Archive | Career Building

Reconsidering the Day Job

day jobWay back in September, I was feeling pretty low. I had just taken a day job I thought was perfect for me, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so miserable. My therapist at the time gave me an assignment. He told me to write, without thinking, my top seven jobs, putting all reality aside. I had to do it quickly, off the top of my head. I remember that first on the list was novelist, then SCUBA instructor, photo journalist, Indiana Jones, backpacking guide, and I can’t remember the last two.

The telling thing was that most of my dream jobs would take me outdoors, with people. After I described my job’s working environment – a lonely square room with no windows – my therapist told me what I already knew. I needed to quit my job.

It was then I signed up to volunteer at Descanso Gardens, with their horticulture department. I wanted was to get my hands dirty and watch things grow. We still lived in Silver Lake at that point, but we were house hunting in La Canada. As it turns out, we now live about a mile from the gardens. It’s my new favorite place.

I seriously could spend all day there. So far, my schedule only allows for me to volunteer two hours a week, but as soon as the kids are back in school for the fall I want to start going more often. Yesterday I spent two hours pinching chrysanthemums. Sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it? To get the plants to bloom with lots of big flowers later in the year, you have to carefully pinch off new growth. Everywhere you pinch off a stem bud, two new stems will grow in. I fucking love nature.

Anyhow, the whole experience has me seriously rethinking my day job. Right now I’m doing freelance website development and social media marketing consulting. I like the work, and my clients are pretty awesome, but working online is nothing like working out in the garden.

It’s the kind of work I would continue to do, even if my novel sold for millions of dollars and I never had to work again. That’s a far cry from where I was last fall.

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How to Handle Rejection

This is what I used to look like when I got a rejection letter.

crying

But it has gotten better.

These days, every time I get a rejection letter, I also get a high-five from my husband.

Last week, at the dinner table, I shared with the family that I got two rejection letters in one day. My husband held up his hand and I gave it a slap.

My daughter, who is old enough now to understand that rejection is supposed to be a bad thing, asked why we were celebrating. We told her what we always tell each other: if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not putting yourself out there enough.

It’s not that I’m happy about being rejected. Not at all. What I celebrate is that fact that I’m still in the game. I high-five because the minute I got each of those rejections I sent out my story to another journal. My husband is cheering me on in my relentless pursuit of publication.

So if you hate rejection (because who doesn’t) I invite you to make use of my two-step response.

  1. Send your story/query to the next journal/agent on your list immediately. (If you don’t already know who is next on your list, check out my Submission Spreadsheet. You should always know what’s next.)
  2. Find someone to give you a high-five. This can be via text, over the phone, or at dinner that night, but find someone to tell you that you’re doing an awesome job. Because you are. You’re fighting the fight. This is what it is to be a writer.

These two steps won’t do anything to mute the pain of rejection, but they will hopefully keep you from quitting. As a teacher of mine once said, “There are two kinds of writers: those who get published, and those who quit.”

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What I Learned at AWP This Year

AWP is a pretty epic gathering of writers. I went once before, when I was in grad school, and had to travel all the way to Chicago to do it. So when I found out it was going to be here in LA this year I signed up right quick.

AWP16

In case you’re unfamiliar, the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference is like a lot of other conference-style events, except much more awesome because it’s all about writing (that’s Jonathan Franzen there on the left). There are seminars, and panels, and parties, but the best part is the massive expo floor with hundreds of booths, almost all of which exist to promote literary journals.

For three whole days, I wondered the convention center, sitting in on sessions, and bit by bit making my way to every booth on the expo floor. I met a lot of journal editors, including some that have my latest short story in their slush piles. I shook hands, and bought a few editions. Totally worth the price of admission.

Here are a few things I learned over the weekend at this year’s AWP:

  • The Sun Magazine is looking for fiction. Not only do they pay (well), they are also a fantastic publication printing high-quality work. I sent them my latest short story, and you should too.
  • A woman on a panel, talking about how women are published at a lesser rate in most journals, noted that when they are rejected, women tend to stop submitting. Men just send another story until something is accepted. This is not to say there isn’t a bias in publishing, but women need to know that a big part of being published is simply being persistent.
  • On that note, I discovered VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to women in the arts. They actually do a count every year of the percentage of women published by major journals. You can read about it here. #wecount Spoiler alert – The Paris Review is rocking it.
  • I attended a panel about forming a writers collective. The basic idea is that you gather about a dozen or so writers that you admire and pool your resources to help promote each other. Sounds pretty awesome to me. At some point, I really want to try this, but for now I’m focusing on finishing my novel, so I have something to share.
  • Lastly, I heard a well published writer encourage us all to just keep writing. He talked about how he wrote his first novel ten minutes at a time, in the driver’s seat of his car, before going into the office. What’s more, he said that when he looks at that writing, and compares it to writing he does now (with ample time to contemplate and formulate), he can’t tell the difference. Just keep writing.

Those were the major take-aways for me, the last one being the most important. Just keep writing.

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Always Learning

I mentioned a while back that I was planning to take a UCLA fiction writing course, Novel IV. My motivations were twofold. First, I really enjoy getting know local writers and I figured an advanced course would have some interesting people in it. Second, I am humble enough to know that I am not done learning to be a writer.

The class started a few weeks ago. The instructor, Mark Sarvas, had my attention when he asked us all to say what we were reading. He assumed we were reading fiction. Hell yes. He went on to explain that writers should be reading and writing every day, and we should be reading more than we’re writing. Double hell yes.

Mostly, we’re working on scenes in this class. We spend the first half of each three-hour session on discussion of one particular aspect of scene (he has a check list), and the second half of the class is a workshop. Each week three of us submit 20 pages and get feedback. (Those getting feedback aren’t allowed to talk – which is brilliant – but those of us giving feedback have pretty lively discussions.)

I just submitted my first 20 pages. Having recently re-written my beginning, no one has actually seen these pages yet. I feel pretty good about them, but I’m very excited to hear what my classmates have to say.

All in, I am totally digging the class. I’ve already signed up for the next one (Novel V). I’m hoping to spend the next six weeks going through my draft with an eye for scene work and applying everything I’m learning. I’m not sure what the focus of Novel V is, but whatever it is, I’m on board.

It’s great to be back in a classroom, talking about the art of writing and having informed debates. I suppose after you publish a book or two you stop taking classes and start teaching them. In my limited experience teaching, I’ve learned even more than I have during my time as a student. So here’s to life-long learning.

May life always challenge you to grow and change as an artist and a person.

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Updating My Dreams

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, I have officially made the decision to let go of working as a freelance writer ever again. I love my job, I only work four days a week, which leaves me some solid time on Mondays to work on my fiction, and I get a regular, totally respectable paycheck.

I’ve been sitting with this choice for a few weeks, and am more and more comfortable with it. I don’t know why it took so long to realize what a good set up I’ve managed to land myself in. And I’m so glad I did realize before I did something drastic. Sometimes, when the writing isn’t going well, I get a little crazy.

Anyhow, I noticed a couple days ago that my dream board needed updating. Don’t laugh, I have a dream board. I give full credit to my hippie parents, who are big on visualizing outcomes. Besides, if Oprah does it (and she does), then there must be something to it because that woman is amazing. I mean seriously. How cool is it that she puts herself on the cover of her magazine every month? I love that shit.

So the dream board. I made it about year ago. It has the cover of my novel (or at least a hand-drawn version of how I see it looking), and the next, and some tiny little fake checks made out to me from fancy publishing agencies. It had the covers of all the magazines I was going to write for with mockups of the articles I was going to write (with my byline of course). It had a little drawing of me and Daniel and the kids flying off to some exotic place on one of my writing assignments.

Well, half of it was still good. The other half needed to change. And I had a few free minutes (yeah, being done with all that wedding craziness!), so I grabbed some scissors and glue and went to it. When she saw what I was doing my daughter asked: Don’t you want to travel with us anymore? And I said: Of course I do, but not for work. Which reminded me to grab a travel magazine I had been reading and add it to my pile of supplies.

Here’s how it came out:
Writer's Dream Board

You’ll see three book covers there. The Feathered Tale of Tallulah Jones, Book 2 (I have a title but don’t like it), and the Northern California book, which I’m told WILL some day be published. I also left one article. I have, ever since I received Issue #1 in the mail years ago, dreamed of writing a Spin The Globe piece for Afar magazine. If you don’t know that magazine, you should totally check it out. Best travel mag going. You’ll also see an outline for my third novel with a SOLD tag on it. The fine print dictates a bidding war and a seven-figure sale price.

The best change is that I got rid of all that extra freelance business and wallpapered the board with travel images: Great Barrier Reef, Zion, Yellowstone, mountain biking, SCUBA diving, hiking. These are the things I want most outside of work. Adventures with my family. And the coolest thing of all? Even if I don’t make seven figures on any of my books, I have a steady job that allows me to save up for these kind of vacations.

In short, I’m feeling pretty good about my choices lately. I hung the new board over my dresser and see it every day. My folks, and Oprah, say there’s power in that.

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Taking the Leap to Fiction

I have long held to the idea that the greatest tragedy in life is that it is so short. This world is so big, and so full of strange and wonderful things, that I am often struck with a sense of overwhelming loss at the idea that I will only experience a minuscule portion of it. It’s the reason I exercise and why I quit smoking. If I can buy myself even a few more years on this planet, to explore the vast array of sights, sounds, and tastes it has to offer, I’ll do whatever it takes.

This has often lead me over-commit myself. I take on too many projects because I get excited about new opportunities. I know I do, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. Ever since I took this new job, freelance jobs have been coming out of the woodwork – go figure. Good, high-paying gigs have just landed in my lap, and I’ve had to hand them off to other writers I know because I simply don’t have time to do the work.

This has made me think seriously about going back to freelance. I like the flexibility and the diversity of the projects. I even took one of the jobs, writing for a new phone app that I can’t really tell you about yet except to say that it aligns with my travel writing. (I’ll tell you all about it once they launch.)

This little side gig is fun. It’s interesting. It’s a break from the norm and chance to try something new, which is always a draw for me. But it was due two days ago, and I’m going to spend all day today wrapping it up (today, which was supposed to be a day of fiction writing), and in the end, for the amount of time I will spend on it, the pay is a lot less than I’m making at my job.

Freelance work can be great, but it requires constant hustling for the next job, and it often doesn’t pay for shit. And all that has shifted my thinking yet again. The question came to me: what if I never go back to freelance – ever? What if I just put that out of my head entirely? What if I get up in the morning, write, go to work, maybe even write on my lunch break, and use my Mondays to write my novel instead of dicking around with little freelance jobs? That was why I negotiated to have Mondays off in the first place. I wanted more time for my fiction, but I keep getting distracted, and then frustrated because I’m not making more progress on the novel.

When I look at it like this, it feels stupidly simple. Focus. Cut out all the distractions and just focus on what matters most to me: time with my family and time to work on my fiction. It would be foolish to quit a job that pays me so well to do what I love. I think now is a time to stay the course and focus on my fiction.

One time, when I was in grad school, Janet Fitch said to me: “If you’re thinking of writing anything but fiction, just stop.” At the time I smiled and thanked her for the vote of confidence, and even though I wrote that on a post-it note and stuck it over my desk, I kind of ignored it. I don’t know why. I think it’s because it’s kind of scary committing to fiction. It’s an art, and being an artist is hard. It invites criticism, and requires vulnerability in a way that being a travel writer does not. Honestly, nobody is ever going to critique my work on this travel app.

So this is me, the fiction writer, deciding to make the leap. If you are in need of a good freelancer, please feel free to drop me a line – I know lots of good writers, but as for me, from now on, I’ll be writing fiction.

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When To Call a Book Done

office 1I started the new job last week, on Tuesday. In case you haven’t been following along, my new position is with a civil engineering company. I’m doing technical writing, and working 80% full time, so I have Mondays off (which so far is awesome). You can see the office needs a little decorating (I already asked them to move all those filing cabinets), but the simple fact that they got the accent right on the name plate made me feel very welcome.

It looks like I’m going to be doing a lot of work relating to the drought. The company I work for does a lot of water storage and management projects, and now, with the passing of the water bond last November, there is a lot of work coming down the pipeline (so to speak). It feels like a sweet spot for me, where my interests and abilities have come together in a way that actually gets me paid.

Then there’s the work I’m not getting paid for (yet). I’m still working on finishing a draft of the first novel, “The Feathered Tale of Tallulah Jones.” It’s getting close. This might be the week. The thing I’m struggling with now is when to call it done. I have a lot of writer friends, as you might imagine. Some say make it as good as you possibly can before you send out query letters, which makes sense to me, but others say that no matter how done you think it is, your agent/editor/publisher will have edits they want you to make, so you should make it good, and then go ahead and start sending it out.

Of course, those writer friends have friends who are agents, which gives them a foot in the door. They have agents who will read their work and pass on to their friends. But, if I’m an agent, and some friend of mine says “hey read this” I’m not going to get very far if I don’t love it, so it still seems like, as the author, you would want your work to be great.

I heard an agent at a panel discussion once describe her thought process. She said that she starts manuscripts in her office, and if something grabs her attention she will take it home and read it in bed. She said something to the effect of, “as a writer, you have to make me want to take your work to bed.” Because isn’t that what the end readers are ultimately looking for too? When I’m reading a good book, I can’t wait to crawl into bed with it each night.

That’s what I’m hoping to create: something that people can’t wait to pick up. It’s getting close. I’m working to print a copy for Daniel (always my first reader on anything) this weekend. I’m also considering hiring a professional editor, some objective professional to give me their opinion. But then again, I might have a few more friends read it first, and my writing group. They’ve already read it twice, but hopefully they’ll read it again. It has changed quite a bit in this last revision.

I’ll let you know next week if I’m successful in finishing the draft.

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Balancing a Writing Life

Disneyland
I had a great week last week. I got a ton of writing done, I checked off about a dozen items from my long-standing to-do list, and on Friday, we took the kids to Disneyland.

This is the first year we’ve gone in for the annual pass. We bought the cheapest version, which means we can’t go on weekends, or holidays, or pretty much any time in July, but we only have to go three times a year to make the expense worth it. We went once for Daniel’s birthday, once for my sister-in-law’s birthday, and as it turned out, my girl’s school had a teacher work day Friday, and and I don’t start the new job until tomorrow, so it was the perfect opportunity. We have officially made the annual pass worth it. And the kids are the perfect age. The boy is still a little hesitant on some of the bigger rides, but we had a blast.

And now it’s Monday, my last day before starting the new job. I’m a little nervous, and excited. I’m also a little sad to be stepping away from all the writing I’ve been doing, but I’ll still be writing, it’ll just be science writing instead of fiction. And I’ll still have my mornings. I made more progress than I expected to on the novel last week, and I think with another week or two of mornings working on it, I should have a draft before long.

Then there’s the new story. I’m very much wanting to get back to it, but I’m too close on the first novel to drop it. I’m going to at least wrap up this draft, then jump back into Novel #2. Such is the life of a writer, always balancing the demands of story, with the need to make a living. It can be a busy life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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I Got the Job!

Last week I told you that I was talking with an engineering company about a full-time writer position they are looking to fill. Shortly after I posted that, I had an in-person interview with the man who would be my supervisor, which went really well, and all signs were pointing toward it being a really good fit.

Then we scheduled a phone call with me, the President of the company, and their HR lady. I knew this would be the brass tacks call, so to speak. That wonderfully fun conversation where all parties dance around the topic of compensation, because really, really, man oh man, nobody likes to talk money.

So I knew I needed to decide on what I wanted to ask for in terms of compensation. I called my mother-in-law, who was a pretty fancy CEO up until she retired, and who is still active with a lot of start-ups in the silicon valley. She gave me some pointers. The main thing it came down to for me was that I wanted to work less. Given the choice between more time and more money, I wanted the time.

The next day, on the call, I framed the discussion in terms of working 80% full time. That was what I wanted more than anything so it just made sense to frame the discussion starting there. I was pleasantly surprised when that suited them just fine. We worked out the details, and came to an agreement. The next day they sent me a letter highlighting the basics of what we had agreed to. I signed it and sent back and ka-zam – I got the job.

I am so excited about this, that for days I’ve been waiting for them to call up and say they made a mistake of some kind. I get to be a full-time writer, working four days a week, with super cool science nerds. I won’t be making any more money than at my current job, in fact, I’m taking a small cut, but if you break it down to an hourly rate, I actually am getting a pretty good bump in pay. And anyways – who cares! Full-time science writing. No more project management (which has always stressed me out). I get to just go to work, do a great job, and go home at the end of the day.

Daniel took me out to celebrate on Thursday, and I gave notice on Friday. My boss wasn’t thrilled, but he’s been very understanding. He knows this is a great opportunity for me, and it’s not like he’s loosing the client. My last day will be February 20th. After that, I’ll have two weeks before I start at the new job. I’m going to take the time to wrap up some projects, not the least of which is my novel. I don’t know that I can get it across the finish line in two weeks, especially considering some of the other things I need to get done (take the car into the shop, help my sister plan her wedding, run the kids to soccer practices), but I can make some good progress, I’m sure.

2015 is off to a great start.

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Unexpected Possibilities

An interesting thing happened to me at work a couple weeks ago.

I was on my regular conference call with a client, the President of a civil engineering company. We check in twice a month and he updates me on what’s happening with the company, so that I can then draft articles for the company blog, and update their website, and manage their social media. He mentioned that they needed to create a job posting for a full-time staff writer.

I reminded him that we (meaning the company I work for) would be happy to do the work, but he admitted that it didn’t make sense financially for them to hire a consultant to do full time work. They wanted to create a new position within the firm.

Treading carefully, I asked if I could be considered for the job. We both got quiet and agreed that we shouldn’t talk any further without first talking to my boss. Which I promptly did. Which is why I feel I can write about this here, even though it is still very much speculation. They’re not exactly sure what they’re looking for, but basically, they are doing a lot of drought management work, and they need someone who can understand the science, then translate it all into easy-to-read reports for the decision makers and board members of water districts across California.

I don’t want to get my hopes up, but this sounds like an amazing opportunity. My background in science, combined with my masters in writing, and experience in local politics (at my current position) make me a perfect match, if I do say so myself.

Anyhow, there’s not a whole lot more to say about it right now, but it is an exciting and unexpected opportunity. I will keep you posted on how it unfolds.

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