Writing Advice from One Beginner to Another

I’m a luminary! Well sort of.  A few months ago, I submitted an essay to a publisher looking for stories about superheroes.  It was accepted, and the anthology was released this week.  In describing the book on Amazon, the editor wrote “including pieces by Tea Krulos, Phoenix Jones, Peter Tangen, and SkyMan, among other luminaries.”  I can only assume she meant me.

http://www.amazon.com/Ka-Pow-Caroline-Dombrowski-ebook/dp/B00GNIJ3W4/

This is the second time I have been published, and so I thought with my vast experience I would offer some advice on how to achieve such success.  Yes, I am aware that I sound like a complete douche bag, but stay with me.

As a wannabe writer, I often read articles on how to improve your writing, how to submit your manuscript, etc.  The problem, for me, was that these types of articles generally speak to writers who are more accomplished than I am.  They were aimed at writers who have full books to pitch.  They gave advice on self publishing versus finding a publisher, how to find an agent, etc., when all I wanted was to see my name in print somewhere, anywhere.  I wasn’t ready to bat in the big leagues.  I just needed to know how to get off the bench.

So after publishing two- count them- two pieces this year, and being paid actual money to write, here are a few things I learned along the way.  With any luck, maybe they’ll help you in some way too.

  1. Look for publications seeking new writers/Tailor to the publication:  My mother-in-law gave me a copy of a local magazine with a small advertisement providing information for submitting for future issues. The ad specified that new writers were welcome.  At first I blew it off.  The advertisement was for a cycling magazine, and I assumed they would be looking for avid cyclists.  But I flipped through and noticed a section for everyday folks talking about their adventures on bikes.  I had just taken up mountain biking, and thought I could write from the perspective of someone learning the sport.  I set out one morning with my camera (they also paid for photos) and the intent to write an essay on mountain biking that would work well in that particular section of the magazine.  Two months later, the essay was published and I got my first check for writing.  Yeah!
  2. Readers do not need your full back story:  I have a problem editing my own work (you may have noticed that just from reading this piece.)  Since I mainly write to chronicle my own life, I provide a lot of details that are interesting to me, but can become a drag on the story for people outside my immediate circle.  The word counts for both of the essays I had published were cut by about 25%.  The editor from the bike magazine came back to me with advice to simplify.  I believe her exact advice was “You have a lot of players.  You mention your mother-in-law, your sister-in-law, your husband.  It makes it hard to keep up with who is doing what.”  The reader didn’t need to know that I started biking to compete in a triathlon with my mother-in-law, and that my sister-in-law loaned me the bike.  Magazine editors have a specific space to fill, and your article has to fit in that space.
  3. Adhere to the point you want to make: I assumed my work would be returned to me already edited to what the magazine desired.  Perhaps this is the case with some publications, but it was not for me.  The editors provided information as to what they wanted from the article, and made suggestions for improvement, but I had to do the actual edits.  It helped me to think of my article as a blurb on the front of the magazine and to edit the article to reflect that singular point.  My article for the biking magazine was titled “Mountain Mama- Surviving Motherhood by Shredding Gnar.”  If it didn’t serve that idea, I took it out.
  4. Have someone who knows about writing read your piece before submitting:  When I decided I wanted to try to get published, I asked friends to read my work and offer feedback.  While it is great to get insight from readers, it usually lacks the specific criticism needed to improve the writing.  Friends are nice.  They say things like “I like it.  I noticed you missed a comma in the third paragraph, but otherwise it was great.”  I was fortunate to become friends with an experienced writer and editor, who happened to work for outdoorsy-type magazines.  She read my article with the expertise of someone who knows what magazines are looking for, and provided specific suggestions for how to make the work stronger.
  5. You are a writer.  Walk the walk, talk the talk:  The writer I mentioned previously offered to read my work many months before I actually let her.  In my mind, she was a “real writer.”  I was sure every wannabe she encountered asked for help.  One night I said as much after she offered to help me yet again.  She responded by telling me she wouldn’t have offered if she didn’t want to do it.  She also told me that she is part of a group of writers that exchange work and offer critiques to each other.  I realized this is what writers do.  If I wanted to be a writer, I needed to stop being self conscious and do what was needed to improve the piece.
  6. You have a social circle.  Use it:  I did not meet my writing friend at a writer’s conference or book reading- our sons attend preschool together.  I heard about the superhero anthology by reading a blog of another struggling writer.  I have a children’s book I would like to publish.  I told my mother-in-law, a former librarian, about it.  She said “I have a friend on the Caldecott committee.  I’ll ask him to read it for you.”  I always assumed I did not have the connections needed to become a writer, but as I talked about writing more and made my hobby public, I learned a friend of a friend could be a great asset.

So there you have it.  What have you learned along the way?  Send me your advice.  I’m still new at this, and we hacks have to stick together.

Me and my first published piece- no, I’m not a complete narcissist.  I just can’t figure out how to get the picture to size down on this website.  Yup, I’m a professional.

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