Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Time Of The (African) Writer

March 19-24 is the 15th Time of the Writer International Writers Festival in Durban, uniting writers from across Africa and beyond to exchange ideas, connect and share what they know or wish they knew about the written word.

When you consider that Africa is widely considered the birthplace of the human species it is sad that we do not have more stories from the continent; more fables, more insights about our origins and how the experiences of our past might be influencing our present and possibly our future.

There are many factors which have led to a diminished literary contribution from the African continent. Wars; droughts which have led to widespread famine; and social unrest have made the continent a difficult place to survive, much less focus on literary skills. But this does nothing to reduce the importance of the tales which the people of this land have to tell.

I have never seen a lion in the wild; or experienced the difficulties of obtaining my water from a trickling muddy stream; had to live within the confines of a totalitarian regime, or experienced any of the horrors which I know have been visited upon many of the people of Africa on a near constant basis. I need them to share these stories with me so I might better understand the human condition, not just my slim view of life.

The event will feature writers from Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. It will also involve a celebration of South Africa's Human Rights Day, which is March 21, the same date as World Poetry Day.

The weeklong event is organised by the "Centre for Creative Arts (University of KwaZulu-Natal), the 15th Time of the Writer festival is supported by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (principal funder), the French Institute of South Africa, Pro-Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland, Goethe Institut of South Africa, City of Durban, Adams Campus Books, Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre and the University of KwaZulu-Natal."

It is open to writers, students, teachers and anyone with an interest in literature, regardless of where they are from, but I hope to hear that more stories from African writers will be forthcoming. For instance, I didn't even know there was a new genre known as "South African crime fiction." Now that I do, I want to read some!

What about you. What sort of stories would you like to read and what sort of writers do you want to write it?


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Men Still Dominate The Literary World

It never ceases to amaze me the way men dominate just about every aspect of our society. Especially the literary world.

I find it hard to believe that writers such as Alice Walker, Jane Austen and Maya Angelou are just flukes. In fact, they represent some of the finest writer I have ever had the privilege of reading.

So, why do we continue to see such a disparity between the number of men who are published in literary magazines and the number of women?

I am not writing today because I have an answer. I don't. But I do want to bring this issue to light because it's a big deal to me. My sister is a poet, my mother is a writer and my daughters (just 7 and 9 years old) write new stories every week. I would like to think they all stand an equal chance of being recognized for their work as their male counter parts, but I am seriously beginning to doubt that is the case.

I have a journalist friend, a woman, who was one of the finest writers I knew. Yet often her assignments were less challenging; less dangerous (if you will) and geared more toward sensitive, family or religious pieces than hard news. I felt she could have written on any number of subjects just as well as I did. I never thought much of it at the time, but was her beat assignment a reflection of the male bias or based more on her abilities?

Should I have spoken up? Should I have slipped her news assignments when my load was too heavy? Or does the responsibility lie with those who control the editorial desk?

I think that the best way to see more women recognized for their contributions to literature is for readers to begin demanding it. If we refuse to accept what they force us to read they will be forced to offer us something new. A new perspective, a female perspective, would be a refreshing change from what we have been reading.

I, for one, would be delighted to know that when it comes to having a literary career my daughters have the same chance as my sons. Not because they are female, but because what matters most is not what's between their legs but the words they put down on paper.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Teen Writers United Online (Not By Choice)

This is the story of two different web sites devoted to teen writers: Figment and Inkpop. One had about 95,000 users and the other had about 115,000 users, with almost no overlap between them.

HarperCollins Publishers Inc. owned Inkpop; Figment is owned by Jacob Lewis and Dana Goodyear.

Today it was announced that Figment would be buying Inkpop, uniting all those divergent teen writers under one online umbrella. This is a big win for Figment which will emerge with nearly double its current number of users, and a big loss for identity in general.

You might be asking yourself, "what the hell is he talking about now?"

Well, you might think the people who created these teen-theme websites had never met a teenager in their lives. If they had, then surely they would understand there was a very good reason the two sites did not share the same users: teens enjoy having their own identity; a choice in what to wear, what to watch and what web sites to use.

To believe for one second you can simply shoehorn these kids into one site simply because you bought the competitor is an insult to the greater Teen Intelligence. I wouldn't be surprised to see a group of teens, or even one enterprising teenager in her mom's basement, create their own competing web site for the kids who simply "don't fit in" at Figment.

Teens are fickle creatures and prone to doing things simply because they can. You cannot second guess them. You cannot predict their behavior, unless you are predicting they will do something completely unexpected. You certainly cannot expect to corral them like cattle. You would have an easier job herding butterflies in a summer breeze.

I will be watching Figment in the coming months to see how it responds to the needs of its sudden surge in users and whether or not (as I predict) more teens jump-ship and some even create their own outlet for online writing.


Friday, February 24, 2012

The Silence Of Writing

I read an interesting story today about the impact of today's "now" environment on the ability of a writer to produce copy which has had time to adequately breathe; be vetted and edited and honed to its finest point.

In the article I read they cite the example of Walt Whitman who took more than a quarter of a century to produce 'Leaves of Grass.'

I might offer an equally compelling work produced in something like three weeks: 'On The Road' by Jack Kerouac, published in 1951. It is the quintessential work of the Beat Generation and stands as one of the greatest examples of American literature ever produced. True, Kerouac used notes from his many trips across the country, some dating back as far as 1947, but the process of transforming those notes into a coherent manuscript was done as part of a non-stop process taking a scant few weeks, on one long roll of paper. (I've seen the original manuscript and it includes the authors notes, etched in pencil.)

Is there something to be said for carefully, methodically producing your written work? Of course. But only if that is how you truly feel the work needs to be produced. The fact is, each writer is different. We create based not on a timetable or by looking at the clock, marking the hours, days, weeks, months or years we've worked on the project. For the best of us, our written work is finished only when we feel it is finished.

I can polish off a short story in an afternoon. Does that make it something less than it would be if I spent the next decade working on it? I don't think so, and only my opinion matters when it comes to my work.

Should Leonardo have continued to tweak the 'Mona Lisa' simply because he didn't take long enough on the project in the first place? Ridiculous.

No one can tell an artist, whatever their medium, when their work should be finished. It simply doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of your work. It's done when you feel it is done.

Having said that, there is certainly something to be said for the benefits of proper editing. Spelling and grammar often make a big difference in the quality of your story. Although again, examples such as 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'The Color Purple' show that not everything needs to be approved by the grammar police before being published. Instead, correct so that the essence of the point you are trying to make will not be misconstrued by the reader.

In the final analysis what matters most about your writing is what you think of it. You are your own worst critic. Appease yourself and you're more likely to appease the folks who will ultimately read your work.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

JK Rowling Trying Something New

You may have read the news today about JK Rowling's new title, which will have a decidedly adult theme. The author hasn't said much more than that. No explanation about what exactly the subject matter will be beyond the fact it will be intended for an adult audience, and not for children.

Doubtless there will be many disappointed parents and children who have been longing for more adventures from the world of Hogwarts, but really, Rowling must be at least somewhat tired of writing about it. Besides, since her first Potter book was published in 1998, many of her fans have passed into adulthood. This means she has a built-in audience for new books, different books, "adult" books.

Regardless of how well her new books are received, Rowling remains the author of the fastest-selling book in the history of publishing. She invented an entirely new universe of characters; saw her books translated into more than 70 different languages and had them turned into one of the most successful film franchises in history. All of this success translated into real dollars for Rowling who has come a long way from the dire financial straights she was in when she first started working on the Potter series.

As a writer myself I certainly cannot claim to have found the same success as Rowling, but I can relate to the feelings of burnout I get from writing about the same subject over and over again. I write short stories, mostly, for just this very reason. The characters, settings, themes and subjects change with each story, which helps me, as a writer, feel better about the work I do.

I wish Rowling much success (although she hardly needs it) and more than that, I hope she can rekindle the joy of creating something fresh and new that speaks to her heart, instead of her bank account.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Two More Journalists Killed On Duty

American war correspondent Marie Colvin working for the U.K.'s Sunday Times newspaper and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were covering the Syrian governments attack on the civilians living in the Baba Amr district of Homs when the house they were sheltering in was shelled by the military. Witnesses said that as the journalists and their party fled the house the Syrian government fired a rocket at the group, killing them all.

Colvin and Ochlik were victims of the same government massacre they had been covering. This is hardly the first time a journalist has been killed while covering a war zone. There is obvious inherent danger for any war correspondent, especially when they are working the front lines, inside an area where there is little government control, or where the government is the aggressor (which appears to be what is happening right now in Syria.)

Despite the fact that covering a war zone is a risk to their life, journalists go there because that's where the story is. There simply is no better way to know what is happening in a war zone than to go there and witness it for yourself. These journalists were doing just that because they believed the true story of what was happening there was not being adequately reported by the Syrian government.

Each of them had previously reported that the Syrian government was mercilessly bombarding civilians; using snipers to shoot people in the street and bombing neighborhoods and homes indiscriminately. They knew they were entering a dangerous arena where there would be no 'safe ground' for them.

They knew the risks before they set one foot inside the border, but they went any way because a journalist understands that the role they play on the stage of life is among the most important. Information is crucial in order for anyone to make a correct decision. How do we know what is happening in Syria if nobody tells us? How do we know who needs help if we cannot see for ourselves? How can we rely on either side of the conflict to supply us with an unbiased view of events when they are actively engaged in battle with each other?

Journalists supply us with an unvarnished view of events in the world around us so we can have a better understanding of what is happening, and what, if any, our role should be. In their eyes this information is worth the risks they take, and the price they too often pay.

I hope that anyone who reads their reports, or the reports from any journalist stationed in a dangerous place, appreciates the true cost of that information.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

'Simpsons' Writers Apologize For 500th Episode

For more than a quarter of a century 'The Simpsons' animated sit-com has brought tears of laughter to the eyes of millions. Their 2007 feature film, long promised, was not quite as exciting as some may have hoped it would be, but it was funny as well.

So why did writers of the 500th episode feel the need to apologize for their latest episode? Probably to get a last second chuckle from their audience.

Let's face it, when it comes to seriously funny, consistently funny stuff, the folks who write 'The Simpsons' stand head and shoulders above the rest. How else to explain their continued high ratings and the endearing love of millions of fans. People have grown up watching 'The Simpsons' and generations of kids of made famous lines such as "Ah-ha!" "Eat My Shorts" and "Don't Have a Cow, Man."

Not to mention the nearly ubiquitous "D-oh!"

What makes 'The Simpsons' so consistently funny has much to do with the revolving team of writers who supply the words uttered by the voices we have all come to love. Although it was created by Matt Groening, he now has little to do with what you see on Sunday nights (if you watch the show.) In fact, no fewer than 16 writers work on each episode of 'The Simpsons', crafting jokes and making certain everything sticks within the loosely defined 'Simpsons Universe' created by the writers who have come before them.

Among the writers who have worked on 'The Simpsons' you'll find names like Conan O'Brien, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, George Meyer, Jeff Martin, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky, just to name a handful.

To say these folks represent the finest team of writers ever assembled, or at least participated in some of the finest writing writing teams ever assembled, is an understatement.

Is 'The Simpsons' laugh-out-loud funny every episode? Not really. But is it darn close, week after week? It sure is.

While the cast who does the voices gets most of the credit, and FOX gets most of the money, it's the writers who manage to make 'The Simpsons' a success, week after week after week....

Monday, February 20, 2012

Writers Guild Of America Awards Show Breaks No Records

They held simultaneous Writers Guild of America awards shows last night: one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. But you probably watched something else anyway.

They were each gala affairs, with golden statuettes presented to humble writers who received waves of support and applause from their peers. Crowds lined the front of both theaters, stretching for blocks, and supporters of all the writers celebrated with cheers that reverberated throughout the city.

Um, no. The WGA awards were indeed held last night, but other than some reportedly very drunk writers and their close friends and families, nobody noticed.

The fact that writers continue to be underpaid and under-appreciated is no less true today, in a world that runs on the ability of these same writers to produce near endless streams of content, than it was in the days of pulp fiction paperback novels.

The fact that the premiere of the new season of The Celebrity Apprentice is all the talk of Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, today and nobody has once mentioned the WGA awards is just a further sign of this continuing trend. In fact, as of the writing of this post there is no WGA story at CNN.com, but there are stories about a fish with wings and legs, $4 gas prices, and "Chris Brown's wish for Rihanna."

I suppose the WGA awards, since they feature people who spend most of their time hunched over computers producing the content for other awards shows, simply do not merit the same type of coverage as, say, the Oscars.

Of course without writers there would be no Oscars. No films, no magazines, no nightly news, no print news, no books, no music, no poetry, no ability to entertain at all unless you count improvisational theater, but even that has some degree of writing required.

I publish this blog because I am frustrated at the lack of respect writers continue to receive from everyone, but especially the people who make their living off the content we produce.

Ayn Rand made a great point when she wrote Atlas Shrugged. Unfortunately, since she was a writer, nobody listened.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Games Need Writers Too

When Drew Karpyshn announced this week that he was leaving game-maker BioWare, the gaming world reverberated with dread.

Karpyshn is the writer credited with such epic games as Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and his fans are legion.

While these games are all about playing; fighting, solving puzzles, defeating your enemies; they all revolve around a story line which is no less integral to the quality of the game than the special effects.

In fact, as Karpyshn points out in an article this morning at ComputerandVideoGames.com, it takes an entire team of writers to conceive a plot, write dialogue and keep the story as engaging as the game play.

Game writers are responsible for creating realistic (fictionalized, but realistic nonetheless) environments which immerse the gamers, make sense and provide a satisfying outcome. Their work is often lost in the game dynamics, the design and the special effects, but it is no less important. In fact, it is perhaps the most important element of the gaming experience.

So when Karpyshn announced he was leaving BioWare many gamers gasped, fearful of what they might expect from future versions of their favorite games. But this does not do justice to the team environment present at the companies which design these games. It's definitely a group effort, and the evidence of this team mentality is present in Karpyshn's blog posts about his decision to leave. You can visit his website here.

Karpyshn said he will use his time now to work on his novels and other personal projects and that he only wishes the best for his former employers. For his fans, Karpyshn said they can expect his new projects to be just as exciting as his previous work for BioWare.

If you're a writer looking for a new frontier and new ways of telling your stories, I hear there might be a job opening at BioWare....


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Want To Make More Money On Amazon? Write Better Books

I have heard endless discussions about how to increase your eBook sales on Amazon; read countless articles on marketing your eBooks, attracting more readers and generally making a mint in the eBook market.

Despite all this effort at helping writers have a successful eBook, nobody talks about quality.

Yes, I said it. Quality. No matter how well you market your eBook, if it isn't any good, nobody will want to read it, much less buy it. I don't care if you have a web site, a Facebook Fan page and a Twitter account with a million Followers. A marketing campaign is not a substitute for having a well-written book.

Let's start with the basics: How's your spelling? Spell-check is free, you know. There is simply no excuse for misspellings in your book, ever. Period. Exclamation point.

How about your grammar? Is you said things dumb, people no want to read, even if words spelled write.

Understand?

Finally, what about your subject matter? If you are writing fiction I suppose you just have to go with what you know. But if you are writing non-fiction, make certain you understand your audience will be limited to only those who have an interest in that specific topic. No point in marketing your book on classic films to people under the age of 25. I suppose you might find a few who will give it a shot, but they are likely not your core audience. And make certain you have a grasp of your subject beyond the ordinary. Don't tell your readers what they have probably already gleaned for themselves. Offer a fresh perspective, some previously unknown facts or trivia; something that will make them go, "wow! I didn't know that."

Once you know your book is well written, topical, interesting and put together well, find someone who you know will not just tell you what you want to hear, and let them read it. Their feedback is essential because it will be unbiased and likely to provide insights about your work that you had never considered.

So, before you launch an in-depth, no holds barred, carpet bombing marketing campaign for your eBook, be certain you are marketing a book worth reading. After all, people who BUY your book will ultimately READ it, too, so you want to make certain they ENJOY it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tweet Results In Arrest Of Saudi Blogger

The Prophet Mohammad is revered by Muslims throughout the world. The Koran makes it very clear that the Prophet Mohammad is to be treated with the utmost respect at all times and in all things.

So, when Saudi Arabian blogger Hamza Kashgari, 23, Tweeted an imaginary conversation with Mohammad, at one point questioning his own faith , religious authorities pounced.

Kashgari is just the latest in a line of artists who have faced persecution for their work. For the most part the Islamic world is not tolerant when it comes to issues of the Koran. Islamic extremists have shown that they simply will not accept any breach of their religious doctrine. The punishment, very often, is death, or at least imprisonment.

Kashgari attempted to flee Saudi Arabia for New Zealand, but was arrested in Malaysia which has a heavily Muslim population. He has publicly apologized for his Tweets and has offered repentance before the court, and many are saying although he will be punished severely he will likely not be put to death.

I am not here to debate the right or wrong of what one religious group believes. I can look right outside my office window and find plenty of Christian related problems.
No, I am here instead to talk about the bravery of one writer: Kashgari.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, with a government which takes a very strict interpretation of Islam, he surely realized that his actions, his Tweets, would cause a stir. But he did it any way.

I don't think Kashgari was trying to make a statement. I think he was expressing his inner-most thoughts; doubts about his faith; questions he needed answered. His messages were not meant to cast aspirations on his faith. They were a cry for help to understand his own beliefs.

This is the essence of writing. We write not because we know something, but because we wish to know something. Perhaps we need to know something about ourselves, perhaps we wish to know something about others, but whatever it is that drives us to question, that is exactly what our writing is: questioning.

Unfortunately, in some places in the world, questions can still get you killed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

'Free Writing, Free Thinking' Punished At Oakland University

Joseph Corlett is a 56-year-old student at Oakland University taking a creative writing course. At least he was until his assignment got him not only booted from the class but also trespassed off the property.

Corlett's assignment was to write under the topic "Hot for Teacher"
which he did. As the title suggests he wrote about being hot for his teacher. He did not write a raunchy, sex-laden piece about intercourse with her, just the effect she had on him.

Instead of counseling her student (whom she had made no complaints about previously and who had been receiving stellar grades in her class up until that point) she reported him to the Dean of Students for sexual harassment and had him removed from the school.

Corlett has appealed and is threatening a lawsuit against the school. He says he followed all the rules of the class, did nothing untoward his teacher and had no prior knowledge that he was writing off topic. (Again: The topic was "Hot For Teacher")

Oakland University officials cite this as a "student conduct matter" and will not comment. They did find him guilty of "intimidating behavior"; not guilty of sexual harassment but said if Corlett wants to return to the school he must first attend psychological counseling.

Wow. I've turned in some bad essays in my life but this one must have been awful.

It's very telling to me that Corlett had received excellent grades in the class up until this point and that no effort of remediation was offered by the school. The instructor was essentially given a free pass and all blame was heaped on the student. How is this possible? How is it a student can be exemplary one moment and banned from the premises the next when all he did was follow an assignment?

What exactly did the instructor expect when the assignment was "Hot For Teacher"? If she was unprepared for someone to write about HER, then she needs further education.

If Corlett had done something, anything, threatening to her, or even alluded to something threatening, I would have a different opinion of what happened. But as it stands it seems to be yet another writer being unfairly treated for what they have written.

Words have power. Remember I said that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing As Therapy: It Works For Many

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real problem affecting thousands of service men and women who serve in all the branches of the military. It is a real problem whose affects are serious, prolonged and difficult to treat.

One method which is proving to be very effective is writing.

Most writers understand the therapeutic effects of putting pen to paper, but the actual health benefits are a little more difficult to define. Doctors cannot write a prescription to "write a thousand words a day." If they could I would be first in line just so I could keep up with all the projects I have going on.

What they can do, however, is make suggestions; coax people who they feel may benefit from releasing their thoughts in writing to do so. As it happens, this treatment is proving very effective for those suffering from PTSD.

I read a story this morning about a former Marine, Matt Craw, who just finished his first book, “The Song Each Bullet Sings: the Story of Iraqi Freedom Through the Eyes of One Marine" and is already thinking about his next.

Craw suffered injuries during a training accident, but the PTSD he suffered is real. It was damaging his life; his self-esteem, his ability to relate to the world around him. His world was simply not the same after the accident.

Writing has helped him regain control of his life; make his life his own once again. It doesn't matter whether he writes a best seller or not, although like every writer he hopes that is his destiny. What matters is that he gets to tell stories, his stories, in a way which is empowering, and gives him back the control over his life he felt he had lost forever.

Writing is powerful. Writing is strength. There is evidence to support this aside from Matt Craw; it is evident in every word written by every starving writer with nothing more than hope that someday someone will read their words and be moved.


Friday, February 10, 2012

It's Official: Penguin Ends Deal With OverDrive

I think I see history repeating itself.

When people first began converting their CD's into MP3's and then started sharing them online with their friends, music companies panicked. Thus we entered a phase of litigation; threats, suits and eventually the push to introduced massive nationwide piracy legislation in the form of SOPA and PIPA.

Now eBook publishers are showing signs of going in the same direction. Specifically I am referring to the recent decision by Penguin to end their deal with OverDrive to allow libraries to "borrow" their eBooks. Penguin execs say they fear eBook lending will cut into eBook sales.

This is an interesting argument because libraries for print books have existed for hundreds, thousands of years. Right now I can visit my local library and check out just about any book currently in print. Free. I don't need to buy another book, ever, if I don't want to.

But I do any way.

Brick and mortar libraries have done little to prevent authors such as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown from making millions for themselves and even more for their publishers. If the logic of Penguin Books is to be believed the exact opposite should have happened. After all, if we can borrow a print book from a library why would we buy one?

Of course there is something to be said for the fact that eBook readers are decidedly different from print book readers. Whereas I enjoy holding a book, keeping a book and treasuring a book, eBook readers are more interested in the contents of the book and could care less about the physicality of the medium which brings them the story.

The situation Penguin Books describes should have also resulted in the destruction of the film industry. After all, I can rent a movie or view it online through a streaming service; watch it on cable or even buy it at the store. I don't need to see it at the theater.

What is needed is a way to write code which expires after a given time, and a release process which delivers eBooks to libraries only after the book has been for sale for a specific amount of time. With expiring code, borrowed eBooks would only last so long before they could no longer be viewed again. They could also produce code which cannot be copied, much like some DVD's and Blu-Ray discs.

But instead of seeking a solution which makes sense for them and their readers, Penguin Books has instead decided to take their toys and go home. Not a smart move on their part.

I hope eBook publishers find a way to avoid the mis-steps of the past and resolve this issue in a way which benefits everyone who writes, reads, borrows or buys eBooks. But I'm not holding my breath for a logical solution.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Freelance Writers Get New Site; New Job Offers

Contentspree.com is trying to make it easier for businesses with a writing job opening to connect with qualified freelance writers who can fill that need. The site is specific to freelance writers and writing jobs and aims to be a better resource for both businesses in need of a freelance writer and freelance writers in need of a job.

Freelance writers can create professional profiles to use to promote themselves and their work. Businesses can use the site to find and pay writers and it even offers a free copy-check tool to make certain the work they receive is original and not plagiarized.

So what's the catch? No catch. Just a new job network for freelance writers. It might even help you find some freelance writing work to tide you over until next month when the publisher finally accepts your manuscript.

Or it might be another site which helps businesses pay the absolute minimum for quality crafted writing projects which they cannot do themselves.

Whoops--I said there wasn't a catch, didn't I? Sorry. I can't help myself. I have seen so many writing jobs that offer wages I wouldn't pay a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters I am more than a bit cynical.

Some of the more jaw-dropping job offers I've seen (not at Contentspree.com-they only have a handful of jobs listed at this point) include a man who wanted me to write an entire ebook for $50; a company that wanted me to write 1000 word articles for less than one penny per word and companies that wanted me to write content for their web site for free. (Yes-free.)

It was too many hours of looking at jobs like those that spurred me to create StarvedWriter.com.

The idea there is a new web site to help freelance writers find jobs is great, but what kind of jobs are they going to find? When is writing going to be recognized as an important skill and not simply a low-end commodity that can be traded like so many widgets? If someone thinks my work isn't worth much, they aren't worth MY time.

Let's go back to those 1000 word articles which they offered me a half-cent for. I would have been required to do all the research for each one, in addition to writing the article itself. Let's say, assuming I had a decent grasp of the topic before hand, they would take me about an hour each. At $5 an hour that's not even minimum wage. If I were starving I suppose some work is better than no work, but it is important that writers begin to draw the line and tell these cheap-o's to stick it where the sun don't shine.

Until we demand respect for our craft we will not receive respect for our craft. Until we stop accepting ridiculously low offers for our hard work, we won't get anything better. There simply is no excuse for what some of these people are willing to pay for the written word.

The fact is, writing is not easy. If it were, they would be doing it themselves. Remember that.

So, visit Contentspree, Elance, ODesk or whatever freelance writing site you prefer, but remember to respect yourself. Because if you don't respect yourself and your craft, nobody else will.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Writing Mentors Promote Healing Through Words

I like to write about the power of words. Anyone who does not believe words have power has obviously never used them correctly.

Words have power not only over the physical world around us but also on how we live, how we influence others and how we are ourselves influenced. Words can help or hurt; subjugate or set free; allow us to experience thoughts and emotions which we might never have experienced without them.

So when I read about a mentoring program which involves volunteer writers I sit up and take notice. In this case I am talking about the WriteGirl Program based in Los Angeles. The goal is to reach at-risk girls and help them find the power within themselves through their own use of the written word.

WriteGirl takes girls who have perhaps never written a story, never even kept a journal before, and teaches them how to have the confidence to put their thoughts (dreams, fears, hopes, cares, worries) down on paper. The program is less about the work of writing and more about the benefits.

Every writer I know already understands the benefits of writing. It is cathartic. It allows us to step away from everything which holds us down in our day-to-day life and be free. This is powerful. This is what gets us through the hours when we are unable to write. It helps us find a place where we can breathe again.

And most of the writers I know aren't at-risk teen girls; homeless, pregnant or lost.

The article I read goes on at length about the ways the writer mentors help the girls adjust, adapt and find some inner strength. But I think it's also important to talk about the benefits for the writers.

As a writer it is difficult to know whether your work has an impact, beyond book sales, or the occasional letter from someone who read your work. Often I wonder if what I do matters at all (and so do many writers I know) although we don't let that doubt stop us.

I am fortunate in that I have been able to mentor students several times. I have worked one-on-one with high school interns interested in learning more about the work of journalists and photographers. I was there to help them write stories and take pictures, yes, but I was also there to help them find the confidence they needed to even begin. I helped them recognize the value in their own work, and to believe in themselves and their own skills.

I also regularly visited elementary schools to talk about my job as a journalist and share my experiences; what I did, how I did it and what impact it had on the communities I served.

Of everything I have ever done in my life, these were the most rewarding. My interns have gone on to study at university, becoming editors of the college newspaper and pursuing successful careers as writers and photographers.

For me, mentoring was a win-win situation. I received as much as I gave, and I always gave 100%. If you want to have your own rewarding experience consider offering your services as a mentor. Even if your local school doesn't have a program they might have an English teacher who would love to have you come and speak with his students. You don't know until you ask, and you'll never have the same rewarding experiences I've had if you don't at least try.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cops: Write First, Ask Questions Later

The best way to write like a cop is to be one.

Believe it or not, police officers are people too. In fact, when it comes to stories about the world we live in, cops probably have a better perspective than just about anyone.

That's what makes me a big fan of the new program started by the Chicago Police Academy to teach officers how to write their stories down.

Many officers worry about how their work will be perceived by officers; whether their stories will be viewed as biased one or another; whether they will offend other officers, the people in the communities they serve and even the people they arrest.

It's dangerous enough being a police officer without carrying around the burden of having written something that some people consider offensive.

This new program is designed to help them overcome these fears. It's meant to help them understand that the stories they share add to the greater good, not detract from it. From a cop's point of view the world is a very different place. We are all just a few short steps from being on the wrong side of the law, whether we're a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker. Crimes are committed by people of every race, every religion and every economic background. It doesn't matter if you are worth $5 or $5 million, you are no more or less likely to be a suspect in the eyes of a police officer.

We need their views, their opinions their stories as seen through their eyes, if we truly want to know who we are as a nation.

It astounds me to think the people in the best position to tell us something about ourselves have been mostly silent when it comes to the truth about our very nature. This needs to stop. We need their stories if we want to grow as a civilization and if the Chicago Police Academy can help them find their inner writer, speak aloud and share the stories they have carried in their hearts, then I say, "go for it!"

There's never a good time to be squeamish if you're writer. Even if you have a pen in one hand and a baton in the other.

We need your stories. So, write them.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Writing Prompt: I'm Hungry Because...

I call this blog "The Starved Writer" for a reason. Not just because myself and many writers like me are unappreciated and underpaid, but because our spirits our hungry.

Our souls cry out in despair because we have stories we want to tell and yet no means to tell them.

I've heard it a million times: "If it really mattered to you, you'd find time."

That's a joke, as we all know. Writing is an art. It's more than just slapping words on a page in readable sentences. It's imbuing our characters with spirit; hopes and fears and aspirations; digging into our own psyche to drag out into the light challenges which we can set before our characters for them to rise above (even if we cannot.)

This is writing. True writing. And it takes time. It takes concentrated effort to craft a story, no matter if it is 100 words or 100,000. This is something you simply cannot do while you worry about paying the bills, meeting deadlines, pleasing bosses or looking for work. It requires all your concentration and effort if you intend to do it right.

So, how do you do it? How do you make the time to sit down, concentrate and formulate a story which is true to your own spirit?

Good question.

Lots of people will tell you they know the secret. There are right now thousands of books available to help you do it. They promise to help you find time to complete that book you've always wanted to write just by following their "easy" step-by-step instructions. But the fact is, nobody can tell you how to do it. Nobody can blaze a path for you to follow because your story, like your life, is your own. It is unique. Trying to wedge it into a mold created by someone else is not going to work.

Oh, they might help you cough up a book, or churn out some prose, but this will do little to ease your hunger pangs. Why? Because you will not have solved your own problems. The bills will still need to be paid, the deadlines met and the boss appeased. These burdens will weigh you down even as you try to lift yourself up. They will remain as anchors on your psyche no matter how many "self-help" books you read.

If you want to write, from your heart and from your soul; if you truly want to feed the writing hunger that dwells within, you must find your own path to success. You must walk the Dark Road yourself. Feel alone, feel afraid, feel unsure but walk the path.

At its end you might just find what you are looking for.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Write To Sell Or Write For Love

Want to have a bestseller on Amazon but don't know where to start?

Stop reading this blog. I'm not going to reveal the secrets of the publishing universe to you, or give you step by step instructions for writing a bestseller. In fact, I'm going to do just the opposite and tell you to stop trying to write a bestseller altogether.

The fact is, either your book is well written, interesting and a bestseller, or it isn't. All the marketing in the world won't make your book resonate with readers, unless your plans include mass-hypnosis and subliminal messaging, and even then a certain number of people simply are not susceptible to mumbo-jumbo.

That's the difference between writing a book to sell and writing because you have a story to tell; love your characters and want to give voice to them. When you write to sell it shows. When you write for love, that shows too, and it makes all the difference in the world to your readers.

If you want to have a bestseller on Amazon the best advice I can offer you is to write something people want to read. Not just a catchy title and a cool cover, but a story with meat; a story that has meaning and depth; is well written and grammatically correct (get it edited!) without ridiculous spelling errors and an overuse of punctuation(!!!!!!!).

There is no secret recipe for having a successful book, whether it is an eBook or a traditional hardcover. There are simply some common sense rules about what is likely to sell and what is not; what is popular at the moment and what is not; what has legs and what does not. Even then you still need a quality, well-written book if you expect to sell them to a mass audience.

So stop looking for the secret to having a successful eBook. Stop buying eBooks that tell you how to have a "best selling eBook" and start writing a quality book. Once that part is done you can focus on marketing your book, and yes, there are secrets to doing that successfully.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tumblr Hires Its Own Journalism Department

Tumblr was not the first social media company to start its own network newspaper (for lack of a better term) but they are getting a lot of press from their decision to hire their own writers and editors and begin reporting on what's happening every day within their network.

The idea seems reasonable enough to me. Their network is comprised of millions of blogs and short of a crystal ball a new user has little idea what might be happening within that network on any given day. A journalism depart would certainly help them provide a resource for new users to discover what's happening, what changes are being made, what posts are most active, attracting the most attention or just providing really cool information.

Facebook, too, announced a similar move toward in-house reporting of site content, and Twitter has long been trying to find a way to organize and promote its wealth of content short of hastags and search.

The fact is these social networks have grown beyond the size of most major cities, even many states and countries. Facebook alone has more than 800 million users, all of whom are posting content, creating Fan Pages and doing 'stuff' every minute of every day. It makes sense they would need a journalism department to keep track of it all.

This is much like the way print newspapers were created. As humans gathered into more complex societies, formed towns and cities, people wanted to know more about what was going on; who was doing what, when, where and how. So, newspapers were created. (After we went the 'Town Cryer' route and created the printing press--but those are other stories.)

The idea behind what Tumblr and Facebook are doing is sound. Their networks are certainly big enough to warrant some sort of knowledge gathering service that can the parcel that information out to other users, just as some people today still rely on their local newspaper to know what days they need to put out their recycling, or when to expect the water rates to go up.

This move toward in-house news gathering is also a great way to help outsiders feel more welcome in these online communities; learn their way around and find the spots in which they will be most comfortable. I believe this will also create a new market for beat reporters interested in covering online communities and perhaps open the door to 21st century journalism.

Of course there is also the possibility that these efforts will lead only to self-aggrandizing and promotional pieces touting the benefits of these online communities while shying away from stories with any chance at being perceived as negative.

Only time will tell whether we are seeing the re-birth of journalism or simply a new form of advertorials.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

DC Expanding 'Watchmen' Universe (Good Idea?)

In 1986 writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons debuted what would become the world best selling comic book: 'Watchmen.'

Unlike everything that had come before it, 'Watchmen' was a universe of characters unto itself; it handled themes and stories that were once considered too adult, too deep for the average comic book reader (then thought of simply as children) to comprehend, much less appreciate.

But 'Watchmen' did more than just buck the trend of dumbed-down comic book stories, it shattered the glass ceiling, creating a new genre of mature comic books, boosting popularity of graphic novels and giving those who had a desire to write comic books which did something other than promote super-strength, super-speed and invulnerability, a reason to rejoice.

In the wake of 'Watchmen' more genre busting comic books and graphic novels came along, each doing its own part to promote the art form of comic books rather than just the super heroes which composed most of their pages.

Neil Gaiman and the dozens of writers and artists who have since produced such stellar independent works as 'Moonshadow', 'Blood: A Tale', 'Stray Toasters' and countless other titles, owe their success in no small part to the trail blazed by Gibbons and Moore with 'Watchmen.'

So, this week, when DC comics announced that they were recruiting writers and artists to create a series of prequel comics based on the 'Watchmen' universe, there was a collective gasp from the comic book world. With just a few strokes of a pen an artist or writer can forever alter what we think we know about the characters Moore and Gibbons created.

Before the release of the 'Watchmen' movie, Moore made it quite clear he disapproved of the project, or any attempts to alter or re-envision the 'Watchmen' universe he and Gibbons created. Unfortunately, the rights belong to DC, and as such, they can do with 'Watchmen' as they please. For his part Gibbons said that he endorsed the new 'Watchmen' project DC has planned, and said he looks forward to seeing what they create.

For myself, as a fan of 'Watchmen' and a writer, I am opposed to any efforts to re-envision someone else's work. There is absolutely no way anyone can know what goes on in the mind of anyone else, especially a writer's mind. How do we know what Moore intended for his characters beyond what he has already written? This is all simply so much conjecture, and an obvious attempt to capture more revenue from what is a much revered work of art.