as I did writing my thesis.
The result? As far as the thesis was concerned, I handed in the bare minimum to get the diploma. As far as my career was concerned, I left school with one teaching opportunity already lined up and three or four more in the works. Not to mention that DIY MFA had already started nagging at me and I was in the planning stages of that too.
Am I glad I did the MFA? Of course! Without, there would be no DIY MFA. If I could do it over, would I choose the MFA route? Again, of course! It was the MFA that gave me the skills and credibility to create DIY MFA. But would I recommend an MFA to anybody else? Absolutely not.
Actually, I take that back. The traditional MFA can be a good choice for writers who plan to write only “literary” work, who can spare two years of their lives just for writing and happen to be independently wealthy. For everybody else, my previous answer still stands.
5) How did you take DIY MFA from a basic idea to a functioning program?
I talked already about how the idea for DIY MFA came to be, but putting it into action has been a whole other challenge. At the time I got that original glimmer of an idea, I had a personal blog so I decided to test the concept by posting for one month about nothing except DIY MFA. I created a schedule where each day of the week was a different topic and planned out what I would write in each post.
One important step was that I took note of my Google Analytics numbers so that I could get a snapshot of the “before” picture, and I could then compare with the numbers “after.” I saw something like a 400% increase in hits and blog followers after that month-long DIY MFA “extrabloganza.” This made me realize that there was, in fact, an audience for this project, that it wasn’t just me off in my little bubble writing DIY MFA articles. There were actually people out there who wanted to read them.
After doing a second month-long test, I signed up for a class called Build Your Author Platform with Dan Blank (wegrowmedia.com). It was in this class that I learned to build the DIY MFA brand and put ideas into action. I built a website using WordPress, got a designer to make a custom theme and set up a newsletter using Mail Chimp. This mailing list has been the cornerstone of DIY MFA because it allows me to connect with readers directly through email.
My mantra throughout the process has been: try anything at least once. I’m constantly trying different approaches or testing new concepts so that DIY MFA can evolve and improve. Building a project like this is all about using day-to-day steps to make gradual progress toward a big goal. Not unlike writing a book, actually.
6) You give away Jumper Cables, an eBook for writers, when people sign up for your newsletter. What went into creating Jumper Cables?
I wanted to create a summary of what DIY MFA is all about, and Jumper Cables seemed like the way to go. It took several drafts of editing the content before I felt comfortable moving to the design stage and I had several different people Beta read the draft for me before I started messing with design.
Once I had a draft I liked, I plugged it into Adobe InDesign and created a layout. I have a background in design so for me it was a no-brainer to do the layout in Adobe InDesign, but I’ve seen people do fabulous layouts using PowerPoint too. The key for a product like this is to save it as a PDF, so that readers can open it on a wide range of devices. You can view PDFs on Macs or PCs, tablets or smartphones, and when someone opens the file, they can’t mess with the content, lending it a certain permanence that a word-processor document does not have.
After that, I just set up Mail Chimp so that when people sign up for the newsletter, they get a link to download Jumper Cables in the confirmation email. The whole process took a couple of weeks, working practically round the clock.
7) What marketing strategies have you used to spread the word about DIY MFA and which have you found most effective?
Hands down, the most valuable marketing asset for DIY MFA has been the people who believe in it. Yes, I’ve done all the things we’ve been told writers should do: write columns, do guest posts, host guest articles on our site etc. But in the end, the best source of publicity has always been the people.
I recently wrote in a Writer Fuel newsletter that DIY MFA is a rather polarizing idea: people either love, and then they’re committed for life, or they don’t get it and just move on. The people who believe in DIY MFA are the ones who share it, tweet it and tell their friends about it. The ones who don’t get it, just move on to other things. And that’s great because it means that the people who engage with DIY MFA are really committed to it.
I’ve have a lot of people email me and tell me that DIY MFA has changed how they write forever. And I’ve even had a few people scream at me (for reasons I’m still not sure I understand). But I have yet to find someone who’s lukewarm on the subject.
It all comes down to the people. People are my most effective marketing strategy.
8) Which aspect of DIY MFA do you find most challenging to maintain and how do you make it easier for yourself?
The most challenging part of DIY MFA is setting boundaries between work and life. I am completely engulfed by this project so sometimes it’s hard to separate home-time with work-time. Like sometimes its way to easy to check email on my phone when I’m on the go, or take a quick peek at twitter from my iPad (which lives on the bedside table) at 3am. I’ve had to set rules. I use an egg timer and while that sound is ticking I’m only allowed to work on one task. I also light a candle when I’m working and as long as the candle is lit, I can’t do email or social media.
When I used to work in an office, it was easy to separate work from home because as soon as I left the office, I’d leave all the work-related baggage there. But working at home is tough because there’s no clear separation. The burden is on me to set those boundaries. It’s hard to keep myself from wanting to work all the time so occasionally you will see an email time-stamped from the wee hours of morning, but I’m getting better at setting limits and keeping a balance.
9) What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer trying to create something similar?
Whatever you want to create, make sure you love it. You heart has to be all in. In entrepreneurship there’s no room for doing things half-way. This doesn’t mean you should be reckless and throw caution to the wind. I myself tested DIY MFA twice before decided to take that big step and set up a website all its own. You can still be cautious and strategic about how you put your plans in motion, but your heart has to be in it for the long haul. You and your idea have to be made for each other. Like soul mates.
I knew DIY MFA was “the one” as soon as I started writing content. The articles and blog posts practically wrote themselves. Whenever people ask me about it, I get excited and almost blush, like I’m talking about someone I have a huge crush on. The idea has to make you giddy. If you’re not giddy, that’s OK. It just means you haven’t found the right idea. Yet.
10) What are you working on that fans of DIY MFA can look forward to?
DIY MFA is going through a massive re-branding and website overhaul. We’re launching a really cool new freebie to replace Jumper Cables to give away when people sign up for the mailing list. (Don’t worry, if you sign up before we release it, you’ll still get the freebie because I always send cool new stuff the mailing list first.) We also have this awesome web app in the works that I’m really excited about. If you’ve ever had trouble coming up with a story idea, fret no longer. This app will make sure you have an endless font of story ideas.
Author Bio: Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIY MFA: Tools and Techniques for the Serious Writer. She has an MFA from The New School with a concentration in Writing for Children and when she’s not creating materials for DIY MFA she loves writing middle grade and teen fiction. She works as a freelance writing teacher and has led workshops throughout New York City. For more on DIY MFA, visit DIYMFA.com.
Last Friday the doctors freed my wrist from its prison. It’s only been a few days but I can already feel the difference in my psyche. I’ll be wearing it to bed for another two months, which is a cakewalk at this point.
I’ve already seen an increase in productivity–though it may be imagined because I’m happier–but it’s going to take me a while to get back into my routine. I never managed to finish my edits of Moonshadow’s Guardian, which is my first priority this month after paid work.
It’s going to take me a while to get back into my routine. My wrist is in a particularly fragile state after a month of disuse, and I’m still battling the depression that came with the splint. Unfortunately this means I won’t be returning to my full posting schedule right away. Instead I’m going to commit to one weekly post on Wednesdays updating everyone on my recovery and my editing progress.
This week, however, I have a couple exciting things in store for you. Tomorrow Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA will be joining us for a lovely interview and on Friday I’ll be participating in the SheWulf Whirlwind tour by Novel Publicity. I hope you’ll enjoy these posts while waiting for me to hit my stride again.
I’d like to say thank you to everyone who’s still reading. I know it’s hard to bear with a blogger who only posts occasionally; they fall to the back of your mind and sometimes end up completely forgotten. The sporadic appearance of posts is difficult to track. I understand, and it means a lot to me that many of you have chosen to stay loyal readers while I go through this. Dealing with tendonitis has been a long and difficult journey for me and everyone’s thoughtful comments have made it easier. To me, there’s nothing more amazing than knowing that all of you–most of whom I’ve never met in person or talked with on the phone–actually care enough to read what I have to say.
Thank you for all your support.