Most writing advice posts I come across are bullshit. They're usually A) totally boring, what-I-learned-about-character-in-undergrad 500-word pieces that I forget by the time I reach the last sentence, or B) they're variations on "13 Ways of Looking at Blah Blah Blah."
Which is why when I saw that Queens University MFA director Fred Leebron had a guest post in the Superstition Review this week, I thought: probably another circle jerk column that will vaguely explain the basics of point of view or whatever.
But I should know better when it comes to Leebron's articles and speeches.
In his post, "Considering the Old and the New: Two Thoughts on Craft and Industry," Leebron packs a punch with strong opinions and a double call to action.
In part 1: On Craft, he explores the tendency to repeat successful or comfortable patterns in one's stories and novels, and the importance of challenging oneself to break that cycle.
"A writer who tends to ‘muscle up’ in an ending will repeat that tendency in his next ending, having experienced success with it. Or, a writer who tends to “disappear” one of her characters in one novel will have another character vanish in another novel."
Leebron also provides a practical starting point with questions to address in one's work. These are deceptively simple and ultimately create an exercise all writers I know should undertake. I did it, and came up with a laundry list of items that appear in almost Every. Single. Story: Missing or neglectful fathers, explicit or implied bisexuality, trains (paging Dr. Freud at this point), circuses or circus metaphors, atendency to describe everyone's hair color (why), and too-long, lush endings. So now I know...and knowing is half the battle.
In part 2: On Industry, Leebron raises the big concern--and one of the more controversial and oft-discussed issues among literary magazines--of writers believing they should provide their content for free.
"...as writers we are trained to write for a larger audience, because otherwise the writing is private and therefore not real, and this leads us again to the desire to share the work any way we can, and more often than not (considering that over one million people in the U.S. say they write), that sharing has been free of charge for the reader and free of income for the writer."
Leebron does not believe writers should provide content for free (although he recognizes his own hypocrisy to read and embrace free content). This concern was echoed during a discussion that he and I had regarding my social media presence.
I recently posted on Facebook about making a "replacement mom" for my son to teach him a lesson. It was, to me, such a simple moment and I shared it with my friends and family members on Facebook because...that's what you do when you're a mom and you're on Facebook.
"I worry that Facebook is taking material for which in the old days you'd get 2k for a magazine piece and converting it to a 100-word anecdote," Leebron wrote in our correspondence.
I let that sink in.
This story was something that, to me, should be "shared around the campfire." You know, just a funny little thing about me and the kid and hahahaha, yes I made a broom mom while drinking wine! [presses Post]
But Mommy needs a new car, and Mommy has monthly bills stacking up. It sure would have been nice to sell a story like that to a parenting magazine and get that exposure, too.
The problem was, I didn't realize it was unique content, and therefore worth developing. Maybe because I didn't spend hours writing it out--yet. But like the rare good writing advice column, my Facebook post stuck out among the run-of-the-mill kiddo updates. Leebron wasn't the first person to bring up the idea that I should be monetizing my work. "You really need to write a Thad book," has been burning my ears these past six months. But I'll save that issue for another post.
So...yeah, free content. I don't think I should get paid for everything. I don't think every Tweet or Facebook update is worth hundred dolla bills, yo. But how does one decide what to give away for free?
This blog content is free because I'm personally not putting a price on it. It's a hobby. I don't pay myself for my hobbies. What I have recently (read: 48 hours ago) realized--and who knows why it took me so damn long--is this: I can control the value I place upon my fiction and nonfiction. Have I ever been paid for a piece? Yes. In contributor copies. Will I ever get paid cash money for my work? From now on, hopefully yes. That does not mean I won't gladly contribute or submit to a magazine that I find worthy of free work, and I don't consider that work to be lesser aesthetic quality. I support literary magazines by buying or subscribing, with the hope that they will make enough money to pay their writers. I encourage others to buy, subscribe, and support lit magazines through donations. I firmly believe writers should be paid for the many hours they spend working.
How many story submissions do I have out right now to unpaid markets? 1. (And that's due to the large audience traffic this magazine provides.)
How many story submissions do I have out right now to paying magazines? 14.
The trick is to research (a lot) where you want your work to be seen and by whom, and will it pay you what you think you're worth. If you sell one story for $50 and one story for $1,000, will they balance out the overall cost of your time and energy on both stories? Seriously, this should be your own personal part-time internship...study the industry and research and read all the magazines you can. As a writer, you can determine the actual price to place upon your work. Doesn't mean you'll get paid that much, but you need to set a standard for yourself and for your self esteem as a writer.
I never thought my stories should be worth $500 here or $250 there. I thought this kind of payment should be the exception, not the rule. Then I started thinking about the hours, days, months each story demanded of me. The revisions. The editing. The part-time job of researching. When would all of that be compensated? Of course, some stories took me 30 minutes or an hour to write and just spilled out of me and they were pretty much perfect and that was awesome and here you go Literary Magazine, have it for free--I'm damn proud of it. But those pieces are the exception, not the rule. I needed to place a standard, a "ruling" value on my work. I write longer stories in general, and they take forever to revise. It took some time for me to shift to this mindset.
You DO have to start somewhere. You have to work up a small list of pub credits in order to get magazines to pay attention to you. Whether you are a graphic designer or an artist or a caterer or whatever, consider this your "list of references." But that doesn't mean you continue to just give away shit for free. Other people don't work this way.
You have to determine which stories belong on a shelf in packaging, and which ones should be shared around the campfire. It's a beautiful thing when you realize you have both types of stories within you. They make you a well-rounded writer.