My Favorite Freelance Writing Resources

58251_7227There are so many great sites, groups, etc. out there to help freelance writers new and old. I’ve definitely developed some favorites through trial and error. Since people often ask me, here’s a handy list of the ones I like:

Freelance Success: the forums, where writers freely share contacts and other key info, are worth the membership fee

Freelancers Union: for insurance info and other benefits

Hiveage: an online invoicing system that keeps track of your earnings

MediaBistro: super-useful media news like the comings and goings of editors, plus the best resource on pitching available — the How to Pitch section, available with an affordable membership fee

ProfNet: great way to find expert sources for stories

The Renegade Writer: one of the few writing-related blogs I read regularly, probably because it’s one of the few that offers advice that helps “advanced” freelancers as well as beginners

A Word in Praise of Naps

from morguefile.com

from morguefile.com

I have decided to embrace my desire for afternoon naps whenever possible. It’s an urge I fought for a long time, first by necessity — I had an office job for the first 15 years of my working life — and then because I felt like I had to prove something as a work-from-home freelancer. But when I made myself a new work-day schedule a few months ago, I accounted for a nap from 2-3 p.m. when it works out. A lot of times I have interviews or work due, in which case I will skip it; but on a normal day, I allow for some sleepy time. The fact is, little gets done when I’m crashing mentally at that time anyway. Also, Mr. Rogers took regular naps. I know what people will say: Gosh, I wish I had such luxury! But I have to go to work/deal with my kids/etc. To that, I say: Yes, it is a totally ridiculous luxury. I feel lucky in so many ways. But one of my biggest resolutions this year is to try to extricate myself from the “I’m so proud to be busy and I’m totally the busiest” thing we all tend to do. I think it makes us all a little crazier. So this is my first step: Coming out as a napper.

A Little #TBT Memoir-Writing Exercise

Here's a family photo (in front of my sorority house at Northwestern) that I wrote about once for this exercise.

Here’s a family photo (in front of my sorority house at Northwestern) that I wrote about once for this exercise.

I’ve been assigning this exercise for as long as I’ve taught Creative Writing and Creative Nonfiction, but lately I’ve taken it up as a regular habit for myself: Find an old photo from your own life, and write a few hundred words about it. That’s basically it. Nothing revolutionary. I personally resist elaborate writing prompts, and this one always brings forth great stories from my students. Since I recently got all of my photos scanned (ScanMyPhotos.com, though there are other sites as well), I just pull up the files, pick one, and write about it. You can do this every day, maybe even a few times per day. I love doing some kind of writing every day besides the professional kind, and this exercise has reminded me of so many surprising little memories. I’m hoping some of these pieces will yield some publishable work, too; maybe a few could come together to form a personal essay or somesuch.

If you’re wondering what to write about today, try it. It’s like a prose #TBT.

I’m Giving Away a Skillshare Membership

To thank one of you loyal (or even not-so-loyal) readers, I’m giving away a free Premium Membership to Skillshare (on which I teach a few writing classes) for a year. This allows you to take unlimited classes, and they’ve got a ton of writing-related courses as well as programming, design, photography, and other fun things. The first to respond in the comments gets it.

Find a Writer Tribe

58251_7227I don’t think there’s any better advice for becoming a “real” writer than surrounding yourself with writers. This was definitely the turning point in my career, when I went from seeing myself as just a working journalist to seeing myself as a Writer. I began hanging out with people who inspired me, who wrote novels and essays and other literary things. They treated me like I was one of them, so I started to believe that I was. I started to pursue a real, live literary career, and it worked!

Some ways you can surround yourself with inspiring fellow writers:

1. Go to readings. Like, small literary readings at independent book stores and bars, not Barnes & Noble blockbusters. This is where I got most of the literary friends I still have. Many local publications will list readings in their events sections. Most independent bookstores have bulletins you can pick up, listings on their websites, email lists, or all of the above. Go to readings, chat others up, and go out for drinks afterwards if you’re invited. Authors love when strangers show up to their readings. They’re sick of begging the same 20 friends to come. You’ll meet lots of like-minded people, and maybe even a few good contacts like editors and agents.

2. Take a writing class. Then make friends there.

3. Join or start a writers’ group. This could be a group that meets weekly to exchange and critique work, or it could be an informal happy-hour type thing.

4. Look for online gathering places for writers, and/or just start following fellow writers on Twitter. I’ve made some serious connections online—it really does work.

What Britney and Beyonce Taught Me About Being an Overachiever

In honor of the Skillshare class I just started about Finding Your Writing Voice, which includes Britney- and Beyoncé-related lessons, I’m sharing this little essay I wrote about these two central figures in my life. This also reflects the lessons of voice: I can’t imagine any piece that’s more “me” than this.

beyonce-strutEven though Beyonce and Britney Spears are two of the biggest pop stars of our time—and have been for more than 15 years!—it’s hard to imagine the two of them breathing the same air, or even living on the same planet. Beyonce is an untouchable deity to whom we all aspire, in every aspect of our lives, but do not expect to ever reach; she is the closest thing we have in modern America to ancient Greek goddesses, but with fewer flaws and weaknesses. Britney is the sweet, Southern girl next door who just happened to become a pop star, like an adult Hannah Montana; she is like your high school friend who’s always been kind-of a disaster, but you love her just the same.

And yet, both women clearly know something about major accomplishments. Beyonce has been dominating pop culture since her 2013 Super Bowl performance and proved her power with a surprise album drop that became iTunes’ fastest seller ever. Britney’s Planet Hollywood Las Vegas concert residency, which launched in December 2013, has now been extended another two years to 2017 after helping to boost the hotel’s annual earnings by about $20 million.

Separated by just three months in age, Beyonce and Britney typify every peril and triumph awaiting modern young women who grow up wanting desperately to succeed and willing to make every sacrifice necessary. Their most recent albums both articulate their visions of success. From Beyonce’s “***Flawless”: “I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches.” From Britney’s “Work Bitch”: “You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch.” Beyonce demands respect and knows she deserves it; Britney wants to earn, and believes she’s made her millions by working harder than everyone else.

There’s a reason I respond viscerally to these songs—and sometimes play them just to get psyched up for work: I’m a lifelong overachiever, and I see myself in both of them. At this point, of course, it’s clear that any of us with Type A tendencies would be better off following Beyonce’s lead than Britney’s. But the particulars of Britney’s public struggles—and Beyonce’s lack thereof—illuminate what is to me the most important lesson for any massive overachiever, especially one who’s female: People who benefit from your hard work will always want more from you, but you don’t have to give it to them.

Beyonce figured this out in the last few years to spectacular effect. She fired her own father as her manager so she’d be the only one making decisions about what she would cram onto her packed agenda or what kind of songs she’d write. Starting with her 2011 album 4, the catchy, girl-power radio anthems she could write in her sleep gave way to artistic risks and vulnerable, raw lyrics. Her profile only rose as a result, climaxing in a superior 2013 that started with the Super Bowl and ended with her album Beyonce changing the record industry and being declared a “masterpiece.” I can think of no better idea to aspire to: making a masterpiece. I remind myself of this whenever I’m working on a book now. Someday maybe I’ll get there.

Poor Britney, on the other hand, continues to be run by a management team that has groomed her to behave like a good little money-printing robot. Even as she shattered before our eyes in 2007, shaving her head and swatting at paparazzi with an umbrella and flashing her panty-free crotch, her team propped her up in the music studio long enough to record an album, Blackout. Granted, the result was her riskiest and best record—thanks to some next-level production by Danja and The Neptunes, not due to any efforts of Britney herself. Then her people pushed her into a way-too-soon “comeback” performance at the MTV awards that proved disastrous when she wandered, zombie-like, across the stage, not even bothering to lip sync.

Perhaps most disturbingly, none of this prompted a major change in the way business was done at Britney HQ. They shipped her off to rehab—robot broken, must fix!—but then she was right back into the recording studio and on the road. She’d never again display the same gleam in her eye and primal desire to entertain that had made her instantly famous with her first single, “… Baby One More Time,” and the accompanying video that bled star quality. We all know “Peak Britney” is likely gone for good, but as long as Britney keeps selling, she keeps performing, almost as if she’s unaware that stopping is an option.

I’ve been rewarded a lot in my life for doing what I was told and working hard. I got good grades, went to a fancy college, and worked my way up from an assistant to a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. When asked to take assignments, I said “yes.” I got promoted. I said “yes” some more. I even got my first book deal by saying “yes” when a publisher was looking for someone to write about the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club; I was qualified because I’d written a lot about the Disney Channel boom of the Miley Cyrus era. I’d written a lot about it because I’d been asked to, and I’d said “yes.” The book was a great learning experience, it paid well, and I’m glad I did it. But I eventually realized I was on my way to losing that gleam in my eyes, too, if I didn’t take Beyonce-style control. I got a new agent, proposed my dream book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and quit my job to freelance so I’d have more say in the assignments I took. Even though the income isn’t as steady, it’s way more fun than doing what people want you to, as it turns out.

Being Beyonce is harder—it requires long-term vision and deliberate decision-making, rather than simply saying “yes” until you break. But being Beyonce is worth it, and nowhere was that more clear than in their most recent albums, Beyonce and Britney Jean. Out within a month of each other, they couldn’t have been more different while still competing on the same record charts. Britney Jean was clearly the weakest of all Britney’s releases, with only two memorable songs, “Work Bitch” and “Perfume,” which served as the singles. (At least her debut album had the transcendent smash “… Baby One More Time,” even if it also included first-album duds like “E-mail My Heart.”) Britney Jean smacked of a slapped-together effort, retreading trends (how novel, a rapper cameo!) instead of setting them the way her previous records did. Accordingly, it sold the worst among all of her albums, even though it was hyped as her “most personal” ever. (Why? Because its title contained her middle name?)

Beyonce, on the other hand, got so personal it would’ve been uncomfortable if the music hadn’t been so good. We got play-by-plays of Beyonce’s every sexual fantasy, from getting it on the back of a limo to receiving cunnilingus to calling her lover “Daddy” to doing it on the kitchen floor to exactly what she does with that ass during foreplay. We learned of postpartum mood swings and jealousy and divorce talks. We heard her declare herself a feminist and tell us, via a Frenchwoman in voiceover, that feminists can love sex. We heard her sing less-than-pretty for effect and get really fucking weird in the best way possible (“surfbort, surfbort …”). It sold great, moving four times as many albums in its first hour than Britney Jean did in its first week. It also turned Beyonce from the pop queen who’s always good for a hook to a respected artist on the order of a Prince or Michael Jackson, an artist whose career outlook is stellar even if she ever wants to give up the dancing in stilettos and wearing fancy leotards on stage.

Despite tabloid rumors that Britney was nearing another epic meltdown after being so soundly trounced by Beyonce on the charts, Britney said in an interview after both albums’ releases that she “looks up to Beyonce.” There’s something so honest, and maybe a little sad, in the wording there: Despite having been a solo artist for longer than Beyonce and selling more solo albums than Beyonce, Britney speaks of Beyonce like a role model. If they were equals, she might say that she “admired” what Beyonce had done with her album, or that she was “impressed” with her.

But Britney should, in fact, look up to Beyonce. They started very similarly, with very similar work ethics, goals, and even entertainment styles. But one figured out how to use her own striving perfectionism to find herself, express herself, and change the world. The other just used hers to please and pay those around her for 15 years running. I can only hope that someday, somehow, Beyonce and Britney end up having a little career chat, and Beyonce drops some serious knowledge. Maybe Britney will read Lean In and invite Beyonce out for coffee to ask for advice? Maybe Beyonce will produce Britney’s next album?

Until then, I’ll be enjoying my Britney playlist as much as ever. But, like Britney, I’ll be looking up to Beyonce.

 

Finding Your Writing Voice: With Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Beyonce, Britney, and me!

beyonce-knowels-net-worth-1024x768I’ve put together a really fun, short online class — if I do say so myself — about Finding Your Writing Voice for Skillshare. It’s about exactly what it sounds like, focusing just on voice in writing. I often talk about voice in my other classes, and it’s my favorite lesson, so I finally decided to do a self-contained class on just that. In it, I talk about voicey writers like Kerouac and Parker, and I also share my groundbreaking theories about what Beyoncé and Britney can teach us about writing. I also walk you through a final project in which you’ll do your best to write in your very own voice.

Here are the things that are cool about a Skillshare class:

Becoming a Writer Who Writes, Finding Your Voice, Launching Your Career: New Coaching Packages!

1156284_39977081I’ve put together some specific, easy, quick, affordable ways to offer coaching services to writers, based on feedback from my students about the issues plaguing them. I’m really excited to tell you about them and get started. Please note that I’m happy to issue gift certificates for the holidays if you’d like to help another writer reach his or her goals in the New Year. Also: We can do any of these from afar if you’re not in New York — Skype or phone works great.

 

Special: $399 for six hour-long sessions in the following subject areas:

  • Becoming a Writer … Who Writes: You know you want to be some sort of writer, but have no idea where to begin. I’ll walk you through the early stages in easy, clear steps until you’ve got a concrete plan and routine for moving forward. I’ll help you figure out what you want to write, or at least start with—an obviously critical step. We’ll work together to draft a writing routine that works for your life and even a reading list to keep that important part of being a writer on track. We’ll talk about how to incorporate basics like character, scene, and structure into whatever you hope to write. And we’ll talk about living the “writer lifestyle” on your own.
  • Finding Your Writing Voice: I love talking about voice in writing! In these six weeks, I’ll help you get in touch with the essence of your personality that should come through in your writing. (Yeah, it’s a little shrink-y and Oprah-y, in the best possible way.) We’ll talk about voice from every angle: the lit-geeky (Kerouac, Salinger, The New Yorker) and the pop-star-ish (Beyoncé and Britney might come up). There will be weekly exercises designed to help you find your writing voice (no dancing required, though if you’re feeling it, by all means …). We’ll explore ways to get comfortable with being vulnerable and how motivation strengthens your writing. We’ll also talk about karaoke or opera, if the mood strikes.
  • Launching Your Blog: A complete how-to, from drafting your plans and finding your target audience to setting up and writing. I’ll walk you through the basics of choosing a platform and design, then work with you to fine-tune the writing before you go live. You’ll have a chance to workshop blog posts and ideas, get critiques, and make a blogging schedule. By the final session, we’ll launch your blog with five posts up and another five ready to go.
  • Launching Your Writing Career: You want to be a writer — a published one — but you don’t know where to begin. With this package, you’ll find your writing niche and learn how to get published. I’ll guide you through coming up with specific, attainable writing career goals and drafting plans to accomplish them. By the final section, you will have made progress on — and perhaps even accomplished — three specific writing and publishing goals. And you’ll have action plans for completing all of them.
  • Writing a Nonfiction Book: In this package, I’ll help you figure out your nonfiction book from start to finish: from what your book is about and why anyone would want to read it to researching it to getting an agent.  During the six weeks, we’ll work on your sample chapters, your proposal, your title, and what to do next.
  • Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal in Six Steps: I will walk you through the entire process of writing a nonfiction book proposal in six sessions. We’ll assess your idea, then work on a section of the proposal at each meeting, honing your material and allowing you to get feedback on every part of the proposal. This is for students who have an idea, know they want to write a proposal, and are ready to get it done.

If you’re interested, please email me: JMKArmstrong (at) gmail (dot) com

More affordable options are available as well: Training materials, without the one-on-one consultations, for just $99. (Not available for Launching Your Writing Career, which is a customized program.)

 

Writing Is Almost Never Fun

58251_7227I’m going to continue linking to my friends over at Vocal Articles, this time to the insight that you must “Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable.”  Again, they’re talking about singing, and again, I’m saying: They might as well be talking about writing.

Many people give up too early on their writing or become frozen by fear because writing isn’t nearly as fun as they thought it would be. Maybe they enjoyed it as a kid or have always liked writing in journals, but once they turn it into a more serious pursuit, they figure they’re not cut out for it because it feels hard sometimes. A lot of the time. Most of the time.

I have news: Professional writers struggle, too. We hate writing. Seriously. I mean, we must like something about it. I know I like having written. But the process can be torturous, at least until you realize that a lot of it will suck. It’s like any other practice or training: Running long distances can hurt. Practicing scales can be boring or frustrating. But we do these things because we crave the end results, and because we get better by doing them. The same is true for writing.

Try new things, even if that means promising yourself you don’t have to show these writing experiments to anyone. If they turn out well, maybe you’ll change your mind; maybe you’ll even publish them. Or you’ll use the lessons learned in some other way. The mistakes you make in writing can feel like “wasted” time, but they usually lead you to the right ideas, the better ideas.

On the other hand, I also encourage you—just like my singing friends at Vocal Articles—to get your work out there at some point, in some way. You don’t have to read to a room full of total strangers; maybe just taking a writing class where you share work or trading work with friends will do. You’ll most likely get some good feedback at some point—laughs, nods of recognition—that will show you’re onto something. If nothing else, you’ll learn to let go of your work a bit, and you’ll learn that sharing your work won’t kill you. It only makes you stronger.